Hall of Fame
Join Date: Oct 2006
Location: LOHAR (Land of Hipsters and Rain)
Section: 1009 E. Union
Linebackers: A Dying Breed?
Linebackers: A Dying Breed?
Picture in your mind the NFL's all-time most dominating defensive players.
You're probably seeing Ray Nitschke's bent nose, Mike Singletary's cutting stare, Dick Butkus' scowl. Maybe it's Jack Lambert's toothless growl, Junior Seau's wild eyes or Ray Lewis' ferocity.
Middle linebackers have been so much a part of the league's history, they might as well be part of the logo, like the silhouette of Jerry West in the NBA.
But where have all the great middle linebackers gone? Once roaming wild, today dominating middle linebackers practically are on the verge of extinction.
They have been replaced as feared game-changers by sleek rush-ends, massive defensive tackles and shut-down corners. Recent free-agent signings reflected as much, with Albert Haynesworth signing a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Redskins, Nnamdi Asomugha signing a three-year deal worth $15 million a year and Carolina's Julius Peppers signing a one-year tender worth more than $16 million.
The evolution of defenses and, more significant, offenses, has broken the mold of what a middle linebacker should look and play like.
Quick: Name the five best middle linebackers in the league today.
Baltimore's Lewis? Naturally. Chicago's Brian Urlacher? Of course. Patrick Willis of the Niners and DeMeco Ryans of the Texans? You would get an argument in some circles, but probably.
And ... and ... who else?
Most impact NFL middle-linebackers today are either relics, such as Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi, or hybrids playing the inside-linebacker spot in the ever-popular 3-4 defense, like Karlos Dansby and Bart Scott.
The position has changed and been devalued, literally.
Once the premier position on the defensive side of the ball -- the proverbial quarterback of the defense -- middle linebackers now are more like the tight ends of the defense. Or at least that's how they're paid.
If you averaged the top-five salaries at every position on the field in 2008, the five highest-paid middle linebackers averaged $5.68 million. Only kickers ($2.24 million) and tight ends ($3.74 million) averaged less. Cornerbacks ($10 million), defensive tackles ($8.04 million) and defensive ends ($8.02 million) averaged significantly more among the five highest-paid players at their respective positions.
Clearly, owners and general managers are investing significantly more elsewhere on the field. It speaks to how much value is put on finding a premier playmaker in the middle. It also speaks to how difficult it has become to find big-time talent at the position.
Where have you gone, Chuck Bednarik?
The position is going the way of the dinosaur for the same reason real dinosaurs disappeared. The landscape and climate have changed.
The beginning of the end of the do-everything, Ray Lewis-type middle linebackers probably began with the advent of run-and-shoot and no-huddle offenses in the mid-1980s.
In a sense, football mad scientists Darrel "Mouse" Davis and Sam Wyche helped change the position.
When Jack Pardee hired Davis to implement the run-and-shoot for the Houston Gamblers in the upstart USFL in 1984, the numbers quarterback Jim Kelly put up were astounding. It was impossible for the NFL not to notice -- and copy. Offensive coordinators around the league began tinkering with run-and-shoot sets and by the late-1980s, the Houston Oilers went full run-and-shoot in the NFL with much success.
Meanwhile, Wyche was changing things in Cincinnati, implementing a no-huddle attack that fatigued opposing players, put a premium on smaller, faster defensive personnel and changed the way defensive coordinators game-planned. Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason excelled under the attacking style, and the Buffalo Bills followed suit with a similarly fast-paced K-Gun that led to four Super Bowl appearances.
Defenses have been trying to adjust to variations of the run-and-shoot and no-huddle ever since.
Offenses have spread the field with four- and five-wide sets. There have been one-back and no-back sets. There have been spreads, wider line-splits and now more teams turning to the wildcat formation that extends the defense even more.
Classic middle linebackers have been left in the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust past.
That's not to say there is no place for fierce players like San Francisco's Willis, Houston's Ryans or Carolina's Jon Beason. Teams still must stop the run in order to be successful. And middle linebackers have evolved as well, becoming faster and better in pass coverage without losing tackling punch. But those kinds of talents are rare.
There simply are not a lot of them. And making things more difficult have been the huge changes in college football.
Spread offenses -- with quarterbacks constantly in the shotgun formation, running backs running laterally into pass routes and wide receivers all over the field -- have stressed the linebacking talent pool.
It's not uncommon on college football Saturdays to find safeties playing in the middle-linebacker spot, or not a single linebacker even on the field. College defensive coordinators are forced to put five, six, seven defensive backs on the field. Players who could be NFL linebackers usually are forced to line up on the defensive line.
The position has become the most difficult to scout and project, because teams are speculating on whether a collegiate defensive end can play standing up, can tackle and pursue, or if an undersized safety or outside backer can bulk up and play inside.
The last middle linebacker to enter the Hall of Fame was Mike Singletary, 11 years ago. Take a good look at Ray Lewis. Take a mental picture. He is among the last of a dying breed.