In the NFL, all linebackers are not created equal. Either through skills or build, some prospects are better suited for the 4-3 and others for the 3-4. Some will play on the left side, while others will line up on the right.
Each of the four linebacker positions in the Patriots defensive scheme has different responsibilities, and general characteristics required to carry out those duties.
With Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes holding down the “Jack” and “Mike” inside-linebacker positions, and Gary Guyton plus Dane Fletcher in reserve, the Patriots really only need to focus on the outside linebacker positions this off-season.
Rookie Jermaine Cunningham played well at the “Sam” position, or LOLB, with first-year Patriot Eric Moore playing well as a backup at both 3-4 DE and OLB.
Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich both saw time starting in 2010, but would be better suited as backups for the “Will” position, or ROLB. This is the position that the Patriots should be looking to upgrade in the 2011 NFL Draft.
The “Will” position typically looks for long, explosive, pass-rush specialists that can at least disrupt passing lanes if they are unable to sack the quarterback. They can give up a little more in the run support department, as the “Mike” should be shaded to their side. They need to have the ability to drop into a basic zone, although some man coverage skills would also be a plus.
Here are three players that could fit the mold and become the next “Will” for the New England Patriots.
Robert Quinn, North Carolina (6’5″, 260)
Quinn might be the most explosive athlete in the entire 2011 NFL Draft. He has an elite burst and incredible speed, which he uses to apply pressure in the opponents backfield.
The former North Carolina standout didn’t play in 2010 due to “agent issues”, but should be able to show his athleticism and ability to play in space at his combine and private workouts.
Aldon Smith, Missouri (6’5″, 260)
Smith is another incredible athlete that has a limited amount of tape on him, as he declared after his redshirt-sophomore season. His incredibly long arms should be very useful in batting down balls and employing his devastating swim move.
Young Smith, who will only turn 22 late in the 2011 season, still has a lot of work to do – specifically strengthening both his upper and lower body. He will also need to show an ability to play in space at the combine, where we hope he goes through the OLB drills as well as the DL drills.
Justin Houston, Georgia (6’3″, 250)
Houston is probably the safest of all these picks, as he played OLB in a 3-4 defense last year at Georgia. He has shown some ability to play in space and his acumen as a pass rusher is well-known.
That said, he is the least explosive of the bunch here. His upside is a bit limited, but he could become a Roosevelt Colvin-esque type of player for the Patriots.