Position Progression: Linebackers
Are linebackers really the safe draft pick they're often thought to be? Ben Stockwell explores the typical career path and highlights some standouts.
Position Progression: Linebackers
As we fast approach the new season it’s time to turn our attention to the newest members of each NFL teams – their rookies. Everybody expects their new stars to step in and make an impact right away, but the fact is that rarely happens.
We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first-year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Linebackers, on paper, are supposed to be the surest of sure things in the NFL Draft. Assess them correctly and if they can run, shed blocks and tackle they can be “plug-and-play starters for the next 10 years”. They are on defense what top pick offensive tackles are purported to be on offense, the safest pick, even if they don’t have the same overt impact as other positions around them might.
There is certainly a strong track record of first-round linebackers making good in the NFL, but is it a position that lives up to its reputation rather than being able to find real difference-makers for your defense? Continuing our look at how top picks progress when they hit the pros, we turn our attention to inside linebackers and 4-3 outside linebackers. Do recent performances from first-round picks give an indication as to why only three were selected in the first round between 2011 and 2013?
For once, the progression matches the perception almost perfectly here. Unsurprisingly, first-round linebackers play immediately and play a lot. While the average first-round linebacker doesn’t develop into anything special, he does produce consistently solid seasons with one of the straighter progression lines in this series of articles. In the period we are studying, only centers (with a smaller sample size) have produced a higher average grade for their rookie seasons. To hammer this point home you have the likes of Patrick Willis, Brian Cushing and Luke Kuechly doing even more than just producing solid rookie seasons. Willis, in fact, was our highest-graded inside linebacker for his rookie season back in 2007.
The difference for the linebacker progression, and perhaps why you don’t get the volume of picks you used to, is that there isn’t much progression from that strong start. While other positions tend to struggle in Year 1, they develop over time and become real impact players while linebackers tend to sustain the performances they show from the start. Adding to this is that second-round linebackers sit on a similar line of progression to their first-round counterparts, so there may not be a massive benefit in selecting a linebacker right at the top of the draft.
Best Case Scenario
Though the average first-round linebacker might be just that, a solid but unspectacular linebacker, the best case scenario is Patrick Willis. A fine example of why you still chase that first-rounder in search of one of the most complete players in the league. Willis is equally adept destroying blocks and smothering ball carriers against the run as he is dropping into coverage and making plays against the pass. Announcing his arrival in the NFL as our top-ranked inside linebacker in 2007, Willis has only once been outside of the Top 2 in our final grades for inside linebackers. That came this season, when he fell all the way down to a tie for third.
In some senses you could argue that Willis is an underrated player when you really look more closely at the consistent body of work he has put together over the course of his career. In his seven years Willis has only earned a “red grade” (-1.0 overall or below) for a game seven times and has only missed more than 10 tackles in a season twice. The average first-round linebacker produces solid performances consistently, Willis produces excellent performances consistently.
Worst Case Scenario
What Robert Gallery is to offensive tackles, so Aaron Curry is to linebackers. The safest of safe picks in their respective first rounds, the can’t miss prospect at the top of the draft. Only in both cases they did miss, at least for Gallery at his primary position of tackle. In a four-year career, Curry played only 160 more snaps than Willis did during his first two seasons and simply never developed into the all-around player the Seahawks thought they were going to get.
Curry offered hope with strong showings against the Bears and Jaguars early in his rookie season, but was too often exposed in both coverage and run defense. The only thing that saved his grade from his rookie season being even lower was his contribution as a pass rusher (2 Sk, 10 Ht, 6 Hu). An improved second season (though still subpar) wasn’t enough to save his career with the Seahawks. Only five weeks into his third season he was traded to the Raiders where things only got worse as he failed to make an impact or even look the solid, safe player an average first round linebacker should be. After failing to make the Giants’ roster last summer Curry retired as a cautionary tale to all talent evaluators that there is no such thing as a safe pick.
Path Most Trodden
Seen by some as a reach when the Patriots selected him with the 10th pick in the 2008 Draft, Jerod Mayo may not have lived up to reputation of being a Top-10 pick, but he has developed into a solid linebacker capable of contributing on all three downs. His rookie season was good for the most part but failed to balance the poor games he had with some stronger games to bring his overall grade up to zero.
His career progression followed roughly in line with what you’d expect from a first-round linebacker until his fifth season when he produced a “best case scenario” type of season. Up to that point he kept the really poor games to a minimum, but didn’t really have many big, impact games to balance them out. In 2012, though, he turned that around and produced his most consistently positive returns as a run defender without sacrificing his solid work in coverage.
This, then, is the dilemma that teams have when they are faced with the situation of needing a linebacker and having the opportunity to take one in the first round. It is very likely that you will make a safe pick and have a solid linebacker for at least the next four or five years, but there is always the temptation of a bigger impact at other positions. Sometimes you take that risk; sometimes you realize that you could do far worse and take the relatively safe pick to shore up a spot on your defense.
See the progression at other positions:
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.