As recent drafts show, middle linebacker largely becoming an afterthought

  • Article by: MATT VENSEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2014 - 7:58 AM

Alabama’s C.J. Mosley might be considered the top middle linebacker in the draft, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a top-10 pick.

Photo: File photo by Butch Dill • Associated Press,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and pterodactyls dotted the sky, running backs were the focal point of NFL offenses and bashed heads with big middle linebackers.

But sometime in the past decade, a meteor shower of star quarterbacks crashed into the NFL, changing the landscape and putting running backs and, subsequently, one-dimensional linebackers on the verge of extinction.

OK, so maybe their demise been exaggerated, but as running backs have become devalued during recent drafts, so have the defenders whose primary objective had been to run them down.

“I think it certainly is a case where they have been phased out a little bit in terms of their importance,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said on a recent conference call. “The days where you need that great middle linebacker that can be your run-stuffer, that’s just not the case anymore.”

The days of middle linebackers being picked early in the draft could become history, too.

During the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night, two pass-rushing outside linebackers, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, are considered locks to be selected among the top 10 picks. But Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, regarded by many as the top middle linebacker in this class, could be waiting around much longer until Commissioner Roger Goodell calls his name.

The Vikings are one team with a 4-3 defense that could use a playmaking linebacker after waiting to address the position a year ago. Instead of using one of their three first-round picks to plug a prospect such as Notre Dame’s Manti T’eo into the middle of their defense, they bolstered other positions. On Day 3, they selected Penn State’s Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti.

“It’s always tough to project the development of young players when a new staff comes in, but I do see this as a position to address,” said Matt Miller, the lead draft analyst for Bleacher Report. “If Khalil Mack or C.J. Mosley is available, the team has to consider either one of them.”

The Vikings likely would be delighted if Mack, an edge rusher who also can defend the run and drop into coverage, was still on the board at No. 8 overall. But is Mosley, who draft analysts say is a three-down linebacker but not much of a blitzer, the rare three-down middle linebacker who is worthy of a top-10 pick?

Not including edge rushers, only seven linebackers have been selected in the first round the past five years, and just three went in the top 10 picks. It paid off for the Panthers, who took Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, ninth overall in 2012. The two others, Rolando McClain (Raiders, 2010) and Aaron Curry (Seahawks, 2009), already are out of the NFL.

The first middle linebacker to come off the board last year — also the first time in a half-century that a running back wasn’t selected in the first round — was Alec Ogletree, who went to the Rams at No. 30 overall.

For comparison sake, in 2006, the year the Vikings selected strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway with their first-round pick, four non-rushing linebackers went in the first round.

Bart Scott is only five years removed from the Jets signing a $48 million contract, the kind of deal middle linebackers rarely receive now. Scott, who traded his cleats for a microphone last year and is now an analyst for CBS Sports, says “the game has changed tremendously” since then.

“I’m from the era when you had 250-pound, 260-pound middle linebackers, the big thumpers,” he said. “And then you had the athletic guy who played [weak-side linebacker]. Essentially, what’s happening is the ‘Will’ is becoming the ‘Mike’, a guy who can run from sideline to sideline.”

Even former teammate Ray Lewis, the seemingly ageless middle linebacker who is one of the greatest to play the position, sensed the game was changing before his final NFL season in 2012. He lost about 20 pounds so he could try to keep up with pass-catching backs and athletic tight ends, ensuring that the Ravens would keep letting him play every defensive snap.

“You’re asking linebackers to do different things,” said Greenway, who isn’t buying the notion that the position has been devalued. “You have tight ends now that are splitting out and are basketball players turned receivers. It’s turned into a different kind of game.”

Scott also pointed out that today many teams employ a committee approach at linebacker. Depending on the down and distance, defenses either will use one of those big thumpers or replace him with a coverage linebacker. Some teams, such as the Bengals when new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer ran their defense, sometimes use a third safety instead of an extra linebacker on passing downs.

“It’s all about roles,” Scott said. “The league has become about situations.”

  • related content

  • Chart: Three types of linebacker prospects

    Sunday May 4, 2014

    Three different species of top linebacker prospectsThe freak pass-rusherJadeveon Clowney, South CarolinaThe skinny: Despite concerns about his work ethic after...

  • NFL draft at a glance

    Sunday May 4, 2014

    2014 NFL draftWhen: Thursday (round 1) 7 p.m.; Friday (rounds 2-3) 6 p.m.; and Saturday (rounds 4-7) 11 a.m.Where: Radio...

  • 20-year perspective: Vikings' third round picks

    Monday May 5, 2014

    One of the team's biggest draft regrets since 2007 was taking cornerback Marcus McCauley No. 72 in 2007.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Buffalo 12/28/14 12:00 PM
New England
Cleveland 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Dallas 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville 12/28/14 12:00 PM
San Diego 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia 12/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Carolina 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Detroit 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Oakland 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Arizona 12/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Cincinnati 12/28/14 7:30 PM
Marshall 52 FINAL
Northern Ill 23
Navy 17 FINAL
San Diego St 16
Central Mich 48 FINAL
Western Ky 49
Fresno State 6 FINAL
Rice 30
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 2:30 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters



Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
Dec 14 - at Detroit 3:25 pmX16-14
Dec 21 - at Miami NoonX37-35
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago Noon




question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question