Many of the best NFL schematic trends are born and developed in college. The Miami 4-3 front of Jimmy Johnson spurred the development of smaller, speedier players at every front seven position. Johnson couldn’t successfully recruit five star players with an elite combination of size and talent at Oklahoma State. So he recruited smaller players with athleticism and beat those five star recruits with speed and aggressiveness.
Now – though once considered undersized – no one thinks twice about whether a 235 pound inside linebacker or 255 pound edge rusher can succeed in today’s NFL. You can find those players on nearly every roster in the league.
This trend toward athleticism on the edges continues in today’s NFL and the weights of the top prospects have continued to drop. Randy Gregory and Vic Beasley were elite prospects in the 240 pound range last season. Telvin Smith entered the league at 219 pounds. Teams are moving athletic edge rushers like Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack to strong side linebacker on early downs again. And we’re seeing athletic freaks like Jamie Collins play inside linebacker in 3-4 fronts.
Player morphology is shifting in the secondary, too. This season featured Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron as every-down linebackers. Shaq Thompson and Kam Chancellor are other examples of 225-230 pound talents who now fit multiple roles in a scheme.
In the end, the take home point is this: Size doesn’t matter. You can be small and fit in the front seven. You can be big and play in the secondary. If you can play, versatility now takes precedence in meeting rooms and on the field.
So, it’s no surprise to see the Senior Bowl rosters start to look like NFL rosters. While it was easy to get carried away with the body types of guys like Shawn Oakman and Reggie Ragland and Noah Spence, I found the non-traditional height-weight guys most interesting at today’s weigh-in.
There are 16 players listed as linebackers this week. More than half of the linebacker potentials are less than 6-1 and/or less than 235 pounds. Two of the most interesting candidates are LSU’s Deion Jones (6-1, 219) and Temple’s Tyler Makatevich (6-1, 233). Both are listed as inside linebackers this week. Oklahoma’s Eric Striker, listed at outside linebacker, measured 5-11, 228.
Of the eight safety prospects here in Mobile, only Middle Tennessee’s Kevin Byard is less than 6-0 tall and he barely missed making the cutoff. At 197 pounds, DeAndre Houston-Carson from William and Mary is the only safety weighing less than 200 pounds.
It’s going to be tough to tell where the linebackers end and the safeties begin this week.
While a certain height-weight combination is no longer a prerequisite for getting a player an on-field opportunity, these players must still produce. A smaller linebacker must be able to handle zone coverage duty and needs to show enough strength between the tackles to survive against teams that run from spread sets. Bigger safeties need to be fluid enough to play downhill against the run and turn their hips to cover zones.
The trend is interesting, but the recordkeeping portion of Senior Bowl week is over. Now it’s time to see which players in this newer mold can successfully answer the only question that matters: Can you play?
Continue checking for additional Senior Bowl coverage at the RSP blog’s Senior Bowl Central.