When I sat down to do my 2015 NFL Draft preview, the first thing I did was come up with the position groups as I do every year.
Running backs. Done.
After that, though, it got a wee bit more difficult. However, I didn’t want to get too granular, of course, but a tight end isn’t quite a tight end anymore. I mean, what position does Michigan’s Devin Funchess actually play?
That’s when it hit me that accepted, traditional nomenclature may not be as important as it used to be and, along with that, the roles and functions of players have changed along the way.
At his initial press conference as the Houston Texans head coach, Bill O’Brien noted how often teams utilize sub-package personnel - nickel, dime and even seven DBs as the Texans did a few times in 2014. It hit me that day that I needed to change the way I looked at defensive personnel, in particular, in sub-packages.
There are two down linebackers now.
There are nickel/slot/third corners now. I wrote about the importance of that position last year and will reprise again at some point soon.
But, the one position that will rise in importance as we go forward is that of the “big safety” or the “nickel/dime linebacker”.
The first name that came to mind to help illustrate my point is Washington LB/S/RB Shaq Thompson. As soon as he declared for the 2015 NFL Draft, I knew Thompson would a polarizing prospect. Most asked, rightfully so, what position does he play? Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network analyst didn’t put Thompson in his top 50 prospects and when asked about it, he just said he didn’t know what position he should play.
There’s plenty of truth to that statement and the hesitancy was understandable. Thompson is a former baseball player that went to Washington as a safety, transitioned to OLB and then added RB to his duties. There aren’t many like him at the next level and that’s the worry in some sense. Who does he remind you of? No one really.
But, as soon as I heard that he declared, I said “dime linebacker” immediately. So many teams are playing a safety in that spot next a three down inside linebacker when putting six DBs on the field, or as some teams call it “big nickel”. Many teams are hesitant to put a traditional linebacker in that spot because of the potential matchup with a running back, joker tight end or slot receiver in the passing game. But, some defenses are caught in between on 3rd and six, say, where the run is still a possibility and they have a safety at linebacker that doesn’t have a clue as to how to effectively play the run from that position.
There has to be a compromise in this sub-package situation, right? Well, yeah, Thompson. Or a guy like him.
He’s got safety experience but plays best as a heat seeking missile at linebacker. He knows and understands run fits but also can match up with pass catchers if necessary. Look, it won’t ever be perfect but he’ll match up better than most traditional linebackers do, that’s for sure.
Thompson is 6’, 228 lb., the perfect tweener size, and NFL teams are getting a little better at looking at tweeners as possibilities and options. There’s always a good spot for good football players and good coaching staffs will find a way to use them. As expected, Thompson’s not the only one.
Mississippi State OLB Matt Wells plays a lot like a safety but his “position” was linebacker in Starkville. He’s 6’2”, 222 lb. and ran a 4.41 at his Pro Day. He played enough on the perimeter to be comfortable in the passing game, but he has the understanding of playing the run as a linebacker.
Jacksonville Jaguars drafted former FSU LB Telvin Smith last year and there was a thought, prior to the 2014 Draft, that he needed to move to safety. But, he ended up being a versatile tool in the Jaguars defense and he never came off the field. He’s all of 220 lb. soaking wet but has linebacker skills and safety feet/speed. So, the Jags moved him out to the slot in passing situations, played him on the weakside in base sets and even rushed him from the edge.
Smith wasn’t a top 50 pick though, so am I saying that Thompson will be, just to play this specialized spot? No, not at all, but like Smith, he doesn’t have to leave the field. Sure, Thompson isn’t as fast as either Wells or Smith, but the way he plays the game, he can eventually thrive on all three downs.
I’m anxiously waiting for that day when an NFL defensive coordinator makes the switch full-time to a 4-2-Hybrid-4, a sort of 4-2-5 permanently. However, they won’t make that switch until one of the five is more linebacker than safety but has safety attributes. There are more of those guys headed to the NFL. Oklahoma OLB Eric Striker comes to mind, even though hes a pass rusher extraordinaire - he’s also only 218 lb. He won’t be able to exist at that size at OLB full-time, or any linebacker position full-time. But, he can run and learn how to cover like Smith. In this draft, Thompson and Wells were the first two names that came to mind.
Another guy that came to mind, thinking in reverse, was Landon Collins. The 6’, 228 lb. former Alabama star played that big nickel linebacker spot a bunch during his career. When I first saw him there, I thought he’d get swallowed whole, but he displayed excellent run fit instincts on top being a decent cover guy from that position. He’s a safety that can play in that role too.
Samford S Jaquiski Tartt is another guy at 6’1” and 221 pounds, nearly as big as Wells, that could move up and effectively play that spot as well. He hits like a mack truck but he’ll need to learn how to be more linebacker than safety to be truly effective.
With teams playing sub-packages more often than not, the tweener finally has a home, but it’s up to NFL teams to now realize that players of that ilk have more value than ever before.