We all remember the days of watching AJ Hawk dominate the Big Ten; of Ray Lewis and Bryan Urlacher providing a game-changing presence in the middle of the defense; of Dick Butkus doing it all to solidify the Chicago Bears’ identity as one of the greatest defensive teams of all time.
But where are those players now? Yes, the neck roll has gone out of fashion like the long, loose-sleeved jerseys Peyton Manning carried into retirement. And NFL teams are no longer willing to spend draft picks nor cap space on the likes of the huge, strong linebackers of yore.
Sure, this revelation might be sad for fans of a program like Ohio State, which has a legacy for producing outstanding players at the linebacker position. Ryan Shazier (2014) and Darron Lee (2016) were the only two Ohio State linebackers taken in the first round in the last decade.
In all, the Buckeyes have had 11 first-round draft picks at linebacker, including Tom Cousineau, who went No. 1 overall to the Buffalo Bills in 1979. Most recently, Pete Werner went to the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, while teammate Baron Browning went in the third round to the Denver Broncos.
There can be little argument that, at Ohio State, the linebacker position has lost a little steam in recent years. While there have been sparks like the aforementioned Shazier and Lee, along with Raekwon McMillan, the best athletes, particularly on defense, have been on the line and in the defensive backfield.
But it’s not a trend that’s confined to Ohio State. In the last decade, the top defensive players in both the NFL Draft and high school recruiting are defensive linemen — in particular defensive ends. Teams that have remained invested in the linebacker position are unable to defend the middle of the field against a modern offensive attack. For the Buckeyes, the transition started by the mid-2000s. Remember how slow Ohio State’s defense looked against Florida in the 2006 national title game? Keeping up with SEC speed was a real need that shifted defensive philosophies to favor more versatile, athletic and speedy defenders over heavy hitters.
The impact has become real when it comes to NFL salaries. Only Khalil Mack makes more than $20M annually, and Mack, at outside linebacker, often plays a mixed role as a defensive end. Of the 10 highest-paid defensive players in the NFL, only one is a linebacker. Most are defensive ends. The last linebacker to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year was Luke Kuechly in 2013 (Mack was listed as a defensive end for his victory).
Three linebackers went in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Four went in 2020. Isaiah Simmons, who went eighth overall in 2020, is credited for his versatility, while Micah Parsons, similarly, is recognized for his strength as a pass rusher. In other words, they are less the traditional linebacker, and more along the lines of a player like Mack.
Why the shift? The game of football has evolved. Player safety is now (and yet, somehow was not always) a major priority for the league which is impacting the personnel that teams choose to draft and pay at the highest level. Those players are no longer sizeable, hard-hitting linebackers who stop opposing players dead in their tracks, but rather slimmer, speedier players who can contain and tackle perhaps with less pizazz but no less effectively — and in ways that don’t get flagged by NFL refs.
But the game has also changed in other ways. The running game has slowly been fading, paling in importance to bg-armed quarterbacks and speedy, elusive receivers. Slot receivers like Tyreek Hill require equally athletic players to even have a prayer of covering them. As a result, similar to the above, there is less value for big players who can play smash mouth football. The game has changed to favor speed, and we’ve seen a shift in who the defenders are who can cover speed.
The decline of the running back is also a contributing factor. There’s a reason the Cleveland Browns were justly ridiculed for drafting Trent Richardson No. 3-overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Not only is the lifetime of an NFL running back short, but there are a heck of a lot fewer than 32 elite backs in the NFL. Teams do not invest in running backs because there are so few literal game-altering backs in the league (Derrick Henry comes to mind). So wouldn’t it make sense that the defenders who go up against them would meet a similar fate?
In the modern game, linebackers are ineffective against the pass. Unless they are speedy and able to line up as a pass rusher a la Mack, they are not likely to drop back in coverage effectively against quick slot receivers. The mix of players that can contain — such as a strong defensive line with quick, pass rushing defensive ends lined up ahead of a set of defensive backs that can cover complex routes — is a priority over individually great tacklers.
What does that mean for the middle of the field? More teams are moving toward a zone defense which, when executed well, allows greater flexibility on a given play and a better matching of coverage options (though stopping the run/pass option can be more challenging). When it comes to gaining a competitive advantage, college programs that can develop these players who can stop modern offenses will win out.
Unfortunately, the traditional linebackers of yore are not these players. In today’s average defensive scheme, linebackers are like sitting ducks in the defensive back seven. Teams have adjusted their offensive schemes to be able to exploit traditional 4 - 3 defense, so opponents would do better to have speedier, shiftier players covering the middle of the field.
It was sad when fullbacks went out of vogue, too. That’s why it was such a fun anomaly when Peyton Hillis had that one good season and made the cover of Madden. However, like the fullback position, linebackers don’t have as much of a place in the modern game.