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Super Bowl 50

Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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Three linebackers might prove to be equalizers to emerging tight ends

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com

Lavonte David has less than ideal size, but his speed makes him an effective cover LB. (Getty Images)  
Lavonte David has less than ideal size, but his speed makes him an effective cover LB. (Getty Images)  

The emergence of tight ends Rob Gronkowski in New England and Jimmy Graham in New Orleans as virtually unstoppable weapons in the passing game surely has started a trend that every team the NFL will try to emulate if they can find size-speed freaks to attack defenses down the middle.

Even as Gronkowski and Graham demonstrate Sir Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion -- that the velocity of a body remains constant unless the body is acted upon by an external force -- NFL defensive coordinators are trying to apply Newton's Third Law of Motion, which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

"I believe the defenses are changing," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff explained to the media at the combine. "I think the matchups are very, very important for the defensive players now. We talk about that all the time. You need to match up speed and athleticism and you need to match up power-to-power along the front. When you get into building a football team or coaching a football team we always talk about matchups and how incredibly important that is."

Ah, matchups. Although Newton predated American football by a couple of centuries, that is surely what he was hinting as a solution. Alas, there is a modern day challenge finding a matchup with the size and speed to create that required equal and opposite reaction.

This year's free agency and draft offer little as a salve for the burns created by such big, fast tight ends as Gronkowski and Graham, as well as San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley and others who are sure to follow in this copycat league.

Teams hoping for help at safety via the draft will be disappointed. Alabama's Mark Barron is the only safety rated by NFLDraftScout.com as a potential first-round candidate and even he is better known for his ability as a downhill run defender than his man to man coverage skills.

Teams using a 3-4 defense may have had plenty of options for outside linebacker help last year. This year, however, is a different story as there are few with the speedy burst and awareness in coverage to make an immediate impact for teams utilizing an odd-man front.

If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over the heads of desperate defensive coordinators, it comes in the form of three outside linebackers in this year's draft -- North Carolina's Zach Brown, Nebraska's Lavonte David and Miami's Sean Spence.

Though these three get the job done in different ways, scouts believe each has the coverage skills necessary to contribute early in a 4-3 alignment. Perhaps most interesting about the three is the vastly different points in the draft they're likely to be selected.

It might take a first-round pick to acquire his services, but the Tar Heels' Brown unquestionably possesses the combination of size (6-1, 244 pounds) and speed (4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to handle coverage responsibilities in the NFL.

Often asked to drop into coverage at North Carolina, Brown is experienced in the role and not only has excellent timed speed, but his athleticism translates to the football field because of his balance, loose hips and explosive burst. Brown has the athleticism to ride in the hip pocket of tight ends and has the ball skills (seven career interceptions) to make quarterbacks pay for challenging him.

Not surprisingly, when Brown was asked at the combine about how he'd fit in at the NFL, he cited his speed as his best asset and mentioned many of the tight ends by name that his future pro team is hoping he'll be able to slow down.

"[My speed] helps a lot so then I can cover tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, all of the others," Brown said. "[Speed] just makes your defense so much better."

Brown's speed may be enough to get him drafted on the first day. Some believe that a linebacker expected to get picked a day later will ultimately wind up as the better pro.

At 6-1, 233 pounds, Lavonte David doesn't have the size teams would prefer at linebacker and this could push him into day two of the draft despite having the production of a top-10 prospect. Because he, too, runs well (4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and has extraordinary instincts, the Nebraska product is viewed by some scouts as the best cover linebacker in this year's draft class.

As one scout explained, "the Nebraska linebacker [David] is athletic enough to run with backs and tight ends in man coverage. He's also alert and has the burst to close that makes him a quality zone defender. The other guy [UNC's Brown] is the better athlete with better size but there's no question that [David] is currently the better football player."

Scouts wanting to see David operate in coverage may have to go back to his junior tape. While David and the Cornhuskers certainly faced their fair-share of passing in the Big Ten this season, the conference's focus on the running game took a little bit of getting used to for David after Nebraska made the switch this season from the pass-heavy Big 12 conference.

"Obviously, the Big 12, you've got a lot more pass-oriented offenses, David told reporters at the combine when asked to compare the style of play from the two conferences. "You go into the Big Ten, downhill running schemes. They both were great experiences for me, they've both got a great level of competition."

If teams are worried about how David is going to be able to handle the jump in size and physicality in the NFL, they're even more worried about how Miami's Spence will make the adjustment. At just 5-11, 231 pounds, Spence was the smallest of the linebackers measured at the Combine. And running the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds didn't demonstrate the elite straight-line speed to convince everyone that he's athletic enough to make up for his lack of size.

Scouts, however, love Spence's instincts, toughness and production as a four-year starter at a program well recognized for churning out high-caliber NFL linebackers. They can't help but appreciate that Spence has had to cover arguably the most athletic running in this draft (Lamar Miller) in practice, as well as his former teammate, Graham, who caught five touchdowns in 2009 -- his only season of college football.

"I definitely can cover any back in the NFL, any tight end," Spence said. "I know the guys are bigger, faster stronger in the NFL, and I'm going to be as well."

In a normal draft, concerns about size limitations could push Brown, David and Spence down the board. Following the Year of Mismatched Tight Ends, however, teams might be more willing to look past linebackers measuring in an inch or two shorter and instead focus on their ability to slow down pass catchers.

"You always want athletic safeties and you want a WILL linebacker that can cover," Tennessee Titans' general manager Ruston Webster explained at the combine, referencing the weak outside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment. "If you've got that though, you really have something because they're not that easy to find. Normally safeties are missing cover skills, and finding a linebacker that can cover a big tight end that can really run, that's a special guy."

And considering these are the only three of 33 linebackers invited to the combine that scouts identified as likely to be able to help immediately in pass coverage, they may be just what defensive coordinators are looking for -- per Isaac Newton.


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