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Position that's never been more important about to take center stage at Combine

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 2/29/2020 Terez Paylor

a baseball player wearing a helmet: LSU's Patrick Queen projects to be the type of second-level linebacker that's become integral to stopping NFL offenses. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

LSU's Patrick Queen projects to be the type of second-level linebacker that's become integral to stopping NFL offenses. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — The ongoing proliferation of offense in the NFL — which is currently being spearheaded by the abundance of athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks who can hurt you with their arm and legs — means that defenses have to adjust.

Not only in terms of scheme, but in terms of the talent they are sticking on the field.

“You look on the defensive side of the ball, you're trying to find dynamic playmakers,” draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah recently told reporters on a conference call. “The skill talent that's come in on offense is going to continue to get faster and more athletic; that's what the college game is and that's made its way to the NFL.” 

This is affecting how teams are valuing every defensive position, but perhaps none more so than off-ball — or second-level — linebackers. 

Once thought to be a position where you could get by with mid-to-late-round picks who are smart and tough, these linebackers are now not only charged with trailing the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, they’re also being asked to cover the wealth of athletic skill players in space. 

This year’s Super Bowl offered an example. Yes, Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs put up 31 points on San Francisco’s second-ranked defense. But for three quarters, the 49ers — who featured three dynamic linebackers in Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw — did as nice of a job you’ll see containing the league’s most explosive offense.

That said, it won’t be surprising to see the stock of several athletic off-ball linebackers soar after the 40-yard-dash on Saturday. A year ago, two off-ball linebackers who tested extremely well in the 40, Louisiana State’s Devin White (4.42 seconds) and Michigan’s Devin Bush (4.43), both went in the top 10. 

And in 2018, two linebackers who also ran fast — Georgia’s Roquan Smith (4.51) and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds (4.54) — also went in the first round, along with athletic studs like Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans.

Multiple scouts told Yahoo Sports at the NFL combine this week that three players in this year’s draft who figure to run fast — Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, Louisiana State’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray Jr. — should be considered first-round locks, with another (Texas Tech’s Jordan Brooks) potentially sneaking into the first-round mix, too.

“You better have linebackers that can run all day long, and cover,” Jeremiah said.

The players themselves already sense that, too. During sit-down interviews they did with Yahoo Sports this week, Queen, Murray and Simmons all confirmed they believe their athleticism is seriously boosting their draft stock.

“You can’t have one without the other, you’ve got to have both in this league,” Queen told Yahoo Sports. “I bring all those tools to the table. I can stop the run and play the pass. That’s the biggest thing I’m looking forward to, being able to be a three-down linebacker in the league.”

Queen, who doesn’t turn 21 until August, is the latest speedy linebacker from LSU, joining Alexander, White and Atlanta’s Deion Jones. And after an eye-popping true junior season in which the 6-foot, 229-pounder racked up 85 tackles (12 for loss), Queen is now earning some top-15 buzz.

But no defensive player in this draft is as versatile as Simmons, whose athleticism was so impressive that he also played slot corner, edge rusher and even safety at times, with the latter being particularly impressive because he checked in at a monstrous 6-4 and 238 pounds at the combine. 

It all led to Simmons posting a ridiculous stat line of 102 tackles, eight sacks, nine pass breakups and three interceptions in 2019. 

“The biggest impact I see myself making is being able to cover the tight end, because that’s almost the name of the game now, who can cover whose tight end,” Simmons told Yahoo Sports. “If you can see the teams that were most successful this past year, they all had very good tight ends. [San Francisco’s] George Kittle and [Kansas City’s] Travis Kelce, obviously, were probably the best in the NFL. That’s what it’s all coming down to now, who can stop the run and who can stop the tight end.”

The issue for defenders tasked with stopping the likes of Kittle and Kelce, Simmons added, was that the defenders with the athleticism to defend them — say, a corner or safety — often don’t have the size to prevent being boxed out. Meanwhile, the defenders that do have the size simply don’t have the quickness.

Neither attribute figures to be a problem for Simmons, who could easily be a top-five pick.

“With a guy like Isaiah Simmons, whether you want to list him as a linebacker or safety, I know you plug him into that defensive scheme and week by week you can deploy him in different ways, depending on what the strength of your opponent is. That's why he has so much value,” Jeremiah said.

Murray also figures solidly into the first-round mix. At 6-2 and 241 pounds, he looks the part of an old-school linebacker. However, he pairs it with incredible closing speed — and aggression to match — that he used to regularly chase down Big 12 athletes in space and rack up 102 tackles and 17 tackles for loss in 2019.

“It’s about having a hunter’s mentality,” Murray told Yahoo Sports. “When I see a QB in the open field scrambling out, I’m trying to run him down. Every time I see a ballcarrier, I’m out there trying to hunt.”

And like Queen and Simmons, Murray understands that he’s about to benefit big-time from entering a league that has never valued his traits more.

“LBs now, you have to be fast. You have to be extremely fast,” Murray told Yahoo Sports. “With the way the game is going, teams adapting more to the spread offenses, as an LB you’re gonna have to be able to run with tight ends, backs up the seam, slot receivers. 

“The speed and athleticism that’s required for the linebackers, it’s definitely something that’s changing.”

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