The NFL keeps looking for the wrong things in 1st-round LBs, but heeding a Beastie Boys song could help them evaluate them better
Here’s a little story I’ve got to tell about drafting linebackers in the NFL…
NFL teams haven’t established a great track record in evaluating first-round linebackers lately. A quick check of the recent decline in all fifth-year options for first-round LBs in the 2020 draft shows the league still struggles to get linebacker scouting correct.
My good friend Ash Thompson recorded an outstanding video breakdown on this whole topic for the Detroit Lions Podcast, in the context of evaluating 2023 first-rounder Jack Campbell. In chatting with Thompson privately, I was reminded of both an old song and something I’ve learned about linebacking play over the years.
Hold it now, hit it
The Beastie Boys and their “License to Ill” album was part of the deep-rooted soundtrack of my high school years. There’s a lesser-known track mixed among the epic songs, one that’s been a phrase I’ve adopted over the years to help me sort out my linebacker evaluations. It’ss the lead track on the album as well as a guiding light in LB scouting.
“Hold it now, hit it”
In linebacking terms, it means being positionally disciplined while also having enough athleticism to react quickly enough to make the play. Intelligence and body control matter as much–if not more–than straight-line speed and hyperkinetic energy. Hold your ground, don’t get fooled, then strike and terminate the play with a hit.
In his video, Thompson highlighted one-time Lions first-rounder Jarrad Davis, who is a great example of where the NFL gets evaluations at LB all wrong. Davis is a special athlete, a big-fast-strong-twitchy athlete, the kind of guy you want leading the charge to fight for the right to party. Alas, that doesn’t make him a very good linebacker.
Davis is far from the only linebacker where the NFL was looking for the new style in the wrong places. 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Simmons is another great example of a tremendous athlete who didn’t actually play off-ball linebacker all that effectively in college (he was best as a box safety), but was expected to just flip that switch in the NFL. Simmons, like Davis, Devin Bush, Darren Lee, Ernie Sims and many others, just wasn’t that crafty at actually doing LB things with their athleticism.
Overvaluing athletic traits at a position where football IQ is a paramount virtue for success is where NFL teams continually foul. There has to be a requisite level of athleticism to make it work, of course; slow and low is not an effective tempo. Change of direction ability, initial burst and open-field speed can’t be ignored, but they shouldn’t be the primary attribute. The ability to diagnose a play pre-snap, quickly read and react to a play, finish tackles and understand coverage responsibilities are more important than running 40 yards in a straight line rapidly.
The NFL does appear to be listening to the same tune. In this draft class, Clemson’s Trenton Simpson was my No. 86 overall prospect. I expected Simpson, a phenomenal athlete, to be selected in the top 40 because of his physical traits even though he didn’t pass my “hold it now, hit it” test. Simpson wound up being the No. 86 overall pick, by the Baltimore Ravens.
Scratching the record back to Jack Campbell, he absolutely passed the “hold it now, hit it” test. The Iowa LB was my No. 23 overall prospect. Detroit is hoping he makes sweeter music as the No. 18 overall pick than so many recent out-of-tune LBs have played. I like his chances.