The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have never been afraid to zig when other teams in the league are zagging. Whether it is investing in 3-4 personnel in the early 2000s, running spread looks and two-tight end sets, or building a Super Bowl winning team around a potent rushing attack, Belichick is always looking to take advantage of the market and stay ahead of the curve.
The linebacker position is a good example of that. While teams around the league are getting smaller and using so-called tweeners to get more flexible against the passing game, the Patriots have not flinched: their linebacker room is among the biggest in football.
While its members bring different skillsets to the table, they do have one thing in common: they are big. Dont’a Hightower, Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Josh Uche and Ronnie Perkins are all listed at 6-foot-3 and between 245 and 275 pounds. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai are both 6-foot-2, with Bentley checking in at 255 and Tavai at 250. Only recent addition Calvin Munson is on the smaller side at 6-0; he still weighs 245 pounds.
Elsewhere in the league, meanwhile, size has become less important. Players such as the Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Queen, the San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner or the Atlanta Falcons’ Deion Jones are all on the smaller end of the linebacker spectrum — by design: they are faster and thus better suited in coverage.
So why do the Patriots not go after this type of player? Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo recently explained the reason behind this.
“Any time you put a converted safety in the box, obviously there’s an upgrade hopefully in coverage, but there is also a downgrade probably in just the awareness in the box,” Mayo said. “That tradeoff there I would say for us really is very dependent on who we’re playing as far as how many ‘backers we actually have on the field because we change up so much. If we’re playing a team that’s very small and really not good in the run game we may get smaller as well, we have that ability.”
The key for the Patriots, as Mayo went on to explain, is having big linebackers capable of holding down the fort versus the run and the pass. In the meantime, the safety position also factors into the mix: players at the position need to be versatile enough to come down and fill the box while also being able to drop back into coverage.
Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger are the most recent examples of that, with both capable of playing in the box and dropping back into coverage. Before them, Patrick Chung popularized that role after his return from Philadelphia in 2014.
“We oftentimes talk about the versatility in the linebackers, but you also look at the versatility in the safety room. It’s the same thing. We have safeties that feel comfortable coming down in the box. Now, is it better than some of the linebackers that we have in the box? Maybe not, but there is also a tradeoff that we have more speed at the position and we also have a better coverage player at the position,” Mayo said.
“It’s definitely a game plan thing. I know Bill [Belichick] has always liked bigger ‘backers, and most of the linebackers, even though they are larger in size, I would say they all can run for the most part.”
While the Patriots are holding onto the big linebacker type, one has to wonder whether or not it is losing value given the way the game is being played. With the passing game more important and productive than ever, and with offenses capable of using their personnel to attack all kinds of weaknesses on defense through the air, a move towards those smaller players is already underway.
Mayo, however, is looking at this development from a different perspective.
“All the scheme things, all that stuff is cyclical to me,” he said. “What’s going to happen is you’re going to get all these small ‘backers on the field and then you’re going to run into a Derrick Henry-type player or a team that lines up in 21-personnel, and you don’t have anyone on your active roster to even slow it down. That’s the hard part. That’s the balance that you have to find at the ‘backer position. ...
“Give me the 250- or 255-pound linebacker who’s played linebacker for a while and understands what’s going on around him than the 220-pound guy who’s been doing it for a year. He’s fast but he’s fast going the wrong way, you know what I mean? Given me the guy who runs a 4.7 going the right way than a guy who runs a 4.4, 4.5 going the wrong way the first two steps. They’ll get there at the same time.”