The Dallas Cowboys could use a linebacker this year in the draft. With Jaylon Smith and LVE’s days numbered, it’s something that should be addressed sooner rather than later. But as we explained earlier, the Cowboys don’t need an early pick to find good linebacker.
In fact, of the top-16 linebackers in the NFL (per PFF grades), none were drafted in the first round. Majority of the top graded linebackers were picked up in the third round or after. As such, using a first or even second round pick on the linebacker position makes little sense.
We look at ways for the Dallas Cowboys to find starting quality linebackers later in the draft
But if we wait until later in the draft, how can we be sure we find a starting caliber option at linebacker? The blunt answer is we don’t. If there was some secret code to finding draft steals everyone would do it and they’d cease to be steals.
But there are certain traits and qualities to look for that increase your chances of striking gold. And that’s what the Dallas Cowboys should be focused on.
Looking at the top ranks of the NFL’s LB hierarchy, we can see that 10 of the top-16 were picked up in rounds 3 or after. You don’t need a top pick to find a top player. And using a top pick hardly assures success.
The top trait we see in off-ball linebacker prospects is coverage ability. Not only because the passing element is the most important part of the game, but also because of how it correlates with other traits and a player’s ability to transition to the pros.
To be strong in coverage, a linebacker has to be well studied and able to read, diagnose, and react instantly to what’s in front of him. What he diagnoses before snap isn’t always what he sees after the snap. There’s no such thing as a dumb coverage linebacker.
That isn’t to say the run-stopping specialists aren’t intelligent. They also need to be able to read and diagnose. They just have a more defined and/or instinctual assignment playing the run than they do in coverage.
Coverage linebackers need to be fluid and athletic as well as smart and well-studied. That sets them up nicely for success at the next level. Linebackers who thrive against the run usually lean more on their physical ability than they do their brains. That’s why there’s such a rude awakening when they get to the NFL. Everyone is big, fast, and athletic in the NFL and unless that LB is exceptionally elite physically, he will need to be smart and willing to study in order to succeed.
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The linebackers that test off the charts and rack up the gaudy tackle stats seem to dominate the early rounds. But the “steals” are the one’s that aren’t so impressive on paper. They are the ones that do the tough stuff in coverage. The stuff that doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet. That’s what makes film so important. It’s not just the times the LB prospect is directly involved on the play, but the times he isn’t targeted at all.
If there’s something to focus on in a LB prospect, it’s his ability and responsibility in coverage. It will speak to his work ethic and intelligence and that’s what makes a difference when making the jump to the pros.
You don’t want your off-ball LB to be poor against the run, but the priority should be on his coverage ability. It’s a common trait of most LB “steals” in today’s NFL.
Note: Edge LBs are obviously different and their most important trait is rushing the passer. They are much different from off-ball linebackers.