A Scout’s Take on the Evolution of the Safety/Linebacker Hybrid in Today’s NFL

Josh Jones III

During the 2016 season, the Green Bay Packers started using safety Morgan Burnett at inside linebacker at times while the Packers were in their nickel package defensively.

Why? Because the team was looking for more speed at the position to better cover backs and tight ends in passing situations.

It’s also become a trend in the NFL as of late. Getting smaller, but faster players to play linebacker on passing downs. But those players also have to be able to play the run well too.

The Arizona Cardinals set the pace with that type of defensive alignment a couple of years ago when they started using safety Deone Bucannon at linebacker. The 6’1″, 220-pound Bucannon had the skill set to cover the backs and tight ends effectively, plus was also a good tackler in the box on running plays and could shoot the gaps to rush the quarterback as well.

In fact, in the 2015 season, Bucannon had 112 total tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception for a touchdown.

Last season, the Atlanta Falcons drafted Deion Jones out of LSU to fill a similar role. The 6’1″, 222-pound Jones ran a 4.59 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Unlike Bucannon, Jones played linebacker in college.

In his rookie campaign in 2016, Jones put up similar numbers to what Bucannon did in 2015. Jones had 108 total tackles, one forced fumble and three picks, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

In the 2017 NFL draft, the Packers decided to draft a player who can also be used in the safety/linebacker hybrid role. That player is Josh Jones, who played his college ball at North Carolina State.

The 6’2″, 220-pound Jones ran a blistering 4.41 in the 40 at the combine. The Packers obviously liked what they saw when the 6’1″, 209-pound Burnett was used in that role last season, and now look to use Jones in that same role, as Burnett will stay at his normal safety position.

In fact, at their recent OTAs, the Packers were indeed using Jones at linebacker in the nickel.

The NFL has always been a copy cat league and the use of a safety/linebacker hybrid seems to be a growing trend.

I wanted to see if my assessment of that situation was correct, so I wanted to check with NFL scout Chris Landry to get his take on the matter.

I was able to talk with Landry earlier this week on 620 WDAE’s Steve Duemig Show.

Landry agreed that this inclination to get smaller and faster at the linebacker position seems to be on the rise.

“Yeah, as you see more spread offenses and more speed on the field, you see more speed defensively to combat that,” Landry said. “The difference is that Deion [Jones] played linebacker in college, where [Deone] Bucannon was a safety who was converted.

Deone Bucannon

Deone Bucannon

“You are going to see more of that. You are seeing it more in college. You are seeing undersized linebackers and you are seeing undersized defensive ends to get more speed on the field. You need those type of bodies. There is no question that it’s going that way, and one of the counter acts to that offensively is to run power at a smaller unit.”

Landry then talked about the metamorphosis of the safety position.

“The safety position has changed as much as any,” Landry said. “Having a guy who can defend the run, but is athletic enough to cover is what you are looking for now. It’s a tough find. You really need to have that covered, because again, people will scout you out and run the football at your small looks, but then throw against your big looks.

“So that is really a key. Getting guys who can stay on the field for three downs, particularly in college, with all the up-temp offenses, as you can’t substitute as much. It becomes more difficult to do that, when you don’t have huddles. How do you defend that? Defend both the run and the pass? That’s the dilemma. The answer is to get those type of guys, basically safety-looking bodies playing linebacker, who can do both.”

The Packers run a 3-4 defense, but are in their nickel look (five defensive backs) about 70 percent of the time. Why? Because the NFL has become a pass-happy league.

But even with five defensive backs, the linebackers also need to be able to cover, which is why you are seeing safety/linebacker hybrids playing the position. But as Landry says, the safety/linebacker hybrid also needs to be able to be effective in the box as a run defender.

Josh Jones of the Packers definitely has the tools to do the job as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Besides having great size and speed, Jones had great production at NC State. In three years with the Wolfpack, Jones had 229 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, eight interceptions, 17 passes defended, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.

In addition to that, Jones did not allow a touchdown in coverage as a senior.

Bottom line, the Packers will be very happy if Jones comes anywhere near the effectiveness and production of both Deion Jones and Deone Bucannon at the safety/linebacker hybrid position this  upcoming season.

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