INDIANAPOLIS --- College and professional football can both trace their lineage back to the same place. However, over time, each has evolved in their own separate direction. While they maintain the same general theory, there are subtle differences that keep the two in their own worlds. That's why players often struggle to make the jump from college to the NFL. They know the game, but the small differences end up being very big.
While addressing the media at the 2013 NFL Combine, Saint. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher mentioned that one such position that is generally thin due to the subtle differences between college and professional football is inside linebacker.
"Because of the nature of the college game now, the physical characteristics of the linebackers that are coming out is not necessarily what we need," Fisher said. "You've got to develop. They're smaller. You see safeties now playing (linebacker) because of the speed and the multiplicity of the game. So when you talk about addressing the need at the linebacker position, there's typically not a lot of depth from year to year."
College defenses have to stop college offenses and college offenses are different. In college, some quarterbacks run more than they throw, offenses are spread from sideline to sideline and every play can be the option. NFL offenses just can't do that because of the investment they have in their players, namely quarterback. Most NFL coaches hold their breath when their quarterbacks have to run, and NFL teams don't usually run the option because the quarterback gets hit.
Due to the fact that college offenses are spread out so wide, college defenses have to cover the width of the field, meaning inside linebackers have a lot more ground to cover. That means they need to be fast and when they're fast, they're not nearly as big as NFL defenses want them to be.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some inside linebackers can be big and fast and those are the guys who are selected in the first round with hopes that they lead defenses for years to come. Those players are few and far between, though.
This year's draft class has several linebackers that have made the news and a few that are considered early draft picks. Guys such as Notre Dame's Monti Te'o, Georgia's Alec Ogletree, Kansas State's Arthur Brown, LSU's Kevin Minter, Oregon's Dion Jordan and Georgia's Jarvis Jones are likely to be taken off the board in the first few rounds. Whether those players can step in immediately and contribute at a pro level is a whole other subject, though.
In 2008, the Miami Dolphins and the wildcat offense took the league by storm. That year, the Dolphins rushed for over 1,800 yards and Miami finished with an 11-5 record and went to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. The fact that the Dolphins haven't been back to the playoffs shows that NFL defenses have figured the wildcat out. In 2012, the pistol offense and the read-option kept defensive coordinators up at night. However, if the pistol and the read-option prove to be more than just passing fads, Fisher, and the rest of the league's head coaches, may want faster linebackers, even if they are smaller.
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