Next Nitschke? Not Today's NFL

Ray Nitschke (Vernon Biever/Getty)

Once upon a time, middle linebackers like Ray Nitschke dominated the league. Now, the position is practically an afterthought. Nick Barnett is one of only four drafted in the first round since 2000, and none were drafted until the third round this year.

Most pundits correctly predicted that Rolando McClain would go off the board in the top 10 of the 2010 draft, but the former University of Alabama middle linebacker appeared somewhat surprised when the Los Angeles Raiders chose him with the eighth overall selection in last year's lottery.

"I really wasn't sure that teams picked middle linebackers that high anymore," McClain said at the time.

McClain, who started in all 15 of his appearances as a rookie, is right.

They typically don't.

In the 10-year stretch from 2001 through 2010, only six middle linebackers by teams that play the 4-3 front, as opposed to 3-4 "inside" linebackers, were chosen in the opening round. McClain was the lone member of that subset of a half-dozen players selected in the first round who was picked among the top 10. The Green Bay Packers used the 29th overall pick on Nick Barnett in 2003.

The first "pure" middle linebacker chosen by a 4-3 defensive team in this year's draft was Martez Wilson of Illinois, selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round, with the 72nd overall pick.

McClain and Jon Beason of Carolina are the only true middle linebackers taken in the first round in the past five drafts. All three linebackers chosen in the first round last weekend were "edge"-type defenders.

Once the undeniable glamour spot on defense — there are 11 former middle linebackers in the Hall of Fame from the modern era of the sport, including Packers legend and Packer Report founder Ray Nitschke — the position has seemingly diminished in the public eye and maybe in importance as well. Not since Harry Carson was inducted with the Class of 2006 has a middle linebacker been enshrined at Canton, and the onetime New York Giants star defender actually finished his career in a 3-4. Arguably the last Hall of Fame inductee to have played all or most of his career at middle linebacker was Miami's Nick Buoniconti, inducted with the class of 2001. At least according to the NFL's compilation of the always-subjective statistic, it's been five seasons since a 4-3 middle linebacker led the league in tackles.

If it seems like the position once defined by tough-guy defenders such as Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary has waned some in perceived stature, well, it has. Even Singletary, a Hall of Fame member, employed a 3-4 scheme during his tenure as the San Francisco head coach.

"It's kind of become a game of playmakers, and a lot of teams don't consider it a position where you get a lot of big plays," acknowledged Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. "We may not agree; the guys who play the position definitely don't feel that way. But, right or wrong, it's become the approach of a lot of people in the league anymore."

There are a lot of reasons for the reduction in perceived importance of the middle linebacker position. Primary among them, of course, is the renewed prevalence of the 3-4 alignment, with essentially half of the league playing the front now as a "base" defense. San Francisco star Patrick Willis, a Pro Bowl performer in all four of his NFL seasons, would be a standout in a 4-3, as well, most agree, but he is with a club that prefers the 3-4. Teams are wary of investing heavily, either in draft choices or money, on a defender who isn't likely to even be on the field on third down. Throw in the reality that colleges aren't producing many pure middle linebackers anymore, with the preponderance of "spread" offenses emphasizing a premium on matching up with outside speed, and the amalgam of factors has reduced the position's profile.

Baltimore's Ray Lewis, a certain Hall of Fame member in the future, will be forever known as a middle linebacker. But he has played in a 3-4 the last several seasons. The Ravens' scheme hasn't reduced the havoc Lewis can wreak, or the fear in which he is regarded by some opponents, but it still doesn't have quite the same weight as when the 15-year veteran was patrolling the middle by himself.

"There's something old-school about it; you kind of take pride in it," Beason said of playing the middle spot in a 4-3. "I'm sure the change takes a while to get used to."

DeMeco Ryans of Houston, who has played middle linebacker in all five previous NFL seasons, will make the switch to a 3-4 inside spot in 2011. It will be interesting to see how Ryans, coming back from an Achilles injury that limited him to six games in 2010, handles to transition. Not everyone does well with the switch.

In his first two seasons in the league, Jonathan Vilma, who earned defensive rookie of the year honors with the New York Jets in 2004, played middle linebacker. When Eric Mangini replaced Herm Edwards as head coach in 2006, he changed to a 3-4 and Vilma, forced to play with someone next to him, struggled badly. Vilma was then traded to New Orleans, a 4-3 team, in 2008, and has been named to the Pro Bowl in two of his three campaigns with the Saints.

Barnett was a very good middle linebacker his first six seasons in the league, but when the Packers switched to the 3-4 in 2009, he struggled. Barnett suffered a wrist injury in 2010, was replaced by Desmond Bishop, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV with him on injured reserve. Barnett will either take a deep pay cut to stay with the Packers in 2011, or he will be traded or released.

Said Vilma after a game last season: "I think I can play both, but I love the 4-3, and I just feel more comfortable and more productive in it. Some guys probably just aren't able to make the change."

The numbers support that: Vilma has averaged 7.9 tackles per game in the 4-3, and 6.8 in the 3-4. In five seasons in a 4-3, he has 9 1/2 sacks, eight interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The totals for 1 1/2 seasons in a 3-4 scheme: zero sacks, two thefts, one forced fumble.

Despite the performance of Vilma, who has authored numerous timely plays in his tenure with the Saints, the feeling is that 4-3 middle linebackers tend to be players who stuff the run but don't make many game-altering plays. They are largely two-play guys who fill an inside gap versus the run, then are replaced by a nickel defender on the down that is now considered the game's most important snap. Stephen Tulloch of Tennessee finished second in the NFL in tackles last season, but had just one sack and one interception.

Not since 2007 has a 4-3 middle linebacker registered more than three interceptions. The most sacks by a 4-3 middle 'backer the last two seasons was four. There simply aren't many middle linebackers like Vilma or Brian Urlacher of Chicago or Beason who play all three downs anymore.

"They're still important guys," said Denver coach John Fox, a 4-3 proponent who had both Beason (2007) and Dan Morgan (2001 first-rounder by George Seifert) in his time in Carolina, and who will switch the Broncos back to his preferred front in '11, after two seasons in the 3-4. "But I can understand why some coaches are going the other way. It's definitely the trend."

It's a trend in the draft as well. There are 17 teams that are projected to employ the 4-3 as their "base" defense in 2011, and only four of them figure to have former first-round choices as their starting middle linebackers. Teams are more likely to find middle 'backers in the second round — like Ryans, Lofton, E.J. Henderson (Minnesota), James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle), or Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay) — or even later.

"You've got to be pretty special to play in the middle and have a team take you in the first round anymore," said Indianapolis standout middle 'backer Gary Brackett, an eight-year veteran who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

"Really special."


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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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