Earlier this offseason, PFF's Eric Eager looked at the fragility of NFL defenses, essentially determining whether it was more important to have stars or depth on that side of the ball. The article can be found in its entirety here, but one interesting takeaway was that versatility and the ability to play multiple positions well provides real value to a defense. Take, for example, Tyrann Mathieu, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and wore multiple hats on that much-improved defense last season. He allowed them to play fewer players in positions that other teams could exploit.
Being able to do multiple things well not only decreases a prospect’s chance of busting once he gets to the NFL, but it also raises the floor of the defense he joins. Some people will look at prospects like Wisconsin’s Zack Baun and Michigan’s Josh Uche and downgrade them because they’re tweeners. Will they play off the edge in the NFL or will they be forced to move off-ball because of their size? The real question teams should be asking is how they can use those players that have shown the ability to rush the passer at a high level but are also athletic enough to play off-ball.
The New England Patriots’ model
The New England Patriots reunited Jamie Collins Sr. and Dont’a Hightower this past season, and the two picked up right where they left off before Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns during the 2016 season. If you look at the three-year stretch from 2013 to 2015, this is the list of off-ball linebackers with the most quarterback pressures (including playoffs).