Safety-linebacker hybrid part of the NFL’s new normal?

Mark Barron

Mark Barron

During the most recent NFL postseason, I jokingly suggested to my cousin that every linebacker and safety in the league needed to meet somewhere in secret to discuss what they were going to do about Rob Gronkowski.

It seems none of them can solve the puzzle of keeping the Patriots’ superstar tight end in check, and Gronk isn’t getting any easier to cover as defenses see more and more of him. Even the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos and their critically acclaimed defense got lit up by Gronk for 144 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship game.

But now?

If the NFL’s linebackers and safeties were to get together sometime between today and the start of the 2016 season, the first order of business wouldn’t be the Gronk crisis — it would be the identity crisis that is beginning to afflict their respective positions.

Coming in a few years behind the curve compared to college football, more and more NFL teams appear to be experimenting with the safety-linebacker hybrid position as a regular component of their defensive schemes.

On the college level, the widely-used safety-linebacker hybrid is called everything from the “Spur” to the “Star” to the “Huskie,” depending on the coach who is using it.

On the pro level, no single name has emerged as the standard for this relatively new position. But two players are setting the standard for how the position should be played: Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals and Mark Barron of the Los Angeles Rams.

Bucannon and Barron are both young, still in their 20s. Bucannon is entering his third pro season out of Washington State, while Barron is entering his fifth season out of Alabama. Both were safeties in college who — due in part to injuries on their respective pro teams and thanks in part to risk-taking coaches — are now officially listed as linebackers by NFL.com.

But neither appears to be exclusively playing one position or the other. On his Twitter page, Barron describes himself as a “Safety/DB/LB.” Bucannon still identifies as a strong safety on Twitter.

Bucannon (listed at 6-foot-1, 211 pounds) finished last season with 112 tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception. Barron (6-2, 213) compiled 116 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles.

In this year’s NFL Draft, it was apparent that more teams are in search of players like Bucannon and Barron, who have the potential to be a safety-linebacker hybrid.

The Falcons used their first-round pick on 6-feet, 211-pound Florida safety Keanu Neal, who some team observers believe is being groomed for a safety-linebacker hybrid role.

Washington used a second-round pick on Su’a Cravens, a 6-1, 226-pounder who spent time at safety and (mostly) linebacker at USC.

With the final pick of the third round, the Broncos chose Boston College product Justin Simmons, a breakout star at the scouting combine who has the physical makeup (6-2, 202) of a safety-linebacker hybrid in the NFL.

In the fourth round, the Lions nabbed Southern Utah’s Miles Killebrew (6-2, 217) who is already being mentioned as a future safety-linebacker hybrid.

Even the most notable undrafted defensive back in this year’s class, Duke’s All-American safety and Jim Thorpe Award finalist Jeremy Cash (6-0, 212), was signed as a free agent by the Carolina Panthers as a projected safety-linebacker hybrid.

In some NFL circles, the safety position alone is already undergoing a makeover — or at least a re-branding — from what we’ve come to know over past decades. New Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph envisions a world in which there is no “free safety” and “strong safety” but just two like-minded twins in the secondary.

But why the sudden shift in the traditional roles of linebackers and safeties, to the points where they’re being blended? Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel NFL writer Bob McGinn explored the topic in a 2016 draft preview piece:

With offenses more and more wide-open, you know the idea of playing base downs with six “bigs” and five “smalls” has been thoroughly discussed across the league.

“Well, it worked for the teams that were doing it,” said an executive in personnel for an AFC club. “I see teams doing that more than less. We’ve tinkered with it. It’s becoming a little more fashionable.”

And what exactly constitutes an ideal safety-linebacker hybrid in the NFL?

In terms of size, most candidates seem to be at least six feet tall and weigh north of 210 pounds.

In terms of skill, versatility is obviously required. Players suited for the job are most often college safeties who may not have the fluidity and/or flat-out speed to cover outside receivers in the NFL, but possess the strength and tackling ability to play close to the line of scrimmage with enough quickness to cover tight ends, running backs and some slot receivers.

And the safety-linebacker hybrid also has to be one of the smartest players on the defense, as his responsibilities are varied and ever-changing depending on the opponent’s offense.

Of course, the safety-linebacker hybrid could be just a passing fad in the NFL that eventually fades into near-oblivion, like the Wildcat offense. Or we could soon see a day that players like Bucannon and Barron, or Neal and Cravens, are vying for a spot in the Pro Bowl or on the All-Pro team as a designated safety-linebacker hybrid.

Better known as … whatever name it’ll be called by then.

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