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Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron both came into the league thinking they would be big-hitting safeties who would put fear in receivers crossing the middle with bone-crushing hits that would wind up on highlight reels.

That seems like a long time ago.

They are both now linebackers, even if they don’t want to hear it.

“I call myself a moneybacker or a rover,” Buccannon said.

But you’re a linebacker?

“I don’t like being called a linebacker,” he said.

Barron is the same way, sort of.

“The term linebacker, I don’t want to be called that,” Barron said. “I just want to be on the field. No, it doesn’t really bother me what they call me. At the same time, I get called so many things. It doesn’t really matter. I think it’s a hybrid.”

“You used to have a big mike linebacker who would beat the hell out of you. Now it might be four wide on first down. You need guys who can run.”Broncos coach Gary Kubiak

Bucannon, who fills the rover-moneybacker-linebacker role for the Arizona Cardinals , even warms up with the defensive backs on game days, just like he imagined when he came into the league as a safety. Barron, who came in as a first-round safety in Tampa Bay, is now a converted linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams or, as he’s listed on the depth chart, a weak safety.

In a growing league-wide trend to combat the wide-open offenses we now see in the NFL, both Bucannon and Barron are hybrid defenders, guys who can play safety but really play down in the box as a linebacker.

They might not like the word linebacker, but that’s what they are — only with versatility to cover tight ends, speed to run down backs and bodies that look more safety than linebacker. Even though Bucannon is up to 220 pounds and Barron is 215, they are both smallish for linebackers.

Some teams, like the Cardinals and Rams, are now willing to sacrifice the size to get the speed on the field.

The NFL is morphing into a hybrid game on defense.

The ability to play different positions, and be able to do a variety of things, creates scheme issues for an offense and it also allows speed and coverage to be a factor. It used to be a league where big-thumping, powerful linebackers were needed to stop the running game, but it’s now more than ever about covering ground.

You need wheels, not as much power.

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“You used to have a big mike linebacker who would beat the hell out of you,” Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “Now it might be four wide on first down. You need guys who can run.”

When Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks came out of Florida State Seminoles , he was a 210-pound player who teams wanted to move to safety. The game was different then, and big, powerful strong safeties were more the norm. Brooks balked and became one of the best run-and-chase linebackers in league history for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers .

Now the trend is going the other way. Bucannon was drafted as a safety out of Washington State, but a suspension to Daryl Washington and injuries at linebacker during his rookie season forced him into the moneybacker role on a limited basis. Now he’s a full-time player in that spot. He is a starter, no matter where he’s listed.

The same is true for Barron. He was a first-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2012 as a safety — starting 37 games in three seasons there for Tampa Bay — but he didn’t have the cover skills to be an effective player at that spot in this era of wide-open passing. The Rams, after trading to get him, converted him to a hybrid player and he’s now a starting linebacker.

The Washington Redskins will also use rookie Su’a Cravens in as a hybrid/linebackers as he becomes more comfortable with their defense.

“I think it’s a function of the how the college game is played. They are going with a lot smaller, faster linebackers. We have to find a way to use those players.”Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell

It’s a trend that many expect to see more of in the coming years. The growth of the passing game on offense is a big reason why. But there are other reasons.

One is the college game.

“I think it’s a function of the how the college game is played,” Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said. “They are going with a lot smaller, faster linebackers. We have to find a way to use those players.”

In the past, those players might have been moved to the back end — becoming a box safety. But playing with box safeties now is tricky. The Seattle Seahawks do it with Kam Chancellor , who actually plays more like a linebacker, but those types of players can be coverage liabilities.

That’s why they are now being converted down to hybrid linebackers.

“You look at safeties who can cover, not just the thumper,” Broncos general manager John Elway said. “It used to be guys who could come up and lay the big hit were one of your safeties, but they weren’t great cover guys. That guy is now taken out of the game. You want guys who can tackle, but you want them to get around. It’s important to be able to cover the tight end. They just flip-flop now. They don’t have to be killers anymore.”

Those killers, who aren’t great in coverage, are now prime candidates to be those hybrid linebackers.

“Only certain guys can do it,” Bucannon said. “You have to have the right skills.”

khalil-mackosweiler.jpgKhalil Mack was named All-Pro at two spots, defensive end and outside linebacker. USATSI

But it’s not just linebackers who are hybrids. The player who can move around the field, filling a variety of roles, guys like Arizona Cardinals safety-corner Tyrann Mathieu , bring great value to a coordinator scheming up a defense. Mathieu, who came into the league as a corner, plays safety, corner, slot corner, can blitz and does a variety of things in the Arizona defense.

With Bucannon and Mathieu on the field, the Cardinals have the luxury of throwing a lot of different looks at offenses.

“I guess hybrid is a good word,” Mathieu said. “I don’t want to be defined by one position.”

It’s that way in a lot of spots now. Not just with the converted linebackers. What is Houston pass rusher J.J. Watt ? He plays end, tackle and even stands up. What about Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett ? He is good on the outside, but might be even better when he moves to the inside. Oakland’s Khalil Mack was named All-Pro at two spots, defensive end and outside linebacker.

So what is he?

“I am not telling you,” Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said.

Truth is, he can play both and rushes the passer from both spots, but he’s more like an end.

Another example of player versatility is in Jacksonville where the Jaguars start a 218-pound linebacker in Telvin Smith , and then added corner/safety Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack , who played some corner in college, in this year’s draft. That gives them options and speed.

“So much defense is speed now,” Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. “You want to be a fast defensive unit. You open your eyes to guys who have that flexibility. They can play in the box and their skill set allows more speed on the field, and they can handle the runs in the box, but when you get them in space they can do that. It is becoming a passing league. To have speed on the field, guys who can control and play in space, is so important. It’s opening up the minds of many to guys who can be that hybrid player.”

That, Elway said, is — and will be — a big part of the process going forward. The scouts and general managers can identify these types of players, but it’s up to the coaches to find ways to make it work.

“You have to the right staff to get them in the right position,” Elway said. “You must have coaches who take advantage of what those guys do and put them in positions to be successful. You know they’re good football players, but how do you get them in the lineup? Where do they fit in? It comes down to the coaching. Some coaches are rigid and they say, ‘he’s going to play strong safety.’ Well, that’s not going to work. To take a chance on a hybrid player, you need a staff that is willing to experiment with him.”

“As coaches, it’s a challenge to find spots for them,” Bradley said. “You have to have an open mind. It might be thinking out of the box. We liked Telvin at the Senior Bowl, but it was a little out of the box because he was 215 pounds. One thing you don’t want to do is be pigeonholed when it comes to a thinking on a guy.”

“It is becoming a passing league. To have speed on the field, guys who can control and play in space, is so important. It’s opening up the minds of many to guys who can be that hybrid player.”Jaguars coach Gus Bradley

Sometimes, the player might be reluctant to move. Take Barron. He came into the league as a first-round pick, then was traded to the Rams, and thought he’d continue to be a safety. But he was only being used in sub-packages when Alec Ogletree went down in Week 4 last season. That forced him onto the field in a full-time role — as a linebacker.

“I wanted to be on the field more,” Barron said. “Moving there made it happen.”

“I thought I would be a safety,” Bucannon said. “But being in the NFL was always my dream. I just want to play. And this is how I got on the field. They could have gone a lot of different ways and not played me. But they saw my skill-set and decided to take advantage of it.”

You would think the tough part for both Bucannon and Barron would be the run game. In their new roles, they have to take on 315-pound offensive lineman and nasty lead blockers. That’s tough for guys their size.

Both had the same answer to how to get it done.

“Leverage,” Barron said. “It’s all about leverage and how you take on guys.”

“Attacking O-linemen and fullbacks is not hard,” Bucannon said. “You have to understand the leverage and the different ways to attack. I like to use my speed to attack.”

Some coaches think that if more and more hybrid players make their way onto the field, it could result in offenses changing back to power-style running teams. The Tennessee Titans are already moving in that direction.

“I hope that we can change it,” Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told me earlier this summer.

With quarterback Teddy Bridgewater now out for the season with a knee injury, the Vikings will rely even more on that style with Adrian Peterson . That doesn’t mean you can’t be a good run defense with smaller linebackers.

The Cardinals were tied for eighth in rush yards per carry against at 3.9, while the Rams were tied for 11th at 4.0. That’s pretty good for smaller fronts.

“I don’t think you want too many of them,” Caldwell said of the hybrids. “Then you might be too small. One or two is about right.”

There are also certain schemes where they won’t work. At least that’s the idea. In the 3-4 schemes, most coaches want bigger inside backers and edge rushers. But with so much nickel being played nowadays, even that is being amended some. Teams were in nickel 63-percent of the time last season. That means the base defense isn’t the prominent style being played anymore.

deone-bucannon.jpgDeone Bucannon sacks Aaron Rodgers and forces a fumble. USATSI

“Receivers are getting faster and there are more and more quick spread offenses,” Bucannon said. “And backs get out and run routes from the slot and things like that. That’s why there’s value in what we do. You have to be able to match up.”

“It is a game of matchups,” Bradley said. “Offenses will try and take advantage of the matchups. With the hybrid guys in the game, it makes it tougher to take advantage of those guys.”

I used to say a decade ago that the big corner would become the free safety, the free safety would become the strong safety and the strong safety would become a linebacker. The big linebacker would become a pass rusher on the outside and the big end would become a third-down rusher inside.

That’s exactly what passing has done to the league. Third-and-2 is a passing down. Four receivers on first down is not a wild thing anymore.

That’s why the hybrids are so valuable — no matter what you call them.


Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Is that a LB or a safety? Why hybrid players are part of a growing NFL trend