One of the classic struggles of football takes place between the running back and the linebacker. On every play, each is looking to make quick, powerful surges behind a wall of massive humans trying to protect them while racing each other to an undetermined spot on the field where ties are broken by violent collisions.
While the linebackers outnumber the running back and carry various assignments in addition to trying to keep him contained in the backfield, the RB's position has always been the more glorious. In this game of tag, everyone wants to be "it" since this player scores the touchdowns, is often the featured athlete of the offense, and makes the big money.
The linebacker position has often been stocked up with players that weren't quite athletic enough to thrive at running back, who they were then set to eternally chase after with a vengeance.
But now in the midst of the struggle against his ancient foe, the linebacker, the running back has found a knife thrown accurately into his back from the quarterback. Formerly just the player that was charged setting the table for the running back, the quarterback has usurped him as the hero and marginalized his role in modern offense.
While many in the NFL were baffled by Chip Kelly's decision to trade star running back Lesean McCoy for linebacker Kiko Alonso, the reality is that the linebacker position is thriving as a result of the running back's decline.
The evolution of the running back
Waging war against linebackers already took a heavy toll on the average career lifespan of a running back, with the position often seeing it's players fall out of the league relatively quickly after entering in. Although the running back is football's archetype, an athlete who is fast, skilled, and tough, the violence inherent in the game tends to wear these players out quickly.
Meanwhile rule changes have pushed the game towards becoming more wide open in nature and are allowing stars like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to enjoy productive careers deep into their 30s. The biggest and best athletes in football now have to question if the running back position is actually their best bet at a long, productive career.
The athleticism and skill required of the running back has not decreased as a result of these changes with receiving and pass protection now emerging as important assignments for the position to master, and not just on 3rd down. But size might be decreasing as these newly favored skills favor compact, skilled players with more quickness over bigger, power-backs who love to hit an outside lane and then stretch their legs.
While the massive running back like Todd Gurley, who combines unusual combinations of size, power, and speed is nearly an unstoppable weapon in the high school ranks he doesn't always find the same role in the college or NFL game where intricate passing games are the preferred means of attack.
What NFL teams want to invest money into a player that could be out of the league before his big, guaranteed contract is over? Which college teams want to invest the time and energy on one player who will be hit hard every play when they can get even greater production from a QB who often goes untouched?
The elite athlete at linebacker?
So while the changes in tactics have led to the RB becoming a less important feature in many offenses, they've also upped the ante for what's required of a linebacker.
Classically linebackers were the first wave of support to the point of attack, they wait for the play to develop with the best of the best characterized by the ability to arrive where needed with speed and violence.
When the passing game took on a greater role in the game, speed from the linebackers to be able to drop back and cover routes in addition to arriving at the point of attack in the run game became a more important element within the game.
Then Lawrence Taylor revolutionized the position as a 3-4 outside linebacker with uncommon athleticism that was then directed at attacking the quarterback with the edge rush. Since the days of the greatly feared #56, teams have looked for elite athletes to put at outside linebacker or in a hybrid role on the to counter the QB with pressure.
The TE/H-back sets that are still popular across the game were designed by Joe Gibbs in part to try and control players like Lawrence Taylor.
But eventually, offenses adopted with quick strike passing games from spread formations, and now RPO (run/pass option) plays that put linebackers in conflict, ask him to be in multiple places at once, and allow the QB to quickly get the ball out in space to faster skill players who can then abuse the out-leveraged defenders.
At the collegiate level, it's more than possible to have great athletes on the edge who can still struggle to perform the classic duties of the linebacker in arriving at the point of attack with timeliness and violence. Stopping the spread offense requires yet more speed.
It appeared for a while that the classic linebacker might disappear entirely as teams went to nickel and even dime sets to get enough speed on the field.
A new kind of inside linebacker
Teams learned that the linebacker's mentality and skill set is still essential when spread teams learned to use spacing to still attack the middle of the field with downhill running games. Instead, teams looked for players with traditional linebacker skills but simply more speed.
The smaller athletes in the range of 5'10" to 6'0" and 200 to 220 pounds who can't make it at running back or defensive back now often find themselves at home as outside linebackers as teams try to find players that can help them control spread attacks.
Yet teams like Alabama, who are still trying to funnel the ball between the tackles and there control opponents with big, stout linebackers with limited range outside of the tackle box are finding this to be inadequate for matching the speed and conflict presented by top spread offenses.
For the Crimson Tide their best answer to the spread came in the form of CJ Mosley, a 6'2" 234 pound inside linebacker who had the power to fill interior gaps as required of a Tide linebacker, but also the speed to pursue the ball from sideline to sideline or defend the middle of the field in coverage.
With Mosley's departure to the NFL, Nick Saban didn't have other athletes in his LB corps to handle the stresses brought by a great spread team like Ohio State who repeatedly targeted the Tide LBs in their playoff game with throws to the seams:
and to the running backs in the flats:
In an attack like the Buckeyes', the spread RB was not marginalized but elevated over inside linebackers chosen for their ability to dominate between the tackles. Ezekiel Elliot accomplished the seemingly impossible task of running for over 200 yards on the Tide D.
The result has been teams beginning to prize speedsters rather than big thumpers at the inside linebacker positions. Ohio State has been ahead of the curve here, starting with weakside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who brought freakish athleticism to the position. Despite sizing in at 6'1" 237, he ran the shuttle in 4.21 seconds (faster than many CBs) and the 40 yard dash in under 4.4 seconds (faster than most RBs).
They've since found another athletic player in Darron Lee, who is also able to bring classic linebacking skills to the more wide open, modern game.
Then Notre Dame found Jaylon Smith, a 6'3" 235 pound player rumored to have run a 4.4 (probably closer to 4.6, but still) and plugged him in at linebacker as well. Moving back and forth between either outside linebacker positions based on whether the Irish were in a base 4-3 or nickel set, led the team with 112 tackles as a sophomore.
More absurdly athletic linebackers are on their way to the college game. In Charlie Strong's 2015 class at Texas he signed Malik Jefferson, a SPARQ all-star who posted absurd numbers running the 40 in 4.38 seconds, the shuttle in 4.19 seconds, and managing a vertical leap of 39.7" at 6'2" 225.
The state of Louisiana features high school junior-to-be and current LSU commit Dylan Moses, who as a sophomore was somehow able to run a 4.57 40, 4.13 shuttle, and leap 37.1 inches at 6'2" 225. His eventual home as a weakside linebacker in the Tiger defense will elevate their team speed to an even greater level.
Teams are lining these players up in the box where their size allows them to play between the tackles but their speed to pursue the ball or skill players to the edge prevents spread teams from easily flanking them.
These elite athletes will undoubtedly push further evolutions to the linebacker position as defensive coordinators figure out how to best use such rangy and versatile athletes to stop spread attacks.
A new home for elite athletes?
If Chip Kelly values an athletic inside linebacker on a level comparable to that of a featured running back, it's a fair bet that the rest of the NFL is going to learn what he already knows and these players will see their salaries and earning power increase. The result? Even more great athletes will show an interest in the position.
In the past, athletes of this caliber would not be playing the inside linebacker position. If you were to ask a coach of most eras where he would put a dominant athlete who stood at 6'2" 230 or so and was one of the fastest players on the field to provide the greatest possible impact he would probably have said "running back" without much hesitation.
But the modern game is more about using the QB to distribute the ball in space to elite athletes of different shapes and sizes...or trying to shrink those spaces back down. In this new world of tactics, it may be that big athletes are first tested to see if they can be the kind of linebacker that allows the defense to handle the conflicts presented by spread offenses.
In that classic struggle between running back and linebacker, the defender may have found an edge at last.