Part 7, LB: Who is green-dot worthy?
Every dominant defense needs a man in the middle running the show. Nakobe Dean was the heartbeat of Georgia's juggernaut 'D.' Who will lead NFL defenses in 2022 and beyond?
This is the 38th year in which Bob McGinn has written an NFL draft series. Previously, it appeared in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19) and The Athletic (2020-’21) … Until 2014, personnel people often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2-15 at the request of most scouts … The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was not administered at the NFL scouting combine this year, perhaps for the first time. Therefore, players generally took the test at spring timing days in 2021 or at pro days in the past two months. The NFL average score is about 19.
The evaluation game for off-the-ball linebackers centers on the basics of football: reaction, tackling, pursuit, man coverage, zone coverage and blitzing.
Perhaps equally vital in a linebacker’s overall package is his capacity to wear the green dot.
Most fans have noticed the green dot affixed to the mid-line on the rear of the helmet. It signifies the defensive player that was chosen to wear an active radio receiver in his helmet to receive the call verbally from the defensive coordinator and then communicate it to his teammates on the field.
Since the NFL allowed a head set for one defensive player in 2008 most of the green dots have been middle linebackers (a second helmet is locked away in the bench area to be used only if the original green dot is injured).
In the last five years, some safeties such as Eric Weddle of the Rams, Derwin James of the Chargers and Jayron Kearse of the Cowboys also have worn the green dot.
The Pro Bowl inside linebackers in each of the last two years epitomized both the mental and physical abilities needed to excel as a green dot.
“You need somebody you can trust to stay on the field for all three downs,” an executive in personnel for an AFC team said. “Direct traffic and get guys lined up. To be able to contribute and handle everything. Not only to clean up mistakes with run fits but also to get everybody aligned when formations are changing and all the shifts. It’s key in this modern day era.”
Eleven linebackers in this draft class received at least one mention from scouts as potential green dots. Nakobe Dean’s name almost always was brought up first.
“Dean would be No. 1 because that’s what he did on their defense,” another AFC personnel director said of the Georgia signal-caller. “He would be the surest bet to do that.”
The 10 other linebackers mentioned in this regard were Devin Lloyd, Damone Clark, Chad Muma, Troy Andersen, Terrel Bernard, Micah McFadden, Mike Rose, D’Marco Jackson, Chance Campbell and Jake Hansen.
“The hardest thing for a scout to find is a three-down linebacker,” said one personnel man. “Everybody’s in nickel 70%. I can find those two-down guys everywhere. But the guy that doesn’t come off the field on third down and can cover, they’re hard to find.”
For scouts and coaches alike, it’s an ongoing struggle finding a green dot with both aptitude and athleticism.
In March 2018, the Giants acquired veteran Alec Ogletree from the Rams. A two-time captain in New York, he started 26 of a possible 32 games over two seasons and had six interceptions. GM Dave Gettleman, however, decided to make Ogletree a salary-cap casualty and instead signed unrestricted free agent Blake Martinez of Green Bay to a three-year, $30.76 million contract ($19M guaranteed).
Martinez had been a 3 ½-year starter, made 595 tackles and wore the green dot. The Packers, however, let him walk even though they had no one to replace him. Martinez was limited athletically, missed too many tackles and was a weakness in coverage.
In New York, Martinez resumed his every-down role but the results basically were the same as they were in Green Bay. In 2021, he suffered a torn ACL in the third game and, in order to return in ’22, accepted a massive paycut.
“The Giants paid Martinez big money,” an NFC evaluator said. “Coaches feel comfortable with those sort of guys even if they don’t have any talent. To do it you’ve got to know it all, to be able to run it and communicate it. Coaches always want somebody who can coach on the field. It could be to the detriment of the team.”
The Packers tried to get by with veteran retread Christian Kirksey and rookie free agent Krys Barnes in 2020 but the position was no better than when Martinez owned it. In June 2021, they signed ex-Cardinal De’Vondre Campbell to a one-year, $2 million contract. Campbell was so effective as an every-down player and green-dot leader that the Packers locked him up in March with a five-year deal totaling $50 million ($15M guaranteed).
The four Pro Bowl green dots the past two years were the Colts’ Darius Leonard and the Bills’ Tremaine Edmunds in the AFC and the 49ers’ Fred Warner and the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner in the NFC.
The Wonderlic test is one piece of the puzzle that teams use to determine if a linebacker has green-dot ability. Warner scored 32, Leonard had 24 and Edmunds posted 22. Wagner tallied 8 back in 2012 but it’s clear from his superb career that he was a keen student of the game in every way.
Martinez, by the way, scored 27. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, a seven-time pro Bowl selection in his eight-year career (2012-’19), posted 34.
Seventeen personnel people ranked the group on a 1-2-3-4-5 basis, with a first-place vote worth 5 points, a second-place vote worth 4 points and so on.
Devin Lloyd led with 63 points and six firsts. Following, in order, were Nakobe Dean (49, five), Quay Walker (39, one), Christian Harris (32, one), Damone Clark (24, two), Leo Chenal (16, one), Troy Andersen (14, one), Chad Muma (11), Brandon Smith (three), Channing Tindall (three) and Terrel Bernard (1).
RANKING THE LINEBACKERS
1. DEVIN LLOYD, Utah (6-3, 237, 4.68, 1): Fifth-year senior, four-year starter. “He’s good, not great,” one scout said. “He’s not (Luke) Kuechly. He’s not Sean Lee. He’s a good, solid player.” Didn’t run a very good 40. “I think he played a lot faster and a lot more athletic than he tested,” said a second scout. Finished with 255 tackles (43 for loss), 16 ½ sacks (eight in 2021) and 13 passes defensed. “All those schemes of Pete Carroll, Robert Saleh and Gus Bradley, they love these tall, long-limbed (33-inch arms) linebackers because they think they can disrupt the passing game in their drops,” said a third scout. “He’s a tall, angular guy. Better as a big-play artist than really down to down. He would make a pick or force a fumble or rush in and make a sack. On a down-to-down basis, he wasn’t much for getting off a block and run in and make a tackle. He made a lot of splash plays for an off-the-ball linebacker but maybe wasn’t as consistent as I hoped he would be. I don’t know about him creeping up near the top 10. He’s a first-rounder, but the second half of the first round.” Was recruited as a safety out of Chula Vista, Calif., before moving to LB as a freshman. “He reminded me just body-wise and the movement of Keith Bulluck,” a fourth scout said. “It’s different how they used him on third down because he’s such a natural pass rusher. They even put his hand in the dirt and let him rush. There’s some unique ability and value.” Scored 20 on the Wonderlic. ”Fluid runner struggles when hands get on him,” a fifth scout said. “He’d rather slip blocks than go through them. Plays with good quickness and speed. I wouldn’t take him in the first.”
2. NAKOBE DEAN, Georgia (5-11, 231, no 40, 1-2): Third-year junior, two-year starter with a degree in mechanical engineering. “Smartest guy on the team, and that defense is very, very complicated,” one scout said.