Ten years ago, Tennessee Titans inside linebackers Jayon Brown and rookie David Long may not have been able to find their way onto an NFL roster due to their small stature. In 2019, they fit right in.

With NFL offenses becoming more pass-happy by the year, defenses have begun to counter that with added speed and athleticism. As a result, players in the front seven that were once seen as far too undersized are now widely accepted.

Things aren’t what they used to be.

“The size of linebackers has really diminished over the past 10 years,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said, following day three of the 2019 draft. “Most recently it is what is playing in college football. The more that offenses become spread out, the more that college defenses recruit athletic, quick, smaller backs.”

“Back in the day, it was all about the 6’2” linebackers, 250 [pounds],” said Jayon Brown. “I’m obviously not that. It’s a different ball game, more points are being scored quicker. You’ve just got to have the defensive personnel to match up with it, and that’s what today’s linebackers are.”

The Titans certainly seem to be tuned into that trend, and it has already begun to pay off for them.

Paying Dividends

Brown, who dropped to the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft due to his size, broke out in a big way for the Titans last season. He proved his doubters wrong, finishing the year with 6 sacks and constantly disrupting games for opposing offenses.

“It’s just overall performance,” Brown said of undersized players being able to succeed, “which is speed, being fast, being able to play each and every game. Stuff like that…When you do that, size isn’t an issue.”

West Virginia’s David Long, who the Titans picked, in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, is very athletic and boasts a lot of speed for his position, but at 5’11” and 227 pounds, he will be the smallest player in the Titans’ inside linebacker room.

Long was very clear after being drafted that he won’t let his lack of size hold him back at the next level. “I’m going to give it to you straight,” he said. “I’ve been hearing that since I’ve been playing football, and I’ve always come out on the upper end of that situation. So I feel like hearing that or going up against that, that gives me a little fire. So that’s why I play bigger than what’s on paper.”

“We are very comfortable with where we are with Jayon Brown and his development as a linebacker,” Vrabel said, shortly after the Titans drafted Long. “I would say that David would probably fit similar to Jayon’s size. As long as you give the guy, the player, enough tools in his toolbox to play with his skill set and then try to develop some other things around it, I think that is always something that we are trying to do.”

More Spread Out

Not only are NFL offenses becoming more pass-happy, but their formations are becoming more spread out. Defenses are being forced to frequently counter personnel groupings in which offenses have three or even four wide receivers on the field.

That added pressure for defenses is, according to Long, exactly why NFL teams are becoming more accepting of smaller inside linebackers.

“I feel like it’s more speed,” Long said. “Especially playing in my league, the Big 12, I was used to playing like that. Teams like Patrick Mahomes [Texas Tech], a lot more spread out, a lot more speed from even the tight ends, backs, number two receivers. We have to match speed, so I feel like that’s why the game is changing.

“It’s very important. You’ve got to be out there and cover those man on mans. Be able to play against those guys out there in the backfield.”

Technically Sound

While speed and athleticism have become crucial for inside linebackers to succeed in the modern NFL, it also remains important for them to blend their traits with the proper technique.

“I think the technique is always critical,” Vrabel said. “We talk about the details, and, to me, the details are taking a picture and bringing it to life. There are always pictures—there’s a playbook, there’s a diagram—but the details allow us to bring that picture to life and give the player some tools to make it their own.

“There’s a route—it’s got a line and another line and an arrow. Well, nobody is going to run it exactly like that in a game, we know that’s not going to happen. So, hopefully, the details that we’re coaching and teaching these guys, and the fundamentals, can bring those pictures to life.”

The Titans have received some criticism over recent years for their refusal to evolve along with the rest of the NFL. When it comes to their inside linebackers, they are right in line with the newest trend.

Cover image: USA Today/Christopher Hanewinckel

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