At the start of this decade, the NFL’s premier inside linebackers were Ray Lewis of the Ravens and Brian Urlacher of the Bears. Both of those players could be categorized as hard and heavy “thumpers,” often referred to as the “quarterbacks” of their respective defenses.
Though no other player came close to the talent and production of Lewis and Urlacher, plenty of players fell into their mold. That’s because, ten years ago, NFL teams wanted their linebackers to be hard-hitters, solid run-stoppers, and physical.
In the modern NFL, teams are changing how they define the prototypical inside linebacker. While Lewis and Urlacher would still be Hall of Fame caliber players if their careers had begun in 2018, teams don’t put as big a premium on their skillsets as they once did.
Instead of aiming for those big and physical thumpers, NFL teams now want elite athleticism at inside linebacker. Often, they are willing to sacrifice size and physicality in order to get it.
For the best examples of this evolution, look no further than the Arizona Cardinals. Both of their starters at inside linebacker—Haason Reddick and Deone Buchanon—would be considered undersized by the standard of 2010. Buchanon is actually a convert from safety.
Yet, the Cardinals’ defense was one of the better units in the NFL last season. Reddick and Buchanon may be undersized, but they are supremely athletic. Their speed and ability to play “sideline to sideline” football was a big reason for their unit’s success in 2017.
The Tennessee Titans have made a massive leap in this regard during the offseason. They parted ways with Avery Williamson, a player more in line with the 2010 standard, and spent a first-round draft pick on Rashaan Evans of Alabama, a player much more suited for the modern mold.
Evans figures to be a starter from day one of his rookie season. The other likely starter for the Titans is Wesley Woodyard, whose career got off to a much different start than Evans’.
Wesley Woodyard was signed by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He eventually became a team captain and was a starter on the Broncos team that lost Super Bowl XLVIII. Following that season, he signed a long-term free agent contract with the Titans.
As a player, Woodyard is a nice combination of the 2010 inside linebacker mold and the modern prototype. He has good size for the position, but he isn’t too big to move with quickness. He has great instincts against the run, and he’s able to hold his own in coverage.
Where Woodyard fails to meet the new prototype is his age. These days, teams overwhelmingly seem to prefer youth at inside linebacker. At the start of the 2018 season, Woodyard will be 32 years old.
That might not be such a bad thing, however, as age seems to have a refining effect on Woodyard. His best season as a pro arguably came in 2017, when he led the Titans’ defense in numerous statistical categories. He also hit career-best numbers in tackles and fumble recoveries.
I asked Woodyard how he was able to fend off father time and have a career-year at age 31. He chalked it up to his off-the-field regimen. “Obviously when you get a little older, you aren’t quite as fast as maybe you were your rookie year. But that goes to some of the things I did in the offseason. Working on those quick-twitch muscles, trying to eat right, trying to come into camp in shape, and not losing a step.
I think that goes to the fact that I have so many chips and so many chips and motivation factors that motivate me to be at a high level. I look forward to any challenge that comes, I like knocking them all down.”
Last season, the Titans boasted one of the NFL’s best run defenses. Aside from a bad game against Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley and the Rams, they held every single running back they faced in check. If they want to have similar success in 2018, Woodyard will need a repeat performance of his 2017 campaign.
However, Woodyard’s impact in 2018 will likely reach far beyond his own performance. With rookie Rashaan Evans in the fold, Woodyard will be called upon to be a mentor. That’s a task he is sure to take head-on.
One of Woodyard’s best attributes throughout his time playing football has been his leadership ability. He has been a team captain at all levels: in high school, in college at Kentucky, and with both of his NFL clubs.
“That’s my specialty,” Woodyard said regarding his mentorship abilities. “Mentoring young guys, making sure that I can pull the best out of them. I really won’t get to know much about him until he’s on campus with us working out, but I’m excited to have a new guy in the room with us.”
An obstacle that Woodyard will have to overcome in 2018 is the transition inherent in playing with a new starter at the inside linebacker position. Since 2014, Woodyard has started opposite fellow Kentucky alum, Avery Williamson. It will likely take a bit of time for him to develop the same chemistry and familiarity with Evans.
As you might expect, Woodyard downplayed the challenge when I asked him about the transition. “It’s a challenge every year, whether you’re coming back with the same core group of guys or new guys. I think the challenge is that you have to be better than you were last year, and that’s something that’s going to be on all of our slates.
How do we improve? How do we make strides? How do we continue to lead our defense? It’s going to be exciting, though. Whoever’s out there with me, I’m just excited to get the chance to play.”
All of his answers sound like they’re coming from a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rookie, not from a ten-year veteran. Perhaps that’s why he’s able to play so well in his thirties—he approaches the game like a rookie.
If Wesley Woodyard is able to find his 2017 form again in 2018, the Tennessee Titans’ defense will likely see great success.
Cover image via Titan Insider.