As teams spend the next 60 days putting the final touches on their training camp rosters, they have to consider a lot of different factors. As they do for free agency and the draft, teams must evaluate the talent still available along with their own needs. But they also need to think about their division opponents and they need to consider changes in the game as well as how their coaching staffs approach the basic concepts of offense and defense.
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In doing so, many teams are finding that several traditional positions are not what they used to be. Some positions have changed, and the requirements for playing those positions in today's NFL have changed. This is leading to some interesting personnel decisions in the offseason.
Traditional middle linebackers, strong safeties, in-line tight ends, and fullbacks -- as we once knew them -- are dinosaurs in the modern game, which emphasizes spreading everyone out and looking for favorable matchups. Players at these positions are spending less time on the field, and that playing time looks to be shrinking even more as we head into 2008.
Let's take a position-by-position look at these four spots:
The "Mike" has always traditionally been a big, strong, tackling machine whose primary responsibility was defending the run. Urlacher certainly has some of those qualities. He can pop the ball carrier with the best of them. But the MLB also has to be able to play laterally and display enough speed to stretch outside runs to the sideline. It's not a tackle-to-tackle job anymore. The MLB is expected to drop into deep middle coverage; when he can't do that, he becomes a situational role player at best.
The emergence of the Cover Two defense, and empty-set backfields have also made the MLB position a key to pass coverage. Urlacher again is the ultimate example of this -- a player with speed, range, coverage skills and good hands. In the Cover Two, the Mike is asked to drop deep in zone coverages without sacrificing his ability to defend the draw or trap play, but also must have enough man cover skills to run with the tight end or the running back out of the backfield.
The strong safety is another position that has undergone a pretty major transformation in recent years, and the Cover Two again plays a part. Dallas strong safety Roy Williams is still a good football player, but what he does best (drop down into the box and support the run defense) is not what the Cowboys need most. Adam Archuleta was recently released by the Bears because he was a "box" safety as well.
John Lynch is more of a box safety and he feels like there is a difference of opinion in Denver about his present value. It is possible that the true strong safety is going to become a situational player. If and when a fullback or an in-line tight end enters the game, there is a reason to send the box safety into the game. But if a team is in a three-receiver package or has a hybrid tight end with vertical speed, then the old-time safety may have to be on the sideline.
Keep in mind there will have to be a readjustment period to the salary cap as time goes on for box safeties, who wind up playing 50 percent of the snaps as opposed to 100 percent, as they normally did in the past. Defensive coaches know the offenses are trying to create matchups or force box players to work in space and they can't continue to let offenses have their way every Sunday. Players such as Kellen Winslow, Reggie Bush, and Brian Westbrook have served notice to the strong safeties that they may have to be off the field in certain situations.
Defensive linemen substitue freely by down and distance situations. Linebackers are replaced by cornerbacks when a third wide receiver enters the game. It looks as if it's time to marry the strong safety to personnel groupings that present power run issues and not matchup problems.
These two dinosaurs go hand in hand, because they essentially have morphed into a new position.
For years, the fullback was a big bodied blocker who led his tailback into the line and blocked the inside linebacker on an iso lead. If he was lucky he would carry the ball 10 times a year. While those traits still hold true to some extent, the bigger role of the fullback in today's pass-oriented NFL is that of a receiver. Many fullbacks, like Tony Richardson, now with the Jets, have made their living as blockers who can catch the screen or make a play in the flat, but also understand blitz pickups and how to protect their QB.
Kyle Brady, a current free agent who most recently played with the Patriots, is your standard in-line tight end. He's a mountain of a man who can block and basically serves as an additional lineman, both in the run game and pass protection. He can help an overmatched OT with the edge rush, and coaches will always drool over that kind of player. However, the current demands of the position also require teams to look for a smaller tight end who can run and catch.
Spread offenses like those used in New England and Indianapolis like to employ the tight end as a receiver split out into the slot. These players generally have too much speed for the linebackers in coverage and too much size for the safeties. The best players at the position today, like Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr., have a good balance of both skill sets -- but they are primarily asked to be downfield receiving threats.
Then there's the H-back. Chris Cooley in Washington is probably the ideal example. These players have the ability to line up anywhere -- as a back, split out, or in motion -- using their alignments in combination with their speed and receiving skills to exploit weaknesses in coverage. Generally thought to lack the size and strength to be dominant blockers, players such as Cooley and recent Jets draft pick Dustin Keller are generally better when asked to block in open space. But make no mistake, the H-back is considered an offensive weapon, especially in a West Coast type offense that relies on short underneath routes. He can be the best friend of a young quarterback who needs a reliable target in the middle of the field. Just take a look at Cooley's numbers in recent years and you'll see what I mean.
In the end, while many sports are going through an age of specialization, the NFL is looking for versatility in players who can do a variety of things, fill several roles, and in the process, save dollars under the salary cap. Those players are generally gone by May, so expect teams to take a harder look at their needs, especially at these traditional positions, and limit their search to players who can fill specific roles on their team and affect situations that will be dictated by the opponents teams will play this year.