It is the new normal in the NFL to see pumped-up strong safeties playing outside linebacker. No one in that mold from the college ranks has impressed me more this season than Ohio State's Ryan Shazier.
Shazier, who finished third in the FBS with 7.2 solo tackles per game, is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, but I think he has a hard time holding weight.
Make no mistake, though -- he's the heart and soul of the Buckeyes' defense and will be a coveted prospect whether he leaves school after this season or returns for his senior year.
I don't see his size as a major problem, and I don't see him shifting to safety. That's not who he is. He's a linebacker, and he's a great one.
The junior is a disruptive, run-and-chase weakside linebacker who can take on blocks and knows how to slip them well. He might get engulfed vs. the run from time to time, but I don't see a steady diet of it where every time an offense wants 10 yards they target him. An offense that takes that tact vs. Shazier probably isn't going to have much success.
Shazier can do anything that's asked of him. He can drop, he can cover and he can rush. He's a good tackler in the open field. He's tough, too.
He made a mistake in the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Michigan State, when he was flagged for pass interference on third-and-19 early in the first quarter. It was costly -- it helped put the Spartans in field-goal range -- but it's one of the few real errors I've seen him make this season. Like most teams will say, if you're not getting any penalties, you're not playing on the edge.
It would be shortsighted to dwell on that mistake or Shazier's size. Let's not forget that 6-0, 242-pound NaVorro Bowman, the All-Pro inside linebacker for the 49ers, was once a 232-pound outside 'backer for Penn State. That's not to say Shazier will follow the same path, but it's an example of what can happen for a player with Shazier's abilities at the next level.
He has good company when it comes to undersized college linebackers with the tools to excel in the NFL. This group is interesting and eclectic. Here are a few players with bright futures that fit this category:
Michigan State's Denicos Allen (listed at 5-11, 218): Allen is actually smaller than Shazier and arrived at Michigan State as a safety, but he's moved to weakside linebacker and I think that's where he belongs. Allen flies all over the field. He does a great job of gaining leverage and shows great toughness, making big plays for the nation's top defense. As far as I'm concerned, he made the play of game against Ohio State in the fourth quarter when he beat a tight end to stop QB Braxton Miller on fourth-and-short.
USC's Dion Bailey (listed at 6-0, 200): Bailey played linebacker his first two seasons before moving to safety this season, and that might be his most natural position. I think he feels more comfortable there. He was a terrific outside linebacker in terms of production, and he has played well at safety. He's a bigger guy who can run, and toughness isn't a question with him.
Washington's Shaq Thompson (listed at 6-2, 225): Thompson also arrived as a safety and started there as a freshman before moving to a nickel back/outside linebacker role this season. He's developing the requisite toughness to play in that area and by next year, I expect him to be pushing for All-America status. His safety skills show up when he runs with receivers in coverage. He's also a good blitzer who's going to get better. New head coach Chris Petersen is going to be very happy to have him next year.