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The linebacker position is changing throughout the NFL. Some teams have joined the trend. And with this year’s NFL Draft class, the Jacksonville Jaguars have shown they’ve finally moved forward into this next generation.
When the Jaguars signed Foye Oluokun and drafted linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma in the first and third rounds, respectively, this spring, this team proved they’ve catching up to the rest of the league in thinking differently about the linebacker position.
For years, Jacksonville has peddled out makeshift pieces to fill in the rest of its front seven. Though the team has had success in the past—namely with a breakout duo consisting of Myles Jack and Telvin Smith—there hasn’t been any consistency. But problems off-the-field, early retirements, injuries, inconsistent play, and more meant the team had to replace both players after just a few short seasons.
The replacements weren’t up to the task, consisting primarily of players that don’t fit the role of what the NFL has seen as the “new age” linebacker. Those players are typically long, fast, agile, strong, and can play multiple roles. The players the Jaguars used? They weren’t that.
Essentially, the age-old “third safety” has quickly become what teams see as middle and weakside linebackers.
Over a decade ago, this wasn’t the case. But with newcomers like Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard—the NFL has planted its flag when it comes to growing and evolving how these players are used in their base, default schemes. And it’s no surprise that the Jaguars are trending in this direction with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Mike Caldwell, a former linebackers coach, as their defensive coordinator and then promoted assistant linebackers coach Tony Gilbert to the inside linebackers coach.
Jaguars coaches speak on new-age linebackers
Jaguars inside linebacker coach Tony Gilbert spoke to the media during the offseason last June and acknowledged that the position was different when he played through the early 2000’s. According to Gilbert, a typical inside linebacker was expected to weigh at least 240 pounds and known as a “thumper” who could dominate against the run. These players weren’t necessarily great defending the pass, but that wasn’t their primary role.
“It has changed,” Gilbert said with a smile. “So, when I came in, it was a ‘downhill big thumpers.’ Now it’s [a] long, rangy guy that can run. And you really want guys that don’t come off the field on third down, that could cover tight ends and cover running backs in space, it’s more of a space game. So, it’s definitely evolved and I think we got great guys that play great space.”
In Lloyd, Oluokun, and Muma, the Jaguars hope they now have a core of players that can be counted on for all three downs on defense and not just running plays.
Lloyd, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder entered his career at Utah as a safety.
Muma, a 6-foot-3, 239-pounder also started as a safety when he arrived at Wyoming as a safety
Oluokun, a 6-foot-2, 229-pounder began at Yale as (you guessed it) a safety.
There’s obviously a pattern here with all three of the team’s core linebackers beginning their careers as defensive backs before transitioning to a new role through their collegiate years.
The change in the position that has taken college football, and now the NFL, by storm, doesn’t necessarily mean a “thumper” can’t play. The Jaguars have a couple of players in that vein, including Shaq Quarterman, who has played a reserve role for the team over the past two years.
Instead, Gilbert said, their roles are being adjusted, and you have to know the strengths and weaknesses as a result.
“You got to know your strengths and weaknesses as far as ... if you’re a guy who probably is not great in space, you got to take better angles,” he explained. “You got to have cut-off points, you know where your help is in the zone, in man, you just got to be really smart knowing your own ability.”
Lloyd, according to Gilbert, fits the mold of a new-age linebacker with the speed, length, and ability to make plays against the pass.
“You see the length, you see the speed, you see he’s patient now that you know we’ve got him in some different packages where he’s covering,” Gilbert said when asked about Lloyd. “I think he definitely is a linebacker that you don’t have to take off the field and you don’t worry about him, you know, in space.”
Lloyd’s versatility was also something that stood out on tape. The Jaguars identified it quickly and knew he was the exact type of player and linebacker the team was looking for moving forward.
“We definitely saw it,” Gilbert said when asked if he saw Lloyd’s versatility on tape when watching him during the pre-draft process. “We feel like his game definitely projected to the new age linebacker because he could do so much, he can cover, he can definitely get downhill here, he’s a playmaker, he’s long and he can blitz, so his game definitely turns over to the NFL game.”
Caldwell echoed the comments made by Gilbert, speaking in June about Lloyd’s length and how the franchise can take advantage of that.
“You watch the film and you see the play-making ability,” Gilbert said. “Then you see him in person … We saw him when we brought him in for the visit and we saw him on draft day. It’s just how long he is. That length is going to be to his advantage big time.”
The same can be said for Muma, who the Jaguars chose almost as a luxury pick in the third round this year. The team already had two linebackers slated to start in Lloyd and Oluokun, but what the team can do with Muma could take it to the next level, the coaches believe.
“I think for him people ... because you probably didn’t see the coverage,” Gilbert said of the rookie linebacker. “We see it now. He’s done a great job. He’s extremely conscious of his abilities. He’s smart. He takes great angels he can run so I don’t have any doubt that Chad’s gonna be successful in the NFL.”
Muma’s role is to be determined with the Jaguars. But there’s plenty of room for him, and all of that will be played out during training camp, Caldwell and Gilbert said.
“I definitely think there’s room [for Muma to play],” Gilbert said. “And then, just like I was listening to Mike [Caldwell], all that is gonna play out in training camp because, you know, we [are] gonna really stress guys to do more things so we can see what they actually can do when the preseason and training camp [starts]. So, [there’s] definitely a role and he’s gonna figure out what that role is gonna be in training camp.”
Caldwell wouldn’t go as far as to say that Muma was a luxury selection in the third round, but he certainly was the highest player on the team’s board at the time.
“He is someone that when you look at it—you do not call it a luxury—but it was a pick where he was the top one on our board,” Caldwell said. “I know we have a couple [of] other guys that can play that position and guys on the roster that can play that position, but he was a guy that you looked at … You like what he does and we like what we can do, so [we said] let’s go grab them.”
Jaguars rookies understand their roles
For the rookies themselves, they understand that the position has changed. They’ve lived it over the past few years at the collegiate level. Given their skill sets, both Lloyd and Muma feel as though they fit the way the NFL has transitioned over the past decade or so.
Lloyd, who participated fully in both the Jaguars’ Organized Team Activities and minicamps this spring, appreciates the Jaguars’ scheme and what it can do for, not just the linebacker position, but the entire defense as a whole.
“I just love how the linebackers just really just run and hit ... they just play, but then they’re also utilized a lot in coverage,” Lloyd said in June. “So, everybody is really asked to be versatile. You got to be athletic. And I love that about that.”
Lloyd is a self-proclaimed “overachiever” and when the team first met with rookies he immediately went up to Gilbert and asked to go over film, doing everything he can to make sure his rookie season gets off to a great start.
“I’m an overachiever,” Lloyd said when asked about his early interaction with Gilbert. “I’ll claim that. You know, I just want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to look back and know I had no regrets. That’s one thing my dad always preached to me is make sure you look back and you can truthfully say to yourself that you had no regrets.”
Lloyd agreed that the game has changed since his inside linebackers coach last played in the league, noting that with the speed at running back now, citing his teammate running back Travis Etienne, the position has to be faster, and more versatile than ever before.
“You got to be able to trust your athletic ability, play in space, trust your hips, trust your feet, you got to be able to play anywhere on the field nowadays, and that’s, you know, anywhere in the NFL,” Lloyd said. “So, I’d say, in that sense, the game has changed but they’re still gonna ask us to be physical and downhill, still gonna ask us to thump so you know from that aspect, the game still stays the same.”
And Lloyd’s right. The game has changed at the linebacker position, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for players who can fill all of the roles, both new and old. They still will be tasked with taking on big running backs such as Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor.
Muma echoed Lloyd’s sentiments about the new/old school backer role, noting that Gilbert has mentioned the change a couple of times already.
“He’s mentioned that a few times and how he was playing a different type of linebacker, and so it’s different ... we have to go cover a lot more,” Muma mentioned. “And I think that comes up a lot is just, you know, what techniques skills but he’s very knowledgeable in how we’re supposed to cover and so he’s been helping us there.”
With Caldwell as his defensive coordinator, Muma says it’s been easier to transition into the league, given that Caldwell is a former NFL linebacker and coach himself.
“I think it’s been easier; you know, he stops by our linebacker room sometimes and, you know, kind of gets with us whether it’s you doing a quick walkthrough during the meeting time or whatever it may be,” Muma said of Caldwell. And so, he’s also another knowledgeable guy, and I’ve learned a lot through him and there’s always something that you can do better, that he’s able to see, technique-wise, scheme-wise with what the offense doing all that.”
The two linebackers will work in tandem this year. Lloyd certainly has the advantage of being a first-round pick, but Muma will see plenty of playing time as the team looks to get faster in a very linebacker-centric scheme moving forward.
After years of needing it, Jacksonville has modernized the linebacker position. Now we get to see if all their off-the-field work building their roster in this way pays off with on-the-field play.