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The one position that's never been more important is about to take center stage at the NFL combine

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

INDIANAPOLIS — The ongoing proliferation of offense in the NFL — which is currently being spearheaded by the abundance of athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks who can hurt the opposition with their arm and legs — means that defenses have to adjust. Not only in terms of scheme, but the talent they are sticking on the field.

This is affecting how teams are valuing every defensive position, perhaps none more so than linebackers. 

Once thought to be a position where a team could get by with mid-to-late-round draft picks who are smart and tough, these linebackers are now charged with trailing the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, and they’re also being asked to cover the wealth of athletic skill players in space. 

This year’s Super Bowl offered an example. Yes, Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs put up 31 points on San Francisco’s second-ranked defense, but for three quarters the 49ers — who featured three dynamic linebackers in Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw — did as nice of a job you’ll see containing the league’s most explosive offense.

LSU's Patrick Queen projects to be the type of second-level linebacker that's become integral to stopping NFL offenses. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

So it won’t be surprising to see the stock of several athletic linebackers soar after the 40-yard-dash on Saturday. A year ago, two off-ball linebackers who tested extremely well in the 40, LSU’s Devin White (4.42 seconds) and Michigan’s Devin Bush (4.43), both went in the top 10. 

And in 2018, two linebackers who also ran fast — Georgia’s Roquan Smith (4.51) and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds (4.54) — also went in the first round, along with athletic studs like Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans.

Multiple scouts told Yahoo Sports at the NFL scouting combine this week that three players in this year’s draft who figure to run fast — Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons, LSU’s Patrick Queen and Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray Jr. — should be considered first-round locks, with Texas Tech’s Jordan Brooks potentially sneaking into the first-round mix, too.

The players themselves already sense that, too. During sit-down interviews they did with Yahoo Sports this week, Queen, Murray and Simmons all said they believe their athleticism is boosting their draft stock.

“I bring all those tools to the table,” Queen told Yahoo Sports. “I can stop the run and play the pass. That’s the biggest thing I’m looking forward to, being able to be a three-down linebacker in the league.”

Queen, who doesn’t turn 21 until August, is the latest speedy linebacker from LSU, joining Alexander, White and Atlanta’s Deion Jones. And after an eye-popping true junior season in which the 6-foot, 229-pounder racked up 85 tackles (12 for loss), Queen is now earning some top-15 buzz.

But no defensive player in this draft is as versatile as Simmons, whose athleticism was so impressive that he also played slot corner, edge rusher and even safety at times, with the latter being particularly impressive because he checked in at a monstrous 6-4 and 238 pounds at the combine. 

It all led to Simmons posting a ridiculous stat line of 102 tackles, eight sacks, nine pass breakups and three interceptions in 2019. 

Clemson's Isaiah Simmons has the physical traits and production to make NFL scouts salivate. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“The biggest impact I see myself making is being able to cover the tight end, because that’s almost the name of the game now, who can cover whose tight end,” Simmons told Yahoo Sports. “If you can see the teams that were most successful this past year, they all had very good tight ends. [San Francisco’s] George Kittle and [Kansas City’s] Travis Kelce, obviously, were probably the best in the NFL. That’s what it’s all coming down to now, who can stop the run and who can stop the tight end.”

The issue for defenders tasked with stopping the likes of Kittle and Kelce, Simmons added, was that the defenders with the athleticism to defend them — say, a corner or safety — often don’t have the size to prevent being boxed out. Meanwhile, the defenders that do have the size don’t have the quickness.

Neither attribute figures to be a problem for Simmons, who could easily be a top-five pick. In his last mock draft before the combine, Yahoo Sports draft analyst Eric Edholm pegged Simmons at No. 8 with the Arizona Cardinals.

Murray also figures solidly into the first-round mix. At 6-2 and 241 pounds, he looks the part of an old-school linebacker. However, he pairs it with incredible closing speed — and aggression to match — that he used to regularly chase down Big 12 athletes in space and rack up 102 tackles and 17 tackles for loss in 2019.

“It’s about having a hunter’s mentality,” Murray told Yahoo Sports. “When I see a QB in the open field scrambling out, I’m trying to run him down. Every time I see a ballcarrier, I’m out there trying to hunt.”

And like Queen and Simmons, Murray understands that he’s about to benefit big-time from entering a league that has never valued his traits more.

“LBs now, you have to be fast. You have to be extremely fast,” Murray said. “With the way the game is going, teams adapting more to the spread offenses, as an LB you’re gonna have to be able to run with tight ends, backs up the seam, slot receivers. 

“The speed and athleticism that’s required for the linebackers, it’s definitely something that’s changing.”

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