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The Evolution of Today’s MIKE Linebacker in the NFL - Will Washington Follow Suit?

NFL: Washington Football Team OTA Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

By definition, the MIKE linebacker is the middle defender in the trio of base off-the-ball linebackers commonly seen in a even front (4-3 base), or the shifted strong side backer in an odd front (3-4 base). This player is often known as the quarterback of the defense, and is usually responsible for setting the unit based on the offensive formation, personnel grouping and down and distance.

In the past, the MIKE linebacker was known as the downhill thumper, who was excellent in run support, but was not the best when in came to defending the pass. You would often see guys hover in the 245-260 range, and their common pass responsibility was high-hole deep sit, intermediate hook-to-curl, or spy the quarterback in case he took off running. Over the year the position as evolved, and in today’s NFL, it’s almost impossible for the defense to have a run-only type of defender, who is a liability against the pass, manning the middle.

The first major change we have seen in this dynamic shift, is the size and speed of today’s NFL MIKE linebacker. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the top MIKE linebackers in the game were players like Junior Seau, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis and Levon Kirkland. Each was 245 plus pounds. Guys like the Seahawks Bobby Wagner, the 49ers’ Fred Warner, the Bucs’ Lavonte David and Devin White (both interchangeable as the MIKE), and the Bears’ Roquan Smith are the new prototype NFL MIKE linebacker.

Some of the NFL top MIKE linebackers (H/W/S):

- Eric Kendricks: 6’0” 232 4.61 40

- Lavonte David: 6’1” 233 4.65 40

- Devin Bush: 6’0” 234 4.43 40

- Roquan Smith: 6’1” 236 4.51 40

- Fred Warner: 6’3” 236 4.64 40

- Devin White: 6’0” 237 4.42 40

- Bobby Wagner: 6’0” 240 4.46 40

The second major change with today’s MIKE linebackers, is run fits. It’s no secret teams pass the ball a lot more today than even a decade ago. The NFL pass/run average is 62/38, with some teams getting as high as 70 percent passing. Due to the heavy passing schemes, more defense are in nickel packages, which usually have just two linebackers on the field (a MIKE and WILL), and will sub in a extra defensive back or hybrid defender (often call a Dime LB or as Jack Del Rio likes to say, the Buffalo Nickel). Make no mistakes that savvy offensive coordinators will try to take advantage of this even out of 11 personnel, using inside and outside zone running schemes in an attempt to crease a nickel defense.

Because of this dynamic, today’s MIKE linebackers need to be complete sideline-to-sideline defenders, able to stack and shed interior lineman, but also beat a guard to the lane, and even shoot gaps in a even front where gap-stack alignments and one-gapping techniques are prevalent.

Essentially, today’s unique MIKE has to be able to run-and-chase AND tackle in a phone booth.

The biggest change we see in today’s NFL MIKE linebackers is coverage responsibilities. In the past, you mostly saw MIKE’s dropping into an underneath zone or deep high-hole. Today, due to the prevalence of nickel looks, the MIKE often has to carry a tight end vertically on the seam, cover running backs out of the backfield and even match up one-on-one in cover zero with slot receivers - along with their periodic blitzing responsibilities.

This is the most difficult responsibility the MIKE has, as they are still a run-first defender, and frequent play-action can cause that one second pause that allows a receiver, tight end or running back to gain space. Because of this, todays MIKE has to be able to read/diagnose, open the hips, and get into his responsible zone or turn and run with his man.

Make no mistake, this is no easy task, and requires a certain breed of athlete at the position.

For the first time in what feels like decades (and it may truly have been that long), we now have a linebacker with the unique skill set that matches today’s new MIKE linebacker. The Washington Football Team’s 2021 first round draft pick, Jamin Davis, has every intangible you look for in today’s off-the-ball linebacker.

First, at 6’3” 234 pounds and running a 4.37 40 with a 39.5 inch vertical, Davis has a ridiculous athletic profile made for today’s game.

Jamin can effectively play the stack-and-shed run game (although some say it’s not his strength), shoot a gap and make a tackle in the backfield, or peruse a ball carrier sideline-to-sideline.

What truly makes Davis special is his coverage ability from both inside and outside the box. This is extremely rare to see from a man his size.

With Jamin manning the middle of Washington’s defense, and being kept clean by one of the best defensive fronts in the entire league, offensive coordinators won’t be able to single our middle linebacker out, and try to force mismatches against more athletic pass catchers like we saw last year with Jon Bostic inside.

Much like the new-age MIKE linebackers I mentioned earlier in this article, Jamin can certainly do it all!

Ideally, what I think Jack Del Rio would like to do, is similar to what they did in Tampa last year - essentially making Devin White and Levonte David your two interchangeable inside linebackers based on the offensive formation.

In Washington’s sub-grouping, it would be ideal to have both Davis and Holcomb as the two linebackers on the field together, as both players have the size, speed and athleticism to effectively play the run or pass, and could be identified by the offense in any set at the MIKE depending on formation and personnel groupings.

By doing this, it would not only allow Del Rio the advantage of disguising coverages based on HIS personnel; causing some confusion for the offense, but it could eliminate the offense from singling out what would be perceived as a weak link on the defense, while also providing the needed skill set for two every-down off-the-ball box linebackers.

Here are some potential looks from both base and nickel.

Base Even Front 7:

- 1-technique: Payne/Settle

- 3-technique: Allen/Ioannidis

- Left EDGE: Sweat

- Right EDGE: Young

- MIKE: Davis

- WILL: Holcomb/Hudson

- SAM: Bostic/Toney

Base 4-3 Under Front 7:

- 1-technique: Payne/Settle

- 3-technique: Ioannidis

- 5-technique: Allen

- Wide-9: Young/Sweat

- Walked-Up SAM: Toney

- MIKE: Davis

- WILL: Holcomb/Hudson

Nickel Even Front 7:

- 1-technique: Payne/Settle

- 3-technique: Allen/Ioannidis

- Left EDGE: Sweat

- Right EDGE: Young

- MIKE: Davis/Holcomb

- WILL: Holcomb/Davis

- Buffalo Nickel: Collins/Curl, Hudson

Make no mistake, the future is bright for this young defense, and its next rising star may just be the rookie Davis - who CERTAINLY looks the part of today’s new NFL MIKE linebacker.


Where to you think Jamin Davis will start his career in Washington?

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