The non-nickel linebacker

Kevork Djansezian

A look at how many tackles per a play non-nickel LBs got in 2012 and what this means for Malcolm Smith.

The Seahawks didn't select a single LB in the draft, Leroy Hill is probably getting arrested as I write this, Malcolm Smith is unproven and not even the most diehard Seahawks' fans know what numbers Korey Toomer, Allen Bradford and Mike Morgan wear. This leaves a lot of uncertainty about the WLB position.

This uncertainty has even caused some people to suggest that Cliff Avril or Bruce Irvin should be moved to SLB while K.J. Wright slides over to WLB. This talk could be more excitement about Irvin/Avril than it is lack of faith that Smith can replace Hill, but regardless, these people probably aren't excited about the thought of Smith on the field. The Seahawks may have special sub packages where Avril/Irvin is the SLB while Wright is the WLB, but more often than not, the trio at LB is going to be Malcolm Smith, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.

Smith will play WLB but he should not be viewed as just this. He should also be viewed as the non-nickel LB. This distinction is important because it sets the table for what Smith has to statistically produce to be an average player at the non-nickel position.

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*Note: LBs that don't play in nickel or dime defenses are often referred to as "two down LBs." This phrase is misleading because very few of these players played 66% of the defensive snaps in 2012. To improve upon this phrase, the term non-nickel LB will be used instead. This phrase also has its faults because it doesn't take into account that a player who doesn't play in the nickel package could also not play in the dime package.

However, since nickel packages are far more common than dime packages, non-nickel will be used. Furthermore, only teams that use a 4-3 defensive scheme as their base defense will be analyzed because this is the Seahawk's base defense and how players produce within this defense is all we really care about. Additionally, unless otherwise specified, the statistics also factor in post season numbers for the players that made it to the playoffs.

The following statistical analysis will also mainly use tackles as the measurement of production. Unfortunately, tackles on ST will also be factored into the sample because ESPN does not differentiate if a tackle happened from the LOS or on ST. This could lead to some errors in the model but over the course of an entire season, it shouldn't affect the numbers drastically. Also, there is obviously more that LBs do than just tackle - taking on blocks, defending enemies in pass coverage, pressuring the QB and maintaining assignment in run defense are things that don't produce stats but are ways that LBs can impact the game. But ultimately, non-nickel LBs get paid to tackle so that is what the focus will be on.

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In 2012 there were 19 teams in the NFL that predominantly ran a 4-3 defense. In an attempt to best reduce the margin of error due to injuries or to players who were unable to establish themselves as full time starters, the following sample size will only include players that started 9 or more games. In 2012 there were 14 non-nickel LBs that started 9 or more games and played in a 4-3 defense - Akeem Dent, Kelvin Sheppard, James Anderson, Nick Roach, Manny Lawson, Kaluka Maiava, Keith Brooking, DeAndre Levy, Erin Henderson, Dont'a Hightower, David Hawthorne, Rolando McClain, Rocky McIntosh and Leroy Hill.

If based on the snap count data provided by Football Outsiders, statistical data provided by ESPN, and assuming that the non-nickel LBs received the 3rd most defensive snaps for LBs on their team, these 14 players averaged 1 tackle per every 8 plays that they were on the field in 2012. Since these players only played 48% of the defensive snaps on average, non-nickel LBs averaged 1 tackle per every 17 defensive snaps for the entire season.

To put this number in perspective, Bobby Wagner averaged 1 tackle per every 6 defensive snaps and K.J. Wright averaged 1 tackle per every 9 defensive snaps last season. 1 tackle per every 17 plays is slightly less than Brandon Mebane's average of 1 tackle per every 15 defensive snaps. Yes, non-nickel LBs averaged fewer tackles per defensive snap than our NT. No wonder Pete Carroll said that they didn't view a non-nickel LB as a priority in this years' draft.

Furthermore, the Seahawks' defense played 932 snaps last (regular) season. Assuming that things go similarly in 2013 and Smith plays around 50% of these snaps (the same amount Leroy Hill played with the playoffs included), he will only play around 466 snaps next season. This amounts to only 29 snaps a game. If Smith makes a tackle once every 8 snaps that he is on the field, like the average non-nickel LB does, then he only has to make 3-4 tackles a game to be average at his position. This would put Smith anywhere from 48-64 tackles next regular season. To put this number in perspective, Leroy Hill totaled 47 tackles and Richard Sherman totaled 64 tackles last regular season.

Speaking of Hill, he averaged 1 tackle per every 18 defensive snaps last season which is slightly lower than the non-nickel LB average of 1 tackle per every 17 defensive snaps. If every team played as many snaps as the Seahawks did in 2012 and every player retained their tackle rates, Hill's total tackles would have been 3 less than the non-nickel LB average for the entire season. In order for Smith to produce at the tackle rate of the non-nickel LB average, he only has to get 1 more tackle every 5 games than Hill did last year.

Additionally, Smith actually had an above average non-nickel LB tackle rate last season. In 166 defensive snaps, Smith collected 28 tackles. This puts Smith at 1 tackle per every 6 defensive snaps, better than the non-nickel LB average of 1 tackle per every 8 snaps. However, the majority of Smith's tackles came on special teams last season so this statistic is flawed but it may not be too far-fetched of a possibility for Smith to get 3-4 tackles from the LOS next year.

Smith only has to perform at the level of an average non-nickel LB next year because on a defense full of Pro Bowlers and Pro Bowl caliber players, there are plenty of stars than can fly to the ball and make the tackle before Smith. Hill was a slightly below average non-nickel LB last year and the Seahawks still had the best scoring defense in the NFL. Even if Smith produces at a level slightly below than Hill produced last year, the Seahawks will most likely be fine. Chancellor is often in the box, Thomas quickly closes to the ball, Mebane gets a ton of tackles for a DT, and Wagner and Wright both have the skills to make up for an occasional mishap by Smith. If Smith is really bad, the Seahawks could always just play more nickel packages because Antoine Winfield is a beast of a tackler. With all that said, it would certainly be nice if Smith could produce at a level that is average for his position. Can Smith in his prime produce at a level slightly better than a slowed down by injuries and age Hill? With only 3-4 tackles a game necessary, it certainly won't take a lot.

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