In my first week on the job as an assistant high school football coach, our head coach told me something that has stuck with me ever since: When trying to find linebackers, we want a kid loyal enough to run through a wall, smart enough to realize he can climb the wall instead and tough enough to blast his way through it any way it takes.
When scouting NFL linebacker prospects, the same principles apply. To be a top-tier player in the pros, you must be strong, smart, instinctual, fast and versatile. When building the perfect NFL linebacker prospect, those are the traits you look for.
Head: Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
There are many great linebackers in the NFL to choose from right now, but when the game is on the line, I want Patrick Willis diagnosing what the offense is doing. You could pick a runner-up and make it Luke Kuechly, but right now, no one touches what Willis does as the captain of the 49ers defense.
Willis is a fantastic athlete, and he's the quickest read-and-react linebacker in the game, too. What he sees on film, practices during the week and prepares for in meetings translates to the field with a very high football IQ. And it's been that way since he was hurting people back at Ole Miss.
Willis is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL right now, so it's an easy pick to make his eyes, ears and brain the top of the ideal linebacker.
Arms: Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Why is arm length important for an NFL linebacker? Keeping blockers off your frame is a must for inside and outside linebackers, and Aldon Smith fits the ideal mold in today's game.
Smith's freakishly long arms (measured 35.375" at the combine) allow him to control blockers because they can't get into his frame. By locking out offensive players with that 35-plus-inch reach, Smith is able to stack and shed the blocker and work through him to the ball and/or the quarterback.
There are other players with good arm and hand use in today's game, but Smith's length, strength and hand speed are tough to beat.
Body: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals
The ideal linebacker carries a thick frame with big shoulders and the width to take on blockers, stuff running backs and still be agile enough to drop into coverage. That's Vontaze Burfict.
The former Arizona State linebacker is built like a house and brings violent power to his hits every time he's around the ball. That's the type of punch you want in the middle of your defense.
Burfict, who weighs 248 pounds at 6'1", has the muscle tone and the naturally thick upper body to handle the punishment of blockers while ripping away from them to make plays on the ball.
Legs: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
NaVorro Bowman may seem like an odd choice given that he's recovering from an ACL tear at this time, but when healthy, he's what every NFL scout wants in a linebacker.
Bowman's agility, smooth hips, quick feet and raw speed have made him into one of the NFL's elite linebackers. He has allowed the 49ers to run nickel coverage the majority of the time without subbing him out; Bowman's so good in coverage, they can keep him on the field like a defensive back.
That smooth movement and speed is ideal for today's spread-out NFL, and no one in the league has the lateral movement to match a healthy Bowman.