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What Steve Spagnuolo looks for when acquiring linebackers

Craig takes a deeper look into the types of linebacker Spagnuolo has fielded in his coaching career.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs linebacking corps needs to be infused with a little bit more athleticism. General manager Brett Veach and company have spent assets in each of the last two offseasons trying to add a true pursuit linebacker. In 2018, they added Dorian O’Daniel to the mix as a potential coverage linebacker option with a third-round pick. In 2019, they added Darron Lee via trade with the New York Jets.

Unfortunately, neither provided the spark that Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense were looking for on the field. Spagnuolo instead chose to line Damien Wilson as the WILL linebacker — moving from the SAM spot he occupied early in the year — and inserted Reggie Ragland into the lineup at SAM. The result was a slower linebacking corps that was taken advantage of in the passing game and stretch runs throughout sections of the 2019-20 season.

With the draft quickly approaching and combine testing underway, I thought I’d take a look at Spagnuolo’s linebacker groups throughout the years to find some key traits he’s looking for, some of the testing numbers that may be of significance and some potential thresholds for keen-eyed Chiefs fans to watch for this week in Indianapolis.

The data

To begin, I only included time when Spagnuolo was a linebackers coach, defensive coordinator or head coach.

That means I excluded his time in Baltimore as a defensive assistant and all of his time prior to his promotion to linebackers coach for the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles. The only exception was his one year as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator — a time where he didn’t get to run his scheme nor attempt to acquire his players.

I only included players that got a significant chance to play — either starting three games or more in a season or playing in 11 games in a season. These players were starting linebackers, primary backups that got playing time due to injury or rotation or those that were consistently on the active roster for the majority of the season. When that was all totaled, I was left with a group of 41 linebackers to compare. 36 of those 41 had testing numbers available for comparison.

One of the biggest attributes I noticed was how heavy his linebackers typically weigh. The 41 linebackers averaged 239.85 pounds, well over the typical average of today’s average linebacker combine weight. What was even more surprising was that there were only five linebackers under 230 pounds in the group: Nate Wayne, Chris Chamberlain, Jonathan Casillas, Keith Adams and Dorian O’Daniel. Additionally, Casillias was the only player actually brought in during Spagnuolo’s tenure, as the rest were on the roster prior to his hire/promotion.

The weight of his linebackers hasn’t changed much throughout the years, either. After his head coaching gig with the St. Louis Rams fell through, Spagnuolo took some time off from being a coordinator. He reevaluated his approach and returned to a faster game in 2015 with the New York Giants. Since that breakover point, Spagnuolo has still fielded an average weight of 238 pounds at linebacker. Even the 2019 Chiefs were a little heavy at 236.5 pounds — and that’s with O’Daniel listed at 220 pounds, prior to adding some bulk to play in Spagnuolo’s scheme.

Moving to testing data shows the expected result of fielding a heavier linebacking corps. The average Spagnuolo linebacker runs an average of 4.68 seconds in their 40-yard dash and 4.25 seconds in their short shuttle. That’s at the absolute upper boundary of league-functional at their position, according to Gil Brandt’s chart shown above. If we limit it to the linebackers fielded from 2015 to the present, it actually gets worse — moving to a 4.69-second 40-yard dash and a brutal 4.32-second short shuttle on average.

Only seven of the 36 tested linebackers were under a 4.6-second 40-yard dash: Darron Lee, Jonathan Casillas, Na’il Diggs, former AP contributor Shawn Barber, Matt McCoy, David Vobora and Brady Poppinga.

Every single one of these players was obtained during Spagnuolo’s tenure. He inherited none of them when hired/promoted to his position.

Spagnuolo also typically doesn’t value explosion at the position, opting for linebackers with a 34-inch vertical jump on average — below Brandt’s 36-inch outside linebacker threshold, but just above the 33-inch inside linebacker threshold. His post-2015 linebackers are once again worse in this metric, averaging a 33-inch vertical jump. Of the seven players above the Brandt outside linebacker threshold — Gerris Wilkinson, Will Witherspoon, Omar Gaither, Barber, Kawika Mitchell, Damien Wilson, and Mark Simoneau — Spagnuolo has acquired four in his tenure.

The final metric we’ll look at is bench press — one that Spagnuolo’s linebackers should perform well in theory, being bigger/heavier players. Unfortunately, they fall short in that metric as well. Spagnuolo’s linebackers averaged 22.5 bench press reps — below Brandt’s 23 and 24 minimum targets for linebackers — and 22.14 after 2015. The trends follow above tests, as Spagnuolo acquired seven of the 10 players above the 24 rep threshold in his tenure.

What does it mean?

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Spagnuolo has typically fielded heavier, slower, less explosive, weaker linebackers in his time with input in the position. We saw that manifest on the field in 2019, even if it ultimately didn’t cost them a championship.

However, it hasn’t been for lack of an investment that the athleticism at the position is poor. Only 17 of the 41 players that got significant snaps at linebacker under Spagnuolo came from a previous regime. With Spagnuolo’s input, his teams have drafted, signed and traded for 24 of the 41 linebackers compared. Eight of those 24 came via the draft, with only one significant addition coming as an undrafted free agent in Uani Unga. These 24 players averaged a slightly faster 40-yard dash and short shuttle, a better vertical and more bench press reps than their previously-contracted counterparts.

Spagnuolo has also attempted to find value in the WILL linebacker position as the game has evolved. Adding Casillas to the 2015 Giants defense gave Spagnuolo some speed to counter running backs and tight ends in the passing game — as well as adding a true pursuit linebacker to the front. While Casillas would swap out on some early downs against heavy personnel, his impact as a coverage-and-chase linebacker was massive.

When Spagnuolo arrived in Kansas City, he had Dorian O’Daniel already on the roster to attempt to fill that role. It became apparent that the fit wasn’t quite right for O’Daniel, and the Chiefs traded for Darron Lee to fill that role. Unfortunately, the rigors at the position were a bit too much — Spagnuolo asks for his linebackers to be gap sound and have a high IQ — and the linebacking corps reverted to a less athletic group.

I do think that the Chiefs will once again attempt to add to the position, and I think they’ll attack the WILL linebacker role specifically. With Spagnuolo’s tendency toward heavier linebackers, look for players to cross over the 230-pound threshold for weight. I expect him to target a player that runs a sub 4.65-second 40-yard dash, under 4.25-second short shuttle, and an over 33-inch vertical jump as well. There have been 12 such players in the last three draft classes that have attended the combine, with only three going in the first round.

The Chiefs may have to be proactive in getting “their linebacker” in this draft, but this weekend’s testing may show some diamonds in the rough that the Chiefs could target and still hit Spagnuolo’s thresholds.

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