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Draft Terminology: The "Sam" "Mike" and "Will" Linebackers

Every year as the draft approaches many media outlets either generate or regurgitate content that uses a lot of scouting terminology.

In a short series of posts, I'll explain what some of this terminology means. In this post, I'll cover the "Sam" "Mike" and "Will" linebackers.

This one is really simple, but also simultaneously complex.

"Sam", "Mike" and "Will" are simply men's names that share their first letters with "Strong side", "Middle", and "Weak side."

That's it.

Now, where teams will put each of these players and what they will ask of them are another story. Though some 3-4 teams do use the "Mike", "Will" and "Sam" names to refer to positions in their defenses, using one of those names usually connotes that the player will play in a 4-3. (note: other names for linebackers that might not fit as well with the men's name/first letter scheme are "Joker", "Mac", "Charlie", "Mo", "Jack", "Victor" and "Buck." There are certainly more.)

Before I say a little about what the roles of each linebacker typically are, I'll need to define what is meant by "strong side" and "weak side." The strong side of an offensive formation is the side with more receiving threats, typically the tight end side. If the formation is perfectly balanced, the defense just declares one side the strong side--usually the offense's right. In fact, the strong side of the formation is the offense's right more often than not.


Because the tight end is usually on the strong side, and because the majority of teams are "right handed" running teams, the Sam linebacker is usually a more physical player. Sometimes, teams will want a player who can both stop the run and cover tight ends on an island at this position. Sean Weatherspoon is an example of a strong side LB who can cover TEs very well. Typically when a defense goes to a 4-2-5 Nickel defense, they will take the Sam linebacker off the field and replace him with a defensive back.


The Mike linebacker is almost always the most "pure" linebacker of the group. He is usually the one who makes several calls for the defense. He will often be relaying the front, coverage, any motions by the offense, audibles, or adjustments to the entire defense. He needs to be well-rounded and able to do a variety of things on the field.



The Will linebacker is usually the most athletic of the three linebackers in a 4-3. He usually doesn't have to be as big or physical as the other two because he typically won't see as many immediate blocks from offensive linemen as the Mike or the Sam and because he won't have to deal with a Tight End as often.


Not all teams want the same Sam

Much of what a Sam, Mike, or WIll linebacker will be asked to do in a defense is determined by the team's defensive philosophy and scheme. So the above "types" may not be what the Browns (or any other team) actually want their linebackers to do. Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator famous for his "Tampa-2" defense has this to say about what he wants out of a defense:


While Monte was not referring to the Sam linebacker specifically, you can feel the differences in philosophy between that and what Pete Carrol says about Sam linebackers in his 4-3 Under defense:

The Sam linebacker has to be a good containment player. He has to be big and strong enough to play on the edge of the tight end. He has to be able to run in pass coverage also.

(emphasis added)

So when a media outlet or "draft expert" refers to a player projecting as a Sam, Mike, or Will linebacker, they are likely referring to the archetypical trio and potentially not to how the player will actually line up.

Up next: The "Rush End" and the "Power End", and defensive line versatility.