It's a quality that has moved close to the top of the priority list for outside linebackers in the NFL. Clubs will always be looking for OLBs that can rush the passer, but with the explosion of spread offenses in the league, linebackers that can cover are more in demand than ever. The Bills are a team that's in need of such players at that position, especially with the recent release of veteran Nick Barnett and Bryan Scott set to become a free agent.
"We've got seven guys and obviously we'd like to add two or three guys, but we also want to get, whether you're talking 3-4 or 4-3, whatever it is we're still down two or three in numbers and we're going to try to remedy that," said Bills GM Buddy Nix.
Fortunately the spread attacks in college have forced the hands of defensive coordinators to move players from their defensive backfield closer to the ball to have three down linebackers that offer cover skills. In this year's draft class there are three such linebackers, who began their career as safeties.
Georgia's Alec Ogletree is the most highly rated linebacker that comes from a safety background as he's been forecast as an early first-round draft choice. A converted strong safety Ogletree made the move to inside linebacker look easy.
"I've only been playing linebacker two years. It was a great transition for me at Georgia," Ogletree said. "We were in a 3-4 and while playing my freshmen year as a safety, I was basically able to learn the defense. With the move in the spring to linebacker basically helped me stay on top of things. The safety works closely with the linebackers. We had a great coach in Kirk Olivadotti. He taught me a lot and I've just been working at it."
This past season was a breakout campaign for Ogletree with 111 tackles including 11.5 for loss, six pass breakups, an interception and three sacks. Knowing a skill set like his is in demand in the NFL only gives him confidence.
"It makes me feel good. I'm very comfortable with my skills," he said. "I think I'm very versatile. I can come off the edge or play in the middle. It doesn't really matter. I can cover and come up against the run and hit. I can just fill the gap."
Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene, seen as a second-round prospect and Southern Mississippi's Jamie Collins, a projected third-rounder, made successful transitions as well.
Greene had led the Scarlet Knights in interceptions in each of his first two seasons as a safety, so he was caught off guard when he was asked to move to linebacker.
"My redshirt-sophomore year, I was 228 playing safety," said Greene. "Coach brought me down in springtime and said, 'We want to get some speed in different areas of the defense, so we're thinking about moving you to Will and moving a different guy to safety.' At first, I was kind of selfish because I really liked playing safety. So I was iffy about it, but we came to an agreement. Coach told me to try it for a week. And after the second day I fell in love with it. It was a blessing in disguise for me to play linebacker in college."
Greene led the Big East in tackles each of the past two seasons after moving to linebacker earning back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors, but was effective in coverage as well.
"It helps me from the fact that I have coverage skills, that's something that just comes natural to me," said Greene. "I can work on my coverage skills, but they're definitely there already. It's not something I have to work hard to develop or anything like that."
Collins also moved closer to the ball from safety for his final two collegiate seasons and never felt out of place.
"It wasn't hard. I just put my mind to it," Collins said. "Anything for my team no matter what position it is I just knew I had to do it. I just put my mind to it and I did it."
His junior season he was used more as an edge pass rusher finishing 10th in the nation in tackles for loss with 19.5 and had a 97-yard interception return. He then racked up 10 sacks this past season, but prefers to play a true outside linebacker role instead of a pass rush specialist.
"Outside backer is my most natural fit because I don't like maybe rushing all the time, but I like showing my athletic skills by dropping and covering," he said. "I have the skills. I've played safety so I have the footwork and skills to cover guys in the slot. So by playing linebacker I can do both. I feel like on first and second down I can drop and third down I can rush the passer."
Greene said teams have told him they see him primarily as a weakside linebacker in a 3-4. Only now in attending the NFL Combine does he fully realize what a benefit switching positions was for his career.
"I don't know where I'd be right now if I stayed at safety," he said. "I don't know if the opportunity to contribute in the way that I did at Rutgers would have come about. But I'm definitely blessed and I'm glad (former) coach (Greg) Schiano saw something in me that I didn't see in myself and made the switch."