Today we move to the outside linebackers. To date, we've addressed inside/middle linebacker, defensive end, defensive/nose tackle, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, centers, offensive tackles, guards and total offense. While every team will usually roll out two OLBs, the 3-4/4-3 difference still has an effect on things. For the 49ers, the outside linebackers are a mix of production and potential. And yet, even that production comes with question marks. As my rundown shows, I think at the end of the 2009 season the results could end up anywhere on the spectrum from great to blah. For the rankings, the Rams description is the same from last week (combining all LBs), so without a grade I went with 3rd for now.
Leroy Hill struggles in zone coverage. He’s an after the fact tackler that is lucky to track down whatever receiver just blew by him. He hasn’t has been a consistent pass rusher since his rookie season, and though that might be because boneheadedness on John Marshall’s part, it might be that like Lofa Tatupu, he can’t find gaping inside rush lanes absent monstrous Marcus Tubbs. Hill has missed time every season since his rookie season with injuries.
Aaron Curry is a rookie. Even given the better than average success NFL GM’s enjoy drafting linebackers, first overall linebackers have less than a 60% chance of ever making a Pro Bowl (http://www.advancednflstats.
Both are monster run stoppers. Not tackle – tackle – tackle run stoppers, but jam the fullback into his locker, atomic wedgie the tight end and rip through the ball for a loss of four…teeth, run stoppers.
Both shutdown the screen pass and make a fumble as likely as a completion.
Both have rare closing speed, good agility, sound and sometimes punishing tackling technique and good field awareness.
Curry has the skills and tools to be Lance Briggs caliber pass defender.
Hill has the skills and tools to be a Chad Brown caliber pass rusher.
But there’s still too much locked into potential and not enough known about how they will be played and how they will develop, so though Hill and Curry comprise the most talented duo of outside linebackers in the entire NFL, they are not yet an "A", they are a "B" with crazy upside.
D.D. Lewis, David Hawthorne, Will Herring and Lance Laury make up the depth we know. I’ve spoken of Lewis and Hawthorne. Herring is a former safety that’s a linebacker electron. His speed and agility give him potential as a coverage specialist, but he needs to add bulk and strength to not be a liability against the run. I’m not sure Laury makes the team.San Francisco 49ers
In a division trademarked for its linebackers, the St. Louis Rams were embarrassingly substandard last year, thanks to poor decision making that left Will Witherspoon in the middle and arrogantly allowed an emerging Brandon Chillar to flee for greener, more frozen pastures. Addressing the situation at linebacker has been a top offseason priority for the defensive-minded new regime led by head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole.
The Rams made their first big move of the offseason when they announced that Will Witherspoon would be moved back to his natural position on the weakside. That move was deemed so important, it happened before the free agent free for all and well ahead of the draft. The move will free up the athletic Witherspoon from having to take on huskier linemen and lead blockers in the middle, where he was long miscast with the Rams. Besides giving the team a more effective LB in coverage and pursuit, Witherspoon's presence on the outside gives them another threat to rush the passer. He won't likely top his career high 7 sacks from 2007, but he'll get plenty of work in the attack-first system. He's also being reunited with Ken Flajole, his linebackers coach with the Panthers.
The Rams have desperately needed a true middle linebacker and snagged their man, James Laurinaitis, with their second round pick. He has the size and ability to read and react well to action in the gaps in front of him, and displayed real talent against the run and in coverage. Most importantly, Little Animal has the intelligence and football acumen to be the "field general" that Spagnuolo has traditionally asked his middle linebackers to play. Laurinaitis won't be known for bone crushing hits like Rey Maualuga, the other top MLB in this year's draft, but he's a solid tackler and a tough player. Lots of draft pundits felt like NFL success early on was a realistic expectation for Laurinaitis. He's currently working out with the second team, but no one expects him to stay there. Early reports have been very positive.
On the strongside, the picture gets muddled after the release of Pisa Tinoisamoa, deemed a less-than-perfect fit for the new defensive scheme. Though Pisa was a contributor, it's easy to forget that he battled consistency from week to week and often had trouble with blown gap assignments and bigger, more physical blockers. Right now, three players are vying for the SLB spot in the starting lineup. Veteran Chris Draft tops the list at the moment, but his ability to play all three positions likely keeps him in the all-important utility role. Larry Grant, a 49ers cast off picked up to bolster special teams last year, is another candidate for the job thanks to an impressive work ethic (a commodity valued immensely by the new coaching staff), a good spring and strong, yet unheralded performances with the team last year. Don't discount the something-to-prove factor at play here as Grant gets the chance to see the 49ers twice a year. He was also a teammate of Laurinaitis at Ohio State. The third entrant in the SLB sweepstakes is last year's Mr. Irrelevant, David Vobora. The former Idaho Vandal saw action on special teams last year and in the LB rotation for 8 games. He ended up starting a game down the stretch - partly for an audition, partly out of need - and racked up 5 tackles, 4 solo, in a tight game against the Dolphins.
Much like the Niners, the Arizona Cardinals boast above average starts at inside linebackers and meagerly mention their outside linebackers. The Cardinals OLB's certainly have experience on their side but that also means that the clock is ticking against these 30-something's.
The projected starters are 33 year old Chike Okeafor and 32 year Clark Haggans. Together they've appeared in 255 games in this league and recorded 82 sacks but Okeafor spent the entire 2007 season on the IR and Haggans finished the 2007 season on the IR. In the 2008 season the two combined for a grand total of 5.5 sacks which is not exactly what you're looking for in a pair of OLB's in a 3-4. The Cardinals hope is that a return the aggressive, attacking style particulary with Okeafor will result in an uptick in his sack totals. If both Okeafor and Haggans can stay healthy, the hope is that they can approach 15 sacks combined with guys like Darnell Docket, Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson and the backups (conviently listed below) picking up the slack.
The primary backup should be second round pick Cody Brown, formerly of the University of Connecticut. Few question Brown's abilty to rush the passer, but it's pretty universally accepted that it takes a full year to grasp the responsibilities of the position as a whole. That should leave Brown in the same boat as veteran pass rusher Bertrand Berry. Both excel at rushing the passer but would appear to have a hard time playing a complete OLB this season. The result, at least right now, appears to be two players who are basically situational pass rushers, but in that role could rack up between four and six sacks. Further down the depth chart is sixth round selection Will Davis who has proven to be quite an interesting prospect. A former wide receiver turned defensive end turned defensive tackle (after injuries by others at Illionos), Davis has the physical ability to play almost anywhere on the field but he's raw and would most likely need a solid camp to make the roster.
Sadly thats the entirety of the depth at outside linebacker, Three veterans trying avoid the 'washed up' label and two rookies hoping that potential isn't the only thing in their bag of tricks. Maybe the Cardinals strike gold and their veterans stay healthy while Brown and Davis come along slowly or maybe the kids get thrust into the fire before they are ready. I could easily see the Cardinals outpeforming this grade by a mile but realistically, I can't go much higher than D.