In case you missed the previous roster breakdowns, we've covered the safeties, corners and inside linebackers, take a look and add your two cents the conversation. For the sake of simplicity we'll classify Travis LaBoy and Bertrand Berry as outside linebackers, even though they played a 'hybrid-role' that resembled a defensive end most of the time.
Age and 2008 Stats: 32 years old (3/27/76) - 60 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception
Contract Status: Signed through 2009
2008 Analysis: Okeafor had a decent bounce back season after missing the entire '07 season with a torn bicep. He registered a career high with 60 tackles but his sack total was his lowest since 2001. He started the season quickly with three sacks in his first six games but he recorded just 1.5 in the final ten games of the season. He also recorded a sack in the playoffs and he was decent against the run for most of the season. All in all it wasn't a bad year considering it was his first season to play OLB.
2009 Outlook: The Cardinals face an interesting decision with Okeafor because he'll count over $5 million against the cap in 2009. There have been numerous rumors that Okeafor will be shuffled out the door with Edgerrin James as cap casulties. On one hand his price tag greatly outweighs his level of production but the lack of depth at outside linebacker could force them to retain him for another season. An 'true 3-4' defense could help Okeafor because he'll have a more defined role but the Cardinals will expect more out of him. A starting OLB in a 3-4 defense is the primary pass rush force and 4.5 sacks will not be acceptable.
Age and 2008 Stats: 32 years old (1/10/77) - 19 tackles, 1 sack
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2008 Analysis: Haggans' stat line doesn't do justice to the impact that he had on the 2008 Cardinals. He was a solid contributor on special teams and as a backup to Okeafor. His was hobbled for most of the second half of the season and finally landed on IR shortly before the New England game. He was more productive early in the season when his snaps were limited but once injuries started to strike the OLB's, mainly LaBoy and Berry, his production suffered as his playing time increased.
2009 Outlook: Haggans is an unrestricted free agent but he probably won't get a ton of interest on the free market. I wouldn't be surprised to see him come back on another one year deal with a reasonable price tag, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they just let him walk away. He's a veteran player who brings some intangibles to the table, but his 'on the field' production is easily replaced. The best thing he's got going for him at this point is that he's a 'Whiz guy' who also might benefit from the
traditional 3-4 defense that he was accustomed to in Pittsburgh.
Age and 2008 Stats: 33 years old (8/15/75) - 22 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2008 Analysis: Berry's season can be summed up accurately in one sentance: When he was healthy, he was the best pass rusher on the field. He recorded four sacks in his first four games (missed the Jets and Bills games), but slowed down the stretch as his playing time increased with LaBoy's injury status. He also picked up two more sacks in the post season and was easily the Cardinals most consistent and productive pass rusher.
2009 Outlook: Berry took a pay cut to avoid a possible cut in training camp so it remains to be seen what kind of contract he's looking for in 2009. He's still very good at getting to the quarterback but outside of that he's a fairly limited player. If he's willing to come back as a situational pass rusher on a somewhat similar salary (two million), I could see the Cardinals being very interested in his services, but if he's looking for one final pay day, they'd be better off staying away.
Age and 2008 Stats: 27 years old (8/20/81) - 31 tackles, 4 sacks and 1 forced fumble
Contract Status: Signed through 2012
2008 Anaylsis: Breaking down LaBoy's first season as a Cardinals is almost maddening. He roared out of the gates with 20 tackles and four sacks in the first five games, but limped to the finish line with just 11 tackles and zero sacks the rest of the way. He battled injuries the final ten weeks of the season and never got back the momentum that he gained to open the season. He eventually lost his starting job and was a mere after thought in the playoffs with just two tackles. He had surgery after the Super Bowl to repair a torn bicep that he suffered in the NFC title game.
2009 Outlook: LaBoy will be one of the guys that has to step up in 2009 for the defense be take it to the next level. Assuming that the defense switches to a 3-4, LaBoy will have to learn how to play with his hand off the ground, something he rarely did in 2008 or previously in his career. His ability to stay healthy and productive next season will go a long way to deciding if he lives out the five year contract that he signed a year ago. Another 30 tackle, four sack season will likely end his days as a starter.
Overview and Needs: The Cardinals got decent (at best) production from their outside linebackers in 2008, but if they are serious about becoming a true 3-4 defense, they've got to improve the talent level and depth at the position. With three of the four current members 32 or older and half of them unrestricted free agents, one of biggest priorities in free agency and the draft will have to be adding talented youth to the ranks. With that in mind here are the current free agents at the position, headlined by a guy who should make us all drool:
Terrell Suggs: As outside linebackers go, there are few better than Suggs. He's racked up 53 sacks in his six seasons as a pro, including five seasons with at least 8 sacks, and he's still only 26 years old. He'll command a boat load of money but if the Cardinals are serious about upgrading themselves at OLB, he's best guy on the market by a mile.
- Julius Peppers: Another 'sexy' name like Suggs but Peppers carries more question marks. To start he's never truly played outside linebacker and that's not a transition that's easy to make. In his defense though, Peppers is a physically elite defensive ends who looks like a guy who make the transition. He's 29 years old and has recorded over 10 sacks in five of his seven NFL seasons. He'll also command a mega-contract and could very well be as productive or better than Suggs, but he is a higher risk signing as well.
Marques Harris: Harris is one of the 'under the radar' guys that the Cardinals are better known for pursuing and he might be a decent fit. He's played behind some great OLB's in San Diego and the 27 year old is most likely looking for a chance to compete for a starting job. He's a bit undersized (6'1 231) but he could be the kind of guy that the Cardinals are looking for this off season.
A couple of outside linebackers who aren't familiar with the 3-4:
- Leroy Hill: Hill's recent possession arrest could be enough to keep the Cardinals away but he's still young enough (26 years old) to turn it around. He hasn't been much of a pass rusher for the Seahawks to this point in his career so he might not be a good fit in the 3-4.
- Michael Boley: Boley's another OLB who has played in a 4-3 for most of his career, but he had over 100 tackles and three sacks in 2007 before struggling this past season. He's undersized (6'3 223) but could come cheap if the Falcons don't try to retain him.
The market for 3-4 outside linebackers looks like two big stars and then just a bunch of guys. Whether or not the Cardinals chose to jump into the big-name free agent market could very well shape their strategy for the draft. Who would you rather see lining up at OLB in 2009, Suggs or Peppers? Are there any other guys we should consider at OLB? Is this really a big need?