Our weekly breakdown of the NFC West moves to the inside linebackers today where the Arizona Cardinals boast two of their most experience and accomplished defenders. Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes have combined to start 124 games for the Cardinals in the past three seasons and they will be a huge key to this defense being an improved unit in 2009. With the loss of Monty Beisel to the Chiefs in the off season, the Red Birds are left without a veteran backup but there is some youth in the pipeline, but how do they compare to the rest of the NFC West?
San Francisco 49ers - Niners Nation
For at least one more season the Arizona Cardinals should boast an inside linebacking crew that well above average, at least as far as the starters are concerned. I say for at least one more season because it's pretty clear that Karlos Dansby is ready and waiting to jump into what he hopes is a very lucrative free agent pool in next year's uncapped NFL. He's quietly become one of the better inside linebackers in the league and there's no reason to think that this season couldn't be his best yet. As you'd expect from an inside backer, Dansby is capable of making plays from sideline to sideline and he can deliver a significant blow once he reaches the ball carrier. What sets him apart from many backers though is his ability to rush the pass just as well as he plays the run or drops into coverage. There are a certain faction of fans that even champion moving him to the OLB spot in the Cardinals new 3-4 defense since he'd likely be the pass rusher on the team from the outside. Despite the backwoods campaign though Dansby isn't moving and the Cardinals are expecting big things out of the 27 year old backer, especially considering that they're paying him almost ten million dollars this season.
The unsung hero of the Cardinals defense for the past several years is Gerald Hayes. Since missing the entire 2005 season with in injury, he's played in 46 of 48 games and averaged 93 tackles per season. He isn't flashy or dynamic but he's the proverbial 'thumper' in the middle of the Cards defense and he'll jar a couple of fumbles loose every season with his punishing hits. He's at his best when he can diagnose a play in front of him and move downhill towards the ball and along the same lines he's a decent pass rusher, although he'll prefer to run over a defender as opposed to running around or spinning around them. He's not necessarily a 'two down' backer but the Cardinals use Adrian Wilson like a linebacker on passing downs so Hayes will come off field at times in those situations. You won't find Hayes on Sportscenter but he's one of the 'glue' guys that hold this defense together.
The Cardinals lost their top backup LB, Monty Beisel, to the Chiefs in free agency so their depth is a bit thin. Ali Highsmith and/or Victor Hobson should get the first shot at backing up Dansby and Hayes. Highsmith, an undrafted rookie last year, showed promise during the preseason last year and was making a name for himself on special teams before a torn ACL ended his season prematurely. The biggest question for him will be his health and how much size he's put on during his first season of professional ball. Hobson is a veteran of the 3-4 defense and had a 100 tackle, six sack season in 2006, but since then he's been cut by the Jets, Patriots and Bengals. He played on the outside in 2006 but the Cardinals think that with his size (6-0, 254) he'll be better utilized on the inside. Also on the radar is Pago Togafua but his lack of size (5-10, 240) suggests that he's nothing more than a special team's contributor. Two undrafted free agents are also in the picture, Reggie Walker and Chase Bullock, but it's hard to tell how much of an impact they will make. With the lack of quality depth anything is possible though.
Overall the Cardinals have a very solid starting duo (dare I say A-range) but the depth leaves quite a bit to be desired. Taking that into consideration I can't go any higher than a grade of B.
The 49ers probably don't have a ton of depth at inside linebacker. However, the players they go with put them in a great position to succeed. The 49ers start Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes at the two inside linebacker positions. If you don't know what Patrick Willis brings to the table, you've missed out on some impressive football. Bamm Bamm (labeled by pre-Ocho Cinco Chad Johnson) is a tackling machine. Obviously he's played with some sorry talent at times, but even still, he set the single season record for tackles as a rookie (since tackles have been recorded). He seems to have a nose for the ball combined with great closing ability. There have been countless instances of Willis tracking down a running back just as they're about to turn the corner for a big gain. That closing ability (and never say die attitude) was shown on a national stage his rookie season when he ran down Cardinals WR Sean Morey in overtime to save a touchdown (leading to a missed Rackers FG). The one area he can improve on is his pass coverage, but even that has been improving. I could write for days about the greatness that is Bamm Bamm, but I'll just leave it with that.
Takeo Spikes was signed at the beginning of training camp last season to compete for the Ted position in the 3-4. The previous Ted had been Derek Smith who put up decent tackling numbers, but was clearly running out of gas when the team drafted Willis. Spikes was coming off a season-ending injury in Philadelphia, but you never would have guessed it by the end of 2008. Spikes tied for second on the team in tackles and was tied for the lead in interceptions (probably not a good thing). He's brought an outspoken veteran leadership to the defense that complements the blue collar quiet leader Justin Smith. Spikes will eventually lose a step or two, but at this point, at the age of 32, he's still running strong. It probably helps that he doesn't have to be the key playmaker. Defenses will game-plan around Willis, leaving Spikes to continue making plays.
There is a significant drop-off after the starters, at least for now. The team drafted Scott McKillop in the fifth round out of Pitt to basically be the Ted linebacker of the future, once Spikes is put out to pasture. I'd imagine 2009 will see McKillop get a lot of time on special teams, and the occasional bit of mop-up duty (hopefully the good kind) on defense. He's a tough tackler who would seem to eventually fit in nicely next to Patrick Willis.
Jeff Ulbrich was going to be given a chance to compete for the starting Ted position last season but never really had the chance once Spikes was brought in. Ulbrich is a senior 49er, entering his 10th season with the team. He actually took a pay cut to avoid getting released, which is important because of his special teams prowess. He's a blue collar linebacker who does the little things for the team. He'll never be a flashy stand-out, but the 49ers don't really need that at this point. Aside from Ulbrich, Ahmad Brooks has spent some time as an inside linebacker, but will likely have his best crack of joining the roster as an outside linebacker. Beyond that, the 49ers have some roster fodder in guys like Mark Washington and Justin Roland; guys who might have a chance at the practice squad, but likely not much else.
The 49ers don't have a ton of depth at inside linebacker. If Patrick Willis were to go down, the team would be in a whole heap load of trouble. Nonetheless, Willis is a tough guy who has played through pain in the past. Additionally, guys like Ulbrich and McKillop will be able to spell an older veteran like Takeo Spikes. That helps the grade, but the talent that is starting for the 49ers alone gives me sufficient reason to grade them out as an A unit.
St. Louis Rams - Turf Show Times
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 off season 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 off season when they announced that Will Witherspoon would be moved back to his natural position on the weak side. 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 strong side, 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.
Vobora and Grant should both make the roster, regardless of who gets the starting job. After those five, the depth chart is rounded out by Quinton Culberson and Chris Chamberlain. Culberson was tapped to start on the strongside at the beginning of last year, but was promptly replaced. He has talent that needs to be honed into a more consistent product. He'll have the chance to do that in camp this year, but if he can't put it together Culberson will be another casualty of regime change. Chamberlain is another seventh round pick from last year. He may get some work in the rotation given his play in coverage, but he'll be counted on to step up his strong special teams play from last year. There are a couple of other names in the mix from undrafted rookie pool, the most intriguing among them being Mississippi State's Dominic Douglas, who led the SEC in tackles last season.
The Rams are in a much better place with their linebackers than they have been in a long, long time, thanks mostly to the addition of Laurinaitis and Witherspoon's move back to his natural spot. There are still very real concerns about depth here, and it would surprise no one to see the team pluck a roster casualty when teams start making cuts this fall. Spagnuolo and Flajole have reputations for finding diamonds in the rough among defensive players and their success with linebackers is being counted upon here.
Seattle Seahawks - Field Gulls
Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu started his career with three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. His fourth season was shot to s--t to by injuries. Tatupu badly bruised his knee in week three of the preseason. At the time the diagnosis was a relief, but a bone bruise is painful and can linger for months. Tatupu was listed as probable for the first two weeks of the season. He broke his thumb against Buffalo and didn't have surgery to repair it until January. As of April 9, 2009, he was still wearing a cast. In week seven at Tampa Bay, Tatupu suffered a concussion in the second quarter and missed the remainder of the game. He played in week eight against San Francisco, but was again forced out of action in the first half. This time Tatupu suffered a strained groin. Tatupu appeared as "questionable" in week nine and didn't play against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the first missed game of his career.
To some-and most confoundingly so-that validated their belief that Tatupu is overrated. It's a label that started at the 2005 NFL Combine. Tatupu measured an eighth of an inch shorter than six feet and weighed a stocky, but small for a linebacker, 238. His forty time, 4.83, is surpassed by some linemen. That led Tim Ruskell's decision to trade up to acquire Lofa Tatupu in the middle of the second round to be widely criticized by draft pundits and those that ape their opinions. His early success and quick fame fueled the backlash.
Now, Pro Bowls are not a particularly keen measure of talent. Many scouts are dubious that Tatupu is an elite middle linebacker. His range isn't exceptional. Even in his better seasons, his tackle numbers are pedestrian and that's always going to be the money number for linebackers. It shouldn't be.
Some players produce tackles all over the field. Others are just cleaning up. Oakland Raiders Kirk Morrison and Gibril Wilson ranked fifth and sixth in total tackles for 2008. Their team ranked first in opponent rushing attempts and 27th in rushing yards allowed per attempt. Their run defense sucked. Morrison and Wilson converted the tackles others didn't.
Tatupu makes productive tackles. He doesn't get too far outside the tackles box, but the ball carrier doesn't get too far from the line of scrimmage either. In 2007, he was involved in 63 fewer plays, but had the same number of defeats* as Patrick Willis: 30. He stopped 66 runs and those runs averaged just 2.2 yards.
Tatupu also excels against the pass. He has nine interceptions and 29 passes defended over four seasons. He is smart and disciplined in a zone and makes up for his average speed with great decision making and precise angles. Tatupu is mostly a support blitzer: Bating the lead blocker or pressuring and sometimes hitting, but rarely converting the sack.
What makes Tatupu special though is his leadership. I shy from celebrating what is often a media creation, but Tatupu isn't a presence or a legend, he's player that smartly audibles stunts, picks out routes and points out plays before they happen. That is, he isn't the kind of leader that contributes swagger, he's the kind that teaches, directs and maximizes the talent around him. Kind of like Mike Singletary...
Mike Singletary the player, that is.
Seattle's depth is debatable. D.D. Lewis is a serviceable starter at all three linebacker positions that has improved as a run stopper and is capable enough in pass pro. David Hawthorne is a hard hitting run stopper that's not yet ready for Sunday. The wild card is Aaron Curry. A player that probably could play middle linebacker in a pinch, and like almost everything football related, would be damn good at it. But no one expects Tatupu to miss time, and so because Seattle is starting a Hall of Fame-potential middle linebacker in his prime, I'm giving the Seahawks an A+ -- rules be damned.
The rankings were tough, as you could imagine, with several high quality linebackers in the division but in the end it came down a neck and neck top two, a close third and a distant fourth.
- San Francisco
- St. Louis
It's a tough competition with Tatupa, Willis and Dansby in the middle but all three are very good linebackers and should have their best days ahead of them. The Cardinals were hurt by a lack up depth but hopefully someone like Highsmith or Hobson can step up and become a dependable third option. How would you have ranked the units? How far would the Cardinals fall without Dansby?