Our division preview moves to the outside linebackers today and after seeing how strong the division was at inside linebacker with the likes of Lofa Tatupa, Patrick Willis and Karlos Dansby, we were expecting big things. The Cardinals outside linebackers are tough to analyze because this should be the first year in a true 3-4 defense, meaning that guys like Chike Okeafor, Bertrand Berry and a couple of rookies will be learning on the fly. Still though there is quite a bit of experience talent at the position but how do they measure up to their NFC West rivals?
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 particularly 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 (conveniently 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 ability 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 Illinois), 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 that's 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 out preforming this grade by a mile but realistically, I can't go much higher than D.
Whereas the 49ers have established, proven talent at inside linebacker, the outside linebackers bring a mix of production and question marks. I would argue the 49ers outside linebackers could end up just about anywhere on the spectrum from crap to great and it wouldn't surprise me at this point.
Parys Haralson was by far the most productive OLB for the 49ers last season, leading the team with 8 sacks. While Nolan was running things Haralson would get jerked on and off the field and was not getting consistent playing time until Singletary took over. The question surrounding Haralson is what kind of development the 49ers will see in 2009. Haralson is entering his 4th season and has shown continued improvement each year as a pass rusher. If he continues to improve the 49ers will move towards a more consistent overall pass rush. Part of that of course depends on the development of....
Manny Lawson. I would not categorize Manny Lawson as a bust or even a disappointment at this point. Drafted the same year as Haralson, only as a first round pick, Lawson has had a rather tumultuous first three seasons. He had a decent enough first year before getting knocked out for the season with a nasty knee injury in practice after week 2 of the 2007 campaign. He was back last season but lacked some of the burst and athleticism fans were expecting. And of course there was Mike Nolan's ridiculous use of the Big Sub defense that sometimes involved Manny Lawson spending most of a game on special teams. Up to this point Lawson has shown he can handle the coverage duties of a linebacker, usually ending up covering the opposing tight end. He has not been given nearly as much responsibility in the pass rush game. Mike Singletary has said that will change this season and Lawson get his chance to rush the passer. The ball is officially in Lawson's court to make something happen. I think no matter what Lawson's numbers will go up simply because of increased opportunities. The question is whether he will become the second pass rusher the 49ers need.
The 49ers depth at outside linebacker is a mix of production and potential. The three primary backups competing for roster spots are Marques Harris, Ahmad Brooks and Jay Moore. Harris played in San Diego under then linebackers coach Greg Manusky (now 49ers DC). He's a pass rush specialist who will get a long look given the fact that Manusky was comfortable bringing him up here. Brooks is a guy most agree is immensely talented, but also a head case of sorts. He can play some as an ILB, but will get his chance at legit playing time as an OLB. Moore is a guy the 49ers drafted in 2006 as a defensive end out of Nebraska that they intended to convert to a pass rushing OLB. Unfortunately he's gotten hurt in the preseason each of the last two seasons and spent the seasons on injured reserve. I have an affinity for Moore that really has no basis in reality, so I'm rooting for him. Due to practice squad eligibility, I wouldn't be surprised to see him end up there.
As I mentioned initially, the 49ers could run the spectrum of production this season at outside linebacker. They've had production from Haralson, but how this unit grades out at the end of the season will depend a lot on what Manny Lawson brings to the table in the pass rush. Accordingly, I'm splitting the difference for now and giving the unit a C, but expecting so much more.
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.
The easy answer is "A". A sub-Pro Bowl starter in his prime, Leroy Hill, and a once in a generation talent at linebacker, Aaron Curry - that's got to be an "A".
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.com/2009/04/drafting-linebackers.html). They have a less than 40% chance of ever making two Pro Bowls. Curry wasn't highly recruited out of high school and wasn't a standout throughout his college career. He was an amazing senior and his stock exploded after an amazing Combine. He was never a great pass rusher at Wake Forest. Curry is projected to be a good pass rusher, but projections that don't accord with reality have a way of disappointing. He's a little stiff in his swivel and though much younger, probably less agile than departed Seahawk Julian Peterson.
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.
After seeing how strong the division was at inside backer, it's surprising to see how many question marks each team has at outside linebacker. The Niners and Cardinals are making the 3-4 transition, the Hawks are counting on an awful lot from a rookie and the Rams are playing musical chairs. Where would you rank the Cardinals OLB's and how good do you think they can be?