Rating the linebacker corps in the NFC West may be the toughest part of this articles series. The division is stocked with middle and outside linebackers. "Rich" is a word that comes to mind as I scan the rosters of the Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams and 49ers.
The Arizona Cardinals are in trouble. Daryl Washington's status for the 2013 NFL season is in jeopardy. His four game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy was followed by being arrested on domestic abuse charges. This is HUGE for a Cardinals team that started 2012 out on a mad win streak, then collapsed due to a woeful offensive line. New head coach Bruce Arians has spent his time trying to shoring up the offense in the off season, so what's happening to Washington is a hammer blow.
The team is toying with converting from a 3-4 to 4-3 defense, and the loss of the start inside linebacker for a protracted period of time may drive the final decision. They drafted Kevin Minter - a standout inside linebacker at LSU - and the pick couldn't have come at a better time. The bad thing is Minter will be expected to fill the void of one of the best linebackers in the NFL, instead of playing by his side to form an incredible middle.
The Cardinal's defense was hard to track, as far as who played where at times. I've credited Sam Acho with a bit of defensive line work, but that had more to do with where I saw him playing on a majority of plays. He's the right outside linebacker in the Arizona 3-4, but he played up on the line, at at times had his hand in the proverbial dirt too. Acho is a third year player coming into his own, and playing on Calais Campbell's side is only going to enhance his career numbers. Zack Nash - the second year left outside linebacker out of Sacramento State - is an unknown quantity. At 6'4" and 260 lbs., he'll have a chance to make a name for himself this season. Outside of five year man Reggie Walker, the Cardinals are thin at linebacker right now. Keep these names in mind: Korey Jones, Dan Giordano, Kenny Demens. They're undrafted free agents signed after the 2013 draft, and at least one of them may have a great shot at starting - not just making the team.
Update: Since this article was written, Karlos Dansby was signed to a 1 year contract by Arizona. He had 134 combined tackles/assists, and 1 sack for Miami in 2012.
Seattle has a young, tough, smart group of linebackers. But an interesting fun fact is all but Ty Powell are 6 feet tall. Their secondary - for the most part - is taller than the linebacker corps. All but Heath Farwell are in their 3rd year or less.
Bobby Wagner is going into his 2nd season after having a monster rookie year - 140 combined tackles and assists, 2 Sacks and 3 INTs. The Utah State linebacker has made a strong argument for being one of the best in the division, if not the NFL. Strong side linebacker K. J. Wright is in his 3rd year, and added 98 combined tackles and assists, 1 INT, and a forced fumble. Add in Farwell, Powell, Mike Morgan, and Malcolm Smith to complete this head turning crew.
This is an aggressive bunch of guys, who come up fast in run support, and have the speed needed in pass coverage in the flats. Wagner's the load-stone of this corp, so if the group has a flaw it's the lack of a player of his caliber to back him up. Few teams stockpile "Wagners", so it isn't all that big an issue.
The Seahawks play a 4-3 defense, and once again this group benefits from having the best secondary in the NFL. They play at least six "in the box" at all times, with Wagner dropping in pass coverage. This crew, and the St. Louis Rams' linebacker corp are very similar in style of play.
Speaking of St. Louis... James Laurinaitis has been the one constant for this linebacker group over the last 3 years. He's seen a whole herd of free agents come in to play next to him since being drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. I'm not sure we've seen what Laurinaitis can actually do? He's spent his time in St. Louis putting out fires created by poor secondaries prior to 2012. There were times you'd see the former Ohio State star playing 7 or 8 yards deep. He's taken heat from Rams fans, but it's hard to blame him for a scheme called by a coach. As the Rams' secondary improves, you'll see Laurinaitis play closer to the line. Still, anyone who thinks his 142 combined tackles and assists, and 2 sacks doesn't rank him among the NFL's elite middle linebackers, is just plain nutty.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar was a surprise find for the Rams last year in free agency. His 114 combined tackles and assists, 4.5 sacks and 2 INTs in 2012 helped Rams fans forget how woeful the team's outside linebacker corps have been in the past few years. New rookie Alec Ogletree is slated to be the last piece in the puzzle for the Rams' defense at linebacker. But until he plays an NFL season, he's an "If". The Rams should have decent depth across the linebacker positions with Josh Hull, Jabara Williams, Sammy Brown, and rookies Phillip Steward, Jonathan Stewart. This unit has the chance to take a giant leap this season.
San Francisco has "THE CREW". They have double All-Pro inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and a way underrated Ahmed Brooks at left outside linebacker Add in sack machine Aldon Smith - who plays a hybrid OLB/DE - and they form the best linebacker foursome in the NFL. They have depth other teams can only dream about, and they added two undrafted rookies to dial up the competition in training camp.
The 49ers defense is predicated on alternating pressure up the middle on passing down, and the abilities of Willis and Bowman to slide to either side of the "nose" and defensive tackles in run defense. They succeed in run defense because there really isn't a next level for an offensive line to attack, since the defense converges from basically two units on each side of the line. They need great play from the nose and defensive tackles to blunt and react to the direction of the ball. If there's a potential problem it will come from replacing Ricky Jean-Francois, who provided quality depth behind Isaac Sopoaga. I doubt it though. This team uses a ton of roster spots to insure layered depth.
My linebacker ranking for the NFC West:
|#1||San Francisco 49ers|
|#2||St. Louis Rams|
I can hear Arizona and Seattle fans screaming, but hear me out. First, the Cardinals would be higher on this list if the Daryl Washington questions were answered. The idea Kevin Minter can fill his shoes as a rookie is tough at best, not to mention the complete lack of position depth on the roster. They may need to shift to a 4-3 out of necessity, and that's not the best situation. Seattle has a great crew, but I gave the Rams the nod based on experience, and the flat out promise of Ogletree's sideline to sideline speed. He's going to bump up the Rams pass rush in a way no one in Seattle's linebacker crew can claim. Laurinaitis and Wagner are comparable, so I see the the other position measurables leaning in St. Louis' favor in the short term. If the Rams had reliable safeties, there wouldn't be a question here. Laurinaitis will still be bolstering the secondary a bit in 2013, but not as much as he has in the past. Do I really have to mention why the 49ers are ranked #1 at linebacker?