Next in this series, I'd like to take on the Middle Linebacker position. While trying to decide upon the 2nd need of our Rams, I found that it really starts to get muddy about right here. There seems to be a thousand directions the team can go and it seems like everything is dependent upon something else. There's no guarantee the Rams will select an Offensive Tackle with their first pick. Don't believe me? Just take a look at what the experts think. Those mock drafts seem to change every day. So, we flipped a coin and we're going to be looking at the Mike Position after the break.
Going in to this past season, I felt we had a pretty decent linebacking corps until I read this in ESPN The Magazine.
The front seven lacks bulk at the point of attack, but a bigger problem is lack of talent at LB. This is the worst linebacker unit in the NFL. After MLB Will Witherspoon, no one scares opponents.
Apparently I had been living in a dreamworld because I felt (like many other Rams fans, I presume) that Linebacker might actually be a point of strength on a rather un-spectactular defensive unit. As it turns out, I think The Magazine was much more accurate in their analysis than was I and I'm man enough to admit it.
I think it's pretty safe to say there is some talent, but it might be mis-utilized as the unit is currently constructed. Witherspoon is probably mis-cast as a MIddle Linebacker so the best case scenario would be to lock that position down with a big dude allowing 'Spoon to move back to the weakside.
With this in mind, let's look at who we have under contract.
Will Witherspoon - Signed through 2011 - 2009 salary $2.5M - Cap Count $5M - According to this, it looks as if moving WW to Will is a priority for the team.
David Vobora - Contract info eludes me - Played in 8 games last year recording 15 tackles (10 solo). Is probably undersized (6'1" 236) to play Mike.
- Gary Stills - I'm not sure if he's under contract - Played 14 games mostly on special teams. Was put on IR in December to remove bone chips. Stills will be 34 next year and might be useful on ST.
So, as we all knew, if the team moves 'Spoon to Will, his replacement isn't on the roster. This makes MLB an extremely important position to fill this offseason so let's see who's available.
Ray Lewis - Baltimore Ravens - Some doubt Ray will leave the Ravens, but there has been rumors the Cowboys (read: Jerry Jones) is extremely interested in the big guy, however that has been reported as "completely innacurate". Although, it's been rumored that Mr. Jones has said he would guarantee $25M over 3 years. Could also sign with the Jets to re-unite with Rex Ryan.
- Karlos Dansby - Arizona Cardinals - Has begun negotiations with the Cardinals and is seeking $42M over 6 years.
- Eric Barton - New York Jets - Is expected to hit the FA market whether or not the Jets sign Ray Lewis. Had 119 tackles last year (93 solo) and had a strong year overall. Should probably get offers from a number of teams so bidding could drive his price up.
- Mike Peterson - Jacksonville Jaguars - Is getting old (34) but is still a top MLB when healthy. With health and age concerns, he might be had for a reasonable price.
- Jonathan Vilma - New Orleans Saints - Vilma is young and good but a problem arose 2 weeks ago when Vilma was arrested in Miami for "resisting arrest". This setback hasn't deterred Saints DC Gregg Williams who is campaigning to re-sign the Backer.
Channing Crowder - Miami Dolphins - Dolphins are letting him walk looking to bulk up at MLB. At 6'2" 245, Crowder looks to have the girth to fill the middle so I'm not sure what the deal is. The team reportedly low-balled him a while back and the relationship has soured. Recorded 113 tackles last season (92 solo), forced 1 fumble, and deflected 6 passes. He might be worth looking at especially for the price. Has had knee isssues in the past and lacks big play-making abiltiy. By the way, Crowder received what some might consider a half-hearted contract offer on Monday leading Matty I at Phinsider to the conclusion that Crowder's seen his last days with Miami.
Obvioulsy, Ray Lewis would be an amazing addition to the unit, but that's not going to happen. As reported here, the Rams are a little short on cap space, so adding any FA starter is going to take some creativity. If I were Billy Devaney, I'd focus my FA MLB seach on Eric Barton, Mike Peterson, and Channing Crowder. Barton's price tag may elevate quickly out of the Rams budget, but Peterson and Crowder could both come at a reasonable price.
So, depending on what happens here, we'll shift our focus to the draft to see if there are any guys that might make better sense than going the free agent route.
(Click the player's name to read Mocking Dan's Scouting Report on each player over at Mocking The Draft)
Aaron Curry - Wake Forest - 6'3" 247 - 2nd overall might be a bit high to draft Curry but trading down a couple spots (especially if KC or Seattle is willing to pony up for Crabtree) could result in an additional high 2nd rounder and a darn good MLB. Curry has a knack for the big play in recording 101 tackles (15 for loss), 3 pass deflections, 3 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, and 1 INT.
Rey Maualuga - USC - 6'2" 254 - Impressed at the Senior Bowl and showed speed and good hands. Has had issues in the past with wrapping up and getting out of position. Look at Maualuga the same way as Curry. The Rams would have to trade down and could pick up an extra 2nd Round Top 10 pick.
Larry English - Northern Illinois - 6'2" 254 - English has been profiled here on TST and here's the latest on English from Mad.Mike at Red and Black Attack. While he'd have to make a position change (he's a great fit physically for MLB), there is some question as to whether or not he can do it. Some believe he is a better fit on the outside (Line or Backer positions) so trading down and using your 1st round pick on a "project" might not be the best use of resources. I think even if you get him in the 2nd round, he's a stretch as a MLB and just to confirm, I spoke with Mad.Mike about the switch. He doesn't see the benefit and thinks you take away from English's natural talent which is speed rushing past Offensive Tackles.
- James Laurinaitis - Ohio State - 6'3" 240 - Laurinaitis probably falls into a part of the 1st round where it might not make sense for the Rams to trade down to but after Laurinaitis, MLB starts to get thin. He's one of the best cover LBs in the draft.
- Scott McKillop - Pitt - 6'2" 240 - After Laurinaitis, the Rams would probably have to wait until their 3rd round pick and a guy like McKillop would be the type of guy who would be available. He's a hard worker and has become a top LB in a relatively short amount of time. He struggled a bit in Senior Bowl practice in getting to the edge but performed well in coverage.
Here's a little more info on some of these MLB prospects as put together by VanRam. He's also included Jasper Brinkley and Daniel Holtzclaw in his analysis.
After McKillop, there probably aren't any more potential 1st year starters at the MLB position. With the Rams draft position and cap situation, it makes it extremely difficult to fill that need and move Witherspoon to the outside. However, depending on how things go with free agency, it is possible the Rams could be looking for a MLB in the 4th round or later. Here's some guys you might see available.
- Derry Beckwith - LSU - 6'1" 233 - He would probably have to bulk up a little to stick in the inside, but he was a finalist for the Dick Butkis Award and Mocking Dan feels he's an "all-around linebacker who can play the middle or weak-side".
Worrell Williams - Cal - 5'11" 242 - He's a tad on the short side and unfortunately you can't improve upon that in the weight room but he's sturdy and has played well in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 system.
Acquiring a MLB is going to take some creativity no matter how you slice it. In my opinion, Devaney has some choices. He can either sink all of his FA flexibiltiy into acquiring a guy like Eric Barton or he can prepare to trade down and add draft picks (hopefully a good 2nd rounder) to help fill the roster with rookies.
Then again, he could go and sign a guy like Mike Peterson, who he might be able to get rather cheaply, and hope he lasts at least a year covering our middle OR he could go and sign Channing Crowder who is young and could provide some stability to the middle of the linebacking corps.
There are lots of options here, and a lot of it depends on how other dominos start to fall. Devaney must be aggressive and decisive here because falling behind could eliminate a course of action or two.