Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a look at the talent in the NFC West and seeing how the Rams match up. Today we look at the linebackers.
Though several key losses weaken the divisional talent at the position, the NFC West is still a division that is filled with talented linebackers. With each team running distinctly different defensive schemes, the linebackers’ roles vary highly, but all in all a safe argument can be made that the West has the most linebacking talent of any division in the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers could be without two of their best linebackers to start the year, but they probably have the best talent at the position overall. Their best at the position, NaVorro Bowman—arguably the best player on the 49ers’ team and perhaps the best inside linebacker in the NFL—is expected to miss the first half of the season after suffering a torn ACL in the NFC Championship Game this past January. In his absence, former undrafted free agent Michael Wilhoite will assume a starting role. The 27-year-old had 34 tackles last season while seeing his first extended action.
Luckily for the 49ers, however, they’ll still have one of the best inside linebackers in the league opposite Wilhoite in eighth-year veteran Patrick Willis. While Willis’s production hasn’t been as great over the past few years while Bowman has surpassed him, Willis can still be a very effective player. He’s an incredibly hard hitter and has enough athleticism to handle whatever area he’s asked to.
It’s also possible that rookie third-rounder Chris Borland could see some action from scrimmage in Bowman’s absence. Borland is undersized, but many feel that he can be an effective NFL player because of the innate playmaking ability he displayed during his college career at Wisconsin.
On the outside, the Niners will rely on the pass-rushing expertise of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith, one of the most talented young pass rushers in the league, may face a suspension this year following offseason legal issues. The 49ers were weakened by Smith’s absence last year when he left the team and entered rehab, and losing him again will undoubtedly be a challenge. Smith, who had double-digit sacks during his first two seasons, is probably the only player who can challenge the Rams’ Robert Quinn as the division’s best pass rusher.
Brooks isn’t quite as dominant of a rusher as Smith, but he’s still an impact player. He had a career-high 8.5 sacks last year, and he’ll hope to increase that mark this year despite the fact that he’s hit the dreaded 30-year-old plateau. Assuming Smith is suspended to begin the year, Brooks will be the Niners’ featured pass rusher, but he’ll be counting on backups Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier to give him some help as well.
The Seattle Seahawks also have a dominant group of linebackers, led by middle ‘backer Bobby Wagner and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith. Wagner, a third-year player who is one of the best inside linebackers in the league in his own right, will look to be a prolific tackler once again. He’s had 260 tackles over his first two seasons, and another dominant season would solidify him as one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
Smith hadn’t had an overwhelming impact prior to the Super Bowl this past February, but he certainly had a performance for the ages with 10 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. We’ll see if the undersized linebacker can carry that dominance over into the regular season this year.
Seattle also has the unique “Leo” position, which is somewhat of a hybrid between a linebacker and defensive end. Former first-rounder Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks as a rookie before turning into more of a run-defender during his sophomore season, is expected to fill the role. He’s coming off hip surgery, though, so he could miss a few games at the beginning of the year. If that’s the case, O’Brien Schofield will replace him.
The St. Louis Rams could be developing a dominant group of linebackers as well, with James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree both having had great seasons in 2013. The 22-year-old Ogletree had 117 tackles as a rookie, and he’ll look to continue to improve on that in his second year. The special thing about Ogletree is that he’s also so dynamic in coverage and can fly around the field. If he continues to progress, Ogletree could be one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the league very quickly.
While Laurinaitis failed to lead the Rams in tackles for the first time since 2008, he was still very solid, registering 116 tackles and a career-high 3.5 sacks. He doesn’t bring offensive players down at quite the rate that Bowman, Willis, or Wagner do, but Laurinaitis is a more-than-effective option in the middle.
The Rams also have Jo-Lonn Dunbar back as their strong-side linebacker, though he may not get a whole lot of field time, as the Rams will probably use their nickel defense more often than not. Though Dunbar struggled last year, he could be an impact player if he returns to his 2012 form, when he had 115 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Due to the loss of star inside linebacker Daryl Washington to a year-long suspension for drug use, the Arizona Cardinals have the most unproven linebacking corps in the division. If they catch lightning in a bottle once again with their veteran pass-rushing outside linebackers, the group could be effective. 36-year-old John Abraham and soon-to-be 28-year-old Matt Shaughnessy assume starting roles this year after exceeding expectations as injury replacements in 2013. However, Abraham could face discipline after recently receiving a DUI. After he picked up 11.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last year, the Cardinals need Abraham to achieve a similar level of success this year if their defense is going to be competitive. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Shaughnessy is oversized for an outside linebacker, but his power presence is beneficial, particularly when the Cardinals take advantage of the four-man front in their hybrid defense.
On the inside, there will be some competition as the Cardinals attempt to fill the void left by Washington. 34-year-old free-agent signing Larry Foote and 2013 second-rounder Kevin Minter, who combined for 12 tackles in 2013, are the projected starters. Those two could be pushed by 29-year-old journeyman Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander, who started at outside linebacker last year before going on IR. Whoever ends up starting, the odds are certainly against Arizona’s inside linebacking corps as the year begins.
San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis each have a chance of ending up with the top linebacking group in the division in 2014. With all the injuries, suspensions, and other issues that could have an effect on things, it should be interesting to see who ends up on top.