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Thread: Linebacker Need Could Meet Value
Linebacker Need Could Meet Value
Linebacker Need Could Meet Value
Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Nick Wagoner
INDIANAPOLIS – Rams coach Scott Linehan is fully aware of the Rams’ many needs heading in to this offseason.
But when he made his philosophy clear on filling those needs, he left room for questions about his approach. Linehan prefers to find ways to fill needs through free agency while looking for the best player available in the NFL Draft.
Of course, that approach is a convenient one in a year that would seem to allow the Rams’ needs to meet the value of the players in the draft. While it is clear that St. Louis needs plenty of help on defense, one position that has been inconsistent in the past few years is linebacker.
Aside from Pisa Tinoisamoa, the linebacking corps has struggled to produce. Armed with the 11th pick in the draft, the Rams have a need at linebacker that could be filled by any number of linebackers as this year is one of the deepest at the position in recent memory. In other words, the Rams’ needs might meet value in the first round once again.
“I think that’s the philosophy you stick by obviously,” Linehan said. “I think you can address need obviously in free agency, but I think the draft is deep, especially in what we feel are our areas of need. That will maybe play into our hands somewhat in our evaluation, knowing that we will have some good choices when our slots come up. You never want to say you are committing yourself to a certain area or certain player or certain type of player because the next thing you will be sitting there staring at a player you never thought you’d be looking at and you have to be ready to pull the trigger.”
Considering the potential of many of the linebackers in this draft, it would seem the Rams could be more than ready to pull the trigger in the first round should one of their favorites be available at No. 11.
Not only is the linebacker class deeper than it has been, it is also extremely talented at the top. Still, there seems to be some sort of stigma to drafting linebackers early that has kept teams from making that leap.
“It’s understandable because obviously we aren’t big defensive ends that are going to come out and get 15-18 sacks a year and we are not a running back that’s going to come in there and rush for 1,500 yards so it’s a spot where when there are three or four of you on the field I guess you can justify not taking guys too high,” Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “That’s why all I want is a chance, regardless of where I am taken.”
Hawk probably won’t have to worry about just getting a chance. He is viewed as one of the top five to seven players in the draft and is as close to a sure thing at linebacker as you can get.
A big reason for Hawk’s being a wanted man is the same reason that the trend of not taking linebackers in the first round might change this year: he can do it all. Hawk can blitz, he can cover, he can stuff the run. He’s a part of a breed of linebackers that can fill any gap and make any play on a given down.
It only helps Hawk and his fellow linebackers that there are others who have preceded him by making an immediate impact in the NFL.
“It’s a position where a lot of times they say they don’t want to draft people too high because they think ‘how much of an impact can a linebacker have?’” Hawk said. “Obviously with guys like Shawne Merriman this year and Lofa Tatupu had huge years and so I think the linebacker position is – with all of the defenses they are playing and with the offenses they have to face, one week facing the spread offense and the next week a team is trying to pound the ball on you – you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. That’s the tough thing about playing in college and it’s even magnified in the NFL.”
In addition to the improved athleticism and value of linebackers in recent years, there has been another major development in the game that has changed the way teams are viewing the position.
The emergence of the 3-4 defense has placed a premium on the position because now teams not only need more of them, but they need more specialized players. The modern 3-4 linebacker has to be able to cover, rush the passer and diagnose plays quickly.
“I think there are quite a few teams in this draft that need some linebackers,” Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway said. “People changing to a 3-4 defense I’m sure has added to that and there’s other teams who just have a need for linebackers.”
Greenway will certainly be one of those coveted linebackers. His versatility is the perfect example of a young linebacker who will be appealing to teams running the 3-4. He is athletic enough to cover receivers, but he is also a stout tackler and can blitz when asked.
“I think my strengths are my versatility, my athleticism for my size I can really play any of the linebacker positions even though I did play the weakside in college,” Greenway said. “I have the ability to play the strong side and MIC and I have also played in the 3-4.”
Greenway probably falls just behind Hawk among the top linebackers, with those two ranking so high because of their versatility. But, it also doesn’t hurt young linebackers who fall in the ‘tweener’ category.
It wasn’t so long ago that ‘tweeners’ (players that were too small for one position and too big for another) were essentially ignored by many teams. Now, it’s almost a blessing to find a player that can work as a 3-4 rush linebacker or put his hand in the ground and rush the passer from the end position.
Merriman made an immediate impact doing just that a season ago. This year, Hawk’s teammate Bobby Carpenter is a prime example of that kind of player, calling to mind comparisons to former Buckeye Mike Vrabel.
“Seeing a lot of teams in the 3-4, I think it helps me,” Carpenter said. “It’s another linebacker they will need so I guess it’s tough to find a whole lot of guys. The size and weight to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, you have to be a bigger, physical guy with good speed. That’s something that’s kind of a commodity in today’s game and I think that’s something I can bring to the table.”
The Rams will certainly be taking a long look at this group of linebackers that also includes talented players such as Abdul Hodge, Ernie Sims and DeMeco Ryans. Tinoisamoa is a key piece to the defense that should figure heavily into the team’s plans.
Linehan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett have made it clear that they plan on using elements of the 3-4, but will do most of the defensive scheming based on the talent they have in place.
Part of the appeal of Tinoisamoa is his leadership and linebacker is one of those spots, much like quarterback, that generally is a position of leadership.
So, while the Rams can certainly use an overall talent such as Hawk, a speedy cover guy like Greenway or a pass rusher like Carpenter, it is that added leadership that could ultimately decide what direction the Rams choose to go in the draft.
“One of the things we want to address in the offseason is we want to improve our team not just talent wise, but with some more core leader type players,” Linehan said. “If we feel we have got guys in house, we will find out who they are. If we need to go out in free agency and maybe add somebody who has that extra dimension, we’ll have to do that. That’s certainly something we need to address on the defensive side, no question.”