Position Breakdown: Linebackers

KEY PLAYERS

DeMarcus Ware – He’s a two-time league-leader in sacks and nearly broke Michael Strahan’s record in 2008.  However many talking heads seem perfectly willing to rank guys like James Harrison and even an aging Julius Peppers over Ware.  I know this isn’t the most unbiased forum, but I haven’t seen anyone in the NFL right now who brings the consistency and versatility of Ware.  What he was able to last year, leading the league in sacks despite the lack of production around him, was incredible.  We watched Peppers struggle when Carolina’s defense fell apart, and I think Harrison would be average outside of Pittsburgh’s system.  Ware has proven that his talent goes beyond scheme.

Anthony Spencer – While Mike Jenkins’ regression was probably the most disappointing individual performance from 2010, Spencer’s lack of production wasn’t far behind.  After finally looking like a stud during the second half of 2009, Spencer did not continue on that path and was invisible last year.  It’s bad enough that he has the first-round pick label to live up to, but playing opposite of Ware leaves no excuses for Spencer.  Rob Ryan has reportedly had good things to say about Spencer and what he thinks he can do with him in the new defense, but I’m guessing Spencer only has one year left to satisfy expectations.

Bradie James – When you look at his tackling stats you’d think Bradie was all over the field like Ray Lewis, but as a fan who’s watched every game all these years I can’t help but think the books are getting cooked in his favor a little.  Bradie is certainly a solid starter and does everything right from a leadership and teammate standpoint, but when was the last time you came away a game thinking Bradie had dominated or even made big plays?  Being the guy who’s always in on the tackle after a 4-5 yard gain doesn’t make a great defender.

Keith Brooking – If only we could have had Brooking in his prime, because there hasn’t been a more likeable guy or natural leader in our locker room.  There was some speculation that Brooking would not return coming out of last season, but Jerry Jones quickly shot that down and said Keith is in the plans for 2011.  He’ll be a fantastic mentor for Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, and hopefully it will be their growth and not Brooking’s age that causes his role to decrease over the course of the season.

Sean Lee – The jury is still out on the second-year prospect, but his performances late last season refueled our collective optimism.  Don’t think that the drafting of Bruce Carter was in any way an indictment on Lee.  He’s a project player and the hope is that he will be ready in a few years to replace Bradie James.  Lee is the man of the present and they’ll be looking for him to play a big role immediately in the nickel defense and prove he can replace Brooking next season as a starter.

DRAFT CLASS IMPACT

The second-round drafting of Bruce Carter was a surprise considering the needs at defensive end and safety, but it didn’t take long to be sold on the pick.  Carter’s athleticism is incredible and Butch Davis has been turning out solid pros at UNC.  He has the luxury of coming in behind Sean Lee, who will carry the burden of expectations and be looked to for immediate help.  In the wake of disappointments such as Bobby Carpenter and Jason Williams, the scouts will be counting on Carter to shine more than anybody.

FREE AGENCY POTENTIAL

Don’t expect much activity here.  The inside linebackers should be set with the veterans starters and young backups.  If anything happens, perhaps a Rob Ryan guy will be brought in to provide some pass-rushing support to Ware and Spencer while Victor Butler and Brandon Williams compete for a job.  But that’s the most that will happen.

2011 OUTLOOK

It was very difficult to tell if the players or the scheme were to blame for last season’s defensive problems, and perhaps no group was tougher to gauge than the linebackers.  Were James and Brooking truly ineffective or were they asked to play on their heels?  Did Spencer decline as a player or did they make the pass-rush too simple and easy to stop? 

One thing we know for sure is that Rob Ryan will do some new and interesting things with these guys.  Not only will Ware and Spencer line up all over the field, but we may see packages that also feature Butler in addition to the starters.  Wade Phillips’ defense had become predictable, and perhaps that was the biggest problem of all last year.

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