If you haven’t been paying attention, Ramblin’ Fan has been taking an in-depth look at nearly every position in the NFC West. So far, we have hammered out ranking for nearly the entire offense (i.e. quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and tight ends), and finished off with our rating of the defensive lines, headed by the St. Louis Rams’ “2012 Sack Title” rotation. Next, naturally, we will swing over to the linebackers. Much like the defensive line, the linebacking corps in the division are some of the best in the NFL. So, even with our ranking putting the Seattle Seahawks‘ defensive line as 3rd in the NFC West, their ranking overall in the league still might be Top 10, if not Top 5 in the NFL; the downfall of a dominate division. So, how will the linebackers in our out-of worldly NFC West stack up?
The San Francisco 49ers have, hands-down, the best linebackers in the NFL. Period. No debate. If the Football Gods wanted to build a perfect 3-4 linebacker unit, they would include two inside linebackers that were equally as effective in run support and coverage. Check. A dominate pass rusher, that can be disruptive from anywhere on the field. Check. And, lastly, a utility linebacker on the outside that can play the traditional role of both a strongside or weakside linebacker, being a factor in coverage, run support, and the pass rush. Check.
Despite mediocrity in the middle of the defensive line, and less than stellar play in the secondary, the 49ers’ still managed, arguably, the best defense in the NFL in 2012. Give most, if not all, the credit to these four linebackers. Moving on…
Fun Fact: According to Pro Football Focus, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith all ranked in the Top 5 for their respective position in the 2012 season. Navorro Bowman ranked 7th among inside linebacker, despite leading the 49ers in tackles and allowing the lowest catch percentage of any inside linebacker in the NFC.
2. St. Louis Rams
Last season, the Rams would have battled with the Arizona Cardinals for the 4th spot in the division; funny how the NFL Draft can change a team. With the drafting of Alec Ogletree, the St. Louis Rams now have one of the more “complete” 4-3 linebacker grouping in the league. In 2012, James Laurinaitis was essentially forced to play both strongside linebacker and middle linebacker, with Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh offering little to no help when on the field. Their lack of effectiveness is supported by the coach staff opting to play a majority of the defensive snaps in the nickel package.
Alec Ogletree changes that whole picture. Ogletree will immediately step in as the weakside linebacker, a position that his skill set and experience match perfectly. The WOLB is essentially the “cover” linebacker, whose primary responsibilities typically include backside contain, “trail, or chase down” pursuit, and is, ideally, the most skilled coverage linebacker in the unit. Ogletree in the embodiment of those three characteristics, with tackling expertise from playing ILB at Georgia, the athleticism and speed to dominate as a “trailer” or as a pass rusher, and coverage skills from his time as a safety prior to converting to linebacker in college.
Ogletree will move Jo-Lonn Dunbar to the strongside, where he is much better suited. Last season, playing on the weakside, Dunbar was one of the most underrated outside linebackers in the NFL. Dunbar dominated in all three facets of the linebacker game. As a pass rusher, Dunbar was a league leader among 4-3 outside linebacker, ranked 5th in sacks (4.5) , tied for 5th in hits on the quarterback (5). As a “pure tackler” in the run game, Dunbar was 5th among outside linebacker in combined tackles (115) and trailed only two player overall in the NFL last season (Lavonte Davis and inside linebacker, Derrick Johnson) in defensive stop (62). In coverage, Dunbar tied for 5th in interceptions (2) and tied for 6th in pass deflections (3). Top 5 in nearly every pertinent, quantifiable category for an outside linebacker… not bad. Oh yea, and he single-handedly ruined the career of Alex Smith; you’re welcome San Francisco.
Last, but not least, James Laurinaitis in the middle. The Ohio State superstar led the NFL in solo tackles in 2012 (117), and finished the season with 2 interceptions and 3 pass deflections. He was also the only linebacker in the NFC West that did not allow a receiving touchdown in coverage, and led the NFC West with the fewest yards after catch allowed (175). The lone mark against Laurinaitis was his perceived struggles with “missed” tackles. However, Laurinaitis missed only 10 tackles, which is comparable to Bobby Wagner (8) and Navorro Bowman (9), and nowhere near the number tallied by players like the Cardinals’ Daryl Washington (18) or Paris Lenon (13). Laurinaitis has put up Pro Bowl caliber number the last two season, but has simply been overshadowed, understandably, by Willis and Bowman.
Random Fact: London Fletcher led all inside linebacker with 21 missed tackles in 2012.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner was an all-star pickup for the Seattle Seahawks, and was right up there with players like Janoris Jenkins and Casey Hayward for Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, despite nearly identical tackle number to James Laurinaitis in the tackling game, Wagner was nowhere near as effective in coverage, allowing an 80.4% catch percentage and 2 receiving touchdowns on the season, more than any inside linebacker in the NFC West besides ex-Cardinal, Paris Lenon. On top of that, Wagner had the least “pressures” of any inside linebacker in the division, with 2 sacks, 3 hits on the quarterback, and 6 hurries. In the bigger picture of the NFL, Wagner was likely a Top 5 or Top 10 inside linebacker. However, like Laurinaitis has found out over the last 3 seasons, it isn’t easily getting recognition as a linebacker in the division.
However, the 3rd spot in the ranking comes courtesy of the other linebackers in Seattle’s corps. With Leroy Hill’s departure, Heath Farwell looks to be the next man up in Seattle, for now, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, considering he has only recorded 140 tackles in 7 season in the NFL. K.J. Wright was an above average player last season, and figured to continue progression behind, what should be, a beastly defensive end rotation. He put up nearly 100 combined tackles in 2012, and was above average in getting to the quarterback, racking up 1 sacks, 3 hits on the quarterback, and 9 hurries. Still, unless the Seahawks find a sleeper to play alongside Bobby Wagner in the middle, the ‘Hawks might have trouble repeating their 2012 dominance against the run. Or, like the St. Louis Rams last season, the Seahawks might rely more heavily on their superior secondary to compensate for their lack of talent at the second level of the defense.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Daryl Washington has one of the best seasons as a middle linebacker in recent memory, leading players as his position in sacks, 2nd in overall pressures, and still managing over 100 tackles as a 3-4 defensive signal caller. However, their best outside linebacker, Quentin Groves, bolted for Cleveland this offseason, leaving Sam Acho and the recently acquired Lorenzo Alexander as the likely started on the outside.
Acho is the Cardinals’ version of Aldon Smith, without the production in the pass rush, and without the versatility to also play effectively against the run. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Acho ranked 30th out of the 34 3-4 outside linebackers that played at least 25% of total defensive snaps in 2012. He was relatively effective in rushing the quarterback, amassing 4 sacks, 9 hits on the quarterback, and 21 hurries. Acho also was one of the best “coverage” linebacker in the NFL last season, with quarterbacks averaging a pathetic 34.2 passer rating when throwing at the Arizona backer. Still, with Daryl Washington rushing the quarterback more than any inside linebacker in the league, being a “sure tackler” on the outside is essential, and Acho was not….
The bright spot of for Arizona should be Kevin Minter, who the Cards stole in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Minter is an immediate upgrade over Paris Lenon, who ranked 52nd out of the 53 inside linebackers last season, ahead of only Rey Maualuga. Arizona also snagged Alex Okafor in the 4th round, who will likely battle with Alexander for the starting job. The Cardinals have the biggest “wait and see” corps in the NFC West. Outside of the Aaron Curry pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, the NFC West might have the best track record in the NFL of “hitting” on linebackers in the draft. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a division with talents like Navorro Bowman/Patrick Willis, James Laurinaitis, Booby Wagner, and Daryl Washington anywhere else in the league.