This week’s topic takes a look at the linebackers of the NFC East. Each team possesses weapons at the position, but the question here revolves mainly around how well the talent matches the defensive scheme and whether or not there are consistent, healthy track records for these players. The linebacker position is one that requires the perfect mix of physical prowess, raw ability, and intelligence. A player can have all the physical tools in the world but if he does not understand what the other team is trying to do then those skills will undoubtedly go to waste. Each NFC East team has an intriguing mix of crafty veterans and young studs, but do they all have the correct mix for their defensive coordinators’ desires?
The Washington Redskins have quite an eclectic mix of young and old in their linebacker corps, but everything begins and ends at the pads of ILB London Fletcher. Not only has this Division III graduate set a new standard for health at the position, but his mind and professionalism make him an excellent example for the rest of the team to follow. Couple that with the fact that he consistently ranks among the top-10 LBs in tackles every season and you’ve got yourself one heck of a defensive captain. Getting Brian Orakpo back will greatly help out the team, especially Ryan Kerrigan, as the two represent one of the best OLB tandems in the league. ILB Perry Riley is blossoming into quite a star behind the tutelage of Fletcher; however there are some injury concerns among the back-up roles. London Fletcher’s eventual replacement, Keenan Robinson, is out for the season and backup OLB Rob Jackson is gone for 4 games due to suspension. Having said that, the signing of Nick Barnett certainly helps the depth of this position, but the Skins can ill-afford to lose any of the 4 starters for an extended period of time. All-in-all, this group is the best in the division by a pretty comfortable margin due mainly to the fact that every player is comfortable in the scheme and there appears to be harmony in D.C.
The hiring of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin meant the Dallas Cowboys would be saying goodbye to stud DeMarcus Ware as an OLB in the 4-3 to become a DE in the 3-4. This significantly hurts the rating for the overall position; however the Cowboys have some things to be excited about. Relatively young stars Sean Lee and Bruce Carter will make up the Mike (middle) and Will (weak side) spots for Jerry Jones; however neither possesses a very sturdy track record as it pertains to health. Journeymen Ernie Sims was brought in to help shore up some depth inside, and Alex Albright should also provide some reliable support. Newcomer Justin Durant should see significant starting time in the 4-3 and will do his best to compliment Lee and Carter. Everything relies on the health of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, but the Cowboys did their best to add depth with limited cap space, however this unit would concern me if I were a Cowboys fan.
The strength of this group is on the outside of the 3-4 with Trent Cole and newcomer Conor Barwin. Cole has been a stalwart for this defense for years and Barwin performed phenomenally in spurts while in Houston opposite J.J. Watt. Having said that, there are still question marks for both players that could easily irk Philly fans. Cole is coming off his worst season ever and is switching from an end to an outside linebacker, while questions about Barwin revolve around his poor 2012 and whether or not his success was due to the man opposite him on the line. Brandon Graham could be the sleeper of this group as he exploded onto the scene in 2012 and could spell Cole a great deal this year. The big question revolves around DeMeco Ryans and his aging body. As the leader of the new 3-4 defense, the Eagles hope Ryans can have another revitalized season as the defensive captain. Keep your eye on how this group of aging veterans handles the switch in defensive schemes and whether or not they can remain healthy for 16 games. While it certainly could be worse, this group has more questions than answers right now.
Sifting through this list of names, a few stand out for sure; however they are for all of the wrong reasons. ILB Mark Herzlich is a cancer survivor from Boston College who will in all likelihood get the starting nod at middle linebacker despite the fact that his skill set points more to a back-up role for him. Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry were once high first-round picks at linebacker who never panned out and are getting their third and final chance this season in New York. The Giants’ linebackers were a weakness last year, and very little was done to address the position in the offseason. Dan Connor will provide some depth and experience at the Mike linebacker position, but he is a similar player to Herzlich in the sense that neither is a reliable pass coverage talent. Paysinger and Williams will get a chance to see time on the outside, but a starting role for either just means the former first-round picks have continued to struggle. This group is bad; there simply is no other way to put it. Their ‘success’ will only come if the defensive line plays out of their minds this season, meaning Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul certainly have their work cut out for them.