When I began constructing this target list of 4-3 Linebackers for the Denver Broncos to pick up, I found out that there were more candidates than I could cover and still maintain the reader's attention. So I edited out the injured or those coming off an injury, but that wasn't enough. So I narrowed it once more and removed the "thirty-somethings," or the players too old to spend Free Agent money on. Then finally, to make it a group worth pursuing, I reduced it to starting players or players who could be starting for their respective teams. There are a few here that I feel that would be valuable acquisitions for the Broncos. Upgrading this position is a priority in my opinion, as Denver has been missing a play-maker in this area since Al Wilson was forced to retire from injury.
THE GUY ON THE LEFT
is the Strong-side linebacker, or "SAM" Linebacker. He is a versatile run and pass coverage backer in a 4-3 defense. The SAM usually lines up across from the tight end. He provides strong run support and fills his gap assignment on the run, but he also is required to drop in short zones in both cover 2 and cover 3. Usually the strongest linebacker, he should possess the ability to withstand, shed, and fight off blocks from a tight end or fullback blocking the backside of a pass play. At times, he will also play man-to-man coverage on either the tight end or the number two or three receiver. Versatility and speed are critical traits for a good Sam Linebacker. Here are the available guys on the left.
Chad Greenway is a starter for the Minnesota Vikings. He is 6' 2", 242 lbs, Age: 28 and in his 5th year. 2010: $1.295 million. Greenway is an instinctive, well-rounded player who is effective in taking on any assignment. He possesses outstanding range, making many plays in pursuit. Chad has the ability to excel in coverage and handle nickel linebacker duties. He is a real tackling machine, but not a big-play maker. Lets things happen in front of him in zone coverage and is still somewhat developing into a better run stopper. Greenway is a very good starter, but with their lack of depth at linebacker, the Vikings can’t allow him to walk.
Pisa Tinoisamoa starts for the Chicago Bears. He is 6' 1", 230 lbs, Age: 29 and in his 8th year. In 2010, he made $875,000. Pisa is fast and athletic, and a big hitter. He is a converted safety who excels in coverage and will make interceptions. Tinoisamoa takes good angles and makes plays in pursuit, piling up tackles. He can also get to the quarterback. Pisa picks up injuries, due to his average size and banzai style of play. He's not an excellent defender at the point-of-attack, but is a very well-rounded starting linebacker.
David Vobora is a starter for the St. Louis Rams. He is 6' 1", 238 lbs, Age: 24 and in his 3rd year. His salary in 2010 was $470,000 and he is currently a Restricted Free Agent. David has good awareness and vision of the field. He anticipates the run well and will make the tackle. He has good athleticism even though he is not a huge specimen. Vobora doesn't take advantage of his speed and quickness enough and isn't polished enough to be a play-maker. Considered an adequate starter/rotation linebacker.
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Akeem Jordan is currently a backup for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is 6' 1", 230 lbs, Age: 25 and in his 4th year. In 2010 he had a salary of $1.684 million. Jordan reads, reacts and anticipates plays well. He is versatile enough to play any Linebacker spot. He is a good run stopper. Akeem will make the occasional interception, but isn't a play-maker against the pass. He is more of a stay-at-home linebacker than a blitzer and waits for the play to come to him. He is considered a decent starting linebacker.
Nick Roach plays back up to Pisa Tinoisamoa for the Chicago Bears. He is 6' 1", 234 lbs, Age: 25 and in his 4th year. His 2010 salary was $1.684 million. This guy simply makes plays. Nick reads the flow of the game very well and fights to the ball. He also has some explosive quickness and can get into the backfield. Roach lacks great stature and top speed. He can get handled by bigger, more mobile blockers. The downside is that he is somewhat fragile. Nick is considered a solid starting linebacker.
The Middle Linebacker, or "Mike" linebacker, is a central anchor point in any good defense. Often referred to as the "quarterback of the defense", he's the key run stopper and should find himself involved in almost every tackle on running plays. The Mike's primary job is to destroy gaps and stop the run. He can be asked to blitz, cover, spy the quarterback, or even have a deep middle-of-the-field responsibility in the Tampa 2 defense. He can also be assigned to cover the running back out of the backfield. In standard 4-3 defense, the MLB is usually the leading tackler. Here are the available MLB's.
Barrett Ruud starts at MLB for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is 6' 2", 241 lbs, Age: 27 and in his 6th year. He was paid $3.268 million for his services in 2010. Barrett is a solid interior defender who stacks and sheds well. He gets into the A-gap and disrupts plays and has great instincts in zone coverage. Ruud is not speedy, nor is he a top blitzer, which is a minor weakness. He is a very good starter and would be a solid pick up for the Broncos in the Free Agency period.
Stephen Tulloch is the starting MLB for the Tennessee Titans. He is 5' 11", 240 lbs, Age: 25 and in his 5th year. In 2010, he made $2.521 million. A physical and intense defender with a great nose for the ball, Tulloch simply finds ways to finish plays. He plays with great awareness and will even make some plays in the backfield. The downside for Stephen is that he is a little undersized for the linebacker position and not ultra-fast. He's not a big plat maker in pass coverage. He is considered to be a good starting linebacker.
Kirk Morrison starts in the middle for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is 6' 2", 240 lbs, Age: 28 and in his 6th year. In 2010, his salary was $2.524 million. Morrison is a player who has received mixed opinions from pundits. To some he’s a great run stopper, but to others he just racks up garbage tackles and is at least partially at fault for the leaky Raiders run defense when he was in Oakland. If 2010 was the real Kirk Morrison, then he had a bit of a drop off. He is a big hitter who wraps, gets off blocks well and is excellent in coverage. He is able to run with most backs or tight ends and has great anticipation. However, he doesn't have the shifty moves or initial quickness of a blitzer, can get engulfed when filling gaps and is at his best in pursuit. Morrison is considered an excellent starter.
Ricky Brown plays behind Rolando McClain for the Oakland Raiders. He is 6' 2", 235 lbs, Age: 26 and in his 5th year. He made $1,551,760 in 2010 according to Yahoo. Ricky shows good athleticism and has been a solid tackler on special teams. He runs well, makes good tackles and finishes plays. He is injury-prone though. His durability as an every-snap defender is a major issue. Brown can be slow to react at times and needs to improve his vision of the field. Considered a good backup linebacker/special teamer.
Omar Gaither is the 2nd string MLB for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is 6' 2", 235 lbs, Age: 26 and in his 5th season. His 2010 salary was $1.176 million. Using great speed and range, Omar makes a lot of plays in space. He can run with most backs and tight ends and is solid in coverage. He is a bit small and not well built for a linebacker. He is not a stack-and-shed player or a top pass rusher and can get lost in the trash.
Gaither is considered to be an adequate starter.
THE GUYS ON THE RIGHT
are known as the weak-side linebacker, or "Will." He must be the fastest of the three LB's because he is often the one called into pass coverage. Otherwise, he is usually chasing the play from the backside, so the agility to maneuver through traffic is a necessity. Like the other two linebackers, he's primarily concerned with stopping the run. But, he quickly transitions into a pass defender as needed, and often ends up assigned to slot receivers, even more than the SAM. In coverage, the Will often covers the back that attacks his side of the field first in man coverage, while covering the weak flat or hook/curl areas in zone coverage. His responsibility is to force any outside run to his inside, as well as cutback and reverse plays. Here are the available Wills.
Zach Diles is the starting Will LB for the Houston Texans. He is 6' 2", 238 lbs, Age:25 and in his 4th year. In 2010, his salary was $1.101 million. A very aware defender, Zach anticipates very well, takes solid angles and delivers punishing tackles against the run. He can get good penetration and is a persistent pursuer. He is not terribly fast however and isn't a convincing blitzer. Diles loses focus at times against the pass and forgets to cover in space. He could also beef up a little. Consider him a slightly above-average starter.
Clint Session starts for the Indianapolis Colts. He is 6' 0", 235 lbs, Age:26 and in his 4th year. His 2010 salary was $550,000. Clint is a very athletic specimen, both as a linebacker and a special teams ace. He has good explosiveness and solid speed for a guy with his frame. In spite of that, he plays much bigger than he is. Scouting Reports call him a "see player-hit player" type who isn't very fluid or strong in play recognition. Session doesn't adjust well in zone coverage and allows plays he should break up. Considered ab above-average starter.
Justin Durant is a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is 6' 1", 240 lbs, Age:25 and in his 4th year. He made $550,000 in 2010. Durant flashes superb overall athleticism in piling up tackles and big plays. He possesses a gift of pure speed, quickness and defensive instincts. A very aware linebacker with some play-making potential. The downside is that he is somewhat undersized and still pretty raw. He needs some work on play recognition and could add more muscle to help him become more of a force in pass protection. Justin is considered to be a very good starting linebacker.
Ernie Sims is a starting WLB for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is 6' 0", 230 lbs, Age:26 and in his 5th year. His 2010 salary was $1.05 million. Sims has great range. He runs well, gets through trash, and makes plays all over the field. He is also solid in pass coverage. A sure tackler who slices away from blockers to get to the ball. Just don't ask him to be a blitzer. Ernie makes more plays in pursuit than at the point of attack and could stand to improve his vision of the field on running situations. The Eagles media guide calls him an aggressive, physical player with a penchant for delivering big hits. Sims was fined $50,000 for leveling Lavelle Hawkins, a defenseless Titans receiver, on the first weekend of the league's new crackdown on hits last season. He is considered to be a very good interior linebacker.
Thomas Howard plays behind Quentin Groves for the Oakland Raiders. He is 6' 3", 240 lbs, Age: 27 and in his 5th year. His 2010 salary was $1.759 million. Limited to 12 games because of a knee injury in October, Thomas has great speed and range. He makes a lot of plays hustling down the line in pursuit. A sure tackler, Howard drops into coverage well and makes a lot of cleanup tackles in the middle. He is really more of a stay-at-home linebacker and not a stout point-of-attack defender. Despite his speed, is not a great pass rusher. He is considered to be a solid linebacker. Either the Raider coaching staff messed up or they felt Groves' 19 extra lbs. was worth it, I can't figure out why this guy wasn't starting. He has a history of good if not great stats and it looks like he can cover receivers.
Here are a couple of the highest paid 4-3 LB's for the 2011 season.
Brian Urlacher - MLB Chicago Bears. In 2008, he Signed a five-year, $40.6 million contract. His 2011 salary will be $8.025 million.
Aaron Curry - RLB Seattle Seahawks. In 2009, he Signed his six-year, $60 million rookie contract. His salary in 2011 will be $5,076,250 (+ $5 million roster bonus).
Julian Peterson - RLB Detroit Lions. In 2006, he signed a seven-year, $54 million contract. His 2011salary will be $8 million.
In considering the 2011 picture at Linebacker for the Denver Broncos, my thought is that Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers are likely to move up to the defensive line if the Broncos truly do move to the 4-3. In that case, I can see the team picking up Wesley Woodyard's RFA contract. DJ Williams won't be leaving either, as you can see by his contract numbers below. The Broncos will need at least six and at the most, eight LB's for the final roster. I don't know how much they can address this position through the draft, but there are more players up above that I like than there are below.
D.J. Williams Linebacker 9/6/2008: Signed a six-year, $32 million contract. The deal contains $13 million guaranteed, including a $4.5 million "signing" bonus in the second year and a $3 million roster bonus in the third. 2011: $4.9 million, 2012: $5 million, 2013: $6 million, 2014: Free Agent
Mario Haggan Linebacker 2011: $1.23 million, 2012: Free Agent
Jason Hunter Linebacker 2011: $715,000, 2012: Free Agent
Joe Mays Linebacker 2011: $555,000, 2012: Free Agent
Braxton Kelley Linebacker 2011: $330,000, 2012: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Dominic Douglas Linebacker 1/4/2011: Signed a reserve/future contract.
Wesley Woodyard Linebacker 4/29/2008: Signed a 3-year, $1.175 million contract. The deal included a $20,000 signing bonus. 2009: $385,000, 2010: $475,000. Currently a Restricted Free Agent.
David Veikune Linebacker 11/17/2010: Signed an undisclosed contract. Currently a Free Agent.
So here's to a successful off-season in the acquisitions of personnel.