Insiders

NFL’s Most Intriguing Position Battles – LB

on

In today’s league it’s vital to have versatility at the linebacker position. Having a run stopper isn’t enough as the league has transformed into a pass happy league. When you’re able to have the luxury to have a backer to drop back in coverage, it takes your defense to a new level.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the top linebacker battles heading into training camp.

Chicago Bears – For an organization that has prided itself on defense for decades, last year’s unit was a complete and utter disgrace to the city of Chicago.

The Bears ranked 30th in total defense, allowing 377.1 yards and 27.6 points per game. A major part of the lackluster defense was due to their inability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Chicago ranked 30th in pass defense, giving up 34 touchdowns in the air, which was only second to the Washington Redskins (35).

The new regime of head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be implementing the 3-4 defensive scheme, which causes hefty competition at the two inside linebacker positions.

Mason Foster, Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin and Christian Jones will be battling it out for those two spots. Foster is probably the most likely one to land a spot, considering his experience in the league. Over the past four seasons, Foster has started in 57 games and while he’s been playing in a 4-3 system in Tampa Bay, the 26-year-old is confident in his ability to adjust in the Windy City.

“The main reason why [I chose] Chicago was definitely the 3-4 scheme,” Foster said. “It’s something that after getting into the league I wanted to be a part of playing a 3-4 system. I think it fits my skill set, giving me a chance to make plays.”

With Foster likely manning one of the inside spots, the competition picks up for the ‘jack’ position, which requires someone to stop the run, while being able to drop back and cover in the pass game. Jon Bostic has the slight edge since he’s shown the ability to be effective in spurts, but McClellin and Jones have the potential and athletic ability to make things interesting in the coming weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs – Despite losing multi-time Pro Bowler Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry for majority of the 2014 campaign, the Kansas City Chiefs still managed to field a top 10 defense. However, their run defense was light years behind their pass coverage.

With the return of Johnson on tap, their run defense should automatically improve, but the question remains who will be playing alongside the 3-time Pro Bowler?

Josh Mauga started in all 16 games for Kansas City last year as the weakside linebacker, but with Johnson back, Mauga will have to earn his playing time on the strong side.

Even though Mauga is entering his sixth season, that doesn’t mean rookies Ramik Wilson or D.J. Alexander can’t and won’t take control of the position. Wilson and Alexander were drafted in the 4th and 5th round respectively.

Head coach Andy Reid has been impressed with Wilson thus far.

“He’s got strong hands and he’s got a knack for making plays here. He’s done a nice job, a very nice job.”

On the flip side, Alexander is relying on what’s gotten him to this point.

“It’s just my heart. I’ve always played like that. Growing up, I was at first the youngest one and couldn’t really play football, but once I got that chance, I just kind of took off from there and that aggressiveness never went away.”

With training camp near, it’ll be interesting to see if either one of these rookies will be able to overtake Mauga.

Arizona Cardinals – With the career of 5-time Pro Bowler John Abraham on life support, the Cardinals must find the proper replacement. Last year was their first trial, as Abraham only appeared in one game. Alex Okafor and Matt Shaughnessy both showed flashes of productivity, but they were unable to cause consistent pressure in opposing backfields.

Arizona ranked near the bottom in the league with 35 sacks as a team, which was their lowest total since 2010. With those troublesome numbers in mind, Arizona decided to select Markus Golden in the second round.

Head coach Bruce Arians used to turn on Mizzou film to scout the highly touted Shane Ray, but Golden often caught his attention.

“‘Who the hell is 33 — he must be an underclassman,'” Arians would say. “And all of a sudden, no, this guy’s a senior and he’s a balls-to-the-wall player. I just love the way he plays.”

During Golden’s tenure at Mizzou, he was often overshadowed by Shane Ray and Michael Sam, but the 6-foot-2, 260 pound pass rusher is used to being over looked.

“My whole career has been built off people doubting me, like, I’ve been getting doubted in this game since little league, since I first started playing football, so it isn’t anything new to me,” he said. “I’ve always been in this position and I’m just ready to play.

“I can’t worry about that, I just want to come here and do whatever I’ve got to do to make the team better because the Arizona Cardinals put a lot into drafting me and I’m just blessed, and I’m just ready to pay them back. And I’m going to make sure I do that.”

The rookie sounds poised to make an immediate impact in the valley of the sun.

Baltimore Ravens – A position where Baltimore has found plenty of success over the years is now in question after Pernell McPhee bolted to Chicago.

McPhee was responsible for keeping stars Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil fresh, as he totaled 7.5 sacks a season ago. With the 6-foot-2, 274 pounder no longer in the picture, it’s up to John Harbaugh to fill that void.

The three candidates are Courtney Upshaw, Za’Darius Smith and Steven Means.

Upshaw showed mad potential during his rookie campaign. He was forced to stay on the field a lot since Suggs missed more than half the season and Paul Kruger was mostly one dimensional.

However, Upshaw has been sharing snaps with Elvis Dumervil ever since he signed with Baltimore following the 2012 campaign. With that said, Upshaw probably has the edge, but Smith and Means will push him for sure.

 


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.