Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Outside Linebacker

  The outside linebacker wears a lot of hats within the 3-4 defense.    They must first contain the edge in the running game, rush the passer to create pressure, as well as drop back in coverage to play either zone, or possibly matchup man with a TE, WR, or RB out of the backfield.  Outside linebackers must possess a combination of speed and strength to perform these jobs effectively.  Speed will allow them to get to the sideline to string out a run, and also to sprint pass the tackle in a pass rushing situation.  Strength will allow them to be stout against the run and to shed blockers while attempting to make plays in the backfield.

 1) New York Jets- The Jets receive the number one ranking in this category based on the combination of experience and outright talent here.  Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Jason Taylor give the Jets a heck of a three-headed-monster at the outside linebacker position.   With an average of 10 years experience between the three, this triple-threat allows the Jets to keep fresh talent on the field at all times.  All three men are great at getting to the quarterback, and with Rex Ryan’s schemes, it creates a lot of different looks for opposing offenses to deal with. 

 Calvin Pace is entering his 9th season in the NFL and with 54 starts under his belt he has 21 sacks.  Pace made the transition from a 4-3 end to an outside linebacker while he was at Arizona.  Since then he has averaged around 6-8 sacks per season and with this Jets improved defense this season,  should see those numbers rise a bit.  Jason Taylor showed that he still had some gas left in the tank last season contributing with 7 sacks and 3 FF for the Miami Dolphins.  It was a bit of a shock to the AFC East when Miami allowed the veteran to sign with the rival Jets, and Ryan has said in his system Taylor could have “20 sacks”.  Let’s be honest, he would be thrilled to get double-digit sacks for the 6th time in his 14 year career.  Taylor isn’t as stout against the run, but with the best run defense in the league, he will have plenty of help around him.  Bryan Thomas has 25 career sacks for the Jets and will spell Taylor on the outside this season.  Entering his 8th season, Thomas should gain great knowledge from Taylor on rushing the passer, only improving his value.  He may even start giving Taylor the 3rd down pass rushing responsibilities, while he provides run support.  This is what make this core so good, there are a number of combinations for Ryan to play with, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets all three players on the field at the same time in certain blitz packages. 

 2) New England Patriots- At first glance it seemed as if this would be a tough decision, but with two new starters for Miami, one being a rookie and the other a career backup, I just can’t put them ahead of a proven starter and a promising rookie.  Tully Banta-Cain finished in the top five in sacks for the AFC last season with 10 .  He seems to be comfortable with his role and in his 8th NFL season seems prime to step up as a leader amongst a young linebacking group.  After spending a year in San Fransisco, Bant-Cain returned home to New England and had a career year in both sacks and tackles.  It will be interesting to see how he performs in a non contract year.

 Jermaine Cunningham in my opinion will win the starting job.  While Belichick loves experience, I don’t think he has a choice but to start the Gator.  Pierre Woods has a whopping 1 sack in his limited time, and Shawn Crable has not seen the field yet so I put him below the rookie out of Florida who is healthy, younger, and was slightly more productive in college.  I was a huge fan of this pick for New England in the second round.  It’s no secret that Belichick an Urban Meyer have a football “coachmance”, so I’m sure Bill was very confident in picking this young player. The transition from defensive end to linebacker will be crucial to his role as a possible starter, but I doubt New England spent a 2nd round pick at a need position with the thoughts of bringing him along slowly. I think Cunningham will be able to make the transition and contribute right away for the Pats.

 3) Miami Dolphins- This linebacking group for the Dolphins is very interesting, and is the talk of camp thus far.  After losing both starters in Taylor and Porter, Miami addressed its linebacking group this off-season quite agressively.  They made Karlos Dansby the highest paid middle linebacker in the league to fill a need in the middle, and drafted Koa Misi out of Utah who projects to start at strong side linebacker.  Misi has taken most of the first team reps so far in OTA’s and seems to have the edge.  There has been plenty of compliments thrown his way by analysts but until I see him on the field I can’t be sure.  

 The weak side linebacker spot seems to be Charlie Anderson’s job to lose.  I have raved about the talent of Cameron Wake in football circles, however, it seems he has not developed in areas not relating to rushing the passer.  Anderson has been a career back up in the NFL and has been productive in spurts for the Miami Dolphins.  He has shown that he can rush th passer and provide adequate help in the passing game.  His tackling is average and if he is consistent throughout camp and pre-season I think he will start.  Cameron Wake is a pure pass rusher.  If he can show the coaching staff that he can contribute against the run and in coverage, he will take this spot.  Wake was able to register 39 sacks in two seasons playing in the CFL, and last season in a limited role recorded 5.5 for the Dolphins.  Wake is a definite double-digit sack player if he is a starter and Mike Nolan needs to find a way to get him on the field.  The battle for weak side starting linebacker will be the most watched in training camp for Miami and it probably wont be decided until the opening kickoff.

 4) Buffal Bills- On paper the Buffalo Bills could arguably be ranked second in this category.  There are a couple of  reasons I have them listed fourth; 1- this is the first year they are running the 3-4 defense, 2-the projected starters both played defensive end last season, 3- new coaching staff, 4- with a bad offense, they will be on the field a lot.

There is certainly a lot of potential on this defense.  I am a big fan of Aaron Maybin, I think he projects well as a weak side outside rush linebacker.  I think he will struggle against the run and I don’t know how he will be in pass coverage.  He comes from linebacker university and has a good frame for a 3-4 linebacker.  I just don’t know how he will handle learning a new defensive scheme with new coaches, in only his second year in the league.  Aaron Schobel has played defensive end for 10 years in the NFL and is one of the more underrated players in this division.  He has been a pest for that defense and he always finds himself around the ball.  He has battled injuries the last couple of years and again, this new position/system/coaching staff could be challenging to the veteran.  Chris Kelsay has also been a productive pass rusher for the Bills and will most-likely split the strong side duties with Schobel.  If the team buys into the new system and stays healthy, they very well could end up being the second most productive group in the division, but for now, they have to show me first before I rank them above the other teams in the East.

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