Part I: Secondary (also includes a brief description of this series).
As I'll do with every installment, a big thanks to ProFootballFocus for the information and permission to use it in these posts.
With the move to the 3-4, I'm unsure as to how much information here will be applicable for 2011. Still, we can take a look back and attempt to take a look forward. Let's get to it, shall we?
We'll start with the ugly and work our way up from there.
The Zac Diles/Most Cost-Effective Player EVER jokes have been flung far and wide 'round these parts. A 463rd round pick (or thereabouts) from KSU whom Gary Kubiak likened to Pro Bowl material, Diles was actually pretty decent in 2009. Much of his improvement that year, though, was because he simply wasn't targeted in the passing game as he was in 2008, with his targets dropping from 31 to 18 (anybody else still have nightmares of Diles gracelessly chasing Bo Scaife in 2008? Or is that just me?).
That all changed in 2010, as teams went directly for Diles early and often, and the results were me-naked ugly. Diles was targeted 54 times with a 90.9% completion rank. Not a single pass deflected, either. Teams used Diles like toilet paper and disposed of him properly. To add insult to injury, he was horrible against the run and even worse in pass rush, often finding the first available blocker to keep him safely away from the QB. Only Scott Shanle was ranked worse by PFF in Overall Score for OLBs. Sadly, none of this was a surprise, as 2009 looked like a tremendous outlier for Diles, and Diles eventually lost his starting spot to a cast of thousands.
In Diles' defense, he was asked to play SLB during Brian Cushing's absence, which kept him on the field in pure passing downs. This double exposure - forcing him into coverage more often and playing the SAM role - showed that Diles simply wasn't capable.
As for Mr. Cushing, FootballOutsiders was quite prescient in their predictions for him, and it goes to show how special he was in 2009. Missing the first four games of the season didn't help, but, as far as I'm concerned, aside from the BE-SFs matchups, he simply disappeared. Most worrisome, the vast majority of Cushing's value is solely as a pass-rusher, and his technique is horrible. How do you know when Cushing is going to blitz? He's on the line of scrimmage. How do you know when he's not? He's not on the LOS. This is partly scheme, partly coaching, and a lot of technique. Put them together, and we might've had the least effective blitzing team in football last year. Cushing finished 26th out of 41 OLBs by Overall Grade, 2nd in rushing the passer, and amongst the worst in stopping the run. The first thing this team needs to learn how to do is tackle.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the failed Cushing-to-MLB experiment to replace the injured DeMeco Ryans. Especially in our scheme, taking your best, even if flawed, pass rushing LB and moving him to Mike where he struggles against the run was a lovely excursion to Failure-Land.
As Darryl Sharpton saw most of his snaps at OLB, I'll address him next, and I must say he did not embarrass himself. Even in his very limited snaps, he tied with Cushing for overall score. Aside from the penalties, Sharpton would've clocked a higher score than Cushing. Now, before we get too excited, we should consider the Exposed Diles Factor as alluded to above. With more playing time, there's a better chance any holes in Sharpton's game would be more greatly exposed. In my never humble opinion, though, Sharpton has earned a chance to start at ILB heading into 2011, especially when you highlight the single missed tackle in 152 snaps. I see him as a poor man's Jonathan Vilma (though he did struggle last year), who could be considered a
less stabby poor man's Ray Lewis. That wouldn't be bad at all AND, for you finance people out there, it would be delightfully cost-effective.
Kevin Bentley performed admirably in place of Cap'n Meco after the Cushing experiment. In fact, he did far better at Mike than I thought he was capable. No, he's no Patrick Willis, but Bentley is only debited with two missed tackles, a pretty fantastic score. When you add in his special teams value, Bentley is a no-brainer re-sign to me (Diehards as him listed as a UFA).
The last person I haven't covered who received significant snaps at LB in 2010 is DeMeco Ryans. I've been a huge fan of Ryans since he was picked, and I've long believed his steadiness was a significant factor in Cushing's rookie season. As DreKeem pointed out, however, we simply can't plan on Ryans returning to the field at full strength. Worst of all, Ryans' play noticeably tailed off last season even before the injury. There were many times last season when he just didn't look like the same player, though I'll once again point to the overall scheme as a possible driver.
2011: With the change in scheme, and the huge number of unknowns of how Wade Phillips will fit our current personnel in the 3-4, I'm not going to make specific recommendations.
There's a strong possibility Mario Williams slides to OLB a la DeMarcus Ware, but there's also been talk of using him at DE as Bruce Smith was used. Cushing could play either OLB or ILB. Connor Barwin is sure to take OLB on a full-time basis. I strongly believe Sharpton deserves a full-time gig as well. Bring Bentley back, but as a reserve and special teams impact player. But no matter how you cut it, we are still woefully thin at linebacker, and we'll need to both sign a free agent(s) and draft to address the situation. As for Ryans, the prudent move would be to plan for him to be unable to return. I do hope we've applied the lessons Dunta Robinson and Owen Daniels vividly displayed by not immediately returning to form after devastating injuries. And Ryans' injury is worse.
I don't want to end the Linebackers post on a negative note. In fact, there's a lot of reason to be excited about our LB corps heading into 2011. Cushing, when used properly (teach the man how to blitz, Wade), Barwin, and Sharpton give us three young, exciting players. Some intelligent, thoughtful moves to supplement this threesome could lay the foundation of a formidable set of linebackers.