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The Value of Things: Bang for Your Buck — Linebackers

What does a top ten linebacker look like?

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We know that the Houston Texans don’t have anyone that is being paid like a top-10 player at their position. We know that they don’t have any top-10 performers at any position. At least, there were none from the end of this past season.

Yet, in the past few seasons they had as many as three on the defensive side of the ball. They had D.J. Reader from the last article on defensive tackles. We know that Justin Reid is among the highest paid safeties going into next season. Zach Cunningham was also here as recently as last season.

A part of the problem when dealing with linebackers is differentiating between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Some linebackers are glorified defensive ends and so they are classified as edge rushers. So, the top ten linebackers are essentially middle linebackers in both defenses and outside linebackers in 4-3 defensive fronts.

Linebackers wear a lot of hats. They are primarily there to defend the run, but they also sometimes rush the quarterback. They also cover tight ends and backs out of the backfield. Obviously some are able todo that well and some aren’t. So, it becomes a question of which skill is more valuable. We will look at both pass rushing statistics and coverage statistics in addition to tackles. Just like with the other positions we will look at these linebackers over the last three seasons.

Top Ten Linebackers

Darius Leonard— 375 tackles, 18 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 12 QB hits, 22 PD, 9 INT

Fred Warner— 380 tackles, 19 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 19 QB hits, 19 PD, 3 INT

C,J. Mosley— 282 tackles, 8 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 9 PD, 2 INT

Foyesade Oluokun— 361 tackles, 10 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 16 QB hits, 10 PD. 5 INT

Deion Jones— 353 tackles, 25 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 18 QB hits, 17 PD, 3 INT

Shaq Thompson— 327 tackles, 26 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 12 QB hits, 13 PD, 2 INT

Jerome Baker— 330 tackles, 19 TFL, 14.0 sacks, 31 QB hits, 11 PD. 2 INT

Levonte David— 337 tackles, 27 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 14 QB hits, 16 PD. 2 INT

Zach Cunningham— 399 tackles, 21 TFL, 5.0 sacks, 8 QB hits, 7 PD, 0 INT

Matt Milano— 232 tackles, 26 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 22 QB hits, 17 PD, 1 INT

Most of these guys were in between 325 and 399 tackles. That’s an effective difference of 25 tackles per season. C.J. Mosley and Matt Milano look like outliers there, but Milano has better pass rushing numbers than most of the other linebackers. Notice that Mosley is on the Jets. It seems like ages since they have been in the playoffs.

Most of these guys are adept at two of the three skills, but not all three. It is difficult to stop the run, rush the passer, and guard receivers out of the backfield. Moreover, very few teams ask their linebackers to do all three. So, a large part of the calculus in who to pay is in figuring out which two skills are the most valuable.

Localize It

We could compare the current set of linebackers to these guys, but Zach Cunningham is a much more interesting player to profile here. He’s a good run stopper. In fact, he is a really good run stopper. Yet, he can’t really cover guys out of the backfield and he isn’t a particularly good pass rusher.

That isn’t Cunningham’s fault. These things always come up in baseball. You give someone a huge payday and expect them to be a completely different player. The same thing happened when the Astros signed Carlos Lee. He was a good slugger and a nice run producer. When he came to Houston he was a good slugger and a nice run producer. He did the same thing five of the six seasons he was with the club.

Teams make these mistakes all the time. Players don’t get better when they get paid. They just get richer. Cunningham was a great two down linebacker. Benardrick McKinney was a similar player when he was here. Being able to stop the run is a huge part of the game. Those are nice guys to have around. You just can’t afford to pay them like three-down linebackers.

Now, the Texans have a group of linebackers that might be limited in what they can do well. Yet, they are being paid that way. That’s the first step to getting the salary cap back in line.