After covering the quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, defensive linemen, offensive linemen, wide receivers, and tight ends, it's time for the defense to start getting some more attention as we approach training camp. Although the order of this training camp preview was done randomly, it's fitting that the linebackers and the secondary will be covered over the next two weeks, as they will yield some of the most interesting and competitive training camp battles.
This week is officially titled "Hard Hits and Klutch Kicks"; the linebackers will be discussed until Thursday, and then the special teams unit will be the topic of discussion heading into the weekend. Today, specifically, is dedicated to the players competing for a spot as an inside linebacker.
Also, if you didn't catch it last week, don't forget to look back at Part 1 of rufio's explanation of the 46 defense as it pertains to the Cleveland Browns.
1. D'QWELL JACKSON - STARTING INSIDE LINEBACKER
It didn't take long for head coach Eric Mangini to announce D'Qwell Jackson as a favorite of his. Earlier in the offseason, reports were indicating that Mangini would consider listening to a trade for anybody on the roster except for two players: Joe Thomas, and then Jackson.
I can't tell if I've been blind or if Mangini is trying to set it in stone that he wants Jackson to step up as the new leader of the defense with Andra Davis gone, but Jackson has not played like the type of player that you put on an "untouchable list". When you think of the top AFC linebackers the past several years, Jackson fails to come close to his counterparts on the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers. Overall, Jackson has been a good, but not great, player. He doesn't have that dominant presence of meeting a running back head on at the line of scrimmage for no gain all by himself. He also wasn't making tackles six yards down the field as often as Davis was.
It's not saying much, but last year, Jackson was our best linebacker. He looks like a decent linebacker for a 3-4 system, but not the Ray Lewis that sets the tone defensively. Perhaps that will change with the new regime, different schemes, and a higher level of responsibility this season. Jackson's job is as safe as you can get; he won't have anyone fighting for his job.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: B
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. ERIC BARTON - STARTING INSIDE LINEBACKER
They might not be from the same era, but Eric Barton has something from the past in common with Jackson -- they both played at Maryland. Now, they'll both have something in common -- being a starting linebacker for the Browns.
Barton has been an established, well-respected linebacker in the league for awhile with the New York Jets and should be considered an immediate upgrade over Andra Davis. Barton isn't among the elite linebackers either, but he is a better tackler than Davis and also does not appear to be running like a turtle on every play that isn't in the snow.
The most important thing about the Browns adding Barton is his intelligence factor. Mangini has praised Barton for his intelligence and his ability to call signals. While I don't believe it has been confirmed, that should mean that Barton, who will be partially familiar with the defensive system to be put into place, will be wearing the headset in his helmet this season. Last year, Davis and Leon Williams shared that responsibility.
Overall, it was disappointing that the Browns couldn't add a Pro Bowl caliber player to the inside linebacker position. Nonetheless, while inside linebacker might not be a strength for the Browns this season, the addition of Barton prevents it from being too much of a weakness.
Job Security: A-
Player Quality: B-
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. KALUKA MAIAVA - BACKUP INSIDE LINEBACKER
This is where things get thin really fast, although Leon Williams could play on the inside still (for training camp, he will be in the OLB preview).
In one corner, you have 2009 fourth-round rookie draft pick Kaluka Maiava from USC. In the other corner, you have 2008 fourth-round rookie draft pick Beau Bell from UNLV. Thanks again to Romeo Crennel's poor utilization of young players, Bell does not have the experience factor on his side, making this almost like a rookie on rookie competition.
If you're looking for a reason why Maiava could be a steal, then here it is: he was USC's "unknown" in a way, because he was overshadowed by the likes of Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing, who were all starters and were all taken on Day 1. He is used to coming in as a rotational player and is known for his toughness, but the fact that he wasn't a starter behind a trio of future NFL starting linebackers leads to the question -- if Maiava could've been given a starting opportunity instead, would he have played just as well?
Maiava is also the nephew of actor and former WWE wrestler The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson).
Final Roster Odds: 98%
4. BEAU BELL - BACKUP INSIDE LINEBACKER
Ok, so let's try to evaluate Beau Bell on all of the plays he registered tackles on last season. Hmmm...maybe that's not a good idea, since there were only three of them. And, while I can't recall for certain, I believe some of those came on special teams; I don't know if we ever even saw him in the linebacker rotation during the regular season.
Bell did have nagging knee problems throughout the season, but I don't buy that as an excuse for not playing him. Here's a quote from Crennel late last season that should have brought out the monkey-scratcher:
[Crennel] added that rookie linebacker Beau Bell has been making good progress, "but just finding the chance to get him up and active is an issue."
In response to that, DBN member Roger Dorn conveyed what most of the fans were thinking:
Another moment of brilliance from Romeo. Our linebackers might be the worst in the league and Crennel acts like Bell is being blocked? Either tell us that Bell is worse than our bad linebackers straight up or give him a chance to play.
The fans have not given up on Bell yet, and I think many of us are still very intrigued by the potential he showed in college. I put him behind Maiava though because he was Mangini's choice, and thus has a potential leg up in terms of favoritism. With our lack of depth at ILB, even if Bell doesn't shine, he should stick on the roster as a special teams contributor, where he forced a fumble last season on a hit that seemed harder than Andra Davis ever delivered.
Another option is that Bell could still fit on a practice squad, but before that, another team would probably snatch him up.
Player Quality: TBD
Final Roster Odds: 70%
5. BO RUUD - BACKUP INSIDE LINEBACKER
Bo Ruud was drafted by the New England Patriots in the 6th round of the 2008 draft, but missed most of the season with an ankle injury. If you're familiar with Tampa Bay Buccaneers ILB Barrett Ruud, Bo is his brother. If [Bo] Rudd ended up anything like his brother, fans would be ecstatic.
When Ruud was drafted by the Patriots, their team website had a nice article that mentioned Ruud's desire to look at film:
"I'm kind of obsessed about it," Ruud said shortly after the Patriots took him in the sixth round (197 overall). "I will tell people there is not one linebacker in the country that spends more time watching film than me. It's one thing I actually enjoy doing and it helps. I think football is really important."
Not surprisingly, Ruud said he's been doing it since high school with his brother and continued the practice ever since. When Barrett made it to the NFL, Bo stepped it up a level.
"I was actually trying to do what he was doing at the pros while at the college level. You hear about all the great football players doing that and you just try to replicate that work ethic and study habits and see what that does for you."
Ruud's size makes him a likely candidate to play inside linebacker for the Browns, where he'll try to be the "surprise" player to overtake either Bell's or Maiava's backup position.
Final Roster Odds: 30%
Practice Squad Odds: 75% (at least I would like to see him there)
6. BLAKE COSTANZO - SPECIAL TEAMS LINEBACKER
I don't know whether Blake Costanzo really stands out as an inside or outside linebacker specifically, but for this preview, he's getting the "inside" billing. He wasn't signed for that though; he was signed for his ability to contribute on special teams.
Last season with the Buffalo Bills, he led the team with 26 special teams tackles. He was waived in June due to an influx of young talent coming in at the linebacker position, and fans were somewhat disappointed to see him go. He could be this year's Kris Griffin. I couldn't find a jersey number for him yet, so if anyone has it, let me know.
Final Roster Odds: 60%
7. DAVID HOLLOWAY - PRACTICE SQUAD INSIDE LINEBACKER
Holloway has some experience at both inside and outside linebacker positions, so this is again a loose process when I list him as an inside linebacker. He was an undrafted free agent two years ago for the Arizona Cardinals. The Browns signed him to their practice squad late last season, as he returns now to compete for that spot again.
Here is an assessment Revenge of the Birds, our Arizona Cardinals affiliate, gave on Holloway heading into training camp last season:
Hollaway was an undrafted free agent out of Maryland last year and he spent nearly the entire season on the practice squad (activated for last game but didn't play). He's undersized (6'2 230) but athletic (4.72 forty, 32 bench reps) and could push for a roster spot this year. He's got experience playing on the inside and outside but his pass rush skills are best suited for the outside. He's had a full season to learn Pendergast's system and could have a leg up on Harrington in camp.
Another interesting note is that Holloway was in the same starting lineup as D'Qwell Jackson during their Maryland days. While Jackson operated at middle linebacker, Holloway played strongside linebacker.
Final Roster Odds: <2%
Practice Squad Odds: 20%
8. JONATHAN FOSTER - UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT INSIDE LINEBACKER
There's not a lot to go by on Jonathan Foster, who played for Central State (Ohio) in college. He is from Ann Arbor, Michigan and played outside linebacker at college; so, again, this is another player who could really be trying out for outside linebacker.
Unfortunately, beyond that, I can find literally nothing on Foster. For him not being out there as a "name" in the first place, I guess a positive would be the fact that Mangini is giving him another look in training camp. I'm grasping for straws here folks. In the picture to the right, he's one of the player's stretching on the ground.
*EDIT (7/21/09): Foster was waived prior to the start of training camp.
Final Roster Odds: <0.1%
Practice Squad Odds: I literally have no idea
ILB Position Quality (Overall): C
There is nothing spectacular at the position yet, but we are in a little better shape than last year with Davis gone. The backup middle linebacker is a question mark, but Bell and Maiava both have potential. It would be outstanding if both of them pan out with one of them cutting into Barton's playing time at some point in the season.
Feel free to discuss a variety of issues at linebacker in the comments section, such as whether Leon Williams/David Veikune should be inside or outside, if DQ is the real deal, or players listed on this who you believe should've been listed at outside linebacker (or vice-versa).