Last season linebackers such as Justin Houston, Sean Weatherspoon, Daryl Washington and Paul Kruger took their games to the next level. The players mentioned all did this by in various ways. Some did this solely for their pass rushing ability while others for their all around game. The crop of linebackers I’ll be discussing all vary in skill sets but each have excellent opportunities to improve in 2013.
Whitney Mercilus, Texans: Mercilus was the Texans first round pick last season as a defensive end and came on strong last November/December finishing with six sacks and forced two fumbles. This offseason Mercilus was moved to weak-side outside linebacker. In the Texans scheme, this is the primary pass rusher and Mercilus has the skill and now the opportunity to have a double digit sack year. For a team that could make a deep postseason run, Mercilus is one of the players the Texans really need to live up to expectations.
Bruce Carter, Cowboys: The only knock on Carter through two seasons is that he can’t seem to stay healthy. Other than that, he has showed the kind of potential that could make him a Pro Bowl caliber player for years to come. He has excellent speed and the ability to chase down some of the league’s most explosive running backs and receivers. This year he will be playing outside linebacker in a 4-3 while last year he was playing as an inside linebacker in a 3-4.
The new role gives Carter more room to operate and takes advantage of his ability to cover ground across the entire field. This position also gives him plenty of opportunities to stop runners in their tracks when they try to bounce a play to the outside. It seems like it’s been the same story different year recently for the Cowboys. If young players like Carter step up, there is a better chance that the script will change.
Zach Brown, Titans: Brown was a college teammate of the fore mentioned Carter and like him he has the potential to make a big leap in 2013. He started 14 games in his rookie season and did well in coverage recording three interceptions returning two of them for touchdowns. That doesn’t even include the 5.5 sacks recorded. However, Brown struggled against the run and when four of your teams games come against Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew, that can be a problem.
With a full year under his belt, Brown should improve that aspect of his game next season which would help a Titans team that historically has been pretty strong on the defensive side of the football.
Brad Jones, Packers: When Desmond Bishop went down with a torn hamstring last preseason that ended his year, Jones played very well in his place. Now after releasing Bishop in June, Jones will have the starting role for good and should make the most of his chances as an every down player. For his play last year, the popular site Pro Football Focus had Jones graded as one of their top ten inside linebackers.
If he continues that play, look for him to earn even more exposure this year with a major roll on the Packers defense that tends to struggle towards the end of the year.
Vontaze Burfict, Bengals: Entering college, Burfict was one of the most highly touted players in the country and even earned Ray Lewis comparisons from some outlets. That didn’t help his draft stock in 2012 as he went undrafted due to conditioning and maturity issues. The Bengals took a flyer on him and it paid off immediately. Burfict went on to lead the team in tackles as a rookie and is only going to get better as he was not much of a factor in the early parts of the season. The Bengals look like a team that could make a nice little run in the AFC and a lot of it is due to their physical defense. If Burfict can continue his high level of play it would be a huge deal for a player who many thought at one point wouldn’t make it in the NFL past his first training camp.