Linebackers are in an interesting predicament in the modern NFL. In recent years, the players that have made the biggest leaps are those who are linebackers in position title only. By that I’m referring to the 3-4 outside linebackers (think an Aldon Smith type player) whose primary job is to rush the passer. While those players get most of the attention, there are many interior linebackers who were simply fantastic this past year and didn’t receive their proper due. The players I chose to breakout in 2013 all played various roles in their respective defenses. They were all given a very nice opportunity, but while some made the most of it, others struggled more than I would have expected. What I wrote about these players going into the season can be found here.
Whitney Mercilus, Texans: Taking on the biggest pass rushing role in the Texans defense, I figured Mercilus was in for a very nice year. While he did have a decent season with seven sacks, the advanced metrics aren’t nearly as favorable. According to the popular advanced metric site Pro Football Focus, Mercilus graded out as the league’s worst 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013. With the Texans drafting Jadaveon Clowney, Mercilus won’t be counted upon to rush the passer as frequently in 2014.
Mercilus even said this offseason that in Romeo Crennel’s scheme he should be spending more time dropping back in coverage. It will be intriguing to see how Mercilus develops in the coming season. He will still be asked to rush the passer, but will also be trying to develop into more of a complete outside linebacker.
Hit or miss: Miss
Bruce Carter, Cowboys: Through three years, it seems the verdict on Carter hasn’t changed. He is an athletic freak that just can’t seem to stay healthy. Carter played in a career high 15 games in 2013 which is a step in the right direction in terms of health concerns. For the season, he recorded career bests with 96 total tackles, three passes defended and two sacks. Carter’s athleticism really showed in terms of pass coverage this past season as advanced metrics consistently regard him highly amongst fellow 4-3 outside linebackers.
As good as Carter was against the pass, he really struggled playing the run in 2013 and at one point was benched during the season. This wasn’t much of an issue in 2012, so the Cowboys are hoping it is just a one year outlier. With Sean Lee out for the season, The Cowboys need all their linebackers (especially one with Carter’s talent) to take their games to the next level. If that isn’t enough incentive, Carter is entering his contract year in 2014. With noticeable improvement against the run and continued success defending the pass, Carter could be in for a very nice payday.
Hit or miss: Push
Zach Brown, Titans: Like the aforementioned Carter, Brown is a physical specimen out of North Carolina. While he didn’t make the leap I expected in 2013, his statistics were similar to those of his impressive 2012 rookie season. On the year, Brown had 91 total tackles, four sacks along with a forced fumble and an interception. The main thing that plagued Brown was inconsistency as he was also benched for a period of time in 2013.
With a new regime in place, Brown could be in for a big year in Tennessee. He now figures to play as an inside linebacker in the Titans new 3-4 defense. With sub 4.5 speed and the ability to play sideline to sideline, this is a fantastic fit for Brown’s skill set. The talent has never been an issue with Brown but this fresh start could do him very well.
Hit or miss: Push
Brad Jones, Packers: After an impressive 2012, the Packers locked down Jones with a three year deal worth $11.75 million leading up to the 2013 season. Jones became an every-down player with the release of Desmond Bishop, but had a disappointing season overall. Despite missing four games with a hamstring injury, Jones’ overall numbers weren’t bad. For the year he had 84 total tackles to go with three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Despite that, advanced metrics showed he regressed from his nice 2012 campaign both against the run and in coverage. Granted, the play against coverage could have slipped due to recovering from the hamstring injury. Offseason reports have said that Jones could be in danger of losing his starting job in 2014, but the Packers only addressed the position by adding Carl Bradford in the 4th round. Jones figures to enter the year as the starter and if the Packers defense as a whole improves in 2014, could be a nice bounce back candidate.
Hit or miss: Miss
Vontaze Burfict, Bengals: A few years ago, many felt Burfict wouldn’t stay in the league past his first training camp. Now he looks like one of the best undrafted finds in recent memory. Burfict had an impressive rookie campaign in 2012, but was simply fantastic in his second season. The number varies depending on the outlet, but Burfict recorded at least a whopping 170 total tackles in his first full season as a starter. Along with that, Burfict added three sacks, an interception and two fumble recoveries. One of which was returned for a touchdown. With those types of numbers, the accolades started to pour in as Burfict was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
2014 is the last of Burfict’s rookie deal and the Bengals are smartly trying to lock him up to a long term deal before the regular season. Burfict will only be 23 when the season starts so the once untouchable prospect figures to be the focal point of a physical Bengals defense for years to come.
Hit or miss: Hit