Often home to the defensive play-caller, inside linebackers have numerous responsibilities on every down. While they're usually not involved in pass rushing, these players are depended upon to stop the run, as well as drop back into coverage at times. But with responsibility comes opportunity, and elite players such as Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Patrick Willis have blossomed into superstars because of their superior play in the middle. In the 29th installment of the Draft Dose series, PFW looks at five teams who are in need of an inside linebacker:
There will be some changes to the linebacking corps, as the Broncos switch to a 4-3 defensive scheme under head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. The team's most productive linebacker, D.J. Williams, is slated to move to the weak side, where he will have more room to roam and make plays. That leaves Mario Haggan, who played outside in 2010, and LBs Wesley Woodyard and Joe Mays, who were primarily reserves last season. Depending on how the draft shakes out, the Broncos could add an inside 'backer anytime after the second round. Free agency is an option, as well.
The Bucs are a team that may or may not be in search of a middle linebacker, depending on what happens with free agent Barrett Ruud. He has been a dominant force in the middle for the past four seasons, recording more than 100 tackles in each of those years. Ruud has wanted a long-term contract for the past few seasons but Tampa Bay has been unwilling to extend one to him. The labor negotiations will determine if Ruud becomes a restricted or unrestricted free agent, but if he doesn't return the Bucs will be in dire need of a replacement.
The Cardinals have a decent option at inside linebacker with Paris Lenon, but are lacking both depth and an experienced player opposite him in their 3-4 defense. Gerald Hayes was ineffective last season after missing time because of surgery on his back. Daryl Washington, a second-round pick in 2010, started 11 games as a rookie and could stay in the starting lineup if Arizona doesn't add anyone at the position. Whether it's a starter or reserve, Arizona needs to add an inside linebacker or two to address a serious need for depth at the position.
Like the Cardinals, Kansas City is happy with one of its inside linebackers — Derrick Johnson — but could use help opposite him. While Johnson's total of 121 tackles last season was by far a career high, ILB Jovan Belcher did not come close to matching those numbers. Belcher's ineffectiveness meant more work for Johnson, who was left to shed more blockers than he might have had to do playing alongside a more productive player. Taking an inside linebacker in the draft could be the Chiefs' best option, as a young, athletic player would seem to fit the bill.
After being acquired in a trade with the Raiders, Kirk Morrison was the starting middle linebacker in Jacksonville last season, but he wasn't overly impressive in 16 starts. He will become a free agent regardless of how the Collective Bargaining Agreement is worked out and is not likely to return. The Jags seem to be set in the middle of the defensive line with DTs Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton and the team doesn't want to see its work wasted by poor play at the MLB spot. Without much depth to speak of at the position, middle linebacker is a major area of need for the Jaguars.