Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu started his career with three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. His fourth season was shot to shit to by injuries. Tatupu badly bruised his knee in week three of the preseason. At the time the diagnosis was a relief, but a bone bruise is painful and can linger for months. Tatupu was listed as probable for the first two weeks of the season. He broke his thumb against Buffalo and didn't have surgery to repair it until January. As of April 9, 2009, he was still wearing a cast. In week seven at Tampa Bay, Tatupu suffered a concussion in the second quarter and missed the remainder of the game. He played in week eight against San Francisco, but was again forced out of action in the first half. This time Tatupu suffered a strained groin. Tatupu appeared as "questionable" in week nine and didn't play against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the first missed game of his career.
To some—and most confoundingly so—that validated their belief that Tatupu is overrated. It’s a label that started at the 2005 NFL Combine. Tatupu measured an eighth of an inch shorter than six feet and weighed a stocky, but small for a linebacker, 238. His forty time, 4.83, is surpassed by some linemen. That led Tim Ruskell’s decision to trade up to acquire Lofa Tatupu in the middle of the second round to be widely criticized by draft pundits and those that ape their opinions. His early success and quick fame fueled the backlash.
Now, Pro Bowls are not a particularly keen measure of talent. Many scouts are dubious that Tatupu is an elite middle linebacker. His range isn’t exceptional. Even in his better seasons, his tackle numbers are pedestrian and that’s always going to be the money number for linebackers. It shouldn’t be.
Some players produce tackles all over the field. Others are just cleaning up. Oakland Raiders Kirk Morrison and Gibril Wilson ranked fifth and sixth in total tackles for 2008. Their team ranked first in opponent rushing attempts and 27th in rushing yards allowed per attempt. Their run defense sucked. Morrison and Wilson converted the tackles others didn’t.
Tatupu makes productive tackles. He doesn’t get too far outside the tackles box, but the ball carrier doesn’t get too far from the line of scrimmage either. In 2007, he was involved in 63 fewer plays, but had the same number of defeats* as Patrick Willis: 30. He stopped 66 runs and those runs averaged just 2.2 yards.
Tatupu also excels against the pass. He has nine interceptions and 29 passes defended over four seasons. He is smart and disciplined in a zone and makes up for his average speed with great decision making and precise angles. Tatupu is mostly a support blitzer: Bating the lead blocker or pressuring and sometimes hitting, but rarely converting the sack.
What makes Tatupu special though is his leadership. I shy from celebrating what is often a media creation, but Tatupu isn’t a presence or a legend, he’s player that smartly audibles stunts, picks out routes and points out plays before they happen. That is, he isn’t the kind of leader that contributes swagger, he’s the kind that teaches, directs and maximizes the talent around him. Kind of like Mike Singletary…
Mike Singletary the player, that is.
Seattle’s depth is debatable. D.D. Lewis is a serviceable starter at all three linebacker positions that has improved as a run stopper and is capable enough in pass pro. David Hawthorne is a hard hitting run stopper that’s not yet ready for Sunday. The wildcard is Aaron Curry. A player that probably could play middle linebacker in a pinch, and like almost everything football related, would be damn good at it. But no one expects Tatupu to miss time, and so because Seattle is starting a Hall of Fame-potential middle linebacker in his prime, I’m giving the Seahawks an A+ -- rules be damned.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers don't have a ton of depth at inside linebacker. If Patrick Willis were to go down, the team would be in a whole heapload of trouble. Nonetheless, Willis is a tough guy who has played through pain in the past. Additionally, guys like Ulbrich and McKillop will be able to spell an older veteran like Takeo Spikes. That helps the grade, but the talent that is starting for the 49ers alone gives me sufficient reason to grade them out as an A unit.
For at least one more season the Arizona Cardinals should boast an inside linebacking crew that well above average, at least as far as the starters are concerned. I say for at least one more season because it's pretty clear that Karlos Dansby is ready and waiting to jump into what he hopes is a very lucrative free agent pool in next year's uncapped NFL. He's quietly become one of the better inside linebackers in the league and there's no reason to think that this season couldn't be his best yet. As you'd expect from an inside backer, Dansby is capable of making plays from sideline to sideline and he can deliver a significant blow once he reaches the ball carrier. What sets him apart from many backers though is his ability to rush the pass just as well as he plays the run or drops into coverage. There are a certain faction of fans that even champion moving him to the OLB spot in the Cardinals new 3-4 defense since he'd likely be the pass rusher on the team from the outside. Despite the backwoods campaign though Dansby isn't moving and the Cardinals are expecting big things out of the 27 year old backer, especially considering that they're paying him almost ten million dollars this season.
The unsung hero of the Cardinals defense for the past several years is Gerald Hayes. Since missing the entire 2005 season with in injury, he's played in 46 of 48 games and averaged 93 tackles per season. He isn't flashy or dynamic but he's the perverbial 'thumper' in the middle of the Cards defense and he'll jar a couple of fumbles loose every season with his punishing hits. He's at his best when he can diagnose a play in front of him and move downhill towards the ball and along the same lines he's a decent pass rusher, although he'll prefer to run over a defender as opposed to running around or spinning around them. He's not necessarily a 'two down' backer but the Cardinals use Adrian Wilson like a linebacker on passing downs so Hayes will come off field at times in those situations. You won't find Hayes on Sportscenter but he's one of the 'glue' guys that hold this defense together.
The Cardinals lost their top backup LB, Monty Beisel, to the Chiefs in free agency so their depth is a bit thin. Ali Highsmith and/or Victor Hobson should get the first shot at backing up Dansby and Hayes. Highsmith, an undrafted rookie last year, showed promise during the preseason last year and was making a name for himself on special teams before a torn ACL ended his season prematurely. The biggest question for him will be his health and how much size he's put on during his first season of professional ball. Hobson is a veteran of the 3-4 defense and had a 100 tackle, six sack season in 2006, but since then he's been cut by the Jets, Patriots and Bengals. He played on the outside in 2006 but the Cardinals think that with his size (6-0, 254) he'll be better utilized on the inside. Also on the radar is Pago Togafua but his lack of size (5-10, 240) suggests that he's nothing more than a special team's contributor. Two undrafted free agents are also in the picture, Reggie Walker and Chase Bullock, but it's hard to tell how much of an impact they will make. With the lack of quality depth anything is possible though.
Overall the Cardinals have a very solid starting duo (dare I say A-range) but the depth leaves quite a bit to be desired. Taking that into consideration I can't go any higher than a grade of B.
Turf Show Times
In a division trademarked for its linebackers, the St. Louis Rams were embarrassingly substandard last year, thanks to poor decision making that left Will Witherspoon in the middle and arrogantly allowed an emerging Brandon Chillar to flee for greener, more frozen pastures. Addressing the situation at linebacker has been a top offseason priority for the defensive-minded new regime led by head coach Steve Spagnuolo and defensive coordinator Ken Flajole.
The Rams are in a much better place with their linebackers than they have been in a long, long time, thanks mostly to the addition of Laurinaitis and Witherspoon's move back to his natural spot. There are still very real concerns about depth here, and it would surprise no one to see the team pluck a roster casualty when teams start making cuts this fall. Spagnuolo and Flajole have reputations for finding diamonds in the rough among defensive players and their success with linebackers is being counted upon here.