The easy answer is "A". A sub-Pro Bowl starter in his prime, Leroy Hill, and a once in a generation talent at linebacker, Aaron Curry – that’s got to be an "A".
Leroy Hill struggles in zone coverage. He’s an after the fact tackler that is lucky to track down whatever receiver just blew by him. He hasn’t has been a consistent pass rusher since his rookie season, and though that might be because boneheadedness on John Marshall’s part, it might be that like Lofa Tatupu, he can’t find gaping inside rush lanes absent monstrous Marcus Tubbs. Hill has missed time every season since his rookie season with injuries.
Aaron Curry is a rookie. Even given the better than average success NFL GM’s enjoy drafting linebackers, first overall linebackers have less than a 60% chance of ever making a Pro Bowl. They have a less than 40% chance of ever making two Pro Bowls. Curry wasn’t highly recruited out of high school and wasn’t a standout throughout his college career. He was an amazing senior and his stock exploded after an amazing Combine. He was never a great pass rusher at Wake Forest. Curry is projected to be a good pass rusher, but projections that don’t accord with reality have a way of disappointing. He’s a little stiff in his swivel and though much younger, probably less agile than departed Seahawk Julian Peterson.
Both are monster run stoppers. Not tackle – tackle – tackle run stoppers, but jam the fullback into his locker, atomic wedgie the tight end and rip through the ball for a loss of four…teeth, run stoppers.
Both shutdown the screen pass and make a fumble as likely as a completion.
Both have rare closing speed, good agility, sound and sometimes punishing tackling technique and good field awareness.
Curry has the skills and tools to be Lance Briggs caliber pass defender.
Hill has the skills and tools to be a Chad Brown caliber pass rusher.
But there’s still too much locked into potential and not enough known about how they will be played and how they will develop, so though Hill and Curry comprise the most talented duo of outside linebackers in the entire NFL, they are not yet an "A", they are a "B" with crazy upside.
D.D. Lewis, David Hawthorne, Will Herring and Lance Laury make up the depth we know. I’ve spoken of Lewis and Hawthorne. Herring is a former safety that’s a linebacker electron. His speed and agility give him potential as a coverage specialist, but he needs to add bulk and strength to not be a liability against the run. I’m not sure Laury makes the team.
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.
San Francisco 49ers
As I mentioned initially, the 49ers could run the spectrum of production this season at outside linebacker. They've had production from Haralson, but how this unit grades out at the end of the season will depend a lot on what Manny Lawson brings to the table in the pass rush. Accordingly, I'm splitting the difference for now and giving the unit a C, but expecting so much more.
Much like the Niners, the Arizona Cardinals boast above average starters at inside linebackers and meagerly mention their outside linebackers. The Cardinals OLB's certainly have experience on their side but that also means that the clock is ticking against these 30-something's.
The projected starters are 33 year old Chike Okeafor and 32 year Clark Haggans. Together they've appeared in 255 games in this league and recorded 82 sacks but Okeafor spent the entire 2007 season on the IR and Haggans finished the 2007 season on the IR. In the 2008 season the two combined for a grand total of 5.5 sacks which is not exactly what you're looking for in a pair of OLB's in a 3-4. The Cardinals hope is that a return to the aggressive, attacking style particularly with Okeafor will result in an uptick in his sack totals. If both Okeafor and Haggans can stay healthy, the hope is that they can approach 15 sacks combined with guys like Darnell Docket, Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson and the backups (conveniently listed below) picking up the slack.
The primary backup should be second round pick Cody Brown, formerly of the University of Connecticut. Few question Brown's ability to rush the passer, but it's pretty universally accepted that it takes a full year to grasp the responsibilities of the position as a whole. That should leave Brown in the same boat as veteran pass rusher Bertrand Berry. Both excel at rushing the passer but would appear to have a hard time playing a complete OLB this season. The result, at least right now, appears to be two players who are basically situational pass rushers, but in that role could rack up between four and six sacks. Further down the depth chart is sixth round selection Will Davis who has proven to be quite an interesting prospect. A former wide receiver turned defensive end turned defensive tackle (after injuries by others at Illinois), Davis has the physical ability to play almost anywhere on the field but he's raw and would most likely need a solid camp to make the roster.
Sadly that's the entirety of the depth at outside linebacker, Three veterans trying avoid the 'washed up' label and two rookies hoping that potential isn't the only thing in their bag of tricks. Maybe the Cardinals strike gold and their veterans stay healthy while Brown and Davis come along slowly or maybe the kids get thrust into the fire before they are ready. I could easily see the Cardinals out performing this grade by a mile but realistically, I can't go much higher than D.