Battle of the AFC North: Outside Linebackers

May 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison (92) stretches during organized team activities at the Steelers training facility. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

This is the ninth article in the series. Links for the earlier posts can be found at the end of this article.

The AFC North is divided not just by our loyaties but by our defensive schemes. The Steelers and the Ravens run a 3-4, the Browns and the Bengals run a 4-3. This makes it somewhat of a challenge to compare players, but it's worth a try. A post comparing all linebackers would be incredibly unwieldy, so even though it isn’t ideal, this post is going to deal with the outside linebackers of both persuasions. The next post will compare the guys on the inside.

This is an appropriate point to repeat my disclaimer—I’m entirely dependent upon unofficial online depth charts, as the teams themselves have not committed to a depth chart for the upcoming season. So if those of you from other fanbases have more accurate information, please do leave a comment to elucidate.

Let’s begin with the 4-3 defenses. First up, the Bengals.

The Strongside LB is Manny Lawson. A first-round pick for the 49ers in 2006, he was signed by the Bengals in 2011. Behind him is Dan Skuta, 2009 UDFA.

The Bengals apparently have a rescue program for former California LBs, because their Weakside is Thomas Howard, 2006 second-round pick for the Raiders. They also signed Howard in 2011. His backup is Vincent Rey, 2010 UDFA.

The Browns’ Strongside LB is the Eagles’ 2006 third-round draft pick, Chris Gocong. The Browns signed him in 2010. He is backed up by Quinton Spears, a 2011 UDFA.

***LATE BREAKING NEWS: I just discovered Chris Gocong tore his Achilles and is out for the season. This is a major blow to the Browns, as you will see when you look at the stats. I really should look at Vincent Rey, but I haven't got time. If anyone who knows more about the situation would like to add a comment it would be greatly appreciated!***

***More late-breaking news—a Browns fan just left the following information:

At this time...

the outside lb’s for the Browns will be Maiava and Johnson. This obviously will change once Fujita returns from his suspension. Both lb’s are relatively untested and how that will affect our defense is anyones guess.

by bucs012204

Maiava is Kaluka Maiava, the Browns' 2009 fourth-round pick. He played all of 2009, 2 games in 2010, presumably because of an injury, and 16 games in 2011 as well, primarily on special teams. He and Johnson will be making their case to keep Gocong's position once Fujita returns.***

The Weakside LB is Scott Fujita. Drafted by the Chiefs in 2002, he played three seasons with the Chiefs and one season with the Cowboys before signing with the Saints. Although the Browns signed him in 2010, Fujita will be suspended for the first three games of the season for his alleged participation in the Saints’ bounty program. His backup is supposedly Kaluka Maiava, the Browns’ 2009 fourth-round draft pick, but Dawgs by Nature reports he is in a camp battle with James-Michael Johnson, the Browns’ 2012 fourth-round draft pick, for Fujita’s early-season starting spot. (Johnson is currently listed as the Middle LB backup.)

Now for the 3-4 teams:

The Steelers and the Ravens have two of the most visible players in the NFL at linebacker, Ray Lewis and James Harrison. Lewis is the poster child for a rehabilitated image and the darling of the NFL camera crews for his spittle-spewing motivational sessions. James Harrison is the poster child for everything the new, gentler, kinder NFL is trying to discourage. I’ve noticed, though, the new kinder, gentler NFL isn’t above exploiting footage of Harrison’s scary hits. But back to the business at hand. (Ray Lewis will, naturally, appear in the next article with the rest of the ILBs.)

The Ravens sometimes cheat, if you will, and play out of a 4-3 alignment. Part of the reason they can do this is Terrell Suggs, linebacker extraordinaire. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Suggs sustained a partial tear to his Achilles during the off-season. He swears that, like the Terminator, he’ll be back. But Achilles injuries have a notoriously long recovery period, so we’ll assume he won’t see the field for the majority of 2012 at best. If he does make it into the lineup this season it’s a bonus for the Ravens. The whooshing sound you hear is a massive sigh of relief from the rest of the AFC North, and in particular Ben Roethlisberger, who is tired of wearing Suggs around his neck.

The good news for the Ravens is Paul Kruger, their 2009 second-round draft pick. After an unsuccessful experiment moving Kruger to DE, the Ravens put him back at OLB as a situational pass rusher, and he showed a great deal of promise, including sacking Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. He’s the favorite to replace Suggs. 2010 UDFA Albert McClellan is the backup at ROLB.

The LOLB position is likely to be manned by the Ravens’ first draft pick in 2012, although not their first-round pick. The Ravens chose to trade down into the second round, and still managed to snag Courtney Upshaw, generally projected as a first-day prospect. His backup, or competition, however you wish to view it, is Sergio Kindle. Kindle was the Ravens’ extra 2010 second round pick, acquired in a trade with the Broncos so Josh McDaniels could draft Tim Tebow. Kindle never saw the field in 2010, as he fractured his skull in a (non football-related) fall and was on IR the whole season. He was first activated for Game 4 of 2011 and mostly played special teams last season.

The Steelers feature one of the most feared OLB tandems in the NFL, the above-mentioned James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. (I believe the picture of Harrison which leads off the article was just after Casey Hampton stepped on his toes.)

Harrison began 2011 on the field, but was not himself as he struggled with the lingering effects of a couple of back surgeries during the off-season. Just about the time he was rounding into his usual form, an offensive lineman’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Harrison in Game Four at Houston broke the orbital bone around Harrison’s eye, and he was out for the next four games. (Said offensive lineman was neither flagged nor fined for the helmet-to-helmet hit, despite launching into Harrison. Apparently the NFL has determined defensive linemen don’t have brains which can be damaged by such hits. Good to know.)

LaMarr Woodley, after a rather quiet start to the season, blossomed when Harrison went out, recording seven and a half sacks during the course of Games Five through Eight. He injured his hamstring in Game Eight vs. New England, missed the next three games, and played only sporadically after that. Steeler Nation obviously hopes both players are healthy in 2012, although James Harrison is currently on the PUP list with an unspecified knee injury. He is considered probable to start the season, and has assured reporters there are no lingering issues with his back.

The backups for Woodley and Harrison are an interesting question. Woodley is backed up by 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds. Unfortunately, Worilds is on the PUP list at the moment, as he had wrist surgery during the offseason. Worilds told Jim Wexell it was "just a cleanup" and he would be back in action in a month. This was in early June, and he isn’t back yet, but it sounds as if it shouldn’t be a long-term problem. Worilds was out for four games last season with a quad injury. Also in the mix, and presumably getting some of Worilds’ reps, is Brandon Johnson. Johnson one of the very few instances of a player leaving Pittsburgh West and making his way onto the Steelers roster, rather than vice versa. Johnson managed it, but with a four-year stop in Cincinnati. Welcome to the Promised Land, Mr. Johnson.

Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson are listed as the backups for Harrison. Carter, the Steelers’ 2011 fifth-round pick, has been garnering a lot of favorable attention in camp. Robinson is a 2012 UDFA out of Temple, and has also received good comments for his backs on backers and team drills.

It’s just as well, too. Typically one of the greatest strengths of the Steelers, the LB depth looks pretty shallow at the moment, but hopefully some of the backups will step up to the plate.

Let's go head-to-head now and compare these men. We have two rookies to look at first, Courtney Upshaw and James-Michael Johnson, as he appears to be a favorite to start instead of Fujita. As usual, I will use their scouting reports.

Here is part of Courtney Upshaw's scouting report from Walter Football.

Summary: Upshaw is a tough prospect to evaluate, and there is a wide array of opinions on what type of position he should play in the NFL. At Alabama, Upshaw was one of the top defenders in the SEC over the past few seasons. The Crimson Tide defense fed off him applying pressure to quarterbacks and being a tough run defender in the tackle box.

After watching a lot of tape of Upshaw, the opinion here is that he will be a serious pass-rushing threat in the NFL. Upshaw can stay in a 3-4 defense and could provide a big impact as an edge rusher. He has developed pass-rushing moves with a bull rush and rip move. He is a powerful, physical defender who can be a violent force. He is a devastating hitter who is capable of knocking out the quarterback. Despite the debate on how he fits best, Upshaw has earned a first-round grade.

Player Comparison: LaMarr Woodley

This is for James-Michael Johnson, from fftoolbox:

James-Michael Johnson is an undersized inside linebacker with a stocky, well-built frame. Has a great knack for generating positive contact. He takes guys on and explodes into them trying to outwork them. As a tackler, he's not perfect in his technique, but he looks to bring the thump. Opens up his arms, wraps and brings them down. Johnson has average arm length, yet he does well to initiate contact with his hands and does okay to place them.

Like a running back, he makes himself skinny when blitzing through creases in the line. He's not the type to take a blocker one on one if he doesn't need to and he's looking to penetrate the play with a decent short area burst.

Still needs work in coverage. He has some extra motion in his feet and can get caught taking a step and give up separation. Average ball skills. Irregular pad level causes poor change of direction quickness; although he is quick and instinctive, so after being coached up, coverage could become "plus."

Johnson has good pursuit angles and has active hands to pry for the ball. Consistently gets a jump on ball carrier.

Now for the veterans. First, the NFL stats:

Nfl_stats_medium

The undisputed sackmeisters have to be the duo of Harrison and Woodley, who in their 22 games had almost twice as many sacks as the remaining five players in a combined 74 games. Cincinnati's OLBs win the battle of passes defended. It's probably just a coincidence, but the three longest-tenured players, Thomas Howard, Scott Fujita, and James Harrison, had the highest average of solo tackles per game.

Since we've looked at the raw data, let's take a look at what the analysts think about it. First, Advanced NFL Stats. This is a ranking, so lower is better:

Adv

The Advanced NFL Stats ranking is for all linebackers, without distinctions of defensive scheme, or, I presume, anything else either.

Next, here are the Pro Football Reference AV (Average Values) for everyone, with their AV for their best season also given. (In several cases the AV for 2011 matched the AV from one or more earlier seasons, so I gave the most recent previous season.)

Pfr_olb_medium

Finally, here are the ratings from Pro Football Focus. Unlike Advanced NFL Stats, Pro Football Focus separates 3-4 and 4-3 OLBs. Interestingly, they analysed the Baltimore linebackers as 4-3s, except for Terrell Suggs. As a result, only Pittsburgh was in the 3-4 rating. As a rating, higher is better:

Pff_overall_medium

Paul Kruger, for whatever reason, showed up in neither the 3-4 or 4-3 category, but he did show up in the player pages, so that’s where his stats come from. If he were to be ranked with the 3-4 OLBs he would be No. 12, moving LaMarr Woodley down to No. 13. If he is ranked with the 4-3 OLBs he would be also be No.12, right after Manny Lawson. Here are the rankings, according to PFF. (Although they were ranked in different categories, Paul Kruger gives us hope the rankings are more or less equivalent.)

  • James Harrison: 6
  • Manny Lawson: 11
  • LaMarr Woodley: 12
  • Thomas Howard: 24
  • Scott Fujita: 33
  • Chris Gocong: 36
  • (Terrell Suggs: 40)

It's time to let the rubber meet the road and rank the teams. This is the first time since the first couple of articles in the series I have been able to indulge my Steelers homerism in my ranking. Yes, there are concerns about depth, about the age of James Harrison, about the nagging injury problems last season, but based upon last year's performance it is reasonable to assume the Steelers will still have an excellent tandem at OLB.

Ordinarily the Ravens would be right in step. But given the uncertainty about Terrell Suggs seeing the field in 2012 combined with the total inexperience of Courtney Upshaw and the small sample size for Paul Kruger, it's difficult not to assume they will take a step back, especially early in the season.

Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard were the best pass defenders of our seven players last season. This wasn't enough to greatly impress the Advanced NFL Stats guys, but they were viewed favorably by PFR and PFF, and look to be a solid presence.

Chris Gocong was the highest ranked player in our group by Advanced NFL Stats. (Their No. 1 LB was Terrell Suggs.) Gocong was the lowest-ranked player by PFF, by far. PFR considered him to be as valuable last season as Woodley, Harrison, or Howard. So take your pick. Fujita, on the other hand, was not much liked by anyone, and he will probably be replaced by a raw fourth-round pick for the first three games of the season. So despite Gocong's good numbers, I think the Browns get moved down the line. Here is my off-the-cuff, gut-level ranking;

  1. Steelers
  2. Bengals
  3. (T) Ravens, Browns

Here are the links for the other articles in the series:

QB

WR

RB

OT

OL

TE

S

CB

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