Commentary

Holes in the middle hard to fill

Mailbag: Scarcity of interior LBs makes losses of Lee, Washington more painful

Originally Published: June 1, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The loss of one player shouldn't end a franchise's hope for a season, but two NFC teams suffered losses last week that will be hard to overcome because of the position affected.

Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee blew out an ACL during Dallas' first organized team activity. Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Neither team has good options for replacing the lost players.

That points to a growing problem in the league. Like with good quarterbacks, there aren't enough quality, three-down inside or middle linebackers to go around for all 32 teams.

During the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens illustrated the importance of a three-down inside linebacker in an age of spread offenses. The Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier and the Ravens took C.J. Mosley two picks apart in the first round. Both teams know the importance of the position.

Teams are using more three- and four-receiver sets, and more pass-catching tight ends are lining up in the slot. Defenses can load up coverages with cornerbacks and safeties, but they need linebackers who can run sideline to sideline and drop into coverage. The Ravens and Steelers didn't care that the linebackers they selected each weigh less than 240 pounds. Shazier and Mosley can run and tackle.

Last year, only 21 inside or middle linebackers played more than 82 percent of their teams' defensive snaps. With defenses in pass-coverage mode more than 60 percent of the time, finding every-down linebackers is becoming a higher priority.

The Steelers now have two mobile, quick, every-down inside linebackers in Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. The Cardinals have none.

Not only did the Cardinals lose Washington, but they also didn't re-sign Karlos Dansby. As a result, they have to replace two playmaking ILBs who combined to average 14 tackles a game and totaled six interceptions, 9.5 sacks and two touchdowns.

Dansby missed only four plays last year. Washington missed four games because of a previous suspension. With Washington out of the lineup, opposing quarterbacks averaged a half yard more per throw and their QBR rose from 39.4 to 53.2.

The Cowboys are in even worse shape. Sure, they have been forced to fill in for Lee for years because of his injury history. Statistically, the Cowboys were one of the worst defenses in NFL history last year. When Lee was on the field, opponents converted 40.6 percent of their third downs. When Lee was out, it was 47.6 percent.

It's an interesting time for inside and middle linebackers. Ray Lewis, London Fletcher and Brian Urlacher no longer patrol the middle of the field for three downs. Finding the next good ones is rising on general managers' priority lists.

From the inbox

Q: Is it crazy to compare the Rams' current roster to the Seahawks' situation 2-3 years ago? Seattle had one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the league, but the main question was at QB. They signed Matt Flynn, hoping he was the answer, but ultimately third-rounder Russell Wilson beat him out and ended up being an elite QB. Are the Rams in a similar position where either Bradford will turn out to be the guy, or hopefully we will be lucky enough to go find a Wilson-type QB who can take us to the next level?

James in New York

A: I think the situation is similar. You are also right that it's the quarterback who can take this Rams team to an elite level. The Seahawks built a great core group out of midround choices. The Rams, by maneuvering with draft trades, ended up getting eight players out of the Robert Griffin III trade. They got five legitimate starters out of that deal -- Greg Robinson, Michael Brockers, Zac Stacy, Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree. Plus, Stedman Bailey could develop into a good receiver and Isaiah Pead may end up being a No. 3 running back. Offensive lineman Rokevious Watkins didn't work out and is now in Kansas City. The Rams have an all-star defensive line and a decent back seven. The offensive line should be better, but it's all up to Bradford. He's the key to getting them over the top.

Q: The Eagles ended their season on a high note last year. They've made some good moves as well as some risky moves this offseason, but I can't help but feel like people neglect them when considering NFC contenders. DeSean Jackson being released can only hurt so much as they still have so much talent in that offense. How do you predict they will fare this year?

Lawrence in Redlands, California

A: I look at the Eagles as a nine- or 10-win team. Because this will be the team's second year in Chip Kelly's offense, it will run things faster, which will cause problems for defenses. Nick Foles surprised everyone coming off the bench and helping the Eagles get to the playoffs. The question is whether he is good enough to get them to the 11- or 12-win level. The pace of the game will help Foles. Defenses may have a chance of figuring him out by studying video, but Kelly can keep opponents guessing with his pace and play calling. If RG III comes back with a strong season, I think the Eagles and Redskins are the teams to beat in the NFC East, with Philadelphia having the edge.

Q: Do you think the Seahawks might offer extensions to some of the players who could be free agents after the 2014 season? I think Byron Maxwell would be a good player to keep but might be a lot more expensive if he continues to play this well and goes to free agency. K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith also are entering the last year of their rookie deals.

Brad in Bellevue, Washington

A: The Seahawks have been one of the most aggressive teams in locking up their young players. They have signed four defensive starters -- Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett and Tony McDaniel -- wide receiver Doug Baldwin and kicker Steven Hauschka to multiyear contracts, so they need to take a break. They have a little over $8 million of cap room left after getting all their draft choices signed. The plan is to work on one or two more extensions during training camp. Wright will be the first to get a shot at a long-term deal. Maxwell could be more expensive if he develops into a solid No. 2 cornerback. It's hard to say where that leaves Smith.

Q: Why isn't the NFL spending big money for someone to develop a knee brace that will drastically reduce knee injuries? It seems like every season there are stars who go down in preseason training or during the season. That is bad for business and bad for the league. As a Patriots fan, seeing Brady go down in Week 1 in 2008 and Gronk go down last year was brutal. Someone has to know how to create a brace that will take the impact of a direct hit to the knee and disperse it to the thigh and shin of the leg to lessen the impact on one point.

Spencer in Birmingham, Alabama

A: It's not the brace. It's the training. Lee and Domenik Hixon blew out their ACLs last week, and there really wasn't any contact. Most people believe Lee's knee was hurt before he was hit by Zack Martin. Everyone is for better equipment; those efforts can't stop. But the union and league need to examine whether the increased amount of time off after the season is contributing to these devastating injuries.

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinAndre Johnson will probably be suiting up for Houston again in 2014.

Q: Andre Johnson says he doesn't know if Houston is the place for him. Then he doesn't show up for OTAs, as he said he wouldn't. I don't see him staying in Houston. What are the chances that he gets moved before the season? By the way, as a K.C. fan I think the Chiefs should make this move or make every effort to find a deal. He solves their problem of needing another playmaker at WR. Andre would get a new team and an offensive coach who would get the most of his talents and will be around for a while instead of the revolving door at Houston.

Jason in Omaha, Nebraska

A: Johnson would be a great fit for the Chiefs' offense, but not for the salary cap. He has $11 million in base salary and bonuses. The Chiefs have only $2.8 million of cap room. To accommodate a trade, I'm sure Johnson would restructure his deal, but I don't think he will do it for less money. Plus, the Texans can't afford to let him go. He's too valuable to their offense. The way I see it playing out is that Johnson might miss some camp, but he has no choice but to eventually show up. Because of the contract, the Texans can't recoup enough in draft choice compensation to make it work for the franchise.

Q: The Patriots have won the AFC East 10 of the last 12 years. Buffalo, New York and Miami seem to always be rebuilding or simply cannot field quality teams. Is it ownership, the GMs, poor coaching or some other factor that is preventing them from putting together teams to challenge New England?

Al in Cheyenne, Wyoming

A: It's not the ownership. It's not the GMs. It's not bad luck. It's the quarterback. The Patriots have Tom Brady. Miami, Buffalo and New York don't. The situation is no different than what was going on in the AFC South when Peyton Manning was in the division. We're seeing the same thing in Denver now that Manning is there. To win the AFC East, a team needs a quarterback who can match Brady's skills. Making it tougher for the AFC East is that while Brady is doing his magic on offense, Bill Belichick is doing more magic with his schemes. Look how many quarterbacks the Dolphins have been through since Dan Marino. Until Brady retires, it's going to be tough for teams in the AFC East to catch New England.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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