CHARGERS SPRING REPORT -- INSIDE LINEBACKERS
With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Yesterday: Outside Linebackers
Today: Inside Linebackers
Tomorrow: Defensive Ends
Stephen Cooper, 7th yr., Maine: With everybody's attention on the season-ending injury suffered by Shawne Merriman, many forgot that the Chargers had to play their first four games last season without Cooper. After his breakout year in '07 when he led the Bolts in tackles, Cooper was suspended at the start of last season because he violated the NFL's policy on steroids and related substances.
Sure the Bolts managed a 2-2 start without him, but once he returned they promptly lost six of eight. Blame Cooper? Absolutely. Even though he spent much of '08 as a tackling machine, it had to be difficult for the defense to come together while its man in the middle was on the sidelines for a month.
Hopefully, for Cooper, lesson learned. He worked hard to make it into the NFL after being undrafted in '03. He worked even harder to become a starter after the Chargers re-signed him in '05. Another mistake like last year, and he could throw it all away.
Assuming that doesn't happen, the Chargers should be able to feel confident in at least one of their inside linebackers in '09.
Matt Wilhelm, 7th yr., Ohio State: Listed as a starter here, but one can imagine that there are few Charger fans who hope he stays as a starter. Regardless of what goes wrong with the Bolts on defense, Wilhelm always seems to get the blame. In a lot of ways, Wilhelm has taken over the "most-hated" mantle from CB Quentin Jammer.
The weird thing is that this veteran is a very smart player who has all of the tools to be a success in the NFL. Unfortunately, most in the organization say that Wilhelm simply thinks too much -- rather than just reacting.
Assuming Wilhelm is sharp enough to realize that his job in squarely on the line in '09, maybe he can clear his head and just go out onto the field and start knocking heads.
If he doesn't, a scenario in which Wilhelm doesn't even make the opening-day roster isn't out of the question.
Tim Dobbins, 4th yr., Iowa State: Many may have forgotten by now, but it was Dobbins who perhaps made the biggest play of the '08 season for the Chargers, sacking Peyton Manning with the Bolts out of timeouts and forcing the punt that set up Nate Kaeding's game-tying field goal in the playoff victory over the Colts.
For a fifth-round draft choice, this is a guy who has performed rather capably for the Chargers the past three years. He has done solid work on special teams, and with Wilhelm struggling last season, Dobbins filled in admirably.
The question is whether or not he did enough last season to make anybody believe he can be a regular starter in the NFL. Put another way: was Dobbins starting last season because he deserved to start, or was he starting simply because Wilhelm was playing so poorly?
Year number four of a young player's career is usually about the time we all start finding out.
Brandon Siler, 3rd yr., Florida: So maybe A.J. Smith doesn't hit a home run with all of his draft selections, but the Bolts' GM could have done a whole lot worse with his 7th-round selection in '07. All Siler did his rookie season was earn All-Rookie honors for his special teams play from both Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers.
With that to build on, Siler was excellent on special teams again last season, and even contributed a couple of key goal-line stops when given the rare opportunity to line up on defense. Unfortunately, a foot injury kept him out of the regular-season finale against Denver and the playoff win over Indy.
Certainly, Siler figures as an afterthought at the linebacker position heading into this season. But remember, this is not exactly a position of strength for the Bolts. A guy like Siler takes a couple of big steps forward and he could wind up becoming a key contributor.
Kevin Burnett, 5th yr., Tennessee: Prior to last season, the Chargers inked veteran Derek Smith to bolster their inside linebacker corp. Unfortunately, Smith's tank proved to be on empty and he was released by midseason.
This time around, the Chargers have gone quite a bit younger, signing the former Dallas Cowboy Burnett as a free agent. Twice an All-SEC selection at Tennessee, and a 2nd-round pick in the '05 draft, Burnett never really gained his footing in Big D.
Though he played in all but three games his first four seasons, Burnett spent most of his time shuffling in and out of the lineup, averaging about 2 1/2 tackles per game.
The Chargers, of course, are hoping that Burnett's career will take off now that he is being provided with a change of scenery in San Diego.
Sometimes, players do flourish with a new team. And other times, a new team discovers why players didn't flourish the first time around. One thing's for sure: Burnett's college pedigree and high draft status indicate that he has the talent to make a big splash.
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