Steeler Defense: The Linebackers
The Stillers might scrimp on the D-line but they pay top dollar to their LB corp. According to the cap figures in By the Numbers, the 2000 hit for this group was $11.31M. The FO paid eight LB; an equal distribution of $61 M amongst 63 players would have netted those eight players $7.74 M. There were 16 front-7 players paid in 2000, an equal distribution of the cap would have been $15.48. If you add the D-line figure of $4.62 to the LB haul, that�s $15.93 M. That�s pretty close to the mark; the Stillers did spend an equitable cap sum on the Front 7. Allocation is the issue; it seems that if we are willing to pay for improved play on the D-line, that money will have to come from the LB corp.
Of course, it is more complicated. Earl Holmes and Joey Porter are quality, young players. By definition, they are underpaid. Both of these men have their contracts set to expire after next season. We have seen what happens when the Stillers FO dilly-dallies in dealing with their rising stars. Earl and Joey are, or should be, the core of the D-unit circa 2002-03. We cannot tolerate the sort of diaspora that occurred after �96. Therefore, these men should be renewed ASAP and that means no later than the June, 2001 cap cuts.
Kirkland gets nearly half the LB take; if you add in Gildon�s check, the sum will be nearly half the Front-7�s total. You�ve got to pay your stars; these men are once, or present, Pro Bowl players. At the same time, you do have to focus on the big picture. The Stillers need help on the D-side and, frankly, it is nut-cutting time for the 3-4. The Stillers should move one of these players and, as I�ll try to show later, Gildon is the logical choice.
Before that, let�s consider the cutting edge at this position. In my previous article, on the D-line, I outlined a few units, team by team. Since the Stillers system is unique, I�ll limit discussion here to characteristic player types. As always, the point is to try to identify where the Stillers might be able to develop the kind of capacity overmatches previously prescribed by the Still Mill. So:
State of the Art: personnel types.
Speed Freaks: Last year, there were (4) LB drafted who fit this category. They were Arrington, Urlacher, Abraham and Bullock. All are 6�-3 or so and about 250 to 260#. They all run like DB; a 4.55 40 is the cut-off. Romo has built, or doped, himself into this category; Derrick Thomas set the mold. These men are SAM backers or MLB. They can rush, they can cover, they can pursue, they can play the run. Or they will be so able, given some reasonably professional commitment to their trade.
The Stillers do not have a player who fits this mold. Porter is smaller and, at least on the track, a little slower. Holmes is a football player but is just not this kind of athlete. Kirkland hasn�t seen 250# since Clemson; Gildon has the size but nothing like this kind of speed.
Reach Freaks, for lack of a better term: These men are +6�-4", about 255#. Have speed similar to LB but have the frame length and strength to keep an OT at arm�s length. Therefore, can play either standing up or with their hand on the ground. Jax drafted (2) such players in �96, taking Hardy OLB and Brackens RDE. When Jax played the 3-4, these men were almost interchangeable. Later, the Jags went 4-3, bringing in Gary Walker and Seth Payne to protect Brackens.
Back in �94-�95, the Stillers showed other teams how to zone blitz. Since then, many 4-3 teams have adapted this technique; the most successful employ Reach Freaks. Other men in this category include Boulware, Jamir Miller, and, more rather than less, Kearse and Jason Taylor.
The Stillers made a stab with Emmons and Vrabel. These men went on to demonstrate that numbers, or body type, aren�t everything. Turning to the roster this past season with players listed by tenure with the team:
#99 Levon Kirkland: The clock is ticking on Kirk. Once a freak in his
own right and still a fine player, Levon has not shown the range and athleticism that he displayed from �95-97. Kirkland�s contract makes it unlikely that he could be traded; $5.5M is a huge hit. Cap�t Kirk is one of (3) Stiller D-side starters whose deal extends beyond 2001. As such, and out of respect for his contribution, Kirk should be retained. Should the Stillers go to a 4-3, Levon would be, at 250#, my candidate for SAM backer. Kirkland�s contract is up after 2002; the Stillers need to think of his replacement but can delay that until the 2002 college draft.
#92 Jason Gildon: The Marcus Jones of the 3-4. Jason�s contract is set to expire after 2001. That is true of seven other D-side starters. Two of those men are LB who are both are younger and better than Gildon. Jason will not, or should not, be re-signed and so should be traded now when his value must be at an all-time high. Gildon has neither cutting edge speed nor reach; really, he is a rather average LB who has benefited from the fact that the Stillers have had few viable options in mounting a pass rush.
#50 Earl Holmes: Must be considered the core MLB through, say, 2005.
#56 Mike Vrabel: Vrabel must curse the day that the Stillers took him with their �97 3rd round compensatory pick. In �98, Mike lost the ROLB job to Emmons because, it was said, Carlos could better play the run. In �99, Vrabel was used as a 3rd down DT; if there is one thing a DT must do, it is stop the run. It could be said that Vrabel has not found a home in the 3-4 but his misuse as a DT seems downright malicious.
Despite that, Mike has developed into a good ST player; he does fit the "reach freak" mold. He should be, at least, functional as a 3-4 LOLB or a backup 4-3 RDE. Vrabel is an UFA and, if the price were right, I�d try to re-sign him. However, given the way the Stillers have used this man, I think this would be a tough sell.
#57 John Fiala: Nice player entering another RFA season. High effort ST guy who can fill in, briefly, at MLB. Kind of like Jerry O.
#55 Joey Porter: Impact player, outscored WR combination of Plax and Troy. Stillers best coverage LB and only dangerous pass rusher. Needs to improve against the run; had a horrendous day in Jax 2 when he was consistently beaten down by third team TE Matt Campbell. In sum, ideal 4-3 OLB who is just a little too small to play in a down position. Must be considered a core player through, at least, 2006.
#50 Clark Haggans: Haggans was inactive nearly for nearly every game this year. That�s not good; it is not surprising that he didn�t play in the base defense. It is worrisome that he couldn�t play on ST. I can�t think of a rookie LB, other than Chad Kelsay, who didn�t play on the coverage units. Porter did, Gildon did, even Dontae Jones and Carlos Emmons did. That Haggans did not suggests that the Stillers wasted a 5th round pick on this man. He is just too damn slow.
#90 Donnell Thompson: A good football player who probably lacks the tools to contribute in the base defense. Decent ST guy who should stick through 2001.
Summary: The LB corps is the pride of the Stiller D-group and has been paid accordingly. However, that salary structure cannot stand. Leaving aside the question of whether the 3-4 has gone the way of the Winged-T; it is apparent that the Stillers are paying for past performance at the expense of their future, even at this position. The starting LB unit is a strength and one from which the Stillers should deal.
The reserve situation is not good. Those men can be characterized as lacking speed or size, or both. However, this situation can be addressed on the second day of the draft.
Prospects for improvement: Most teams limit themselves to the draft or the FA market. A few teams make trades, but not many. The Jets, Bucs and Rams have done so and, generally, to their benefit. The Stillers have a lot of needs and a couple of strengths. The FO needs to open trade routes as a third means of improving the roster. At this time, trading out of the LB group may be the Stillers best hope of improvement. Therefore:
Trade Jason Gildon to the Chicago Bears. The Bears were the secondary beneficiaries in the deal Ditka made with the Skins for Ricky Williams. Remember that the Skins swapped 1st round picks, got all of NO �99 picks and a number of NO picks in 2000. The Skins swapped most of those to the Bears to move up to #7 overall in �99. Washington got C. Bailey (who they would have taken at #5 overall); the Bears got McNown at #12 (NO�s slot). Either McNown or Dauntae Culpepper would have been a Bear at 7th overall.
Here�s the point: the Bears got a lot of picks in �99 and �00. Most of the men selected made the team. Last off-season, the Bears plunged into FA picking up DE Philip Daniels, DT Mike Wells and CB Thomas Smith. Last June, they added DT Brad Culpepper. Daniels and Sparks were early FA signings; that is the mark of a team that believes that it is ready to compete immediately.
Obviously, that was not true. However, given parity, the Bears may cling to this notion. Gildon fits the Daniels mold; good numbers, marginal talent. The Bears played Sean Harris at LOLB last year. Harris had (1) sack; there is your no-impact OLB. Because the Bears have a lot of young players, they have a lot of cap room. Because the Bears have a lot of young players, they need a high profile, productive veteran leader like Jason "Big Sack" Gildon.
Alone, Big Sack may bring a 2nd round pick or so. However, should the Stillers sign the Bus then they ought to consider trading one of their stable of younger RB. There may be better deals available from the Eagles or Chiefs but, just for laughs, let�s consider adding Hunt to a Bears deal. Now you�re talking 1st and 3rd or 1st and 4th. The Bears running game was awful last year; Hunt may be a deal-sealer.
This, or something similar, is a move the FO should make. First, this trade would reallocate cap money out of RB and LB to some more needy positions. Second, teams like the Ravens, Bucs, and Jags have built with multi-first round picks; the Hawks are positioned to do the same. It is time for the Stillers to pick up the pace. The Bears will draft at 6 or 7 in the first round. There will be some premium defenders available at that slot. I�ve suggested DT Henderson, Seymour or Bryant previously; using the state of the art jargon coined earlier in this article, let�s turn to the college LB and DE:
- Jamal Reynolds. 6�-3", 250#, 4.50 40. FSU. Likely to be a Top Five pick; just about the only player I would consider ahead of the DT named previously.
There are several other Florida area players who approximate this model. They might include Polley, Morgan and Warren. These men may all be first rounders but I don�t see the Stillers selecting them over any number of DT.
Second Day: The Stillers need to add speed and athleticism even if that is not at the cutting edge. Every year, a few Top 60 prospects fall into the 4th round. They won�t be freaks but might contribute.
- Torrance Marshall, 6�-3", 245. Oklahoma. Not real fast, just makes plays.
- Chaz Murphy, 6�-3", 260. Kansas. Has been timed under 4.6, kind of stiff, good conference.
- Karim Grant, 6�-3", 235. Arcadia. Reputedly sub 4.6, Arcadia is in Canada.
- Karon Riley, 6-2", 250. Minnesota. College sack artist, too small for DE in the show. Could fall into the 4th.
- Andre Carter, 6�-4", 260. California. Not very fast, 4.8 or so. However, has the bloodline; father was Ruben an undersized but highly effective NT. Andre has been productive; he knows how to play and his anticipation makes up for any lack of speed.
Carter and DT Casey Hampton will leave school with an unusual degree of professionalism. Neither would be my first choice for impact but, in tandem (given a Bear deal), these players could start in a Stillers 4-3 immediately. Of course, I would prefer Reynolds and Henderson�
- Roland Seymour 6�-4", 260#. FSU. Plagued by injuries for the past two seasons. So was Terrell Davis. So was Anthony Poindexter and I�m betting he will be the Ravens SS next year. Has 1st round ability, certainly worth a late shot.
Next Time: The DB.
The Steel Phantom