Monday, August 8, 2011

Lockout Hangover: Linebackers

If you're using tackle numbers to evaluate linebackers, you should probably be aware that you're using a useless stat. If a linebacker has high tackle numbers, there might be all kinds of reasons for it, including some that have nothing to do with good performance. Such as:

1. He's a middle linebacker. Did you know that 50% of runs in the NFL are straight up the middle? MLB tackle numbers are higher than every other position by default, simply because that's where offenses run most.

2. His defense might be on the field all the time. Thus having to make more tackles. We already know this to be true of the Seahawks.

3. QB's might not be scared to throw at him. A good coverage LB (which a MLB should be in a Cover 2 like Seattle's) sticks to his zones and discourages passes to his man. Theoretically, a good MLB should have less tackles to make because he's forcing QB's to look elsewhere, hold onto the ball longer, and hopefully get sacked. Good defense shows up in QB pressure.

4. The rest of your team might suck at tackling. Thus forcing him to clean up their messes.

David Hawthorne (middle)

I'm bringing up tackle numbers because they're often used to back up the claim that David Hawthorne is a stud linebacker who's really solid against the run. He's not terrible, to be sure. But Football Outsiders ranks him amongst the worst in broken tackles rates at 12.8% in 2010, just a few notches behind Lofa Tatupu. Scouting reveals far too many plays in which Hawthorne misses his assignment, blows containment, or is visible bouncing uselessly in an empty zone twenty yards away from the nearest receiver. And in coverage, Hawthorne does have a lot of tackles to make. As a starter, Hawthorne is a bit overrated.

However, that was at outside linebacker. By many metrics, the "Heater" did better at MLB in 2009, where the scheme funnels more plays to him and lets his physicality take over. That's also where he got all four of his career sacks He'll be back in the middle for 2011.

Hawthorne has been slowly but surely developing over the last three years. His coverage is questionable and his tackling and play recognition still spotty, but improved from where they used to be. He also has a penchant for the big play. Big plays don't necessarily mean fundamentally good play, and they didn't help Michael Boulware keep his job, but neither should they be dismissed either - especially at the rate Hawthorne produces them. Turnovers have their impact. In 27 starts, Heater has posted 9 passes defensed, 4 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles. Not bad for a linebacker.

Seattle has given Heater a one-year contract, which may reveal their long-range opinion of him as a starter. He's a decent stopgap in the wake of Tatupu's departure. He's already far exceeded the usual expectations of an undrafted free agent, so it's hard to complain. But he will have to continue his development to have more than a circumstantial impact on opposing offenses.

Aaron Curry (strong side)

Your opinion of Curry depends on your expectations. If you expect Curry to play like an NFL starter, you're probably almost content. If you expect a #4 draft pick performance, your hope is starting to fade. And if you're still beating the Mark Sanchez/Michael Crabtree drum two years later, as my fellow blogger Rob Staton is doing, you've probably worn your teeth down by now from all the gnashing.

On the surface, Curry and Hawthorne don't look all that different. The effort and toughness are there, but the turnovers are opportunistic rather than a constant threat, and the number of assignments blown by Curry is frustrating. He doesn't have the fluidity to play zone coverage. He jumps offside too much. Still underdeveloped are his pass-rushing abilities, which he was never trained on in college and which are a requisite skill-set for a #4 linebacker. He's a frustrating Jekyll-Hyde sorta guy.

Curry's performance has remained a running theme in camp literature. There have been countless "light bulb" moments cited by coaches where Curry has appeared to switch his game, temporarily, from forced to natural. There have been "proofs by absence" where Curry's impact has been felt by what the opposition was able to do while he was on the sideline. There have been repeated tweaks to the scheme in an attempt to enable Curry, such as giving him back his tight-end-killing duties from college. And there have been excuses, partially valid, about how Curry has played for two years behind an iffy defensive line.

Through all that, Curry has not only failed to live up to a #4 pick, he's failed to display the consistency and awareness of any first-round starter. This year, Curry has experience, strong work ethic, possible D-line improvement, normalizing scheme, and the faith of the coaches on his side. There's still every possibility he turns into a late bloomer and finally starts playing at the speed of the game. To expect #4 pick play from him is an increasingly dim proposition, but he still has all the necessary tools to become a solid linebacker.

The one thing that really sucks for Curry is that he's often judged next to whom Seattle fans think should have been drafted - Sanchez or Crabtree, neither of whom have proven themselves fully yet. That method of comparison just isn't fair to Curry.

Leroy Hill (weak side)

By early camp accounts, Hill has surprised some by showing the same NFL-level athleticism and desire he did before his troubled days. Injury and suspension could have debilitated him. Instead, it looks as if Carroll may have made a savvy move in keeping Hill around for a second chance.

I always felt that the best term for Hill was a great "cleanup" LB. He hardly ever missed a tackle. He was terrific at blowing up screens. He fought the run edge and generally mucked things up. He had his coverage issues, as does everyone in this corps, and his pass-rushing greatness seemed to evaporate after his rookie season. But for a third-round linebacker and a tackler, Hill was awesome and an impact player. He's been missed.

Following his career was an exercise in frustration. By 2007, Hill seemed right on the verge of a Pro Bowl nomination and his teammates were really talking him up. He never got over that hump. The franchise tag set enormous expectations for him that he never matched. His legal and injury issues caught up with him, and that Pro Bowl window is probably closed now. Hill may honestly still be the best run defender in this back seven. If he's still got it.


Matt McCoy

Recently re-signed, so likely to stick. Decent backup material and special teamer with knowledge of scheme and personnel.

K.J. Wright

The more I read about Wright, the less I thought of him as a luxury pick and more a flat-out need pick. Wright seems to carry some promise in range, coverage, instincts, and pass-rushing that none of the starters do. The coaching staff, having apparently seen that, has placed him at middle linebacker behind Hawthorne. It's said by some that Wright is almost too tall for the position at 6'4". Let's find out.

Malcolm Smith

Smith looks like another one of those value-meets-second-chances Schneider picks. He didn't get invited to the Combine, but put up Pro Day numbers that seemed to belie reports that he lacks the size and speed to make it in the NFL. He's looked good in camp so far, with his acceleration, closing, and flexible hips promising some good coverage work on passing downs. If nothing else, he should find a place on special teams if he doesn't displace Hill.

Camp Fodder

Mike Morgan (maybe practice squad)

Neal Howey

Blake Sorensen


  1. Curry. The thing that amazes me is this, for all his mistakes, teams do not run at him very much.

    I am really hyped for Wright. I get the feeling his coverage skills will make him a starter someday.

  2. Yeah, both our fourth-round picks have grown on me a bit.