I consider the Brian Orakpo experiment to be a success. His pass-rushing exploits are well-documented, but while I was nervous early on about his taking on linebacker duties I think he improved steadily throughout the season. A case could be made that due to his speed and range the hybrid DE/LB is the best use of his talents. Early on he was repeatedly embarrassed in pass coverage, but late in the year he either improved or the coaches did a better job of keeping him out of mismatch situations (like when he was in man coverage on Tony Gonzalez for a touchdown). When off the line I think he showed a good ability to track the play across the field, and generally did fine in the more linebacker-ish tasks.
All of the above applies to Chris Wilson, only slightly less so. His role on the defense was as Orakpo (b), and he filled the exact same hybrid/SLB role when Orakpo rotated out. He did it well, and to my surprise made some good plays against the run.
On the other side, I have mixed feeling about Rocky McIntosh. I think of Rocky as a roughly replacement-level linebacker. He’s not bad… but he’s not special. He has some trouble shedding blocks, but when he’s clean he makes the plays he’s expected to make. I consider him above average in pass coverage but a bit of a liability against the run because if you get a blocker on him at all he’s out of the play. One point in his favor – in the past his play has visibly degraded towards the end of the year, presumably as a result of his chronic knee condition (which was known when he was drafted). So the fact that I saw no slippage means the knee is improving, or he’s changed his conditioning, or something.
In the middle London Fletcher continued to be remarkable, even if his range finally started to decrease a bit (in my opinion). When allowed to run free he has great instincts to track down the ball carrier and never makes a weak tackle. The fact that he just made his first Pro Bowl – as an alternate – is the best evidence I know of that the Pro Bowl is a complete waste of time and energy.
H.B. Blades really impressed me this year as the primary backup LB. He looks like he’s been learning from Fletcher. He’s tiny, but holds up to blockers better than you might think (he even wrecked a couple of pulls by Leonard Davis against Dallas, and yes I know this is not the first time I’ve brought it up). But he’s even better at avoiding blockers in the first place. He has a remarkable ability to slip through the chaos in the middle of the field and meet a ballcarrier at the goal line. I’m not saying Blades is any kind of a star, but he’s a solid player and I’m inclined to think he’s better than Rocky McIntosh at this point.
The 2010 linebacker situation is confusing to say the least due to the switch to the 3-4. Let’s start with the outside:
Orakpo and Wilson played a role that was extremely similar to a 3-4 OLB last year, so I’m confident in them. I had assumed that Andre Carter was the other OLB – but if that was the case then why were Jeremy Jarmon and Lorenzo Alexander converted to this position? That gives us a five-man rotation, which is clearly too many. Carter would not fit well as a 3-4 DE (which is really more like a tackle), so I have no idea what the team intends to do with him.
In the middle we have a rotation of Fletcher/Blades/Rocky. Barring another free agent addition, these may be the guys we run with. Despite their size disadvantages Fletcher and Blades probably have the ability to be effective in this role, and being responsible for less of the field would obviously help Fletcher if his range declines. But I’m skeptical Rocky can survive in the middle, especially if the three-man defensive line means he often has guards bearing down on him. Hopefully Larry Foote is still in play – a three man rotation of Foote/Blades/Fletcher would instill me with much more confidence.