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Just The Sports: A Look At Four Rookie Linebackers

Just The Sports

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Look At Four Rookie Linebackers

Leading up to the NFL draft, when the linebacker position was brought up, the conversation invariably began with the mostly overrated linebacker trio from Ohio State (A.J. Hawk being the lone exception) and then traveled west to discuss the Iowa linebacker duo of Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge before someone got around to mentioning Ernie Sims from Florida State. Mostly overlooked were Demeco Ryans from the University of Alabama and Thomas Howard who played his college football at UTEP, but it has been those two linebackers along with Hawk and Sims who have been the rookie linebackers to have the most impact on the teams who drafted them.

With fifteen full weeks of the NFL season in the books, it has been A.J. Hawk of the Green Bay Packers who has emerged as the best of these four linebackers. The reason behind his superiority lies in the fact he is almost equally proficient against the pass as he is against the run. His run tackles have come an average of 4.1 yards past the line of scrimmage and the opposing teams have gained a successful amount of yardage 45.7% of the time with 3.0 extra yards per successful run. On those failed runs, the teams failed by 2.8 yards per rush. When he is making tackles in the passing game, he makes them 4.9 yards per the last of scrimmage on average with a 54.5% success rate (4.3 average extra yards per successful run and 6.6 average yards needed per failed run). Besides the fact the team now looks to have a solid linebacker for the future, the Packers are probably happiest that they were able to avoid wasting another draft pick.

As for Ernie Sims of the Detroit Lions and Demeco Ryans of the Houston Texans, they might as well be the same player since there are only minute differences between the two. Both are excellent against the run, the two best out of these four linebackers, with no clear superior run stopper. Ryans is better than Sims at keeping opponents from gaining successful yardage (42.5% success rate allowed to 43.8% success rate) and making sure the runners fail by a marginally higher average per failed run (3.3 per to 3.0 per), but Sims makes his tackles incrementally closer to the line of scrimmage (average of 3.3 yards past to 3.6 yards past) and tackles the runners before they break off large amounts of yardage (2.3 extra yards per successful run to 3.4 extra yards per).

At the same time, they are equally bad at having a positive impact when playing against the pass as evidenced by Sims being involved in pass plays that occur an average of 8.2 yards per the line of scrimmage and Ryans does his pass defense work an average of 7.4 yards past the line. Not unexpectedly, when you see Ryans or Sims making a play after the pass is completed, more than likely the team has gained a successful amount of yardage before the play is stopped (5.0 extra per for Sims to 7.2 extra per Ryans).

That leaves only Oakland Raider Thomas Howard, who is the most complete linebacker after A.J. Hawk because he can play the run competently and he does not get overly exposed when playing the pass. Against the run, he is fourth in success rate allowed (50%) and where he makes his plays (4.6 yards). However, when he does make a tackle and keep the runner from gaining successful yardage, he does so an average of 4.3 yards away from where successful yardage would be, which is tops among these four. As I alluded to earlier, playing the pass does not completely flummox him since he is the second-best linebacker after A.J. Hawk in this category (62.5% success rate allowed, plays coming 6.5 yards past the line of scrimmage per, 4.1 extra yards per successful passes , and 3.9 needed yards per failed pass). If he were able to make more plays overall in his games, Howard could be a star in the NFL.

With their rookie seasons almost complete, we are able to get a pretty good glimpse into the players these four linebackers have become so far. Hawk and Howard are your two complete linebackers while Sims and Ryan are great run stoppers who are highly susceptible in pass coverage, which means playing quality pass defense is a skill these two might want to look into acquiring for the 2007 season.



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