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Friday, July 18, 2014

Position Prognosis: LB

It's really hard to imagine a team strength gaining significantly in
ability and credability, but in '13, Carolina's LBs did just that.

It's not as if 2012 was awful. So far any year with Luke Kuechly and
Thomas Davis has been fantastic. But now, Kuechly is your reigning
Defensive Player of The Year, and while Davis was a Pro Bowl snub, tons
of analysts have him as the second best true OLB behind fellow snub
Lavonte David.

It's safe to say that Carolina has one of the best, most instinctive,
playmaking pairs at LB in the league, so let's move on and talk about
the rest of the unit. Kuechly's pass coverage improved - it still has a
little room - but the impact plays were just off the charts this past
year for both players.


Chase Blackburn is the strongside linebacker, and the guy that comes off
the field. Davis and Kuechly plaed 97.5% of snaps apiece, for what it's
worth, and Blackburn 20%. Adding in the opening day starter, Jon Beason
(remember that guy?), who took the first two games' worth of snaps at
62, and AJ Klein, who filled in for three starts? The SLBs only played
400 snaps throughout the year, or roughly 40%. That's the league now -
in shotgun 75% of the time, and a nickel corner is as much a starter as
the 3rd LB. Drayton Florence, who wasn't even with the team for a few
weeks and wasn't one of the top two CBs, played almost 60% of snaps, to
finish that thought.

But the value provided goes past the line of scrimmage. Blackburn
played 38% of special teams snaps despite his injury; Klein played 61%.
Backup Jason Williams played right at 50%. The now departed Jordan Senn
provided 70%, giving 4 LBs out of the top 8 in ST snaps logged. That
quartet provided about 2.2 seasons worth of special teams snaps along
with that third of a season of defense.

Nonetheless, that third LB job is important, along with being depth for
that top pair. It's critical to win those base defense snaps, and with
a front as strong as Carolina's 7, SLB is often the weak link, and you
can't afford too weak a link in there. The SLB combo didn't disappoint
- there are times where Blackburn isn't as good against the pass, and
that's to be expected. You don't get a ton of rush from this group,
though Klein is a good blitzer. What you get, defensively, is a lot of
instinct and knowledge of how the base offense is going to work, and
good execution.


Blackburn is, for all real purposes, the backup MLB. Klein was an ILB
in college, and a bit of a steal as a 5th rounder. Either could be
called upon to fill the top guys' shoes. Blackburn's veteran experience
provides the ability to hang with the top defenders, and another veteran
voice in the film room.

Klein looks to be a hyper-instinctive ILB, and he has solid athleticism.
He got hung the label "little Keek" for looking a little too much like
Kuechly during preseason, but when he stepped up at the end of the
season, he was starting to earn some of that. He might or might not be
athletic compared to the 4.4 40 of Davis (and Kuechly's 4.58 feels slow
compared to his playing speed), but he's a player who could fill in at
WLB or MLB and not be a liability. It's a great luxury, when you're a
good front like Carolina's, to be able to replenish with such a late
pick.

Williams, looking to pickup Senn's slack as the top ST LB, originally
came over in 2010 and started two games. Since then, he's been a
special teamer, and a very good one. His blocked punt against NY Jets
made a massive difference in that game.

That's the top 5 - and Carolina will keep at least six, if not seven.
They may look at cutdowns for another special teamer, but the first shot
comes from the back end of the roster.

Ben Jacobs was a '13 camp hand who made the practice squad; he has solid
size at 6'4, 245. DJ Smith is an AppState player who played in 22 games
for Green Bay, and didn't do much for the Texans last year. Billy Boyko
is a 2nd year who was in camp with Oakland last year.

Of the rookies, you have Florida Atlantic's Adarius Glanton, an
undersized prospect, and the fire hydrant sized Denicos Allen (5'11,
225). Allen was a three time All-Big10 selection whose height is a
legitimate concern, but he's a hardcore football player with good speed
and decent athleticism. He seems ideal for special teams and is the
type of player that could, in a pinch, do well behind Carolina's strong
front.

Projecting that out, it's an open competition past the top 5, but I'll
guess on 7 staying including Jacobs and Allen.

Two more to go - RB and Special Teams. SO whether you're enjoying this
meandering series, just suffering through, or just scrolling past, it's
almost over.
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