The following is the seventh installment of a nine-part series analyzing every position, from the front office to the defensive backfield. To access previous installments, click here.
Several years ago, the Chargers linebacker core was solid from top to bottom. Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips patrolled the outside, while Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm covered the middle. There was great depth with Tim Dobbins, Antwan Applewhite, Jyles Tucker, Marques Harris and Brandon Siler. Phillips is the only player that remains from a group that is now a shell of its former self.
Phillips and middle linebacker Donald Butler are the only two members of a 10-man group that inspire confidence they can be every-down players. Fourteen-year veteran Takeo Spikes' best games are behind him, and his nearly $3 million price tag for 2012 could make him a salary-cap casualty. Antwan Barnes led the Chargers with 11 sacks last season, but failed to prove he was proficient enough against the run to be relied upon on early downs.
First-year linebackers Jonas Mouton, Andrew Gachkar, Bront Bird and Darryl Gamble are lacking in experience, and veterans Travis LaBoy and Larry English are lacking in ability. To be fair, Mouton missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, and English may have ability but just can't stay healthy long enough to prove it.
I expect a significant shakeup at the linebacker position. Phillips, Butler, Barnes, Mouton, Gachkar and Gamble should definitely be back, but the rest of the group should update their resumes. LaBoy was brought in from San Francisco with former defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who was fired after a disappointing first season in San Diego. With a $1.5 million dollar salary and no real upside, it’s likely LaBoy will be one and done as well.
The Larry English experiment could soon come to an end. A.J. Smith is not one to admit he's made a mistake, but he did unceremoniously dismiss wide receiver Buster Davis before last season, so the precedent has been set. English is only due to make $1 million in 2012, so he could get one more shot to prove the Chargers didn't waste a first-round pick when they selected him 16th overall in the 2009 draft.
There is no question that finding an outside pass-rusher will be a top priority this offseason. Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw would be a great fit, but it’s unlikely he’ll be available when the Chargers select at 18.
A player to keep an eye on is Houston’s Sammy Brown. At 6'3" and 240 pounds, Brown led the nation in tackles for loss with 30 and finished tied for second in sacks with 13.5. His familiarity with the 3-4 defense and his under-the-radar status should be attractive A.J. Smith.
The Chargers should look to the draft, free agency or both to enhance a linebacking core that has become rather weak. A.J. Smith must seriously consider releasing Takeo Spikes, Travis LaBoy and Larry English to free up as much cap space as possible to add players. There is a promising group of young players who can provide depth, but the Charges need to add an outside linebacker early in the draft and consider adding a veteran inside linebacker through free agency.