Inside linebacker can be a tough position to grade because the nature of the position varies so much from scheme to scheme. In a 3-4 defense, inside linebackers rarely rack up a ton of tackles because they have just one defensive tackle to eat up blocks in front of them.
Despite the fact that 3-4 inside linebackers rarely receive much glory, the Cowboys’ inside backers received even less hype than normal for their 2010 play, and rightfully so. Both Bradie James and Keith Brooking, who received the majority of the defensive snaps at the position, saw a sharp decline in their play from ’09.
To keep things consistent from that season, I will be using the same grading system (below).
- Chart Key: TA=Thrown at, Yds/Att=Yards-per-attempt, PD=Passes defended, Missed %=Tackles missed/Tackles attempted
- The best stats are circled in blue and the worst in red.
- The final grades for the inside linebackers are weighted 4:2:1 in terms of run defense, pass defense, and leadership, respectively.
- Bradie James
Run Defense: B
James’ run defense numbers were comparable to that of last season. He recorded a slightly higher tackle rate, but that small difference could be due to the Cowboys being down late in games, thus allowing the opposition to run the football. Nonetheless, James still has something left in the tank as a run defender.
Pass Defense: C-
It’s really amazing how steady James’ pass defense numbers remained from 2009 to 2010. He was thrown at almost the exact same number of times, yielding a comparable rate of receptions for nearly the exact same yards, making his yards/attempt and yards/snap nearly identical.
That doesn’t mean those numbers were good, however. James struggles in the open field. His 83.9 percent reception rate is far too high, as is the 7.6 yards/attempt. He also recorded just one interception and not a single sack (despite a lot of early season blitzes).
James is certainly an All-Pro in terms of his work ethic and mindset, but something seemed to be missing from his game in 2010. He still showed the ability to fire up the troops, but that characteristic needs to be shown more when things are going poorly.
- Keith Brooking
Run Defense: C
In 2010, Brooking tallied 23 less tackles than he did in 2009 despite playing more snaps. His rate of missed tackles also increased slightly.
Pass Defense: C+
Brooking’s pass defense statistics have been the most surprising numbers I have gathered from any individual player so far this offseason. I always go into my grading with as open of a mindset as possible, but in the back of my head I thought Brooking’s numbers must be awful. He seemed to struggle mightily against the pass all season.
The reality is that, while Brooking was far from great, he wasn’t remarkably bad. He yielded a lower rate of receptions than in 2009 and a comparable yards/attempt. His sack total was down, but his five passes defended show he was, at times, in position to make plays.
Brooking’s pass defense is the perfect example of how a few big plays (positive or negative) can distort our view of a player’s true ability.
See James, Bradie. I was really looking for Brooking to step up and once again be the vocal leader of this team, but the fire and passion he displayed from 2009 seemed to be cooled this season. He’s still a tremendous example of how to be a pro, but the Cowboys need to find someone to lead them through times of adversity.
- Sean Lee
Run Defense: B-
Lee’s snap count is low enough that we can’t base the entire grade off of his statistics. His numbers are great (his 0.12 tackles-per-play is outstanding), but I saw him get blown off the ball quite a few times this season.
The good news is Lee’s game improved dramatically from the beginning of the year until the end. This kid is going to outwork everyone until he becomes the player the Cowboys need, which is all you can ask.
Pass Defense: B
Pass defense figured to be Lee’s strength as a rookie, and it was. Although he was thrown at just 11 times, he yielded a team-low 4.9 yards-per-attempt and 0.33 yards-per-snap. If he can keep his interception rate high while playing more snaps, he’ll be the sort of big-play catalyst the ‘Boys seek on defense.
This is so difficult to determine right now. Lee definitely took a back seat to the veterans in terms of vocal leadership, as he should during his rookie season. His work ethic and practice habits are incredible, however, which are forms of leadership that may be just as important as the vocal form.
Final Inside Linebacker Grades
Sean Lee B- (82.4)
- 2009 Grade: None
Bradie James: B- (81.3)
- 2009 Grade: B (84.1)
Keith Brooking: C (76.7)
- 2009 Grade: B+ (87.6)
Overall, the 2010 inside linebacker grades are quite shocking. I would have rated the backers James, Lee, Brooking in terms of film study alone. Lee’s numbers were surprising across the board. I think he’ll make a big jump in 2010.
Brooking’s pass defense statistics weren’t as horrible as most people imagined, although they were far from great. It’s pretty clear his leadership no longer outweighs his average (and now sub-par) play. The Cowboys might be smart to part ways with him this offseason and let Lee show what he can do.
James still has value as a run defender, but he’s becoming a serious liability in the passing game. The Cowboys should look at replacing him in nickel situations next season and allowing Lee to remain on the field. Too much playing time for a guy with only 163 career snaps on defense? The numbers indicate not.