San Diego Chargers Offseason Position Needs, Part 8: Outside Linebacker

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IApril 15, 2010

San Diego's need at outside linebacker is completely dependent on how they view current starter Shawne Merriman.

The restricted free agent tender afforded Merriman only guarantees they will be able to retain his services for one year.  Unless they can strike a long term deal they will once more be forced to deal with the issue of his contract next offseason.

That long-term deal is not very likely in the current climate.  Merriman has been something of a dissident this offseason while management would likely want to assess his ability after back to back seasons where injury either kept him off the field or slowed when on it.

Draftee Larry English showed flashes of athleticism while making the transition from DE to rush linebacker, batting down passes and posting two sacks in a reserve role.

He probably is not built to handle the lead-rusher’s role however.  He, like current starter Shaun Phillips, are best utilized as the second rush-backer who can benefit from the extra attention afforded the number one option. 

Because of this, San Diego will need to think long and hard about whether they need to try and find a replacement for Merriman.  A very strong 2010 would likely make him a one year franchised-rental while the team may let him walk if he puts up similar numbers to 2010.

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With all that said, because of English the team does have solid depth should they feel Merriman will continue to be a Charger in the ensuing years.  It might be nice to secure a reserve more suited to the 3-4 behind English however.

Jyles Tucker and Antwan Applewhite are not bad as deep reserves who see limited action, but both are much more suited to playing OLB in a 4-3 (especially Applewhite).

If San Diego were to be on the prowl for Merriman’s heir apparent, they might have to content themselves to wait for the third round to find the team’s newest starting running back.

Jerry Hughes may just be both the answer and available when San Diego steps to the podium for its second pick early in round two.  He brings both fiery leadership (which, unless you count Merriman’s showmanship has been lacking) and great physical ability.

While he would (like English) have to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, he looked a natural at the role when working out in the offseason, and barring a trade would have the 2010 season to learn the role at an NFL level.

It would be an expensive gamble on a position considered situated, but Hughes could provide similar production to Merriman with a lot less headache.

If Hughes is off the board there are few others who would warrant such a gamble early.  The next pair of prospects(Koa Misi, Jason Worilds) are overvalued that early, but unlikely to fall to round three, while the dropoff after them gets fairly steep.

San Diego would probably be best served looking for a late-mid round option that could supplant Jyles Tucker with an outside shot at competing for a starting role in 201o.

Eric Norwood is perhaps a bit undersized at 6’1’’ 241, but would make a tremendous passing-down specialist.  He has shown both the ability to get to the quarterback and to make a difference on special teams, blocking two kicks last season for South Carolina.

The difficulty with an early mid-rounder like Norwood however is that he projects to be too limited to fully supplant Merriman, while going rather high in the context of a reserve player.  His abilities as a special teamer in light of Osgood’s departure may be just enough to make it worth a look.

What would be more likely would be to try and find good value in a fourth round talent that slips into the fifth.

Brandon Sharpe could shine here as a pass-rush specialist.  His limited experience being stuck behind the disappointing Brandon Williams for all but his final year and needing to transition from DE to OLB buries his draft rating despite great production (15 sacks as a senior) and decent numbers (4.7 40, 23 reps at 225, vertical of 35).

A.J. Smith loves to find lesser knowns to compete at the linebacker position, with four of the team’s primary seven linebackers coming in round four or later in Shaun Philips (fourth), Tim Dobbins (fifth), Brandon Siler (seventh), and Stephen Cooper (undrafted). 

Sharpe could be a fifth round steal that provides insurance against Merriman’s departure, while not presenting the active threat of an earlier draft pick that might further deepen the rift Merriman seems to be opening with management.

The temptation of an earlier pass-rush pick might be great.  Jerry Hughes looks by all accounts to be a great fit for San Diego and might not require that first round pick.  But a host of more immediate needs as well as some hope for Merriman continuing on in San Diego for at least a few more years makes it hard to go that route.

Instead, for this year’s draft San Diego would probably be best served to either wait it out and see what they have in a healthier Merriman and more experienced English, or pursue less threatening player like Brandon Sharpe to fill out the depth chart while hoping to follow Shaun Philips as the next mid-round Chargers pick to put up double-digit sacks.

See the rest of the ongoing Chargers Positional Needs series:

Part 7: Safety

Part 6: Cornerback

Part 5: Running Back (With Links the rest of the offense)