Positional breakdown: Inside linebackers

Given their affinity for continuity, it is amazing the Chargers lost both starting inside linebackers this offseason. Even more incredible is how well prepared the team is to deal with such a blow. Stepping into the starting line-up is a couple of fifth-year veterans who are geared up for their new roles. Should one of them stumble, a trio of recently drafted players is waiting in the wings.

It will be a tall task replacing the productivity of Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey. Last season, those two combined for 200 tackles, 6½ sacks and three interceptions. Beyond the box score, Edwards and Godfrey -- particularly Godfrey -- provided veteran leadership in the locker room and on the field.

In their stead will be Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper, both of whom signed five-year contract extensions last season to solidify their heir apparent status. Wilhelm is one of the elite athletes on the team, with the speed to chase plays from sideline to sideline and the power to mix it up between the tackles. He came out of Ohio State with a reputation for being stiff in coverage, but has made tremendous strides in that realm.

Cooper is a former undrafted free agent from Maryland who has shown improvement every season. He excels at sifting through the trash and sniffing out opposing ball carriers. Additionally, he is versatile in pass defense, equally capable of rushing the passer or shadowing a back out of the backfield.

The depth chart is unsettled beyond the top two. Tim Dobbins, a fifth-round pick last year from Iowa State, will get first crack at the top reserve gig based on seniority. Last year, he impressed throughout the offseason and on special teams, finishing third on the team with 18 tackles. However, excessive depth minimized his impact on defense.

This year's third-round pick, Anthony Waters, should challenge for playing time immediately. The Clemson product is an aggressive player who delivers punishing hits and big plays on a regular basis. He likely would have been a first-round pick this year had he not missed the 2006 with a torn ACL. He has been participating on a limited basis thus far this offseason and expects to be ready to go full-bore by training camp.

No matter how well Waters plays, he will have a difficult time earned a ‘Steal of the Draft' label. That seems destined to go to Brandon Siler, another inside ‘backer who fell all the way to round seven after being projected to go as early as the second stanza. He has the ability to quickly shed blocks and bury ball carriers, and is known for disrupting plays in the backfield. Last year at Florida, he posted at least one tackle for a loss in eight of 13 games.

The Chargers no doubt took a hit atop the depth chart, with the stabilizing influences of Edwards and Godfrey moving elsewhere. However, not only were those two adequately replaced, but their replacements were replaced as well. The Chargers boast a surplus of young talent at inside linebacker, and the ensuing competition should bring out the best in five outstanding players.


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