Tim Dobbins exceeded expectations in 2008, setting career-highs in starts (eight), tackles (57) and pass breakups (four). He provided an especially strong presence against the run, filling running lanes aggressively and forcing three fumbles.
Where Dobbins struggled was versus the pass, particularly against spread offenses. He lacks the agility and recognition to effectively defend the middle of the field, which prompted the Chargers to turn to Matt Wilhelm in obvious passing situations.
However, Kevin Burnett figures to be the nickel linebacker this season after inking a two-year, $5.5 million deal. That means Dobbins and Wilhelm will be left to scrap for dwindling opportunities in the base defense.
"I think [the Chargers are] going to use me a little bit more in some of the packages they have," Burnett said. "It's a very similar style defense (to Dallas). I assume I'll be a big part of the third-down package and the passing game."
LB Matt Wilhelm
With the best chance for playing time coming on early downs, the early edge would seem to go to Dobbins. Still, Wilhelm has shown he can be an effective every-down linebacker, as evidenced by a solid 2007 campaign in which he posted 97 tackles and three interceptions in 14 games.
Also, Wilhelm comes without a flashing bull's-eye on the back of his jersey. The Chargers already face an inordinate amount of passes of first downs -- thanks to the presence of mostly one-dimensional players like Jamal Williams and Clinton Hart -- so relying on another one-dimensional player like Dobbins is risky.
It should be noted that the Chargers have made more of a financial commitment to Wilhelm than Dobbins. Wilhelm signed a five-year, $15 million extension late in the 2006 season, which locks him up through the 2011 campaign. Dobbins is entering the final year of his rookie contract, so if he starts and plays well, the team may have to add him to its list of players waiting to get paid -- a list that already includes Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson.
Despite financial motivations, it says here Dobbins will start the bulk of the games at right inside 'backer, yielding to Burnett in obvious passing situations. The Chargers are in win-now mode and Dobbins and Burnett have very complementary skill-sets. The team just has to hope that a revamped pass rush masks some of Dobbins' deficiencies in coverage.
Wilhelm may still earn some starts, depending on the matchups (such as a Week 10 contest against the Philadelphia Eagles). But at this point, it seems the starting job is Dobbins' to lose.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.