Season in Review: Linebackers

Linebacker has been a strong suit for the San Diego Chargers in the past and with the addition of Donnie Edwards and emergence of rookie Ben Leber next to perennial Pro Bowler Junior Seau this year promised to be one of the best units ever. That is why they play the games.

Donnie Edwards, 6-2, 227 pounds, returned to where he grew up after six successful seasons in Kansas City. Edwards had five straight seasons with more than 100 tackles and did not disappoint in 2002.

Edwards was by far the best defensive player the Chargers had on the field all season. He displayed his great sideline-to-sideline speed as he amassed 129 tackles to lead the Chargers with 5.5 coming behind the line of scrimmage for run stuffs.

Besides being an excellent run defender, Edwards also provided good pass coverage. He led the team with five interceptions, one of which he returned 20 yards for a touchdown. Fur of the five interceptions came on second down, a testament to his ability to read offenses. Edwards had all five of his interceptions in Chargers wins.

He also added 11 passes defensed, second on the team to cornerback Ryan McNeil. Edwards also returned a fumble 82 yards for another score. He was the main shutdown linebacker during the season often shadowing players and being effective in the role.

Despite all his numbers and playing in all 16 games, he did not make the Pro Bowl, being named a second alternate. The Chargers recognized his solid play by naming him their "Defensive player of the Year".

Edwards signed a five-year, $19 million deal on April 24, 2001. The deal included a signing bonus of $6.5 million and has an option year. His continued success will be beneficial to the Chargers for years to come.

Junior Seau, 6-3, 250 pounds, was limited to 13 games this past season with lingering ankle injuries. He sustained the original injury in week three and continued to play despite constant pain. He ended up missing week 5 in Denver, came back to play sparingly vs. Kansas City then sat out the following week in Oakland. He also sat out the finale vs. Seattle.

Seau was named Co-Defensive Player of the Month for September sharing the honors with Rod Woodsen of Oakland. Seau led the Chargers with 26 tackles (5 stuffs) while adding one sack, one interception and four passes defensed over the course of the month. Just minutes before kickoff against New England he was seen severely limping but churned out one the gutsiest performances of his career in an inspirational win.

Seau was named to his 12th consecutive Pro Bowl, becoming just the first defensive player to appear in 12 since 1970. He was also voted the Chargers "Inspirational Player of the Year". His season was not his finest though.

Seau finished the season with 84 tackles and used his patented rush blitzes to provide 11 stuffs behind the line of scrimmage. Eight of his eleven stuffs came in wins. With his ankle injury limiting him he seemed to try and get a jump on the play, which caused more offsides penalties than he is used to, as he crowded the line looking to get a jump on the snap. The 84 tackles were the lowest of his career.

Seau added one interception, one forced fumble, 1.5 sacks and seven passes defensed. He admitted after the season that he should have taken more time off to heal and may have hurt the team down the stretch.

Seau is set to have arthroscopic ankle surgery after the Pro Bowl. He still is expected to be ready for the team's first minicamp in April.

Seau is in the midst of a deal that goes through 2005. He is set to make $3 million in base pay this season. He will surely be back in health for next season and will look to reestablish the dominance we have all come to admire from him. It would be hard to imagine a Chargers team without Seau, but John Butler has made tough choices in the past, cutting popular Bills players Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed on the same day.

Ben Leber, 6-3, 244 pounds, supplanted Orlando Ruff as the starter in his rookie season. A fourth round pick out of Kansas St., Leber started out on fire with 4 sacks in his first two games, and had two forced fumbles in the first three games.

As the defensive scheme changed his production went down and he managed just one sack the rest of the season and one forced fumble. His blitzing went down to a whisper despite the early success.

Leber finished the season with 49 tackles; five sacks, three forced fumbles and one pass defensed. He flashed big play ability all season in coming up with the key stop on third and fourth downs, but they did not come often enough, usually just once per game.

Leber needs to work on his ability to move sideline-to-sideline. He will get caught in the line trying to make a play against the run and sometimes will jump a play in pass coverage resulting in a big gain for his opponent evidenced by the fact his only pass defensed came on first down.

Entering his second season, more will be expected out of Leber. Three times during the season he was held without a tackle. Linebackers are the ones who are supposed to make plays, and being shutout is not the way to get it done. Leber is signed through 2005 after getting a four-year deal to start his career. He will return as the starter next season.

Zeke Moreno, 6-2, 246 pounds, is a star in the making, but plays the position currently occupied by Junior Seau. Whenever he is in the game he makes plays, a nose for the ball.

Moreno started in three games during the season and had 25 tackles, one pass defensed, one interception, and 1.5 stuffs in those games alone. He ended the season with 32 tackles in limited action. It is tough to get on the field when Seau looms ahead of you on the depth chart.

Moreno was the top performer in the preseason with two forced fumbles and plenty of tackles. Look for his role to expand as he enters the final year of his contract. Moreno will make $389K as a base salary in 2003. As he continues to perform in limited opportunities, the Chargers will find it harder to keep him off the field.

Orlando Ruff, 6-3, 247 pounds, found his playing time limited due to the success of Leber. Ruff finished the season with 14 tackles, 10 of which came on special teams. Out of the four defensive tackles, 1.5 were considered stuffs and all of his tackles came on first down.

Ruff still has the potential to play and be a decent starter but it will not happen with the Chargers. Ruff is an unrestricted free agent, giving him freedom to sign with any team.

Carlos Polk, 6-2, 250 pounds, remained a key special teams contributor. Polk has 16 tackles on the season, 12 coming on special teams to lead the team. Besides his four tackles at linebacker, he added one sack on the season.

Polk will enter the final year of his contract and remain a key member of the special teams and a valuable backup at linebacker. He is scheduled to make $389K in base pay in the coming year.


Denis Savage can be reached at: Denis Savage

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