1. Jacksonville Jaguars -
Projected Starters: Mike Peterson (MLB), Daryl Smith (SLB), Justin Durant (WLB)
Backups: Clint Ingram, Tony Gilbert, Brian Iwuh, Kenneth Pettway, Thomas Williams, Chad Nkang
If Peterson is healthy after a wrist injury, and he should be, then this unit could be very good. Peterson is a complete player and now just has to battle father time. If he can hold up through a season, Peterson will offer an intense, physical presence in the middle for Jacksonville. Daryl Smith is a versatile player who could play inside or outside. He is stout against the run and is a very complete player. Durant and Ingram will battle for the weak side spot. Durant started his rookie year off slow but came on as the season progressed. He is undoubtedly the fastest linebacker on the team and if he continues to improve, he could be a Pro Bowl caliber backer. Ingram is also a playmaker, but he lost a step last season after having a terrific rookie campaign. If Ingram can show he's over his sophomore slump, the competition at the WLB spot will be interesting. Gilbert and Iwuh add depth and make plays on special teams, as does Nkang who is more of a safety type.
Strengths: The team blends youth and experience and has numerous Pro Bowl caliber players. Their depth and versatility is very good as well.
Weaknesses: Injuries have plagued the unit in recent years, and overall the LBs could work on consistency.
2. Tennessee Titans -
Projected Starters: Ryan Fowler (MLB), Keith Bulluck (SLB), David Thornton (WLB)
Backups: Josh Stamer, Stephen Tulloch, Jorge Cordova, Jerrell Freeman, Colin Allred, Stanford Keglar, Kurt Campbell, Ken Amato, Jeremy Cain, Rich Scanlon, LeVar Woods
Keith Bulluck has terrorized opposing offenses for years with his tenacity and excellent speed, but he took a step back last season. Bulluck finished with 88 tackles on the year, which was the first time since 2001 that he finished below 100 tackles. At 31, Bulluck's best years are behind time, but he still is a playmaker and great leader who will give other teams headaches. Thornton has been a solid player the last two seasons he was with the Titans and should maintain his high play in 2008. Thornton is a little undersized, but he is a sideline to sideline player who is relentless in his pursuit to the ball. Fowler is the only unproven commodity in the starting rotation. He is a smart, crafty player who takes on lead blockers willingly. He isn't a huge playmaker, but his effort is an asset. His season ended early after a shoulder injury and he will have to play through pain in '08. There is a lot of experience behind the starters, but no one appears to be the heir apparent to Bullock and depth could be a problem.
Strengths: The group works as a cohesive unit and plays very well together. There is a lot of athleticism here.
Weaknesses: Not the biggest group and the Titans are susceptible to smash-mouth style teams
3. Houston Texans -
Projected Starters- DeMeco Ryans (MLB), Morlon Greenwood (WLB), Kevin Bentley (SLB)
Backups- Chaun Thompson, Xavier Adibi, Ben Moffitt, Kevis Coley, Zac Diles
The Texans linebackers have an excellent blend of talent and experience. Ryans is a tremendous player and could be amongst the league's best by the end of the season. In two years, he has accumulated 283 tackles because of his excellent work-ethic and phenomenal instincts. Ryans lacks top athleticism, but he is a top tier football player who is headed toward a very prosperous career. Greenwood is an experienced linebacker who plays well in bursts, as he tallied 119 tackles last year, 91 of which were solo. He fits Houston's scheme well, and while he isn't an explosive player, Greenwood does what's asked of him. Where Houston has a question is on the weak side, where Bentley, a seven-year veteran, is the projected starter. Bentley lacks top speed, but is a tough, strong backer who offers a lot of versatility. Thompson will compete with Bentley and offers a lot of the same qualities as Bentley does. Rookie Xavier Adibi will also have a chance to compete for time, and fellow rookie Ben Moffitt should add some depth. Coley and Diles will do little more than add depth.
Strengths: The Texans LBs are fundamentally sound and are very stout against the run.
Weaknesses: Not a lot of explosiveness here and the depth is iffy.
4. Indianapolis Colts -
Projected Starters- Gary Brackett (MLB), Tyjuan Hagler (WLB), Freddie Keiaho (SLB)
Backups- Phillip Wheeler, Clint Sessions, Ramon Guzman, Jordan Senn, Victor Worsley, Kyle Shotwell, Marcus Howard
Brackett, 28, has been a very good starter for the Colts over the past three seasons and should cement the middle in 2008. Brackett fits in Tony Dungy's Tampa Cover-2 scheme perfectly, as he displays solid quickness for a middle linebacker. With over 116 tackles the past three years, Brackett is one of the NFL's best bargains, making just under $2 million this season. Keiaho was adequate in his first year as a starter in 2007 and is slated to start again as the strong side backer. He has good burst but needs to emerge as a playmaker. On the other side, Hagler (27) might be the starter, but his job certainly isn't safe. He is a solid tackler but has little potential left. Wheeler, a third-round selection from Georgia Tech, will have an opportunity to start on the weak side. He is a sideline-to-sideline guy who manages to make plays. He is a bit undersized (6'2", 230 lbs.) and a little unorthodox, but in the Tampa-2 requires speed over size, so Indy is a good fit for him. Sessions was a rookie last year and adds depth, while the others should contribute on special teams. Aside from Brackett, no linebacker has more than three-years of NFL experience.
Positives: This is a very quick unit that fits into their particular scheme.
Negatives: There is a lack of playmakers, toughness and experience here.
AFC South Linebacker Rankings
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