Old Mother Hubbard: Shopping For Linebackers Pt. I

>> 7.07.2011

The Lions’ linebacker shopping is a tricky thing. What the Lions, in theory, need, is an outside linebacker—but the pool at inside linebacker is deeper, and starting MLB Deandre Levy has the tools to play outside. In Part I, I’ll assume the Lions kick Levy outside, and bring in a starting middle ‘backer.


One of the things I noticed about the ILB grades is that they deviate more wildly from popular reputation than other position groups. We fans know we can’t really evaluate secondary play because TV cameras don’t show it well—and analysts can only guess at coverage assignments. Let’s face it, the only reason most fans know Nnamdi Asomugha is good is because so many analysts have said so. Even if we flip to a Raiders game and watch it start to finish, we’ll be unlikely to see what makes him better than most other corners.

However, I’m coming to believe that linebacker play is just as poorly understood. Half of linebacker play is coverage, after all, and LB coverage assignments are even more ineffable than those of safeties or cornerbacks. Beyond that, though, run gap fits are still a matter of observation and guesswork, and without “film study” we’re not looking that closely at LB play anyway. At full speed, all we notice are big stops, broken tackles, and massive whiffs—and not all of them, either. I had to go frame-by-frame to notice this terrible Ernie Sims arm tackle in the hole. The result? We know big names much better than we know who actually had good seasons.

Takeo Spikes is the highest-graded free-agent-to-be, and by all accounts he had a terrific year last year. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the Niners re-signing Spikes should be a “no-brainer,” but last year’s third-rounder, NaVorro Bowman, played well in injury relief (+3.7 overall on 217 snaps). If the 49ers are comfortable with Bowman stepping into the starting role, they could let the 34-year-old Spikes explore the market.

Just how good was Spikes last year? With a +24 overall rating, he was the seventh-best graded linebacker in the NFL. For comparison, his ILB partner Patrick Willis turned in a +31, second-best in the NFL. The 6’-2”, 242-pound Spikes was very solid in coverage, +5.9, and incredible against the run; his +18.2 grade was ranked 3rd overall, surpassing even Willis! He was only called for one penalty, but it was declined or offset. The only grade that isn’t outstandingly positive is his -0.5 pass rush mark; he was the only PFF Top Ten linebacker whose pass rush grade was below 0.

As a pure run-stopper, Spikes was nearly the ideal: he had 92 tackles and 10 assists,  and was only credited with two missed tackles. Counting assists as a half-solo, his ratio of tackles-to-missed-tackles was second-best in the NFL. Sounds like exactly the kind of run-stopper the Lions have been looking for since Stephen Boyd, right? Well . . . maybe not.

I compared the ratio of solo tackles to “stops,” solo tackles that result in offensive failure [I can’t find PFF’s definition of Stops, but here’s Football Outsiders’]. Of Spikes’ 92 solo tackles, only 48 actually prevented offensive success. Of Deandre Levy’s 61 solo tackles, 34 were stops, so their ratios of solo tackles-to-stops are quite similar (ranked 26th and 33rd of 5o, respectively). When we add in assists and missed tackles, to get an every-chance-you-had-to-make-a-tackle-to-stops rate, the gap returns, but not as widely: Spikes had a 12th-best possible-tackle-to-stops rate of 1.8, while Levy’s  was a 37th-best 2.3.

Spikes was playing ILB in a 3-4, and though he’s played in many different alignments and positions throughout his career, that’s probably where he’s best suited. He had the benefit of playing next to Patrick Willis, a benefit he won’t have here. He was fantastic in a narrow window, even in coverage (he had 3 picks and 5 PDs on only 48 targets), but the Lions would expect Spikes to cover a lot of ground laterally. Moreover, at 34, he’d be a short-term player at most, at worst a one-year rental. If Spikes leaves, I don’t expect him to come here.

The most obvious free-agent candidate is the Titans' Stephen Tulloch. Graded the 15th-best ILB by PFF, the 5’-11”, 240-pound Tulloch was drafted back in 2006 by Schwartz’s Titans. Last year, the former fourth-rounder’s fifth season, was his first as a wire-to-wire starter—though he started 13 and 12 games in his fourth and third year, respectively. Incredibly, Tully played 1,222 snaps—the most of any ILB in the NFL, by a long shot. His overall grade of +13.6 was well earned, then, as were his run-stopping grade of +10.5 and +8.3. Like Spikes, though, his pass rush skills left a lot to be desired. Tulloch’s -1.3 rush grade slotted him 41st out of 51 qualifying ILBs.

Still, Tulloch’s run-stoppingness cannot be denied. Tully had a solo, assist, or missed tackle once every 7.1 snaps he played—that rate was sixth-best in the NFL. I don’t have run plays face vs. passing plays faced, so that stat may not be gospel—but he certainly got to the ball carrier an awful lot. His tackles-to-missed-tackles rate was 16.1, 16th-best in the NFL. His 76 total stops were the most in the NFL—though when dividing his aggregate solos, assists, and missed tackles by stops, that total isn’t quite as impressive (2.0 possible-tackles-to-stops rate, ranked 25th).

In coverage, Tulloch held up extremely well, despite being picked on constantly; he was thrown at once every 12.9 snaps, third-most in the NFL! Only Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons and New England’s Gary Guyton were thrown at more often (each once every 12.8 snaps). Of course, since his snap total topped the league, his targets do, too, with a whopping 95. Despite this shelling, Tulloch did okay, allowing 72.6% of those TA to be caught, and holding his assignments to 7.0 YpC. He stopped the bleeding very quickly, allowing a fifth-best 4.0 YAC per catch. He also had five passes defensed and an interception—but with 95 targets, those are actually low numbers, 34th-worst PD-or-INT-per-target rate in the NFL. His passer rating allowed was a middle-of-the-pack 89.9.

Tulloch got to the ballcarrier as often as almost anyone, and was picked on in coverage almost as much as anyone. He had the heaviest snap workload in the NFL, and he was involved in those snaps at very high rates. It’d be fair to say that no one ILB did more for his defense than Stephen Tulloch in 2010—yet, the Titans have already prepared for Tulloch’s departure, drafting Florida ILB Colin McCarthy. They fear Tulloch will “cost too much to keep,” despite his obvious value. Whether it’s because Jim Schwartz will be waiting at midnight with a bottle of vino, or because there’ll be a bidding war the Lions will bow out of, Tulloch won’t come cheaply.

Kevin Burnett, like Spikes, played ILB in a 3-4 last year. However, he and his Chargers partner, Stephen Cooper, are both free-agents to be. From what I can gather, the Chargers will try to bring back Burnett and pair him with backup ILB Brandon Siler and/or U of M 2nd-round draftee Jonas Mouton. Burnett turned in much better PFF grades than Cooper in 2010: +11.3 overall, an astounding +6.1 when rushing the passer, and +6.5 in run stopping. His -1.3 in pass coverage isn’t great, of course, but the 6’-3”, 240-pound Burnett finally emerged as a quality player.

Cooper, for what it’s worth, is practically the opposite: +7.8 in coverage, but -0.8 in pass rush, and -4.7 in run stopping. His +3.3 overall is okay, but the 32-year-old Cooper is not a tantalizing possible solution to the Lions’ run-stopping woes, like Burnett. Unfortunately, while Burnett might be good enough to make the switch from 3-4 ILB to 4-3 MLB, Cooper isn’t, and the Chargers will likely pick the 28-year-old Burnett.

The player that isn’t getting much publicity is the Jaguars’ Kirk Morrison, who the Jaguars were hoping to be able to replace in the draft, but couldn’t. He’s been given the “go ahead and shop yourself but if it won’t cost too much we’ll take you back” speech from the Jags’ brass, mostly due to his flagging coverage. But, while his well-below-average -2.1 coverage grade (and second-worst in the league 137.6 passer rating allowed) looks bad, Morrison was one of the surest tacklers alive in 2010.

With one missed tackle to 69 solos and 9 assists, Morrison had the best missed tackle ratio of any inside linebacker in the NFL. His range may not be great—his ratio of snaps to solo, assisted, and missed tackles was 9.6, below average and ranked 31st—but his ratio of solo, assisted, and missed tackles to stops was 1.7, essentially tied for third-best in the NFL. Ultimately, Kirk Morrison plays the 4-3 run stopper as well as anyone—and if the Lions are okay with his coverage limitations, he could be an excellent value pickup.

Stewart Bradley and Barrett Ruud I’ve included more to pop their bubbles than anything else. Bradley had a rough go of it in 2010 after a breakout junior year, turning in a -4.5 overall grade. He was trying to recover from an offseason ACL tear, and later trying to shake off a horrific in-game concussion. Worse yet, Bradley’s injury replacement, Jamar Chaney, performed brilliantly in relief—meaning the Eagles would like to bring Bradley back, but as an outside linebacker. I’ve liked Bradley, but he’s got a bunch of issues and won’t likely be available.

Ruud, a guy I really hoped the Lions would draft back in 2005 (he went one pick before we selected Shaun Cody), has had an up-and-down ride with the Bucs. Last season, Ruud was the 49th-best (a.k.a. second-worst) PFF-graded ILB, with a -13.3 overall mark. In a year where the average was +8.3, that’s really poor. He might be touted as a value option—but if his 2010 performance was any indication, he’s a significant downgrade from DeAndre Levy; I don’t see him as an option at all.


anthonytimlin,  July 8, 2011 at 11:51 AM  

What I like about the Tulloch / Levy to OLB scenario is that it not only provides us with "an athletic, pass-rushing OLB ready to start right away" but also "a credible backup middle linebacker" thus fulfilling two needs at once.

I would imagine they would still want to have a "true" back up in that spot (Ekejiuba?) but they would have the freedom to slide Levy back over to the middle should Tulloch go down.

I think the combination of Tulloch's age, his superior stats from last season and his relationship with Schwartz makes this a no-brainer (if the price is right).

Anonymous,  July 8, 2011 at 2:47 PM  

I'm curious how well Rocky McIntosh would grade out.

Anonymous,  July 10, 2011 at 9:45 AM  

Don't forget Dizon. Last year he was supposed to be the first in off the bench at any of the LB spots. If he's recovered from his knee injury, almost a year ago now, he could be in the mix to start at OLB. Assuming they retain Houston, I'd rather see them field who they have now at linebacker and get Asomugha than divvy up the cash between the two positions. Carpenter and Palmer did alright filling in last year, Doug Hogue just got drafted, Celeb Campbell is going to get his shot, and hopefully Follet can make it back. Is it just me or does that sound a lot better than everybody is making it out to be? There's a bit more depth there than most are talking about.

Anonymous,  July 10, 2011 at 4:58 PM  

Some things to be aware of in PFF premium stats:

First, PFF misses the mark on snap count categories. When you filter those players at 25%, 50%, 60%, or 75%, it yields players who are unfairly rated against the player who played the MOST snaps in the group. They could provide a more accurate assessment by listing the percentage of total offensive, or defensive snaps a player played for his team.

Second, the "Stops" category is probably tackles for a loss or no gain plus sacks. I'd rather see the more traditional TFL stat line in addition to the stops line.

Speaking of sacks, PFF awards a whole sack for each half-sack that a player participated in. Not ideal, but PFF is the most comprehensive resource available.

—Mike Sudds

anthonytimlin,  July 10, 2011 at 8:03 PM  

@ Anon #2-

Campbell will be buried on the depth chart as it is if he can even make the team and I doubt Follett will pass his physicals coming into the season. Dizon may have a shot to make it in camp but I really doubt it.

I anticipate they'll take Tulloch and slide Levy outside with Landon Johnson on the other side. Another possibility if they don't land Tulloch is leaving Levy in the middle and signing someone like Stephen Nicholas and putting him opposite of Johnson.

Carpenter and Palmer will be solid back-ups. If either of those guys are starting we're in trouble. There are a lot of guys at that spot but not a lot of quality.

I do agree with you though that landing a top-flight corner should be a higher priority than picking up a high profile LB.

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