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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part III: Inside Linebackers

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Jonathan Bales

Thus far this offseason, I have graded the Cowboys’ tight ends and outside linebackers.  Today, I’ll take a look at the inside linebackers.

Inside linebacker can be a tough position to grade because the nature of the position varies so much from scheme to scheme.  In a 3-4 defense, inside linebackers rarely rack up a ton of tackles because they have just one defensive tackle to eat up blocks in front of them.

Despite the fact that 3-4 inside linebackers rarely receive much glory, the Cowboys’ inside backers received even less hype than normal for their 2010 play, and rightfully so.  Both Bradie James and Keith Brooking, who received the majority of the defensive snaps at the position, saw a sharp decline in their play from ’09.

To keep things consistent from that season, I will be using the same grading system (below).

  • Chart Key:  TA=Thrown at, Yds/Att=Yards-per-attempt, PD=Passes defended, Missed %=Tackles missed/Tackles attempted
  • The best stats are circled in blue and the worst in red.
  • The final grades for the inside linebackers are weighted 4:2:1 in terms of run defense, pass defense, and leadership, respectively.

Grades

  • Bradie James

Run Defense: B

James’ run defense numbers were comparable to that of last season.  He recorded a slightly higher tackle rate, but that small difference could be due to the Cowboys being down late in games, thus allowing the opposition to run the football.  Nonetheless, James still has something left in the tank as a run defender.

Pass Defense: C-

It’s really amazing how steady James’ pass defense numbers remained from 2009 to 2010.  He was thrown at almost the exact same number of times, yielding a comparable rate of receptions for nearly the exact same yards, making his yards/attempt and yards/snap nearly identical.

That doesn’t mean those numbers were good, however.  James struggles in the open field.  His 83.9 percent reception rate is far too high, as is the 7.6 yards/attempt.  He also recorded just one interception and not a single sack (despite a lot of early season blitzes).

Leadership:  B-

James is certainly an All-Pro in terms of his work ethic and mindset, but something seemed to be missing from his game in 2010.  He still showed the ability to fire up the troops, but that characteristic needs to be shown more when things are going poorly.

  • Keith Brooking

Run Defense:  C

In 2010, Brooking tallied 23 less tackles than he did in 2009 despite playing more snaps.  His rate of missed tackles also increased slightly.

Pass Defense:  C+

Brooking’s pass defense statistics have been the most surprising numbers I have gathered from any individual player so far this offseason.  I always go into my grading with as open of a mindset as possible, but in the back of my head I thought Brooking’s numbers must be awful.  He seemed to struggle mightily against the pass all season.

The reality is that, while Brooking was far from great, he wasn’t remarkably bad.  He yielded a lower rate of receptions than in 2009 and a comparable yards/attempt.  His sack total was down, but his five passes defended show he was, at times, in position to make plays.

Brooking’s pass defense is the perfect example of how a few big plays (positive or negative) can distort our view of a player’s true ability.

Leadership:  B-

See James, Bradie.  I was really looking for Brooking to step up and once again be the vocal leader of this team, but the fire and passion he displayed from 2009 seemed to be cooled this season.  He’s still a tremendous example of how to be a pro, but the Cowboys need to find someone to lead them through times of adversity.

  • Sean Lee

Run Defense: B-

Lee’s snap count is low enough that we can’t base the entire grade off of his statistics.  His numbers are great (his 0.12 tackles-per-play is outstanding), but I saw him get blown off the ball quite a few times this season.

The good news is Lee’s game improved dramatically from the beginning of the year until the end.  This kid is going to outwork everyone until he becomes the player the Cowboys need, which is all you can ask.

Pass Defense:  B

Pass defense figured to be Lee’s strength as a rookie, and it was.  Although he was thrown at just 11 times, he yielded a team-low 4.9 yards-per-attempt and 0.33 yards-per-snap.  If he can keep his interception rate high while playing more snaps, he’ll be the sort of big-play catalyst the ‘Boys seek on defense.

Leadership:  C

This is so difficult to determine right now.  Lee definitely took a back seat to the veterans in terms of vocal leadership, as he should during his rookie season.  His work ethic and practice habits are incredible, however, which are forms of leadership that may be just as important as the vocal form.

Final Inside Linebacker Grades

Sean Lee B- (82.4)

  • 2009 Grade: None

Bradie James: B- (81.3)

  • 2009 Grade: B (84.1)

Keith Brooking: C (76.7)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (87.6)

Conclusions

Overall, the 2010 inside linebacker grades are quite shocking.  I would have rated the backers James, Lee, Brooking in terms of film study alone.  Lee’s numbers were surprising across the board.  I think he’ll make a big jump in 2010.

Brooking’s pass defense statistics weren’t as horrible as most people imagined, although they were far from great.  It’s pretty clear his leadership no longer outweighs his average (and now sub-par) play.  The Cowboys might be smart to part ways with him this offseason and let Lee show what he can do.

James still has value as a run defender, but he’s becoming a serious liability in the passing game.  The Cowboys should look at replacing him in nickel situations next season and allowing Lee to remain on the field.  Too much playing time for a guy with only 163 career snaps on defense?  The numbers indicate not.

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22 Responses to Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part III: Inside Linebackers

  1. willis says:

    I believe shopping James would be a good thing. We need to strt getting value before players decline.

  2. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Bradie James was drafted as an OLB from LSU in 2003 and moved to ILB once the Boys converted to a 3-4 scheme in the 4th round. This can be advantageous to take traditional OLBs from a 4-3 scheme (instead of a MLB from a 4-3) and put them at ILB in a 3-4 due to their versatility in being able to tackle AND blitz. It’s long been known that OLBs (both from 4-3 and 3-4 schemes) in college get drafted higher than traditional MLBs. Key thing to note is that he was a FOURTH round pick. It’s clear that Bradie is a SOLID ILB and has been considered for many pro bowl in the past although never getting to go to one. He had a remarkable SIX sacks in 2008 – unheard of from an ILB.

    Keith Brooking was drafted in the 1st rd (12th overall) out of Georgia Tech in 1998 after a stellar season there at ILB for 3 years (played OLB his freshman year). Still the all-time leader in tackles at the college. Went to Atlanta and did well (5 pro bowl seasons; multiple seasons not missing a game, etc.). His career will garner Hall of Fame consideration – but he’s clearly not the man he used to be.

    Sean Lee was drafted in the 2nd round.

    My question for you, Jonathan, is do you think, from what you’ve seen of his rookie season in comparison to both the current ILBs, that his career will be worthy of a 2nd rd pick and/or he will be a solid (or perhaps just better than average) ILB for the next 4-8 seasons.

    My instincts tell me no but I’m hoping he proves me wrong w/ strong work ethic and gradually but steady improvement in the areas of block shedding, instincts and penetration into the backfield to make tackles on elusive RBs.

  3. john coleman says:

    Interesting. I still believe Lee will prove to be a 2nd rd worthy player. I also believe both James and Brooking could contibute next season. I would expect James to be markedly better and a healthy Brooking capable of spot play.

    JB- What’s the word on Martez Wilson? I think the name is right. He’s just a pup but is huge and can run.

    Who do you see as possible draftees at ILB?

    A few names I like are McCarthy Miami, Irving NC St., Scott Lutrus UConn(LATE), Harvey (Marshall-nicknamed Thumper- late). How about Dontay Moch as a tweener ILB/OLB?

    For the record, IMO stay away from Hightower, he is a dog.

    There is another guy from Maryland Wuczjiak (Best guess) who has good career numbers but is not fast. How about Casey Matthews?

  4. Rick says:

    Jonathan, are you sure that “tackles” are the best way to measure a linebacker? I like the way that Pro Football Focus does it, where they credit players for “defensive stops”, which is when an opponent makes a tackle that qualifies as a good play by the defense, given the down and distance.

    On first and 10, a tackle that makes the opponent gain 3 yards or less is a stop. On second down, a tackle that makes the opponent gain less than half of the yards they need to reach the first down is a stop. And any tackle that prevents the opponent from converting a third down is a stop.

  5. JJ says:

    This was a weak area to me this year. I believe James was a A- in leadership because he played hurt most of the year and worked hard when others seemed to quit. He has never been a cover LB and while I truly admire the fire from Brooking, Brady just has not had a real “stud” LB next to him in the prime of his youth.

    The question in my mind is “who is ready to step to play ILB if Brooking is gone AND James is out for any length of time. Lee is clearly one answer but he appears injury prone. We’ve heard nothing about Williams so this seems to be a real need in the offseason.

    Any decent free agents in Cleveland who want to follow their former D-Coordinator?

  6. Rick says:

    JJ- the two free agents from Cleveland that interest me are ILB D’Qwell Jackson and CB Eric Wright. Both fill needs for the Cowboys and are unlikely to re-sign in Cleveland. Unfortunately, Jackson missed the season and has had injury problems for a while now, while Wright played horribly, so neither signing would be very significant and neither player would likely be a starter.

    However, I’ve heard speculation that Shaun Rogers will be cut because of his salary. That’s a guy I’d be interested in.

  7. Vince_Grey says:

    Interesting. On a 3-4 defense that was just awful last season, you gave well above average grades to the OLB’s, and now average to above average grades to the ILB’s. The linebackers, who are the heart of a 3-4.

    Hmm. OK. I’m just gonna sit back and wait for the DL and DB grades.

    JJ – Decent free agents… from Cleveland? Isn’t that sort of a oxymoron? Seriously, that one made me snicker when I first read it.

  8. moses says:

    I saw Lee get pushed out of the hole several times and it seems like he does not play with good leverage.

    I hope he pans out. I am just afraid that his injury history is going to catch up with him.

    The grades are better than I thought they were going to be. It seemed like the middle was always open and the D could not get it covered.

  9. JJ says:

    Vince – I felt the same as I wrote it. However, sometimes a gem is found in a pile of rubbish.

    As I reflect a bit more on ILB, with the need to be able to cover the middle of the field in run or pass, it feels just a tad more secure than Safety. Yet, with Lee’s injury problems and Brady getting up there in age (with limited coverage ability), it sure would be nice to find another ILB that can be “starter caliber” and not just a plug in similar to what we picked up with Sensabaugh (adequate but not championship caliber).

  10. Tyrone–From what I’ve seen, I do think his career will be worthy of the pick. I don’t think he’s going to a Hall of Fame or even consistent All-Pro player, but I do think he’ll work hard enough to never be a liability. Sometimes you need the consistency of guys like Lee who just do their job to allow for the “playmakers” to be free to do their thing. The most encouraging sign is we’ve seen great improvements from Lee already.

    JC–I haven’t studied the prospects enough yet to be confident in my assessments. I do know Wilson could be the first ILB off the board, and it might not even be in the first round. He’s huge and would probably fit well in Dallas.

    Rick–I think you make a good point. I checked their numbers, and they credited James with 49 stops, Brooking with 31, and Lee with 15. Thus, Lee not only make a high rate of tackles, but he made the “important” ones too. Thanks for pointing that out, and perhaps I will use that metric in my next position assessment.

    JJ–You’re right..if Brooking is gone, the Cowboys are going to be desperately thin at ILB. I think you’ll see them address the position pretty early in the draft if the value is there, even with the weaknesses in the secondary and on the line.

  11. Rick–I would expect SOMEONE from Ryan’s group in Cleveland to come to Dallas. All three guys are interesting names, but I think Rogers would do the most for Dallas. If Ryan needs a true NT, Rogers is the guy to come in and let Ratliff move to DE. I think Ratliff will be able to be himself at DE in this scheme, NOT at nose.

  12. Moses–Lee’s game was strange to me because it seemed he either made an incredibly instinctual play with great leverage or just got blown out of the hole. Feast or famine. I’d like to see what weight he comes into camp at this year.

  13. Vince_Grey says:

    I think Lee’s biggest problem was simply he was a rookie. I see him getting stronger and learning better leverage. I don’t you’ll see nearly as many “blow-ups” of Lee as we did last season.

    Most of you may not recall, but in `94 Eric Allen was a rookie OL, and he got thrown around and abused by Reggie White a lot in their two games that season. Now, I understand this was Reggie freakin’ White, but Allen was the best guard in football for the next 10-12 years, maybe the greatest OG of all time, soon to be HoFer as well, and reputedly the strongest man in the NFL.

    Point being, even Eric Allen wasn’t the man he would become as a young, green, rookie. I guarantee you NO ONE pushed Allen around, EVER, after that year.

    No, I’m not saying Lee’s a future HoFer, or All Pro, or even a Pro Bowler, but I very much believe we’ll see a much stronger, better prepared, Sean Lee next year.

  14. Vince–I’m assuming you mean Larry Allen?

  15. Vince_Grey says:

    >>>>>Vince–I’m assuming you mean Larry Allen?<<<

    Uh, yup. Hate it when I have a brain fart. Jeez.

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