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Position Preview: Linebackers

Posted Jul 23, 2010

San Diego’s linebackers will continue to capitalize on the team’s 3-4 defense as well as provide crucial support for the special teams coverage units.

SAN DIEGO – San Diego’s linebackers present an interesting dichotomy. Part rock star and part stage crew, their work is both lauded in the mainstream and appreciated only by the hardcore.

Beneficiaries of the 3-4 defense, they collect sacks and tackles like fountain looters nab handfuls of loose change. The big bodies on the defensive line control the point of attack to allow the linebackers to swallow running backs or rip quarterbacks to the ground.

And many of the Chargers’ contingent of linebackers play prominent roles on the team’s kick coverage units as well.

There’s plenty of wealth to distribute among the group.

Of the window display variety, outside linebackers Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman combined for 11 sacks last year. Phillips led the NFL with seven forced fumbles and tied Larry English for the team lead with 16 quarterback hits. Merriman recorded 20 quarterback pressures, most on the team.

Stephen Cooper led San Diego in tackles for the third consecutive season with 102 and played 940 snaps in the middle of the Chargers’ defense. Kevin Burnett made a career-high 49 tackles inside after he spent the first four seasons of his career in Dallas. Brandon Siler became one of the breakout defensive players of the AFC West, making 67 tackles and two sacks.

Some of the team’s special teams standouts were hurt a year ago. Injuries forced Antwan Applewhite, Jyles Tucker and James Holt to miss time.

“We’ll get back to being an elite special teams (group),” Turner said. “We weren’t as good last year and it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. It wasn’t that we coached it different. We just had so many changes through the year (due to injuries).”

Last year’s first-round pick English and this year’s third-round selection Donald Butler will add to the pool of linebackers chasing opposing returners.

     "We want to get off the field and get the ball in our offense’s hands." - Stephen Cooper

English started two games and played in all 17. He set career records at Northern Illinois with 31.5 sacks and 63 tackles for loss. That skill set will translate well, especially when he becomes comfortable enough to play with instinct, Turner said Thursday.

English feels more acclimated after his first offseason.

“In comparison with this time last year, it’s a lot different,” he said. “You’re coming in not knowing anything as a rookie and it’s tough getting adjusted. I’m not quite a vet yet, but I do feel a lot better and more comfortable.”

As part of the defenses’ directive to be more assertive this season and dictate what opposing offenses do, the linebackers want to make sure quarterbacks don’t have time to throw and anyone roaming the middle of the field has to worry about securing the football.

“We want to get off the field and get the ball in our offense’s hands,” Cooper said. “We want to get a lot more turnovers, a lot more sacks and I think our game plan this year is looking real bright and we’re going to get after the quarterback and make a lot of plays.”

Said Butler: “Competition brings out the best. We have a great group of guys, all who are hard workers and can make plays out there on the field.

“As a young rookie coming in, that’s just going to help me that much more, because not only do you get that competition aspect from those older guys, but you also want to learn from it, and that’s going to help me out tenfold.”

LINEBACKERS AT A GLANCE

  

SHAWNE MERRIMAN
Size:
6-4, 265
Exp.: 6
Career GP: 57

Returned to the field last season after major knee surgery, but fought through foot and groin problems as well as double teams to record four sacks … Made 39.5 sacks from 2005-07 … Selected as All-Pro and chosen for the Pro Bowl in each of those three seasons … Hopes to recapture old form this season with a return to health.

  

SHAUN PHILLIPS
Size: 6-3, 250
Exp.: 7
Career GP: 92

Led the NFL last year with seven forced fumbles … Also led San Diego with seven sacks … Tied Larry English for the team lead with 16 quarterback hits … Missed only three games in the last four season … Has recorded at least seven sacks every year since 2005.

  

STEPHEN COOPER
Size:
6-1, 235
Exp.: 8
Career GP: 108

Played 940 snaps last season, most of any member of the Chargers … His 102 tackles led the team for the third consecutive season … Overcame odds as an undrafted player out of the University of Maine to become consistent NFL linebacker … Reached 100 tackles in two of the last three seasons.

  

KEVIN BURNETT
Size:
6-3, 240
Exp.: 6
Career GP: 72

Recorded a season-high 14 tackles Sept. 27 against Miami in one of his first games with San Diego … Spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys … Has made 164 tackles and 6.5 sacks during his career … Races remote-controlled cars competitively and has a track built in his back yard.

  

LARRY ENGLISH
Size:
6-2, 255
Exp.: 2
Career GP: 16

Last year’s first-round pick made 36 tackles and two sacks as a rookie … Played 539 snaps and tied for the team lead with 16 quarterback hits … Twice won the Vern Smith Leadership Award as the top player in the Mid-American Conference while at Northern Illinois … Made 31.5 sacks in college, most all-time in UNI history.

BRANDON SILER
Size:
6-2, 239
Exp.: 4
Career GP: 46

Played in all 16 games last season, starting seven … Made 67 tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed and one interception … Named one of the NFL’s most sure tacklers by Football Outsiders … Continues to be one of the team’s top special teams players after making 21 tackles there as a rookie in 2007.

DONALD BUTLER
Size:
6-1, 248
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Selected in the third round after San Diego made a trade with San Francisco to move up 12 spots … Bench-pressed 225 pounds 35 times at the NFL Combine, most among linebackers … Expected to make major special teams contributions and compete for time at linebacker … Made 94 tackles as a senior at Washington.

ANTWAN APPLEWHITE
Size:
6-3, 258
Exp.: 3
Career GP: 15

Made 20 tackles and a half-sack as a rookie in 2008 … Hamstring injury nearly cost him the entire season last year … Kept the Chargers from playoff elimination in ’08 by forcing a fumble on an onside kick against the Kansas City Chiefs in mid-December … Made first-team All-MWC as a junior at San Diego State.

JYLES TUCKER
Size:
6-3, 258
Exp.: 4
Career GP: 26

Recovered from a left ankle injury that forced him to miss season opener last year to play in the next seven games … Injured his right ankle while covering a punt Nov. 8 against the New York Giants … Recorded nine sacks in ’07 and ’08.

JAMES HOLT
Size:
6-2, 223
Exp.: 2
Career GP: 9

Made 10 tackles on defense last season as a rookie, but also contributed on special teams … Placed on Reserve-Injured on Jan. 6 after a shoulder injury Week 17 against Washington … Named All-Big 12 as a senior at Kansas … Finished senior year with 105 tackles, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception.

DARRY BECKWITH
Size:
6-0, 242
Exp.: 1
Career GP: 0

Spent last season on the Chargers practice squad after San Diego signed him as an undrafted free agent out of LSU … Finished his college career with 188 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions ... Twice named second-team All-SEC.

BRANDON LANG
Size:
6-3, 266
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Made 18 sacks as a junior and senior at Troy University while playing defensive end in a 4-3 formation … Began his college career at Hargrave Military Academy … Feels natural rushing the quarterback as an outside linebacker but must work to refine the other portions of the position.

KION WILSON
Size:
6-0, 240
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Made 93 tackles, intercepted a pass and sacked one quarterback as a senior at South Florida … Sprints to the locker room after each practice as a tribute to his murdered brothers … Ran a 5K in under 18 minutes in high school despite weighing 210 pounds … Conditioning and energy are among his biggest attributes.

MIKE NIXON
Size:
6-3, 232
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Made honorable mention All-Pac-10 as a weakside linebacker at Arizona State … Led the conference with five interceptions in 2008 … Spent five years as a catcher in the Dodgers minor league system before enrolling in college … Reached AAA with the Las Vegas 51s … Hit .267 with 11 home runs and a .991 fielding percentage.

Week 1 starting linebackers, 2000-09:

2000: Gerald Dixon, Orlando Ruff, Junior Seau.
2001: Gerald Dixon, Orlando Ruff, Junior Seau.
2002: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Junior Seau.
2003: Ben Leber, Zeke Moreno, Donnie Edwards.
2004: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey, Steve Foley.
2005: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey, Steve Foley.
2006: Shawne Merriman, Randall Godfrey, Donnie Edwards, Shaun Phillips.
2007: Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, Shawne Merriman.
2008: Shaun Phillips, Derek Smith, Matt Wilhelm, Shawne Merriman.
2009: Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett, Shawne Merriman.

Week 1 linebackers on roster, 2000-09:

2000: Gerald Dixon, Orlando Ruff, Junior Seau, Deon Humphrey, John Reeves, Steve Tovar, Shannon Taylor.
2001: Gerald Dixon, Orlando Ruff, Junior Seau, Deon Humphrey, Zeke Moreno, Sam Rogers, Carlos Polk.
2002: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Junior Seau, Zeke Moreno, Carlos Polk, Orlando Ruff.
2003: Ben Leber, Zeke Moreno, Donnie Edwards, Carlos Polk, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm.
2004: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey, Steve Foley, Shaun Phillips, Zeke Moreno, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, Carlos Polk.
2005: Ben Leber, Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey, Steve Foley, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, Shaun Phillips, Marques Harris.
2006: Shawne Merriman, Randall Godfrey, Donnie Edwards, Shaun Phillips, Tim Dobbins, Carlos Polk, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, Marques Harris.
2007: Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, Shawne Merriman, Tim Dobbins, Carlos Polk, Marques Harris, Anthony Waters.
2008: Shaun Phillips, Derek Smith, Matt Wilhelm, Shawne Merriman, Tim Dobbins, Brandon Siler, Marques Harris, Anthony Waters.
2009: Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett, Shawne Merriman, Tim Dobbins, Larry English, Brandon Siler, Antwan Applewhite, Jyles Tucker.

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