The linebackers are next in our series of NFC South position rankings and this one took a lot longer and was way more agonizing than our previous installments on safeties and cornerbacks.
It started right at the very top because this division has two linebackers I’d put up against anybody. Everyone knows Jonathan Vilma and Jon Beason are absolutely great. But how the heck do you pick between the two? I don’t want to overdramatize this, but my gut said this was like picking between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. You make a call, but there’s a part of you that feels like you’re slighting the other guy.
For all of these rankings, I rely on conversations with coaches, personnel guys and players to make my decision. When it came down to making the call between Beason and Vilma, I reached for the phone and made even more calls. The sources are anonymous, but I called some high-ranking people that I trust most on this one and they also were torn.
I took what they said, processed it and analyzed it and came to the decision that ultimately was mine. Here it is:
Jon Beason, Panthers. What it really came down to was this: I viewed Beason and Vilma as equals in virtually every sense based on the past. These rankings are based to some degree on projections for the 2010 season and that’s where I saw a slight edge emerge. Beason is moving from middle linebacker to the weak side and that’s very significant because coordinator Ron Meeks runs a Tampa Two defense. In that scheme, the weakside linebacker takes on huge importance. Think of Derrick Brooks in the Tampa Bay glory days. Beason might not have the supporting cast around him that Brooks did, but he’s going to have a chance to make more tackles and more big plays than he did in the middle.
Jonathan Vilma, Saints. You couldn’t ask for a more complete middle linebacker and that’s a very important spot in New Orleans’ scheme. I don’t know that there’s a smarter defensive player in the division. Vilma also is a fantastic leader. Not sure if this works as a consolation prize for Vilma, but I’ll say something I never thought I would. As someone who was born and raised hearing and seeing Penn State called Linebacker U., I’ll admit Beason and Vilma have forced me to give the nod to Miami -- at least for the moment.
Curtis Lofton, Falcons. This guy makes me worry that I’ll be trying to sort out a three-way race at this time next year. Lofton had a very good rookie year, got better in his second year and everybody I talk to believes he’s ready to step to the elite level this year. Much like Vilma, he’s a middle linebacker that can do it all.
Geno Hayes, Buccaneers. This may come as a shock to some Tampa Bay fans who believe Barrett Ruud is the Buccaneers best linebacker. That’s no knock on Ruud and we’ll come to him very soon. But the people around One Buccaneer Place keep singing Hayes’ praises and they’re all saying he’s poised for a breakout season. Hayes is going to be an every-down linebacker. Now that the Bucs are back to playing the Tampa Two scheme, Hayes should be in position to make a lot of big plays.
Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers. Ruud does what he’s supposed to do in this system. He makes tackles and he should make more this year because the Bucs did him a favor by putting so much emphasis on adding defensive tackles early in the draft. Ruud’s been wanting a contract extension for some time and it hasn’t happened. If he goes out and makes some big plays and shows he’s the leader of the defense, he might get his wish. But the middle linebacker in the true Tampa Two isn’t the most important guy on the field.
Dan Connor, Panthers. Before you go bringing up the Penn State angle, you should know this. Two of my panelists urged me to put Connor ahead of Ruud. I went against them because Ruud has a track record and Connor really doesn’t. The Panthers are throwing him into the middle and we’ll see how he does. But Carolina wouldn’t have moved Beason to the weak side to take the spot of the injured Thomas Davis (he'd be high on this list if he were playing) unless the coaching staff had a lot of faith in Connor.
Jonathan Casillas, Saints. This is a bit of a leap, but I saw very good things out of Casillas in training camp and early in the preseason. He moves well and he tackles well and I don’t think the Saints are going to miss Scott Fujita all that much. It also won’t hurt Casillas that he’ll be lining up next to Vilma.
Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons. He’s a rookie, but he’s incredibly talented. The Falcons say he can play the strong side or the weak side equally well. My guess is Weatherspoon ends up starting on the strong side and making an immediate contribution.
Mike Peterson, Falcons. He’s a question mark as he nears the end of his career. But the Falcons believe Peterson has at least a year in him. Their sudden depth at linebacker might cut into his versatility.
Stephen Nicholas, Falcons. He started last year and was average. With Nicholas and Coy Wire, the Falcons think they have quality linebacker depth. If Nicholas ends up starting again, the Falcons wouldn’t be all that upset.
James Anderson, Panthers. He’ll get the first shot at the starting job on the strong side. Anderson’s been a quality backup and special-teams player and we’ll find out if he can do more than that.
Quincy Black, Buccaneers. The Bucs have been praising Black just as much as Hayes. But there’s one difference. Hayes will stay on the field with Ruud when the Bucs go to their nickel package.
Scott Shanle, Saints. A very dependable veteran and he helped the Saints win the Super Bowl last season. But Shanle’s skills as a run defender might be starting to erode.
Jamar Williams, Panthers. While Anderson will open as the starter on the strong side, he hasn’t really distanced himself from Williams. If Anderson stumbles at all, the Panthers won’t hesitate to start Williams.
Previous position rankings: