As we near the beginning of NFL training camps, teams will soon begin to have a more concrete understanding of what type of team they’ve assembled and how their young players have progressed. Throughout training camp five teams will be keeping a particularly key eye on their linebackers, as they need to see improvement from the 2021 season.
For all their investment at the LB position in the last couple of seasons, the Cardinals LB play has not met the expectations that two first round draft picks carry. Isaiah Simmons is the “unicorn” of their defense and has lined up on the LOS, as an outside linebacker, and then in the box as a traditional LB at other times. His performance level has not been quite as expected at any of those positions, however. PFF gave him a 49.7 Defense Grade in 2021, ranking his performance level as 44th out of 54 defensive players drafted in the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Zaven Collins was their latest draft pick at the position in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and has not performed up to the level expected of the No. 16 overall pick. Markus Golden was outstanding in 2021 with 11 sacks, and they added Myjai Sanders via the draft on the other side to get to the QB more in 2022. Arizona will hope that another year of experience for these two young ILB draftees will pay dividends.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers had huge problems stopping the run in 2021, as Brandon Staley brought across his 1.5 gap defensive philosophy from the Rams, but with lighter personnel up front, thus having an impact on the LBs.
Last season, Kenneth Murray ranked as the second-worst player out of 54 defenders selected in the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. He made just 31 total tackles and missed seven tackles in 11 games played last season so scrutiny will be on him to stay healthy and perform to a higher level in 2022.
Dru Tranquill was an average ILB in 2021, but they just didn’t gain a lot of production from the interior on the DL or the LB position. At OLB, Joey Bosa had another extremely successful season, returning with 10.5 sacks. But on the other side, the Chargers have added Khalil Mack which should help them see a huge increase of QB pressures. With the addition of the versatile Kyle Van Noy, the outlook of this unit is a lot better for 2022.
The Lions are undertaking a shift from a 3-4 base defense to 4-3 in 2022 according to multiple reports. This shift by Aaron Glenn, second-year Defensive Coordinator, should benefit the talents of the roster.
In 2021, Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara were the OLBs to start the season, but both suffered with injury and only played 11 games between them. The ILBs were Anzalone and Jamie Collins initially, but the Lions released Collins after not finding a trade partner and Jalen Reeves-Maybin received valuable game time. Looking to 2022, Alex Anzalone continues as the MLB, who performs to an acceptable standard for a starting ILB in the NFL, racking up 78 tackles in 14 games played.
Meanwhile, Julian Okwara may take more of a starting role in 2022 at WILL after impressing with 5 sacks from only one start in 2021. Chris Board will complete the LB group at SAM after leaving the Baltimore Ravens, a career backup this far, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders LB group has seen a lot of change ahead of the 2022 season. Denzel Perryman and Cory Littleton were the main two starters with other LBs being rotated around them. Perryman stays with the Raiders for 2022 after an above average season consisting of 154 tackles and a Forced Fumble during the season.
Starting with him next season will be Divine Deablo — who made five starts in his rookie year and showed flashes. Meanwhile, Jayon Brown has been brought in, though he has struggled severely in recent years with injury and performance, failing to reach the heights of his 2018 sophomore season with the Tennessee Titans. Perryman’s performance level is not to be questioned, but there are doubts surrounding the overall group moving forward.
The LB position was a revolving door of starters in 2021 for the Broncos, with rookie Baron Browning starting nine games, while Alexander Johnson and Kenny Young started seven games each.
At the OLB spot, Bradley Chubb managed only seven games as well due to injury, while star pass rusher Von Miller was traded to the LA Rams just before the trade deadline. The 2022 season sees a big shake up within the group. Josey Jewell returns after being side-lined for the whole of last season, bringing valuable experience to the ILB position. The Broncos also invested during the offseason, bringing in Alex Singleton from the Eagles in Free Agency and Randy Gregory at OLB, from the Cowboys.
On paper, there is no reason this group cannot rack up plenty of sacks and be a very productive group, but there are injury questions with 2 players coming back from serious injuries.