Larry English will most likely get the start at OLB this week against the Browns, standing in for Shawne Merriman (who has missed very little time considering all of his injuries this season). Since the Chargers are in the second half of their schedule and it's now "Undefeated Month", this is just the right time to find out what kind of player their first round draft pick is.
Let's start out by seeing where English is in comparison to his peers. I'll be the first to admit that I've kept an eye on all three USC rookie linebackers, and they have all impressed me. Brian Cushing is every bit the player he was in college, Clay Matthews uses his speed to fly around and make plays, and Rey Maualuga is the missile-like force we all thought he'd be when we talked about drafting him.
MLB has not been an issue though, so Maualuga can be forgotten about, and we can take out Cushing because he's playing in a 4-3 and not as a pass-rusher. Besides Matthews, the only other 3 first-round pass-rushers drafted by teams running a 3-4 defense are English, Robert Ayers and Brian Orakpo. Let's compare.
Matthews - (541 plays) 29 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 5 defended passes, 1 defensive TD.
Ayers - (297 plays) 14 tackles, 0 sacks, 1 defended pass, 1 defensive TD.
Orakpo - (635 plays) 37 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 defended passes.
English - (338 plays) 20 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 QB pressures, 1 forced fumble. Keep in mind that I got the numbers from the guys above from unbiased stat sites, but I got English's numbers from the Chargers coaching staff (thus the extra "QB pressures" stat). The stat sites have him in about 40 less plays and credit him with only 17 tackles.
Since I like to even the playing field, let's find some averages.
Matthews - .05 tackles per play, .009 sacks per play
Ayers - .04 tackles per play, 0 sacks per play
Orakpo - .05 tackles per play, .01 sacks per play
English - .05 tackles per play, .005 sacks per play
So, has he been the complete bust that Ayers appears to be in Denver? No. When you factor in the way he's been used (sporadically, with very little rhythm), you can say he's actually been pretty good.
This week needs to be his coming out party. I know he'll be going up against Joe Thomas, one of the best LTs in the league, but Larry English needs to make everyone stop worrying about whether or not Shawne Merriman is going to play against Dallas or after that. The storylines we need to hear, heading into the playoffs, are the ones about the Chargers "3-headed-monster" at OLB. English's performance, up to this point, has not lived up to that.
In the past couple of years, the Bolts have been "stacked" enough that their first day picks don't have to make a contribution until towards the end of the season and the playoffs. Eric Weddle came on strong at the end of 2007, just like Antoine Cason and Jacob Hester did towards the end of 2008. Louis Vasquez has been pretty good all season, but with the OLBs dropping like flies it's absolutely necessary for Larry English to start contributing more and soon.
Now, let's step away from the stats a little bit. Allow me to vent. Larry English looks small to me. Not just short, but he seems to have a very short wingspan. That worries me. The more I see him on the field, the more he looks like he should be a MLB instead of an OLB. I stumbled across a pre-draft scouting report on him this morning, and here's what it said (I'll highlight the parts that stand out to me)....
Positives: Solid linebacker build, with more than adequate upper-body strength and legs for the position. Good motor, hustles down or across the field until the play is completed, even if initially blocked. Changes direction in space well. Secure wrap-up tackler when man is in his area. Can use his arms to keep linemen and fullbacks off him when standing up. Stays balanced and upright most times on stretch plays. At times he can bounce off a block using his punch. Has quick, violent hands to stay free. Stays at home on option plays until last possible moment. Able to drop back off the line in zone blitzes and stay with tight ends. Strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl eliminated many of the concerns regarding English's level of competition.
Negatives: Lacks the bulk to play with his hand down in the NFL, which he did in college. Gets engulfed by better left tackles on inside pass rush moves, lacks the strength to bull rush and doesn't quite have the speed to get the corner consistently (but has good closing speed when standing up). Fails to hold his ground when directly out of his stance and can't get off the block quickly enough to get to the ball. Will need to prove he can handle coverage duties against better tight ends and that he has zone awareness. Needs to get lower in his backpedal, as he stands a bit tall.
I don't understand. He can't rush inside, he can't bull-rush and he can't speed-rush. What the heck can he do? Even English's big plays this year came mostly off of plays where the coverage was good and he kept his motor going. As much as I'm rooting for the guy, he hasn't shown me anything yet. The fact that he has good speed, strength, intelligence and linebacker size doesn't make him a good pass-rusher.
You can point to Elvis Dumervil and say "There's a short guy who's getting it done!" Actually, both players ran similar 40 times at the Combine, both are about the same weight and Dumervil is at least 2 inches shorter. So yes, you're right. Larry English I guess has the potential to be Elvis Dumervil, and that would be great. I just don't know if I see that happening. Even Elvis had 8.5 sacks his rookie season.