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Chargers Camp Battles: Inside Linebacker

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I know, I know.....we've been over this a thousand times.  Everyone has their theory as to how the Chargers coaches will handle the Inside linebacker spot opposite Stephen Cooper.  Considering that Kevin Burnett was praised as a coverage linebacker and great special teamer, most of us fans didn't think he'd really compete for the starting job.  It was Tim Dobbins' to lose.

One thing that is usually true with NFL teams, although the Chargers can sometimes be different in this regard, is that if you look at the money you can predict the starter.  Although the backup guy may be just as good as the guy starting, if not a little bit better, it's going to make everyone look foolish if the player making the league minimum is starting ahead of the guy with the big contract.  Also, since most of us haven't seen much of Burnett and he doesn't have a lot of stats to stand on (as a backup in Dallas), this may be the best way to gauge how the Chargers feel about him.

Player Cap Value
Kevin Burnett $3,750,000 (est.)
Stephen Cooper $1,833,012
Tim Dobbins $493,120
Brandon Siler $386,681
Matt Wilhelm $3,653,960


I estimated Burnett's 2009 cap value by taking his salary (5.5M over 2 years), subtracting the signing bonus (2M) and then dividing by two.  Once I got that number (1.75M) I added the signing bonus back in.  Each of the other numbers is what that player's 2008 cap value was, but I do not believe any of these players signed new deals in 2008 or 2009 so it should be very nearly the same.

If my math is correct, Kevin Burnett will be the highest paid Inside Linebacker on the Chargers roster in 2009.  And while I assume AJ Smith likes a good value, such as having his two starters (Cooper and Dobbins) making less than 2.5M combined, I doubt he'd use the leftover money to overpay for a player that will spend more time off the field than on it.  Especially considering he's already doing that with Wilhelm.  I think Burnett may be "competing" with Dobbins, but I also think Burnett has the inside track on that starting ILB job.

More than that, I think Kevin Burnett was the reason the Chargers did not draft another Inside Linebacker.  Burnett could be the answer to some of our coverage problems.  From what I've read and heard from Cowboys fans, Burnett should have no problem handling man-to-man coverage on Tight Ends and Running Backs and should be as dangerous as a shark with a taste for blood in zone coverage.  Having a player like that lined up 3 yards in front of whoever wins the SS spot would certainly help to sure-up the pass defense.

There was a lot of talk after this signing that Burnett was great at special teams also and could help us in that part of the game as well.  The Chargers certainly need the help, as they struggled in 2008 with long kick returns that gave the opposition a short field.  However, if Burnett winds up taking the starting job he could help the special teams without ever taking part by simply freeing up Dobbins to become a special teams beast again.

This does not mean I think Dobbins is out of the picture altogether.  I simply think Dobbins needs to have an outstanding training camp to win the Inside Linebacker job.  He needs to prove that not only is he the ferocious hitter we saw last year, but that he's improved in coverage and at reading the play.  Too often in 2008 Dobbins was caught biting on playaction or rushing the passer on a screen (a big no-no for Inside Linebackers).  It's not unheard of for a player of Dobbins age (both him and Burnett are 26) and experience to have a dramatic improvement over the course of an offseason, and I hope that happens because then the Chargers would have more talent at the position, but I also believe that a dramatic improvment is the only way Dobbins gets the job over Burnett.

Do you have any thoughts about Bolts From The Blue?  Any tips you want to send our way?  Whenever you have something to say, don't hesitate to e-mail me directly.