With the knowledge now that the San Diego Chargers appear to be a bit shorthanded at inside linebacker given rookie Donald Butler’s season ending Achilles tendon injury, one can’t help but think back to what might have been. The trade to acquire the 12th overall selection this past April seemed innocuous enough on the surface with a few draft picks changing hands including the Chargers' 28th and 40th choices, but the small piece of that deal overlooked by many was linebacker Tim Dobbins. During his time with the Bolts, Dobbins was mainly utilized on situational downs and special teams, but in 2009 he logged some important plays with the first team defense when Kevin Burnett was nicked up.
Inside backer is an extremely important position in the Chargers 3-4 scheme where veteran Stephen Cooper has developed the skills to take on and shed blockers with ease. Unlike a 4-3 scheme where the linebackers often come clean through the line of scrimmage to make plays, the 3-4 generally requires some strength at the linebacker position to battle opposing linemen at the point of attack. Brandon Siler is also gifted at this technique as his performance in 2009 proved, but those are the only three quality players at one of the most important positions on defense where rotating and staying fresh is paramount to success.
A lot was going to be expected of Butler this coming season whenever any combination of guys needed a blow and a spell had to come onto the field. Now the three man rotation of Cooper, Burnett, and Siler is somewhat vulnerable should the injury bug bite again. Burnett has been somewhat injury prone during his career to this point including last year with the Bolts which forced him to undergo offseason neck surgery with a three to five month recovery period. Should any further injury issues arise this season at inside linebacker, the Chargers are going to be forced to play someone out of position with very little depth now considering Butler’s injury.
That prompted General Manager A.J. Smith to pursue some additional help at the inside linebacker position in acquiring Ali Highsmith off of waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. Although Highsmith has been little more than a special teams dynamo with the Cards, he does share some similarities with Dobbins. His prowess on special teams has to be the most obvious comparison to Dobbins currently, but perhaps when forced into action Highsmith could show some similar abilities to those of his predecessor as an inside backer. Strength could be an issue at only 235lbs. for Highsmith taking on significantly larger offensive linemen, but perhaps he can use leverage and quickness to his advantage in pursuit of opposing ball carriers.
It seemed that Smith became enamored with Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews very early in the NFL Draft process this past spring. Rumors began to swirl around the Bolts after the release of LaDainian Tomlinson that Smith had his eye on Mathews as the heir apparent to LT and would settle for no one else. Pinning himself into that corner, Smith then paid the king’s ransom to move up in the draft order jumping any other teams potentially interested in Mathews in order to secure his rights. Obviously this is all old news, but the question still lingers as to whether the price that Smith paid was excessive or acceptable.
Trying to evaluate a draft at this point is impossible considering the fact that Mathews has yet to even take one handoff in live game action, but that doesn’t prevent the second guessing from taking place. Certainly most fans are thrilled (as am I) to have Mathews in San Diego as a part of the Chargers organization, but there comes a point where the price tag is just too much for the team to afford. The majority of Dobbins’ tackles with the Bolts came over the past two seasons as he accumulated 55 in 2009 and 57 in 2008, but it is his prototypical fit in the 3-4 defense that the team will miss the most about him on their depth chart. At 6’1” 246lbs. his build was such that he could shed blocks and fill the hole with ease while still maintaining enough speed to stick with a tight end over the middle in pass coverage. The hole left by Dobbins has yet to be determined on the field, but Butler’s injury certainly makes the prospect of going into the season with just three healthy inside linebackers and one project a dicey one.
So let’s hear some fan opinion, was the Mathews deal worth it or did the Bolts GM give up a bit too much in pursuing the team’s back of the future? Are the Bolts in trouble with their current conglomeration of inside linebackers, or will they be able to survive the season?
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