Before the NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers’ inside linebacker position was maybe the team’s weakest position that no one was talking about. Immediately after the draft, it may have become of the team’s most talented units.
Following the release of 36-year-old starter Takeo Spikes and the departure of 32-year-old Demorrio Williams in free agency back in March, the Chargers had nothing at the position besides rising star Donald Butler. The only other players at the position were former second-round pick Jonas Mouton, a draft bust so far, Bront Bird, a fringe roster player, and Andrew Gackhar, a special teams player. Since then, the Chargers have made some nice additions to this group.
Just before the draft, the Chargers quietly made a solid addition, claiming former Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith off waivers. Smith, 24, started six games for the Packers last season before a torn ACL and MCL prematurely ended his season. Because of the injury, he may not be ready just yet to contribute, but certainly has the talent to warrant taking a chance on him. Though not the greatest athlete, Smith has the experience and high football IQ that will help him be a solid contributor in a rotation for the Bolts.
Obviously, the big name addition to this group is rookie Manti Te’o, taken in the second round of the draft. Te’o is penciled in as a starter next to Butler and is already expected to be a three-down linebacker for the team. Te’o has the instincts and high football IQ to excel in this league, even if he is limited in his physical skills.
Even if all the attention is on Te’o, Butler, 24, still headlines this group and will continue to be one of San Diego’s best players. After losing his rookie season due to injury, Butler has put together two solid seasons on the field. Now, he’s ready to be a leader off the field and in the locker room, and so far has embraced his role as the team’s new vocal leader.
Like Butler, Jonas Mouton also lost his entire rookie season to injury, but hasn’t developed like Butler has. Last season, he was buried on the depth chart and barely saw the field. Though he has been a bust so far, Mouton, 25, is still young and has plenty of time to turn it around. But now entering his third year, he needs to show something to prove that he’s worth keeping around.
The Chargers have a nice, young crop of inside linebackers, who have plenty of room for growth. If all goes well, Butler and Te’o could become one of the top inside linebacker duos in the league, while Smith and Mouton could be solid contributors in 2013.