ILB Kevin Burnett (Donald Miralle/Getty)
The San Diego Chargers have several holes to fill this offseason. One glaring void is in the middle of the defense, where GM A.J. Smith will have to bring in help at inside linebacker to shore up his team's run defense.
It's a number that still smarts from the 2010 season: 251 rushing yards in a critical December loss to the Oakland Raiders.
That was among the last straws that broke the Charger' playoffs back. In a game the Chargers so desperately needed, in a game they needed to match the physicality of the Raiders, in a game where it was clear the Raiders were going to run the ball, the Chargers fell amazingly short.
That went as well for their playoff bid, missing the postseason for the first time since 2005.
So when eyeing the upcoming draft, the Chargers are taking a long look at their starting inside linebackers: Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett. Both are potential free agents; both aren't expected to return.
That could have the Chargers reaching for an inside linebacker with their first pick at No. 18, or among their first five selections in the opening 89 picks.
Between Cooper and Burnett, the tea leaves say the Chargers will fight harder to retain Burnett. Cooper, who missed four games with knee woes last year, finished with 43 tackles and a sack. The years of him leading the Chargers in tackles - he'll be entering his ninth season -- are starting to take their toll.
Burnett is coming off the season of his six-year career. He didn't miss a game last season - after being out five the previous year - and paced the Chargers with 95 tackles. He also showed being inside doesn't mean you can't get inside the rival's pocket, as he recorded six sacks, the second-highest among Chargers.
So unless Burnett prices himself out of the Chargers' budget, look for him to return. That means Cooper will likely be shown the door.
But what if both leave? That would leave the Chargers awfully thin at such a crucial position, as the depth here isn't much, save Brandon Siler, and he could exit as a restricted free agent.
The Chargers could wait until the second round to address this need. Either way, the Chargers could land a solid prospect to fill what could be a gaping hole in the middle of their defense.
Illinois' Martez Wilson, 6-4, 250 pounds, could be a perfect fit. He is coming off a big year in which he recorded 112 tackles, 11.5 for losses. He's got the strength and length that would translate well to the Chargers' 3-4.
Another prospect is North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant, who possess good instincts and is a thumper. The 6-1, 241-pound Sturdivant moved inside for his junior season and continues to rise up the charts. The Chargers could take a chance to see if he's available in the third round but him coming off the board in the second round is more likely.
Don't overlook Michigan State's Greg Jones, although his stock fell slightly with mediocre showings at the Senior Bowl and at the combine.
But you can't forget that he led the Spartans in tackles for four straight seasons. Same goes for his ability to lead the team and deliver emotional energy whenever it was needed. At 6-0, 242 pounds, Jones can also play on the outside and has 16.5 sacks to prove it. But if the Chargers are still seeking help at the inside spot in the third round, Jones might be a nice catch.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chargers were awarded sixth- and seventh-round picks in this year's draft to compensate for the free-agent loss of TE Brandon Manumaleuna and WR Kassim Osgood.
What do you think of San Diego's inside 'backers? Discuss in the message boards.