Smith has known for two years now that this offseason would bring wholesale changes at inside linebacker. He began preparing in the 2006 draft, selecting Tim Dobbins in the fifth round. Dobbins had a sensational rookie season despite limited defensive snaps, finishing with 18 tackles on special teams and scoring a touchdown in the season finale on a fumble recovery.
Despite his success his last season, Dobbins was never viewed as the heir apparent to former starters Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey. Those honors went to Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper, two ascending stars who came into the league together in 2003.
Wilhelm and Cooper spent the last four years being groomed for the starting roles they are set to assume. Both received five-year contract extensions last season, proof that the team was ready to rid them of their apprentice labels.
Most teams would be content with a talented young trio like Wilhelm, Cooper and Dobbins holding down the inside ‘backer position. Not the Chargers. That is why Smith spent two 2007 draft picks on the position, selecting Anthony Waters of Clemson in round three and Brandon Siler of Florida in round seven.
The common theme with those two is the ability to outplay their draft status. Waters fell in the draft because he missed most of the 2006 season with an ACL injury. Siler’s draft-day dive is more inexplicable; he was projected by many to go as early as round two.
Now, the Chargers have a surplus of talent at inside ‘backer, just like they did last season. The difference is that last season both starters were aging and in the final year of their contracts. Now, the entire quintet is young and locked up long-term.
From a talent standpoint, that is certainly a great thing. From a chemistry standpoint, it remains to be seen what the repercussions will be. If Wilhelm and Cooper excel in their starting roles, Dobbins, Waters and Siler may be less than pleased about going the next three or four years without a legitimate opportunity to crack the starting line-up.
No matter what this depth does to chemistry, the positives seem to outweigh the negatives. The Chargers now have excellent injury insurance; competition to drive players to improve; and a kick coverage unit that makes the season opener against Devin Hester a little less scary.