TC Preview: Outside Linebacker

OLB Jyles Tucker (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips return at outside linebacker, but the spots behind them are up for grabs. Marques Harris, a regular in the defensive rotation last season, also proved an impactful force on special teams. However, rising star Jyles Tucker, is set to challenge Harris' role after closing his rookie season with a splash.

Shaun Phillips (6'3", 262 pounds) and Shawne Merriman (6'4", 272 pounds) are set to start at outside linebacker. Phillips is marked as one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the NFL, as he's tallied 20 sacks over the last two seasons. Last season alone, he added 68 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown.

Merriman (6'4", 272 pounds) attended his third consecutive Pro Bowl after closing a career-high 68 tackles last season. He registered 12.5 sacks, tying him for sixth in the NFL.

Even with two solid starters, every position needs unfaltering depth and injury protection. Marques Harris and Jyles Tucker compete for the backup role behind Merriman and Phillips. While Harris clearly has game experience that Tucker lacks, Tucker has made solid improvements, progressing at an impressive rate that just might give Harris a push for the spot.

After signing with the Chargers in 2005 as an undrafted free agent, Harris (6'1", 231 pounds) enters his fourth season with the Bolts. In his 41 game appearances, he has notched 37 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four pass breakups. Last season, Harris saw action in 15 games, recording two starts and marking 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Harris' former coach at Southern Utah, Wes Meir, recognized the athlete's potential from his earlier years on the field.

"Harris has got some of the best athleticism I've ever seen. He's got great strength and great speed," Meir said.

While Harris is an above-adequate pass-rusher, his feather weight prohibits him from defending the run well. His biggest attribute is his stellar impact on the kick-coverage units.

As Harris became a restricted free agent this off-season, the Bolts realized his value and placed a second-round tender on him. He re-signed to a one-year deal to stay in San Diego, which should provide him with confidence and encouragement.

Tucker (6'3", 258 pounds) made a leap last season after kicking off his rookie season on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster mid-season. He appeared in six games and marked 12 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Tucker's shined during the Bolts' last regular season game against the Oakland Raiders, when he registered three sacks, forced two fumbles and scored a touchdown.

While he was honored as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in December for his outstanding performance, Tucker recognizes the need to continue progressing as a solid and impactful player on the field.

"I have to make plays within the defense and on special teams," Tucker said. "I have to do everything they'll let me do. I have to work harder than the man next to me."

Both Tucker and Harris fight for the top backup outside linebacker slot behind Merriman and Phillips and training camp will allow each player to make his case. Recommended Stories