The one staple in the inside linebacker rotation is Stephen Cooper. After missing the first four games last season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, Cooper came back with a vengeance. He finished with 98 total tackles and led all linebackers with four interceptions.
More importantly, Cooper is the quarterback of the defense. He can go check-for-check with the most cerebral of quarterbacks and put his defense in position to make plays. As SDBoltReport.com dissected earlier this offseason, Cooper is one of the four most important players on the roster.
Things get more convoluted at the right inside linebacker spot. The team went with a two-man platoon last season -- Tim Dobbins started eight games and Matt Wilhelm started seven -- and added another body to this mix this offseason by signing Kevin Burnett away from the Dallas Cowboys.
Dobbins may have the inside track on the starting job if he can build on his success from last season. He logged a career-high 57 tackles and forced three fumbles while fortifying the team’s inside run defense. He struggled mightily in space and too often ran himself out of plays, but he appears to be the team’s best option for early-down situations.
If Dobbins locks down the starting job, the battle between Burnett and Wilhelm could be among the best this offseason. Burnett has the inside track after signing a two-year, $5.5 million contract this offseason, but Wilhelm is just one season removed from a campaign in which he started 14 games and tallied 97 tackles and three interceptions.
If Wilhelm fails to lock down a spot in the top-three, he will be a prime candidate to be released. He will count approximately $2.5 million against the salary cap this year, a steep number for a third-string linebacker.
Rounding out the rotation is Brandon Siler. The special-teams dynamo has posted 36 tackles in kick coverage over the last two seasons and has carved out a niche on defense, as well. He has emerged as the team’s best goal-line linebacker and has a knack for sifting through traffic and playing downhill. If Wilhelm does not stick around, Siler could have an even larger role on defense.
A dark horse in the race is undrafted rookie Darry Beckwith. Not only does he hail from A.J. Smith’s favorite program, LSU, but he would have been a middle-round pick this year if not for concerns about his reoccurring knee injuries. If Beckwith can stay healthy and showcase his sideline-to-sideline ability, he has a chance to stick.
How do you see the ILB rotation shaking out? Talk about it in the message boards.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.