Whither Will Witherspoon? What should the Rams do at WLB?

VanRam at TurfShowTimes made a really insightful observation, about how much the Rams’ run defense might be missing Will Witherspoon.

The Rams traded Witherspoon after week six, and have now played five games without him at OLB. When the move was made, lots of people, myself included, saw the long-term benefits of the move and thought that the Spoon had been relatively quiet. In those five games without Witherspoon, it’s looking more and more like the Rams miss his services. Check out these stats:

Total rush yards YPG YPC
Weeks 1-6 795 132.5 4.28
Weeks 7-12 839 167.8 5.68

I don’t think the question is whether the Rams made a smart move — because in the long term, I think this trade will pan out positively for the rebuilding effort. Witherspoon’s salary was set to double next year, from $2.5 mil to $5 mil. For $2.5 mil, you can get a “nice player.” But for $5 mil, you demand an “impact player,” something that Witherspoon will be hard pressed to become again.

The question is, and this was raised by commenter NICKSC, do the Rams need a veteran player in the linebacker corps to make the unit better, and help fast-track the development of our young players?

Here’s a look at what we have, as well as what might be out there in free agency in 2010, after the break:

MLB: James Laurinaitis — locked in, a true building block for the franchise. JL is a fantastic tackler, and he fights through blocks to make plays. Though, in recent weeks he’s been getting a lot of “Tinoisamoa tackles,” catching guys from behind after being caught out of position on the initial burst. And he still struggles in pass coverage.

SLB: David Vobora — quietly making a nice impact. The guys at ProFootballFocus love him, ranking his production sixth among all NFL outside linebackers (in the 4-3). He’s a guy who should be the incumbent starter next season, but who should also be given strong competition in camp to make sure he is the real deal.

WLB: Paris Lenon/ Larry Grant — terrible. Just terrible. Either one might have shown enough to the point where you could consider them capable backups, but neither should be starting.

Now, let’s look at a few of the key names in this list of 2010 free agent linebackers:

Keith Bulluck (32) has been a high producer for most of his NFL career, and one of the most consistent playmakers in the Tennessee defense. However, as his declining tackle numbers show, he is no longer the force he once was. ProFootballFocus still rates him very highly in run support and overall play, though his pressure on the passer is no longer a strong point. He made $5.5 million in salary last season, from a contract signed at age 26, but it will be interesting to see what he commands at 32. The Nashville Tennessean doubts he will be brought back.

Larry Foote (29) has had arguably a greater impact on the Detroit Lions defense than the better-known Julian Peterson. He has been all over the field, making tackles for loss, and getting to the quarterback on blitzes. He arrived with only a one-year deal for $3.5 mil, though he has said he would like to finish his career with the Lions. They would seem to have bargaining leverage.

Rocky McIntosh (26) would be a nice addition, having emerged as the full-time weakside starter in Washington, who for all their faults had a sound run defense in 2007 (4th) and 2008 (8th). Oddly enough, their run defense fell off dramatically from 8th to 25th this season, after spending millions on supposed run-stuffer Albert Haynesworth. Then again, little else has gone right for the franchise this season. Reports from the offseason suggested that the Redskins were working on a contract extension with McIntosh, but no progress has been made. One potential snag: his agent is Drew Rosenhaus, the Scott Boras of football. Whoever gets him will likely be coerced into overpaying.

Brandon Chillar (26) took over the weakside spot from AJ Hawk last season with the Packers, but now both play OLB after the team’s transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look. The results of the transition have been impressive for the team as a whole: improving from 131.6 (25th) to 89.1 (4th) rushing yards per game, but Chillar can only take so much credit: he’s only started four games this season, and has missed several weeks to a broken hand suffered in November. Chillar has become the primary pass-defender against tight ends and running backs, according to his bio page. His return would likely come cheap, and he may still have untapped playmaking potential.

Derrick Johnson (26) is another player in the “untapped potential” genre, albeit one with a much better pedigree than Chillar, as a #15 overall pick in 2006. His college career suggested greatness, but the “bust” label has never been far from his name in KC. He played weakside at the University of Texas, but has been shuffled around with the Chiefs. As this article from Scout.com points out, most of his big plays came from the weakside. There has been no noise about the Chiefs signing him to an extension, which might make him a very appealing target.