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Mailbag: Big Year For The Linebackers?


With a healthy Vander Esch and the increased bulk in the interior of our defensive front, do you think this linebacker group can achieve the potential we've all been hoping for? — LES HOFFMAN / PELL CITY, AL

David: They need to. It's obviously a team effort, but I think the success of the linebacker corps was one of the main reasons why the defense was so great in 2018. Those guys need to be flying around, using their athleticism and instincts to mitigate plays. They invested a top-20 pick in Vander Esch, and they gave Jaylon Smith a lot of money. If they don't play up to those expectations, it's going to hurt their on-field performance and their salary cap situation.

Jonny: The linebacker core is a collective question mark, which is odd to say considering it's made up of three Pro Bowlers. But all three have extensive injury history. Sean Lee is on the other side of a decade in this league. So the first big question is whether all three can stay on the field. If so, then it's on Jaylon Smith to take the next step. He has the physical tools to be even better than he is. If he can silence his critics, then I think a healthy Vander Esch is a star and a healthy Lee is at least reliable. That's how they reach the potential you're talking about.

With the addition of Cameron Erving, is there a remote chance of moving La'el Collins back to guard? The line really seemed dominant with him at guard and Doug Free at RT. — CYRIL CRUTCHFIELD / NEW ORLEANS, LA

David: I can't think of a single good reason why they'd do that. La'el Collins was absolutely phenomenal last season. I think you could argue he was the most consistent member of the offensive line, with the exception of perhaps Zack Martin. I know he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but I genuinely believe he played at that level. He's hitting his stride at right tackle, and I think it would be silly to mess with that — especially when Connor Williams, Connor McGovern and others are all available to fight for the left guard job.

Jonny: Just like you said, I think that possibility is remote. Versatility and flexibility are terrific characteristics in individual offensive linemen, but continuity is what makes for great offensive line units. So it's always a matter of striking that balance between trying to find your five best players and trying to make sure you're players are comfortable in getting the job done in their specific roles. It's something to keep an eye out for in training camp, but my assumption is that Collins will be playing tackle in Week 1.

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