Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Most Intriguing Training Cample Battles, No. 4: Starting ILBs

For the first time since yours truly was the coolest kid in elementary school (memories might be a bit fuzzy), Zach Thomas will not be holding down the fort at the inside linebacker spot for the Dolphins. Instead, the Dolphins have three men competing for the two starting spots in new 3-4 scheme being implemented by Parcells & Co.

Of the three - Channing Crowder, Reggie Torbor and Akin Ayodele - Crowder is the closest thing to a lock. Not only is he the youngest of the group with the most upside, he's also in a contract year and management will want to take a long look at him to see if he's worth keeping around. While not a Pro Bowl-caliber player (maybe someday), Crowder has been a solid, productive starter thus far in his career. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Crowder has perfect size for the defense and definitely has the skills to start in it. I think he's quite comparable to Bradie James, who has started every game for the Cowboys at inside linebacker over the past three seasons and has been very productive.

Assuming Crowder secures one of the spots, that leaves the other between Torbor and Ayodele. A former defensive end at Auburn, Torbor was drafted by the Giants in the fourth round in 2004 and has served as a situational and backup player most of his career. He did start for the team throughout their Super Bowl run last season after Mathias Kiwanuka went down for the season.

Meanwhile, Ayodele came over from the Cowboys in the Anthony Fasano deal just prior to this year's draft. He has plenty of experience in the defense during his time in Dallas and has been a full-time starter between the Jaguars and Cowboys since 2003.

As it stands right now, Ayodele is the better player and the safer play. He has a leg up on Ayodele when it comes to experience, production, familiarity and comfort. That being said, Torbor received a four-year, $14 million contract from the Dolphins this offseason and while that isn't a blockbuster contact it's certainly not backup money either. He was definitely signed to be a starter at some point, whether it's in place of Ayodele in 2009 or 2010, or Crowder if the team lets him walk after the season.

The thing about this battle is while one guy might earn the title when the season begins, both will definitely be in the rotation and see plenty of action. This one battle that could be waged well beyond the preseason and even the 2008 season.

The position(s): Starting inside linebacker spots

Number of spots: Two

The contenders:
Channing Crowder, Reggie Torbor, Akin Ayodele

Predicted winner(s):
Crowder and Ayodele

Crowder, as explained above, has the most upside and the front office has to see what they have in the 24-year-old. Ayodele is simply the safe choice right now, as he's got plenty of experience and production and the coaching staff is familiar with him. Which players are actually listed at the top of the depth chart here won't make a ton of difference though, because the "odd man out" is still going to see plenty of playing time.