'08 is key season for Crowder

In his terrific "Florida Sports Buzz" article for the Miami Herald, Barry Jackson brought up interesting points on Sunday about three young Dolphin defenders who will really be under the gun in 2008.  So I'm going to take them one-by-one and talk a little bit about what they need to do to stick with the team in 2008 and beyond.  Today we'll talk a little bit about one of my favorite players, Channing Crowder.

Crowder is perhaps the player with the most to gain (or to lose) in 2008.  He is entering his 4th year since being drafted in round 3 by Nick Saban back in 2005 and has shown flashes but hasn't taken that proverbial "next step" that he needs to take to become the heir apparent to Zach Thomas.  And now Crowder enters this season with free agency looming in 2009.  Writes Barry Jackson:

Word is this Dolphins regime likes Crowder -- he fits their linebacker prototype (athletic, 6-2, 245 pounds). But he can become an unrestricted free agent next spring, and look for agent Joel Segal to approach the team shortly about an extension.

One NFL personnel director called Crowder a good player who potentially is Miami's best linebacker in a 3-4 defense if Jason Taylor departs. Although ''he can be more than average, he hasn't done anything to grade him as more than average,'' said former Browns scout and Fox analyst Chris Landry.

'Zach and I talked about an hour and a half [recently],'' he said. 'I'm used to him setting up everything on defense and me just chilling and being like, `OK, do what he said.' I was happy with Zach being there because I could have more fun and talk more junk. Now, I've got to be more vocal and be that Zach Thomas. You want to be the guy making the calls.'' Crowder is unsure if he or ex-Cowboys linebacker Akin Ayodele will handle those calls.

I think three things, which Jackson hits on, makes this season a big one for Crowder.  First, as we said, is his looming free agency.  Crowder's agent will likely contact the team before this season to talk about an extension.  Whether or not he gets the extension prior to the regular season will go a long way towards telling us fans what this new regime really thinks of him.

The second key point is that two defensive players will get to wear a receiver in their helmets to make the defensive call.  This is the first time the NFL has experimented with this, so it'll be interesting to see which players the Dolphins decide to give the radio to.  It's important to note that the two who have the radio both can't be on the field at the same time, meaning the one starter that gets the radio will likely be the defensive leader and play on all 3 downs.  Once we know who gets the radio, we'll have yet another clue as to what this staff thinks of Channing.

And key point #3, as Crowder touches on above in Jackson's article, is that Zach Thomas is now gone.  So now Crowder has to put into action all of the study habits and techniques that he may have learned from Zach.  And no longer does Channing get to be the free-spirited linebacker.  He may have to step up into more of a vocal leader.  Is he ready for this? 

The thing that's interesting about Crowder is that 2006 revealed a player on the cusp of breaking out and becoming one of the NFL's best young linebackers.  He racked up 103 tackles (60 solo), a sack, and 3 passes defensed.  But in '07, Crowder looked lost at times.  He had 78 tackles in 11 games, which is more per game than in '06, but he took some bad routes to the ball on occasion, especially against the run. 

He also hasn't shown the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage  nor has he shown the ability to create turnovers.  In 3 seasons, he has just 10 tackles behind the line.  Compare that to the 22 of Zach Thomas in the same 3 seasons, despite playing in 8 fewer games over those 3 seasons.  Crowder also has just 2 forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks in his career and has yet to intercept a pass.  Again, over the same 3 year span, Thomas has 6 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions in 8 fewer games.

The bottom line?  Well it's great to hear that, according to Jackson, the new regime likes Crowder.  He does possess the size this staff looks for in their interior linebackers and he is quite athletic.  But, again, his lack of momentum-changing plays is worrisome.  He's also been limited in OTAs and mini-camp thus far because of his knee injury from last season, which won't help his case for a long-term extension prior to the season.  However, he is expected to be 100% by training camp and it will be then that Crowder will really get to show this staff, and all the fans, what kind of player he can become.

Make no mistake, I am 100% behind Crowder this year and I really am looking for him to finally take that next step.  But I'd be lying if I told you I was confident that he will take that step and become the stud linebacker we all hope he will become.  And, really, this is yet another of the many reasons why 2008's training camp is one of the more anticipated camps in recent memory.

Thoughts on Crowder?

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