Matt Burke says players on equal footing for open outside linebacker spot

Posted May 20, 2013

Fifth-year veteran Ashlee Palmer and second-year pros Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead competing for a starting spot at outside linebacker

Figuring out who will start alongside linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy in the fall will be one of the more closely-watched competition battles during organized team activities and into training camp.

The departure of Justin Durant left a void to fill on the outside and, as it stands, is an open competition among fifth-year veteran Ashlee Palmer and second-year pros Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead.

Travis LewisLB Travis Lewis (Photo: AP Images)

Linebackers coach Matt Burke says all three players are on equal footing and it's anyone's job to win.

"We have a bunch of guys that we're going to give a chance to," said Burke. "That's kind of what these OTAs are going to be all about. With Ashlee, Travis and Tahir, I'm going to roll those guys through and see who rises up. All of them know there's a spot there, so it's a matter of who steps into it."

Burke, who was careful to point out that all three spots are always up for grabs to a certain extent, said the plan is to rotate a guy at that spot each practice to give everyone a fair shot. Then once training camp roles around, the coaching staff will watch to see who takes ownership.

"Obviously we have two returning starters, but if somebody's better than the guys who are returning, then they're going to play too," he said.

It's that mentality that breeds the friendly competition amongst the linebackers. It's clear that each player is constantly pushing one another to do better, and this group in particular is one of the best and smartest that Burke has been around.

"It's a great group," said Burke. "We're tight, we've been together for awhile. (Tulloch and Levy) have been here since I've been here. It's a competition, and they all want the starting job, they all want to fight and play, but at the end of the day it's a great room."

Burke said one of the biggest changes from last year to now is simply having Lewis and Whitehead a year older. That maturity alone has made a big difference in the dynamic of the meeting room, and along with veterans Levy, Palmer and Tulloch, they're all willing and eager to help coach up the younger players that come in, like seventh-round pick Brandon Hepburn.

"Brandon is a smart kid, he's big and he can run - those are all qualities that we value and we have confidence in him," said Burke. "We've been together for awhile and all the guys who have been through this, they see how the young guys are and they're trying to help them out.

"Because the better we all get, the better the team is going to be, and they take that approach."