After biding his time for six years, five in Buffalo and one in Denver, making his way as a special teams ace, Mario Haggan finally got his opportunity to become a starting linebacker in 2009 for the Broncos.
Over the next two seasons, Haggan started every game for the Broncos, racking up 150 tackles, six sacks and five forced fumbles. By all accounts, Haggan had become a solid NFL starter at linebacker and was still widely regarded as a difference maker on special teams.
But when Denver saw the opportunity to add a dynamic young linebacker in the 2011 NFL Draft, they couldn’t pass it up and used the No. 2 overall pick on Von Miller. Miller quickly claimed the starting job and the humble and classy Haggan returned to his special teams role while still providing leadership and serving as a mentor for the rookie that had just taken his job.
“Von is a great kid and he earned the right to play there,” Haggan said. “I earned the opportunity to get a chance to play some too. When you lose your job to a guy like Von Miller you don’t accept it but you live with it for the time being.”
The time being expired at the end of last season after Haggan hit the free agent market. With nine years in the league to his credit and a solid resume in his portfolio, Haggan went out on the market in search of an opportunity that made sense. He also went looking for one that could provide him another chance to play and potentially start.
Eschewing the initial wave of free agency, Haggan dutifully took his time in searching for that right opportunity. He waited to see what teams in need of help at linebacker did in the draft and then began actively pursuing opportunities.
What Haggan found was a golden opportunity in St. Louis, where he signed a one-year deal last week and will have a chance to compete for a starting job, likely on the strong side right away.
“It’s a fresh start and an opportunity to earn some playing time,” Haggan said. “That’s my goal to be on the field opening day and try to take this team to another level. As a veteran you just want to find the right fit. I am going into my 10th year. It’s not about the money. You want the money but you want a situation where you feel like you can win and you get with a coach and team you feel like you can play for a long time. This is a place where I fit in. My role has been a leader in all the places I have been and it’s an honor to come in and be with a team that is going places.”
From the Rams perspective, adding a big, physical outside linebacker to compete on the strong side made plenty of sense. After entering the offseason with a multitude of needs at a variety of positions, outside linebacker had remained one of the spots they were unable to address as they prioritized other spots both in the draft and free agency.
Haggan cuts an imposing presence at 6’3 and around 270 pounds, and fits the profile of the big, physical type of linebacker that coach Jeff Fisher prefers. In the early portion of Organized Team Activities, the Rams have used the trio of
“Mario’s played very well in that system,” Fisher said. “We worked him out last week and he brings a veteran presence to our defense. He’s a strong outside linebacker and in addition to that, he’s a very talented special teamer. A great guy for the locker room and gives us some experience at that position.”
In addition to his size and physical skills, Haggan will bring a needed element of experience to a linebacking corps in which the 27-year old Dunbar is the most grizzled veteran.
That’s a role that Haggan says he has always willingly embraced and will continue to handle as he’s surrounded by a group of developing youngsters.
“I had some great mentors like London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes when I came into the league,” Haggan said. “Those guys mentored me and kept me on the right path and helped me last a long time in this league. I think it’s only fitting for me to do something like that for the other guys because it was done so well for me.”
Part of that apprenticeship included Haggan learning the value of patience as well as the importance of special teams.
Most teams, including the Rams will keep six or seven linebackers on the final 53-man roster. If you aren’t a starter, you must have special teams value. Even one of the three starters in today’s NFL will likely need to contribute on special teams because of the proliferation of spread offenses which force more defensive backs on the field.
In most cases, the linebacker coming off the field in 4-3 defenses is the strong side linebacker and Fisher himself has acknowledged that linebacker would likely only be on the field about 40 percent of the time.
Even at 32, Haggan says he learned at a young age the value of helping on special teams and it’s something he will continue to do well into the future.
“Yeah, that was my meal ticket,” Haggan said. “That’s what I enjoy doing, that’s what I always do even when I was a starter, I was on special teams. I hope to play a big role in that this year, too. We have a lot of young guys that need someone with experience who can show them how to do it and I’ll be there for that too.”
Essentially, there isn’t much of anything that Haggan won’t do to help the team so long as he gets an opportunity to contribute.
“I’m willing to do it all,” Haggan said. “My whole career I have done inside, outside, I am willing to do whatever to help this team get to the next level. For me that is mainly stopping the run and earning the right to rush the passer and so whatever it is, we’ll do it.”