In a lot of ways, the linebackers are the core of a defense. Not only to physically sit in the middle of a defense, but they are also looked to as the quarterback to set the tone for the defense. To go along with that, they have possibly the hardest jobs due to their tasks of defending the run and covering tight ends along with wide receivers. Having a good linebacking core is one of the most important aspects of defensive success, so which five teams have the best Off-Ball Linebackers* heading into next season?
*Note* This refers to non-pass rushing linebackers: ILBs and 4-3 OLBs.
5. The Buffalo Bills
This past year, Kiko Alonso did mostly everything in his power to state his case for being Defensive Rookie of the Year. Though he lost, most will certainly not forget his epic first outing as a Bill. The rangy linebacker flew all over the field making plays in coverage and was able to make an impact from week to week against the run. He is best suited not taking on blocks consistently and he should play with more control as he missed tackles and took bad angles on occasion last year. The Bills have paired him with former New England Patriot, Brandon Spikes.
Spikes is a notoriously hard-hitting, downhill linebacker and I feel like that is perfect for this role in Buffalo. His style perfectly compliments Alonso’s rangy play and together they should solidify the inside of what is to be a formidable Buffalo front seven.
4. The Baltimore Ravens
The addition of Daryl Smith before the 2013 season turned out to be signature, Ozzie Newsome genius. Smith spent the entire season making an impact in all facets of defense and proving to be the Raven’s defensive MVP. Inside, he will joined by either 2014 1st round draft pick, CJ Mosley out of Alabama, or 2013 2nd round draft, Arthur Brown out of Kansas State. Both players are intelligent and athletic coverage linebackers who have the ability to impact the run. During their respective drafts, both were ranked in my top fifteen players and in Mosley’s case, top five.
To see this unit having success will obviously require some faith in the unproven youngsters, but seeing as how strongly I believe in my evaluations, it is easy for me to see this unit having success this year.
3. The Carolina Panthers
Though I feel like Luke Keuchly’s Defensive Player of the Year award was overstating his actual performance last year, he is still one of the best middle linebackers in the league. He is a true defensive quarterback and he has flashed the athletic ability to be an all around stud. He needs to be more aware in coverage as that was definitely he weak spot last year, but he flashed enough to give hope. Coming downhill, he is one of the best in the league at diagnosing plays and attacking the line of scrimmage and I expect big things from him in year three. His running mate,Thomas Davis, happens to be one of my favorite players in the league.
He is basically a big safety playing linebacker and it shows impacting he is when he is in coverage. As a run defender, though he doesn’t always take on blocks well, he has the speed and recognition to still make an impact on the back side of plays. The third linebacker in the group, AJ Klein, is still a bit green, but he has flashed the ability to be a solid run defender. Despite Klein’s youth, the Panthers unit still sits near the top of the league due to their other two studs.
2. The Seattle Seahawks
Just like seemingly every other unit on the Seattle defense, their linebacking corps is stacked with talent. The group is spearheaded by the athletic Bobby Wagner who would like to have a few words with Luke Keuchly about who the best middle linebacker from their class is… Wagner is a smart, rangy linebacker with ability to cover tight ends, hold down the middle of the field and can also be a monster attacking the line of scrimmage. Next to him is KJ Wright, another rangy, athletic linebacker. Wright is very good in coverage but is also underrated in taking on the run. On the other side of the corps sits Malcom Smith, this past years Super Bowl MVP. Though undersized, Smith is a smart player with quick feet and a great ability to make an impact in coverage. Behind the starting three sits former first round pick Bruce Irvin, who will be playing a Von Miller type of role where he can blitz from all over the formation or play with his hand in the ground.
Despite being labeled as a pass rusher by many, I was impressed by Irvin’s flashes in coverage and taking on the run. With improvement, it is going to be hard to keep this athletic freak off the field next year. Even deeper in the unit is Boston College rookie, Kelvin Pierre Louis. Pierre Louis is another athletic freak (I think they may have a type) who moves like a safety and can hit like a Mack truck. He needs to clean up his instincts, but considering the Seahawks’ impressive depth, he’ll have plenty of time to develop and plenty of teachers to learn from. Overall, this is a very athletic unit who can make trouble at all levels of the field and has very good depth. Offenses beware.
1. The San Francisco 49ers
While the Seahawks have a bunch of high-end linebackers, the 49ers have THE inside linebackers of the NFL. Navarro Bowman was incredible last year. Attacking in the running game, shutting down players in coverage and even impacting while blitzing the quarterback. There was really nothing the former Nittany Lion couldn’t do. Unfortunately, Bowman suffered a gruesome leg injury during the NFC Championship game and it is to be seen how well he can return.
However, even returning at a close fraction to what he was last year still puts him in the upper echelon of linebackers in the NFL. Next to him stands the soon to be legendary Patrick Willis. Willis has been one of the best linebackers in the NFL his entire career in the NFL and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down yet. He, like Bowman, is pretty much unstoppable in most aspects of the game and it is hard to expect anything but the best from him. The 49ers front seven has been pretty terrifying these past few years and if Willis and Bowman can come back in usual form, it is hard to expect a step backwards from this unit.
Great Linebacker in a bad group
In all of my evaluations there were few players in the NFL that were better than Lavonte David was last year and he was the best off ball linebacker in the league. He is smart and active against the pass, he is a tremendous run defender and he can even do work as a pass rusher. He was a demon for the Buccaneers last year and was one of the few bright spots on the 4-12 team. However, the rest of the unit is not very inspiring with the likes of Mason “Plodder” Foster and whoever takes over the open battle at the other linebacker spot. David’s play was almost good enough to warrant the group being ranked, but it didn’t feel right considering there are more complete units. However, with Lovie Smith in town, I expect David to ascend even further and finally into the eyes of the media.