The list includes linebackers in both a 3-4 and 4-3 formation, those who played inside and outside. For defensive linemen, I looked heavily at the player’s ability to get to the quarterback, but for linebackers, I looked more at the player’s ability to play in all the aspects of the game—defend against the run, cover in the passing game, and rush the quarterback.
50. Antwan Barnes, OLB, San Diego Chargers: He’s a poor man’s Aldon Smith: Antwan Barnes started just five games and was used almost exclusively as a pass-rushing specialist, but he managed to rack up 11 sacks and two forced fumbles. That’s pretty good work for a guy that neither the Baltimore Ravens nor Philadelphia Eagles wanted.
49. Lawrence Timmons, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers: After a sensational 2010 campaign, Lawrence Timmons dropped off immensely in 2011. He rated as Pro Football Focus’s best inside linebacker a year ago, but fell to just a -4.2 rating in ’11. Timmons was ineffective against the pass rush and just subpar against the run, seemingly alarming results considering the Pittsburgh Steelers just inked Timmons to a six-year, $50 million contract extension in August.
48. Donald Butler, ILB, San Diego Chargers: After missing his entire rookie season with an injury to his Achilles tendon, Donald Butler rebounded with a strong performance in 2011. He was a terrific run stopper, starting all 16 games for the San Diego Chargers.
47. David Harris, ILB, New York Jets: David Harris had the best season of his five-year career in 2011, setting career-highs in interceptions (4), and passes defensed (9), while scoring the first touchdown of his career. Opposing quarterbacks throwing his way posted just a 46.1 passer rating, the top rating allowed by any inside linebacker.
46. Chad Greenway, OLB, Minnesota Vikings: I’m not quite sure what the Pro Bowl voters are seeing in Chad Greenway, because his numbers don’t show he’s that good. He’s good enough to make this list simply because he’s durable (never missed a game in five NFL seasons) and a tackling machine. But no linebacker in the game gave up more yards (717) in pass coverage than Greenway. Just one linebacker gave up more than the five touchdowns Greenway let up. And PFF rated Greenway the worst at his position in defending against the pass.
45. Nick Barnett, OLB, Buffalo Bills: After the Green Bay Packers tried and failed to trade Nick Barnett, they released him and he signed a three-year deal with the Buffalo Bills. After playing inside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 formation, Barnett shifted to outside linebacker in the 3-4 of the Bills. Barnett started all 16 games for the Bills, recording three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
44. E.J. Henderson, ILB, Minnesota Vikings: After a gruesome leg break late in the 2009 season, E.J. Henderson rebounded to make the Pro Bowl in 2010 and play equally as well in 2011. He isn’t great in pass coverage but is phenomenal against the run.
43. Ahmad Brooks, OLB, San Francisco 49ers: The San Francisco 49ers will probably let Ahmad Brooks leave in free agency and let last year’s rookie star Aldon Smith step into his place. Brooks set career-highs in sacks (7) in 2011, starting all 16 games for the first time in his career. Only six linebackers registered more than Brooks’ 37 quarterback pressures last year.
42. DeMeco Ryans, ILB, Houston Texans: Remember when the Houston Texans shocked the world and made Mario Williams—not Reggie Bush, as many expected—the first overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft? Forgotten in that draft was the underrated selection of DeMeco Ryans in the second round. Ryans went on to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and he’s been one of the league’s better interior linebackers for six seasons.
41. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins: For the first half of the season, Ryan Kerrigan was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before he faded in the second half. Kerrigan still ended with 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 16 games.
40. Manny Lawson, OLB, Cincinnati Bengals: The San Francisco 49ers allowed Manny Lawson to walk in free agency, and the former first round pick signed a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals. Lawson started all 16 games for the Bengals. He didn’t give up a touchdown in pass coverage and played well against the run.
39. Desmond Bishop, ILB, Green Bay Packers: According to Pro Football Focus, there have been just 10 linebackers better than Desmond Bishop since 2010. He played his best game of the season in the Green Bay Packers’ playoff loss to the New York Giants, racking up five tackles, two quarterback hits, and three pressures.
38. David Hawthorne, MLB, Seattle Seahawks: He’s done well for the Seattle Seahawks after the team had to release Lofa Tatupu because of bad knees; David Hawthorne has started each of the past three seasons as the quarterback of the Seahawks’ defense. He registered three interceptions and six passes defensed in 2011, while also scoring the first touchdown of his career.
37. Rolando McClain, MLB, Oakland Raiders: Rolando McClain is far too much of a liability in pass coverage to be worth the eighth overall pick the Oakland Raiders spent on him in the 2010 NFL draft, but he’s a good pass rusher and terrific run stopper. McClain totaled five sacks in 14 starts in ’11.
36. Mathias Kiwanuka, OLB, New York Giants: He was a bust as a first round defensive end, but the New York Giants found him to be better suited at outside linebacker. In his first season following a position change, Mathias Kiwaunka thrived as a 4-3 ‘backer. Just three players at his position registered more quarterback pressures than Kiwaunka, who now has two Super Bowl rings in six seasons.
35. Brooks Reed, OLB, Houston Texans: All six of Brooks Reed’s sacks came in a five-game span in the middle of the season, but Reed came on strong in the playoffs. He sacked Andy Dalton once in the wild card game, then got to Joe Flacco three times in the divisional round. Reed had a good enough rookie season that the Houston Texans will likely feel more comfortable about allowing Mario Williams to walk.
34. Anthony Spencer, OLB, Dallas Cowboys: The 2007 first round pick is entering free agency, and the Dallas Cowboys are likely to franchise him. Anthony Spencer gives the Cowboys a terrific group of linebackers; he’s coming off a career-high in sacks (6) and forced fumbles (4).
33. Jerod Mayo, OLB, New England Patriots: The New England Patriots liked him enough that they gave him a five-year contract extension in December. Jerod Mayo is the leader of the Patriots’ defense. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008 and both a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 2010. Mayo missed time with injuries in ’11 but he’s a premier linebacker when healthy.
Brandon Spikes saw his draft stock plummet in the 2010 NFL draft because of a slow 40 time, but Bill Belichick was able to look past that.
The Patriots picked Spikes in the second round, and he’s been a quality middle linebacker for two seasons now. Spikes missed nearly half the season due to injuries but he is stout against the run when healthy.
Tulloch is an unrestricted free agent, and talks have linked him to the Philadelphia Eagles. Wherever Tulloch goes, that team will be getting a bonafide middle linebacker still in his prime. Tulloch hasn’t missed a game in six NFL seasons, and he’s an excellent tackler who would be a terrific fit in the wide-nine defensive scheme.
The Atlanta Falcons have really bolstered their linebacker corps in recent drafts, first with Curtis Lofton in the 2008 NFL draft and then with Sean Weatherspoon in the first round in 2010.
Weatherspoon is remarkably consistent, grading out well in all aspects of the game. He is a future Pro Bowler in the making, and maybe his best aspect is his phenomenal ability to play the run.
In three NFL seasons, James Laurinaitis has played 48 of a possible 48 games as the St. Louis Rams’ middle linebacker. He isn’t flashy, but he’s durable, consistent, and a terrific player in the middle of the team’s defense.
Laurinaitis doesn’t have a lot of talent around him at all but he is still a tackling machine. He should make a Pro Bowl any year coming up.
As a rookie for the Cleveland Browns in 2006, Kamerion Wimbley racked up 11 sacks and looked to be a great find as the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft. He never duplicated his performance though and was eventually traded to the Oakland Raiders.
Wimbley has thrived as a pass-rushing outside linebacker for the Raiders, registering nine and seven sacks the past two seasons. Much of his success in 2011 was because of The Brandyn Dombrowksi Effect, but Wimbley is still a terrific player in getting to the quarterback. No linebacker that plays in a 4-3 registered more quarterback pressures (40) than Wimbley.
The New York Jets got a real deal when they signed Bart Scott to a six-year, $48 million deal before the 2009 season. The contract reunited Scott with his former defensive coordinator in Baltimore, Rex Ryan, and Scott has thrived with the Jets.
Scott’s phenomenal 2010 should have put him in discussion for Defensive Player of the Year talks, and he dropped off in ’11 but was still a premier linebacker. He’s made just one Pro Bowl in his 10-year career, but that doesn’t pay tribute to just how good Scott is.
He’s at his best when he plays against the run, but he also helped out with 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in 16 starts.
D’Qwell Jackson made a phenomenal recovery in 2011, battling back from separate pectoral tears in each of the previous two seasons. He was Peter King’s pick for Comeback Player of the Year, as he led the AFC with 158 tackles and started all 16 games at middle linebacker for the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns will probably try to franchise Jackson, who is set to hit the free agency market this offseason. He is a remarkably consistent player in their defense (when he’s healthy), and they need his abilities to stop the run.
The Miami Dolphins made Karlos Dansby the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history when they signed him to a five-year, $43 million deal prior to the 2010 season. Dansby has had two strong seasons as an inside linebacker in Miami’s 3-4.
He’s probably not quite as good as he thinks he is, but Dansby is a Pro Bowl caliber player whose strengths are his durability and his versatility.
Brian Orakpo missed the Pro Bowl in 2011 for the first time since the Washington Redskins drafted him 13th overall in the 2009 NFL draft. However, it was probably his best all-around season of his three-year career.
Orakpo started all 16 games, sacked the opposing quarterback nine times, and set a career-high with 43 pressures. He forced three fumbles, defended five passes, and recovered the first fumble of his career. Orakpo also made life much easier for 2011 first-round rookie Ryan Kerrigan, a pass-rushing specialist made in the image of Orakpo.
He’s played under the radar for his entire career, but the 2004 second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars is now the team’s all-time leading tackler, having surpassed former safety Donovin Darius.
Daryl Smith broke out in 2009 excelling as both an inside and outside linebacker as the Jaguars rotated between 3-4 and 4-3 for the season. Smith earned Pro Football Focus’s grade for best individual linebacker, topping out at a +33.8. Since ’09, just six linebackers have a higher total grade than Smith.
Smith played 2011 as a strong side linebacker in a 4-3, thriving as a pass rusher, run stopper, and in pass coverage. Few linebackers in the game are as well-rounded as Smith, arguably the best player in the NFL not to have made a Pro Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens’ 31-year old outside linebacker is set to hit free agency, and Jarret Johnson will be a prize pick for any team that signs him.
Johnson owns the franchise record for consecutive starts, and he’s been one of the more underrated linebackers in the league for the past several seasons. Johnson is a terrific run stopper, and he and the Ravens’ terrific linebacker corps benefit from having Ray Lewis in the inside, but they also have prolonged Lewis’ career.
You would think a linebacker that has made seven consecutive Pro Bowls is a no-doubt future Hall of Famer. That isn’t the case with Lance Briggs, but he is definitely one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL, although he has probably benefited more from his name than people realize.
Briggs played in more snaps (1,116) than all but two linebackers in the league. He graded below average in both pass coverage and in rushing the passer, although he excelled in stopping the run. In all, Briggs didn’t have his best year, failing to record a sack and posting just one interception. He has several more seasons still and playing with Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, and Charles Tillman makes life much easier for Briggs.
Paul Posluszny has arguably the best season of his career in 2011, thriving as middle linebacker after he signed a six-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Posluszny made the switch from inside linebacker in a 3-4 in Buffalo, playing like a Pro Bowler for 16 games. He was a major cog in the Jaguars’ defense and projects to be a leader for the young Jacksonville unit for many more seasons, as he excels in all aspects of the game.
Curtis Lofton is not a flashy linebacker but he’s incredibly consistent and a major reason why the Atlanta Falcons have made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.
Lofton hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in the second round in 2008; he’s manned the middle linebacker position since he was a rookie. Lofton has been instrumental in the development of 2010 first round pick Sean Weatherspoon. Lofton is undersized but he can play sideline to sideline and he’s a tackling machine.
He is an extremely attractive free agent prospect should the Falcons decide not to re-sign him. Lofton will probably want a sizable four or five year deal if he tests the free agent market.
He played like an All-Pro for much of 2011 before a dislocated wrist forced him to play several games with a cast on his arm. Sean Lee still finished with four interceptions and 105 tackles in 15 games.
As a result of his spectacular season, Lee was named to the USA Today All-Joe Team. He just finished his second year in the NFL and should be able to play at a high level for many more seasons.
Derrick Johnson took some time before validating his selection as a first round pick in the 2005 NFL draft, but he had Pro Bowl caliber seasons in both 2010 and 2011. Pro Football Focus rates just nine players as better linebackers than Johnson since ’09 and just five since ’10.
Johnson was finally selected to the Pro Bowl in ’11, starting all 16 games, registering a career-high 104 tackles, and rating as the fourth-best inside linebacker in the game, according to PFF.
His career looked like it may have entered the twilight phase when he missed 15 games in 2009 with an injury, but Brian Urlacher rebounded to make consecutive Pro Bowls in 2010 and 2011, giving him eight now for his career.
Urlacher is strengthening his Hall of Fame case with each season; he played 16 games in ’11, intercepted three passes, recovered two fumbles, and made 86 tackles in the field. The former collegiate safety is still a premier player in pass coverage and an animal when it comes to stopping the run.
Jon Beason made three straight Pro Bowls for the Carolina Panthers from 2008 through 2010 before going down in Week 1 of 2011 with an Achilles tendon injury.
Beason’s injury came shortly after he signed a five-year, $50 million deal that made him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history. He is still just 26 years old and a perennial Pro Bowler that can play both inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3 formation.
Those outside of Pittsburgh might not know it, but a strong case could be made for LaMarr Woodley as the best linebacker on the Steelers.
Woodley grades as the third-best overall linebacker in the game from 2008 through 2010 (according to Pro Football Focus), and only a hamstring injury that forced him to miss six games in 2011 dropped him to sixth overall since ’08. Woodley peaked in ’09 with a +41.1 season, a year in which he picked up 13.5 sacks and made the only Pro Bowl of his five-year career.
Woodley had nine sacks in just 10 games in ’11 and quarterbacks throwing his way registered just a 48.3 passer rating, a tribute to Woodley’s abilities to defend against the pass. With James Harrison and James Farrior well in their thirties, Woodley will soon be taking over as the premier player on this linebacking corps.
Not many 36-year-old middle linebackers have attracted this much interest in free agency. London Fletcher is a 14-year NFL veteran but he’s still playing like he’s 25; Fletcher made his third straight Pro Bowl in 2011 to go with 11 times as an alternate.
Fletcher is still a tackling machine. He’s averaged 148 tackles in each of the past three seasons and remarkably, he’s never missed a single game since entering the league in 1998. Fletcher made the switch from middle linebacker to primarily left inside linebacker in the Washington Redskins’ new 3-4 defense, a move that may take the focus off him as the primary linebacker in the center of the field.
Perhaps the most impressive attribute about Fletcher is his still phenomenal abilities to play in pass coverage despite his age. Quarterbacks had a 69.8 passer rating throwing against Fletcher, and he recorded two interceptions to go with 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
The success of players like Brian Cushing is one of the reasons the Houston Texans may be able to let Mario Williams walk in free agency. Cushing was a first-round pick of the team back in 2009, and he’s been one of the best linebackers in the league since his rookie season.
Cushing won the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award and made the Pro Bowl in ’09, even though he enjoyed probably his finest all-around season in 2011. Cushing was voted the Texans’ Team MVP for this past year, despite the terrific play from players like J.J. Watt, Williams, Arian Foster, Chris Myers, and Johnathan Joseph.
Cushing is an all-around player—few linebackers in the NFL are as good as he is in pass coverage, at rushing the quarterback, and at stopping the run. He’s the type of player that could easily be in the running for a Defensive Player of the Year award in the near future.
If you want to get technical, Aldon Smith was one of just five first round picks in 2011 not to start a single game as a rookie (Jake Locker, Gabe Carimi, Prince Amukamara, and Cameron Heyward are the others). I think the San Francisco 49ers have to be ok with the production they got from Smith though.
The team took Smith with the seventh overall selection in the draft, and he went on to rack up 14 sacks and two forced fumbles as a pass-rushing specialist used primarily on third downs. Smith played just 506 snaps for the season (compare that to 782 for Patrick Willis or 1,012 for NaVorro Bowman), but he made the most of them.
Smith is helped immensely by Justin Smith drawing double teams on every play but Smith would still be a Pro Bowl caliber regardless. He can play 3-4 linebacker or 4-3 end, and if used properly, he could challenge the single-season sack record before he hangs up his cleats.
The San Francisco 49ers got a steal with NaVorro Bowman, a third-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Bowman didn’t contribute much as a rookie but broke out with a dominating season in 2011.
He rated as Pro Football Focus’s best inside linebacker in ‘11 by a significant margin, receiving outstanding marks in every aspect of the game. Bowman picked up 143 total tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, and defended eight passes. He was one of the leaders of a strong 49ers defense that didn’t give up a rushing touchdown until the 14th game of the season.
Bowman somehow managed to miss making the Pro Bowl roster, but the Associated Press rewarded him with a first team selection on their All-Pro team.
The Kansas City Chiefs selected Tamba Hali with the 20th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, and through three seasons of his pro career, Hali appeared to be a bust. He lacked explosiveness as a defensive end, registering 18.5 sacks in three seasons—during which he started 47 of 48 games at the right end position.
Hali then moved to outside linebacker, a move that absolutely saved his career. He picked up 8.5 sacks in 2009, then exploded for 14.5 in 2010 and 12 more in 2011, earning the first two Pro Bowl selections of his career. Hali’s 2010 season rates as a +56.5, according to Pro Football Focus, the single greatest non-quarterback regular season in the website’s history.
Hali rates as the single best linebacker since 2010, having averaged 13 quarterback hits and 52.5 pressures per season. To put that into perspective, Terrell Suggs won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011 for his pass-rushing skills—and he had 10 hits and 33 pressures.
Many teams think they have a steal when they get a standout player from the Canadian Football League or United Football League. The Miami Dolphins proved to be one of the rare teams with a find in Cameron Wake.
The Dolphins signed Cameron Wake in January 2009, and he showed glimpses of brilliance as a rookie that year, picking up 5.5 sacks in limited time. He exploded for 14 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2010, earning a Pro Bowl selection and Second-Team AP All-Pro honors. He followed that up with 8.5 sacks and an unbelievable 52 pressures in 2011, while also playing stellar defense against the run.
(Interesting side note: The New York Giants signed Wake in 2005 and then released him. Imagine what a pass rush would have looked like with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Wake, and now Jason Pierre-Paul).
It looks like the Houston Texans knew what they were doing after all when they made Mario Williams the surprise No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL draft over Reggie Bush or Vince Young.
Williams averaged 11 sacks and 2.25 forced fumbles per season from 2007-2010, making two Pro Bowls as a standout defensive end. The 6’7” Williams made the switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 in 2011, and excelled for five games before tearing his pectoral muscle and missing the remainder of the season.
Williams has struggled too much with injuries over the last two years—he missed three games due to a sports hernia in 2010 and then 11 in 2011. Williams is a free agent, and reports have indicated he may not be back with the Texans. Whichever team does sign Williams is getting a bonafide top of the line pass rusher that can get to the quarterback time after time.
After 16 seasons in the league, Ray Lewis is still a fearsome force of nature that is building a reputation as the greatest middle linebacker to ever set foot on an NFL field.
Lewis’ resume is Hall of Fame worthy, as he’s made 13 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro teams, and been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice. The knock on Lewis recently has been that he has lost a step in the field and that Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs free up blockers and enable Lewis to make plays.
Lewis may have lost a step—he is 36 years old—but he can still play with the best of them. Pro Football Focus rated Lewis significantly above average in both pass coverage and rushing the quarterback, and few in the game are better at stopping the ball carrier. Lewis didn’t allow a single touchdown pass in 54 pass attempts thrown his way.
He did miss four games due to a toe injury, but Lewis is expected to return for 2012 and he should be as good as ever. He excels in the Baltimore Ravens’ 3-4 just as much as he excelled as a middle linebacker in the old 4-3, and Lewis will continue to make Pro Bowls for his as long as he puts on his uniform.
It’s interesting to think that the Baltimore Ravens could have had James Harrison had they just kept him, but they cut him in the 2004 off-season and he re-signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Harrison broke out as a star in 2007 and has made five Pro Bowls and four AP All-Pro teams since. He led the NFL in sacks in 2008 (16), made the defensive play of the Super Bowl when he took an interception 100 yards for a score off Kurt Warner, and was subsequently named Defensive Player of the Year for his stellar season.
He is still an elite pass rusher even at two months shy of 34, and he has a penchant for forcing fumbles like few players in the game, having forced 27 since ’07. Pro Football Focus rates Harrison as the game’s best linebacker—inside or outside—since 2008 with a +142.7 rating.
His sack total tailed off from 10 as a rookie and 13.5 in 2010 to just six in 2011, but Clay Matthews was still every bit the same player. B.J. Raji had an awful year as a nose tackle in the Green Bay Packers’ 3-4 and the Packers also missed Cullen Jenkins on the defensive line. Factor in that the team has no real pass rushers other than Matthews, and it’s understandable why his sacks dropped off.
Matthews still made the Pro Bowl, he set career bests in interceptions (3), passed defensed (9), and forced fumbles (3), and his 21 quarterback hits led all linebackers. He was also extremely underrated in pass coverage: Quarterback threw no touchdowns and three interceptions on 26 pass attempts his way for a 34.8 passer rating.
DeMarcus Ware may be the absolute best pass rusher in the NFL. He’s made six straight Pro Bowls and averaged an incredible 15.3 sacks per season since 2006. Ware dropped the opposing quarterback 19.5 times in 2011, and few people seemed to realize.
Ware also picked up two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception, and 19 tackles for a loss. He’s never missed a game in his seven seasons in the league. The only real knock on Ware was his penchant for committing penalties in 2011; his 11 were three more than any other linebacker in the league.
If he hadn’t torn ligaments in his thumb late in the 2011 season, Von Miller probably would have been the runaway favorite for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, even in his rookie season. The Denver Broncos' No. 2 overall draft pick proved to be a rare player, getting to the quarterback as well as any player in the game.
Miller picked up 11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 36 quarterback pressures in 15 games. He was slowed late in the year due to his thumb injury but should be a perennial Pro Bowler for the next decade or more. Miller also showed an extremely impressive ability to stop the run, grading as one of the best in the league in that aspect. Other than the San Diego game early in the season, Miller really didn’t have a bad game until he hurt his thumb.
Few players are more consistent than Patrick Willis, to the point that people seem to forget about how good he is. Justin Smith received a ton of media attention as a favorite for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and rightfully so, while NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith emerged as pure breakout pass rushing linebackers.
Seemingly lost in the San Francisco 49ers’ division title was the typically phenomenal season by Willis, a five-time Pro Bowler now in five NFL seasons. Willis has also made five AP All-Pro teams, four times on the first team. He led the league in tackles in two of his first three seasons and played through a broken hand in his fourth season.
Willis is said to have no weaknesses as a player; he runs a 4.37 40 which means he can cover almost any player on the field and he’s so good as a tackler that offenses have to game plan around him. Willis can play sideline to sideline, he can blitz the quarterback, and he forces a ton of fumbles. He gets the No. 1 spot on this list even though he missed three games with a hamstring injury. When his career is finally over, Willis will likely be talked about as one of the five greatest linebackers to ever play the game.