NFL Rankings: The 4 Best AFC North LB's Heading into 2012

Ryan HeidrichCorrespondent IIJuly 3, 2012

NFL Rankings: The 4 Best AFC North LB's Heading into 2012

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    As the NFL changes to favor offense more than defense, many teams are loading their teams with offensive weapons in order to keep up with the trend.

    The AFC North is one of the last divisions that has stronger defenses than offensives top to bottom. Led by the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, defense in the AFC North is no joke.

    Every game in the division is a slug fest, filled with hard hits, trash talking and personal foul penalties. It is one of the most exciting divisions in the whole NFL and they match the excitement level with the talent that they bring. Last year three teams made the playoffs from the AFC North.

    One of the most popular positions on the defensive side of the ball in the AFC North is linebacker. The division is absolutely loaded with linebacker talent.

    Before the 2012 season starts, here are the four best linebackers in the division right now.

LaMarr Woodley

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    LaMarr Woodley is the best linebacker on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Woodley had a tremendous season last year even though he missed six games with a nagging hamstring injury.

    In 2011 Woodley recorded 39 tackles, nine sacks and an interception, which is great numbers for someone who missed as many games as Woodley did. While Woodley does not make as many headlines as fellow Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Woodley is instrumental to the Steelers defense. 

    Besides Troy Polamalu, Woodley is the best defensive player on the Steelers defense.

    If he can stay healthy in 2012 it would not surprise many if Woodley has an extremely solid season. When Woodley is on the field, the Steelers are a better team and that is what makes him one of the best linebackers in the AFC North. 

D’Qwell Jackson

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    D’Qwell Jackson had his coming out season in 2011, after he missed 22 games in the 2009 and 2010 season with two separate torn pectorals, Jackson took the league by storm by posting an absurd 158 total tackles. His 158 tackles were the second most in the entire NFL.

    Jackson finished second in the Associated Press’ Comeback Player of the Year voting to Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions. Due to his tremendous 2011 season Jackson was awarded with a five year, $42.5 million contract extension.

    After two straight surgeries to repair his torn pectoral muscles, Jackson is now the face of the Cleveland Browns defense.

    Jackson is well on his way to becoming one the best defensive players in the AFC and is just another AFC North linebacker stud. Many NFL fans had no idea who D’Qwell Jackson was, but after the season he had last year and the season that he is capable of having in 2012, he will soon be another household name. 

Terrell Suggs

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    Terrell Suggs is not only the best linebacker in the AFC North; he is one of the best defensive players in the entire the NFL. Last season he collected 70 tackles, 14 sacks and two interceptions, which was enough to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.

    Even though he will miss considerable time in 2012, as he rehabs a torn Achilles’ tendon, Suggs is still good enough to make this list.

    The Baltimore Ravens are loaded with high quality defensive players and Suggs is the best of them all.  His ability to get off the edge is instrumental to the Ravens success. He has the ability to shut down the outside run, as well as the inside run, which is rare to find in an outside linebacker. He also has the athleticism to be productive in pass defense as well.

    It will be interesting to see how the Ravens handle the absence of Suggs in 2012. The team has enough talent to make do but it will be incredibly hard to fill Suggs vacancy.

    He is the best defensive player in the NFL and, by far, the best linebacker in the AFC North.

Ray Lewis

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    Ray Lewis is a legend. If you could create the perfect inside linebacker you would model him after Lewis. Even at the age of 37, Lewis is still performing at an extremely high level of play. While he is slowing down, Lewis still manages to be productive week in and week out.

    Last year he battled with turf toe, which can really nag players for long periods of time (i.e Antonio Gates). Even though he missed time last season, Lewis still managed to record 95 total tackles and two sacks.

    What really separates Lewis from other linebackers is his leadership ability. The leadership that Lewis brings to the Ravens is something that they never be able to replace. He is the face of the Ravens defense and the entire linebacker position in the NFL. Lewis does not have many years left in his Hall of Fame career but he is still one of the best linebackers in the NFL.