How important is the outside linebacker position in the NFL? Look at the game's best defenses from 2011 and you're likely to see dominant play from the OLB spot.
San Francisco has Aldon Smith, Dallas has DeMarcus Ware, Pittsburgh has two of the game's best. The ability to rush the quarterback, stop the run and drop back into coverage from the edge of the front seven has never been more important than it is in the NFL today.
Which teams have the most talent at the position? We're breaking down the top starters, and in some cases rotations, to give you the 12 best outside linebacker duos in the game heading into the 2012 season.
Disagree? Leave your picks in the comments below.
*All positions and depth charts courtesy of Ourlads.com
**Terrell Suggs' injury and the expectation that he'll miss the 2012 season leaves Baltimore off this list.
Key Players: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson
The Minnesota Vikings are the first 4-3 team to get mentioned here, which means they're asking their players to do more than pin their ears back and get to the quarterback.
Chad Greenway is a very good all-around linebacker, a lot like Daryl Smith for the Jaguars, and as such, gets mentioned many times as an ideal scouting model for an NFL strong-side 'backer.
Greenway made his first Pro Bowl after the 2011 season, but it definitely won't be his last, with strong tackle numbers (154) and an all-around game that allows him to make an impact on all three downs.
Erin Henderson hasn't hit the casual NFL fan's vocabulary yet, but he has a good chance to this season. Henderson is a strong, athletic weak-side linebacker who brings good ability to step up and take on the run against pulling guards. Henderson is good in pass coverage and can also bend the edge to rush the passer.
Minnesota has two very solid outside linebackers, but neither puts up big sack numbers or has an on-field persona that elevates their media Q rating. No matter, both are great on the field.
Key Players: Daryl Smith, Clint Session
The Jacksonville Jaguars quietly had one of the most impressive defenses in the league last season. Looking ahead to 2012, the outside 'backer position should be solid once again.
Daryl Smith is the model 4-3 outside linebacker with his ability to play the run and pass equally well. When grading players for the B/R 1,000 NFL project, Smith's ability in coverage was something that kept sticking out on film. He's truly an elite, All-Pro-caliber player at his position.
Session has great talent, and you have to like his athletic ability, but we're banking on him having a breakout season in 2012. Session's 2011 season was marred by a new system, a lockout that prevented offseason learning, and an injury that knocked him out of seven games. If he can stay healthy, Session has a shot to become more of a household name.
Key Players: Shaun Phillips, Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Antwan Barnes
The San Diego Chargers have a plethora of talent at the position, but how they will use their four projected OLBs is another story.
Shaun Phillips is the unquestioned leader and best player of the corps. His pass-rush ability alone makes him the go-to guy for offenses to game-plan against, but Phillips is also becoming one of the better run-stopping 3-4 outside linebackers in the league.
While offenses are trying to block Phillips, they'll also have to worry about the rotation of Johnson and Ingram. Jarret Johnson comes from Baltimore, where he dominated the line of scrimmage in running situations. Johnson isn't a great pass-rusher, though, which is why the Chargers spent a first-rounder on Melvin Ingram.
The former South Carolina star has the athleticism to be a playmaker off the edge, but he's short-armed and will need time to transition to the pros. This is why Antwan Barnes could play a big role again this season. Barnes had 11 sacks in spot duty last year, and that ability could come in handy on third downs if Ingram isn't quite ready to contribute.
Key Players: Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Jerry Hughes
Here is a rating-based 100 percent on potential. As the Colts move to a 3-4 defense, the ability of former defensive ends to transition to a stand-up position will dictate the success of the team this coming season.
Robert Mathis has the best tools of the three for the transition, and after re-upping with the Colts this offseason, the team clearly believes he can make the move to outside spot without a worry. That doesn't mean the move will be easy, but Mathis has the athletic ability to do very well crashing off the edge.
Dwight Freeney was Hall of Fame-caliber at defensive end, but how well he'll move to the stand-up at 32 years old is a major concern for me and the Indianapolis defense.
Freeney has the quickness to do fine, but he's never been much help against the run and his short arms could be a problem when trying to disengage from blockers who have longer to prepare against his pass rush.
Jerry Hughes is bordering on being a draft bust; this is probably his last shot at redemption. Hughes was a pass-rushing nightmare at TCU, though, and if he can get back into the rhythm of rushing from a two-point stance, he has a chance to steal playing time from Freeney.
If the Colts players transition like Chuck Pagano thinks they can, they'll be much higher on our list by season's end.
Key Players: Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and Whitney Mercilus
The Houston Texans will use a three-man rotation at outside linebacker this fall, but their 2011 season showed they have the talent to get it done with their two incumbents at the position.
Brooks Reed proved in his rookie season that he's a lot more than a Clay Matthews look-a-like—Reed can play like Matthews, too. His ability to rush off the edge was evident at Arizona, but NFL general managers allowed themselves to overthink the evaluation and Houston found a draft steal. Reed is primed for a big season.
Connor Barwin, if you haven't seen him yet, is one of the more exciting players at the position. He doesn't put up 20-plus sacks or have an ESPN-worthy sack dance, but Barwin is all over the field on every down. His motor, intensity and smart technique make him an Xs and Os fan's dream.
Mercilus will likely be the third man in this rotation, and it's expected he'll play mostly on third down his rookie season as a pass-rusher. Mercilus' quick step and long arms led to 18.5 sacks at Illinois last year along with his first-round selection. If he can pick up the pro game quickly, he'll push for more playing time early on.
Using a three-man rotation allows Houston to keep their 'backers fresh and give multiple looks on third down. No matter who is on the field, the Texans have awesome options to choose from.
Key Players: Von Miller, D.J. Williams
The Denver Broncos have the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year (Miller) and a smart veteran who seems revitalized by his move to the outside. Can they improve in 2012, though?
Miller is one of my absolute favorite players in the league. Before the 2011 NFL draft, he was rated my No. 2 overall player. But Miller is far from perfect, and his weaknesses were really covered up last season by the hype over his sack numbers.
Miller has to get better against the run on first and second down, and he also needs to improve on simple things like pre-snap alignment. Miller should be improved with a full offseason, which has to terrify NFL offensive tackles.
D.J. Williams is nothing to shout about, but he's very solid in his own right. Playing opposite Miller, the Broncos need Williams to be better against the run and at least average against the pass when in coverage. Williams is now 30 years old, so he's still capable of doing big things.
Denver's duo is very good, but improved play from both starters will only push them higher in postseason rankings.
Key Players: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks
If you don't love watching the San Francisco 49ers play defense, well, then you must be a fan of the team they're playing against.
Aldon Smith hit the NFL like a punch in the face. His strength, speed and tenacity was extremely rare for a rookie, even if he did only play on third downs.
Smith was a nightmare for offenses in spot duty last season, and this year, he'll hit the field full time. How well Smith plays on first and second down will go a long way in determining the ranking of the 49ers' duo later this year.
Ahmad Brooks isn't flashy, but he's as solid as a No. 2 OLB could be. Brooks is good at driving the line of scrimmage back, and he's able to rush from inside or outside the tackle when he's asked to go after the passer.
San Francisco has a potential Defensive Player of the Year in Smith, but he needs to take the next step from a situational pass-rusher to a full-blown starter in Year 2.
Key Players: Tamba Hali, Justin Houston
Hali is consistently one of the top producers at the spot. He's great at getting to the quarterback, but Hali is underrated when asked to set the edge against outside runs. His strength and explosion are what coaches look for in the position.
Houston had a good rookie season, especially when you consider the NFL lockout ruined his first offseason. There's unquestioned potential here, and with offenses focusing so much on Hali and Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston should see plenty of one-on-one battles off the edge.
It's really hard to argue against the potential, production and talent the Kansas City Chiefs have assembled at OLB. If Justin Houston takes the next step many expect, the Chiefs will be ranked No. 1 at season's end.
Key Players: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry
The Green Bay Packers are another team with No. 1 potential, but for now, we're talking about a unit based largely on potential and not production.
Clay Matthews has been great at times in his career, but without a real threat opposite him, his production dropped off last season. That should change in 2012, but there's still the argument that Matthews is very one-dimensional—and the counter-argument that the Packers don't need him to worry about doing more than rushing the passer.
No matter how you slice it, there's no denying Matthews is a top-five pass-rusher at the position.
Nick Perry was my top-rated outside 'backer in the 2012 NFL draft, but being a top prospect and becoming an elite player is never a guarantee. Perry has the athleticism to dominate in the Green Bay defense, but like Matthews, he's not much use outside of rushing the quarterback.
There's a load of potential here; the two have a great chance to lead the NFL in combined sacks, but we're using the word "potential" a lot here.
Key Players: Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan
The Washington Redskins found 19 sacks by way of their two outside linebackers last year, and expectations are they'll both be much better in 2012.
Brian Orakpo has officially arrived as one of the game's best OLBs. His 10 sacks were a big help, but what impressed most was his improved ability against the run. Orakpo is becoming an elite player with the ability to contribute no matter what the offense does.
Ryan Kerrigan had a very good rookie season, and his nine sacks would have received more attention were it not for Aldon Smith and Von Miller tearing up the league. The Round 1 selection and product out of Purdue has a ways to go as an all-around linebacker, but the potential he flashed his rookie year gives fans, coaches and evaluators faith in his ability to make 2012 a breakout season.
Key Players: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer
The Dallas Cowboys have the NFL's best outside linebacker in DeMarcus Ware, but that alone doesn't put them in the top spot for the best duo.
Ware paced the position with 20 sacks last season, which puts him better than most of the outside linebacker duos listed here. Ware's ability is becoming the stuff of legend, and he's not shown any signs of slowing down.
He has an underrated skill set on first and second down, as too many fans overlook his ability to play the run. Turn on film of the Cowboys star, though, and you'll see a player who is aware and tough to get by when he sets the edge.
Anthony Spencer is definitely the weak link here, and there's a good chance the team moves to replace him after the coming season. Spencer is solid, but he's also aided by the Hall of Fame play opposite him. Where Spencer should dominate, he merely gets by. And that's why Dallas is ranked second despite having the best player in the NFL at the position.
Key Players: James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley
The Pittsburgh Steelers' starters only generated 19 sacks last year, but when you consider they missed 11 games combined, the production and talent coming off the edge in Pittsburgh is hands down the best in the NFL.
However you want to evaluate them—talent, production, impact—the Steelers lead the NFL in ass-kicking points at OLB.
James Harrison may be the dirtiest, most feared and all-around most productive player in the NFL on defense. He's not only great at getting to the quarterback, but Harrison can actually drop into coverage—something few players on this list do. Wherever he is on the field, NFL quarterbacks are trying their best to get away from No. 92.
And when quarterbacks can get away from Harrison, they still have to deal with No. 56. LaMarr Woodley is quickly becoming an elite player in his own right. His 2011 season wasn't as great due to a troublesome hamstring, but when he was on the field, Woodley was a terror. His pass-rushing skill set makes him tough to contain, and his pursuit against the run is some of the best in the game.
Pittsburgh has long been known as a defensive franchise, and the play of these two elite athletes certainly backs that up.