B/R NFL 1000 2013: Top 35 4-3 Outside Linebackers

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterApril 8, 2013

B/R NFL 1000 2013: Top 35 4-3 Outside Linebackers

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    Who is the top 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL

    We took on that question as the next chapter of our NFL 1,000 series, taking a look at those teams running a 4-3 defense and breaking down their outside linebackers to bring you the top 35 players at the position.

    Why the difference between 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebackers? To be simple, because they do different things. An outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense must be more well-rounded, while a 3-4 outside linebacker is primarily a pass-rusher. Because of the different demands of the two schemes, we've broken them up into two different position groups.

    As with all the positions in this year's position-by-position rankings, we are scoring criteria at different weights but always adding up to a maximum of 100. Players in this case can receive up to 20 points for run defense, 20 for pass rush, 20 for pass coverage and 40 for tackling.

    Our scouting team reviewed film from the 2012 season of more than 50 linebackers to come up with the top 35. The rankings are based on the linebackers’ 2012 performance, with no credit received for career achievements or potential.

    Players who played fewer than 150 snaps at outside linebacker didn't qualify for the rankings. And remember, these are only 4-3 outside linebackers. That means no Aldon Smith or DeMarcus Ware.

    In the case of a tie, we broke it based on which linebacker we'd rather have on our team right now.

     

    All stats from Pro Football Focus.

35. Miles Burris, Oakland Raiders

1 of 35

     

    Run Defense

    7/20

    Miles Burris doesn’t always show the strength to take on blockers and get through traffic to get to the football, but his range allows him to make plays. He shows the quickness to explode and take away outside runs.

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    A surprise coming out of the Raiders’ 2012 draft class, Burris hit the ground running. As a pass-rusher, he showed perhaps his best traits, playing with speed and toughness on the edge to get to the quarterback. Blockers will give him fits if they get their hands on him, as he’s not strong enough to disengage, but his first step is quality and can be powerful.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Coverage was an issue for Burris as he learned to read the quarterback and adjust to the speed of pro-level targets. In the flats, he showed good ability to close on passes dumped off, but if asked to turn and run in man coverage, he was lost.

    Tackle

    32/40

    A solid tackler with good strength thanks to his closing speed, Burris showed good production but scared us with missed tackles. He missed often, totaling 20 on the season, and heads into 2012 with this as a major area to improve. He scores well thanks to his technique and power, both of which are good. The missed tackles are a result of bad positioning more than a physical problem.

    Overall

    56/100

    Burris played well as a rookie, exceeding expectations and giving the Raiders a versatile player to build their depth around as they remake their defense.

34. Michael Boley, Free Agent

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    Run Defense

    6/20

    Michael Boley struggled in 2012 to set the edge and take away outside runs. Offensive linemen were able to gain leverage and drive him back off the ball too easily. He was run at over and over again.

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    In the Giants’ scheme, Boley isn’t asked to go after the quarterback as often as others, which is good, because that’s not his game. He doesn’t show the quickness to close coming off the edge and put pressure on the quarterback. Missing from his game is the ability to change direction and make adjustments on the fly, which is needed to be a good pass-rusher.

    Coverage

    8/20

    When getting to the flats and playing with the ball in front of him, Boley does solid work. When asked to drop into man coverage, he’ll get picked apart. He allows too much distance in coverage, which tight ends and backs use to box out and gain positioning for easy pitch-and-catch sessions. He showed soft hands to pull down interceptions, but he doesn’t close on the ball well enough to be a threat there consistently.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Boley will make tackles with good technique. He breaks down and shows balance and patience in attacking the ball-carrier. Missed tackles were not a major issue, as he did a good job sustaining contact and holding on to the runner.

    Overall

    56/100

    Boley is the definition of a solid outside linebacker, as he has average all-around skills but doesn’t do any one thing exceptionally well. He’s valuable as an outside linebacker if you have talent around him.

33. DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions

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    Run Defense

    5/20

    DeAndre Levy was manhandled by blockers and backs in 2012, showing poor form when asked to set the edge and keep the run inside. He was a non-factor when teams ran his way.

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    Levy stands out due to his athleticism. On film, you see a quick athlete with the skill set to rush off the edge and get to the backfield. He didn’t take that ability and convert it into production, but the Lions didn’t ask him to as often as they should have. With Levy’s speed and flexibility, he could be a factor here.

    Coverage

    10/20

    With one interception on the season, Levy showed he has soft hands and can break on the ball. In man coverage, he shows good quickness and closing speed to contest passes. When asked to jam and redirect players off the ball, Levy will get pushed around and walked back. He’s not quite fast enough to recover in those instances and can be picked on by quarterbacks.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Production from Levy as a tackler was solid, but watching his film, you saw a player without the strength to consistently pull down ball-carriers on his own. Missed tackles became an issue when Levy was in one-on-one situations with the runner. He’s a good tackler on a pile and when cleaning up what his teammates started.

    Overall

    57/100

    A good athlete, Levy’s lack of impact in the run game is a major problem for his game. For all his ability, that has to improve for him to hold on to a starting job.

32. Julian Stanford, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Run Defense

    7/20

    Without great size and strength, Julian Stanford was too often bulldozed by blockers on the edge. He didn’t show the ability to anchor and keep the run from going outside.

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    Stanford surprised as an undrafted free agent in 2012, showing the athletic ability and quickness to cover up his lack of ideal size. As a pass-rusher, he offered little to no impact off the edge. In his first season, the team rarely asked him to go after the quarterback, instead opting to use his quickness in coverage.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Stanford is built like a safety and moves like one in space. That’s something the Jaguars took advantage of on third downs, dropping him into coverage and letting him make plays. Stanford responded well, but like most rookies, he struggled to keep pace with the speed and timing of an NFL passing attack. Once his awareness matches his athletic ability, he’ll be fine.

    Tackle

    32/40

    Stanford played quick and fast when closing on the ball, showing a good ability to hit and put down ball-carriers on his first attempt. He made impact and held on, not surrendering positive yards after contact and keeping his missed or broken tackles to a minimum.

    Overall

    58/100

    Stanford wasn’t on our radar to begin the season, but his play was good enough for the rookie to be ranked ahead of established veterans.

31. David Hawthorne, New Orleans Saints

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    Run Defense

    6/20

    Injuries limited David Hawthorne in 2012, and that showed up most in his run-stopping. He struggled to hold the point of attack at times and would get pushed around by blockers coming off the edge.

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    A more natural inside player, Hawthorne did well getting pressure off the edge in 2012. He has good natural power in his base and uses that well to push blockers and the pocket backward. He won’t pick up a ton of sacks, but the ability is definitely there.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Getting out in coverage wasn’t easy for Hawthorne, as he struggled to make plays in the flat and get into position to separate targets from the ball. He would be better off taking a straight drop and reading and reacting to the ball.

    Tackle

    35/40

    A strong tackler with very good form, Hawthorne gets low and explodes through runners to make his tackles. He hits with power and can jar the ball loose. Missed tackles were a non-factor.

    Overall

    59/100

    Hawthorne signing in New Orleans seems like a great fit, but his 2012 season didn’t measure up to expectations. His fit moving forward will be as an inside linebacker.

30. Manny Lawson, Buffalo Bills

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    Run Defense

    10/20

    Manny Lawson could stand to play more aggressively. He does a good job with reading and recognizing the play, but he doesn’t close on the ball with speed or power. This allows runners to get to him before he's in position to take on the ball.

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Lawson has pass-rushing talent as a former defensive end, but his 2012 season didn’t show that talent turning into production. He has the length to keep blockers off his frame, but he lacks the power to engage offensive linemen head-up. Lawson needs to play in space to have a chance getting to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    5/20

    A below-average cover man, Lawson was picked at and apart by quarterbacks. He struggled to adjust in space and change direction with enough quickness to take away options over the middle.

    Tackle

    32/40

    With long arms and good quickness, he is able to wrap up and reach runners in space, but when engaged by a blocker, his play falls off.

    Overall

    59/100

    A well-known player many may be surprised to see rated this low, Lawson struggled to make an impact in 2012. A fresh start in Buffalo may be good for his talents.

29. Nick Roach, Oakland Raiders

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    Run Defense

    9/20

    Nick Roach has range and can move well, but he rarely made an impact against the run. You could argue that the surrounding talent prevented Roach from getting in and making plays, but when the players around him faltered, he didn’t step in to pick up the slack. Roach didn’t impress here.

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Roach doesn’t go get the quarterback from his spot at outside linebacker. He does show good range and quickness coming out of the gate, but he lacks the athletic ability to bend his hips and get past blockers. He was rarely an impact as a pass-rusher.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Roach has quickness and can get in space, but from there, he struggles to close on receivers and take away receptions. His quickness when being asked to plant and go in zone coverage is below average. Opposing teams picked Roach apart underneath.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Playing with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs can make a player fade at times, but Roach did a good job making impact tackles and putting ball-carriers down without assistance. Missed tackles crept up at a ratio that did hurt his grade (49 tackles, six misses).

    Overall

    59/100

    Roach is a player our team liked quite a bit, but a lack of an impact on film in the three key areas—pass rush, coverage and run defense—kept this talented player from moving up the rankings.

28. Russell Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Run Defense

    5/20

    Coming downhill and attacking the run was a weakness for Russell Allen in 2012. He failed to beat blockers to the ball and was too easily driven back off the line of scrimmage. He made a ton of tackles, but too many were downfield.

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Allen is an underrated athlete and a young player, but he's little more than solid as an outside rusher. Allen isn’t asked to rush the passer as often as others, but he does show the athletic ability to bend the edge at times and go after the pocket.

    Coverage

    9/20

    Allen showed himself to be an average player in coverage in 2012. He struggled to show fluid movements when dropping back and didn’t make plays in the passing game. His quickness will help him in breaking on the ball, but too often, he allows completions.

    Tackle

    34/40

    As mentioned above, Allen was a productive tackler with excellent stats on a weekly basis. He was able to make an impact in bringing down ball-carriers when in position to get his pads on the ball. For all his attempts and exposures, Allen rarely missed tackles.

    Overall

    60/100

    Allen had an up-and-down year, but he made an impact and was productive as a tackler. If he can improve in the other areas of defense, this young player could be a quality starter on the edge.

27. Justin Durant, Dallas Cowboys

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    Run Defense

    16/20

    A stout player at times, Justin Durant did a good job when in position. He sometimes got stiff and heavy-footed, which limited his ability to get to the edge to take on outside runs. On the inside, he was pushed around often, but he showed the strength to hold his own and take on blockers and ball-carriers.

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    A pure athlete, Durant makes plays on the field but not in a pass-rushing situation. He’s rarely an impact player off the edge when asked to get to the corner and pressure the backfield. We didn’t note Durant adding pressures or hits to make up for a lack of sacks, but this isn’t an area in which the Lions asked him to participate.

    Coverage

    6/20

    Unlike his pass rushing, Durant was asked to help in coverage a lot—but he didn’t jump off the screen in a positive way. Quarterbacks were able to pick him apart underneath, especially in the flats or with quick tight end turnarounds. He has to play quicker in coverage to close on the ball.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Durant can be an impact tackler, that’s for sure, but we also noticed missed tackles that could have been avoided with better flexibility in his lower body and better vision on the ball. Durant is physically impressive, but he limited his ability to make solo stops with poor technique. When his technique was clean, Durant put runners down and made those impact plays.

    Overall

    61/100

    Durant has athletic ability, but he didn’t make the plays needed to show up as a better-quality outside linebacker. With the talent in front of him on the Lions defense, he should have made a bigger impact.

26. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Run Defense

    8/20

    A weak point for Mychal Kendricks was his ability to stop the run on the edge. He plays with good quickness, but he lacked the strength to take on blockers and hold his position. Kendricks could stand to come downhill faster—which could have been a limitation in his game due to a delay in reading the play. Getting into position to stop the ball was the biggest issue we saw.

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    A middle linebacker in college, Kendricks was making a transition to playing on the edge in 2012. That included learning how to be an outside pass-rusher. He has the athletic ability to make plays blitzing inside and outside the tackle, but he has to show better strength when engaged. Keeping his hands free to disengage blockers will go a long way in improving his pass-rushing ability. When looking at production alone, Kendricks wouldn’t have impressed, but his skill set is solid and there’s room for him to grow.

    Coverage

    13/20

    Known coming out of Cal for his coverage skills, Kendricks played well in his rookie season when asked to turn and get into the flats or up the seam. He shows good instincts in coverage with positive drop steps and hips to move with his man. Closing on the ball wasn’t his strength; he’ll have to get better at sticking and changing direction, but there was considerable promise here.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Missed tackles added up for Kendricks in 2012, averaging almost one per game. He shows good vision to get to the ball-carrier but did not always show the strength needed to drop his weight and impact the runner. Closing on the ball with more impact and putting more into his tackles will result in fewer misses and better results in limiting yards after contact. Kendricks did notably improve later in the year at breaking down in space and challenging ball-carriers. That shows us that he’s on the right track.

    Overall

    62/100

    Kendricks’ rookie season was a good one, but he struggled in adjusting to the outside linebacker position in the NFL. If he can build on his potential, he’ll be set.

25. Nigel Bradham, Buffalo Bills

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    Run Defense

    10/20

    Nigel Bradham uses his hands well to disengage blockers, but struggles with proper angles when pursuing from the back side of the play. His inability to come off blocks with consistency makes stopping the run a limitation in his game. Learning to use his hands to shed blockers and getting himself in better position to take on runners will be a key moving forward.

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    Toward the end of the season, Bradham showed an ability to make plays in the backfield with good closing speed and awareness. He’ll need to develop more pass-rushing moves, but he showed the athleticism and physicality to indicate that that part of his game will develop.

    Coverage

    10/20

    An average athlete in space, Bradham would quickly get to the outside while responsible for the flat, but lose receivers out in space when in coverage across the middle of the field. He's a much better zone cover man at this point, but will need to work on awareness and recognition time.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Bradham is physical at the point of contact and is a solid tackler inside the box. He’ll need to get better tackling out in space and taking proper angles once they get to the second level.

    Overall

    62/100

    There isn’t one part of Bradham’s game in which he’s either elite or a liability. He has the potential to become an asset down the road if he can learn to stop the run better and speed up his awareness.

24. Bryan Scott, Buffalo Bills

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    Run Defense

    5/20

    Bryan Scott is a liability inside the box in run defense. He doesn’t have the size or strength to shed blocks or maintain leverage when engaged with a blocker. He can be washed out of a play fairly easily.

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    Scott is still a fluid athlete, even after 10 years in the NFL. He can be asked to disrupt plays in the backfield by using that change-of-direction agility to get around offensive linemen. A lack of strength keeps him from being a factor here consistently. He'll get shoved around off the ball and can be pushed back easily.

    Coverage

    16/20

    Scott is an undersized linebacker who is at his best while out in space in coverage. He has the ability to turn and run with receivers down the field and match up with tight ends across the middle.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Scott is a solid tackler who uses his above-average athleticism to help get to the edge and take down ball-carriers in the open field. He gets low and has the power to chop down ball-carriers in space. In traffic, he lacks the strength to shed blockers and close on the ball.

    Overall

    63/100

    Scott is primarily a nickel/dime linebacker at this point in his career. He excels in coverage but doesn't make much of an impact in the ground game.

23. Akeem Jordan, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Run Defense

    10/20

    Akeem Jordan really struggles with taking proper angles and allows running backs to cut back into an open lane. He doesn’t read plays quickly, which makes it easier for offensive linemen to get to him on the second level.

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Jordan shows average athleticism and an inconsistent ability to get off blocks or take the proper angles when closing in on a quarterback outside of the pocket. He flashed potential here, but failed to build on that promise and consistently show quickness off the edge.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Jordan does an adequate job getting deep in his drops but struggles with his change-of-direction ability once the pass has been completed. He'll play the ball better in a zone situation where he's able to see the ball and read the quarterback.

    Tackle

    34/40

    Jordan is physical at the point of contact and does a good job of wrapping up and driving through when closing in on a ball-carrier. You won't see missed or broken tackles here. Jordan really struggles at taking proper angles, but he doesn’t have any issues once he’s within striking distance of a ball-carrier.

    Overall

    64/100

    The Eagles' linebackers struggled at times on the edge in 2012, and Jordan was one of those players highlighted most as a weak link. There's room to grow, but he has big hurdles to overcome first.

22. Mathias Kiwanuka, New York Giants

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    Run Defense

    8/20

    For a pass-rushing linebacker who spends so much time with his hand in the dirt, Mathias Kiwanuka doesn’t shed blocks as well as you would think. He shows average agility in redirecting against the run when rushing upfield from off the edge.

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    Kiwanuka is listed as an outside linebacker, but he does the majority of his damage out of a three-point stance, moving along the defensive line and getting pressure on the quarterback. He comes off the ball with good burst and will consistently turn the corner to get into the backfield when he can get space off the snap. If blockers press him, Kiwanuka can be stopped.

    Coverage

    10/20

    At 6'5", 267 pounds, Kiwanuka is limited in what he’s able to do in space, but he can cover small areas in the flat and take away slants and digs from the tight ends. You don't want him matched up going down the seam or on breaking routes with tight ends.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Kiwanuka is a solid tackler who uses his size and strength well in running through ball-carriers. He has the length and reach to pull down ball-carriers. He'll wow you with big hits in space when he can break down and explode to the ball.

    Overall

    64/100

    At this point in his career, Kiwanuka is a situational pass-rusher who offers some versatility along the defensive line. As a true outside linebacker, he's always been out of place and someone teams pick on in pass coverage.

21. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, St. Louis Rams

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    Run Defense

    18/20

    Jo-Lonn Dunbar is the quintessential thumper for a defense, and he is a force when coming downhill. He plays tough and mean, fighting through blockers and working to the ball with good vision. He plays with a nonstop mentality that makes him tough to contain for four quarters. 

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    Dunbar displays impressive physicality at the point of contact with offensive linemen and is able to use his strength to shed blocks and close in on the quarterback. You would like to see better quickness and hip flexibility to bend at the edge and get past offensive linemen.

    Coverage

    5/20

    Dunbar doesn’t offer much in coverage, as he’s pretty stiff in his hips and consistently bites on play-action passes. He's someone you can live with in the flats, but matched up in man coverage, he will hurt you.

    Tackle

    30/40

    He’s a force inside the box and will come downhill with authority to put a hit on a ball-carrier, but out in space, he tends to lunge after smaller, quicker players. When Dunbar makes contact, it can be painful for the ball-carrier.

    Overall

    66/100

    Dunbar is exactly what you want from a thumping linebacker in run defense, but he really struggles athletically in space and reading play-action passes. Better awareness and anticipation would cover up some of his athletic limitations.

20. Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks

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    Run Defense

    12/20

    Leroy Hill has a strong initial punch when engaging with an offensive lineman or fullback in the hole. He sheds blocks well with his hands and strength at the point of contact. He doesn't have elite size to beat blockers if engaged and can struggle to get free to find the ball. 

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Hill possesses the physicality and strength to move offensive linemen in pass-rushing situations with his initial punch, but just doesn’t have the agility to then take advantage of any space he’s given. You won't see Hill rolling his hips to throw away a blocker.

    Coverage

    11/20

    Hill is limited in what he can do out in space. He's pretty stiff in the hips and must keep the receiver in front of him to be most effective. Zone coverage is his friend, and he can do well there. Just don't line him up in man coverage against a mobile target.

    Tackle

    33/40

    He is an explosive tackler when coming downhill and displays impressive closing speed. Hill will get low to drop runners and can attack with his shoulders to make pad-popping hits. Missed tackles weren't a consistent problem, but he did fail to wrap up at times and allowed positive yards after contact.

    Overall

    66/100

    Hill is a stout linebacker who gives a defense the physicality in the box it's looking for against the run, but he is limited in terms of skill out in space.

19. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers

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    Run Defense

    11/20

    Thomas Davis gets washed out of plays once an offensive lineman is locked on him. He doesn’t seem to have the strength to shed blocks, and while he is an athletic presence on the outside, he'll struggle to recover if blockers engage him. If Davis is free in space, he can make plays.

    Pass Rush

    8/20

    You’d expect more pass-rushing ability from a player that’s as athletic as Davis in coverage. He just doesn’t do well in traffic or engaged with blockers. Limited hand use keeps him from breaking free of blockers when he is asked to crash the edge. Ideally, the Panthers are dropping him into coverage on passing downs.

    Coverage

    19/20

    Davis is a fluid athlete in space who does a good job of anticipating routes and displays impressive closing speed coming downhill on a ball-carrier. He's comfortable matched up in man or zone coverage and has the quickness to excel in both. He is able to take away targets in the passing game.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Davis doesn’t read the run very well, and it causes him to get many of his tackles at the second level of the defense. He displays impressive closing speed when attacking downhill, though.

    Overall

    67/100

    Davis ranks in our top-four 4-3 outside linebackers in coverage. He struggles in traffic and with physicality at the point of contact.

18. Nick Barnett, Buffalo Bills

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    Run Defense

    16/20

    Nick Barnett is a savvy run-defender who understands angles and running lanes. He reads plays well and is rarely caught out of position against the run. A veteran at the position, he wins with his experience and by putting himself in the right place to maximize his impact on the play. He'll beat blockers not with pure strength, but with angles and leverage. His hand use is among the best in the league.

    Pass Rush

    5/20

    Barnett isn’t asked to get after the quarterback very often, and he doesn’t have the same closing speed he’d need to finish off those plays at this point in his career. He can flush the pocket and create pressure for other players, but he's not a threat to sack the quarterback.

    Coverage

    12/20

    He does an adequate job in zone but doesn’t have the athleticism to run with receivers down the field in man coverage. Barnett does a good job recognizing routes across the middle and in the flat. He also does well when reading the quarterback, which makes up for his lack of agility.

    Tackle

    34/40

    Barnett is still a solid tackler who wraps up and runs through ball-carriers within the box and out on the edge.  He's strong enough to close the deal and keep backs from picking up positive yards post-contact. In space, receivers will give him fits if he can't box them in.

    Overall

    67/100

    Barnett is still a starting linebacker in the NFL, but his fading athleticism will limit his overall impact for a defense.

17. Zach Brown, Tennessee Titans

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    Run Defense

    10/20

    Zach Brown struggles with leverage when engaged with blockers and will get pushed back fairly often in run support. He tends to go around blocks and try to use his quickness to make a play. He's athletic enough to come down the line and make plays in the backfield, but if he's the play-side linebacker, we rarely see him beat blockers to the ball.

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Brown is an athletically gifted football player who has the quickness and agility to beat linemen to the edge when rushing the passer. He possesses elite closing speed and will chase down plays while pursuing from the back side. You want Brown getting after the quarterback when at all possible.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Brown is comfortable in space and has the ability to drop and run with receivers and quickly pick up routes coming into his area. He showed good understanding of timing and route-running in his first season, getting to the ball quickly with effective plant-and-go skills in coverage.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Brown puts himself in bad situations in run support when trying to go around blockers, which leads to a lot of lunging and absorbing hits from offensive players. In space, he's agile enough to break down runners and make them hesitate, which allows for clean tackles.

    Overall

    68/100

    Brown is a fluid athlete in space who struggles in run support, but there's a ton of promise here for him to develop into a quality weak-side linebacker. A scheme that better takes advantage of his talents would be a help.

16. Akeem Ayers, Tennessee Titans

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    Run Defense

    14/20

    Akeem Ayers is stout at the point of attack and does a good job of maintaining leverage when engaged with offensive linemen.

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    Ayers is one of our top five pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebackers based on his play last season. He has a quick first step off the line of scrimmage and uses his hands well to disengage blockers while getting after the quarterback. He also times his blitzes well when coming on a delay and has the closing speed to finish the play quickly.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Ayers is not a natural athlete out in space while in coverage. He has trouble opening his hips and getting deep in his drops, which leads to passes dropping over the top of his coverage.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Ayers is a physical downhill linebacker who will tend to go for the knockout blow at times instead of just wrapping up the ball-carrier.

    Overall

    68/100

    Ayers is a great in-the-box linebacker who excels in getting after the passer and being stout at the point of contact against the run.

15. Kaluka Maiava, Oakland Raiders

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    Run Defense

    14/20

    Kaluka Maiava tends to lose track of the ball-carrier when engaged with offensive linemen, but he shows a good awareness with angles at the second level in run defense. He has great downhill speed but can overpursue when coming from the back side against the run.

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    Maiava displays good agility and downhill speed, which allows him to pursue ball-carriers through traffic. He doesn’t possess a repertoire of pass-rushing moves but uses his athleticism and speed to get pressure on the quarterback.

    Coverage

    16/20

    Maiava is fluid in space and can turn and run with receivers and tight ends down the field. His coverage ability and change-of-direction skills are his strongest assets.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Maiava is a much more accomplished tackler out in space than he is the box. He has a tendency to bounce off offensive players because he won’t consistently wrap up and drive through a ball-carrier.

    Overall

    72/100

    Maiava is a solid coverage linebacker who’s comfortable out in space in both man and zone coverages.

14. Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins

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    Run Defense

    16/20

    Koa Misi packs a good initial punch when engaging offensive linemen in run defense. He does tend to get too high at times and allows blockers to get underneath him with better leverage that takes him out of the play.

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    Misi is a very good pass-rushing outside linebacker and sits in the top five of our rankings in that category. He showed the ability to bend the edge blitzing from a three-point stance off the edge and also showed multiple moves once engaged with an offensive lineman.

    Coverage

    12/20

    In coverage, Misi really made a concerted effort to be physical at the line of scrimmage with the receiver. He doesn’t possess a natural ability to turn his hips and run in coverage, but he spent the majority of time in passing situations with his hand in the dirt or at the line of scrimmage.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Misi struggles to shed blocks in the run game, and it leads to missed tackles.

    Overall

    72/100

    Misi is a solid pass-rushing outside linebacker who’s fairly athletic in space but tends to disappear at times when he’s out on the field.

13. Erin Henderson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Run Defense

    16/20

    Erin Henderson provides the physicality against the run inside the box that Minnesota’s defense needs, with fellow outside linebacker Chad Greenway more often out in space. When pursuing a running back through a lane, Henderson packs a pretty good punch once he gets to his intended target. He does a good job of stacking and shedding offensive linemen inside the box and doesn’t give much ground once initial contact is made with a blocker.

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Henderson is primarily a downhill rushing linebacker. He isn’t a fluid athlete and therefore doesn’t provide much in the way of pass rush if it’s not strictly a bull rush or delayed blitz with a straight shot to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Henderson is not a natural athlete in space and doesn’t have the fluidity to consistently stay with receivers out in coverage.

    Tackle

    36/40

    Henderson is a solid tackler inside the box and does a good job of running through the ball-carrier. It’s only out in space where his agility and athleticism can prevent him from tackling smaller, quicker offensive players.

    Overall

    74/100

    Henderson is the thumping linebacker who gives the Vikings the run-stuffing presence they need in the middle of their defense.

12. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings

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    Run Defense

    11/20

    Chad Greenway is a solid tackler inside the box and always seems to be around the ball at the end of the play. He tended to overpursue and take improper angles at times, which led to big lanes and big plays from running backs.

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Greenway’s nonstop motor helped him in passing situations when the initial pocket would break down and the quarterback would try and get outside to make a play. He showed an ability to get off blocks and provided the closing speed to bring down the quarterback when given the opportunity.

    Coverage

    17/20

    Greenway excels in coverage and shows a good understanding of routes coming into his zone in the middle of the field. He quickly recognizes screens and passes to backs coming out of the backfield.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Greenway excels in space and didn’t have any problems tackling receivers and quicker backs out in space in coverage. He does tend to miss tackles in run defense due to improper angles, though.

    Overall

    75/100

    Greenway is an above-average outside linebacker who excels out in space in coverage. He has a nose for the football.

11. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

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    Run Defense

    11/20

    K.J. Wright is an elite outside linebacker in terms of athleticism, and he uses that well when he’s out in space. But when he’s playing run defense, he tends to get washed out of plays attempting to use that quickness to go around an offensive lineman; otherwise, he’ll guess wrong and leave a cutback lane open for the ball-carrier. Wright will make some good plays in run defense at or near the line of scrimmage when he is able to get around the block, though. He doesn’t offer much once a blocker gets his hands on him in run defense.

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    Wright uses his agility and change-of-direction quickness very well in getting after the passer. Seattle would bring Wright off the edge, and he was able to disrupt the play by beating the offensive tackle up the field.

    Coverage

    19/20

    Wright is an elite coverage linebacker with the ability to anticipate routes coming into his area and the athleticism to drop and run with receivers down the field. He has fluid hips redirecting out in space and the closing speed to hop routes in the flat.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Wright uses his athleticism well when he’s out in space and making a tackle on a ball-carrier. He’s not overly physical inside the box, and that leads to a lot of arm tackles dipping around blocks from offensive players.

    Overall

    76/100

    Wright is an elite coverage linebacker and ranked No. 3 for us in that department among 4-3 outside linebackers. He’ll dip and dodge blockers in run support, but he does use that quickness out on the edge to limit yards after the catch.

10. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Run Defense

    17/20

    Vontaze Burfict is a solid run defender in the middle of the Cincinnati Bengals defense. He attacks at the point of contact with offensive linemen and gets a good "punch," which helps him shed blocks and make plays in the box. Burfict isn’t one of the most athletic outside linebackers in the NFL, but he does have good instincts in run defense and has plus closing speed. That less-than-elite athleticism does show when ball-carriers get to the second level, though.

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Burfict doesn’t offer a whole lot in the pass-rushing department. He doesn’t change direction incredibly well, and when asked to blitz up the A-gap, he tended to get locked up and washed out of the play fairly easily.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Burfict isn’t great out in space when in coverage because of his lacking agility. He would match up with tight ends at the line of scrimmage and often give separation once the player broke off into his route.

    Tackle

    36/40

    Burfict is a solid tackler who doesn’t seem content with just bringing the ball-carrier down. He attempts to bring him down with authority.

    Overall

    77/100

    Burfict is the type of linebacker you want in the middle of your defense. He excels against the run and is physical at the point of contact. What he lacks in open-field agility in coverage he makes up for in physicality in the box against the run.

9. Kevin Burnett, Oakland Raiders

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    Run Defense

    17/20

    Kevin Burnett’s best area of play in 2012 was in run defense. He showed the strength on the edge to take on ball-carriers and blockers, and he did a good job coming inside to take away rushing lanes. He’ll come downhill in a hurry and can make solo stops on backs big and small.

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Not a natural pass-rusher, Burnett came to play in 2012, showing the quickness and awareness to pull the chain and clean up the pocket. He only notched 2.5 sacks on the year, but he did a good job adding pressures and hits on quarterbacks when asked to rush.

    Coverage

    14/20

    With fluid hips and good short-area quickness, Burnett is able to impact the game in zone and man coverage. When asked to get to the flats, he moves well laterally and can close on a target with good speed.

    Tackle

    32/40

    Burnett shows the strength to put runners down in space and does a good job making solo tackles. We did note times where he would go in with a shoulder and let runners bounce off him and pick up extra yards, but those were more rare than the times he would close on the runner and make a positive play without allowing extra yardage.

    Overall

    77/100

    An underrated linebacker with good versatility, Burnett’s 2012 season showed that he belongs in the conversation as a top weak-side linebacker. The Dolphins may come to regret letting him leave.

8. Philip Wheeler, Miami Dolphins

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    Run Defense

    10/20

    When facing big blockers, Philip Wheeler can struggle to get positioning. He doesn’t have the strength to keep blockers from getting into his frame. He’ll be effective when using his speed to get the first step on linemen and pulling blockers on the edge, but he won’t offer much resistance on the inside.

    Pass Rush

    17/20

    With good speed and agility, Wheeler can be tough for offenses to handle when he’s coming off the edge. While he lacks the strength to take on blockers one-on-one, he’s fast and flexible enough to cut the corner and get to the quarterback. Wheeler doesn’t consistently close the deal, but he’ll flush the pocket and create panic. He shows up early and often by pressuring and hitting the quarterback.

    Coverage

    18/20

    Being quick in space and showing the awareness to read the quarterback are keys to succeeding in coverage, and Wheeler does both. He is quick and light on his feet when dropping back into a zone, and when thrown at, he closes well to separate receivers from the ball.

    Tackle

    34/40

    Fans will remember a poor game from Wheeler in which he missed three tackles against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but throughout the season, he showed good ability to wrap and tackle runners in space. Missed tackles did show up here and there over the other 15 games, but Wheeler wasn’t a liability in space when asked to take down ball-carriers.

    Overall

    79/100
    A very solid 2012 season led to Wheeler being a hit free agent on the open market. He’ll be a vital piece of the defensive rebuild going on in Miami.

7. Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos

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    Run Defense

    13/20

    Teams with bigger running backs would hurt Wesley Woodyard, as he doesn’t have the power to take those runners on head-up and put them down without surrendering yards or missing tackles. In space he’s great, but his lack of size and strength does make an impact in traffic.

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    An undersized star, Woodyard’s 2012 season is sure to put him on the map. You don’t see players this size (6’0”, 227 lbs) crashing the edge and pressuring the quarterback, but he did it and did it well. He’s so quick out of his stance that blockers struggle to get a clean hit on him. Add in the fact that Woodyard times his release so well and combines his pursuit with linemen in front of him, and you can see why he was able to do so much damage as a pass-rusher. He has to get stronger and learn to better use his hands to become a true threat off the edge, but there’s a lot to like here.

    Coverage

    20/20

    Woodyard excelled in coverage in 2012, showing the quickness to dog receivers up the field and the strength to jam and press off the line of scrimmage.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Woodyard went through stretches with missed tackles (see his run defense score), and he must do a better job getting leverage and using his speed to close on the ball. That will help him avoid the missed tackles that crept up against bigger, stronger backs.

    Overall

    79/100

    Woodyard is an underappreciated star on the Denver defense, and his versatility opposite Von Miller gives the team an elite duo at outside linebacker.

6. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Run Defense

    19/20

    Lavonte David was flat-out dominant when asked to stop runners in 2012. His quickness and strength on the outside of the defense made him a terror for blockers to reach, and in turn, he was able to strike quickly to get to the ball-carrier when the ball came to the play side. David is fast enough to run down ball-carriers from the back side as well.

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    Not a natural pass-rusher, David wasn’t ready to take on the edge and attack quarterbacks in his first season. As the year went on, he did become more adept at lowering his shoulder and dipping blockers' hands. David doesn’t have the speed and power combination to simply beat blockers on the edge—he’ll have to do that with technique—but by Week 17, we saw him doing a better job of getting into the backfield.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Playing middle linebacker at Nebraska prepared David to make zone drops as a linebacker and play the pass. He did well in his first NFL season, showing the quick hips needed to drop into the flats and the footwork to plant and go when breaking on the ball. Teams threw at David often, and he did give up plenty of receptions, but he put himself in position to limit big plays and make stops in space.

    Tackle

    35/40

    David struggled through what most rookies do in their first season: poor timing when breaking down to make tackles in space. He overcame this struggle as the season progressed, but early in the year, we saw too many runners bouncing off his pads and picking up positive yards after contact. In terms of production, he was amazing, but his actual tackling ability and technique took time to develop in his rookie season.

    Overall

    80/100

    David enjoyed an exceptional first season, showing the awareness and athletic ability to become a star on the outside.

5. Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

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    Run Defense

    17/20

    With good size and strength, Dont’a Hightower is able to shed blockers on the edge and hold the corner of the defense. He can anchor and keep runners from getting outside and into space. With his lower-body power and hand use, he generated space between himself and blockers, allowing a rip move to beat blockers and get to the runner.

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    The versatile defense employed by the New England Patriots puts high demand on the outside linebacker position. In his first NFL season, Hightower outperformed expectations. He showed the quickness that was sometimes missing in his final season at Alabama, quickly getting to the ball and flashing the closing speed to chase down quarterbacks in space. He’s strong enough to beat tackles with a power move when he can get the jump on the corner.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Nick Saban developed Hightower’s coverage ability at Alabama, so coming into the NFL, we expected him to hold his own. He did...and then some. Showing better quickness and burst than expected, Hightower was able to keep pace with tight ends off the line. He’s strong enough to jam and redirect players coming off the snap, and from there, he showed good flexibility to turn and run with receivers. He’s not someone you want in the slot, but when taking on tight ends and running backs, Hightower did very well.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Most rookies struggle with the speed and strength of the game, and that generally shows up as defenders whiff on tackles in space. Hightower didn’t have that problem, instead showing incredible patience when breaking down runners on the edge. When closing on the ball, he hit with power and showed the strength to put ball-carriers down with one hit.

    Overall

    82/100

    Hightower’s rookie season went far better than anyone could have expected. He played with excellent patience, vision and strength in setting the edge on the New England defense.

4. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears

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    Run Defense

    16/20

    When taking away the outside run, Lance Briggs does a good job moving toward the line of scrimmage and using his arms to keep blockers off his frame. He’s quick enough to crash the backfield and take away yards.

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    The Chicago Bears are wise to use Briggs in coverage, which means he’s rarely asked to go after the quarterback as a pass-rusher. His strength is in his play going away from the pocket, not toward it. Briggs has the quickness to turn the corner and put pressure on the passer, but it’s more likely to succeed as a delayed pressure or blitz off the corner. Good tackles will slide and mirror his moves, and in turn, he will struggle to win with a counter move.

    Coverage

    20/20

    Long known for his coverage skills, Briggs is still one of the best in the game. He’s not overly quick in space or exceptionally fluid, but he has great awareness for the ball and the man he’s covering. His vision allows him to stay in position to close on the ball in the air, but what Briggs does best is eliminate targets by playing tight man coverage.

    Tackle

    35/40

    A solid tackler with clean form and nice strength upon impact, Briggs doesn’t allow missed tackles often, but he did accumulate nine on the year. While not terrible, that’s more than ideal. Briggs’ 2012 film showed him lunging without keeping his feet when breaking down runners in space. Correcting that would improve his tackle score.

    Overall

    83/100

    One of the game’s most well-rounded outside linebackers, Briggs continues to play at a very high level as both a run-stopper and cover man on the edge.

3. Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons

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    Run Defense

    15/20

    Fans may remember Sean Weatherspoon struggling in the playoffs against the run, but over the course of the season, he was solid on the edge. His athletic ability allows for great range when he's asked to pursue the ball. He’ll get caught up with misdirection at times and didn’t show his best production against option-based plays, but he’s an attacking threat on the outside of the defense and someone for whom offenses must prepare.

    Pass Rush

    17/20

    A natural athlete with good strength, Weatherspoon has the physical skill set to attack the edge and make plays in the backfield. His first-step quickness is such that when walked up on the line of scrimmage, he can beat tackles and blockers to the corner. He is quick enough to force quarterbacks to flush from the pocket, and with excellent closing speed, he can pursue and attack from the back side of the play.

    Coverage

    15/20

    With good athletic ability and awareness, Weatherspoon is able to make plays in coverage as both a man- and zone-coverage weapon. He has the hips to turn and run in space, but he also shows the quick change-of-direction skills to stick with tight ends and backs in man coverage. Weatherspoon could do better to read and recognize routes, as he’ll sit down early or jump a route too soon, but from a coverage perspective, he does well to limit plays.

    Tackle

    37/40

    When Weatherspoon makes a tackle, he does so with athletic grace and impressive closing speed. He has fluid movements and excellent closing speed to attack the ball-carrier in space. When asked to shed and tackle, Weatherspoon is quick enough to do so. Missed tackles did add up for him, though, as he would too often fly in hot and overrun the ball. He has to learn to play controlled football.

    Overall

    84/100

    Weatherspoon is an attacking, mobile outside linebacker with top-level all-around skills. He’s quickly becoming one of the best in the game.

2. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots

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    Run Defense

    18/20

    Jerod Mayo tracks the ball well coming off the edge. His past experience at inside linebacker allows him to see and read his keys well, which puts him into position to make plays moving inside-out. Mayo’s vision makes him a tough player to beat on the corner, but he moves with deceptive speed and fluid hips when tracking the ball laterally. He’s not exceptionally fast when closing on the ball, but he has good strength to put runners down.

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Mayo is an impressive athlete and all-around linebacker. If there’s a hole in his game, it’s when he's asked to rush the passer. He doesn’t have the quickness or burst to bend the edge and get to the quarterback, but he plays with strength and can beat blockers when they get their hands on him. Mayo will make an impact in the passing game by cleaning up trash and flushing the pocket.

    Coverage

    17/20

    An underrated cover man, Mayo surprised us with his ability to drop into zones and then shift to plant and close on passes. He has good balance and light feet. His agility allows him to change direction to get to the ball in the air. When matched up one-on-one, he’s able to keep pace with tight ends and backs throughout transitions.

    Tackle

    37/40

    A hard hitter with the size and strength to stop runners in their tracks, Mayo closes on the ball well and has the upper- and lower-body strength to hit and stick ball-carriers. He won’t miss tackles if he can get into position to put his pads on the ball.

    Overall

    86/100

    Mayo is a versatile linebacker in that he can play inside and outside linebacker. But as the Patriots have moved to a 4-3 defense, his stock has taken off as a premier player on the edge.

1. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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    Run Defense

    20/20

    Known as a pass-rusher, Von Miller has evolved into an elite run defender, proving his worth as a three-down player. Coming off the edge, Miller does a good job setting up on the corner and getting into the backfield. He’s strong enough to beat blockers using speed and surprising power when engaged.

    Pass Rush

    20/20

    Miller makes his money as a pass-rusher, and he does it damn well. He is uniquely quick and powerful coming off the edge, showing the shoulder dip to beat blockers and get low against tackles who kick out to meet him at the corner. He’s able to convert his first-step speed to power well, allowing him to drive blockers when engaged. Miller is a rare 4-3 outside linebacker in that he can drop down to defensive end in pass-rushing situations and win in one-on-one assignments.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Coverage was a weak spot for Miller in his rookie season, but in his second season, he was a better player in space. His awareness and recognition of the play—as well as his alignment—was much improved.

    Tackle

    40/40

    On the season, Miller missed just one tackle attempt. That’s phenomenal for an outside linebacker who makes as many plays on the ball as Miller does. He’s an impact tackler with the closing speed and power to put runners down with force.

    Overall

    95/100

    Miller is the best of the best when it comes to NFL 4-3 outside linebackers. His ability to rush the quarterback, stop the run and drop back into coverage makes him a rare stud at the position.