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

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterApril 11, 2013

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

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

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

    Why must we differentiate 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 they always add up to a maximum of 100. Players in this case can receive up to 20 points for run defense, 30 for pass-rushing ability, 10 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 last season didn't qualify for the rankings—and remember, these are only 3-4 outside linebackers. That means no Von Miller or Lance Briggs.

    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. Lorenzo Alexander, Arizona Cardinals

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    Pass Rush

    22/30

    Lorenzo Alexander offers something in the pass-rushing department mainly because of an intense effort he brings on every play. He doesn’t possess the necessary athleticism to bend the edge consistently, and he doesn’t use his hands well enough to disengage blockers once his momentum is stopped. He needs the quarterback to step up in the pocket to make any kind of a play when coming off the edge.

    Coverage

    4/10

    Alexander is a liability in space. He doesn’t possess the necessary change-of-direction agility to be anything more than a space-filler while in man or zone coverage.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    Alexander brings an intense effort on every play that is visible, as he’ll consistently chase down plays from the backside out on the edge. He’s physical at the point of contact but struggles with leverage. Once he’s locked up with an offensive lineman, he’s out of the play and becomes a non-factor.

    Tackle

    25/40

    Alexander possesses decent closing speed when approaching a ball-carrier but doesn’t break down before the point of contact, which leads to lunging and missed tackles.

    Overall

    61/100

    He shows an ability to get after the passer with a relentless effort that can be effective in small doses as a situational pass-rusher only.

34. Erik Walden, Indianapolis Colts

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    Pass Rush

    14/30

    An average pass-rusher coming off the edge, Erik Walden doesn’t play with the speed needed to turn the corner and attack the backfield. He’s strong and matches up well against right tackles coming off the left side, but he has yet to show the ability to chase the quarterback in space.

    Coverage

    7/10

    With limited quickness, Walden can be picked apart by quarterbacks in a zone-coverage setting. He needs to be in a position to jam offensive players off the line and use his strength to limit their movements. He’s strong enough to press at the line but doesn’t show the athleticism to turn and run with players in coverage.

    Run Defense

    6/20

    Walden has the strength to do a good job at setting the edge. Where he struggles in run defense is when asked to take on blockers. Teams with good, athletic tackles were able to run at him and wall him off in backside play. He struggled to beat blockers with speed or hand use.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Looking at what Walden did as a tackler, his technique and power were positives. We didn’t see him lowering his head and missing tackles due to poor vision. He closes on the ball with strength and will drive ball-carriers back for negative yards.

    Overall

    62/100

    There were plenty of critics when the Colts signed Walden to a free-agent contract because of his struggles as a pass-rusher. But when asked to set the edge and stop the run, he’s a solid player with good strength on the corner.

33. Larry English, San Diego Chargers

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    Pass Rush

    17/30

    Larry English has a good speed rush off the edge but lacks a secondary move or any countermoves to be more effective at putting pressure on the quarterback. He doesn’t have the strength to beat the offense with a bull rush, and he isn’t able to stop and change directions to beat his opponent. 

    Coverage

    5/10

    English is a huge liability in coverage. He isn’t able to stick with tight ends in man coverage or fall back into a zone and react to plays in front of him. He isn’t asked to drop back very often and is used primarily as an extra rusher.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    English doesn’t see the field much on expected rushing downs. He doesn’t have the instincts, and he struggles to make the correct reads when facing the run. He also isn’t able to set the edge and turn runners back to the inside.

    Tackle

    30/40

    A solid tackler when the opportunity is there, he shows good form and doesn’t miss very many tackles when he is able to get his hands on the ball-carrier. He struggles trying to bring down quick and shifty backs, though.

    Overall

    62/100

    English is a pass-rush specialist who struggles to consistently get pressure on the quarterback, which is why he is near the bottom of this list. He hasn’t lived up to the hype of a first-round pick who came into the league with a ton of potential.

32. Calvin Pace, Free Agent

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    Pass Rush

    16/30

    A naturally quick, athletic pass-rusher, Calvin Pace is tailor-made for the 3-4 defense. When tasked with coming off the edge, he can struggle to beat blockers with foot speed, as he’s a bit stiff at times. Pace doesn’t show the speed to beat blockers to the edge, but he has a good combination of power and quickness to get past the punch of a tackle.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Pace is a limited coverage man due to the stiffness in his lower body. He won’t turn and make transitions with route-runners throughout the route tree. He is strong enough to jam and press at the line of scrimmage, but he really struggles to adjust when forced to turn and cover.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Pace’s best asset is his strength on the edge. He’ll lock down the outside and keep runners from getting outside the line. He uses his hands and arms well to keep offensive linemen from getting into his frame and being driven off the ball. He’s not fast enough to be ranked higher but does very well when anchoring.

    Tackle

    28/40

    With good strength and power at the point of impact, Pace can bring down runners without struggling. He’s able to pull down runners for solo tackles and prevent positive yardage after contact.

    Overall

    64/100

    Pace saw his production and impact drop off slightly in 2012, but there’s still talent here for this veteran outside linebacker.

31. Antwan Barnes, New York Jets

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    Pass Rush

    22/30

    An undersized athlete with top-level quickness and burst, Antwan Barnes was pushed into a reserve role in 2012 and didn’t see the field as much as expected. As a pass-rusher, he has a nice first step but doesn’t have the arm length to stack up blockers. If outside blockers get their hands on Barnes, he won’t recover well enough to put constant pressure on the pocket.

    Coverage

    6/10

    There’s enough quickness to Barnes’ game for him to be good in coverage, but he doesn’t show the awareness to stick with receivers. He will drop into space and can break on the ball from a zone step, but if you get him in man coverage, tight ends will outmuscle him for the ball.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    Playing at 6’0” and 245 lbs., you wouldn’t expect Barnes to do much against the run, but he does. His quickness allows him to get into gaps and stop the run. If you put a body on him, he will get driven off the ball. However, in space, he can be very good.

    Tackle

    25/40

    Limited reach keeps him from having much success as a tackler. Barnes does show good form when he breaks down a runner in space, but he doesn’t have the strength to fight through traffic and make tackles.

    Overall

    65/100

    A player we liked more in 2011, Barnes didn’t build on his potential enough last season and must step up his all-around game to become a bigger asset.

30. Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    Nick Perry’s rookie season was cut short after knee and wrist injuries placed him on injured reserve after just six games. He’s continuing the transition from a 4-3 defensive end (the position he played at USC) to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Perry possesses a quick first step and has the physicality at the point of contact to create separation from offensive linemen. He shows a good bend around the edge and the ability to fight through contact to make a play.

    Coverage

    4/10

    Perry has the straight-line speed to run the seam with tight ends and backs but doesn’t have the change-of-direction agility to play in space on a consistent basis. It’s the biggest part of his game he needs to work on in order to make a jump in next year’s rankings.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    As a converted defensive end, Perry knows how to create leverage in run defense and gives a good initial punch when engaging with offensive linemen. He’ll need to get better at using his hands to get off blocks.

    Tackle

    28/40

    Perry does a good job driving through tacklers running downhill but struggles to break down out in space. He can get caught flat-footed against quicker backs with separation.

    Overall

    66/100

    Perry is primed for a big jump in these rankings next year with more time and development to learn this new position. He possesses all the necessary physical skills required to be an elite 3-4 outside linebacker.

29. Rob Jackson, Washington Redskins

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    Pass Rush

    19/30

    Rob Jackson benefits from having a fierce pass-rusher on the opposite side in Ryan Kerrigan, but it’s his elite athleticism and change-of-direction agility that allows him to close in on a quarterback when the pocket starts to break down. Still, he doesn’t possess the upper-body strength to disengage a blocker or fight through contact if there isn’t a clear lane to the quarterback.  

    Coverage

    10/10

    Jackson is the only 3-4 outside linebacker who received a perfect "10" in the ratings for coverage. He reads quarterbacks well and gets into throwing lanes while dropping into coverage. He also possesses an elite athletic ability to turn and run with backs and receivers getting down the field. 

    Run Defense

    11/20

    Jackson isn’t overly physical at the point of contact and has trouble disengaging blockers within the box in run defense. He’s only a factor if he’s unimpeded in his lane to the ball-carrier.

    Tackle

    27/40

    Jackson’s speed and athleticism can work against him in that he has a tendency to overrun plays and overpursue ball-carriers when getting out on the edge. He doesn’t drive through because he’s stopping his feet before the point of contact.

    Overall

    67/100

    Jackson is an elite coverage linebacker who’s comfortable out in space. He has fluid hips and impressive closing speed when unimpeded to the ball-carrier.

28. Shaun Phillips, Free Agent

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    Pass Rush

    21/30

    With nine sacks on the season, it would seem like Shaun Phillips would be a higher-level pass-rusher, but film study showed an inconsistent player. He flashed early in the season but went through stretches of poor get-off and speed through the mid-to-later parts of the year. When he loses on the first step, Phillips doesn’t have the power to follow up and beat blockers with a countermove.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Good quickness in space and awareness when dropped into a zone help Phillips as a solid cover man. What he doesn’t do well at this point is plant his foot in the ground and break on the ball. That allowed quarterbacks to pick him apart on breaking routes and quick hooks.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    Phillips doesn’t have the strength to take on blockers on the edge, but he does a good job using his length to turn the run back in from the outside. He won’t make many tackles against the run, but he shows pursuit skills and will set up his teammates to finish plays.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Missed tackles popped up on film when Phillips didn’t get low enough to take on backs. This wasn’t a consistent problem for him, though, as he did a good job stepping up to take on ball-carriers.

    Overall

    69/100

    Philips had one of his worst NFL seasons in 2012, and the team chose to go in another direction this offseason. He needs to clean up his pass-rushing technique heading into 2013.

27. Jarret Johnson, San Diego Chargers

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    Pass Rush

    20/30

    A big, bulky outside linebacker with the size and strength to play on either side of the defense, Jarret Johnson is a run defender, first and foremost. On passing downs, he shows a good bull-rush but doesn’t have the first-step quickness to beat blockers off the line. He won’t win off the snap but can follow up well with strength to create pressure by moving the line of scrimmage.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Johnson isn’t a coverage linebacker. When matched up with tight ends, his lack of quickness and speed will make him a liability in man coverage situations. He can defend the flats in zone coverage but he can do little else.

    Run Defense

    14/20

    A tough-nosed run defender, Johnson took a bit of a step back in 2012. He didn’t show the same production or impact on film playing either strong or weakside linebacker. He has the power to hold anchor and keep the edge but was susceptible to moving blockers. Guards, fullbacks and tight ends were able to push and drive Johnson to the edge, creating off-tackle running lanes.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Lower production was noticeable on film and verified in the stat sheet. Watching Johnson play in space, we saw a stiff player who didn’t bend well enough to break down and make ball-carriers choose. He’s too big and too strong to miss the tackles that he did in 2012.

    Overall

    70/100

    Known for his excellence against the run, Johnson struggled in his new home during the 2012 season. Now is the time for him to take the next step to become a better all-around player.

26. Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans

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    Pass Rush

    18/30

    Whitney Mercilus shows a good understanding of leverage and hand placement when coming off the edge. He’ll drive the blocker back into the pocket to disrupt the play and use his inside arm to shove the tackle upfield before closing back inside. He doesn’t have the quickest first step off the line, and he relies on his upper-body strength with proper leverage to disengage the blocker and come off to make a play.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Mercilus shows an ability to redirect out in space and displays an awareness of angles and proper pursuit when covering short distances at or near the line of scrimmage.

    Run Defense

    11/20

    Mercilus does a good job of reading the run while coming off the edge. He possesses the athleticism to redirect down the line to chase down a running back and the closing speed to then take him down quickly near the line of scrimmage.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Mercilus has above-average closing speed. He does a good job of attacking through the play and rarely misses an opportunity to bring down a ball-carrier at the point of contact.

    Overall

    70/100

    Mercilus will be able to continue taking advantage of the freedom he is allowed in rushing the passer as opposing teams try and deal with J.J. Watt in the middle of the Texans defensive line. As Mercilus develops and improves, his numbers should see a significant increase with the added opportunities to get after the quarterback.

25. Quentin Groves, Cleveland Browns

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    Pass Rush

    17/30

    Quentin Groves is limited in what he’s able to do rushing the passer. He doesn’t possess the elite athleticism to be able to maneuver quickly through traffic, and he doesn’t have the speed to get upfield and bend the edge consistently. He is physical at the point of contact. That allows him to maintain his ground and stay with the play, resulting in pressures when the quarterback attempts to leave the pocket.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Groves does an adequate job dropping into coverage. Yet he doesn’t possess the kind of athleticism or fluidity in the hips to get deep enough in his drops to help cover anything more than passes in the flat or take away some passing lanes across the middle.

    Run Defense

    13/20

    Groves does a great job of stacking at the line of scrimmage and getting off blocks to make plays in run defense. He’s a big, physical player who will consistently drive blockers back up the field when trying to run his direction.

    Tackle

    34/40

    Groves does a solid job of wrapping up ball-carriers and using his lower half to break down and drive through the offensive player in the box or out in space.

    Overall

    70/100

    Groves is a load to deal with inside the box because of his size and physicality at the point of contact, but he’s limited athletically and doesn't have a repertoire of pass-rushing moves.

24. Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers

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    Pass Rush

    25/30

    A good, natural athlete with the quickness to make plays coming off the corner, Melvin Ingram was able to create pressure and flush the pocket. His rookie season saw him develop effective hand use to get free from blockers. Ingram will need to develop a better shoulder dip and inside countermove if he wants to be a true all-around edge-rusher. It’s tough for blockers to get under his pads.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Coverage was a struggle for Ingram, but it was something that he did improve upon throughout the season. He wasn’t a coverage linebacker at South Carolina, making this new territory for him. He doesn’t have the long arms needed to knock away passes but does show good closing speed to break on the ball once he can speed up his recognition skills.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Ingram is stout against the run, something that showed up as he made solo stops against ball-carriers. He has to learn to use his arms to keep blockers from getting their hands on his pads. Ingram won’t hold the edge if pulling blockers get to him, and in these situations, he has to play lower and keep anchor with his base power.

    Tackle

    26/40

    Short arms and timid reaction time hurt Ingram as a tackler more than anything else. His indecision in closing on the ball kept him out of the play too often. Learning to read, react and pull the chain will make the former Gamecock a more talented and productive tackler.

    Overall

    71/100

    A promising young outside linebacker, it’s easy to see why the San Diego Chargers spent a first-round pick on Ingram. Now, he needs to take to the coaching that is available and learn.

23. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts

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    Pass Rush

    26/30

    A lightning-quick first step allows Robert Mathis to get the edge fairly easily. He displays a natural bend in helping to manipulate the space between the quarterback and pocket in getting after the quarterback. He doesn’t need a clear path to the quarterback in order to make a play and can force his way through traffic thanks to his upper-body strength and understanding of leverage. Mathis displays a good inside move through traffic in getting after the quarterback to pair with his natural speed rush to the outside.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Mathis is not a fluid athlete in space, and the stiffness in his hips would make him a liability if he consistently was asked to drop into coverage. He doesn’t have the change-of-direction agility to match up with tight ends or running backs out in space.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    He shows the ability to maintain leverage with offensive linemen in run defense, using his lower half and hands to keep them out of his chest. He’ll struggle in reading pass versus run, and this will make him a step late to the play at times.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Mathis possesses elite closing speed and does a fantastic job of driving through ball-carriers and finishing plays at the point of contact.

    Overall

    72/100

    Mathis is a pass-rushing specialist who doesn’t offer much more outside of his closing speed and athleticism in getting after the quarterback inside the box.

22. Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens

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    Pass Rush

    17/30

    In his first season, Courtney Upshaw hit the ground running with a sack in his first game. After that, it was up and down. He didn’t show the speed to get off the edge consistently and beat blockers to the backfield. When met by a lineman, he had the strength to push and drive guys off the line but didn’t show the recovery quickness to crash the pocket after being held up.

    Coverage

    5/10

    Coming out of the Alabama defense, Upshaw wasn’t ready to be a coverage linebacker. He’s fluid enough to drop into space but doesn’t have the speed to close on the ball or keep up with receivers. He has to learn how to use his hands and his body to keep receivers from getting position.

    Run Defense

    20/20

    A big, strong outside linebacker, Upshaw is able to hold up against blockers and can fight through traffic to get to the ball. When asked to hold contain on the outside, he is stout enough to not give up ground. He was consistently elite against the run in 2012, quickly showing the talent needed to keep the run in front of him.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Missed tackles late in the year caused Upshaw’s score to move down, but take away the playoffs and he missed just six tackles in 16 games. That’s not bad for a rookie playing primarily in the run game. He has to do a better job at closing on the ball with low-pad height. The strength is there for Upshaw to be a violent hitter.

    Overall

    72/100

    Upshaw’s rookie season wasn’t an overwhelming success, but he showed the base skill set to become a talented pass-rusher and all-around 3-4 outside linebacker in the future.

21. Brooks Reed, Houston Texans

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    Pass Rush

    20/30

    Brooks Reed is a reckless athlete with good quickness and burst coming off the edge. He can be a nightmare to block with his combination of power and speed, making it tough for blockers to get their hands on him and maintain that contact. Reed has to learn to shed hands better by using his own hands and arms. Once he can master his hand use and play with a little more leverage when bending the corner, he’ll be primed to take off.

    Coverage

    7/10

    When Reed wasn’t rushing the passer, he wasn’t on the field. We watched every snap of the Texans season and saw Reed in coverage five times. That said, he’s quick and loose with good hips to turn when needed. He showed the ability to press at the line and redirect receivers off the ball.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Getting into position to stop the run was a weak point in Reed’s game, but he was able to overcome that struggle with his blend of athletic linebacking play. He’s stout at the point of attack and will shed blockers to turn the run back inside. He does a better job closing rushing lanes than he does making tackles against the run.

    Tackle

    31/40

    We noted that Reed didn’t make a ton of tackles, but he didn’t miss many, either. He’s powerful and explosive when closing on the ball and can put runners down in a hurry. He just has to find a way to be more active.

    Overall

    73/100

    A bright, young player with potential, Reed will see a bigger role in the team’s defense with Connor Barwin now in Philadelphia.

20. Bryan Thomas, Free Agent

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    Pass Rush

    20/30

    A limited pass-rusher, Bryan Thomas didn’t make an impact when asked to get into the backfield. He became less reliable in beating tackles and generating pressure. Offensive linemen were able to slide and mirror to take away his outside moves. When asked to go inside, he has decent strength but doesn’t convert speed to power well enugh to counterattack blockers. The fact that the Jets relied less and less on Thomas spoke to his lack of impact.

    Coverage

    4/10

    Due to his bulk and his lack of speed in space, Thomas didn’t show up as a quality coverage linebacker. Matched up against tight ends, he would be beaten off the line of scrimmage and struggle to recover. He is strong enough to jam and press at the line, but if he can’t win the battle within those first three yards, he’ll give up too many yards.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Thomas’ strength is his ability to hold up on the edge and keep the run from going outside. He uses his hands and long arms well to keep blockers at bay, executing a nice stack-and-shed technique.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Thomas doesn’t have the speed to run down ball-carriers and make bone-jarring hits, but he is a solid tackler when he meets runners in the hole. He has the strength to make contact and keep his leverage without surrendering yards or allowing backs to slip his grasp.

    Overall

    74/100

    A solid player on first and second downs, Thomas was an average pass-rusher in 2012. That’s playing a big part in his availability so late in free agency.

19. James Harrison, Free Agent

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    James Harrison is a speed-rusher, first and foremost. He needs to beat tackles with his first step or he’ll get washed down and held up on the edge. Tackles love to get under his pads and drive up, something Harrison can counter with leverage and flexibility. His speed was limited in 2012, and blockers were better able to slide and mirror with him on the edge.

    Coverage

    3/10

    One of the league’s weaker coverage linebackers in the 3-4, Harrison shouldn’t be asked to take away targets. When thrown at, he allows a high number of completions. He has a decent drop-step for zone coverage, but he’ll get lost in man play.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    Being strong against the run was Harrison’s strength in 2012. He was able to come up off the edge and stop runners in the backfield, and he did a better job than he had in years past at holding up against blockers in space. He’s naturally low to the ground and has the leverage to shed and attack.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Harrison is a well-known violent hitter, but that doesn’t make him an elite tackler. He has enough force and power to put ball-carriers down with one hit, but there will be times when Harrison lets runners bounce off his pads. He’s not a classic wrap-up tackler. As the season went deeper, his tackling got weaker.

    Overall

    75/100

    Harrison wasn’t his normal self in 2012, regressing as a pass-rusher and showing his weakness in coverage. There’s a reason why he’s still a free agent.

18. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Pass Rush

    20/30

    If you are looking for pass-rushing statistics, Connor Barwin doesn’t pop off the screen or stat sheet as a sack artist. That doesn’t mean that he can’t rush the passer, though. He’ll add pressures and hits, getting into the backfield and flushing the pocket. You would like to see better flexibility and closing speed to convert hits and pressures into sacks.

    Coverage

    8/10

    An underrated aspect of Barwin’s game in 2012 was his pass-coverage ability. He did a good job taking away targets and making sure quarterbacks couldn’t go his way. When thrown at, he has the quickness to break on the ball and make impact plays.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    We expected Barwin to be better here because he has the length and bulk to affect the run game. He was too easily run inside of, though, as he struggled to hold his position and keep blockers from getting their hands on him.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Barwin showed the strength to be a solo tackler, putting down ball-carriers without assists from his teammates. He uses his arms well to reach and pull down runners. We did note Barwin playing high and stiff at times, which allowed shifty runners to leave him hugging air.

    Overall

    75/100

    Barwin has never made consistent noise as a pass-rusher, but he is one of the better all-around players at the position. He just has to find his “on” button in pass-rushing situations and keep it pushed down.

17. Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pass Rush

    19/30

    Jason Worilds came alive in 2012 when pressed to step in for James Harrison, showing off his quickness in space and pass-rushing ability. He doesn’t show the bull-rush you need to drive blockers back off the line of scrimmage, but he has good overall first-step ability and speed to come off the snap and get past the punch of a tackle. He doesn’t have the length to consistently keep blockers off his frame and will get pushed around off the ball.

    Coverage

    6/10

    With good quickness and the ability to change direction in space, Worilds can help in coverage. He’s able to turn and run off the line but doesn’t have the base strength to jam tight ends releasing into their pattern.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    Lacking length and raw power, Worilds can struggle when asked to take on the edge and anchor the defense. As a left outside linebacker, this is a problem, as that’s his role against right-handed NFL offenses. Because of his inability to set the edge, his run score is quite low, even for an active outside linebacker with good chase speed and vision.

    Tackle

    40/40

    Worilds didn’t make a lot of tackles, but remember that this score is not about production—it’s about ability. When in position to make tackles, he put runners down without ever missing a tackle that we saw. He’s a tough, explosive hitter.

    Overall

    75/100

    Worilds’ snap count was low in 2012, but he showed enough potential that the team was ready to move on from Harrison in the offseason.

16. Jerry Hughes, Indianapolis Colts

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    Jerry Hughes has the burst and flexibility to come off the edge and pull blockers off their marks. He doesn’t have the long arms needed to get space between him and the blocker, but he moves with quick enough feet and enough flexibility to dip his inside shoulder and get under the hands of tackles. Hughes could get better attacking off the snap—improving his first step—and playing with looser hips to turn the corner and close on the ball.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Good athletic ability allows Hughes to get into his drop step and affect the game in zone coverage. Matched up in man, he’s not aware enough to move with tight ends or backs. His change-of-direction skills have to improve in coverage.

    Run Defense

    8/20

    Hughes wasn’t a star against the run. With shorter arms and decent bulk, he was able to get pushed back off the line of scrimmage. He didn’t show the ability to drop his weight and anchor. He has good quickness in space but will get beat up in traffic.

    Tackle

    38/40

    A very good tackler in space, Hughes was active and aggressive. When he was on the field, Hughes popped as a tackler, bringing down runners and limiting yards by coming up to play the ball. He didn’t get caught waiting to make plays.

    Overall

    76/100

    Hughes went through good and bad stretches in 2012, but he showed enough promise to play a big role as the team’s No. 2 pass-rusher in 2013.

15. Victor Butler, New Orleans Saints

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    Pass Rush

    25/30

    The Cowboys’ No. 3 outside linebacker, Victor Butler, is ready for his chance to start. In spot duty, he showed the quickness to come off the ball and win with his first step. He’ll get off the line and cause blockers to shuffle and panic. He doesn’t have elite length to keep blockers off his body.

    Coverage

    4/10

    Pass coverage wasn’t a strength of Butler’s, but he also didn’t see many reps here. When thrown at, passes were completed at a high percentage. The positive is that Butler was a strong tackler and limited yards post-catch.

    Run Defense

    16/20

    A stout player, Butler can come off the edge and hold the line of scrimmage as an anchor. He doesn’t use his arms well to stack blockers up but plays with the quickness to track down the ball and impact the run game.

    Tackle

    31/40

    A strong tackler with good strength, Butler closes on the ball with nice quickness and has the power to bring guys down without letting them slip through his arms. He popped on film as a solo tackler.

    Overall

    76/100

    Butler will get his chance to prove his worth as a starting 3-4 outside linebacker in New Orleans. The skill set is here for him to become a star.

14. Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    Sam Acho is an impressive athlete coming off the edge. He has the size, speed and good enough strength to keep blockers off his frame. Acho needs to play with better get-off, as he’ll sometimes hesitate when crashing the edge. That’s a major reason why he pressures the quarterback and causes him to step up in the pocket, but he doesn’t pull down as many sacks.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Acho stepped up in coverage in 2012, showing great quickness in space. When put into a zone drop, he sees the ball well and can read and react with speed. He could get better at jamming up receivers coming off the ball. We really liked what we saw from Acho when put into man coverage, as he’s tough enough to bully receivers and athletic enough to run in space.

    Run Defense

    11/20

    When asked to play the run, Acho tends to play in reverse too much. He’ll struggle to get positioning to stop outside runs. With shorter arms, it is hard for him to lock out his arms to keep blockers from getting into his frame. He is quick and aggressive, but he has to keep better positioning.

    Tackle

    34/40

    He is one of the better players at the position when coming downhill to make tackles. Acho is quick and explosive, so once he reads the play, he can get to the ball-carrier in a hurry. In traffic, he’ll get pushed around and will struggle to come off blocks to make tackles.

    Overall

    77/100

    An exciting athlete, Acho has quickly become a high-level pass-rusher and coverage linebacker. Now, he just has to fine-tune his technique.

13. Albert McClellan, Baltimore Ravens

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    The Baltimore Ravens rarely kept Albert McClellan on the field in passing situations. He’s not exceptionally quick off the line and will struggle to beat blockers with quickness, but he has good power and nice potential to use his hands to free himself from contact. McClellan stepped in well for Terrell Suggs during injury and played a key role for the team down the stretch. He’s not a natural pass-rusher, but he's a solid all-around player.

    Coverage

    7/10

    A good coverage man when asked to take a short drop and play in a zone, McClellan doesn’t show the skills or athletic ability to match up with tight ends or backs in the flats. He put himself in good position to take away yards post-catch.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    A strong player against the run, McClellan has a natural ability to fill holes and take on traffic. He’s a short, stout player and doesn’t have the length to hold the edge when the run comes outside. When the run comes at him, he’s strong enough to beat blockers and attack the ball.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Take out one bad game against the San Diego Chargers, and McClellan didn’t miss one tackle all season. He puts himself into position to make a play on the ball and has the power to put force into his hits.

    Overall

    78/100

    A more natural player as an inside linebacker in the long-term, McClellan showed off his athleticism in 2012 by stepping up on the edge.

12. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins

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    Pass Rush

    30/30

    Ryan Kerrigan was a high-profile outside linebacker in 2012, showing the promise that made him a first-rounder in 2011. His sack numbers weren't the highest in the game, but no other outside linebacker put constant pressure on the quarterback like Kerrigan did. He attacked the backfield with pressures, hits on the quarterback and sacks. His ability to come off the line consistently and get past blockers was elite. Now, he just needs to speed up his first-step in order to convert those pressures to sacks.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Playing over the right side of the offense, Kerrigan is matched up against tight ends on most plays. He shows good strength to press and jam at the line, keeping offensive players from getting into their routes. He has enough length to reach and deflect the ball. Quickness in space isn’t his strong suit, but he has light feet and good strength to keep up in man coverage

    Run Defense

    8/20

    Despite his size and strength, Kerrigan didn’t wow us in run support. He doesn’t consistently use the long arms to keep blockers off his frame. Tight ends were able to chip him off the snap and keep him from getting position on the edge to stop outside runs.

    Tackle

    32/40

    We saw Kerrigan miss only a handful of tackles on the year, a positive in his second season. What we did see as a negative were stiff hips in space when asked to break down and stop ball-carriers.

    Overall

    78/100

    Kerrigan has elite potential with his combination of speed and power. He just has to become more well-rounded in areas other than pass rushing.

11. Dwight Freeney, Free Agent

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    Pass Rush

    28/30

    Even after 11 years in the NFL of getting after quarterbacks, Dwight Freeney’s game is still predicated on speed. Most people are aware of his patented spin move, but that’s just one piece to his pass-rushing arsenal. He’s got the speed to consistently get upfield and bend the edge against offensive tackles, but he’s just as tough when he counters back inside. He displays excellent footwork when working on a stunt with a defensive lineman and has fantastic closing speed once he’s got daylight to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    8/10

    Freeney displays that same athleticism in space, whether he’s in man or zone coverage. He can turn and run with backs and tight ends in the open field and displays the change-of-direction agility to disrupt passing lanes when reading the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    Freeney is not a force at the point of contact when playing run defense. He’d rather use his speed to go around a block than to fight through it.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Freeney displays excellent closing speed and force when attacking downhill through a ball-carrier on a tackle. He’ll struggle to make tackles when he’s forced to shed blocks inside the box, but he understands angles and pursuit. He will rarely miss tackles if he’s able to use that speed to close in on a ball-carrier.

    Overall

    79/100

    Freeney isn’t the same player that he was throughout the majority of his 11 years with the Colts, but he’s still a force to deal with when getting after the quarterback.

10. Paul Kruger, Cleveland Browns

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    Pass Rush

    28/30

    Paul Kruger is a relentless pass-rusher who uses his upper-body strength and hands well to disengage blockers and close in on a quarterback. He navigates well through traffic inside the box and has great closing speed once he’s got a line to the quarterback. He can fight through double-teams and will create his own lane to the quarterback if one isn’t presented. 

    Coverage

    6/10

    Kruger isn’t good in space from an athletic or agility standpoint, but he reads quarterbacks well and has the awareness to jump into passing lanes. He can hop routes in the flat and reads those plays very well when coming off the edge.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Kruger will stack and shed well at the line of scrimmage in run defense and shows a great understanding of leverage and hand placement. He’ll rarely let an offensive lineman get underneath his pads and drive him down the field. He lacks the elite short-area quickness to make plays in run defense when engaged with an offensive lineman.

    Tackle

    30/40

    Kruger possesses the strength and force to bring down any ball-carrier he meets at the point of contact inside the box. It’s only when he’s going up against smaller, quicker players in space, or during times in which he’s got to quickly get off a block, where he has trouble.

    Overall

    79/100

    The Cleveland Browns got a difference-maker this offseason with Kruger. He’s got the strength and versatility to be moved around in passing situations in either a two- or three-point stance. He’s relentless and should instantly become a fan favorite in Cleveland. 

9. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pass Rush

    24/30

    LaMarr Woodley has short arms and a stout frame coming off the edge. He plays with good quickness off the ball and wins against offensive linemen with his get-off ability. He doesn't have the length to consistently stack up blockers and keep them off his body, but he has good footwork and strength to free himself from hands. 

    Coverage

    6/10

    Woodley is primarily a pass-rusher. When asked to drop into coverage, he does well as a zone-cover man. If matched up one-on-one with a tight end or receiver, he can struggle to keep pace throughout transitions and changes. He's quick enough to break on passes thrown in front of him but isn't comfortable running with his back to the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    16/20

    Woodley is an active tackler coming down off the edge to take away outside runs. He's strong enough to hold up as an outside anchor and will keep the run inside his containment. Without great length, you won't see Woodley locking his arms out and holding blockers at bay. 

    Tackle

    34/40

    A solid all-around tackler, Woodley doesn't deliver the big highlight-reel hits that so many of his teammates did, but he does perform and execute well. He's strong enough to make tackles in traffic and has a natural low center of gravity to attack the legs of ball-carriers.

    Overall

    80/100

    One of the more balanced 3-4 outside linebackers in the league, Woodley had a down year in 2012 but still managed to rank as a top-10 player at his position. He has the tools to be a top-five player.

8. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Pass Rush

    26/30

    Tamba Hali is a force coming off the edge who displays a consistent power rush up the field. He doesn’t have much of a countermove back to the inside. He makes his living forcing the bend off the edge, which will lead him to getting held quite often. He’s got excellent closing speed and shows good awareness when a quarterback leaves the pocket to redirect and chase him down from behind.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Hali is not a natural athlete in space and doesn’t possess the fluidity to drop into coverage on a consistent basis. He can cover the flat and take away slants by dropping off the line of scrimmage, but he’s not someone who can run down the field in man coverage.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Hali is quick to recognize the run when coming upfield and has the change-of-direction agility to redirect and close down on a running back coming off-tackle his direction. He’s not shown the ability to consistently shed blocks when the run is coming right at him, though. He needs the leverage and speed from rushing upfield to help shed off blocks from offensive linemen when redirecting toward the line of scrimmage.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Hali is a sound tackler who has excellent closing speed, and he is at his best forcing his way upfield or redirecting when the pocket breaks down. He drives through ball-carriers and won’t miss many tackles.

    Overall

    82/100

    Hali is a force off the edge who maintains his elite-level status despite being limited in his pass-rushing moves. 

7. Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers

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    Pass Rush

    22/30

    Coming off the left side of the defense, Ahmad Brooks is often matched up against bigger tackles, which means that he has to be versatile in his attack. He comes off the ball with a good first step and has the power to beat blockers who get their hands on him. Because he’s often delayed in getting to the quarterback, Brooks adds more pressures than sacks. He sets things up for the rest of the defense by forcing the quarterback to reset in the pocket and move to the blindside. Few pass-rushers in either defensive scheme produced the pressures on the pocket that Brooks did in 2012.

    Coverage

    8/10

    A top-level player when asked to get into coverage against tight ends or backs, Brooks uses his hands well to stun players coming off the ball. He moves with enough grace in space to track targets and keep up throughout their route.

    Run Defense

    18/20

    Playing left outside linebacker means taking on the run, and Brooks does it with strength and vision. He moves well off the snap, getting into position to take away outside runs and beat blockers with leverage and angles. He’s stout enough to drop inside and plug gaps on inside runs as well. 

    Tackle

    35/40

    A hard hitter with the force to intimidate ball-carriers, Brooks does a good job closing on the ball with power and speed. That can lead to him ducking his head and missing tackles, but rarely does he make contact and then lose the battle.

    Overall

    83/100

    A talented all-around outside linebacker, Brooks may not lead the league in any one stat category, but his impact is felt on all three downs in San Francisco.

6. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Pass Rush

    27/30

    Justin Houston has the speed to beat offensive tackles up the field with a good first step, but he also uses his hands well to allow him to freely bend the edge to get to the quarterback. He’s developed a nice countermove inside, where he displays enough upper-body strength to get the blocker off-balance and close on the quarterback. He shows great awareness to freely chase down quarterbacks who leave the pocket and has elite closing speed to bring them down.

    Coverage

    7/10

    Houston became more comfortable out in space as the season went on, and he displays enough athleticism to run with backs and tight ends up the field in coverage. He covered the wheel route nicely a few times late in the season. Houston isn’t overly fluid in his hips, but he isn’t a liability out in space.

    Run Defense

    16/20

    Houston displays an ability to stack the line of scrimmage and the upper-body strength to shed blockers while defending the run. He was inconsistent in reacting to the run, and it allowed blockers to get their hands on him and seal him off from the play at times.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Houston is a solid tackler who drives through contact and displays the physicality inside the box to help make plays in run defense. He does a great job of creating leverage with his lower half by getting low and driving through a ball-carrier.

    Overall

    85/100

    Houston is on the verge of becoming a household name among the elite outside linebackers with just a little more development in reading and reacting to the run.

5. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens

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    Pass Rush

    26/30

    Terrell Suggs wasn’t even supposed to play in 2012, but there he was in Week 7, lining up in his familiar spot at outside linebacker in the Ravens’ hybrid scheme. Suggs didn’t hit the ground running as a pass-rusher, showing some slowness and stiffness after coming off injury. He was a bigger impact due to strength than speed, but by season’s end, he was flashing the quickness that has made him such a tough player to block one-on-one. From a production and impact standpoint, he performed very well, given his number of reps and starts. We all know that Suggs is a better pass-rusher than his 2012 film showed.

    Coverage

    6/10

    On passing downs, it’s common to see Suggs drop down to a defensive end position and work purely as a pass-rusher. He was rarely used in coverage, as he’s not quite flexible or fast enough to work in space against receivers.

    Run Defense

    16/20

    When coming down off the edge, Suggs plays with good enough strength to keep blockers from getting into his frame. He uses his arms well to create distance, which he follows up with hand use to shed blocks. Early in his 2012 season, we saw him getting driven back off the line, but this was corrected by the playoffs.

    Tackle

    37/40

    A powerful tackler with the ability to stun and hurt ball-carriers, Suggs plays tough and angry. That shows up when he has to go after a running back or wide receiver. His length and reach allows him to pull down runners and make plays from behind the ball. You won’t see Suggs miss tackles.

    Overall

    85/100

    Suggs played just half of the season after coming back from injury. By season's end, he was, once again, the all-around threat we’ve come to love in Baltimore.

4. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys

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    Pass Rush

    29/30

    A natural athlete with the quickness, flexibility and strength to frustrate blockers on the edge, DeMarcus Ware is a rare talent as a pass-rusher. His ability to beat blockers off the ball with quickness is well-known, but he’s also developed better hand use to counter quick blockers. This allows Ware to work inside when the edge is cut off, giving him a dual-pronged approach to getting to the quarterback. Playing against left tackles, Ware is facing better athletes and quicker players, but this is a problem that every elite pass-rusher faces. You also have to factor in that he played half of the season hurt, something that limited his ability to rip away and dip from blockers.

    Coverage

    6/10

    Like most elite pass-rushers, Ware isn’t used often in coverage. When he was dropped back off the line, quarterbacks recognized it and went at him. He’s quick and closes on the ball well, but the movement to flip his hips and run isn’t fluid enough to stay with most receivers and tight ends.

    Run Defense

    16/20

    Ware has been known to overpursue the ball coming off the edge, which allows offenses to run the ball with success off-tackle and on misdirection. Ware is quick and powerful when coming at the backfield, though, and he’ll take away the outside when playing disciplined ball.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Ware closes on the ball with good speed and quickness, showing the ability to pin down runners in the backfield when coming off the edge. Many of his tackles come on blindside hits on quarterbacks and running backs when he comes down the line and attacks the play from the backside. When asked to break down in space and attack, he can be high and wild. Ware missed more tackles than his peers, too, and that’s something that showed up on our score sheet often.

    Overall

    86/100

    It may seem foolish to rank Ware below teammate Anthony Spencer, but looking at the 2012 season alone, it’s accurate. Ware is still an impact player and an All-Pro candidate, but he's not an elite run-stopper, which hurt him slightly in these rankings. 

3. Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

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    Pass Rush

    27/30

    Critics of Anthony Spencer will point out that he had one good season, or that DeMarcus Ware cleared a path for him. Neither is true. Spencer was tasked with beating his man—and last time we watched football, the left tackle’s assignment had no bearing on whether the right tackle performed well. Ware is a talented player, but to credit him for Spencer’s success is lazy scouting. In 2012, we saw Spencer become a better all-around pass-rusher, moving with confidence off the edge and using his hands better to create distance and disengage from blocks. His quickness was better, or maybe just more aggressive, as he came off the edge to beat right tackles with a first step that made it tough for anyone to turn and adjust to his speed

    Coverage

    5/10

    Primarily a pass-rusher, Spencer was asked to drop back and cover a tight end or back out of the flats at times. He did enough to show us that while he’s a fantastic player, he’s not a coverage linebacker. 

    Run Defense

    19/20

    One of the best edge-defenders in the NFL when it comes to stopping the run, Spencer did an excellent job at holding up against powerful right tackles. He was able to dig in and anchor the edge, and he also beat blockers to the ball and made tackles. In fact, he made a league-leading amount of tackles for 3-4 outside linebackers.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Production wasn’t as much of a factor in this grade, but it was hard to watch Cowboys film and not see Spencer making play after play on the edge. He’s a powerful tackler with a smart wrap-up technique and the lower-body strength to push through ball-carriers to put them down without the risk of a missed or broken tackle.

    Overall

    86/100

    Spencer was the Cowboys’ best outside linebacker in 2012. It was a close race between he and Ware, but Spencer’s ability to stop the run pushed him just above his teammate in our tiebreaker.

2. Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

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    Pass Rush

    30/30

    With 19.5 sacks on the season, Aldon Smith was a terrorizing force coming off the edge of the 49ers defense in 2012. Critics will point out that he struggled to produce without Justin Smith in front of him, but the second-year outside linebacker was also playing hurt to end the season. Looking at last year, on the whole, few outside linebackers affected the game like Smith. He plays with the strength off the snap to drive tackles back off the ball and get pressure on the quarterback. Smith changes the line of scrimmage with his bull-rush, and he’s quick enough to loop inside or outside to create pass-rushing opportunities. 

    Coverage

    7/10

    Smith was rarely placed in coverage situations in the attacking San Francisco defensive scheme, making it tougher to grade his ability there. With good quickness and length, he should be fine in space, but the quick feet to change direction and run with receivers wasn’t evident in Smith’s game. He’s an impressive athlete when moving forward but not so much when dropping back.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    Smith has the long arms you love from an outside linebacker, as it allows him to distance himself from blockers and then shed their contact easier. He does a good job stacking and shedding blockers, using quick hands and good acceleration to close on the ball-carrier. Smith’s reach and closing speed makes him tough to beat on the edge. He doesn’t always play strong and low when asked to come inside to stop the run, though, and he can get pushed off the line in those situations.

    Tackle

    38/40

    Watch the 49ers play, and you’ll see Smith making tackles from all different angles and positions. He’s long enough to drag down runners from behind and strong enough to stick ball-carriers in the hole and end the play. He can get better at playing low and with leverage, but his 2012 was much improved over 2011.

    Overall

    92/100

    One of the more exciting young players in the game at any position, Smith’s first season as an every-down player was a major success in San Francisco.

1. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

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    Pass Rush

    30/30

    Being a great pass-rusher is about getting sacks, but it's also about creating pressures on the quarterback and hitting the passer before and after they release the ball. Clay Matthews does all three. He plays with good strength off the edge to beat blockers to the corner, showing good hand use to break free and attack the backfield. Matthews is more flexible and athletic than you might expect. He has good quickness and is agile enough to dip his shoulder coming off the edge in order to evade linemen. He’ll also knock you to the ground with a very good bull-rush, powered by strong legs and quick feet.

    Coverage

    6/10

    The lone weakness in Matthews’ game is his coverage ability. Granted, he’s rarely asked to drop back into coverage, but when the Packers do need him to play either zone or man defense, he’s a bit lost. For all his quickness, Matthews doesn’t change direction well when trailing receivers.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    Playing with good strength and excellent outside contain technique, Matthews can take away the run. He plays downhill with speed and can turn running backs in from the edge. Few players lock out their arms as well as Matthews does when encountering blockers.

    Tackle

    40/40

    Tackle production isn’t what we’re scouting here, as that can be skewed by where the tackle takes place and who is keeping track of the tackles. When looking at tackling ability and impact, Matthews is one of the best. He doesn’t miss tackles or allow runners to slip his grip for positive yards after contact. He’s strong enough to put ball-carriers down.

    Overall

    93/100

    Matthews was an all-around force as a pass-rusher in the Packers’ scheme in 2012, proving himself to be the league’s most valuable 3-4 outside linebacker.