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San Francisco 49ers
Patrick Willis is the NFL’s most instinctive, toughest and most athletic inside linebacker at the moment. You can’t run past him, nor can you trick him in the passing game. He’s the leader of San Francisco’s defense and does a great job getting his unit in position. But by no means is he the only star talent in this group.
In 2012, rush linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a whopping 19.5 sacks. Ahmad Brooks added 6.5 from the other side. The two pass-rushing linebackers have enabled Willis to be more effective in all phases of the game since he doesn’t have to worry about rushing the passer.
And his All-Pro sidekick, NaVorro Bowman, certainly helps.
Carolina definitely has the best linebacking group in the history of its franchise. Luke Kuechly surprised the NFL by finishing with 164 tackles as a rookie. Kuechly played well beyond his years and appears poised to continue the path he’s on. Veteran Jon Beason moved to outside linebacker a year ago and should be more adjusted to it this year, assuming he spends the full 16 games healthy.
Health was finally on Thomas Davis’ side in 2012, as he was able to play 15 games after multiple knee surgeries. If this unit stays together and healthy, it can rival San Francisco’s.
The Ravens have solid experience at inside linebacker, provided Jameel McClain (spinal cord contusion) is able to start the season on time. Former Jaguars linebacker Daryl Smith joined the squad and adds experience there too. Baltimore also drafted Arthur Brown in the second round.
It’s at outside linebacker, however, where the Ravens will shine this season. Terrell Suggs is finally healthy after tearing his Achilles last April. The Ravens were somehow able to pair Suggs with Elvis Dumervil, a sack machine in Denver. Courtney Upshaw will also be in the mix, making this unit deep and dangerous.
Even without Ray Lewis, the Ravens' linebacking unit should be among the NFL’s best.