NFL

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

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterApril 10, 2014

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

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    Jack Dempsey

    Editor's note: This is the 16th installment in Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through April 24, with NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the NFL 1000 page for more rankings. 

    Outside linebackers have a new place of importance in the NFL. In the 4-3 defense, you need a great weak-side linebacker making plays and a stud strong-side linebacker locking down the run. Who comes in as the best 4-3 outside 'backer?

    That’s what the NFL 1000 aims to identify. Throw out the narratives and the fantasy football stats, and dig into the film. Then we’ll see who is the best.

    The B/R 1000 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale.

    Potential is not taken into consideration, nor are career accomplishments.

    Inside linebackers are judged on run defense (20 points), pass-rush skills (20), coverage (20), tackling (40) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.

    In the case of ties, our team asked, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.

    Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.

    Each player was scouted by me and a team of experienced evaluators with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.

     

    All statistics from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Players' heights, weights and seasons from NFL.com

35. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, St. Louis Rams

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

     

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    For the first time since 2009, Jo-Lonn Dunbar (6’0”, 226 lbs, six seasons) did not record a single sack in 2013. He is a straight-line athlete who can bring heat into the backfield with his burst but doesn’t flow naturally around the edge. His size limitations make it easier for blockers to engulf him, and he has limited pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    5/20

    The third linebacker in a defense that plays primarily in nickel packages, Dunbar didn’t see a great deal of playing time as a pass defender this past season, which was a good thing for the Rams. A stiff athlete who struggles to stay with receivers down the field, Dunbar needs to keep plays in front of him to have success in coverage.

    Run Defense

    11/20

    Dunbar isn’t the rangiest run defender but is effective when playing downhill. He is a strong gap-filler who can fight through blocks at the line of scrimmage. He isn’t typically driven away from runs but doesn’t make a great deal of plays in pursuit.

    Tackle

    29/40

    An inconsistent tackler, Dunbar had 13 missed tackles in just 425 snaps. He is good at sliding into gaps and taking on runners head-on, but he frequently lunges at ball-carriers in pursuit and has a high number of whiffs as a result.

    Overall

    56/100

    Relegated down from a top-two linebacker role in the St. Louis defense, Dunbar’s playing time decreased significantly this past season, and he didn’t do much to show that he deserves to get it back. Although he is a solid playmaker in the box, his athletic limitations are frequently exposed in space.

34. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis Rams

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    L.G. Patterson

     

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    Lacking natural bend and agility around the corner, Alec Ogletree (6’2”, 245 lbs, one season) isn’t able to consistently take advantage of his explosive athleticism as a pass-rusher. He can explode through gaps and take advantage of free lanes to the quarterback with his speed, but he needs to develop his hand skills to bring pressure on a more consistent basis.

    Coverage

    8/20

    With great speed and change-of-direction quickness, Ogletree can fly all over the field and make plays in coverage. As a rookie, he put his ball skills on display by recording 10 passes defensed. He hasn’t yet learned how to control his athleticism, however, and he frequently gets caught out of position. A total of 72 passes were completed against Ogletree this past season, the most of any 4-3 OLB.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    Like in coverage, Ogletree’s athleticism is a great asset against the run, but he needs to learn how to utilize it more effectively. He has sideline-to-sideline range but also frequently overruns plays to leave gaps open. He is a difficult player to run away from in pursuit and can blow up runs in the backfield when he properly times his blitzes through gaps.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Ogletree was frequently around the football as a rookie, recording 95 tackles but also 19 misses. He has an affinity for big hits, which can lead to big plays but also to whiffs when he abandons his form. He forced six fumbles as a rookie, tied for the third-most of any defender in the NFL, but he needs to be able to combine his big-play ability with reliable tackling.

    Overall

    60/100

    As he made big plays week after week and all over the field in his first year, it wasn’t hard to see why the Rams made Ogletree a first-round pick. He has the potential to rise considerably in next year’s rankings, but his play needs to be much more fundamentally sound.

33. James Anderson, Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh

     

    Pass Rush

    8/20

    Although his four sacks in 2013 were a career high, rushing the passer isn’t a strong point for James Anderson (6’2”, 235 lbs, eight seasons). He is a good athlete who can come around the edge with speed, but he doesn’t do much with his hands, and his game lacks a power element.

    Coverage

    13/20

    A well-rounded athlete who has quick feet and can change directions fluidly, Anderson can effectively drop back into coverage and run with downfield receivers. He is quick to react to route breaks and can pick up receivers in stride. He doesn’t make a lot of plays on the ball, but he doesn’t often get burned.

    Run Defense

    5/20

    Anderson’s lack of size is a problem around the line of scrimmage, as he gets too easily pushed around and driven away from running plays. He makes a good number of plays off the ball. He can cover a wide athletic range and has good short-area quickness, but most of his tackles come well downfield. Wide-open running lanes are a far too common occurrence when he is on the field.

    Tackle

    34/40

    With just nine missed tackles compared to 85 solo stops, Anderson had a solid track record in finishing plays. He’s not an authoritative tackler who will drive through runners, but he typically takes good angles and wraps up effectively.

    Overall

    60/100

    As the Chicago Bears defensive line got pushed around up front, Anderson’s own weaknesses got exposed. Despite a productive season in which he started 16 games, the 30-year-old remains unsigned as a free agent this offseason.

32. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears

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    Jim Prisching

     

    Pass Rush

    13/20

    Despite playing just nine games in 2013, the first time in his entire career he played in fewer than 14 games in a season, Lance Briggs (6’1”, 244 lbs, 11 seasons) set a career high with three sacks. All of those sacks came on plays that started as inside blitzes. He is good at bursting through gaps to bring pressure but isn’t very agile as an edge-rusher.

    Coverage

    5/20

    Consistently regarded as one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers in his prime, Briggs’ game took a huge step back in this capacity in 2013. Seemingly losing a step at 33 years old, Briggs looked heavy-footed.

    Run Defense

    13/20

    Briggs has the strength to hold his own against bigger blockers at the line of scrimmage, while he is good at crashing into the backfield with his burst. He isn’t as fast as he once was, but he takes good angles in pursuit and typically puts himself in the proper positions to make plays.

    Tackle

    29/40

    Briggs missed a whopping 18 tackles—tied for the fourth-most among all 4-3 OLBs—even though he barely played more than half the season. He demonstrated sloppy tackling throughout the season, frequently abandoning form to go for big hits or lunge at ball-carriers.

    Overall

    60/100

    Few would debate that Briggs became the veteran leader of the Bears defense this past season, but his play took a huge step back. That might have been partially due to the shoulder injury that cost him seven games, but at 33 years old, Briggs’ best years are likely behind him.

31. Kevin Burnett, Oakland Raiders

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    Ben Margot

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Kevin Burnett (6’3”, 230 lbs, nine seasons) was given plenty of opportunities to rush the passer from the edge in 2013, but he didn’t come up with considerable production. He has weak pass-rushing moves, limited explosiveness and tends to rush too directly at blockers. He has recorded exactly 2.5 sacks in each of his past three seasons.

    Coverage

    3/20

    Burnett is slow to react to plays in coverage and doesn’t have the speed to make up for it. He is physical when he is in position to cover, but he can be thrown off by route breaks and tends to be overmatched against downfield receivers.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    Burnett is a strong edge-setter who holds up well against blockers at the line of scrimmage. He is good at fighting off blocks and can reach away from them to make stops. He can sometimes be pushed away from runs but is an active run defender who also hustles to make tackles in space.

    Tackle

    31/40

    A poor form tackler, Burnett fails to throw his body weight into tackles and often allows runners to work through his arms as a result. He is also inconsistent with the angles he takes to the ball. Overall, he missed 16 tackles in 2013.

    Overall

    61/100

    In an up-and-down first season with the Oakland Raiders, Burnett was typically strong against the run but was a liability in pass defense. Not a particularly fast player to begin with, the 31-year-old seemed to lose a step he’s unlikely to get back.

30. Geno Hayes, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Geno Hayes (6’1”, 226 lbs, six seasons) only had 38 pass-rushing snaps in 2013, and most of those were blitzes from inside. He can bring occasional pressure if he times his blitz well and gets a lane into the backfield, but he doesn’t bend well around the edge and lacks effective pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Hayes started to see significant playing time in pass coverage in 2013 and took advantage of it. Despite not being a top-end athlete, he makes up for it with a clean backpedal and quick reactions to route breaks. He is physical with his opponents in coverage and able to make plays on the ball.

    Run Defense

    5/20

    Small for a linebacker, Hayes tends to get pushed around by blockers and directed away from running plays. He has little ability to get off blocks and make plays around the line of scrimmage. He is better in pursuit but is overly reliant on his instincts in space. He lacks the recovery speed to make up for misjudging a play.

    Tackle

    31/40

    Hayes is an effective tackler in the box, where he is good at shuffling his way into running lanes and positioning himself for a tackle. He struggles much more in pursuit, when he frequently takes poor angles and tends to abandon his tackling form.

    Overall

    61/100

    After being used sparingly by the Chicago Bears in 2012, Hayes became an every-down player once again in 2013. He is a solid pass defender, but his poor play against the run might have the Jaguars looking for an upgrade at strong-side linebacker, at least for early downs.

29. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings

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    Andy King

     

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    Even though he might be slowing down on the back end of his career, Chad Greenway (6’2”, 242 lbs, seven seasons) can still bring heat in pass-rushing situations. He is an effective gap-blitzer who is also adept at transitioning from a coverage dropback to a quarterback pursuit. He doesn’t have strong pass-rushing moves or a significant burst, but he takes good angles, especially when pressuring a quarterback on the move.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Greenway moves his feet well in coverage and plays the ball well, but he is sometimes overmatched by speed in downfield coverage situations. No 4-3 OLB allowed more yards in coverage than Greenway in 2013, though there was also no OLB who was targeted more or played more coverage snaps.

    Run Defense

    7/20

    Around the line of scrimmage, Greenway is an adequate edge-setter who is adept at crashing into the middle of the line to make plays. He is not as effective at making plays against the run in space and is hurt by his limited speed in pursuit.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Greenway missed 21 tackles, the most among all 4-3 OLBs, in 2013. He was also a highly active tackler who finished with 94 tackles, but his lack of authority as a tackler led to an excessive miss total.

    Overall

    62/100

    Greenway seemed to lose a step in 2013, which affected his range and ability to consistently make plays. He continued to be an iron man by playing a whopping 1,179 snaps and all 16 of Minnesota’s games for the seventh straight season. That said, his per-snap production might benefit if his role starts to decrease in 2014.

28. Russell Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Ben Margot

     

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Used as a pass-rusher on only 15 snaps in 2013, Russell Allen (6’3”, 238 lbs, five seasons) has enough speed off the edge to bring occasional pressure. He does not have natural bend around the corner, however, and lacks effective pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    8/20

    With decent speed and agility, Allen can keep up with receivers downfield and going outside, but he doesn’t make many plays on the ball in the air. He failed to record a single pass defensed in 2013, while 26 of 29 passes attempted against his coverage were completed for receptions.

    Run Defense

    11/20

    Allen shows consistent hustle in pursuit and has the speed and quickness to chase plays outside and inside. He is a productive run defender in space but struggles to get off blocks and is often driven away from runs when engaged by offensive linemen.

    Tackle

    31/40

    While Allen is active in his efforts to cover ground and make tackles on plays all over the field, he cannot be consistently relied upon to finish those plays. He missed 12 tackles in 2013.

    Overall

    62/100

    Allen isn’t a liability in any area of his game, but he also doesn’t make many big plays. He is a high-effort player who hustles to cover ground and make plays outside of his zone, but he wouldn’t be a starter on every defense.

27. Ashlee Palmer, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya

     

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    The third linebacker in a defense that played primarily from a nickel package, Ashlee Palmer (6’1”, 236 lbs, five seasons) wasn’t on the field in many pass-rush situations in 2013. Not a particularly explosive athlete, Palmer hasn’t shown many pass-rushing moves either, rendering him mostly ineffective as a rusher off the edge.

    Coverage

    7/20

    When asked to cover tight ends or other downfield receiving threats, Palmer is greatly overmatched. He is good at getting outside to play screen passes in front of him but lacks the footwork and athleticism to drop back and cover deep effectively.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    Palmer is a solid edge-setter who holds his ground against blockers at the line of scrimmage. He typically gets himself in good position to make run stops downfield, but his range is limited by his average-at-best athleticism.

    Tackle

    32/40

    A relatively small playmaking window and limited playing time kept Palmer from recording a great number of tackles in 2013. When he has the opportunity to make plays, he is good at wrapping up and driving ball-carriers to the ground.

    Overall

    62/100

    As a third linebacker who came out of the game in sub-packages, Palmer was an adequate starter for the Lions. If the Lions’ new coaching staff wants its strong-side linebacker to play an every-down role, it will need to seek a player who can offer more as a pass-rusher and in coverage than Palmer can.

26. Bruce Carter, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tony Gutierrez

     

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Bruce Carter (6’2”, 246 lbs, three seasons) isn’t often used as an outside pass-rusher but is capable of bringing heat as a gap-shooting blitzer. He doesn’t do much with his hands to beat blockers but can accelerate quickly when he has a free lane to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    10/20

    When he is in proper position, Carter often has success in coverage. He is a good athlete who can backpedal and turn effectively enough to keep up with downfield receivers over the middle. He is physical with receivers when he can be. His coverage instincts, however, are poor. He often covers air when he could make a play against a receiver in his vicinity, and he is frequently late to read and react.

    Run Defense

    5/20

    Carter is a solid gap-filler when he is moving downhill but is far too content to stay in his starting position. He makes it easy for blockers to engage him and typically gets turned away from running plays once blocked. Despite having the athletic ability to make plays all over the field, he isn’t very active in making plays outside of his zone.

    Tackle

    35/40

    When he is not being controlled by a blocker, Carter does a good job of shuffling his way into running lanes and is a typically sound tackler. He doesn’t drive through ball-carriers with authority but typically makes the tackle when a play is run toward him.

    Overall

    62/100

    Carter has the tools to be a great linebacker but just hasn’t put it all together. While he was expected to benefit from Dallas’ transition to a 4-3 defense in 2013, the third-year linebacker didn’t show any significant improvement.

25. Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore

     

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Sean Weatherspoon (6’2”, 244 lbs, four seasons) isn’t known for his pass-rushing ability, but he has an explosive burst and can turn the corner with speed. He is most effective shooting gaps as an inside blitzer. He does not have great pass-rushing moves but has enough power to generate a push with his bull rush.

    Coverage

    9/20

    Typically one of the NFL’s better coverage linebackers, Weatherspoon struggled in limited action in 2013. He is a good athlete who can make plays on the ball in the air, but he can be slow to react and sometimes loses receivers mid-route as a result.

    Run Defense

    9/20

    Weatherspoon can use his speed and agility to cover a wide range as a run defender in space, but he struggles with blocks closer to the line of scrimmage. He tends to get swallowed up by offensive linemen and pushed away from runs.

    Tackle

    30/40

    With 11 missed tackles in just seven games, Weatherspoon was one of the NFL’s most unreliable tackling linebackers. While his ability to lunge away from his body and make tackles is an asset, he is too inconsistent with his form and would benefit from playing with more patience in space.

    Overall

    62/100

    After ranking as one of the NFL’s best 4-3 OLBs in 2012, Weatherspoon was disappointing in 2013, largely due to a foot injury that cost him seven games and a knee injury that kept him out two more. He has the talent to re-emerge as an impact player in 2014 if he can stay healthy.

24. Jacquian Williams, New York Giants

13 of 36

    Gene J. Puskar

     

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    An undersized linebacker, Jacquian Williams (6’3”, 224 lbs, three seasons) isn’t frequently used as a pass-rusher. He can occasionally bring pressure with his speed off a blitz, but he doesn’t have the pass-rushing moves to make up for his lack of size as an edge-rusher.

    Coverage

    10/20

    A fluid athlete who changes directions smoothly and has quick feet, Williams has the capability to pick up running backs out of the backfield and hang with receivers downfield. He is good at making plays on the ball in the air and recorded eight passes defensed in 2013. He is sometimes late to react to route breaks, which can allow receivers to separate from him.

    Run Defense

    8/20

    Williams has the size of a safety and doesn’t do much with his hands to combat blocks. This makes him an easy matchup for offensive linemen and even tight ends, who are frequently able to pick him up and drive him away from running plays. Off the line of scrimmage, he can make more plays with his speed, which allow him to cover ground in pursuit.

    Tackle

    34/40

    Williams can get to the ball quickly in space but often takes unnatural angles to get into position. He typically wraps up with good form but often gives up extra yardage as he lacks the strength to drive ball-carriers back.

    Overall

    63/100

    He’s not a linebacker you want on the field in a short-yardage running situation, but Williams is an athletic role player who makes plays as a tackler and coverage linebacker in space.

23. Keith Rivers, New York Giants

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    Bill Kostroun

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    As a strong-side linebacker in the New York Giants defense, Keith Rivers (6’2”, 235 lbs, five seasons) had his fair share of opportunities to utilize his speed off the edge but wasn’t able to consistently take advantage. He has limited power and pass-rushing moves, making him overly reliant on his athleticism. He has recorded just three career sacks.

    Coverage

    6/20

    Rivers is a bit heavy-footed and tends to be unnatural dropping into coverage in a backpedal. He is effective in short coverage but isn’t a good match for tight ends and other downfield receiving threats. He doesn’t regularly make plays on the ball.

    Run Defense

    14/20

    Rivers is adept at playing at the line of scrimmage and setting the edge to shut down runs or force them inside. He has the burst to shoot gaps into the backfield and can work his way off blocks, but he isn’t much of a playmaker in pursuit.

    Tackle

    33/40

    He doesn’t always take the most efficient angles to the ball, but Rivers is an active defender who fights through blocks and hustles downfield to make tackles. He had 24 solo tackles and four missed tackles in 2013.

    Overall

    63/100

    Plagued by injuries ever since he was a top-10 selection in the 2008 draft, Rivers finally put together the first 16-game season of his career in 2013. He isn’t a big playmaker, but he will have a shot to compete for a starting job after signing a two-year contract with the Buffalo Bills this offseason.

22. Joplo Bartu, Atlanta Falcons

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    David Goldman

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Joplo Bartu (6’2”, 230 lbs, one season) is far from a pass-rushing specialist, but the undrafted rookie still managed 3.5 sacks in his first NFL campaign. By lining up in a wide variety of alignments in Atlanta’s hybrid defense, Bartu has opportunities to rush from the edge and from inside. He is small for an edge-rusher and lacks effective pass-rushing moves, but he is a good athlete who can close on his target in a hurry.

    Coverage

    5/20

    Bartu had some struggles in coverage in 2013, but he has the athleticism to take on downfield coverage assignments. He plays with physicality as a pass defender but hasn’t shown much ability to make plays on the ball in the air.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Despite playing with a size and strength disadvantage against blockers, Bartu typically holds his ground on the edge. When he breaks free from blocks, he can take advantage of his athleticism to make plays with speed in pursuit.

    Tackle

    33/40

    As Bartu goes into his second NFL season, his tackling needs improvement. He missed 12 tackles in his rookie year. Even when he does bring runners down, it’s often not before allowing the runner to churn forward through his contact for extra yardage.

    Overall

    63/100

    An unknown when the Falcons signed him out of Texas State, Bartu became a pleasant surprise for the Atlanta defense. Given his athleticism, he should only continue to get better if he can improve upon his coverage and tackling techniques.

21. Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins

16 of 36

    David Richard

     

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    Despite lining up frequently on the edge and having significant experience playing there, Koa Misi (6’3”, 254 lbs, four seasons) doesn’t consistently generate pressure. He has good bend around the edge and has enough power to have success as a bull-rusher, but he doesn’t often win with pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Misi is physical in short-pass coverage but needs to keeps plays in front of him to be effective. He is not often asked to take on significant downfield coverage. He lacks the natural backpedal and hip fluidity to effectively cover deep.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    The strength of Misi’s game is in his ability to create disruption as a run defender. He is able to get into the backfield and stop or redirect running plays by accelerating rapidly and taking precise angles to the ball, especially off the edge. He isn’t great at holding the edge when he plays outside, but he can usually hold his own within gaps to shut down running lanes.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Misi is adept at getting to the ball-carrier and making tackles in space, both in pursuit and when he has a chance to get in position. He isn’t an authoritative tackler, but he typically wraps up soundly to stop the ball-carrier from breaking free.

    Overall

    64/100

    He isn’t the most explosive athlete or playmaker, but Misi is a solid run-stopper who can play off the edge and is also efficient in space. The strong-side linebacker should continue to play a key role on the Dolphins defense in 2014.

20. Paul Worrilow, Atlanta Falcons

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    Dave Martin

     

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    An explosive athlete, Paul Worrilow’s (6’0”, 230 lbs, one season) success as a pass-rusher in his rookie year came from his ability to accelerate quickly and shoot gaps into the backfield to bring pressure. Worrilow, who transitioned from outside to middle linebacker midway through his first season, doesn’t often line up on the edge and is an ineffective rusher from that position.

    Coverage

    8/20

    Worrilow’s lack of height is a detriment when he is asked to cover tight ends, who often overmatch him downfield. He frequently allows catches in front of him by giving cushion. He gave up 313 yards after the catch in 2013. He has not demonstrated much ability to make plays on the ball in the air.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    With good eyes and sideline-to-sideline range, Worrilow became a tackling machine as soon as he entered the lineup in 2013. He is a fantastic player in pursuit but struggles when plays are run directly at him and blockers can drive him away from ball-carriers.

    Tackle

    36/40

    Worrilow quickly emerged and finished his rookie season with 91 tackles. He also missed 12 tackles, showing he needs to become more consistent. A high-motor player who always seems to go through the final whistle, he is an active tackler but tends to grab and pull rather than hit with authority.

    Overall

    65/100

    A starter at both weak-side and middle linebacker in his rookie season, Worrilow immediately emerged as the most active playmaker on Atlanta’s defense. He could climb the rankings in 2014 but needs to become stronger against blockers and improve in coverage.

19. Marvin Mitchell, Minnesota Vikings

18 of 36

    Ann Heisenfelt

     

    Pass Rush

    11/20

    Marvin Mitchell (6’3”, 249 lbs, seven seasons), who has just two career sacks, was only used as a pass-rusher on 15 snaps in 2013. He has the size to work as an edge-rusher but lacks the explosiveness or pass-rushing moves to make a significant impact.

    Coverage

    9/20

    A less-than-exceptional athlete, Mitchell is often overmatched in downfield coverage situations. He does an adequate job keeping short passes in front of him but doesn’t show much ability to make plays on the ball in the air.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    The best part of Mitchell’s game is his ability to crash the line of scrimmage and make plays through gaps in pursuit. He takes good angles and can chase down ball-carriers. Despite his size, his weakness as a run defender is that he can allow blockers to engage him at the second level, where he can be manhandled and driven back too easily.

    Tackle

    36/40

    Mitchell doesn’t always finish tackles with form but hits hard. When he gets his arms around a ball-carrier, he is adept at lowering his shoulder and driving through them.

    Overall

    68/100

    Despite emerging as a starter for the Vikings in 2013, Mitchell would be a backup on most NFL teams. He is a solid run-stopping strong-side linebacker who doesn’t offer much as a pass defender.

18. Nate Irving, Denver Broncos

19 of 36

    Matt Slocum

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Though he can explode off the edge to bring heat into the backfield, Nate Irving (6’1”, 245 lbs, three seasons) isn’t much of a pass-rusher. While playing strongside linebacker for the Broncos defense means seeing playing time on the edge, he isn’t a natural bender around the corner and has limited pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Irving typically needs to keep plays in front of him to be successful in coverage. While he is an above-average athlete with quick feet, he is tight-hipped and struggles to keep up with downfield receiving matchups.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    When Irving lines up around the line of scrimmage, he is adept at setting the edge and holding his ground against blockers. He is an effective blitzer who can burst his way through gaps with speed, but he isn’t much of a playmaker in space.

    Tackle

    38/40

    A reliable tackler with strong form, Irving missed just one tackle in 2013.

    Overall

    68/100

    Irving got his first opportunity to start in 2013 thanks to Von Miller’s season being shortened by suspension and injury. While he performed adequately at strong-side linebacker, his best opportunity for playing time in 2014 will be if he can win Denver’s starting middle linebacker job.

17. James Harrison, Cincinnati Bengals

20 of 36

    David Kohl

     

    Pass Rush

    9/20

    Playing in a 4-3 for the first time after a decade in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4 defense, James Harrison (6’0”, 275 lbs, 11 seasons) had far fewer opportunities to rush the passer. When he was used as a rusher, it was often on inside blitzes, where he looks unnatural, goes too straightforwardly at blockers and doesn’t do enough with his hands. He can still turn the corner to generate pressure but lacks the first-step quickness and closing speed he had in his prime.

    Coverage

    9/20

    Given his vast experience as a pass-rusher, dropping back into coverage doesn’t come naturally for Harrison. He has adequate cover instincts and is fairly fluid in his hips, but he is somewhat heavy-footed and has limited ball skills.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    A strong, aggressive run defender, Harrison is adept at crashing inside to stop the run and holds his ground well at the line of scrimmage. He takes effective angles to get himself in proper positions and fights off blocks well.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Harrison’s 30 tackles in 2013 were the fewest per season since 2006. Though he can still lay the wood for a big hit, he doesn’t consistently tackle with form.

    Overall

    68/100

    At 35 years old, Harrison is still as fiery as any player in the NFL but isn’t nearly as explosive or athletic as he was in his prime. Though he made some plays in his lone season with the Bengals, his transition to a 4-3 seemed unnatural.

16. Spencer Paysinger, New York Giants

21 of 36

    LM Otero

     

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Spencer Paysinger (6’2”, 236 lbs, three seasons) recorded the first sack of his NFL career in 2013 but was used sparingly as a pass-rusher. He has the closing speed off the edge to bring pressure, but that’s not the strength of his game. He doesn’t show many effective pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    8/20

    Paysinger uses his eyes and feet to read plays in coverage and get himself in the right positions, but he can be overmatched against bigger, faster tight ends. With just one pass defensed in three NFL seasons, Paysinger hasn’t demonstrated the ball skills to be a playmaker in coverage.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    An instinctive linebacker, Paysinger seems to have a great feel for knowing where he needs to be and then getting himself in position to stop runs. While he doesn’t have the straight-line speed to beat many skill-position players in a footrace, he takes good angles to the ball in pursuit. His biggest limitation is his strength. He tends to have a difficult time getting off the blocks with bigger offensive linemen.

    Tackle

    37/40

    Paysinger is a reliable tackler who won’t make many highlight-reel hits, but he stays true to his form and consistently wraps up ball-carriers. He only missed three tackles.

    Overall

    69/100

    The most consistent, reliable linebacker on a unit that was shuffled around throughout this past season, Paysinger established himself as a solid starter. He should get the first crack at being the New York Giants’ starting weak-side linebacker in 2014.

15. Zach Brown, Tennessee Titans

22 of 36

    Elaine Thompson

     

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    Despite being used infrequently as a pass-rusher, Zach Brown (6’1”, 248 lbs, two seasons) has recorded 9.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. An explosive athlete, Brown can get into the backfield in a hurry when he attacks. He has the bend to turn the corner with speed but has recorded most of his pass-rush production from inside blitzes.

    Coverage

    10/20

    An all-around athlete, Brown naturally drops back into coverage and can cover ground all over the field. He can sometimes be slow to react and lose receivers on route breaks but has excellent ball skills for a linebacker.

    Run Defense

    10/20

    Brown is an active run defender who doesn’t always take the most efficient angles to the ball, but he closes quickly in pursuit. He tends to be driven away from the line of scrimmage by bigger, stronger blockers but has the skill to shoot his way between blockers and fill gaps in the backfield.

    Tackle

    35/40

    A typically strong tackler in space, Brown missed just seven tackles. When he can keep a runner in front of him or get a proper angle, he is effective attacking the ball-carrier with his body and wrapping up to finish a play.

    Overall

    70/100

    Though Brown displays all the tools to be a great NFL linebacker, his inconsistent play cost him a number of starts in 2013. It is unclear how he will fit into the Tennessee defense if it shifts to a 3-4 scheme in 2014, but his all-around athleticism should give him the versatility to play both inside and outside.

14. DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions

23 of 36

    Duane Burleson

     

    Pass Rush

    12/20

    Rushing the passer is a rare occurrence for DeAndre Levy (6’2”, 238 lbs, five seasons), who has recorded just one career sack. He is an explosive athlete who can close into the pocket in the hurry on a blitz, but he is much better utilized in coverage.

    Coverage

    17/20

    No matter how many defensive backs the Lions have on the field, Levy remains a mainstay due to his skill in downfield coverage. He has terrific feet, fluid hips and great ball skills. His six interceptions in 2013 were the most among all NFL linebackers.

    Run Defense

    9/20

    Levy has sideline-to-sideline playmaking range and is also a dynamic blitzer. He isn’t adept at getting off blocks, however, and can be overpowered away from runs.

    Tackle

    33/40

    Levy’s 12 missed tackles register a bit high, but he also tied for the second-most total snaps among 4-3 OLBs last season. He is a solid form tackler who wraps up ball-carriers, but he doesn’t drive through opponents and sometimes gets pulled for extra yardage.

    Overall

    71/100

    One of the NFL’s most athletic linebackers, Levy is an every-down asset for the Lions defense, especially as a pass defender.

13. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots

24 of 36

    Bill Wippert

     

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    You won’t often see Jerod Mayo (6’1”, 250 lbs, six seasons) rush around the edge, but he is a hard-charging blitzer who can shoot gaps into the backfield and close with speed. He isn’t a natural bender who will loop around blockers from outside, but he has the strength to generate pressure through his push on a blocker.

    Coverage

    12/20

    When Mayo can keep a play in front of him, he can be effective in coverage. He has quick feet in small spaces. He not only times his hits well on receivers but packs a punch in the process. He struggles at getting out to the sideline to defend screen passes and can be overmatched when asked to go deep in coverage versus a tight end.

    Run Defense

    9/20

    Inside, Mayo is great at sliding off blocks and getting himself in position to make tackles. Where he struggles is in pursuit, especially when he has to get outside toward the sideline. He does not have great lateral movement.

    Tackle

    40/40

    Mayo is a reliable, authoritative tackler. He rarely misses tackles, wraps up with flawless form and typically drives ball-carriers back upon contact.

    Overall

    75/100

    A leader and every-down player, Mayo was missed in New England when a torn pectoral suffered in Week 6 took him out for the rest of the season. Before his injury, he was consistently productive.

12. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers

25 of 36

    Gary Wiepert

     

    Pass Rush

    10/20

    Thomas Davis (6’1”, 235 lbs, eight seasons) doesn’t spend much time rushing the passer but was able to rack up a career-high four sacks this past season. His closing speed makes him dangerous when he has a lane to the quarterback, but he typically drops back into coverage on passing downs.

    Coverage

    20/20

    With a smooth, natural backpedal and quick feet, Davis looks like a safety when he’s in downfield coverage. That said, he is also a terrific closer to the line of scrimmage. He has outstanding read-and-react skills and can scamper outside in a hurry to shut down screen passes. He doesn’t hesitate to cover with physicality.

    Run Defense

    13/20

    An explosive athlete, Davis is tremendous in pursuit and can make tackles all over the field. He can work his way through traffic to make a play, but he struggles to get off blocks when offensive linemen come straight at him.

    Tackle

    32/40

    While Davis does a great job of tracking down ball-carriers in a hurry, making tackles once he gets there doesn’t come as easily. He missed 19 tackles, the second most among all 4-3 OLBs, and he sometimes allows runners to go straight by him when he is unable to work off a blocker.

    Overall

    75/100

    Davis has torn the ACL in his right knee three times, but you wouldn’t guess it from his play in 2013. He seems to constantly go full speed on every playand he has a lot of speed.

11. Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks

26 of 36

    Tom Gannam

     

    Pass Rush

    17/20

    As he transitioned to an off-ball linebacker this past season, Bruce Irvin (6’3”, 248 lbs, two seasons) didn’t rush the passer as often as he did as a rookie. However, he still shows the skills to be impactful in that capacity. Irvin has terrific first-step quickness and can explode into the backfield with speed, while he also has the power to bull-rush effectively off the edge.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Considering that Irvin might still be learning how to cover as he transitions from playing defensive end, he performed admirably against the pass this past season. A tremendous athlete for his size, Irvin has the agility to stay with receivers downfield. He can flip his hips well but has trouble finding the football in the air.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Moving off the defensive line was a beneficial switch for Irvin as a run defender. While he tends to get pushed around by bigger, stronger blockers at the line of scrimmage, he covers ground well in space with his athleticism. He uses his eyes well to diagnose plays and typically gets himself in proper position.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Irvin is still learning how to take more effective angles to the ball but typically makes tackles when he has the opportunity. His size is an advantage, as he can throw his body into ball-carriers and drive them backward. He utilizes his athleticism in pursuit to chase down runners and make plays.

    Overall

    77/100

    After missing the first four games of the year on a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, Irvin stepped into Seattle’s starting strong-side linebacker role and looked comfortable in his new position. He will be in for a fight to keep his starting role in 2014, but his versatility to play both linebacker and defensive end increases his value.

10. Danny Trevathan, Denver Broncos

27 of 36

    Paul Sancya

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    One of the unsung heroes of the Broncos’ 2013 season, Danny Trevathan (6’1”, 240 lbs, two seasons) has emerged as one of the game’s best linebackers. He owned the weak side of the defense in a solid all-around role. Trevathan didn’t rush the passer much but did post 14 hurries and two sacks. Those are good numbers for a limited rusher.

    Coverage

    11/20

    Weak-side linebackers are asked to excel in coverage, and Trevathan took his lumps there as he learned the ropes in 2013. His three interceptions in 19 games is acceptable, but too often he allowed easy pitch-and-catch plays from the offense.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    A good defender on the weak side, Trevathan can cut into the backfield and take away outside rushing lanes. He doesn’t always hold anchor well but makes up for that with good pursuit skills and agility. Trevathan puts an end to run plays, many times single-handedly, and is an impressive run defender.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Trevathan wracked up the tackles (105 solos) but did miss a high number of attempts (12). Still, he comes out with a positive grade. He’s an effective combination of speed and strength when putting a hat on the ball, and flashes the burst to be a force at the end of the play.

    Overall

    77/100

    Trevathan came out of nowhere to emerge as a top-tier linebacker and leader in the Denver locker room. If his consistency improves in 2014, he could rank even higher.

9. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

28 of 36

    Scott Eklund

     

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    One of the game’s most consistent outside linebackers, K.J. Wright (6’4”, 246 lbs, three seasons) locks down the weak side in the Seattle defense. Wright doesn’t come down as a pass-rusher much, given the team’s talent on the defensive line and with Bruce Irvin working in as an edge-rusher. When he does pull the trigger, Wright’s size and strength allow him to flush the pocket and give good chase. He’s not overly flexible or quick, but he has the skills to be a solid rusher.

    Coverage

    18/20

    Wright shows up big in coverage. Like most weak-side linebackers, he’s asked to play often against the pass and holds his own there. He’s able to limit receptions and targets, but he also does a good job getting the receiver down soon after the catch and not surrendering big yards after the catch.

    Run Defense

    12/20

    Wright’s versatility stood out on film. He can play all three linebacker spots and did so for the Seahawks in 2013. He shows the range to make plays outside the tackle box or in pursuit but will struggle when a blocker comes out to meet him head-on. Wright has strength but gets caught up in traffic too often.

    Tackle

    36/40

    Eight missed tackles for Wright doesn’t concern us, given the team’s 16-game regular season and run to a Super Bowl title.

    Overall

    80/100

    Wright may not get the national attention on a loaded Seattle defense, but he’s already one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the league.

8. Sio Moore, Oakland Raiders

29 of 36

    Ben Margot

     

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    Sio Moore (6’1”, 240 lbs, one season) didn't enter the NFL with a ton of fanfare, but his play quickly alerted the league to his ability. Moore has natural instincts and ability as a pass-rusher. While his production doesn’t immediately jump off the screen, the tools are there. Moore has an effective dip-and-drive, but right now he lacks awareness and secondary rushing moves.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Moore held his own in coverage, which was a surprise from the strong-side linebacker in his rookie year. His fluid hips and foot speed allowed him to close quickly on the ball. Moore was also much more agile and comfortable than expected dropping into coverage.

    Run Defense

    18/20

    Moore takes on the run with strength, showing optimum power at the point of attack and good leverage if met by a blocker. He shows the speed and instincts to be effective off the jump. He can get into position to take on ball-carriers in a hurry.

    Tackle

    35/40

    As an off-and-on starter, Moore didn’t have the big production of some of our other tacklers. But looking at his tackle success rate, he walks away as a high-percentage player. He had eight missed tackles but improved greatly as the season went on.

    Overall

    81/100

    Playing strong-side linebacker in Oakland, Moore is able to show off his pass-rushing skills and his all-around game. Big things are expected in 2014.

7. Malcolm Smith, Seattle Seahawks

30 of 36

    Gregory Bull

     

    Pass Rush

    14/20

    A versatile linebacker with a big upside, Malcolm Smith (6’0”, 226 lbs, three seasons) emerged in 2013. Playing strong-side linebacker to begin the season, Smith wasn’t often asked to attack the backfield. Once moved to weak-side linebacker, he did see his opportunities increase, but Smith isn’t a pass-rushing linebacker. He’s at his best playing off the ball and reacting to the play instead of trying to flush the pocket.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Smith shows good footwork and fluid movements in space. He’s at his best dropping into the flats or taking away hook/curl routes and using his closing speed to attack the ball in flight. Smith has man-coverage skills but will give up some easy catches underneath.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    As a standout player against the run, Smith impressed. He’s a sure tackler and strong enough against traffic for a smaller player. He doesn’t attack blockers but uses his speed and agility to get through the trash to make a play on the ball. Smith isn’t overly powerful but does make an impact against the run.

    Tackle

    37/40

    This is where Smith impresses. He flashes hard-hitting ability and good form when taking on the ball. Smith doesn’t have long arms or a big lower body, but his core strength is incredible. He closes on the ball as well as anyone in the game.

    Overall

    82/100

    His play in the Super Bowl put Smith on the national radar, but his play from Week 1 until the big game is what earned him this ranking.

6. Jamie Collins, New England Patriots

31 of 36

    Matt Slocum

     

    Pass Rush

    19/20

    The New England Patriots threw Jamie Collins (6’3”, 250 lbs, one season) right in this season, and the rookie stood out as a pass-rusher off the edge. Collins’ first step and natural agility make him difficult to plan for as a pass-rusher. He does a good job setting up blockers and then using his burst or flexibility to throw them off their base.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Collins was rarely used in coverage during his time at Southern Miss and is still developing in this area. While you do see quickness in space and fluid hips, his route awareness and understanding need work.

    Run Defense

    15/20

    Collins crashes the edge but doesn’t consistently show the strength to set and anchor. He’s best when taking on the run from an angle or in pursuit as opposed to coming in to make a play in traffic. Where Collins does excel is in pursuit or when the ball is away. His closing speed is top-tier off the edge.

    Tackle

    38/40

    In his rookie year we saw Collins show top-tier strength and form when taking on ball-carriers. In space he’s fluid enough to adjust and make tackles. He’s also fast enough to quickly close the gap and explode for an impact tackle.

    Overall

    84/100

    Collins stepped right into the Patriots defense and excelled. He’s earned an even bigger role as the team’s starting strong-side linebacker and rush specialist in 2014.

5. Akeem Ayers, Tennessee Titans

32 of 36

    Tom Gannam

     

    Pass Rush

    20/20

    If you like athletic linebackers, Akeem Ayers (6’3”, 253 lbs, three seasons) is your guy. A long, lean player in space, Ayers comes off the ball and attacks the backfield. He’s slippery when engaged and has a nice complement of pass-rushing moves to get under or around blockers. Ayers may not get home on many sacks, but his ability to rush, hit and flush quarterbacks from the pocket is incredibly developed.

    Coverage

    12/20

    While Ayers is a smooth and easy mover in space, he’s not a developed cover man. He’s much better moving forward than backward and struggles with route recognition and awareness in a zone situation.

    Run Defense

    18/20

    For a leaner player, Ayers did a good job taking on the run. He loops and hooks well to get into the backfield to take away outside runs. When blockers come off the line of scrimmage, he’s able to avoid their hands and shows the vision and toughness to make plays when the ball comes inside.

    Tackle

    35/40

    Ayers’ 12 missed tackles stand out as a concern, but he also struggled to beat blockers to the ball or hold up against power-run systems. Ayers is a top-level athlete, but his lack of power is evident against the run.

    Overall

    85/100

    Ayers has a well-rounded game, which will be a big boon for him as the Titans move to a hybrid, versatile defense under Ray Horton.

4. Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

33 of 36

    Steven Senne

     

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    A versatile linebacker with elite talents, Dont’a Hightower (6’3”, 270 lbs, two seasons) can hold his own at any of the three linebacker spots in the New England defense. When asked to rush the quarterback, you don’t see great speed or fluid movement from Hightower, but he’s strong enough to bull-rush and pressure his way past blockers to get the quarterback.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Hightower’s heavy-footed style of play isn’t suited to man coverage. He does have a good zone drop, but he shouldn’t be matched up against receivers or agile tight ends. When placed in space he will struggle to flip his hips and run with receivers.

    Run Defense

    20/20

    Hightower is a master against the run. He’s strong and smart enough to see and read the offense’s game plan and does a good job getting in position and holding his ground. Hightower’s overall strength makes him very tough to block, and offensive linemen have a hard time getting their hands on him on a reach block.

    Tackle

    38/40

    With eight missed tackles on the year, Hightower comes in very high on the list of best tacklers. He’s strong enough to single-handedly bring down runners and has an attacking, powerful presence as a hitter.

    Overall

    85/100

    As one of the best weak-side linebackers in the game, Hightower has incredible versatility and value on all three downs. A likely move to "Mike" linebacker in 2014 will be a good test for Hightower.

3. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals

34 of 36

    Tom Uhlman

     

    Pass Rush

    15/20

    Playing weak-side linebacker, Vontaze Burfict (6’1”, 255 lbs, two seasons) isn’t often asked to go get the quarterback. But when unleashed, he can be productive. Burfict has top-tier closing speed but needs to work at quarterbacks in a straight line and not loop around tackles on the edge, where he can get worked and walled off by more athletic blockers.

    Coverage

    17/20

    Burfict isn’t super smooth but is smart and gets himself into position to make plays on the ball in the passing game. He is thrown at often, especially on dump routes and option routes from the slot, and does a good job bringing down receivers after the catch. However, Burfict does surrender a lot of catches.

    Run Defense

    18/20

    This is where he’s on lockdown. Burfict is strong enough to take on blockers and shed them to get to the ball-carrier, and he’s super-instinctive about finding the runner and cutting through traffic. In space he’s fast enough to close on the run and squeeze the play inside. Few defenders take on blockers like he does, and by always keeping an arm free, he’s able to be consistently effective.

    Tackle

    39/40

    Nine missed tackles compared with 123 solo takedowns is just fine by us. Burfict is one of the most aggressive, violent hitters in the NFL. He loves contact and isn’t afraid to mix it up in traffic or in space. He’s strong enough to leave a mark on ball-carriers when they come his way.

    Overall

    89/100

    Burfict has moved from undrafted free agent to top outside linebacker in just two seasons. What’s scary is that he may be even better as a middle linebacker.

2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

35 of 36

    Phelan M. Ebenhack

     

    Pass Rush

    16/20

    A legitimate All-Pro performer in 2013, Lavonte David (6’1”, 233 lbs, two seasons) has arrived. During the first four weeks of the season he blew away offenses, posting five sacks and eight hurries. He did slow down after that but still totaled eight sacks on the season. His burst and closing speed are dangerous when he gets loose around the edge, but a lack of length and strength shuts him down if blocked head-up.

    Coverage

    20/20

    David excelled as the Bucs’ best coverage linebacker. He’s fluid, fast and instinctive, and he shows top-notch hands to pull down the ball. His five interceptions showed just how well he closes on the ball and reads the quarterback.

    Run Defense

    17/20

    Playing the weak-side linebacker, David was able to excel in pursuit and in taking away cutback lanes. He’s not quite stout enough to step into rushing lanes and shut them down, but he has the speed to run down backs and be great in space.

    Tackle

    39/40

    David did have 11 missed tackles, but given the number of solo tackles (110) and attempts he had, that number isn’t a big concern. David is a strong, sure tackler in space or in traffic.

    Overall

    92/100

    David comes in tied for No. 1. As the weak-side linebacker in Lovie Smith’s defense, we expect even bigger things from the now-elite outside linebacker.

1. Von Miller, Denver Broncos

36 of 36

    Michael Conroy

     

    Pass Rush

    20/20

    Von Miller (6’3”, 250 lbs, three seasons) may have missed all but nine games in 2013, but we’re grading his on-field play, and that was as impressive as usual. Miller showed improved strength to disengage from blockers and used his trademark speed and flexibility to attack off the edge. He’s strong, technically savvy and does a great job setting up blockers and using countermoves to produce.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Miller is used most often to attack the quarterback in passing situations but has shown good spacial awareness when asked to play in zone coverage. He’s athletic and fast but does struggle with route identification and reaction time.

    Run Defense

    20/20

    You might not think of Miller as a run-stopper, but he showed up big anchoring the edge for the Broncos. Miller is strong enough now to play assignment football and will take on blockers to hold the corner. He’s also quick enough to shoot into the backfield and make a play on the ball before the runner can get into space. Overall, Miller is one of the best outside linebackers we saw against the run.

    Tackle

    38/40

    A strong, active and aggressive tackler, Miller uses his top-tier closing speed to come in and make stops. His awareness and reaction time are great, and the only knock we saw was from his habit of going in too hard and bouncing off a runner before securing the tackle.

    Overall

    92/100

    Miller may have missed a good amount of the 2013 season, but when he was on the field, the former Texas A&M stud proved he’s still the best.

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