Power Ranking NFL Linebacker Depth Charts
Which NFL team has the most talent at linebacker heading into the 2014 season?
This was a tougher question to answer than you might have expected. Suspensions and injuries took Daryl Washington, Jon Beason, NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Kiko Alonso and Sean Weatherspoon off of rosters (some for longer than others), and an impending Aldon Smith suspension leaves a huge question mark hanging over the San Francisco 49ers' roster.
But looking at those players expected to be available in 2014—and both Bowman and Smith are—which team has the most talent?
Talent may seem like a vague ranking system, but this takes into account past production, future projections, pre-draft rankings for rookies and the scheme fit of the group. And not just for the starters, but for key backups in an NFL that's becoming more about specialization on defense.
All depth charts are from Ourlads.com.
32. Atlanta Falcons
Starters: Kroy Biermann, Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Jonathan Massaquoi
Key Contributors: Osi Umenyiora, Prince Shembo (rookie), Tyler Starr (rookie), Yawin Smallwood (rookie)
An injury to Sean Weatherspoon definitely hurts the Atlanta Falcons in this ranking. Without their best linebacker, the Falcons will be making a transition to a 3-4 defense without a proven pass-rusher or a three-down "Mike" linebacker.
The key for Atlanta is letting the scheme win for them, as the talent isn't likely to scare any offensive coordinators. Jonathan Massaquoi has some potential in a stand-up rusher role on the weak side, but the team doesn't have much to speak for in terms of coverage on passing downs.
Even with a healthy Weatherspoon, the Falcons were unlikely to be ranked inside the top 20 teams. Their lack of talent on the edge is a major concern, and one they weren't able to address in the draft.
31. Dallas Cowboys
Starters: Kyle Wilber, Justin Durant, Bruce Carter
Key Contributors: DeVonte Holloman, Anthony Hitchens (rookie), Rolando McClain, Will Smith (rookie)
Losing starting middle linebacker Sean Lee (again) is crippling to the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker corps. And if you've heard that before, it's becoming an all-too-familiar complaint in Dallas.
Lee makes the defense go in Dallas, or is supposed to, and was the glue holding together a very bad defense in 2013 before injury. Now the Cowboys must move ahead with a Band-Aid at the position. Justin Durant is capable but unspectacular as a starter and cannot replace the coverage skills Lee brings to the table. The team traded for retired linebacker Rolando McClain, but there is no indication yet if he'll actually show up for camp.
On the outside there is speed—Kyle Wilber and Bruce Carter both have that—but there's not much experience for the two 'backers. Carter must learn to be more physical and attacking, and for Wilber, he must be unleashed to use the pass-rushing skills he flashed at Wake Forest.
The depth here is solid, and promising, which could be good for Dallas if the defense struggles again. A fresh line of youngsters could be exactly what the defense needs.
30. New York Giants
Starters: Spencer Paysinger, Jon Beason, Jameel McClain
Key Contributors: Mark Herzlich, Devon Kennard (rookie), Jacquian Williams
Without Jon Beason, the New York Giants would have been in big trouble at linebacker—like, worst-in-the-NFL bad. The good news is that Beason has said he hopes to be back by Week 1. That's the saving grace for the Giants and their defense.
Beason proved to be a great pickup for the Giants last year, but now he's facing another rehab from injury. If he's back at 100 percent, he'll be a star at "Mike," but the talent around him continues to be questionable as the Giants reload on both sides of the ball.
Spencer Paysinger and Jameel McClain are average starters, and behind them there isn't a young guy with the potential to step into a big role in 2014. It's all Beason for Tom Coughlin's defense this year. And that's a scary proposition given his injury history.
29. Buffalo Bills
Starters: Keith Rivers, Brandon Spikes, Nigel Bradham
Key Contributors: Preston Brown (rookie), Ty Powell, Randell Johnson (rookie)
An injury to star second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso takes what could have been a strength in Buffalo and turns it into a big question mark.
Alonso was set to slide into the weak-side linebacker spot with the addition of Brandon Spikes at middle linebacker—and in a 4-3 defense, the "Will" is your playmaker. Without Alonso, the team will rely on Nigel Bradham, who did play well in spot-duty last year but isn't on the same level.
Opposite Bradham, the team is hoping Keith Rivers can finally live up to the potential that made him a priority draft pick coming out of USC. To date he's been a bust, though, and is questionable as a starter.
Rookie Preston Brown may have a future job as a starter here. He's talented but is more of a middle linebacker, and Spikes holds that job during running downs.
28. Arizona Cardinals
Starters: John Abraham, Kevin Minter, Larry Foote, Matt Shaughnessy
Key Contributors: Keenan Clayton, Ernie Sims, Lorenzo Alexander, Sam Acho
The Arizona Cardinals could have featured a very strong linebacker corps in 2014, but a suspension handed down to Daryl Washington will cost him the entire season. And now the Cardinals go from a strong 'backer group to a scary one.
Second-year player Kevin Minter must step up and perform at a high level for the team to maintain its strength on defense. Minter and Larry Foote make up a shaky inside linebacker group, and with the age of John Abraham a big factor on the edge, this is a group on the verge of breaking down instead of breaking out.
The loss of Karlos Dansby (free agency) and Washington will prove to be huge obstacles for the Cardinals to overcome if they hope to have success in 2014.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
Starters: Dekoda Watson, Paul Posluszny, Geno Hayes
Key Contributors: Telvin Smith (rookie), John Lotulelei, Chris Smith (rookie)
The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the midst of a massive rebuilding program, and many feel they're on the right path to being a successful organization. While that definitely seems true, the team is still light in terms of talent at some positions.
One such area is outside linebacker.
Dekoda Watson and Geno Hayes are good athletes, but when put on the field, they haven't emerged as threats. When flanking an average athlete in Paul Posluszny, the outside linebackers must be fluid, fast and good in coverage—and they are—but the impact isn't huge.
Posluszny is a very good two-down 'backer, but this group lacks the punch that will scare an offense. Youngsters Telvin Smith and Chris Smith might be able to do that, but both slipped in the draft with cause and have ground to make up before they're ready to see big playing time.
26. Chicago Bears
Starters: Shea McClellin, D.J. Williams, Lance Briggs
Key Contributors: Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones (rookie), DeDe Lattimore (rookie)
It wasn't that long ago that the Chicago Bears had a defense and linebacking corps that caused offenses to fear them. Now they're ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of talent.
The job Phil Emery has done restocking his offensive line, wide receiver corps and defensive line has been impressive. But at the same time, his pick of Shea McClellin hasn't yet panned out. That, coupled with Brian Urlacher's retirement, has left the linebacking group in shambles.
Lance Briggs is still solid, but he's slowing down. D.J. Williams is an average starter, and the team would really prefer Jon Bostic in that job if he can learn his assignments. The 2013 and 2014 drafts did bring some potential with Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones and DeDe Lattimore, but none of the players are a given to start (or play much) this season.
25. New York Jets
Starters: Quinton Coples, David Harris, Demario Davis, Calvin Pace
Key Contributors: Jeremiah George (rookie), Jermaine Cunningham, Troy Davis
The 2014 season is a big one for the New York Jets—and that's probably an understatement. But for Rex Ryan's team to make a playoff push, he needs to get excellent play from his linebackers.
Ryan was hired in New York because of his defensive ability in Baltimore, and to date his defenses have overperformed. What they haven't been able to do is find that Terrell Suggs-like pass-rusher. Quinton Coples was supposed to be that guy, but he's been a bust in two seasons. The excuses are over for Coples. It's time for him to produce.
The middle linebacker spots are solid. David Harris is very strong against the run, and Demario Davis is a fluid athlete. The depth is not great, though, and it limits what the team can do in sub-packages.
Calvin Pace has held up well since coming to New York, but he's a solid starter only and not a true threat.
24. Cincinnati Bengals
Starters: Jayson DiManche, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict
Key Contributors: Vincent Rey, Sean Porter, Dontay Moch
The Cincinnati Bengals have one of my favorite linebackers on the roster in Vontaze Burfict, but the rest of the crew remains a bit of a question mark even after playing together for several years.
With Burfict at weak-side linebacker and Jayson DiManche on the strong side, the Bengals have a clear strength. DiManche is solid but is still developing as a second-year player. He came on strong last year, but he will be targeted by offenses this season.
The middle linebacker spot is held down by Rey Maualuga in the starting lineup, even though the team would be better off with Burfict or Vincent Rey in that role. Maualuga is solid against the run but a liability in pass coverage.
The depth here isn't great, especially with Dontay Moch failing to become much of a factor at outside linebacker.
23. Miami Dolphins
Starters: Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi, Philip Wheeler
Key Contributors: Jordan Tripp (rookie), Jelani Jenkins, Jason Trusnik
The Miami Dolphins threw plenty of money at the linebacker position when Jeff Ireland was running the show. The fact that Ireland was fired this past offseason should tell you a lot about how well that investment has paid off.
Philip Wheeler was a nightmare in his first season with the team, making many wonder if rookie Jordan Tripp can't win a starting job this year. Dannell Ellerbe did play well in 2013, but he wasn't the unit leader or impact player the team needed.
Middle linebacker Koa Misi has transitioned well to the linebacker position but doesn't have the range to play in coverage. He's good in spots, but like the rest of this unit, he's not a three-down threat.
22. Detroit Lions
Starters: Ashlee Palmer, Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy
Key Contributors: Kyle Van Noy (rookie), Tahir Whitehead, Julian Stanford
A new defensive scheme in Detroit will ask the linebackers to be much more attacking and versatile. How well incumbents Ashlee Palmer, Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy will handle that remains to be seen. The Lions' ranking is lower than some may expect, but the scheme fit is a big question here.
The Lions did invest a second-round pick in Kyle Van Noy, and he'll be a favorite of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and his attacking scheme. Levy could also do well here thanks to his agility and multiple styles of play.
The depth here is also not great. The Lions are doing some nice things with the draft and free agency, but the linebacking corps is still a potential weakness.
21. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: Anthony Barr (rookie), Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway
Key Contributors: Audie Cole, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti
The Minnesota Vikings come in ranked at No. 21 on a preseason list, but by season's end, they could easily be much higher.
If rookie Anthony Barr becomes the freak impact player Mike Zimmer believes he can be, the Vikings will have a dynamic pass-rusher coming off the edge in a versatile 4-3 defense. And if Chad Greenway can bounce back after a down 2013, their coverage will be solid opposite Barr.
The biggest question on the unit comes in the middle, where Jasper Brinkley must step up and fill a huge role in this defense. Don't be shocked if Audie Cole or Michael Mauti steal playing time from him should he struggle. Brinkley has potential, but this is a big job in Zimmer's defense, and he won't be patient for long.
The Vikings can quickly move up these rankings if Barr and Greenway play up to expectations. But if they struggle, a fall could be just as likely.
20. Cleveland Browns
Starters: Paul Kruger, Craig Roberson, Karlos Dansby, Jabaal Sheard
Key Contributors: Barkevious Mingo, Christian Kirksey (rookie), Tank Carder
The Cleveland Browns have been very proactive about rebuilding the linebacking corps, but now a new regime is in place (again) and a new defense is coming to town with Mike Pettine as head coach. How these players will fit in his defense is a huge question mark before training camp.
Pettine ran a versatile hybrid scheme in Buffalo, and if he does the same in Cleveland, we can expect Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard to put their hands in the dirt and rush from a three-point stance. The same goes for Barkevious Mingo—which should be terrifying for him at 241 pounds. If left in a stand-up position, Mingo could break out this year, but he needs work.
Losing D'Qwell Jackson and adding Karlos Dansby amounts to a wash for the Browns, but rookie Christian Kirksey is a player to watch at inside linebacker. He's a smooth athlete with nice range and positional versatility.
19. New Orleans Saints
Starters: Junior Galette, David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton, Parys Haralson
Key Contributors: Khairi Fortt (rookie), Ronald Powell (rookie), Victor Butler
The New Orleans Saints coming in ranked at No. 19 might seem like a slight to their fans, but there's a huge jump from the Browns at No. 20 and the Saints here. They could easily be called team No. 15, as many of this group are tied for a spot.
There's a lot to like in the team's front line. Junior Galette emerged as a true stud pass-rusher in 2013, and if he can keep up his level of play now that offenses know who he is, he could be special. Opposite him, the team has options. Parys Haralson is who he is—solid but not amazing—and Victor Butler is coming back from injury. Rookie Ronald Powell is worth watching on the edge.
The inside lacks a star, but Lofton and Hawthorne played well in 2013 and could improve with a better nose tackle eating up space in front of them this fall. The depth is not great at inside linebacker, but the starters will get the job done.
18. St. Louis Rams
Starters: Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Key Contributors: Phillip Steward, Aaron Hill (rookie), Ray-Ray Armstrong
The St. Louis Rams have an intriguing group of linebackers on the front line, but when looking at the total talent of the entire position group, you start to become concerned.
James Laurinaitis is fine on first and second down, but offenses know they can pass on him, and they've started attacking him when he's on the field. Against the run he'll do work, but you don't want him lined up against a tight end or slot receiver. It's fair to say the former Ohio State star is a bit overrated at this point.
On the outside, you can love the potential of Alec Ogletree, but he was picked on in 2013 and needs to make a big move in year two. Oddly enough, Jo-Lonn Dunbar may be the most solid of the three starters, but none of them have been very successful in passing situations.
The depth doesn't offer much help, either. None of the three players listed here are ready to play more than spot duty, which is why a good front line leaves the Rams ranked at No. 18.
17. Oakland Raiders
Starters: Khalil Mack (rookie), Nick Roach, Sio Moore
Key Contributors: Kevin Burnett, Kaluka Maiava, Miles Burris
Casual fans enjoy bashing the Oakland Raiders and predicting their demise in 2014, but a real look at the roster shows some strengths and a few players ready to be stars. Two of the team's best players happen to play linebacker, and head coach Dennis Allen had a lot of success with a fella named Von Miller in Denver.
Sio Moore and Khalil Mack will begin terrorizing AFC West quarterbacks together this year. Look at the league's 4-3 defenses and you'll be hard-pressed to find a more promising duo than these two youngsters. Both have exceptional pass-rushing skills and are underrated against the run. If Allen can unleash them like he did Miller, the Raiders will be very good on the edge.
The middle is a bit uncertain, but Nick Roach can benefit from better play beside and in front of him. He's solid, but not special.
16. Indianapolis Colts
Starters: Erik Walden, D'Qwell Jackson, Jerrell Freeman, Robert Mathis
Key Contributors: Bjoern Werner, Andrew Jackson (rookie), Kelvin Sheppard
The Indianapolis Colts made a splash in free agency for the second straight year by adding D'Qwell Jackson to the linebacking corps. Now Jackson, 2013 pickup Erik Walden and incumbents Jerrell Freeman and Robert Mathis must find a way to get to the quarterback.
Mathis had a fantastic 2013 season and remains one of the game's best pass-rushers, but the team doesn't have much opposite him. Walden and first-rounder Bjoern Werner didn't produce the results you would expect given the team's investment in them, and both must step up in 2014.
The middle of the field should be fine with Jackson, Freeman and backups Kelvin Sheppard and rookie Andrew Jackson all in the fold. Overall, this is a good group with top-end talent combined with solid depth, but for the Colts to move up the rankings, they need a big impact opposite Mathis.
15. Tennessee Titans
Starters: Akeem Ayers, Wesley Woodyard, Colin McCarthy, Shaun Phillips
Key Contributors: Kamerion Wimbley, Avery Williamson (rookie), Zaviar Gooden, Zach Brown
A new regime in Tennessee means a new defensive staff, and Ray Horton coming to town as defensive coordinator is great news for the team's linebackers.
Horton's 3-4 hybrid defense will ask a lot of his players, but the Titans have the starters and the depth to pull this off. It all starts with the edge-rushers.
Akeem Ayers is ready to become a household name in the NFL. His ability to handle blockers and attack quarterbacks has been fun to watch develop, and now he's ready to be a 12-sack player. Opposite him, the Titans have experience in Shaun Phillips and a nice sub-package rusher in Kamerion Wimbley, who perfectly fits Horton's third-down plans.
The middle of the field belongs to newcomer Wesley Woodyard and mainstay Colin McCarthy, and both must prove they can stay healthy or they'll be pushed hard by rookie Avery Williamson. McCarthy could blossom in Horton's system, though, and is a player to watch.
Starters: Brian Orakpo, Perry Riley, Keenan Robinson, Ryan Kerrigan
Key Contributors: Trent Murphy (rookie), Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton
In Washington, the linebacker corps is all about the edge. That's where studs Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Trent Murphy all line up. There is no question about the talent level, only about the number of snaps each player will get.
New head coach Jay Gruden has a nice three-man rotation on the edge, but it's the middle of the defense that could keep him up at night. With London Fletcher retiring, the team will be asking big things from first-year starter Keenan Robinson and returning starter Perry Riley.
Riley struggled to stop the run in 2013—which could be why Akeem Jordan and Darryl Sharpton were added to the fold—but his experience is key to Washington fielding a defense worthy of stopping some powerful NFC East offenses.
13. Green Bay Packers
Starters: Julius Peppers, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Clay Matthews
Key Contributors: Nick Perry, Carl Bradford (rookie), Adrian Hubbard (rookie)
You have to give Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson credit: When his team has a weakness, he attacks it. That's what Thompson did to his linebacker corps in 2014 by adding a superstar in Julius Peppers and grabbing two rookies (Carl Bradford, Adrian Hubbard) to fill out a spot on the roster that was becoming a weakness.
Peppers and the rookies join a healthy Clay Matthews to form a group that could be very dynamic if everyone performs up to expectations. Peppers' role will be interesting to watch in a defense that must become more versatile to keep up with mobile quarterbacks and shifting formations.
The middle of the defense is the weak point at linebacker for sure. A.J. Hawk has been a longtime starter and a solid player, but he's not scaring Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson. Brad Jones is a good athlete, but the Packers have to hope Carl Bradford is starting sooner rather than later.
12. San Diego Chargers
Starters: Jarret Johnson, Manti Te'o, Donald Butler, Dwight Freeney
Key Contributors: Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu (rookie), Jonas Mouton
The San Diego Chargers may not be a fan favorite at the linebacker position, but it's tough to argue with the success and potential here.
Jarret Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu form a very impressive foursome at outside linebacker to make up the nucleus of this defense. As Freeney ages, he'll be in place to mentor the youngsters (Ingram, Attaochu) at the position. Johnson, as the run-stopper of the group, may see fewer snaps while playing an important role on first and second down.
The inside of the group should be better with Manti Te'o entering year two and finally removed from his fake-girlfriend drama. Donald Butler had a down year in 2013, but better nose tackle play will be a major boost in helping him become a playmaker again.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
Starters: Connor Barwin, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Trent Cole
Key Contributors: Brandon Graham, Marcus Smith (rookie), Emmanuel Acho, Casey Matthews
The Philadelphia Eagles surprised a lot of people in 2013, and a big part of that was the instant chemistry and impact play at linebacker. Now all four starters return—plus the top backup and a first-round pick—to try to improve upon their NFC East title from last year.
Let's start on the edge, where Connor Barwin had a huge impact on and off the field for Philadelphia in his first season. Barwin will be back in a big role and is quickly becoming a leader on the defense. Opposite him the Eagles have a nice rotation with Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and newcomer Marcus Smith as a possibility. We could see a mix-and-match system of any two outside linebackers on the field together, but you have to figure Smith is a developmental piece for the future while Cole and Graham take the snaps this year. The insurance policy is great, though, in case the team loses a pass-rusher to injury.
The inside 'backers are strong, and you could make a case for DeMeco Ryans being the most underrated Eagle on the team. Mychal Kendricks is still developing, but he has very good potential to be a three-down impact.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starters: Jonathan Casillas, Mason Foster, Lavonte David
Key Contributors: Dane Fletcher, Danny Lansanah, Ka'Lial Glaud
At middle and weak-side linebacker, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can compete with almost any team in the NFL. The question marks come into play when you look at strong-side linebacker Jonathan Casillas (although I did love him at Wisconsin) and the lack of depth on the roster.
Mason Foster and Lavonte David are bright stars in the NFL's future, and they're rock solid as a one-two punch for Tampa. Casillas will be asked to carry a heavy load this year, though, even playing the strong side in Lovie Smith's defense (a spot that isn't relied on as heavily as the "Mike" and "Will" spots).
The thing keeping Tampa Bay at No. 10 overall is the lack of depth behind the front-line players. The teams ranked ahead of it can boast at least one proven or potential player in the second unit.
9. Seattle Seahawks
Starters: Malcolm Smith, Bobby Wagner, Bruce Irvin
Key Contributors: K.J. Wright, Kevin Pierre-Louis (rookie), O'Brien Schofield
The Seattle Seahawks are blessed with impressive talent at every position on both sides of the ball, so it should be no surprise that they're inside the top 10 linebacker units.
At middle linebacker, Bobby Wagner is the best player you don't hear enough people talk about. Even after helping to anchor a Super Bowl-winning defense, Wagner is still very underrated. Speaking of underrated, Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and backup (sometimes starter) K.J. Wright excel in pass coverage, while Bruce Irvin projects as a threat in pass-rushing situations if he can stay on the field.
The depth here is also very good thanks to the addition of Pierre-Louis and keeping Schofield this offseason. With Schofield's pass-rushing skills and Pierre-Louis' athleticism and agility, they could have roles in a team built on specialization and competition.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starters: Jason Worilds, Ryan Shazier (rookie), Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones
Key Contributors: Vince Williams, Jordan Zumwalt (rookie), Arthur Moats, Chris Carter
The Pittsburgh Steelers have become a popular team for fans outside of Three Rivers to dislike, but don't sleep on Mike Tomlin's crew in 2014. If they can bounce back to the playoffs (and I think they will), it'll be this young linebacking corps anchoring their defense.
It all starts on the outside, where so many iconic players have lined up in the vaunted Steelers' 3-4 defense. Jason Worilds is the next great player to crash the edge in Pittsburgh, and if the average NFL fan doesn't know him yet, they will soon. Worilds has 12-sack potential every season moving forward.
Jarvis Jones had a shaky first season, but in year two, he'll be in better shape to take on blockers and bend the edge to attack quarterbacks. He'll also see plenty of one-on-ones with Worilds opposite him.
The inside is young but athletic with Ryan Shazier moving from an outside linebacker spot at Ohio State to an athletic inside 'backer role. The team hopes he can be a NaVorro Bowman-like player there, and he definitely has the range to do so. Lawrence Timmons is your classic thumper in the middle and a solid second-tier starter there. Vince Williams is another very good athlete with the tools to steal reps.
7. Denver Broncos
Starters: Von Miller, Nate Irving, Danny Trevathan
Key Contributors: Jamar Chaney, Lamin Barrow (rookie), Shaquil Barrett (rookie)
The healthy return of Von Miller will be an amazing gain for the Denver Broncos, and it will allow them to field a linebacking corps that can go toe-to-toe with almost any offense in the NFL.
Miller is a one-man wrecking crew, and on a more well-rounded defense in 2014, he has to be considered a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the preseason. With DeMarcus Ware and Terrance Knighton drawing attention from offensive lines, Miller should see single blocking situations often.
Opposite Miller is Danny Trevathan, a former Kentucky Wildcat with exceptional agility and vision from the weak side. He's a three-tool linebacker with the ability to stop the run, rush the passer and drop into coverage without seeing his play drop off.
The middle linebacker spot isn't quite as defined, and there could be a competition for reps, but the Broncos are starting to develop depth and competition at a key position in John Fox's defense.
6. Carolina Panthers
Starters: Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Chase Blackburn
Key Contributors: A.J. Klein, D.J. Smith, Denicos Allen
The Carolina Panthers have two very good starters. It's a testament to the play of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis that they're ranked at No. 6 overall given the rest of the depth chart.
That's not to say Chase Blackburn or A.J. Klein don't have potential—Klein especially could be something nice—but the depth chart outside of the two studs isn't scaring any quarterbacks when they stand under center.
Kuechly does scare offenses, though, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has become a threat to attack the ball in rushing and passing situations. Whether you look at stats, film or both, it's easy to be wowed by No. 59.
If the Panthers get more from Blackburn or Klein in 2014, they could easily shoot inside the top five teams.
5. New England Patriots
Starters: Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins
Key Contributors: James Anderson, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, Darius Fleming
For all of the flak Bill Belichick takes from opposing fans about his struggles as a general manager, he's built one hell of a linebacker corps through the draft.
Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins all came to New England via the draft, and each has been developed into either a surefire star (Hightower, Mayo) or a legit up-and-comer (Collins) who fans and opponents can identify as threats on defense.
Where New England could be better is in the depth department, but if you're looking at the best starting lineups in the NFL, the Patriots are easily in the running for a top spot. James Anderson is a solid strongside back-up, and if Chris White and Darius Fleming can develop into reliable role players, you could see New England ranked even higher after the season.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Starters: Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley (rookie), Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil
Key Contributors: Pernell McPhee, Arthur Brown, Courtney Upshaw, Albert McClellan
The Baltimore Ravens are led by one of the NFL's best general managers, and Ozzie Newsome has done serious work in building his linebacking corps.
In Baltimore, you'll see a hybrid defense featuring Terrell Suggs at both defensive end and outside linebacker, which is why scheme fit is so important to the scouting aspect of team building. Suggs and Dumervil are ideal fits for John Harbaugh's defense, as are Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw in the second wave.
The middle linebacking position got an upgrade when the team drafted my top-ranked inside linebacker (Mosley), and he'll pair nicely beside veteran Daryl Smith—an excellent coverage 'backer—and youngster Arthur Brown.
When grading full roster talent, it's impossible to keep the Ravens out of the top five at linebacker. There's just too much proven talent and upcoming potential to ignore.
3. Houston Texans
Starters: Whitney Mercilus, Brooks Reed, Brian Cushing, Jadeveon Clowney (rookie)
Key Contributors: Akeem Dent, Ricky Sapp, Max Bullough (rookie)
The Houston Texans may not be a very good team in 2014, but they will definitely have a good linebacking corps. That much is guaranteed.
You see, the Texans already had a very good linebacker group before they drafted Jadeveon Clowney and moved Brooks Reed to inside 'backer. Now they have a group that shows the potential to challenge the best units in the game—and scare AFC South quarterbacks in the process.
Clowney and Mercilus coming off the edge gives Houston two freakishly long athletes with the talent to beat blockers in multiple ways. Stack them off of Reed and All-Pro-caliber Brian Cushing and you have four linebackers who are very difficult to scheme against.
The second unit is a bit raw, but Akeem Dent is proven on the inside should Cushing miss time again due to injury, and Ricky Sapp has nice potential as a situational pass-rusher, too.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Starters: Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Nico Johnson, Tamba Hali
Key Contributors: Dee Ford (rookie), Joe Mays, Frank Zombo, James-Michael Johnson
The Kansas City Chiefs went on a tear in 2013 with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali crashing the edge, and Derrick Johnson cleaning up messes in the middle of the field. When Houston went down with injury, so too did the Chiefs' chances of winning ballgames.
The core group is back in 2014, with Houston and Hali once again pairing up as the AFC's best pass-rushing duo at outside linebacker. Add on national championship and Senior Bowl superstar Dee Ford, and the Chiefs have three linebackers prepped to get after quarterbacks.
In the middle of the field, Derrick Johnson has emerged as a legit top-five for the position, and he may finally have a capable running mate in Nico Johnson. If the former Alabama stud has acclimated to the NFL, he could be the thumper the Chiefs have been missing.
But with three All-Pros on the roster at linebacker, it's easy to see why Kansas City ranks inside the top two.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Starters: Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks
Key Contributors: Corey Lemonier, Chris Borland (rookie), Michael Wilhoite, Aaron Lynch (rookie)
If you follow the NFL even a little bit, you should not be at all surprised to see the San Francisco 49ers ranked at No. 1 overall.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are in a fierce competition for the NFL's best inside linebacker ranking. Even with Bowman likely out for the beginning of the season due to injury, once healthy, he's a three-down threat and scary good coverage 'backer.
The 49ers beefed up their depth inside by drafting Chris Borland, but Michael Wilhoite is a very nice No. 3 option there, too.
The outside linebacker spot is just as good, with Aldon Smith (suspension pending) a nightmare for offenses to handle. On the other side, Ahmad Brooks is one of the NFL's best-kept secrets on a loaded defense and a stud in coverage. Add in Corey Lemonier (who played great in relief last year) and rookie Aaron Lynch here too, as each will see reps if/when Smith is suspended.
It's not a stretch to say that the 49ers' second-team linebackers would rank higher than some of the teams at the bottom of this article. That's how good Trent Baalke's team-building has been at the heart of his defense.