The Top Five: Best 3-4 Outside Linebackers in the NFL

Bob CunninghamSenior Analyst IJuly 6, 2009

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 24:  Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers enters the game against the Denver Broncos during the first half of their NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium December 24, 2007 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

An outside linebacker in the 3-4 has a lot of the same responsibilities as a defensive end in the 4-3.

They must be quick, fast, agile, intelligent, and able to secure the edge.

Just like a defensive end in the 4-3, outside linebackers in the 3-4 will make their money in sacks, and just overall pressure on the quarterback. The 3-4 is set up to confuse the offensive linemen, allowing the linebackers to come in clean.

However, just like a defensive end, they must also be able to play and stop the run. That reason, among others, is why you will not see a guy like Jerry Porter on this list. He is purely a pass-rush specialist and is no longer expected to play the run.

These guys are the most well-rounded, and obviously the best at what they do.


5. LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh Steelers)

15 games started, 15.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles, 1 TD, 55 tackles

This might be a few too years early for Woodley, but given what he showed last year, he deserves to be on this list.

As it stands, he has more sacks than games started. Either way, he is  impressive.

He's an astounding athlete with the ability to stop on a dime, and leave you some change while he's at it. He disrupts backfields and will scare a quarterback, and the offensive coordinator while he's at it.

This kid has future defensive player of the year written all over him.

4. Terrell Suggs (Baltimore Ravens)

80 games started, 53 sacks, 5 INT, 15 forced fumbles, 2 TD, 263 tackles, 3-time Pro Bowler

Suggs is versatile enough to play standing up, or with his hand on the ground and not miss a beat.

He's probably the only guy on this list who could be thrown into a 4-3 to play defensive end and not have any trouble.

In fact, he challenged the NFL to be classified as a defensive end when he was franchised, because they make more than linebackers, because he played more than 50 percent of his snaps with his hand on the ground.

He's phenomenal at stopping the run, and at rushing the passer. He's coming off of a Pro Bowl year and will look to carry that momentum into an ever better 2009 season.

3. James Harrison (Pittsburgh Steelers)

39 games started, 28.5 sacks, 3 INT, 14 forced fumbles, 1 TD, 222 tackles, 2-time Pro Bowler and 1-time All-Pro

There are probably countless enraged Steelers' fans reading this, but let me explain.

While Harrison has been great over the past two seasons, he has only done it for these past two seasons, after four years of mediocrity, and that's being nice.

His ranking is not really as much of a knock on him as it is a testament to the two guys ahead of him.

Yes, Harrison was the defensive player of the year last season (and probably should have been the Super Bowl MVP), but the guys ahead of him have been doing it longer, and in my opinion, one was passed over for defensive player of the year.

Is the suspense killing you yet?

2. Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)

38 games started, 39.5 sacks, 1 INT, 8 forced fumbles, 147 tackles, 3-time Pro Bowler and 1-time All-Pro

In three seasons, Merriman has already placed himself among the elite in the league, and perhaps of all time if he keeps this pace going.

Like Woodley, he has more sacks than games started, but has done it two years longer than Woodley.

He was the defensive rookie of the year back in 2005, and should have won defensive player of the year in 2006, but was passed up because of politics. By politics, I mean a crying Jason Taylor that Merriman shouldn't win it because he was suspended four games for performance enhancers.

He was suspended for four games, and still finished the season with 17 sacks. Had it not been for missing those four games, he would probably have broken Michael Strahan's single-season sack record.

Merriman is a once-in-a-generation athlete.

1. DeMarcus Ware (Dallas Cowboys)

64 games started, 53.5 sacks, 1 INT, 18 forced fumbles, 2 TDs, 235 tackles, 3-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All-Pro

Last season, Ware had 20 sacks. That alone should have been enough to earn him defensive player of the year, but add on the six forced fumbles and in my mind, it's not even a competition.

Ware came in as a starter since day one, and has not missed a game since. Sixty four consecutive starts, or four full years, has put him as the very best outside linebacker in the game today. That includes any 4-3 linebacker.

Even when the Dallas defense would struggle, this guy always came through. He's an incredible athlete, and even at 6'4' and 245 pounds, is probably the fastest guy on this list, and maybe at the entire position.

He currently has a streak of three consecutive Pro Bowls, and two consecutive selections to the All-Pro team. Something tells me that this streak won't be ending any time soon.


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