Player Profiling: NFL Outside Linebacker Rankings

Thom Cunningham@ThomBhombCorrespondent IJuly 14, 2009

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 24:  Linebacker Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates his recovery of Quarterback Jay Cutler's #6 of the Denver Broncos fumble of the ball from the pressure of Luis Castillo #93 of the Chargers during the first half of their NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium December 24, 2007 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

A ranking of the best overall outside linebackers in the league.

1. Shawne Merriman (SD)

Merriman is another serious candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He is the best fundamental backer with the most football talent. His size gives him strength to move almost anyone trying to block him, but his agility also allows him to spin or run around them.

He will create big plays every time he is on the field and is the type of player that can control your entire defense for the better. He has MVP quality talent that can carry many defenses, and hopefully his injury won't be a concern this season.

2. James Harrison (PIT)

Harrison's style to his game reminds me of a cannonball. He is fast, explosive, nasty, and hard hitting. Every time this man blitzes, he creates a big play. Harrison always seems to be in the opponent's backfield and has the ability to force a turnover every time.

He can force fumbles any time he hits a ball carrier, and is a hard working player who has proven his reliability with a Super Bowl ring and a Defensive Player of the Year Award.

3. DeMarcus Ware (DAL)

Ware has the perfect combination of size and athleticism. He is a 6'4" freak with ridiculous speed, determination, and awareness. He can reach up high to deflect many passes or just get in between a quarterback's path to his receiver.

Ware's blitzing skills are as good as they come, and he has the potential to win a Defensive Player of the Year Award. His ability to get into most backfields quickly, along with his size and athletic talent, make Ware a threat every time he is on the field.

4. Lance Briggs (CHI)

Briggs is one of the most complete backers in the league. He can come up to stop the run, cover most receivers and backs one-on-one, and can make huge plays on a consistent basis.

His tackling skills are remarkable along with his ability to get to ball carriers quickly. He can read plays extremely well and does a good job of executing his role every play. His leadership qualities are some of the best, and he can help keep the Bears' defense on top of the league throughout the season.

Although Briggs is considered one of the best outside backers today, I believe he is underrated from what a majority of people honestly think of his skill quality. He has MVP talent and capability, but his numbers usually never reflect that.

5. Kieth Bullock (TEN)

Bullock, to me, is one of scariest backers in the game. He brings a big body presence, great leadership skills, vast knowledge of the game, and speed that makes him dangerous on every short yardage play.

His blitzing game is underrated, but effective. He fills holes extremely well, whether it is to make a tackle or just get in the way. His coverage game is par for the most part.

He is a reliable player who brings a high level of intensity and emotion each week.

6. Joey Porter (MIA)

Porter has some of the best leadership skills today. His blitzing skills have been solid for years along with his intensity of play. He will knock anyone out and let them know about it after the play.

He can get to a quarterback very quickly and force a turnover if given the chance. Blitzing with a returning Jason Taylor should only elevate his overall game this season, which is scary if you recall his success without Taylor last year.

7. Terrell Suggs (BAL)

Suggs is a linebacker who creates big plays with his ability to blitz. His speed is some of the best along with his tough attitude and determination. His fundamentals, although previously sloppy, have developed nicely in his game.

Suggs can get beat on some coverages, but his overall skill level and developed mechanics makes him a dangerous (but overlooked) weapon on the Ravens' defense.

8. LaMarr Woodley (PIT)

Woodley's style of play is perfect for the Steeler defense. He is a fast and explosive player who comes off the edge faster than most people realize. He has some of the best tackling mechanics at such a young age.

Woodley's ability to record sacks on a consistent basis makes him a dominant player. So much focus is on Harrison that sometimes teams forget about Woodley, which is a big mistake. His athletic play and quick maturity as a great role player make Woodley one of the most dangerous, but often forgotten, players in the 3-4 set.

9. AJ Hawk (GB)

Hawk is a head hunter for the football. He explodes quickly out of his stance and pursuits almost immediately. He has great tackling skills along with a lot of toughness.

Hawk's best quality is his tackling ability, but he can also force ball carriers to panic and hit the wrong hole. His strength to shed off of most NFL blocks can use some work, but overall he is a reliable player to make a stop if the play develops in front of him.

10. Ernie Sims (DET)

Sims has some of the most pure athletic talent at the outside backer position. He has the ability to find the ball carriers quickly and can make a big play for his team. Sims' awareness prevents me from ranking him higher than 10.

It seems Sims is out of position more times than none, and still needs to work on wrapping up opponents that are running down field on him. Although Sims is one of the most athletic backers today, his overall awareness has not seemed to progress in his career.

I do believe the presence of Peterson and Foote will help Sims develop into a smarter player, which will not only help himself out, but his teammates as well.

11. Thomas Howard (OAK)

When people think of the fastest outside backers, Thomas Howard doesn't come to many people's mind, but he should. Howard's outside rushing ability is so quick and precise that it is hard for many running backs to read and pick up.

His big body allows him to eat up space, and his footwork is quick enough to prevent most backs from running around him. Howard's coverage skills are not bad, but his ability to cover backs running deep routes (like wheels) might hurt him.

His underneath skills (like most backers) are the strong point in his coverage game. Overall, Howard is one of the best rushing backers with more decent coverage skills than people realize.

12. DJ Williams (DEN)

Apparently DJ Williams is moving back to inside backer. Williams is one of the smarter linebackers with enough speed and aggression to make big plays for any defense. He has played both the outside and inside position, so his reliability as a player shouldn't be questioned.

His athletic talent seems to be what makes everyone love Williams, but his fundamental skills along with his leadership has improved every year he plays with Denver. He is a player who will go hard every play with a confident mindset to be one of the better players on the field.

Williams has slowly (but surely) earned the right to be called a top play maker at the linebacker position.

13. Adailus Thomas (NE)

Thomas has some of the best size in the game today. He is a big body back with the ability to react quickly and make smart plays on the ball. His ability to create turnovers is not as it once was in Baltimore, but he can still rush the outside and fill into gaps extremely well.

His hitting impact is very underrated and rarely misses tackles if he positions himself nicely (which he usually does). His containment is a slight weakness and can get beat if backs can get around him.

To sum it up, Thomas has an inside backer's body with the skills and ability of the outside position.

14. Chad Greenway (MIN)

One of the more underrated backers, Greenway brings a fundamental and tough presence to the field. His tackling mechanics are very impressive along with his containment skills. He rarely lets ball carriers get by him and does a good job of covering many backs and tight ends.

His speed and overall toughness may surprise many, but Greenway is a blue-collar player who will get the job done regardless. His blitzing game is also underrated, and his overall awareness has become some of the best I've seen in young linebackers today.

15. Daryl Smith (JAC)

Smith is a fundamentally sound player who makes the tackles he is supposed to make. He rarely makes mistakes in his assignments and leads the Jacksonville defense by the way he plays.

He is not afraid to hit any player on the field and usually reads plays well. His overall explosiveness is not the best, and his speed lacked last season. He seemed to be a more reliable playmaker in the past, but can still make the reliable plays that make a defensive coordinator's job easier.

16. Thomas Davis (CAR)

Davis has the speed to beat almost any lineman in the league. He can rush off the edge as well as cover many backs and tight ends. He used to play safety, so his overall coverage skills come with experience and knowledge. His hitting has never been under looked, and he brings as much intensity to the field as his partner Beason.

By now, Davis should have an inside and out understanding of the outside position and his role for that Carolina defense. Davis is an under-the-radar playmaker who can cause trouble for offenses with his speed, hitting skills, and coverage ability.

I would like to see more turnovers caused by Thomas, but he is still one of the most effective players regardless.

17. Clint Session (IND)

He really came into his own last season. Session runs down hill every play like a missile when running into the back field. He is one of the more underrated blitzers in the league, and has the ability to come up and stop any running situation.

His awareness was impressive for the most part last year, but he still needs to work on becoming a more consistent player in clutch situations. His heart and overall attitude toward the game is one of the best, and his mentality to only make his team succeed can make Session a consistently productive player down the road.

18. Julian Peterson (DET)

Peterson is a reliable veteran backer who can make players like Ernie Sims and Louis Delmas better just by his presence. His play recognition, awareness, and toughness make him a solid playmaker for any line backing core.

Peterson is not as dominant as he was in the past, but overall he can still produce not necessarily the numbers, but the progression of the talent around him. He should be one of the leaders of that defense and play with an attitude and determination to teach the youth surrounding him.

His tackling, awareness, and football skills already make him a dangerous player, but now he has the chance to use his experience and leadership skills to develop those around him. Peterson's presence (in essence) could make the Detroit defense better, but he will have to play hard, aggressive, and productive, which I think he still can.

19. Derrick Johnson (KC)

Johnson has been a mystery to me ever since joining the league. His athletic talent is some of the best, but his consistency as a reliable playmaker comes and goes almost every week.

I have witnessed Johnson makes great plays on the balls which have led to turnovers and broken plays. I have also witnessed Johnson get pulled seven or eight yards down a field by Michael Turner. His overall football skills are some of the best developed, but Johnson doesn't seem to have the confidence of a great player throughout the entire season.

Johnson seems to play out of sync in the middle of season as if his game was stuck in the twilight zone. He had better step up and play to his full potential on a consistent basis, but other than that, Johnson's athleticism and football skill can make him a top player for years to come.

20. David Thornton (TEN)

Thornton is one of the toughest, smartest, and most reliable backers in the league. He is another big body backer who can read plays extremely well and blow them up quickly.

His turnover capability is often overlooked and sets up others well to make great plays. His tackling skills are very impressive, but he lacks in the coverage game. He will make big plays when given the opportunity, and rarely misses his assignments.

An all around solid player any franchise can be successful with because of his pure football talent throughout his entire game.

21. Calvin Pace (NYJ)

Since I don't use notes or other resources when writing these rankings, I can't remember how many games Pace is suspended for (someone help me out). Regardless, he has some of the best size and speed that allows him to power over or get by many blockers in his path.

His coverage skills are weak because his size and build is much greater than his actual speed. Pace is a game changing player who can create big plays when you least expect it. He is another player who does what is asked of him by being fundamentally sound and mentally focused.

Whenever Pace comes back, he will be just as effective as he was last season.

22. Shaun Phillips (SD)

Phillips is an overall underrated backer that can blitz as well as any other in the league. His overall awareness, when it comes to attacking specific holes, is very impressive. His hitting surprises me more than anything, mainly because he has an unorthodox style of bringing down ball carriers.

His turnover capability is still one of the best and will probably increase with a returning Merriman. I'm not sure what Phillips' future holds (mainly because they drafted Larry English), but he is an athletic player with big play ability in any given situation.

23. Larry English (SD)

He is a straight up beast. He runs through blocks like it is his job. He will be converting from the defensive end position to outside backer, but should have little to no effect on his overall game.

His legs never stop moving, and he has a knack for coming at quarterbacks from the perfect angle. He can run down many players who try to run east-to-west and should not be overlooked as a key playmaker for certain situations.

His numbers might not reflect his overall ability and success in the future because of the PT he will have to share.

24. Cato June (HOU)

June is a proven linebacker with veteran instincts. He can still make solid plays for a defense and has some of the quickest reaction skills. His blitzing skills are not the strongest, but he is fast enough to make plays on the run or cover most players.

His overall coverage skills are greater than his hitting, but the knowledge and consistency June has displayed for the majority of his career might turn the Texans' young line backing core into a group of young and mature playmakers.

25. Curtis Lofton (ATL)

Lofton was very impressive for his rookie year in the league. I am not sure if Atlanta will move Peterson to outside or Lofton (because Lofton was inside last year), but his football talent may be used to a higher standard if he plays the outside position.

Lofton was so quick at running to the ball from the inside position. He made tackles from many angles of the field and brings an overlooked toughness to his game. He is a very mature player for his youth and delivered a confident and impressive game last season.

The only thing I see slowing Lofton down from being a top linebacker is injuries, but his consistent playing time shown last year makes me think high of what he and the linebackers playing with him can contribute this year.

26. Aaron Curry (SEA)

Curry was the most impressive defensive player I saw in the draft last year. He has great quickness when changing direction and his strength is some of the best. His awareness and reliability needs to be proven (because he is a rookie), but if he brings the talent he displayed during his time at Wake Forest and at the combine, he is already on the path to becoming a solid player at the absolute worst.

Curry's size is also overlooked, but a huge piece to his success. I think Curry has the correct mindset and character to learn the NFL game and develop into his own as a great player in the future.

27. Marcus Washington (WAS)

Washington is still a reliable player in the game, but has slowly declined in his pure athletic ability. He is not as fast or explosive as he once was, but can still produce nicely as a key role player for the Redskin defense.

His tackling skills are still impressive and his awareness to be around big plays comes as no mistake. His nasty attitude and aggressive style gives him confidence to produce, which he can, just not as consistently reliable as he used to be.

28. Danny Clark (NYG)

Clark is an underrated backer when it comes to big play capabilities. Clark does a good job of looking to create turnovers. He positions himself nicely to make a good play on the ball carrier and has the quickness physically and mentally to make smart decisions.

Clark's overall game is more effective in short yardage plays rather than plays that require him to produce while pursuing.

29. Manny Lawson (SF)

Manny's size and speed is very rare to find in most players today. He is explosive, fast, determined, aggressive, and powerful. The only thing lacking from Lawson's game is his intelligence.

Lawson should fill into his own this year, because he has some of the best overall athletic talent many linebackers would love to have. I think Singletary will do a good job of using Lawson to the fullest of his potential.

We could see a more confident and mean Manny Lawson this year, which could make him one of the most overlooked playmakers entering the '09 season.

30. Morlon Greenwood (HOU)

A reliable playmaker who has the size and speed to fill in as a great role player for many defenses. His explosiveness and all around hitting ability is often overlooked, and his knowledge at the position is some of the best.

His fundamentals come and go along with his blitzing game. Greenwood will make the tackle needed, but only if he is in position to. Greenwood has trouble being an effective player when he has to start reacting on a broken play, but for the most part comes up as a reliability more than anything.

31. Kamerion Wimbley (CLE)

His pure athletic talent should go without saying. Wimbley's athleticism makes me think so highly off him, but he has yet to perform to the fullest of his potential. He often misses many tackles in the backfield and needs to do a better job with his mechanics.

He is out of position more times than none, but does deliver a burst of elusiveness when rushing from the outside. Wimbley over-pursuits a lot, but it's not like that isn't fixable.

I would also rather see a player over-pursuit than straight up get beat or ran over. Overall, Wimbley's play up to this point has been a disappointment, but his athletic talent and rare highlights give me hope that he can develop nicely.

32. Scott Fujita (NO)

Other than his leadership ability, I don't see Fujita as a serious threat to defenses. Vilma has pretty much taken over the leadership role on both the line backing core and defense.

Fujita is one of the hardest working players with an unselfish mindset. For the most part, Fujita is in position to make plays needed, but only comes up with the play about half of the time.

He doesn't miss many tackles, but he is an easy player to block out of a running play. Unless Fujita is in position to make a ball on play (he doesn't have to run across the line or field to make a play), his overall presence on the field shouldn't be overlooked or taken seriously either.

33. Donnie Edwards (KC)

Edwards has no excuse to produce this year. If he wants to prove he was more than a two or three year player, he needs to play well with players like Thomas, Johnson, Dorsey, and Page.

Edwards has enough talent around him to help lead a defense into the right path. His awareness seems to get worse each season, but his tackling skills are still some of the best.

I also have not seen the same desire or aggression from Edwards that I saw in San Diego. Overall, his big play capabilities have passed along with his consistency to be a reliable and productive player.

He still has the skill in him and around him to become successful, but I just don't see any motivation for Edwards to play hard this year.

34. Kawika Mitchell (BUF)

Mitchell's best asset is also his most overlooked. He is an aggressive playmaker who will take risks on plays, but usually pay off. His blitzing skills are some of the best along with his overall attitude when on the field.

Nothing seems to throw this man out of rhythm when he is playing and shows a great amount of determination when running to make a play. I like Mitchell's overall skill combined with his winning and aggressive attitude.

35. Brian Orkapo (WAS)

He is in the best position to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I don't think he will. Orkapo is arguably coming into the best situation than any other defensive rookie. He will be coming in as the starting backer.

His athletic talent and size make him dangerous, but the talent that surrounds him will only help educate and elevate his game to a higher standard. The only thing holding Orkapo from becoming a household name is Orkapo.

He is setup to have as successful a season as any other rookie on the defensive side of the ball, but it will be up to him to make the most of it.

36. Omar Gaither (PHI)

Gaither is a surprisingly tough and reliable backer with the quickness to get to holes before ball carriers. Consistently, he still has work to do. Gaither's overall big play ability is hard to find, but his reliability to make the little plays that make defenses successful is very visible.

He is not afraid to run in like a bat out of hell, but also knows when he needs to square up and become fundamentally sound. He brings two different styles to his game, but needs to become just a little bit more consistent if he wants to become and sustain a serious playmaking role for the Eagle defense.

37. Angelo Crowell (TB)

I guess this is a high ranking for Crowell, but only because of the situation he is in. Crowell has the opportunity to develop his game in Tampa. This is a fresh start for a once reliable player to raise his game to an elite status.

Crowell has the talent and work ethic to become one of the best, but as much as I love his game, he still needs to prove it with a new team. His intensity and quickness were always overlooked along with his overall knowledge.

I love Crowell as a big time playmaker, but his dominance has been more absent than present.

38. Vernon Gholston (NYJ)

I am still waiting for Gholston to be used to his best talent. He has the perfect combination of size and speed that will cause problems for any offense. He can blitz using both his power and speed, giving him multiple ways to attack an offense.

What impresses me most about Gholston is his ability to play more than one position (like most 3-4 linebackers). Gholston has equally the same amount of talent at the linebacker position as he does at the defensive end position.

His overall athletic ability and size is what many NFL teams want in their outside backers, but Gholston needs to finally do something with that talent. Ryan might be the guy that can use Gholston to his fullest potential, which could mean opponents have another problem to avoid when facing the Jets' defense.

39. Kieth Rivers (CIN)

Rivers actually had a pretty decent season, up until Hines Ward cleaned his clock. That injury set Rivers back last season, but he can now use that lost time as motivation and drive to succeed this year. His athletic talent is very impressive.

He has the quickness and speed to catch any ball carrier trying to run to the outside, and the toughness to develop as a reliable inside defender. His awareness needs to improve (obviously after the hit Hines delivered), but seems setup to bring success to himself and the Bengal defense in the long run.

His lack of intensity surprised me as well, but overall was productive until his broken jaw.

40. Freddy Keiaho (IND)

His tackling is as consistent as they come, but he is not going to make the big play that defenses need in certain situations.

41. Clay Matthews (GB)

He is coming into a nice situation in Green bay and has the talent and opportunity to develop into one of the league's best.

42. Greg Ellis (OAK)

He is still sour about the Dallas situation, so he might play with a purpose and chip on his shoulders.

Kansas City is a place where he can do that and produce.

43. Leroy Hill (SEA)

A very underrated and aggressive backer who has great hitting skills along with blitzing.

A low-key player who makes big plays from time to time.

44. Ben Leber (MIN)

A great role player who runs with a motor and never gives up on a play. A fundamental tackler who understands what to do in certain situations.

45. Jamie Winborn (DEN) 

Winborn really impressed me last year with his leadership potential and pure aggression.

He hit holes hard and made a lot of tackles.

46. DeMorrio Williams (KC) 

His athletic talent is very nice, but his football skill has yet to improve in his time spent in the league.

He will make a nice play from time to time, but his better days were spent in Atlanta (if you can call it better days).

47. Scott Shanle (NO) 

Another underrated role player who does a good job of containment and breaking down on tackles.

His speed lacks compared to many outside backers.

48. Brian Cushing (HOU) 

Has the ability to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and the attitude to help Houston's defense strive in the right direction.

A hard working player with a tough mindset is exactly the type of player Houston's defense was missing to just becoming one of the best.

49. Mike Vrabel (NE)

A reliable veteran player who is also used on offense. Seems like the perfect utility player to Belichick.

Still a great tackler with reliable playmaking skills that make him a very clutch player.

50. Clint Ingram (JAC) 

A very athletic linebacker with a lot more heart than brains. He has the potential to become a solid player given the right system and ability to grow in maturity.

51. Chike Okeafor (ARI)

52. Parys Haralson (SF)

53. Stephen Nicholas (ATL)

54. Boss Bailey (DEN)

55. Justin Durant (JAC)

56. Na'il Diggs (CAR)

57. Keith Ellison (BUF)

58. Keith Brooking (DAL)

59. Rocky McIntosh (WAS)

60. Gerris Wilkerson (NYG)


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