B/R CFB 150: Top 24 Linebackers

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2017

B/R CFB 150: Top 24 Linebackers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Bleacher Report's CFB 150 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Authors David Kenyon, Brian Pedersen and Barrett Sallee have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list down and sorted by position. Today, Pedersen presents the top 24 linebackers.

    Other CFB 150 Positions

    They're the men in the middle, the ones who aren't limited to just a single assignment or player to guard. Linebackers are the eyes and ears of a defense, pointing out mismatches and directing traffic before the play and then either firing toward the line of scrimmage or dropping back into coverage after the snap.

    Along the way, they make a ton of plays and are almost always involved in the action.

    Rather than break them up into inside and outside linebackers, we've combined the best at both positions into one list. It doesn't matter if they played in a 3-4, 4-3, 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 alignment. The goals were still the same, and these are the linebackers who stood out from the pack during the 2016 season.

    The following rankings are based primarily on one's skills as a college player rather than how he would fare in the NFL. Though these players may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are predominantly centered on helping their teams succeed.

             

    Think we're missing someone, or don't agree with how we've ranked them? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.

Players 24-21: Kelsey-Brown

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    Shaquem Griffin
    Shaquem GriffinJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    24. Keith Kelsey, Louisville

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 92 tackles (4.5 for loss), one sack, two pass breakups, three forced fumbles

    A three-year starter in the middle, Keith Kelsey finished his career with 310 tackles, including 12 in his final game. He was Louisville's top tackler for two straight seasons and helped the Cardinals hold five opponents under 20 points per game in 2016.

         

    23. Shaquem Griffin, UCF

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 92 tackles (20 for loss), 11.5 sacks, one interception, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    Shaquem Griffin was the American Athletic Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in his first season as a starter. He ranked in the top 12 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, helping UCF make a bowl game a year after going 0-12.

       

    22. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 20 tackles (two for loss)

    An aggravated shoulder injury in late September shelved Jalen Reeves-Maybin for the rest of the season, taking away one of Tennessee's most versatile defenders. His 13 tackles against Virginia Tech helped key that comeback win after he logged 100-plus tackles in both 2014 and 2015.

        

    21. Keith Brown, Western Kentucky

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 131 tackles (13 for loss), six sacks, two interceptions, nine pass breakups

    Western Kentucky's offense overshadowed what it did on defense, which meant Keith Brown's play in 2016 went mostly unnoticed, though he tied for fourth nationally in tackles. Brown, who began his career at Louisville before moving to Western Kentucky as a graduate transfer, had at least 10 tackles in eight different games, including 13 (with an interception) in a 44-43 win at Middle Tennessee in October.

Players 20-16: Smith-Boulware

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    Ben Boulware
    Ben BoulwareKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    20. Cameron Smith, USC

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 83 tackles (seven for loss), one sack, four pass breakups, one forced fumble

    Smith showed no ill effects from a torn ACL in November 2015 that cut short his freshman season and limited him during spring ball. USC's top tackler had 40 solo tackles that constituted an offensive failure, per Pro Football Focus, with just seven missed tackles all season.

        

    19. Rodney Butler, New Mexico State

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 165 tackles (eight for loss), one interception, two pass breakups, three forced fumbles

    Rodney Butler led FBS in tackles by a wide margin, logging 24 more than any other player in the country for a New Mexico State team that went 3-9 and gave up 38.8 points per game. His tally was the most since Toledo's Dan Molls had 166 in 13 games in 2012.

        

    18. Kendell Beckwith, LSU

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 91 tackles (six for loss), one sack, four pass breakups

    A knee injury ended Kendell Beckwith's career prior to LSU's final two games this season yet he still managed to rank second in the SEC in tackles per game. He had 16 tackles against Alabama, one of eight games in his career with at least 10 takedowns.

        

    17. Tegray Scales, Indiana

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 126 tackles (23.5 for loss), seven sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, one forced fumble

    Tegray Scales led FBS in tackles for loss and was at the center of a major defensive improvement for Indiana, which allowed 10.6 fewer points per game than the previous season. Sixteen of those TFLs came in Big Ten play, including four in the win over Purdue that secured bowl eligibility.

       

    16. Ben Boulware, Clemson

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 116 tackles (11.5 for loss), four sacks, one interception, two pass breakups, three forced fumbles

    His goal-line interception in the season-opening win at Auburn set the stage for a tremendous final season for Ben Boulware. The two-year starter went out with a bang with six tackles and two TFLs in the national championship game win over Alabama.

Players 15-11: Fields-Biegel

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    Steven Taylor
    Steven TaylorRichard Carson/Getty Images

    15. Devonte Fields, Louisville

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 45 tackles (nine for loss), six sacks, one interception, three pass breakups

    Devonte Fields didn't have as big of a season as he did in 2015 for Louisville, his first after beginning his career at TCU and making a stop at a junior college, but he still got involved. Four of his TFLs and three of his sacks came in the Cardinals' November win against Wake Forest.

        

    14. Micah Kiser, Virginia

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 134 tackles (10 for loss), 6.5 sacks, one interception, seven pass breakups, five forced fumbles

    Micah Kiser was one of the few bright spots for a Virginia team that won only two games in 2016. The third-leading tackler in FBS will have a shot at three consecutive 100-tackle seasons after announcing in December he will return for his senior year.

        

    13. Steven Taylor, Houston

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 74 tackles (12 for loss), 8.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    Among the better run-stoppers at his position, Steven Taylor logged a pair of sacks against Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and also took down finalist Baker Mayfield. His play helped Houston rank fourth in the nation against the run.

        

    12. Malik Jefferson, Texas

    Class: Sophomore

    2016 Stats: 62 tackles (8.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one forced fumble

    Texas' team-wide struggles on defense didn't carry over to Malik Jefferson, whose numbers in 2016 matched the strong ones he put forth as a true freshman. All but one of his sacks and TFLs came in Big 12 play.

        

    11. Vince Biegel, Wisconsin

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 44 tackles (six for loss), four sacks, one pass breakup, one forced fumble

    Vince Biegel's raw numbers were down from the previous two seasons, when he totaled 15.5 sacks and 30.5 TFLs, but he remained a force in Wisconsin's 3-4 alignment. Rated by Pro Football Focus as the No. 7 run-stopper in the country at his position, Biegel enabled the Badgers to rank third in the country in rush defense.

10. Joe Mathis, Washington

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 25 tackles (7.5 for loss), five sacks, one pass breakup

    Might Washington have gone unbeaten during the regular season or been able to knock off Alabama in the playoffs had Joe Mathis been available? We'll never know, as a foot injury suffered in early October robbed him of the final eight games of 2016-17.

    But based on how nasty Mathis looked during the first half of the season, it's fair to say he would have made some sort of difference down the stretch.

    Mathis' overall grade of 27.6, per Pro Football Focus, still ranked him 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers despite only playing half the season.

9. Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 105 tackles (10 for loss), two sacks, one interception, one fumble return, five pass breakups, four forced fumbles

    An injury to a teammate midway through the 2014 season opened the door for Anthony Walker Jr. to become a starter as a redshirt freshman. He never gave up that spot, as he excelled in the middle for Northwestern in a way that only head coach (and former Wildcats linebacker) Pat Fitzgerald could appreciate.

    "He's cemented a spot as one of the best players in Northwestern football history," Fitzgerald tweeted late last month after Walker declared for the NFL draft.

    The 2016 season was the second in a row in which Walker had at least 100 tackles and 10 tackles for loss—one of only three players in FBS to do that the last two years.

8. Jarrad Davis, Florida

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 60 tackles (six for loss), two sacks, four pass breakups

    Florida's defense carried it for most of the 2016-17 season, but late in the year, there was a certain edge missing from the unit. This coincided with the games Jarrad Davis was unable to play in because of injury. A sprained ankle suffered in mid-October never fully healed, causing him to sit out four games and play sparingly in a few others.

    Yet Davis still got involved whenever he was healthy enough to play, ranking second on the team in tackles and fourth in TFLs.

    In his final contest, Davis logged four tackles in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama before reinjuring his ankle.

7. Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 102 tackles (seven for loss), two sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    Ohio State's talent and depth on defense since Urban Meyer arrived have been such that plenty of great athletes end up having to wait their turn to get involved. Redshirts are plentiful, and starting jobs are hard to come by.

    Yet Raekwon McMillan just completed his second year starting for the Buckeyes, and as a true freshman in 2014, he was on the field quite a bit during the team's national title run. That has resulted in his logging 275 tackles for his career with 17.5 for loss along with six sacks.

    "I've had very few like that," Meyer said, per Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors"From day one when he walked on campus, he was a grown man." 

6. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Class: Redshirt sophomore

    2016 Stats: 71 tackles (15 for loss), 3.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble

    Jabrill Peppers parlayed his ability to play almost any position on the field into an invite to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, where he finished fifth. But while Michigan's use of him on offense and special teams drew the most attention, his instincts as a defender still stand out from everything else.

    Even with new defensive coordinator Don Brown moving Peppers from the secondary to linebacker in the spring, it looked like he'd been playing there his entire career. More than two-thirds of his tackles were of the solo variety, with Pro Football Focus logging 30 of those as resulting in offensive failures.

    Peppers' performance in a win at Michigan State in October encompassed everything he could do. In that victory, he had seven tackles, two for loss, and he thwarted a late two-point conversion try by returning the ball for two points of his own.

    In addition to his defensive efforts, Peppers tallied 740 all-purpose yards as a rusher, receiver and special teams returner with three rushing touchdowns and a TD on a punt return.

5. T.J. Watt, Wisconsin

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 63 tackles (15.5 for loss), 11.5 sacks, one interception, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    The name sounds familiar, but even if you didn't know ahead of time that T.J. Watt is the younger brother of NFL standout J.J. Watt, you'd see the resemblance in their play. This season, Watt broke through as one of the most impactful edge-rushers in the country and helped Wisconsin return to the Big Ten Championship Game while navigating one of the nation's toughest schedules.

    Watt, who didn't play his first two years of college and saw only limited snaps in 2015, had at least one sack in nine different games, including each of the Badgers' final four. He also brought back an interception for a touchdown against Purdue.

    According to Jason Galloway of Madison.com, Watt set forth a trio of goals for himself in the spring: "Lead the team in tackles for loss. Lead the Big Ten in sacks. Be an All-American." He nailed them all.

4. Ryan Anderson, Alabama

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 61 tackles (19 for loss), nine sacks, one interception, two fumble returns, three pass breakups, four forced fumbles

    Ryan Anderson is a ball hawk, plain and simple. He has an innate ability to sniff out where the ball is going and often gets there before it does by either beating a ball-carrier to the edge or jumping a route when covering a receiver out of the backfield.

    That enabled Anderson to be heavily involved in Alabama's massive number of defensive touchdowns. Of the 11 defensive scores the Crimson Tide managed this past season, Anderson either initiated or completed five of those scores. His 26-yard interception return for a TD against Washington broke open the Peach Bowl and helped Alabama to reach the national championship for a second straight year.

    "Their quarterback didn't think I was going to be back there, and I picked the ball off," Anderson said, per David Paschall of the Times Free Press.

3. Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Class: Junior

    2016 Stats: 125 tackles (16.5 for loss), one fumble return, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, one blocked kick

    Vanderbilt held five opponents to 17 or fewer points in 2016, four of those SEC foes. In those conference games, Zach Cunningham collected 50 tackles, including 19 in the Commodores' upset of Georgia, a win that signified Vandy had turned a corner and could be competitive in the SEC.

    We already knew that about Cunningham, who has averaged just short of 10 tackles per game since moving into the starting lineup early in the 2015 season. He graded ninth in Pro Football Focus' run-defense metric among 2016 inside linebackers, tallying 31.1 percent of Vanderbilt's tackles for loss that didn't result in sacks.

    "His football IQ is extremely high," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said, per Creg Stephenson of AL.com. "He understands schemes, and he plays sideline to sideline. He's got great range and depth in terms of being able to cover receivers or blitz from inside and outside."

    Cunningham's sheer volume of takedowns sets him above those just behind him on our list since he had to handle such a heavy load compared to the rest of the Commodores defenders.

2. Tim Williams, Alabama

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 31 tackles (16 for loss), nine sacks, one fumble return, two pass breakups, two forced fumbles

    Alabama's defense was on the field for 1,011 plays during the 2016 season, per Pro Football Focus, but Tim Williams' snap count was lined up for only 429 of those. So how did he manage to rack up the kind of sack and TFL numbers that put him in the top five among SEC players? When Williams pinned his ears back and came off the edge, it was a rarity that he didn't get deep into the backfield.

    His 42.4 percent snap rate, per PFF, was the lowest of any top-graded linebacker this season, yet he still ranked second among 3-4 outside linebackers in overall grade, with the one player above him (Carl Lawson) a full-time defensive end.

    Williams is the epitome of a pass-rushing specialist, the position he's held with the Crimson Tide the last two seasons. This past year, he played more than twice as many snaps as in 2015 and became more involved in stopping the run, but his main task continued to be flying around the corner and wreaking havoc on the pocket and the passer. Even with the added work, though, he only missed four tackles compared to 21 by Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, per PFF. 

1. Reuben Foster, Alabama

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Class: Senior

    2016 Stats: 115 tackles (13 for loss), five sacks, two pass breakups

    Few positions have defined Nick Saban's era at Alabama like linebacker, where all of his best teams have been stacked with standout players. And Reuben Foster may be the best of the lot.

    Rated by Pro Football Focus as not just the top overall linebacker but also the best run-stopping linebacker, along with being well-graded as a pass-rusher and in coverage, Foster is that player every team wants to have in the middle of the field because he finds a way to get to the ball. This was shown by recording the most tackles of any Alabama player during Saban's tenure.

    "Reuben plays well whether we're playing against a direct-run team or a spread team," Saban told Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh. "Reuben just happens to be a guy that can do both of those things very well."

    Foster was credited with tied for the most quarterback hits (12) among linebackers in the 2016 season, and 68 of his 87 solo tackles resulted in a stop, per PFF.

     

    Statistics courtesy of CFBStats and recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted. All slides written by Brian J. Pedersen. Follow the author on Twitter at @realBJP.