NFL1000: Ranking the Top 4-3 Outside Linebackers of 2017 Season

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2018

NFL1000: Ranking the Top 4-3 Outside Linebackers of 2017 Season

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Just like the modern inside linebacker, the outside linebackers in today's base 4-3 defenses have different responsibilities than a generation ago.

    Outside linebackers still patrol their third of the field around the middle linebacker in base fronts. But in a league where nickel is the new base defense and most teams are taking at least one linebacker off the field and replacing him with a slot defender, the need for flash speed in a much larger circumference is clear.

    So, today's 4-3 outside linebackers aren't really outside linebackers in the traditional sense. More often, they are asked to take care of their half of the field from the line of scrimmage to cornerback depth, as well as to blitz from the line of scrimmage and run delayed blitzes from linebacker depth. And just as is the case for every linebacker in the league now, they must take running backs through curl/flat coverage and tight ends up the seam.

    Agility has always been a need at the position, but the modern 4-3 linebacker looks more like a strong safety a lot of the time—weighing in at 220-230 pounds, and racing all over the field with those multiple responsibilities. As the line between inside and outside linebacker blurs in any four-man front defense, the standout outside players make their presence known with their ability and willingness to take on a whole new level of athletic responsibility.

    NFL1000 linebackers scout Derrik Klassen has been watching the outside men all season, and he has his rankings and scouting reports ready, based on the following criteria:

    Pass Defense: 25 points. Does this linebacker have the speed, agility and route awareness to cover tight ends, receivers and running backs, both out of the backfield and in the formation? How is his recovery speed? How are his drops? Does he work well in concert with other defenders? How well does he use his hands when deflecting and intercepting passes?

    Run Defense: 25 points. How well does this player read gaps and flow through openings to get to the ball-carrier? What is his awareness when dealing with misdirection? Does he have the play strength to work through blockers? Does he have the sideline-to-sideline speed to deal with outside runners and clean up second-level runs?

    Pass Rush: 15 points. Is this player able to add his athleticism to the pass rush when directed? How well does he time his blitzes, whether right off the snap or delayed? Does he show the acceleration and pass-rush moves to be an effective blitzer from multiple gaps?

    Tackling: 25 points. No matter how flashy his play might be, how well does this player wrap up and tackle when faced with a ball-carrier?

    Position Value: 10 points. A score that takes into account the importance of the position when comparing scores across other spots on the defense. 4-3 outside linebackers are given 7/10 points across the board, making their top possible grade a 97. 

    Make sure to check out all of the NFL1000 rankings from the 2017 season.



Notable Omissions

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    When ranking inside linebackers, we wanted to see enough snaps and attempts to get a true picture of a player's development in, and effect on, his offense. Linebackers with fewer than 15 percent of their team's total defensive snaps were exempted from the rankings, including the following:

    • Akeem Ayers, New York Giants
    • Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons
    • Stephone Anthony, Miami Dolphins
    • Hardy Nickerson, Cincinnati Bengals

Nos. 45-41

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    45. Calvin Munson, New York Giants

    Coverage: 12/25
    Run Defense: 
    13/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    56/100

    A laundry list of injuries put Calvin Munson on the field. An undrafted free agent, he was not up to par athletically. Though Munson may have had the right idea on a given play, poor acceleration and redirection often left him out of the play.

          

    44. Paul Worrilow, Detroit Lions

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    59/100

    Paul Worrilow was schematically a good linebacker, but not athletically. He often picked up on block schemes and triggers correctly but did not have the speed to finish. The same can be said of Worrilow in coverage, where he tends to get cooked by any skill player with baseline route-running ability. His assignment knowledge made him a decent depth player, but the Lions should look to keep their youngsters on the field instead.

          

    43. Adarius Glanton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    60/100

    Adarius Glanton started four games, three of them coming early in the season when Lavonte David was not healthy. In his small sample, Glanton showed willingness in the run game but a lack of explosiveness and range. He was not able to make plays outside of the tackles, nor was he one to cut through the line of scrimmage early in plays.

           

    42. Najee Goode, Philadelphia Eagles

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    61/100

    For as long as Najee Goode has been an Eagle, he has been a special teamer. But injuries to the linebacking corps pushed him up the depth chart. He was an energetic player with fine tackling ability, which are key to his role as a special teamer; however, Goode was average, at best, in defending the run and remaining in position to corral plays.

          

    41. Eli Harold, San Francisco 49ers

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    61/100

    Eli Harold was a multiposition player in Robert Saleh's defense. Depending on the matchup or situation, he may have been a hands-in-the-dirt defensive end or an off-ball linebacker. On the edge, Harold did not provide the juice as a pass-rusher his build and volume would suggest, but did maintain control of the perimeter well versus the run. Harold was a trickier fit as an off-ball linebacker, often showing the athleticism to succeed, but not the savvy or awareness. Harold is not a cornerstone piece moving forward, but he did his part this season.

Nos. 40-36

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    40. Justin Durant, Dallas Cowboys

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    61/100

    Justin Durant was a fine depth player for the Cowboys with such an injury-prone linebacker group. He was best in space when he could fly around in the run game and get to the perimeter unconstested. However, Durant was not a valuable between-the-tackles run defender, nor was he a functional coverage piece. Durant was a solid two-down player when others were hurt, but he should not be targeted as a potential bargain fix.

                 

    39. Michael Wilhoite, Seattle Seahawks

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Michael Wilhoite was the newest strong-side linebacker for Seattle, a role that appears to be a revolving door. Wilhoite, who was more of an off-ball player in San Francisco, was often asked to set the edge in the run game and handle tight ends head-on in the pass game. As a run defender, he was no worse than what Seattle had before, but did not give much reason for the revolving-door trend to end.

          

    38. Nicholas Morrow, Oakland Raiders

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Nicholas Morrow was a downhill specialist. Versus gap-blocking concepts, he handled the point of attack well and was able to be a hammer of sorts. But he was ineffective when asked to work horizontally, and coverage assignments gave him fits; aside from simply tracking the running back out of the backfield, he did not provide much in coverage.

          

    37. Marquis Flowers, New England Patriots

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    After a slew of injuries, Marquis Flowers was thrust into the lineup—and increasingly so over the final few games. Flowers is on the smaller side for linebackers but still found ways to be effective. He showed a quick first step and knack for not allowing blockers to get the best of him. Coverage situations did not favor Flowers' skill set, but as a run defender with range, he provided quality emergency play.

               

    36. Ben Gedeon, Minnesota Vikings

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Ben Gedeon was the heir to the strong-side OLB role that Chad Greenway moved to near the end of his career. With a thick build, he has the body type to work between the tackles and avoid getting run over by opposing linemen. He lacked speed, both when working the perimeter versus the run and when tracking receivers in zone coverages. Gedeon was very much a role player, but proved to be a decent one—for a rookie.

Nos. 35-31

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    35. Samson Ebukam, Los Angeles Rams

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Samson Ebakum occupied a unique space in Wade Phillips' defense. He lined up both as a rush linebacker and an off-ball player. When on the line of scrimmage, he proved to have the wherewithal and technique to hold down the edge in run defense. Likewise, he flashed moments of impressive pass-rush ability, often turning to his power and tenacity to win.

          

    34. Kiko Alonso, Miami Dolphins

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    63/100

    Kiko Alonso has made a living in Miami off of flash plays. On occasion, he would quickly eyeball a run concept and gun straight into the backfield, derailing the play. More often than not, though, he was slow to get going. He ended up behind the play and was forced to make cleanup tackles. Additionally, Alonso took a step back in coverage this season, regularly being used as focal point by opposing offenses.

          

    33. Jordan Evans, Cincinnati Bengals

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    63/100

    Jordan Evans did not appear quite ready for the multiplicity and speed of the NFL, but he has a base skill set that will keep him in the league for a long time. As a run defender, he showed ample aggression and ability in taking on blocks when working toward his gap responsibility. Playmaking was not part of his game, but he did provide a nice sense of stability for a rookie backup. Evans needs to improve most in coverage, particularly understanding where he needs to move in zone coverage relative to different pass concepts.

         

    32. Duke Riley, Atlanta Falcons

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    63/100

    Duke Riley did not turn out to be the first-year impact player Atlanta had hoped for. He opened the season in the starting lineup, but suffered a minor knee injury and was never reinserted. In his limited time, he proved to be a superb athlete in space with potential to burst through the line of scrimmage, but his inability to handle blocks and consistently trusts his reads hurt him. Riley was, in many ways, the player many worried Deion Jones would be. Riley can still develop moving forward.

            

    31. Keenan Robinson, New York Giants

    Coverage: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    64/100

    Keenan Robinson was primarily a run defender who worked best between the tackles. He was not afraid to get dirty, but did not always have a quick enough trigger to get to the play in time. There was little added value to Robinson's game from that of a run-of-the-mill linebacker, but his baseline level of play was enough to get by.

Nos. 30-26

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    30. Cory James, Oakland Raiders

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    65/100

    Cory James quietly became a viable coverage linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. He showed comfort dropping into hook zones and carrying opponents vertically, as well as working down to contain the flat. Run defense was not a strength, but he was a functional coverage piece who at least gave the Raiders some sort of value.

          

    29. Kyle Emanuel, Los Angeles Chargers

    Coverage: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    65/100

    Kyle Emanuel played the same role in Gus Bradley's defense as Myles Jack a year ago. He flip-flopped between an edge position and off-ball alignment, making use of his ability to work the strong side of run concepts and maintain the edge in run defense. When sifting through run plays, he had the recognition and block-shedding to force plays back inside, which was often all his job required. Emanuel, unlike Jack, could also rush the passer fairly well, though he was seldom on the field for surefire pass downs.

          

    28. Damien Wilson, Dallas Cowboys

    Coverage: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    Damien Wilson was a serviceable third linebacker and role player for the Cowboys. In run defense, he was counted on to not be the weak link on the strong side. He was not one to gash through the backfield, but he did enough to maintain a run structure. Wilson also added some value in coverage, performing well when dropping into hook zones.

              

    27. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills

    Coverage: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    Matt Milano was the original "Jabrill Peppers type" in Don Brown's defense at Boston College. He specialized in a linebacker/safety hybrid role, and has now converted those skills as Buffalo's replacement for Lorenzo Alexander, who became a true pass-rusher. With speed and agility to boast, Milano played well in space, both in coverage and when flying through open rushing lanes. He was still adjusting to the flow and power of the NFL, but at worst, Buffalo has a quality role player on their hands.

          

    26. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Detroit Lions

    Coverage: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    At the very worst, the Detroit Lions found themselves a functional depth player in Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He is an impressive athlete whose skill set shined on passing downs. In coverage, Reeves-Maybin displayed the awareness and athletic ability to force the quarterback elsewhere, and even shut down screen passes. He has some work to do in regard to consistent gap play in the run game, but the tenacity and speed are there.

Nos. 25-21

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    25. Devon Kennard, New York Giants

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Devon Kennard was a quasi edge player. He was asked to set the edge in run defense, in part because his ability to do so allowed for versatility along the line. When needed, Kennard supported his run defense with pass rushing on early-down pass plays. However, he was not a good enough rusher to remain on the field for third down, making him more of a two-down run defender.

          

    24. Craig Robertson, New Orleans Saints

    Coverage: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Craig Robertson did not retain his starting position heading into the season, but an injury to Alex Anzalone forced him back into action. Robertson was plenty serviceable, thriving primarily as a run defender. Though he was not skilled in dropping back into zones, he handled short passes reasonably well and was a presence on the perimeter. The Saints were lucky to have Robertson on the bench in the case of injury.

         

    23. Kyle Van Noy, New England Patriots

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Kyle Van Noy transitioned to a true off-ball position after having played more on the edge last season. He grew comfortable in the role, becoming more confident in his run fits between the tackles and more aware of where to drop in his zones in coverage. Catching up to players in the open field was still a problem for Van Noy, but that he has developed into a viable box defender.

          

    22. Lawrence Timmons, Miami Dolphins

    Coverage: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Quietly, Lawrence Timmons was a solid free-agency addition by the Miami Dolphins. He is no longer a stud player, but he provided Miami with a level of energy and aggression it did not have in 2016. Timmons was a functional run defender, and slightly more consistent within his overall skill set than teammate Kiko Alonso.

          

    21. Mark Barron, Los Angeles Rams

    Coverage: 19/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Mark Barron gets credit for saving his career by moving to linebacker, but that should not warp the perception of how he actually plays the position. Barron, a former safety, often played too hesitantly unless he knew for certain he could hit the gap clean and get the ball-carrier. More times than not, he waited for plays to come to him. But his speed and experience at safety made him a helpful coverage piece all across the field.

Nos. 20-16

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    20. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati Bengals

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    It was rare to find Vincent Rey in the backfield or making a spectacular play in coverage, but he understood his assignments well enough to seldom be the weak link on a given play. He was a fairly passive run defender, opting to ensure he would be in his gap rather than shoot and possibly disrupt the structure of the run fit. In coverage, Rey was not the one jumping routes for interceptions, but he did enough to allow the Bengals to keep him on the field as a three-down backer.

          

    19. Jonathan Casillas, New York Giants

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    68/100

    Jonathan Casillas was the Giants' most consistent linebacker. Though he did not provide great value on passing downs, he truly established himself as a run defender. It was tough to find Casillas out of position or whiffing on tackles one would expect a linebacker to make.

          

    18. Ramon Humber, Buffalo Bills

    Coverage: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    68/100

    Ramon Humber was primarily a run-stuffing linebacker, built to take on blocks without losing much ground or disrupting the overall run fit. When he got his mitts on the ball-carrier, he was as sure a tackler as any on the roster. He may not have provided much in pass defense, but luckily, the Bills had other players for that.

         

    17. Alex Anzalone, New Orleans Saints

    Coverage: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    A third-round pick in the 2017 draft, Alex Anzalone immediately asserted himself as a quality player. He played with impressive range, often flowing out to the perimeter with ease. Between the tackles, he displayed impressive understanding and confidence for a young player. Injuries derailed his season early on, as was often the case in college, but the talent was clear.

          

    16. Kendell Beckwith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    70/100

    Kendell Beckwith took over Daryl Smith's former strong-side role for Tampa Bay. Though only a rookie, Beckwith was a destructive run defender willing and able to ruin power run schemes. His tenacity is exactly what a defense should be built upon.

Nos. 15-11

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    15. De'Vondre Campbell, Atlanta Falcons

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    11/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    70/100

    De'Vondre Campbell was one of the most net-neutral players in the league. In run defense, he hardly accelerated through the line of scrimmage to make impact plays, but he was often in position to control his gap and maintain the integrity of the defensive structure. He was a more intriguing passing-down player, with vast highs and lows in coverage. He dropped into zones well but could not always carry with premier athletes. He was best used on third down as a blitzer, where he was consistently able to get to the quarterback.

          

    14. Darron Lee, New York Jets

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    71/100

    Darron Lee was still an imperfect player, but much improved from his rookie campaign. He was more consistent in the run game, regularly triggering toward his gap and taking a firm stand. He also had more confidence to shoot gaps and disrupt. If Lee can iron out his awareness and decision-making in coverage—a feat Telvin Smith was able to pull off—he could be a top-notch player.

          

    13. Myles Jack, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Coverage: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    71/100

    Myles Jack blossomed into an impactful player this season. In 2016 he was forced into a role that often placed him near the line of scrimmage, the same role Kyle Emanuel plays for the Los Angeles Chargers. Jack was moved to more of an off-ball position and thrived, flashing his athleticism and under-appreciated ability to take on blocks. Jack still has some fine tuning left, which should be expected of a young player, but it became clear that he has a hopeful future in Jacksonville.

           

    12. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    72/100

    After struggling a season ago, with some calling for the Eagles to move on from him, Mychal Kendricks rebounded by reviving his range and awareness in space. He was no longer the player teams could pick on in the passing game, and he regained his footing as a run defender, often clamping down on the end of the line of scrimmage to pinch plays inside.

           

    11. Vontaze Bufict, Cincinnati Bengals

    Coverage: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    72/100

    After being suspended (again) to open the season, Vontaze Burfict returned as roughly 90 percent of his former self. He was a menacing hitter, punishing ball-carriers for daring run in his vicinity. That said, Burfict lost a step in coverage after having only been slightly above average to begin with. His value as a blitzer also diminished. Hopefully Burfict can return to full form.

10. Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Coverage: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    11/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    73/100

    Dont'a Hightower was unable to finish the season due to a pectoral injury, but remained one of the best defenders on the field when healthy. He appeared to have lost a step, hindering him in coverage more so than in the past and forcing him to be an edge-rusher on pass downs. Oftentimes, Hightower also played on the edge during base downs because of his ability to set the edge in run defense.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    A tremendous run defender and one of the more interesting blitzers in the league—the Patriots brought him from all kinds of gaps with great effectiveness—Hightower isn't a great coverage guy, but he brings a great deal of toughness and passion to the game, as well as an innate sense of how to best carry out his responsibilities. He's the ideal Belichick defender.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

9. Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Coverage: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    13/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    73/100

    Buffalo carved out a unique role for Lorenzo Alexander. On base downs, he was a typical off-ball weak-side linebacker. He flowed toward his gap assignment well versus the run and had the closing speed to gash through the offensive line. On passing downs, however, he converted to an edge-rusher, where he blended impressive torque and nifty handwork to fight toward the quarterback. Alexander's positional versatility was a perfect fit for rookie head coach Sean McDermott.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    An anonymous role player who started just 16 games total in the NFL from 2007 through 2015, Alexander owed his career resurgence to former Bills head coach Rex Ryan, who saw in the veteran a multigap linebacker who could blitz anywhere from the edge to the middle linebacker positions in a base 3-4 defense. That's how Alexander racked up 12.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth in 2016. He didn't have quite the same impact in McDermott's more traditional (though still blitz-happy) defense in 2017.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

8. Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    73/100

    In a league where fielding three linebackers is increasingly rare, players like Shaq Thompson have diminished value. However, he was a versatile, well-rounded player who could fill into Thomas Davis' role on the strong side. In base packages, Thompson sometimes played on the edge as a blunt force in the run game and other times as a tight end handler in coverage. He was no star, but he was one of the best third linebackers in the NFL, and would be a starter on many other teams.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    The Panthers put three linebackers on the field as much as any base 4-3 team, but the responsibilities of those LBs switch frequently. Both Thompson and Luke Kuechly not only defend the curl/flat area from the middle of the field, but both will also be seen taking their coverage responsibilities all the way outside in man coverage. Thompson doesn't cover and defend the run with Kuechly's athletic intelligence, but he's one of the quickest linebackers in the league, essentially playing safety roles at times.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

7. Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Coverage: 19/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    11/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    75/100

    Nigel Bradham was unable to continue his impeccable play from a year ago but was still a force in the Eagles front seven. He was a reliable three-down player, able to make an impact versus any play in any situation. Against the run, he did not look terribly explosive, but maintained his assignments well and gave the defensive line the ease of mind to attack. Additionally, Bradham was comfortable in a myriad of coverage situations, and was even a highly effective blitzer.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    The Eagles' dime-coverage concepts—or nickel coverage when they brought an extra defender up to create five-man fronts—worked well precisely because of Bradham, who has the intelligence and speed from sideline to sideline to keep things together in the middle of the defense. Creative defenses need fundamentally sound and unsung cogs to ensure positional flexibility matches with assignment-correct football. Bradham is such a player. 

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

6. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    21/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    22/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    77/100

    K.J. Wright would be a household name on other teams. Playing next to Bobby Wagner and around a handful of other stars, Wright does not get his due as a dominant linebacker. He was a hulking body in the run game who swallowed his assignment gap early and often. In coverage situations, he made seamless transitions in Seattle's pattern-match Cover 3 defense and forced quarterbacks to look in another direction.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    Wright has been one of the most effective 4-3 linebackers in the league since the Seahawks selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. They saw Wright as a hybrid linebacker who had the size to envelop running backs and the speed to shoot through gaps as a blitzer and flare out into coverage. His only real weakness has been a proclivity to give up big plays in man coverage. 

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

5. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Coverage: 20/25
    Run Defense: 
    21/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    22/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    78/100

    Minor signs of age have crept into Thomas Davis' film, but the 34-year-old remained one of the best at his position. Davis was a Tasmanian devil at weak-side linebacker, using his speed and tenacity to win in the run game. Davis' trigger versus the run was fantastic and maximized the potential of his athletic ability. On passing downs, he took a minor step back, notably in picking up on coverage keys. But he was still a well-above-average pass defender.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    Though Father Time remains undefeated, Thomas Davis has given him a run for his money after 13 NFL seasons and three ACL surgeries. In his prime, Davis combined with Luke Kuechly to form the most intelligent, aggressive, mobile linebacker duo in the NFL. In 2017 Davis was more a stationary run hitter, though he still had the short-area quickness for certain kinds of coverage. He recently announced that 2018 will be his final year in the NFL, and when he retires, it will be a long time before we see his like again.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

4. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    23/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    22/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    78/100

    There were few linebackers as equipped to shoot gaps in the run game as Telvin Smith, who blended an aggressive mentality with devastating speed. When he clicked and made his way toward the ball, he flew in with a full head of steam and was tough to get a clean block on. More impressive, however, was that Smith continued to develop in coverage—a skill he lacked when he first entered the league in 2014.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    Today's 4-3 linebacker needs tremendous speed to get everything done that teams need, and there's no faster LB than Smith. At 6'3", 218 pounds, he's the prototypical "big safety" linebacker, equally adept at reading run keys as he is dropping into coverage. His 50-yard fumble-return touchdown against the Steelers in the divisional round was a perfect example of how the Jaguars have used his assignment discipline and incredible quickness to great effect. He was playing underneath zone on the play, and when Ben Roethlisberger was strip-sacked, Smith covered a quarter of the field in a blur to get the ball. He's one of the most valuable linebackers in the game.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

3. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Coverage: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    22/25
    Pass Rush: 
    11/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    79/100

    Lavonte David was an absolute terror, knifing through opposing offensive lines with ease and overwhelming them with speed and a head-on-fire play style. It was common for David to meet the running back behind the line of scrimmage. He wasn't more than a decent coverage player but made himself useful as a punishing blitzer.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    It was hard to make an impact in a Tampa Bay defense with very little pass rush and outright horrible coverage at times. But when you isolated David in 2017, he made the same kind of plays he's produced since he came into the league as a 2012 second-round pick. Yes, David is fast, but it's his understanding of gaps and angles that really makes him a special player, combining great quickness with awareness to create a near-perfect 4-3 linebacker for the modern age.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

2. Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Coverage: 21/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    79/100

    Anthony Barr enjoyed a return to form this season. In 2016, he struggled and played without aggression, perhaps due to lingering injury. Barr was healthy and active this season, re-establishing himself as one of the best all-around backers in the league. His range in coverage and explosiveness when working downhill in the run game helped to open up the rest of Minnesota's defense.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    When the Vikings went with their nickel packages, they did so with great effectiveness; there wasn't much the duo of Barr and Eric Kendricks couldn't do while playing at the second level. Barr is the bigger athlete of the two—at UCLA, he was equally adept at rushing the passer at the line of scrimmage as an edge defender, and stopping the run from linebacker depth. It's been his development as a cover man in Mike Zimmer's defense that has made him a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the most dangerous defenders.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

1. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Coverage: 22/25
    Run Defense: 
    22/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    22/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    80/100

    Injuries put a wrench in Sean Lee's season once again; but when healthy, he was an elite linebacker. Few LBs in the league tracked plays from the back side and shot gaps the way Lee did. He predicated his game on triggering toward his landmark early in the game, then finishing the play with incredible closing speed. Additionally, Lee further solidified himself as one of the rangiest and most consistent coverage linebackers of this era.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

    Lee has never played a full season in his seven-year career, which is probably the only thing keeping him from a future Hall of Fame track. When he is able to stay on the field and avoid injury, there is no linebacker in the game with his combination of unreal athleticism and sense of how plays will develop. Able to defend the run and the pass at elite levels, Lee is the fulcrum of Dallas' defense—and without him, that defense regressed very quickly.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar