B/R NFL 1000: Top 35 3-4 Outside Linebackers
Editor's note: This is the 17th installment in Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through April 24, with NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the NFL 1000 page for more rankings.
With the spread of the 3-4 defense and variations of it, the outside linebacker position is as important as ever in the NFL. It has allowed coaches to get more great athletes like Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis and Justin Houston on the field. But which players do it best in the 3-4?
That’s what the NFL 1000 aims to identify. Throw out the narratives and the fantasy football stats, and dig into the film. Then we’ll see who is the best.
The B/R 1000 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale.
Potential is not taken into consideration, nor are career accomplishments.
Outside linebackers are judged on run defense (20 points), pass-rush skills (30), coverage (10), tackling (40) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.
In the case of ties, our team asked, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.
Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.
Each player was scouted by me and a team of experienced evaluators with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.
35. Erik Walden, Indianapolis Colts
The most impressive aspect of Erik Walden’s (6’2”, 250 lbs, six seasons) pass-rushing repertoire is his hand usage on bull rushes. However, he doesn’t have the power or bulk to take advantage of that good technique. He isn’t an impressive athlete, and he lacks the quick step or change of direction needed to beat offensive tackles in space.
Walden is active in coverage and has decent awareness. He turns well to run with tight ends or receivers into the flat and has decent body control when dropping backward.
Although he is mostly known for his awful run defense against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers during the 2012 playoffs, Walden was actually a reliable run defender for the Colts in 2013. He doesn’t have great size or speed to beat blockers, but he understands positioning and leverage while playing with an impressive combination of control and aggression.
Despite playing more than 1,000 snaps in 2013, Walden missed just six tackles.
Walden isn’t an awful outside linebacker. He lacks the pass-rushing talent to be a valuable starter, but his resiliency against the run and consistency in coverage at least prevented him from being a liability.
34. Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
Jabaal Sheard (6’2”, 255 lbs, three seasons) is a well-rounded pass-rusher who lacks that one elite trait that would elevate his production. He is able to beat tackles off the line of scrimmage with his initial burst and has the strength to hold them off once he gets into a more favorable position. When he gets leverage, he can push bigger offensive linemen back into the quarterback, but he is less effective with his bull rush.
Sheard is a much better pass-rusher than cover linebacker. He can only be given simple assignments such as covering a zone in the flat or the running back coming out of the backfield. He lacks the fluidity to change directions quickly, and his awareness isn’t where you would want it to be.
Because of his compact frame and decent quickness, Sheard is able to shoot into running lanes, set the edge and redirect running backs with his penetration. He is a disciplined run defender with impressive awareness.
On 663 snaps, Sheard missed 10 tackles. That ratio is too high. His lack of quickness in space and his inability to use his arms as a tackler limited his efficiency.
Sheard needs to be a more reliable tackler if he is to be a valuable contributor for the Browns.
33. Paul Kruger, Cleveland Browns
After winning the Super Bowl in 2012, Paul Kruger (6’4”, 270 lbs, five seasons) was signed by the Cleveland Browns to be a star pass-rusher. He dropped back down to mediocrity in 2013 after his supposed breakout season in 2012. Kruger's top-heavy frame and hand usage allow him to be effective as a pass-rusher, but he doesn’t consistently beat offensive tackles with his explosion or power. He is a big target who doesn’t move exceptionally well.
Without great agility and burst, Kruger’s coverage ability is limited. His length working in the flat aids him when the quarterback has less of an angle to throw through, but it doesn’t offset his limitation as a cover linebacker.
Kruger sets the edge and uses his strength to hold his position against the run. He can use his length to disrupt running lanes and grab backs from less advantageous positions.
His 14 missed tackles on 887 snaps in 2013 were simply too many. Kruger has the length and strength to be effective in tight, but his consistency simply wasn’t there. In space he doesn’t have the short-area quickness to be consistently effective.
While they would never admit it, it’s likely the Browns are regretting investing so much in Kruger. They guaranteed him $20 million for the length of his contract, including the salary he will earn in 2014. If he doesn’t improve in 2014, he may find himself on the free-agent market again.
32. Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens
In his first season listed at outside linebacker, Pernell McPhee (6’3”, 280 lbs, three seasons) didn’t display the athleticism needed to play on the outside consistently. But in just 313 snaps in 2013, he still managed to pick up 15 quarterback hurries. He’ll never be considered a speed-rusher who will beat you to the outside, but he moves pretty well for a 280-pound athlete.
McPhee can be used in coverage if everything is kept in front of him. He just doesn’t have the lateral agility to change directions in space to make a play in coverage. A converted defensive lineman, he is a gamble if used in space by a defensive coordinator.
McPhee can set the edge in the run game and displays the quickness off the ball to make offensive linemen reach to control him. He doesn’t necessarily display the hands to consistently shed blocks to make plays in the run game. But with more time, there’s hope that he can develop better hands and become more effective as a run defender.
McPhee will make the play if given the opportunity inside the box. But if the ball-carrier has any room or space, he will struggle to find his target.
McPhee has an athletic skill set that you want to find a use for on defense, but finding that role for him remains a work in progress for the Ravens.
31. Thomas Keiser, San Diego Chargers
After playing just 311 snaps in 2011 and 2012 combined, Thomas Keiser (6’4”, 260 lbs, three seasons) had 445 snaps last season. He struggles to disengage blockers because of poor hand usage, and he’s easily controlled at the line of scrimmage when rushing from either a two- or three-point stance.
Keiser is stiff in coverage and is more of an “in the box” player. He doesn’t slide or transition well when coming out of a break or sliding to turn and run. His hips are rigid, and he doesn’t have the fluidity in space to be considered anything other than a liability in coverage in space.
Again, the biggest issue with Keiser has to do with his hands when he’s engaged with offensive linemen. He doesn’t seem to be interested in using his hands upon initial contact and will easily give the advantage to the blocker.
Keiser is a sure tackler when given the opportunity, but he almost needs to be handed a perfect situation for that to be the case. He doesn’t sort through traffic well and struggles to disengage. He must be in the right position inside the box and not have to do a lot of shedding of blocks to be a sure tackler.
Keiser shouldn’t be handed a starting job as an outside linebacker, although he provides solid depth and should prove valuable on special teams.
30. Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland Browns
One of the top picks of the 2013 draft (No. 6 overall), Barkevious Mingo (6’4”, 240 lbs, one season) was a well-regarded pass-rusher at LSU. But he isn’t yet refined from a technical point of view. Still, he has outstanding physical abilities that give him the potential to be a star one day. During his rookie season, he was inconsistent in a part-time role.
The Browns didn’t look to use Mingo in coverage much in 2013. Much like his pass-rushing skills, he has the physical ability to be effective in space but needs to be better technically. Improved awareness, footwork and initial positioning are all required if Mingo is to become a quality all-around outside linebacker.
Even though he was drafted to be an impact pass-rusher, Mingo is actually a relatively good run defender. His awareness is a positive. He doesn’t play out of control or consistently fall for misdirection. Getting off blocks and maintaining his position on the edge against bigger offensive linemen is still a concern.
Mingo can be a very punishing hitter and is technically sound as a tackler.
There is unquestionably a huge amount of physical talent in Mingo. He is being eased into his career by the Browns, so his relatively low rookie-season ratings aren’t a reason for concern.
29. Quinton Coples, New York Jets
One of our lowest-rated pass-rushing outside linebackers, Quinton Coples (6’6”, 290 lbs, two seasons) just didn’t provide the pass-rushing threat many were expecting would come in 2013. He looks to be moving in slow motion a lot of times, at least comparatively speaking to other outside linebackers.
Coples doesn’t have the natural athleticism or lateral agility to play in space in coverage. If it’s a matter of covering the flat/curl defender underneath, he can take a quick drop and break downhill. But even that isn’t a sure thing with his inability to move his feet.
Coples knows how to use his hands and lock up with offensive linemen and not allow them up into his pads. He controls the point of attack fairly well and can shed blocks to make plays because of how he’s positioned his hands upon initial contact.
Coples is a strong tackler and finishes plays. He won’t chase anyone down in space and won’t be out on the edge forcing speed backs to an early cutback lane. Still, he will make the tackle if the opportunity is in front of him.
Coples has a low ceiling because of his lack of elite burst or athleticism. But at 6’6” and 290 pounds, he moves well enough to earn snaps for the Jets defense and has value as a rotational player.
28. Junior Galette, New Orleans Saints
Showing a knack for getting after the quarterback, Junior Galette (6’2”, 258 lbs, four seasons) picked up 40 quarterback hurries in fewer than 1,000 snaps in 2013. He possesses excellent burst and footwork when setting up a tackle to get upfield. He’ll accelerate through his crossover step like most great pass-rushers and displays an excellent ability to use his hands to free his body to quickly get around the edge to the quarterback.
Galette moves well when coming downhill, but that’s not reciprocated when moving backward and attempting to take up space in coverage. He can break to the flat, but when asked to flow in zone coverage, he is kind of a fish out of water.
Galette doesn’t possess the natural strength to win one-on-one physical engagements with offensive linemen. If his momentum is stopped and he’s locked up with an offensive lineman in the run game, he’s not going to shed and make that play.
Possessing elite closing speed and burst, Galette has the ability to zero in on a target and bring him down if there’s a clear path to the ball-carrier. If not, he will struggle to fight through blocks and “sort through the trash” to make a play.
Simply put, Galette finds ways with his quickness and speed to put pressure on the quarterback. Therefore, he is in a pretty good situation.
27. Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jarvis Jones (6’2”, 245 lbs, one season) showed flashes of power with his bull rush during his rookie season, but his pass-rushing ability wasn’t impressive. He doesn’t show off exceptional hand usage or arm length to knock offensive tackles out of position. A quick first step sometimes appears, but there was a tentativeness to his play that suggested he was still adjusting to the speed of the professional game.
With impressive fluidity and an ability to accelerate moving forward after dropping into his initial position, Jones has the potential to be a good coverage linebacker. However, he was much too reactive in 2013, as his lack of comfort permeated his play.
Jones is a disciplined player who plays with good awareness against the run. He isn’t easily affected by misdirection and understands how to find the football through traffic.
Tackling is a positive for Jones. He has the ability to punish smaller players with his power, but he is also consistent with his technique against bigger backs. His primary concern as a tackler is improving his ability to locate and square up to players in space.
It wasn’t an impressive first season for Jones. He lacks the explosive pass-rushing ability to be a difference-maker against the pass, and he isn’t dominant against the run just yet.
26. Larry English, San Diego Chargers
Despite playing just 381 snaps in 2013, Larry English (6’2”, 255 lbs, five seasons) once again showed that he’s still not developed into a solid pass-rusher. He doesn’t have the elite size, strength, speed or athleticism to consistently be counted on as a playmaker for the Chargers defense.
English is late to recognize routes coming into his area and doesn’t possess the burst to make up for those lack of instincts. He needs to be moving downhill to be at his best on any given play, and he’s not a player you want to scheme running down the seam with a tight end.
English doesn’t have the natural strength to anchor or hold up against blocks inside the box in the run game. He will often bounce off blockers as he flies in out of control before breaking down and establishing his hands upon initial contact.
A sure tackler when moving downhill, English has the ability to drive through defenders and finish plays when there’s a clear lane to the ball-carrier.
English continues to fight the “bust” label after being selected No. 16 overall in 2009. Now that his contract for 2014 has been voided, he will have the opportunity to re-sign with the Chargers or prove to another team that he’s a productive player worthy of a roster spot.
25. Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers
After forcing 23 quarterback hurries in a little more than 400 snaps in 2013, Nick Perry (6’3”, 265 lbs, two seasons) has provided a spark for the Packers defense. He has the natural speed and athletic ability to wreak havoc on an offense’s game plan. He has the speed to get the edge and the quickness off the ball to blow up a play before it develops.
Simply put, he is a liability in coverage. Sometimes you can tell when players are completely uncomfortable with their situation, and that was the case with Perry while in coverage out in space.
As a converted defensive end, Perry understands how to use his hands and disengage with blockers in the run game. He can establish the edge, but it’s part of his game he’ll need to improve heading into next season.
Perry tends to overrun plays in space and put himself in position to miss tackles because of his inability to properly target a ball-carrier. He’s at his best when he’s breaking downhill and has the player he’s looking for in his crosshairs.
While injuries and a conversion from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker have stunted Perry’s growth, there’s still enough there that the Packers shouldn’t give up on his ability to become a much bigger part of the team’s defensive game plan heading into next season.
24. Dan Skuta, San Francisco 49ers
Despite playing just 323 snaps in 2013, Dan Skuta (6’2”, 250 lbs, five seasons) showed a little bit of everything for the loaded San Francisco 49ers defense last season. He doesn’t possess the quickest first step but seems to have enough speed to force tackles to try to push him up the field. He displays the ability to get underneath tackles and drive them up the field as he fights to get underneath their outside shoulder.
Skuta moves well laterally and shows the ability to open, run and change directions in space with relative ease. The 49ers weren’t afraid to line him up in the slot and let him play head-up on a slot receiver. He shows good feet and open-field awareness when sinking into coverage.
Skuta sees the field well and doesn’t lose track of ball-carriers when maneuvering through traffic. He uses his hands well to disengage from offensive linemen when diagnosing the run and has the quickness to come off blocks and make plays.
Skuta is an aggressive tackler who will aim too high on ball-carriers at times. He’ll get a little out of control when targeting players, which will lead him to taking improper angles on the outside.
Skuta is a perfect example of an all-around player who doesn’t have any one aspect of his game that stands out. He adds depth for a loaded 49ers defense.
23. Frank Zombo, Kansas City Chiefs
Thrown into the starting role for the Kansas City Chiefs when Justin Houston was injured, Frank Zombo (6’3”, 254 lbs, four seasons) gave the Chiefs a fundamentally sound run-stuffing outside linebacker. He is limited athletically in his footwork when rushing the passer and therefore doesn’t project to be an impact player, but he does enough things well to provide depth for Kansas City.
Zombo doesn’t have the lateral agility to be a consistent option for the Chiefs in coverage at outside linebacker. Needing everything in front of him, he can adequately move to cover shallow crossers but doesn’t display the instincts to hop on plays in the flat until it’s too late.
Zombo does a good job setting the edge in the run game. He’s solid fundamentally and is rarely caught out of position. He displays great awareness when sorting through traffic and is physical enough to fight through blocks to make plays.
Zombo will occasionally lunge and lead with his shoulder after he’s committed to the ball-carrier, causing him to bounce off players who carry an above-average frame. He does a nice job of wrapping up and missed just two tackles in more than 400 snaps in 2013.
Zombo provides depth for the Chiefs behind Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, but he doesn’t possess the athletic skills to be more than a role player.
22. Matt Shaughnessy, Arizona Cardinals
Our lowest-ranked pass-rusher at outside linebacker, Matt Shaughnessy (6’5”, 285 lbs, five seasons) made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in 2013. Already bigger than a lot of stand-up pass-rushers, he just doesn’t possess the burst or athleticism to beat tackles up the field. He also doesn’t have the feet to set them up for inside moves.
Despite his size and lack of elite athleticism, Shaughnessy doesn’t look completely lost out in space. He slides well and does a good job of reading quarterbacks while dropping into coverage. He’s smooth in his movements, although not particularly explosive. He’s someone you can drop into coverage at times, but he is better in confined areas because of his run skills and size.
Shaughnessy may be a little lost when asked to stand up and rush on the outside, but he’s not lost when asked to mix it up in the run game. He has excellent strength and uses it well when leveraging against offensive linemen. He sheds blocks and is violent with his hands when fighting hand placement with blockers.
Shaughnessy is a sure tackler who isn’t afraid to drive through a ball-carrier. He missed just one tackle in more than 700 snaps in 2013.
Shaughnessy deserves to be on the field in some kind of role. But as a stand-up pass-rusher, he leaves a lot to be desired in getting after the passer.
21. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins
Relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback, Ryan Kerrigan (6’4”, 260 lbs, three seasons) gives you everything he has on each down. He posted 40 quarterback hurries in 2013 in fewer than 1,000 snaps.
If Kerrigan is out in space in coverage, something went wrong. He labors when he’s moving and is at his best when unleashed dead-red on a target.
Kerrigan gets turned sideways too easily after initial contact with an offensive lineman. He doesn’t display the ability to use his hands well consistently when locking up with blockers and reading the ball-carrier.
When Kerrigan hits you, you tend to remember. He’s extremely physical and doesn’t seem content with just bringing ball-carriers to the ground. He really wants to make them to feel his presence. He has an ideal frame and closes well when approaching a target—either in the backfield or crashing down the line of scrimmage against the run.
Kerrigan is the kind of player who will only continue to get better as he refines his pass-rushing skills. Without a lot of natural bend, the effort and relentlessness will continue to be the things which fuel his pass-rushing abilities.
20. Jarret Johnson, San Diego Chargers
The story still hasn’t changed on veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (6’3”, 260 lbs, 11 seasons). He’s a run-stuffing throwback outside linebacker who might be limited athletically but provides your defense with a “setting the edge” player. He isn’t going to be the guy bending around the edge for a sack, but he does read quarterbacks well and has closing speed when the play breaks down.
Johnson isn’t someone you want in coverage unless you’re the offense. He doesn’t have the agility or athletic fluidity to play in space.
His bread and butter is about leverage, hand placement and a balanced lower body. Only three outside linebackers received a higher grade against the run in our 2013 rankings. He has excellent upper-body strength and displays that when locked up with offensive linemen against the run.
Johnson has better closing speed than you’d think for a player his size, but he struggles in space and when crashing down the line against quicker players. He doesn’t have the same speed as we’ve seen in the past.
Johnson is a guy who might not bring the athleticism or pass-rushing ability of many other outside linebackers, but you know what you’re getting. If you can find a pass rush from your defensive linemen and outside linebacker opposite him, he’s a great asset to your defense.
19. Parys Haralson, New Orleans Saints
In just 373 snaps in 2013 for the Saints, Parys Haralson (6’0”, 255 lbs, seven seasons) missed only two tackles. He doesn’t possess a lot of natural fluidity in his pass-rushing movements, is a little stiff when rushing to the outside and doesn’t have the natural bend around the edge you see from most guys. He displays the upper-body strength to bull rush through tackles and does a nice job of getting his hands underneath the pads of offensive linemen.
Haralson displays the ability to sink in coverage and recognize underneath routes. He doesn’t have the lateral agility to open and run down the field with tight ends, and he backs out of the backfield. However, he is effective at breaking on crossing routes and hopping to the flat in zone coverage.
Haralson is limited by his good but not great athleticism. He struggles with quicker backs and will sometimes lose his ability to accurately target a running back before lunging at him and losing all leverage.
Haralson displayed the ability to shed blocks and make plays in the running game. He has a solid frame with plenty of upper-body strength to help him drive ball-carriers the other direction upon initial contact. When he connects, his target feels his presence.
Haralson is a guy with limited upside. He doesn’t have the natural athleticism to become a difference-maker on defense, but he provides enough to warrant snaps.
18. Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills
With an astounding 39 quarterback hurries in only 621 snaps in 2013, Jerry Hughes (6’2”, 254 lbs, four seasons) is a situational pass-rusher who excels in countering inside on stunts. He moves well in traffic and displays excellent footwork when moving within the box. He has elite closing speed and seems to accelerate through his countermoves. He can bend the edge and has the quickness to disrupt any play right off the ball.
Despite all of the athleticism shown in 2013, Hughes isn’t someone you want out in space in coverage. He doesn’t have particularly good instincts when sitting in zone coverage and has trouble locating the ball when the pass is on the way.
Hughes isn’t an overly physical player, and that’s on display when he’s playing against the run. His game is built around speed, fluidity and quickness, not strength or leverage. He can make plays against the run, but those are usually the result of his quickness being an issue for offensive linemen attempting to block him.
Hughes didn’t miss a lot of tackles in 2013, but he’ll lose awareness when playing the run and will put himself in bad positions to make plays. He doesn’t slow through contact but will struggle when out in space targeting ball-carriers.
Hughes will draw interest as long as he has the athleticism to beat blockers up the field and the quickness to beat them off the ball. He has the ability to put pressure on the quarterback, and there’s always going to be tremendous value in that skill.
17. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
LaMarr Woodley (6’2”, 265 lbs, seven seasons) is no longer the dominant pass-rusher he once was. He is still an effective pass-rusher, one who has the talent to rank among the best in the NFL, but he doesn't finishes plays like he did earlier in his career. Health and weight issues appear to have slowed him and drained his ability to sustain his intensity from the snap to the quarterback. He was able to push offensive linemen back and affect the pocket, but he left too many sacks on the field in 2013.
Woodley isn’t a great mover in space. He can’t flip his hips and run with receivers or tight ends down the sideline, but he is effective dropping into the flat or zones underneath in nickel packages. The veteran linebacker relies on his awareness and positioning to be a valuable cover linebacker.
Intensity is a concern with Woodley. He is still an effective run defender when setting the edge, but he can’t maintain position against double-teams and doesn’t always work to chase down backs from the back side like he did in previous seasons.
Seven missed tackles were a few too many for Woodley in 2013. He is reliable in tight, but he doesn’t punish backs with explosion through contact. A lack of agility in space also hampers what he can do after dropping into coverage.
Woodley is not the feared player he once was. The Steelers chose Jason Worilds over him because of his decline in play. Clearly there is still talent there, and the Raiders will be hoping to get a lot more out of him in 2014.
16. Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Worilds (6’2”, 262 lbs, four seasons) is a speed-rusher with a limited package as a pass-rusher. When you look through his sacks in 2013, the results are unimpressive. His primary issue is his inability to react during the second phase of the play. If the offensive tackle he is working against gets a good initial position, he is easily taken out of the action.
At this stage of his career, Worilds should be a better coverage player. His athleticism in space is decent, but he lacks the control and awareness to consistently make plays on the ball.
Worilds wasn’t an outstanding run defender when playing on the right side but improved a lot when he moved to the left. He consistently set the edge and used leverage to maintain his position when fending off blocks.
Worilds missed eight tackles on 792 snaps. He isn’t an impact tackler because he lacks ideal strength, but he generally shows sound technique. Controlling his momentum at the point of the tackle is an important aspect of his play.
The Steelers invested in Worilds this offseason because of his breakout season. However, he will need to improve a lot if he is to prove worthy of the investment.
15. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
The thumb injury that ultimately ended Clay Matthews’ (6’3”, 255 lbs, five seasons) season also affected his ability to get to the quarterback. He is an outstanding athlete, but a large part of his game is his ability to use his hands to knock offensive tackles off balance and gain positioning to drive them back into the quarterback. Without 100 percent confidence in one of his hands, he was a less effective all-around pass-rusher.
Being a top-heavy athlete who doesn’t have great awareness in space limits what Matthews can do in coverage. He is much more valuable to the Packers as a pass-rusher.
Matthews shows excellent discipline and awareness against the run, but most importantly he is very strong. He can maintain his position against double-teams and fight through blocks quickly in space to close on the quarterback.
With his big, powerful arms and impressive burst of acceleration, it’s no surprise that Matthews can punish quarterbacks and running backs. He is a technically sound tackler who missed a few too many in 2013, but his injury likely affected him.
It wasn’t a great season for Matthews, but if healthy he should have no problem rebounding to top form in 2014.
14. Manny Lawson, Buffalo Bills
It’s clear that Manny Lawson (6’5”, 240 lbs, eight seasons) is not an exceptionally talented pass-rusher. He brings a physicality and intensity to chasing down the quarterback that many others in his position don’t, but he is also limited in physical talent and technique. He doesn’t appear to understand how to transform speed to power or power to speed, and his timing with his feet isn’t impressive. Where he wins is with his strength, but that has a constrained impact because of his limitations.
Lawson is a disciplined positional player with good awareness, but he lacks hip fluidity and the explosion to close on the football. His physical limitations are set in stone at this stage of his career, which is why he is best suited to be a strong-side outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
Lawson is strong and able to use his long arms to hold blockers off his body against the run. However, his 6’5” frame can work against him as a run defender because offensive linemen can more easily use their leverage against him. Sometimes he is too slow to move his feet to fill running lanes, but on the whole he is an effective, disciplined run defender.
In his role for the Bills in 2013, Lawson was an effective role player. He isn’t a spectacular starter and he’ll never be an all-around talent, but he has had a long career because of his consistency.
13. Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles
In more than 1,200 snaps in 2013, Connor Barwin (6’4”, 264 lbs, five seasons) displayed a lot of what we’ve come to know from the veteran outside linebacker. He doesn’t have the natural ability to bend the edge or dip around blockers to get upfield to the quarterback, but he does have the upper-body strength to bull rush blockers when given the opportunity.
Barwin moves adequately in man coverage when locked up with tight ends in the flat. He’s not a guy you want covering seam routes very often, but he has the ability to stay with running backs and tight ends for short amounts of time.
One of the strongest areas of Barwin’s game is his ability to set the edge in run defense. He has excellent hand usage when engaged with defenders and does a great job of keeping offensive linemen away from his body. He sheds well and is able to come off and make plays when a ball-carrier approaches.
Barwin is a physical player who drives through ball-carriers and finishes plays when making a tackle. He missed just six tackles in more than 1,200 snaps last season, proving to be one of the more reliable tackling outside linebackers in the NFL in 2013.
Barwin won’t develop more pass-rush moves or all of a sudden have the athletic ability to consistently beat blockers off the edge. But he is a solid run defender and has adequate ability to drop in coverage and help mix up the defensive looks for the Eagles.
12. Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers
Falling from No. 7 in our rankings from last year, Ahmad Brooks (6’3”, 259 lbs, eight seasons) took a small step back in 2013. He is still one of the most powerful outside linebackers when on the move, but once his feet stop he’s not much of a factor on the play. He displays excellent instincts when quarterbacks leave the pocket and is adept at simply jumping into throwing lanes when stonewalled on a blitz.
Brooks doesn’t have the same lateral agility he’s had in the past, although that didn’t keep the 49ers from putting him out in space in coverage. He has great instincts and the ability to recognize routes in his area, but he doesn’t have the burst or agility to make plays in space very often.
Brooks still does a great job of setting the edge in the run game, consistently freeing his outside shoulder and creating leverage and angles to force ball-carriers to the inside or out and around the tackle. This allows teammates to come and clean up the ill-advised attempt to bounce the play outside.
In small, confined areas inside the box, Brooks is a force when tackling ball-carriers. But in space and on the move, he can be exposed due to his lack of lateral agility or fluidity in changing directions.
Brooks is still a great complement to Aldon Smith. His ability to set the edge and contain in the run game is an asset to the 49ers defense. Still, it won’t be too long before the 49ers begin limiting schemes that put him out in space in coverage, which might reduce his number of snaps and value.
11. Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
Even as a part-time player last season, Brandon Graham (6’2”, 265 lbs, four seasons) made an impact. As a shorter, stockier outside linebacker, he has the natural leverage to get underneath blockers when rushing between the tackles. His strength at the point of contact is his real asset, though. He has the upper-body strength to rip inside and wreak havoc right in the quarterback’s face.
A better athlete than you’d expect with his size, Graham has the ability to drop in coverage on a limited basis. He has the athleticism to get out to the flat and can take away the quick slants, but it would be hurting the Eagles defense to routinely move him out of the box.
Graham has plenty of power when engaged with a blocker inside the box. He displays capable hand usage upon initial contact but sometimes will lose awareness on the ball-carrier when engaged.
A powerful tackler who drives through ball-carriers and finishes plays, Graham is a sure tackler when inside the box facing a running back or closing in on a quarterback. He will display poor balance and weight distribution when out on the edge. However, within the confined area between the tackles, he is a sure tackler.
Not your prototypical outside linebacker, Graham has the natural leverage and strength to be a pass-rushing force between the tackles. His ability to rip inside also helps the Eagles’ run defense.
10. Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles
A dynamic edge-rusher, Trent Cole (6’3”, 270 lbs, nine seasons) continues to be a high-level producer in Philadelphia. His experience as a defensive end comes into play here, as he’s able to use his hands and leverage to disengage from blockers. His lack of speed around the corner is a factor, but he has great technique, balance and understanding of how to best use his mass.
Cole is not a coverage player in any way. He’s best used moving full steam ahead against the pass and shouldn’t be put in front of a tight end or asked to cover a back out into a route tree.
Cole does a good job of working in space against the run when standing up. His time at defensive end also taught him to handle blockers and use his hands and arms to disengage from a lineman. His vision, instincts and ability to stack-and-shed at the edge are top-tier.
Five missed tackles for a player that shared snaps is concerning, but on film we saw Cole making plenty of plays. He has to do a better job seeing the ball and securing the tackle in space.
Cole might not be an ideal fit for Chip Kelly’s defense or his preference at outside linebacker, but his production and impact speak for themselves.
9. John Abraham, Arizona Cardinals
Brought in as a late signing in 2013, John Abraham (6’4”, 263 lbs, 14 seasons) made a monster impact off the edge of the Cardinals defense. He still has the burst to turn the corner and get into the backfield, but his awareness and instincts are what set him apart. He’s no longer the freak athlete we once saw, but he is still quick enough to run down quarterbacks. He has to rely more on technique now and less on athleticism, but the tools are there.
As a defensive end/linebacker hybrid throughout his career, Abraham has never had to play much in coverage. He does show high-level awareness and closing ability on the ball but shouldn’t be matched up in man coverage. He’s much better defending in a zone drop.
As a linear, lean player, Abraham doesn’t show the strength to lock out blockers and anchor the edge. He’s best used in space attacking the run at an angle or closing in on the ball through pursuit.
Abraham missed just four tackles on the year—a good number, considering his snap count (884) and how active he was. He’s still the closer on the edge he used to be and saw a boost in his tackling numbers once he was stood up in space.
The move to a hybrid defense was great for Abraham as he trekked from Atlanta to Arizona. The 2013 season saw him turn in his best campaign since 2010.
8. Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills
As one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL, Mario Williams (6’6”, 292 lbs, eight seasons) was the perfect piece for Mike Pettine’s defense in Buffalo. He uses his power and length to fight off blockers but also has exceptional burst and quickness in space. He’s able to counter a tackle’s moves and is never out of the fight physically. Playing in a stand-up role wasn’t optimal. His height allowed tackles to get their hands inside his frame easier, and that showed on film as he did struggle at times to break free.
Williams is not a coverage linebacker, but he does show some ability to make a zone drop and play in space. His length and awareness are both assets here.
Williams’ power, length and experience all come into play against the run. He’s able to set the edge and has the burst to track into the backfield and stop the run before the ball crosses the line. He’s stout enough to handle blockers in traffic, but he does lack some of the flexibility needed to excel in space.
In the open field, you’ll see Williams making plays on the ball. He’s long and strong enough to be a factor against the run. Once he has his arms on the ball-carrier, he’s bringing him down. He missed just two tackles all season.
Williams won’t play as much in a stand-up role in the Bills defense in 2014, but judging by his snaps taken in space or unprotected, he was definitely classified as an outside linebacker in 2013.
7. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
One of the NFL’s most consistent pass-rushers, Tamba Hali (6’3”, 275 lbs, eight seasons) did it again in 2013. He’s long, strong and has enough quickness and burst to stun blockers off the line. Matched up against the offense’s left tackle, he needs to use a variety of moves to get into the backfield, and he shows the expanded tool set to bait-and-switch on the move.
The Chiefs do not ask Hali to drop into coverage often, but he can do so. He showed off impressive hands and is aware and aggressive when the ball is in flight.
When asked to set the edge, Hali is strong enough to be an impact player. He anchors well and can force the run away from the corner. He doesn’t come through traffic well enough to close down the run or make tackles, but he does his job as a corner defender.
As a tackler, Hali varies between good and average, depending on the play. He will struggle if in a one-on-one situation in space but does a nice job finding angles and closing on the ball from the edge.
Hali was overshadowed at times by Justin Houston in 2013, but his play was as strong as ever. He may be aging, but he’s a cornerstone of the Kansas City defense.
6. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
With 10 sacks, 14 hits and 37 quarterback hurries, Terrell Suggs (6’3”, 260 lbs, 11 seasons) was again a consistent producer. He has the strength to beat blockers with power moves (bull rushes, rip moves, etc.) but also has underrated quickness to explode off the line and into the backfield. He did struggle when met by an athletic left tackle, as he doesn’t have the raw speed to turn the corner and win with burst. But his total package of moves makes him productive.
Suggs lacks the agility and fluid movement to play in coverage. He’s not a great mover working in a backpedal or zone drop and is best utilized on passing downs as a defensive end/pass-rusher.
Suggs is strong enough to set the edge and keep the offense from getting to the sideline. He’s top-tier at holding the corner and locking down outside runs. Using that strength and his awareness, he is an exceptional edge-run defender.
Missed tackles were not a problem for Suggs, and that showed up consistently on film. He’s strong enough to pull down ball-carriers in space or in traffic and does a great job hitting through the running back.
The thunder to Elvis Dumervil’s lightning in 2013, Suggs once again claims his place as one of the best outside defenders in the league.
5. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore Ravens
Elvis Dumervil (5’11”, 260 lbs, seven seasons) is only getting better with age and was an excellent addition for Baltimore. He brought a quickness and tenacity to the edge that was missing in previous seasons. He excels at the shoulder dip that allows him to squeeze under tackles and turn the corner. He’s naturally low to the ground and uses that center of gravity to his advantage with great balance and flexibility. Once he gets a tackle turned, he’s fast enough to accelerate to the passer.
As a shorter player with ideal burst but average agility in space, Dumervil isn’t an ideal coverage linebacker. The Ravens acknowledged that by keeping him in a pass-rushing role as much as possible.
As a run defender, Dumervil did a good job in space and in pursuit. Where he struggles is if a blocker gets off the ball and puts hands on him before he can turn the run back inside. He is able to force the run back inside with his quickness and awareness, but he can struggle with blocks.
Dumervil didn't miss a tackle in 2013, but we’re also looking at tackles he didn’t get to on film that looked possible. In that regard, his score comes down. He struggled to reach ball-carriers and get through traffic to make plays.
The Ravens needed a productive pass-rusher, and they got one in Dumervil. His 10 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 40 hurries place him among the league’s most productive at the position.
4. Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
Brian Orakpo (6’4”, 257 lbs, five seasons) came back from injury in 2013 and went right back to where he left off. He’s one of the most naturally powerful and quick pass-rushers in the 3-4 scheme and uses those skills well. He’s able to attack blockers and either drive them off the ball or set them up with a bull rush and counter with inside or outside speed.
Orakpo, like most top-end pass-rushers, doesn’t drop into coverage much. When he does, though, the impact was noticeable. His one interception and ability to limit targets jumped off the screen in limited snaps.
With top-tier natural strength, Orakpo is able to hold up against blockers who are trying to establish the edge. He’s elite at stacking and shedding the block to attack the ball off the edge and is great in pursuit on backside plays.
Orakpo only missed five tackles, but his technique and missed opportunities keep his score down a bit. He’s powerful and can be an impact hitter, but he has to break down better in space.
Back after losing 2012 to injury, Orakpo quickly reminded us why he’s one of the best outside rushers in the NFL.
3. Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Aldon Smith (6’4”, 265 lbs, three seasons) is big, long-armed and one of the most naturally gifted pass-rushers in the NFL. He uses his combination of power and speed well, and that duality throws off blockers who try to mentally prepare for one of his moves. Especially when working with defensive end Justin Smith, he is nearly unblockable when looping underneath or outside a left tackle. He’s too quick and strong to handle in a one-on-one situation, and he is best held in check with a chip or double-team.
Smith is not often asked to drop into coverage, but when he is you see a bit of stiffness and a lack of fluid movement throughout transitions. He’s at his best moving toward the passer and not away into coverage.
Smith’s strength shows up against the run. He’s long enough to lock out blockers and keep them off his frame, then he shows the ability to shed and attack the run. He’s also strong enough to hold anchor off the right edge and shows elite pursuit skills.
When asked to bring down a runner in space, Smith can be stiff and struggle to change direction. If making a tackle in traffic or attacking the ball, he looks outstanding.
Smith had his struggles off the field in 2013, and they have continued in 2014. But when he was on it, few players had a bigger impact coming off the edge.
2. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Justin Houston (6’3”, 258 lbs, three seasons) is one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers, and he’s just getting started. He has the raw speed to beat tackles off the edge, often gaining an advantage with an unreal first step. His ability to get into the backfield before blockers are set is off the charts. He also has enough strength to impact the game with bull rushes and power moves.
You won’t see Houston dropping back into coverage often, but when he does (and that’s what we’re grading), his impact was surprisingly high. He shows fluid movement skills and high awareness to affect the passing game.
With 42 hurries, eight quarterback hits and 11 sacks, Houston was one of the NFL’s most dangerous pass-rushers. After a fantastic start to his season, he did taper off before missing major time to end the season. His injury in Week 12 had a huge, negative impact on the Chiefs defense, but he was one of the best when healthy.
A strong tackler, Houston does a good job of bringing down ball-carriers in space. He can be timid at times in attacking the ball, but he has form and was an active, productive tackler.
Houston didn’t finish the season as well as he started it, but he was one of the absolute best pass-rushers in the NFL.
1. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
Robert Mathis (6’2”, 246 lbs, 11 seasons) was a man possessed in 2013. From the first week of the season through the team’s loss in the playoffs, he produced. The veteran put up an All-Pro season that saw him dip, drive and explode his way into the backfield. Mathis excels with his first-step quickness but also with a low center of gravity and an exceptional ability to dip his shoulder to get underneath the hands of blockers. Stopping him was impossible, as even top-tier athletes were prone to overextending and allowing him to counter with spin moves and inside rushes.
Mathis is the type of player you want rushing the quarterback on passing downs, not sinking into coverage. He does show the quickness to play in space, but he is much better moving forward than going after the ball in man coverage. That said, when passes were thrown in his direction, he did perform well at eliminating targets.
Mathis has the vision, awareness and edge-setting ability to be a factor against the run. He holds the corner and does a nice job locking out blockers with his hands. While he doesn’t have the best length, he gets into the backfield with the same quickness we see against the pass.
A top-tier open-field tackler, Mathis has the ability to break down in space and put ball-carriers on the ground. He will miss a few tackles from ducking his head, but he’s an explosive athlete and tackler.
Mathis was the man in 2013, emerging as a do-it-all rush linebacker in the Colts defense. The loss of Dwight Freeney was cushioned by the play of a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.