B/R NFL 1000: Top 60 Inside Linebackers

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJuly 3, 2015

B/R NFL 1000: Top 60 Inside Linebackers

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    Who is the best player in the NFL? Not based on the last 10 years or one game, but over the last year, who was the best? Good luck answering that one without starting a fight, right?

    Well, that's what the NFL 1000 aims to do by scouting, grading and then ranking the best players at each position before putting them in order and breaking ties to come up with the top 1,000 players. No narratives, no fantasy football points, no "QBR"—this is cold, hard scouting.

    You can find rankings for all other positions on our B/R NFL 1000 main page.

    The B/R 1000 metric is based heavily on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance for a possible best score of 100.

    Potential is not taken into consideration. Neither are career accomplishments.

    Inside linebackers are judged on their run-stopping skills (35 points), pass-rush ability (10), coverage skills (20), tackling ability (35) and value as a starter or backup (five points). How do we value starter points? If a player is a consistent starter, he gets the full five points. Spot starters received four points. Players scoring in the three-, two- or one-point range are not considered starting-caliber.

    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 (Dan Bazal, Cian Fahey, Dan Hope, Marshal Miller, Justis Mosqueda) with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study from our team.

    All statistics from Pro Football Focus. Players' heights, weights and seasons played from NFL.com.

60-56. Burris, Worrilow, Mauga, Butler, McClain

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    60. Miles Burris, Free Agent

    39/100

    Run Defense: 5/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 5/20; Tackling: 25/35; Starter: 3/5

    After starting all 16 games for Oakland in 2014, Miles Burris is still looking for work in 2015. He has put together two 85-plus-tackle seasons in his three years but has not been reliable at stopping the run. As a strong-side linebacker, Burris can’t seem to put himself in position to make stops and is pushed off his spot too often. He doesn’t have the athletic ability to play well in coverage but is a willing special teams player and a hardworking linebacker.

    59. Paul Worrilow, Atlanta Falcons

    46/100

    Run Defense: 12/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 5/20; Tackling: 25/35; Starter: 3/5

    Paul Worrilow will be playing the role of Bobby Wagner in Dan Quinn’s defense for Atlanta. Quinn praised Worrilow in May for his offseason work ethic. Worrilow had an amazing 136 tackles in 2014 and started all 16 games. As an undrafted free agent, Worrilow is proving to be a very productive find for the Falcons. If his offseason is indicative of his season to come, his name is sure to rise on the list next year.

    58. Josh Mauga, Kansas City Chiefs

    48/100

    Run Defense: 14/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 7/20; Tackling: 24/35; Starter: 2/5

    Josh Mauga recovered from a back injury that forced him to miss the entire 2013 season with his most productive season yet in 2014. He had big shoes to fill when Derrick Johnson was lost for the season, and Mauga did the best he could to aid a weak run-stopping defense. He is quick to the line of scrimmage but missed some tackles in 2014 and didn’t always put himself in position to make plays. Playing alongside a healthy Johnson will make a huge difference for Mauga in 2015.

    57. Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers

    49/100

    Run Defense: 13/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 5/20; Tackling: 25/35; Starter: 5/5

    Donald Butler struggled against the pass in 2014, both in coverage and pass rushing. He was unable to get to the quarterback and recorded only one sack, in addition to having one of the highest QB ratings allowed for passes in his coverage area. Butler plays better against the run but still rates at one of the lowest for his position. On film it is easy to see the athlete Butler is, but he must improve his technique to succeed.

    56. Jameel McClain, New York Giants

    51/100

    Run Defense: 11/30; Pass Rush: 3/10; Coverage: 8/20; Tackling: 26/35; Starter: 3/5

    After six seasons with the Ravens, Jameel McClain moved on to the Giants in 2014. Taking on more snaps, McClain produced a high number of tackles, despite struggling against the run. He is athletic and able to pursue agile ball-carriers. McClain struggled in the box and was overpowered by interior linemen. He needs to regain strength and work on getting in position to make more plays before backs get downfield.

55-51. Fletcher, Matthews, Lofton, Dent, Spence

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    55. Dane Fletcher, New England Patriots

    52/100

    Run Defense: 14/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 8/20; Tackling: 26/35; Starter: 3/5

    Dane Fletcher will return to the Patriots in 2015, after spending 2014 in Tampa Bay. He adds much-needed depth to the Patriots linebackers after Brandon Spikes' release. Fletcher is a strong tackler who plays well in the box. He can sort through the trash and find his way into running lanes. Fletcher is not a gifted athlete but is able to perform and produce in the NFL, as well as contribute on special teams.

    54. Casey Matthews, Minnesota Vikings

    52/100

    Run Defense: 17/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 6/20; Tackling: 25/35; Starter: 3/5

    Casey Matthews started 11 games for the Eagles last year and has never missed a game in his four seasons. In 2015, Matthews will be competing with rookie Eric Kendricks for snaps at inside linebacker for the Vikings. Matthews is a very instinctive player and will bring a hardworking veteran presence to the linebacking corps. Matthews lacks size and strength to make up for subpar athleticism but has a tireless work ethic and drive on the field.

    53. Curtis Lofton, Oakland Raiders

    52/100

    Run Defense: 12/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 10/20; Tackling: 25/35; Starter: 4/5

    Curtis Lofton has been a reliable starter with the Saints and Falcons for his seven seasons; however, like many veterans in the latter part of their careers, Lofton is moving to Oakland. When Lofton uses good form, he is a punishing tackler but at times loses that technique and misses tackles. Lofton has always played with good vision and natural instincts, in addition to his adequate strength and never-stop mentality.

    52. Akeem Dent, Houston Texans

    54/100

    Run Defense: 12/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 9/20; Tackling: 29/35; Starter: 3/5

    Akeem Dent is a young linebacker who saw most of his time filling in because of the many injuries the Texans had at linebacker in 2014. Dent has extraordinary hand use to maintain leverage on stronger blockers. Dent played in 15 games in 2014 and started seven. With Brian Cushing recovering from his third knee surgery, Dent could see more playing time in 2015.

    51. Sean Spence, Pittsburgh Steelers

    55/100

    Run Defense: 19/30; Pass Rush: 1/10; Coverage: 8/20; Tackling: 24/35; Starter: 3/5

    Sean Spence showed good promise against the run in 2014, using his arms well in shedding blocks and wrapping up ball-carriers. Spence uses his athletic ability to get into running lanes and deliver authoritative hits on ball-carriers, as well as breaking on balls and taking away underneath routes in coverage. Spence needs to show more consistency to be the reliable inside linebacker the Steelers need for depth.

50. J.T. Thomas, New York Giants

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    12/30

    J.T. Thomas struggled against the run in 2014 and will need to show the Giants that he is able to take on and shed blockers. He plays fast and has the ability to play both inside and outside linebacker. Using his burst, Thomas is able to shoot gaps and disrupt runners but is not always in position to make stops.

    Pass Rush

    3/10

    The strength to Thomas’ game is his flexibility to play different positions, which is the same skill set that allows him to be a good rusher. He is quick enough to get outside and strong enough to get linemen off balance.

    Coverage

    10/20

    In man coverage Thomas doesn't use his speed as well as he should, but his two interceptions show that he is capable of making plays on the ball. He just needs to work on being in position to make those plays.

    Tackling

    28/35

    As an inside linebacker, Thomas missed six tackles in 2014 but played in only 434 snaps. He needs to play with more strength and make sure he is making good first contact to bring down runners. Thomas was able to force two fumbles this season when making good contact.  

    Starter

    3/5

    The Giants are in need of someone who can play inside and outside linebacker. Thomas will be looking to catch on as a starter and solidify himself as a regular player.

    Overall

    56/100

49. James-Michael Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    10/30

    James-Michael Johnson is quick off the snap and uses his speed well in pursuit. Johnson does a good job at sifting through the trash and putting himself in running lanes. He struggles at times shedding blockers and allows them to get into his body when shooting gaps.

    Pass Rush

    3/10

    As a faster linebacker, Johnson is able to pressure the pocket but will make most of his plays when the pocket has collapsed and the quarterback is forced out. His speed and ability to read the offense are key in his pass rush.

    Coverage

    12/20

    His speed and quickness has not translated to coverage. He's used mostly in zone because man is a problem for him. With the speed to keep up with most tight ends and backs, Johnson is not able to predict or read routes.

    Tackling

    28/35

    Johnson does a nice job of squaring up his opponent and making good initial contact on ball-carriers. While he is not a big hitter, he can pack a punch when in good position. Johnson does not miss many tackles and plays fast. In 2015, he needs to work on playing with more aggression and making plays inside the box rather than in pursuit or downfield.

    Starter

    3/5

    The Chiefs will rely more on Johnson this season as a regular starter after getting nine spot starts last year. A healthy Derrick Johnson will command the offense's attention, which will help James-Michael Johnson make more plays. 

    Overall

    56/100

48. Larry Foote, Retired

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    Larry Foote played in the middle of the Steelers' dominating defenses for a long time before joining the Cardinals. Foote has the ability to read an offense and react quickly. He lacks the size and strength of most two-down linebackers but makes up for it with instincts and intangibles. As Father Time took its toll on Foote, he struggled to disengage from blockers and put himself in position to make stops.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Early in his career Foote was sufficient at getting to the quarterback. In 2014, Foote recorded two sacks, but the closing speed and burst just weren't what they used to be.

    Coverage

    8/20

    Foote is not going to give a defense much in man coverage, even though he still moves well in space. He is capable of breaking on the ball but struggles to stay with receivers and redirect routes.

    Tackling

    23/35

    Usually a pretty sure tackler, Foote struggled heavily in 2014, missing 18 tackles, and at times looked rather worn down. The crafty veteran is able to make solid contact and knock runners off balance but missed too many tackles because he wasn’t playing with good form and leverage when hitting players.

    Starter

    3/5

    Foote decided to hang up his cleats for a pair of coaching shoes and will serve as a linebackers coach for the Cardinals in 2015.

    Overall

    56/100

47. Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee Titans

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    14/30

    Wesley Woodyard is a solid player who doesn’t really excel in any area. While Woodyard played well, recording 91 tackles in 2014, he still looked undersized and overpowered against the run. Woodyard uses his quickness to get off the ball and shoot through gaps and play sideline to sideline.

    Pass Rush

    4/10

    Woodyard has the ability to be a pass-rusher from inside linebacker, using good speed and quickness to work around blockers and get to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    10/20

    For a linebacker with good speed and change-of-direction ability, Woodyard struggled in coverage. When matched up with faster players, Woodyard wasn’t able to get his hands on them and alter routes the way he did with Denver.

    Tackling

    25/35

    For being undersized, Woodyard is a strong tackler. He uses his speed to get to and chase down ball-carriers. Woodyard has long arms, and when he is able to wrap up, he is a sure tackler. He must make good initial contact, or he tends to miss tackles or let ball-carriers get too many yards after contact.

    Starter

    4/5

    The Titans brought Woodyard in to be a much-needed leader on their defense, which he was. But his play on the field needs to improve for him to keep that role in an improving Titans defense.

    Overall

    57/100

46. Perry Riley, Washington

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    Perry Riley lacks that physical stature (6’0”, 238 lbs) to dominate against the run. While Riley shows good speed, he lacks the agility to make plays outside the box like you would want from an undersized linebacker. Riley has good instincts and does a nice job of playing aggressively but not over-pursuing.   

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Riley has good closing speed and the ability to get to the quarterback, but he isn’t able to beat many linemen and is used mostly as a two-down linebacker.

    Coverage

    5/20

    Teams were able to take advantage of Riley’s poor pass coverage in 2014. He has the speed but doesn’t have the change-of-direction ability and relies on easier man-coverage assignments. For Riley to be successful in pass coverage, he needs to be used in zone coverage.

    Tackling

    28/35

    Riley isn’t a powerful hitter by any means, but he does a good job of bringing down ball-carriers. Riley recorded 76 tackles in 14 games for Washington and likely would have surpassed the 90-tackle mark for the third season in a row if he wouldn’t have missed two games.

    Starter

    4/5

    Riley has quietly been very productive in the Washington defense and a starter for the team since the 2011 season. Alongside Keenan Robinson, Washington has a pair of young, promising inside 'backers.

    Overall

    59/100

45. D.J. Williams, Free Agent

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    D.J. Williams has been in the league for what seems like forever. His ability to stop the run has diminished over the years, and injuries are taking a toll on the veteran linebacker. Before being lost for the year, Williams was struggling to stop the run and showed he lacks strength to take on blockers.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    In the latter part of his time with the Broncos, Williams was looking like a pretty solid pass-rusher. Since then, he has not been used and now lacks the speed and moves to be a pass-rushing linebacker.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Williams is not much help to teams in passing situations and is more adequately used as a two-down linebacker.

    Tackling

    27/35

    Early in his career Williams made a living blowing away ball-carriers and making plays in the backfield. Williams doesn’t have that same ability now and misses too many tackles due to not being able to shed blocks and getting pushed back.

    Starter

    3/5

    Williams needs to find a team and show that he can stay healthy and reliable in 2015. If not, it could be the end of the veteran linebacker's career.

    Overall

    59/100

44. Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    10/30

    Jerrell Freeman showed his lack of adequate strength and was pushed back by blockers too often in 2014. He is best when he is kept free of blockers and makes plays on ball-carriers. But for an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, that is rare. Freeman needs to work on his strength and ability to get through blocks and make more tackles behind the line.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Freeman was not used in the pass rush as much in 2014 but recorded 5.5 sacks in 2013. He has the athletic ability and closing speed to be a quality pass-rusher. Freeman uses his hands well in the pass rush and is able to utilize his speed to get around the edge and make moves past bigger linemen.

    Coverage

    18/20

    One reason Freeman did not rush as much in 2014 was because he is developing nicely into a coverage linebacker. He has the speed to stay with people in man coverage and does a good job of jamming and altering routes. Freeman also showed improvement in zone coverage and is doing a better job at recognizing who he is responsible for as receivers move in and out of his coverage area.

    Tackling

    28/35

    Freeman can look overmatched at times because of his lack of strength, but he is an improving tackler. Freeman missed 11 tackles in 2014 and will have to continue to work on making good initial contact and using leverage to bring down ball-carriers.

    Starter

    3/5

    Freeman has been a three-year starter for the Colts but will have newcomers D’Qwell Jackson and Nate Irving trying to take snaps from him this season. As Freeman progresses against the run, he could develop into a complete inside linebacker.

    Overall

    60/100

43. Andrew Gachkar, Dallas Cowboys

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    10/30

    A decent athlete, Andrew Gachkar (6'3", 240 lbs) played well when using his hands to fight off blocks and find his way into running lanes. Often, Gachkar struggled with angles that allowed ball-carriers to gain yardage that could have been prevented. As a two-down linebacker, Gachkar uses his size and strength to disrupt the run.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Gachkar has the ability to generate pressure up the middle with good burst. He plays with functional strength and is able to utilize a bull rush, but he lacks secondary pass-rushing moves.

    Coverage

    18/20

    Somewhat of a liability in coverage, Gachkar does not have the lateral quickness to lock up in man schemes. Dropping into zone coverage and working underneath, Gachkar would leave his coverage area and leave the defense vulnerable.

    Tackling

    28/35

    The team and Gachkar struggled with missed tackles and poor angles in 2014. The Chargers lacked an authoritative tackler at linebacker, and Gachkar needs to play with more aggression to make solid initial contact with ball-carriers.

    Starter

    3/5

    Moving on to Dallas, Gachkar will add depth to a team that lost some of its regular linebackers. He needs to play consistently against the run and correct his tackling problems to get snaps in the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme, with both Rolando McClain and Jasper Brinkley ahead of him on the depth chart.

    Overall

    60/100

42. Jamari Lattimore, New York Jets

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    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    20/30

    Jamari Lattimore (6'2", 229 lbs) filled in nicely for the Packers in 2014 as a backup and will provide the Jets with solid depth and good special teams play in 2015. He has good speed and length at inside 'backer but needs to learn to use his hands and make plays in traffic.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Lattimore has the length and speed to be a pass-rusher but has not been utilized as an interior rusher.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Once again, speed and length are key for Lattimore. He is able to make plays in coverage but still shows inconsistency and a lack of technique. The Packers used Lattimore more in coverage in 2014 and more as a rusher in 2013.

    Tackling

    25/35

    Lattimore did a good job of playing downhill in 2014 and making plays at the line of scrimmage. He still needs to add some bulk and strength to be the sure tackler the Jets are looking for.

    Starter

    3/5

    Lattimore hasn’t been a regular starter in the league, but he was a reliable backup and provided depth for the Packers in 2013 and 2014.

    Overall

    61/100

41. Nate Irving, Indianapolis Colts

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Nate Irving is an example of a linebacker who plays both inside and outside effectively. Playing inside, he is able to disengage blockers and find his way into gaps but doesn’t always put himself in position to make stops. Irving has the ability but needs more experience playing inside.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Irving lacks ideal length and pass-rushing moves to be an inside rusher. The Colts will most likely rotate Irving on passing situations to get Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson in coverage.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Irving is not going to make many plays in coverage. While Irving shows good athletic ability, he is tight in the hips and doesn’t play well in space.

    Tackling

    24/35

    Irving missed too many tackles in 2014, eight in just eight games. When in position Irving does a good job at getting his arms on people, but most backs can easily break arm tackles. When playing inside, Irving will need to recognize plays better and react to what he is reading to put himself in position to make those tackles.

    Starter

    5/5

    After suffering a torn ACL in 2014, Irving will look to give the Colts an inside linebacker who can stop the run. Freeman and Jackson are much better in coverage, and the Colts need a linebacker like Irving to rotate in and as a two-down linebacker.

    Overall

    62/100

40. Kavell Conner, San Diego Chargers

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    23/30

    Kavell Conner is a quick two-down linebacker who has done a nice job of putting himself in running lanes and redirecting runners. Conner is able to read the linemen and keep himself free but struggles to disengage from bigger blockers when they get their hands on him.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Conner does not offer much in term of pass-rushing moves or length; he also struggles with using his hands in pass rushing and coverage.

    Coverage

    7/20

    The inability to redirect a route on the line was noticeable when Conner faced bigger tight ends. While his speed is a plus attribute, it doesn’t translate to change-of-direction speed, and he is not comfortable in man coverage. When coming up to make plays against screens and underneath routes, Conner has no problem making plays and hits.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Conner plays with good leverage and is able to stay low on backs in the box and use his speed in pursuit outside of the box. When Conner gets caught playing high, backs are able to take advantage of that and run through or around him. The Chiefs' Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis were both able to take advantage of Conner playing high in 2014. Conner missed six tackles in 354 snaps for the Chargers.

    Starter

    3/5

    Conner is a willing special teams player and a good two-down linebacker. After coming over from the Colts, Conner has provided depth and run-stopping ability. In 2015, Conner will have rookie Denzel Perryman taking snaps from him.

    Overall

    63/100

39. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    When healthy, Paul Posluszny has been one of the more productive linebackers in the league. He sustained a pectoral injury in 2014 and will need to fully recover and rehab from the injury. His strength is already a concern in the run game, as he is unable to take on and shed blocks as effectively as stronger linebackers.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Posluszny had two sacks in his seven games last season but is still used more in coverage. His speed and length should allow him to be more assertive in pass rushing, but he lacks the moves to record many sacks.

    Coverage

    9/20

    Posluszny has good speed and reach but is not able to translate that in coverage. Posluszny does best when he is able to work forward and make plays in the flats. When asked to drop deep, Posluszny looks lost and is not as useful in coverage.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Posluszny is a sure tackler and is able to use his long arms to wrap up ball-carriers and keep them from driving forward. Posluszny’s best attribute, outside of leadership, is his ability to bring down ball-carriers on a consistent basis.  

    Starter

    3/5

    Posluszny has been a starter in the league for eight seasons, but he has struggled to stay healthy and needs to have a full recovery to remain a starter.

    Overall

    63/100

38. D'Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis Colts

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    22/30

    D'Qwell Jackson has produced some outstanding tackle totals throughout his career, especially for someone who struggles against the run. Jackson needs to disengage blockers and make more plays in traffic. Most of his tackles come after the ball-carrier has gained quality yardage, not behind the line for losses or short gains. Jackson needs to show improvement in reading and beating blockers to make his four-year contract with the Colts a good deal.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    As the Colts used Jerrell Freeman less as a rusher, they used Jackson more. Jackson recorded a career high in sacks with four in 2014. He is still not a rush linebacker and lacks sufficient speed and length to be a dominating rusher. 

    Coverage

    5/20

    Jackson has been solid in coverage but struggled for the Colts in 2014. Alongside Freeman the Colts seemed to have two great coverage linebackers, but Jackson was not able to get into his drops as quickly and seemed to have lost a step in man coverage. That may be the reason Freeman was used more in coverage and less in pass rushing. The Colts need Jackson to recover his ability in coverage and play like the linebacker they paid for in 2014.

    Section title

    30/35

    Jackson is strong at the point of contact and does a good job of driving his feet after contact. He missed 12 tackles in 2014, but he played over 1,000 snaps. When free of traffic, Jackson is one of the surest tacklers in the league.   

    Starter

    5/5

    Jackson hasn’t missed a game or a start since his 2010 season was lost. The Colts brought him in to play alongside Freeman in 2014, and it would appear the duo will be at it again in 2015.

    Overall

    63/100

37. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    23/30

    Rey Maualuga has the look of a run-stuffing NFL linebacker, and that's exactly what he is. A physical two-down 'backer who hits with bad intentions. Maualuga has the strength you want out of an inside linebacker but still doesn’t shed blocks the way you would think. Maualuga improved his ability to read linemen and make plays but is limited by his poor speed to plays inside the box.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Maualuga has strength but is unable to make plays in the pass rush because of his lack of speed. He is another example of a two-down linebacker. Maualuga recorded zero sacks and zero quarterback hits in 2014.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Maualuga does not have the hips or ability to play well in coverage. In previous seasons, Maualuga has been a liability in coverage, but he continues to work on his technique and does not get beat by as many play-action passes as before.

    Tackling

    23/35

    Maualuga can be one of the hardest-hitting linebackers in the league at times. But that doesn’t make him a reliable tackler. Maualuga missed 14 tackles in 2014. That is not the most in the league, but other players missing that many tackles played 1,000-plus snaps, Maualuga played in just 452. Maualuga must improve his ability to wrap up and drive ball-carriers to the ground.

    Starter

    4/5

    Maualuga has played six seasons in the NFL and has been a regular starter for the Bengals every year. In 2015, that trend may change with the additions of A.J. Hawk and Paul Dawson.

    Overall

    63/100

36. Kevin Minter, Arizona Cardinals

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    24/30

    The Arizona Cardinals and Kevin Minter were off to a hot start in 2014, but both were unable to sustain that momentum throughout the season. Minter played well against the run and looked like a solid two-down linebacker, but he played through some injuries that may have resulted in some poor performance. Nonetheless, Minter showed promise against the run early on in the year and was able to use his ability to sift through the trash and make stops.

    Pass Rush

    4/10

    Minter will attempt to run through too many blockers when blitzing, but he is also able to take up blockers and generate pressure by doing so. Minter lacks the closing speed but makes a tireless effort to get to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Coverage is a point Minter needs to improve upon in 2015. Used more as a two-down linebacker, Minter struggles with range in coverage and bites on too many play actions. Like many linebackers, Minter loves making plays on receivers over the middle and delivering crushing blows to jar the ball loose.

    Tackling

    24/35

    The same hits and aggression used on receivers over the middle can be seen when Minter plays in the box as well. Only they are not as effective in the box, and bigger backs are able to keep their balance better than lanky receivers. Minter needs to play with better form and technique. In Week 17, Minter missed three tackles against Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, totaling eight on the season in just 325 snaps.  

    Starter

    4/5

    Minter will be given the opportunity to show that most of his struggles were injury-related, as he is slated to start for the Cardinals in 2015. Daryl Washington's status is still unknown, and Larry Foote retired.

    Overall

    63/100

35. Will Compton, Washington

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    19/30

    Will Compton and Keenan Robinson complemented each other very well in 2014. Compton was solid against the run, and Robinson was great against the pass. Compton shows relentless pursuit of the football and has a tremendous ability to recognize runs and not be fooled by misdirection. The knock on Compton was similar to Robinson; they both struggle to take on blocks and shed blockers.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Compton is not the pass-rushing linebacker and will rotate out, as he is more of a two-down linebacker.

    Coverage

    9/20

    Compton doesn’t see as much action in coverage as the other two Washington inside linebackers in the rotation because of a lack of change-of-direction ability. Compton can’t run with tight ends and backs in man coverage and struggles to drop into his coverage area in zone. To challenge Robinson for the starting spot, Compton will need to improve his coverage ability.

    Tackling

    33/35

    Compton was a very strong tackler for an undersized linebacker. At times, Compton struggles to break down and make aggressive hits, but he rarely misses tackles and shows the ability to put himself in position to make stops.

    Starter

    2/5

    Compton will try to solidify himself as Washington's backup inside linebacker and take snaps from Keenan Robinson in 2015. After being a reliable player in 2014, Compton needs to have a strong campaign to prove he is able to play at a consistently high level.

    Overall

    64/100

34. Michael Wilhoite, San Francisco 49ers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    16/30

    Michael Wilhoite performed well for the 49ers last season and originally beat out Chris Borland for the starting role next to Patrick Willis before Willis was injured. Wilhoite doesn’t always play very aggressively against the run and allows running backs to meet him, rather than shooting gaps and making stops on running backs. He has the instincts to sort through the trash, but he still needs to add strength.

    Pass Rush

    2/10

    In the 49ers defense, Wilhoite was able to generate pressure up the middle but was unable to record any sacks. Wilhoite does not have the speed or quickness to be an inside blitzer.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Wilhoite was surprisingly good in coverage for the 49ers. Thought of as a two-down run-stuffer, he proved to be more valuable than that, as he is more than capable of holding his own in coverage. Wilhoite shows good awareness and recognition of play action and screens. The ability to redirect routes is key for inside linebackers without great speed and for some with great speed. Wilhoite is sufficient in his ability to use his hands and knock tight ends off their routes.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Wilhoite is not an authoritative tackler, but he will make good contact. Eleven missed tackles in 2014 may seem like a high total; however, Luke Kuechly also had 11 missed tackles and played fewer snaps than Wilhoite. Wilhoite never stops his pursuit to the football and shows great persistence in tackling.

    Starter

    2/5

    The 49ers had a little turnover on defense this offseason and will look for Wilhoite to play a big role in 2015. He showed in 2014 he can be an exceptional coverage linebacker, and playing alongside NaVorro Bowman in 2015 should help free him up from blockers in the run game.

    Overall

    64/100

33. Emmanuel Acho, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    19/30

    Emmanuel Acho is quick with his first step but lacks strength to stack and shed blockers. He was driven off his spot too often and missed tackles because he was not able to disengage from his blocker. Acho has the speed to play sideline to sideline, in addition to his ability to sift through linemen.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Acho has burst and closing speed to be effective as a blitzer; most of his production will come from generating pressure and not tallying sacks.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Acho is a good athlete but doesn’t always look like one in coverage. He looks unnatural in his drop but uses his athletic ability to break on the ball and play downhill in coverage. Acho lacks the strength to handle tight ends in man coverage but can stay on their hips with his speed.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Acho is adding bulk but still lacks functional strength to be a sure tackler. He flies to the ball and makes contact on ball-carriers, but seldom will he bring them down with an authoritative tackle.

    Starter

    3/5

    When it comes to depth at inside linebacker, no one compares to the Eagles. Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso, DeMeco Ryans and former Longhorn Jordan Hicks will all look to get playing time and compete with Acho. Acho played well when given the chance, but he might not have as many snaps in the crowded Eagles defense.

    Overall

    64/100

32. A.J. Hawk, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    14/30

    A.J. Hawk struggled mightily against the run in 2014. Hawk doesn’t have the ability to move past or shed blocks that you need at linebacker and is becoming a liability against the run. Hawk will look to get more snaps in Cincinnati as Vontaze Burfict recovers from microfracture surgery.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Hawk shows the ability to play downhill and has surprisingly good closing speed at his position. After a career-high five sacks in 2013, Hawk only recorded a half-sack in 2014.

    Coverage

    11/20

    Hawk has a high football IQ and is able to read routes in coverage, but he plays with stiff hips and isn’t able turn and run downfield.

    Tackling

    34/35

    Hawk, like fellow Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, is a very reliable NFL tackler. Hawk only missed six tackles and recorded 89 in 2014. He doesn’t stray from contact and has very good instincts, both of which have led to very strong production.

    Starter

    4/5

    Hawk has been an NFL starter for nine seasons and almost always has had productive tackle totals. Hawk will be battling Rey Maualuga and Nico Johnson at middle linebacker, as well as Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Vincent Rey and Paul Dawson on the outside.

    Overall

    64/100

31. Sam Barrington, Green Bay Packers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    17/30

    Sam Barrington struggled early on against the run but progressed nicely as he got more reps. He plays with good vision and technique and does a very nice job of avoiding blockers. As long as Barrington can keep himself free, he is a good run-stopper; he struggles to stack and shed blockers, whether it be fullbacks, tight ends or linemen.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Barrington has a nose for the football and is able to track the quarterback when he is forced out of the pocket. However, Barrington does not have the pass-rushing moves to be used as a pass-rusher.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Barrington uses his hands well at the line but struggles as his man gets downfield, and he cannot rely on his change-of-direction ability to stay locked up. Showing good awareness, Barrington is not fooled by play action and plays well over the middle in zone coverage.  

    Tackling

    34/35

    Barrington is a strong tackler but not an aggressive hitter. He did a nice job of making good contact on runners but struggled mightily against the Seahawks in the conference championship game. When trying to attack high on runners like Marshawn Lynch, you will not win. Barrington had three missed tackles against the big backs in Seattle.

    Starter

    3/5

    Seeing a lot of snaps late in the year really helped Barrington develop. If he can take the game against Seattle and learn from mistakes made there, he will be in contention to start for the Packers in 2015.

    Overall

    67/100

30. Mike Mohamed, Houston Texans

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    18/30

    Mike Mohamed did a good job of filling in for Brian Cushing in 2014, showing he can be more than a practice player at inside linebacker. Mohamed is the kind of player teams look for to add depth. He is smart, hardworking and a good locker room player. Mohamed is limited athletically but makes up for it by tirelessly working to get to the ball.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Mohamed lacks closing speed and burst to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Plus, Mohamed was one of the better coverage linebackers in 2014, so it doesn't make sense to have him rush the quarterback frequently. 

    Coverage

    16/20

    Mohamed understands zone coverage and is able to recognize receivers coming and going from his coverage area. His ability to drop in coverage and blow up screens stands out on tape, but he is limited in man coverage because of a lack of burst and top-end speed.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Mohamed only missed five tackles in 2014 while playing 524 snaps. For Mohamed to miss even fewer tackles, he needs to add some more bulk to help bring down ball-carriers and fight off blocks.

    Starter

    4/5

    Mohamed looked good in his first full season of duty. He will need another year of consistent play to keep a roster spot with the addition of Benardrick McKinney and the solid play of Akeem Dent last year.

    Overall

    68/100

29. Craig Robertson, Cleveland Browns

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    Craig Robertson is undersized at inside linebacker (6'1", 234 lbs) but plays with good speed and aggression. One knock on Robertson is that he is too aggressive at times and is exposed on draws, play-action passes and screens. He improved his ability to find the ball and use his quickness to get around stronger linemen whom he has struggled with in previous years.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Robertson is solid against the pass but not used as a pass-rusher. Robertson lacks pass-rushing moves and is most useful when dropped into coverage.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Robertson has the ability to turn and run that bigger linebackers simply do not. He is able to recognize and read in coverage and make plays on the ball. Robertson recorded two interceptions in 2014, but he also had a number of passes completed in his area.

    Tackling

    28/35

    Robertson, being undersized, does not always play with good strength. His awareness, while improving, is still not up to par, and he often finds ball-carriers too late to make a play on them. When in good position, Robertson is a solid and improving tackler.

    Starter

    4/5

    Robertson started 11 games in 2014 and 14 in 2013, making him a solid NFL starter. However, he will be competing with Chris Kirksey in 2015 for snaps.

    Overall

    68/100

28. Jon Bostic, Chicago Bears

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    23/30

    Jon Bostic is a young, physically gifted linebacker. He is also too aggressive and leaves gaps in the defense that savvy ball-carriers have been able to exploit. The Bears were aware that Bostic would need to develop, and after his first year, he has made great improvement. Bostic uses his hands well and is able to run through linemen who do not make solid contact with him.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Bostic has not been used as much as a pass-rusher in his two seasons and is much more suited for coverage.

    Coverage

    10/20

    Bostic has the athletic ability to be dangerous in coverage but is still developing the ability to play with good recognition and technique. He can keep up with most tight ends but does not have the length to make plays on bigger tight ends.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Bostic had many highlights at Florida with his ability to hit, and he brought that to the NFL as well. Bostic not only hits people, but he also makes solid contact and does not allow many ball-carriers to get away from him, only missing six tackles in 2014. Bostic is relentless if his first contact does not suffice and drives ball-carriers to the ground with good aggression.

    Starter

    3/5

    Bostic has only played two seasons and struggled for most of his rookie year. He made good improvements in 2014, but with John Fox taking over in Chicago, Bostic will have to prove himself as a consistent linebacker.

    Overall

    68/100

27. Manti Te'o, San Diego Chargers

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    20/30

    Manti Te'o had his season shortened due to injury and played many games injured. With that being said, Te’o was not as effective against the run as he was in his rookie season. Te’o was often overpowered by interior linemen and struggled to get off blocks. When healthy, Te’o plays with good instincts but needs to play with more of a mean streak to be the player he could be against the run.

    Pass Rush

    2/10

    Te’o did record the first sack of his career this year, but he is better off in coverage and has not been used as much as a pass-rusher.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Te’o has very good instincts and is able to get into coverage and separate receivers from would-be catches. He is a solid zone-coverage linebacker but has struggled against taller tight ends and in deep man coverage.  

    Tackling

    27/35

    Te’o knows how to put himself into position to make plays but gets lost in traffic. On most of his tackles, he keeps himself free of blocks and uses his football IQ to diagnose plays. If Te’o learns to play more aggressively against the run, then his tackles total would improve drastically.

    Starter

    5/5

    Te’o missed six games in the middle of the season but returned to the team and started the rest of the year. He needs to play with more of a chip on his shoulder and be the attacking linebacker his skill set suggests he can be. 

    Overall

    69/100

26. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Run Defense

    23/30

    DeMeco Ryans’ season was shortened in 2014 because of an Achilles injury. When healthy, Ryans was enjoying another productive year, shutting down running games. When Ryans is able to hold his ground and shed blocks, he is one of the best run-stoppers at his position. In 2014, he allowed too many blockers to get into his body and move him off his spot. Ryans is quick and instinctive against the run. If he is able to make a full recovery in 2015, he will once again be one of the top run-stoppers at his position.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Ryans lacks closing speed and pass-rushing moves up the middle to rush the passer. He can generate pressure and make plays on quarterbacks without recording many sacks.

    Coverage

    12/20

    Ryans has a good drop range and fluidity in his hips to turn and run with faster backs and receivers. He has the natural awareness to play in zone and the strength to alter routes in man coverage.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Ryans entered the league a bit undersized and learned how to bring down bigger players. Now that he has added bulk (6'1", 247 lbs), he is able to bring down the best of ball-carriers. Ryans makes solid contact and does an excellent job at tracking the ball. In previous seasons, Ryans has gotten away from his form tackling as the season progressed. That was not an issue in his injury-shortened 2014 season.

    Starter

    4/5

    Even if Ryans is able to fully recover from his injury, he will be facing some great competition in 2015. Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks are top-notch inside linebackers, and Jordan Hicks looked great on the inside at the Senior Bowl. Needless to say, the Eagles have great depth at inside linebacker.

    Overall

    69/100

25. Demario Davis, New York Jets

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Demario Davis has been a very productive linebacker in Rex Ryan’s defense. Davis is used mostly as a two-down linebacker and in short-yardage situations. He excels at getting through blocks and finding ball-carriers with his valuable speed. Davis improved his ability to take on and shed blocks in 2014 but still needs to work on beating blocks from stronger linemen.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    The Jets have not asked Davis to rush much, as he is most effective in run defense and run situations. He has the speed and athletic ability to rush the quarterback, but he lacks the strength and moves to rush on a consistent basis.

    Coverage

    10/20

    As a two-down linebacker, Davis is ideally rotated out during passing plays. However, teams are not as inclined to run as much on first and second downs. In coverage, Davis is able to use his speed to drop back, plant and run and disrupt passes. Davis needs the experience and opportunity to prove he can play both the run and pass to be a complete inside linebacker.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Davis recorded nine missed tackles in 2014 and needs to improve his consistency and strength to ensure his first contact is knocking ball-carriers off balance. Another reason for his high missed-tackle rate may also be the fact that he is in on so many plays. Davis is still young, only having played three seasons, and looks to be a promising linebacker in the league.  

    Starter

    4/5

    With Rex Ryan moving on, Davis will be playing for another defensive guru in Todd Bowles. Davis will look to prove that he is more than just a pure run-stopper.

    Overall

    69/100

24. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    20/30

    Brian Cushing is a beast on the football field, but staying on the field has been a big problem. When he is healthy, Cushing plays fast, aggressive and controlled, making him one of the better run defenders in the league. Cushing is able to use his athleticism to run down ball-carriers and his strength and aggression to beat blockers. When clean and free, Cushing is elite, and Vince Wilfork should help with that.  

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    Cushing has been utilized as a rusher since entering the league. He has yet to produce big sack totals but shows the ability. When blitzing the center-guard gap, Cushing is able to get off the ball and get linemen off balance. With his speed and strength, linemen must beat Cushing off the ball.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Speed, agility and awareness are three essential tools you need to be a coverage linebacker; Cushing has all three. He uses his speed to get back in coverage and break on the ball quicker than most linebackers and has the hands to make plays in space.

    Tackling

    24/35

    Cushing is the type of linebacker who loves to make the highlight hit, which leads to too many missed tackles. If Cushing learns to keep his form and use his arms and wrap up, missed tackles would no longer be a problem for a player with his strength.

    Starter

    5/5

    Cushing has started every game he has ever played and fits into any defense. Health is the issue. Cushing has only played two full seasons, 2009 and 2011. If he is able to get himself healthy this season, there is no doubt he will be starting, but I’m sure the Texans would love to have a middle linebacker they know can play 16 games.  

    Overall

    69/100

23. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions

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    Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    24/30

    Tahir Whitehead was used mostly in nickel packages for the Lions but did a good job playing the run. He uses his abilities to shoot gaps and put himself in position to redirect runners. Whitehead needs to work on playing in traffic and making plays downhill. He is not adept to stacking and shedding bigger blockers, but that hasn’t stopped him from disengaging and making tackles.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Whitehead was able to pressure the quarterback when used blitzing but needed an open lane to do so.

    Coverage

    12/20

    At times, Whitehead looked good in coverage. He isn’t going to lock up in man coverage very often, but he makes plays underneath and shows good pursuit downfield. Whitehead often looks unnatural in coverage but progressed throughout the year and became more reliable.

    Tackling

    28/35

    When he puts himself in good position, Whitehead does a good job at breaking down his feet and making contact. While not a punishing hitter, Whitehead is quick to the ball and doesn’t shy away from contact. Playing more fundamentally will go a long way and cut down on the number of missed tackles.

    Starter

    4/5

    Whitehead saw mostly special teams action at the beginning of the year but worked his way into a starting role and played more and more snaps as the year went on. Whitehead will provide depth behind Stephen Tulloch in 2015 and will look to be more than a rotational player.

    Overall

    69/100

22. Chris Kirksey, Cleveland Browns

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    20/30

    Chris “Tiny Titan” Kirksey played big in 2014. Nicknamed for a Madden glitch, Kirksey is undersized at inside linebacker (6'2", 235 lbs), but he is a relentless player and plays well against larger interior linemen. Kirksey was able to use his quickness to get into running lanes but still struggles if his quickness fails. Kirksey needs to add bulk and strength to become more of a run-stopper.

    Pass Rush

    2/10

    With good athletic ability and closing speed, Kirksey is a formidable rusher. Cleveland didn’t utilize Kirksey much as a blitzer, mostly because of his coverage skills.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Kirksey excelled at shutting down screens and locking up backs underneath. He has the speed to match up in man and stay on someone's hip, as well as length to match up with tight ends. Kirksey looks, and sometimes plays, like a safety. He plays well in space and turns and runs unlike most players at his position.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Kirksey is undersized and not the strongest linebacker, but he did a good job of holding his own against the AFC North ball-carriers. Kirksey makes good initial contact, allowing him to make plays in the box, and has the pursuit ability to play sideline to sideline.

    Starter

    3/5

    Kirksey was only a rookie in 2014 and showed good upside and leadership skills. Adding some bulk to his frame and learning to play in traffic would go a long way. Playing next to Karlos Dansby doesn’t hurt, either.

    Overall

    69/100

21. Keenan Robinson, Washington

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    15/30

    When you put the tape of Keenan Robinson on, you immediately see his rare athleticism. He flies to the football and has no trouble in pursuit of backs. At times, Robinson is guilty of over-pursuit and relies on his speed too much. He has to learn to stack and shed blockers and not just work around them. If Robinson can improve on this in 2015, a lot more of his stops will come before backs gain yardage.

    Pass Rush

    6/10

    The same moves Robinson uses to work around blockers in the run game can be seen in his pass rush. Robinson has all the tools you need to be dominant in the pass rush and utilizes them well. Robinson recorded 1.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits in 2014.

    Coverage

    13/20

    Coverage can be a weak point for Robinson. While he is very athletic, he allows receivers to get into his zone and across first-down markers too often. Robinson doesn’t lack aggression and needs to play with it at the line in coverage like he does in run defense.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Robinson led the team in tackles for 2014 and showed he loves to hit people. He is a punishing tackler who uses his speed to get to and through ball-carriers. Most of the time young, hard-hitting linebackers rely too much on hitting and not tackling; that’s the case for Robinson. Even though he only missed nine tackles, they came when his form got lazy and he was trying to add to the highlight reel.

    Starter

    5/5

    Robinson started all 13 games he played in for Washington and will be battling Will Compton for the starting spot next to Perry Riley. Head coach Jay Gruden raved about Robinson’s play last year, and it looks as if it is his job to lose.

    Overall

    70/100

20. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/30

    Lawrence Timmons (6'1", 234 lbs) is undersized as an inside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 defense, which led many to question why the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2007. He is an exceptional athlete and has the ability to play inside and outside. Able to stuff the run and set the edge, Timmons is incredibly versatile in head coach Mike Tomlin's defense. His ability to recognize runs and place himself in position to makes plays is top-notch. Timmons needs to keep himself free to make plays and does not do as much in traffic.  

    Pass Rush

    2/10

    Timmons recorded two sacks in 2014 but has shown the ability to get outside and pressure the quarterback in years past. The Steelers have not asked Timmons to rush as much the past two seasons, but Timmons is a capable rusher when asked to do so.

    Coverage

    8/20

    Timmons has the athletic ability to be a top coverage linebacker but has never put it together. Timmons does not play with great footwork in space and is one of the most targeted linebackers in the league.

    Tackling

    27/35

    Timmons had a poor tackling season in 2014, missing 19 tackles. Timmons is able to knock ball-carriers off balance and drive through very well for an undersized backer.

    Starter

    5/5

    Timmons has the ability to play inside and outside 'backer, and the Steelers will look to move him around more in 2015 to free him up to make plays. Timmons has only missed two games in his entire eight-year career.

    Overall

    70/100

19. Brandon Spikes, Free Agent

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Brandon Spikes isn’t going to win many foot races, unless he’s fleeing the scene of a crime (too soon?). But Spikes has a rare ability to find ball-carriers and play in traffic. His strength and reach allow him to disengage and shed blocks better than most, making him elite against the run.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Spikes does a good job of generating pressure up the middle but lacks the speed to close on quarterbacks or be used on the edge.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Spikes had a much better year in coverage than we are used to seeing. His best asset in coverage is still his ability to scare the hell out of anyone coming across the middle. Spikes doesn’t have the speed or length to man up on tight ends and is unable to keep up with backs. When able to sit in zone and read and react, Spikes showed the ability to play downhill and jar the ball loose from would-be receivers.

    Tackling

    25/35

    With only four missed tackles, he is a very sure tackler and rarely allows backs to gain yardage after contact. Spikes has long arms and no problem wrapping up backs while playing in traffic or in space.

    Starter

    4/5

    Spikes was coming off a solid season in Buffalo and looking to rejoin the Super Bowl-winning Patriots; however, some offseason troubles led to his release and may keep Spikes from playing in 2015.

    Overall

    70/100

18. Jasper Brinkley, Dallas Cowboys

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    26/30

    Jasper Brinkley struggled to get off blocks in 2013 but showed once again in 2014 that he is dangerous against the run. He excels in traffic and is able to use his strength to fight blocks and make tackles while engaged with blockers. Brinkley has limited speed and is not much of a threat against outside runs, but he is exceptional against inside runs.  

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    Brinkley is used mostly as a two-down linebacker and rarely blitzes. Brinkley doesn’t have the pass-rushing moves to help him get to the quarterback.

    Coverage

    7/20

    Brinkley is somewhat of a liability in coverage. He lacks the speed to get deep in coverage and is not able to make many plays on the ball. Brinkley is best at playing zone defense that doesn’t require him to drop deep in coverage or keep up with faster players.

    Tackling

    33/35

    Brinkley is a sure tackler, thanks to his raw strength and hard-nosed mentality. He did a tremendous job of wrapping up and driving through ball-carriers in 2014.

    Starter

    4/5

    Brinkley has contributed for every team he has been on. In 2015, he will look to give the Cowboys more depth at linebacker after the team lost Bruce Carter and Justin Durant.

    Overall

    71/100

17. Mason Foster, Chicago Bears

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    20/30

    Mason Foster struggled in 2014 and will look to prove he is more than a two-down linebacker for John Fox and the Bears. Foster plays too aggressive at times and gives up big plays because he over-pursues. If Foster stays disciplined, he is a hard-hitting run-stuffer with good speed and agility. Foster needs to rely more on form and technique rather than force and aggression.

    Pass Rush

    4/10

    Foster’s speed and aggression make him a good fit for blitzing, and he has no problems engaging blockers. Foster lacks pass-rushing technique but has the skill set to get after quarterbacks.  

    Coverage

    15/20

    Foster has flashes of brilliance in pass coverage but is not consistent enough to be a threat. He moves well and at times reads plays and routes; however, other times he looks confused. Foster doesn’t do much in man coverage, but if he is able to sit and read in zone, he loves making plays over the middle.

    Tackling

    28/35

    Foster loves to hit, but he doesn’t always love to wrap up. He is mean enough to bring down the biggest of ball-carriers with force and drive through them. Foster has good strength and uses it to his advantage when making tackles. He rebounded well in 2014 after missing too many tackles in 2013.

    Starter

    5/5

    Foster is still young in the league and looking to impress his new coaches. He will play alongside Jon Bostic in John Fox’s defense and try to improve his discipline and form as he becomes a more consistent player.

    Overall

    72/100

16. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    20/30

    James Laurinaitis (6'2", 248 lbs) has been very productive against the run in his careeralthough, not as many of his stops are made at or behind the line of scrimmage as you would think. He has the strength and mean streak to shed blockers but struggled to do so in 2014. Laurinaitis has impressive range for a big linebacker and is able to chase down backs and get to the sideline.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    If Laurinaitis has a clear route to the quarterback, he has the ability to pressure him. Laurinaitis is better used in coverage than rushing.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Laurinaitis has rare athletic ability for his size and is able to sink his hip and move laterally in space. He is great at reading and blowing up screens and working forward in coverage. He has struggled with athletic tight ends but does a good job of disrupting catches.

    Tackling

    35/35

    There are not many better tacklers than Laurinaitis. Not only does he look like the ideal “Mike” linebacker, but he tackles like one too. Laurinaitis had a career low of 109 tackles in 2014, per NFL.com, but played many games limited by an ankle injury. He and the Rams faced some of the best backs in the league in 2014 (Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Frank Gore), but Laurinaitis was still able to wrap up and drive through the elite runners.

    Starter

    4/5

    Laurinaitis has not missed an NFL game, not one. He has also started every game since day one in the NFL. Laurinaitis will continue to be the Rams' "Mike" linebacker in 2015 and lead one of the most feared defenses in the league.

    Overall

    74/100

15. Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    22/30

    Despite lining up on the outside for most of his career, Koa Misi moved inside for 2014. Misi plays well against the run and has the functional strength to battle through traffic inside the box. Misi must remain low while playing inside. At times, Misi got too high and interior linemen were able to take advantage of him.

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    Despite being an outside linebacker for many seasons, Misi never generated high sack totals or much pressure on the outside. He has the ability and more moves than most inside linebackers, but his numbers still do not reflect that.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Misi has no problems getting his hands on people at the line of scrimmage and redirecting routes; however, after that point is where Misi struggles. Although, while playing inside, Misi looked more comfortable turning his hips and getting into coverage. With more experience inside, Misi reads and recognizes plays, but he is not going to do much in man coverage.

    Tackling

    29/35

    Misi isn’t a hard-hitting linebacker, but he is an adequate tackler. He uses his long arms well in wrapping up and is able to bring down ball-carriers once he makes contact. Misi needs to show improvement in the box and making plays in traffic to stay at middle linebacker.  

    Starter

    4/5

    Misi has a rare ability to play inside and outside in many different situations. The Dolphins will once again line him up inside and hope that the additions of Ndamukong Suh and C.J. Mosley can help eat blockers and free him up. 

    Overall

    74/100

14. Avery Williamson, Tennessee Titans

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    22/30

    Taking over the starting duties in Week 5, Avery Williamson is a smart player who is able to read and use his athletic ability to play in space and get sideline to sideline. As Williamson progresses, he will need to get stronger against interior linemen and shed blocks. Williamson flies to the ball and makes great initial contact.

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    Williamson is explosive to the ball, but he did not show much blitz production outside of his two-sack game against the Steelers in Week 11. He has good closing speed and athleticism to be a solid pass-rusher, but for most games, Williamson was used in coverage.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Williamson showed average drop range at middle linebacker but a good ability to play downhill in coverage against screens. Williamson needs to recognize the play action better, as well as work on recognition of receivers coming into his coverage area.

    Tackling

    29/35

    For a rookie inside linebacker, Williamson was a surprisingly good tackler. He does not shy away from contact and is able to keep a wide base and drive ball-carriers backward with first contact. Williamson is an authoritative hitter who only recorded four missed tackles, a rare combination for a young linebacker.

    Starter

    4/5

    The fifth-round pick out of Kentucky proved to be a reliable starter for the Titans and will play alongside Wesley Woodyard in the 3-4 defense. Williamson showed great promise in his first season and will look to solidify himself as a top inside linebacker.

    Overall

    74/100

13. David Harris, New York Jets

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    22/30

    David Harris showed in 2014 that he still has something left in the tank as he rose up the chart from No. 23 last year. Harris is a tackle-producing run-stopper and shows the ability to make plays inside the box. In 2014, he played with good strength and improved ability to disengage from blockers and free himself to make more plays outside the tackle box.

    Pass Rush

    2/10

    Harris also took on more of a pass-rushing role in 2014, recording 5.5 sackstying a career highand showing he has the ability to shoot gaps and get to the quarterback. Harris doesn’t have the speed that most rush linebackers have, but he doesn’t quit until he hits the quarterback.

    Coverage

    15/20

    Harris played with more speed and athleticism in 2014. In coverage, a key for Harris was being able to break on the ball and disrupt routes. He is still not quick compared to other coverage linebackers, but he plays with good awareness and aggression to make up for his average speed.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Harris is a strong tackler who isn’t afraid to engage ball-carriers. He is able to break off blocks and make plays in the box, as well as get outside against the sweep or toss. Improving his number of missed tackles this season was a must, and he succeeded at that, only missing seven tackles in over 1,000 snaps.

    Starter

    5/5

    The Jets made sure Harris wouldn’t be going anywhere by signing him to a new three-year deal before he hit the open market, where Rex Ryan would have for sure came calling. Harris will once again be the signal-caller for the Jets in 2015 as their Mike linebacker.

    Overall

    75/100

12. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    24/30

    It wasn’t long ago that Jerod Mayo was considered one of the NFL's top up-and-coming inside linebackers. Mayo has the ability that you want on the inside, showing he knows how to stack and shed blockers. He has natural instincts and vision. Mayo can struggle getting from sideline to sideline but is exceptional in the box and disrupting running lanes.  

    Pass Rush

    3/10

    Mayo isn’t going to get too many sacks, but he will generate pressure up the middle and has no problem going nose to nose with interior linemen.

    Coverage

    13/20

    While coverage is not really Mayo’s strength, he does show good drop range and is able to play solid in zones. Lateral quickness is an issue for Mayo with athletic tight ends and backs in man coverage. He also struggles working back and picking up screens.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Mayo is great at playing inside the box and sorting through the trash. His ability to wrap and drive through ball-carriers is noteworthy, even though he is not an aggressive hitter. Mayo doesn’t miss many tackles and plays with great form, clearly displayed in his tackling ability.

    Starter

    5/5

    Mayo has seen the past two seasons come to an end in Week 6. His injuries have allowed teammates Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins to shine in his absence. Mayo will most likely have to move outside as the Patriots look to use more of a 4-3 defense in 2015.

    Overall

    75/100

11. Rolando McClain, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    25/30

    Rolando McClain returned to the NFL in 2014 after sitting out the 2013 season. The massive middle linebacker (6'4", 255 lbs) didn’t seem to miss a beat. While he doesn’t play with elite speed, McClain shows good burst and instincts against the run. The former Alabama linebacker was able to shed blockers and play with more range than he did in years past, while not losing his ability to play in traffic.

    Pass Rush

    3/10

    McClain has good length but lacks pass-rushing technique and closing speed. He was able to generate pressure up the middle but only recorded one sack in 2014.

    Coverage

    16/20

    McClain is able to sit in zone coverage and kill people over the middle, but he's mismatched with backs and tight ends when playing man. As he develops—and he is only 25—McClain will need to improve his ability in coverage to be a complete three-down linebacker.

    Tackling

    27/35

    When he is in position, McClain is a reliable tackler. Where he must improve is in his reads and ability to put himself in the right place at the right time. He is as strong as almost any linebacker and has the instincts to be in on every play, but he needs to stay focused and committed on and off the field.

    Starter

    4/5

    McClain was only able to get a one-year deal with the Cowboys, largely because teams were unsure about his commitment to the game. If McClain can produce again this season, he will help his case for that big contract.

    Overall

    75/100

10. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland Browns

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    23/30

    For the second straight year, Karlos Dansby (6’4”, 250 lbs, 11 seasons) comes in ranked as a top-10 inside linebacker. Dansby is athletic, instinctive and excels at taking on the outside run in pursuit. His angles are clean, and he plays with good power to pop ball-carriers. The inside run is harder for Dansby, as he lacks the bulk to anchor and not get pushed around in the trenches.

    Pass Rush

    1/10

    The Cleveland defense did not get much consistency from Dansby as a pass-rusher, and because of that, he saw his score drop from eight points in 2013 to just one last year. Dansby did add three sacks and five hurries, but when weighing opportunity versus production, he too often didn’t get the job done.

    Coverage

    18/20

    In coverage, Dansby is able to flash his athleticism, his length and his ability to run with targets in zone or man coverage. He changes direction with ease and shows the football IQ to diagnose the play and put himself in a position to both limit targets and disrupt the pass.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Dansby notched 71 solo tackles on the year and missed eight attempts. He’s shown himself to be reliable at the point of attack, but he is much better in pursuit and when he can take an angle on the ball-carrier instead of simply locking horns head-up.

    Starter

    5/5

    Even as he enters his 12th NFL season, Dansby remains a lockdown performer and the type of leader the Cleveland Browns need as they continue to rebuild.

    Overall

    77/100

9. Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    21/30

    Among the most improved players in the league last year, Mychal Kendricks (6’0”, 240 lbs) took the next step in his third pro season. Kendricks is a smooth athlete with the movement skills to easily get to the rushing lane, and he has shown improved instincts to read and react on the go. He still has to improve at taking on blockers, but the 2014 campaign showed marked development.

    Pass Rush

    10/10

    The Philadelphia Eagles like to let Kendricks loose as a pass-rusher, and he pays them back with great production as a blitzer. In 2014, the former California linebacker totaled four sacks, eight hits on quarterbacks and 15 hurries—numbers that put him in elite company as an inside linebacker.

    Coverage

    17/20

    Last year, we hit Kendricks hard for “looking lost in coverage,” but in 2014, he was a different, better player. The athleticism is there to be sure, but now he is catching up with the mental aspect of the game. Playing with his face to the ball, Kendricks sees and reacts quickly and has the feet to close on the ball. He also has the closing speed to separate receivers from the ball.

    Tackling

    29/35

    In 2013, Kendricks missed 23 tackles. We saw that number drop to nine in 2014, a great sign of where his career is headed. Kendricks was more powerful, more confident and put himself in a much better position to make plays. There are still misses, but Kendricks made a huge improvement as a tackler.

    Starter

    5/5

    The No. 49-ranked inside linebacker for 2013, Kendricks’ jump to the top 10 is one of the best storylines of the 2014 NFL 1000 series.

    Overall

    82/100

8. Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    24/30

    In his 11th NFL season, Daryl Smith (6’2”, 250 lbs) moved into the top 10, thanks to his well-rounded play and ability to slide in a 4-3 and 3-4 defense. Smith is a tough matchup in the run game for blockers because of movement skills and preparation, but his lack of size can be an issue against fullbacks or tough inside runners.

    Pass Rush

    6/10

    The athleticism is there for Smith to make an impact as a pass-rusher, even if the numbers aren’t there to back it up. His grade comes somewhere in the middle, thanks to his one sack, four hits and nine hurries on the year, but we didn’t see as many chances for Smith to rush versus cover.

    Coverage

    16/20

    Smith has established himself as one of the best coverage linebackers in the game, and in 2014 we saw that again with four passes defensed and one interception. He has the hips and feet to turn in coverage and more than enough speed to keep pace down the field.

    Tackling

    31/35

    Smith’s 93 solo tackles on the year and just seven missed attempts put him in the top-tier range for two straight seasons of NFL 1000 scoring.

    Starter

    5/5

    Smith is a big part of the Ravens' ability to transition from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed without taking a step back. His impact in Baltimore has been well worth the contract the Ravens gave him before the 2014 season.

    Overall

    82/100

7. Chris Borland, Retired

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    Michael Zito/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    30/30

    With pick No. 77 in the 2014 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers grabbed a backup linebacker from Wisconsin named Chris Borland. The 5’11”, 248-pound hammerhead wasn’t expected to push All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman for playing time, but then he was thrust into the lineup due to injury. And then he impressed with his ability to diagnose the play and bring down ball-carriers. Borland became a lynchpin in the 49ers’ front seven with his ability to stuff the run. His lack of bulk was an issue, but his toughness and instincts made up for that smaller stature. The ability to slide, shed blocks and run down the ball made Borland a top-tier run defender.

    Pass Rush

    4/10

    Borland didn’t produce a ton as a pass-rusher, but he was an accomplished A-gap penetrator in college and in San Francisco. With Willis and Bowman out, Borland was asked to play in coverage more than he was allowed to go get the quarterback, and that lack of opportunity and rawness of technique keeps his score low.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Coverage skills were thought to be Borland's weakness before the draft, and in his lone season, he showed good awareness and the ability to get depth in zone packages. Where Borland struggled was when asked to turn and run or match up against tight ends on the move.

    Tackling

    33/35

    Borland played just 487 snaps for the 49ers, but he still totaled 82 solo tackles with just eight misses. To do that in eight starts (14 games) was impressive and backs up the on-film looks he showed. Borland is a popper as a tackler and is able to launch himself into lanes to make plays.

    Starter

    5/5

    Borland’s shocking retirement after his lone NFL season rocked the league. There was little question he would become an anchor of the San Francisco defense for years to come. 

    Overall

    86/100

6. Jamie Collins, New England Patriots

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    27/30

    Jamie Collins (6’3”, 250 lbs) exploded onto the scene in his second season, and now he looks like a true building block on the New England Patriots defense. Playing at both inside and outside linebacker, Collins showed that his rare speed and agility allow him to attack outside runs, but he also impressed taking on blockers in the middle and shutting down the inside run. His instincts and pre-snap positioning can improve, but that’s reasonable to expect as he matures.

    Pass Rush

    10/10

    When Collins entered the 2013 draft, I viewed him as a potential edge-rusher, thanks to his speed and first-step quickness. The Patriots seemingly agreed in 2014 and unleashed him off the edge and through the A-gaps. Collins responded with four sacks, six hits and 16 hurries—making the most of his chances to get into the backfield.

    Coverage

    14/20

    Coverage is still a bit foreign to Collins after spending so much time in college and in his rookie season moving forward, but the tools are there. If asked to take a zone drop, he can get great depth and has the closing speed to change direction and attack the ball. The key for growth will be better anticipation and timing on breaking routes.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Collins doesn’t lack for power when he gets a runner in his sights. His frame and lower-body strength allow him to launch into ball-carriers and knock them off base. Where Collins can improve is by being a better wrap-up tackler, thus cutting down on his 15 missed tackle attempts.

    Starter

    5/5

    A former college safety, Collins has the athleticism and instincts to start at every linebacker position for the Patriots while never leaving the field. He’s a surefire blue-chip prospect.

    Overall

    86/100

5. Patrick Willis, Retired

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/30

    When he’s healthy, Patrick Willis is capable of attacking inside and outside runs with few peers. He’s powerful at the point of attack, instinctive on the move and a smart enough player to put himself in position pre-snap to make the play. Willis’ foot injury did limit his range at times, but in his six active games in 2014, we saw top-tier ability.

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    Early in his career, Willis was a master of blitzing or stunting, but as injuries added up, he was used here less and less. Last year, his focus was on playing the run and getting into coverage, and his pass-rushing skills rarely showed.

    Coverage

    16/20

    Willis has the range to run through zones and the speed and agility to play in man coverage. He was so valuable to the 49ers, thanks to his ability to stay on the field in nickel packages—something the team missed with him and NaVorro Bowman injured.

    Tackling

    34/35

    In six games last season, Willis had 32 solo tackles, but more impressive was his total of just three missed tackles in that time. Fans will remember No. 52 for his long arms, powerful impacts and sure-handed ability to take down runners.

    Starter

    5/5

    Willis looked like a 10-year starter before deciding to retire after the 2014 season. The 49ers won’t be the same without him.

    Overall

    88/100

4. Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/30

    The New England Patriots’ run to the Super Bowl doesn’t happen without the elite play of Dont’a Hightower (6’3”, 270 lbs, three seasons) in 2014. Hightower—who started 12 games in the regular season—was a force against the run. With his size and reaction time, Hightower can lock down A- and B-gaps whether he’s in a three- or four-man front.

    Pass Rush

    8/10

    Hightower can pull the trigger and attack the quarterback as well as he attacks the run. The Patriots unleashed him to the tune of six sacks, nine hits and 17 quarterback hurries in 2014 as the defense became more aggressive in front of a great secondary. With speed, timing and the strength to run over blitz protection, Hightower is dangerous with a full head of steam.

    Coverage

    17/20

    You might see Hightower’s bulk and think there’s no way he can hold his own in coverage, but looks can be deceiving. The thick-bottomed Hightower can move in space, and he has the power in his upper body to redirect tight ends off the snap or when they cross the middle.

    Tackling

    30/35

    Tackle numbers can be overrated—especially if the player doesn’t start 16 games. Hightower turned in a respectable 64 solo tackles in 12 starts, but more importantly, he missed just eight attempts in that time.

    Starter

    5/5

    Hightower is versatile enough to play inside or outside linebacker and works well in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. That flexibility, and the impact he has on the field, makes him a top-five inside linebacker.

    Overall

    88/100

3. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/30

    C.J. Mosley (6’2”, 235 lbs) wasted no time making an impact in his rookie season. A 16-game starter right out of the gate, Mosley wowed with 107 solo tackles (credited with 133 by NFL.com) and turned heads with his anticipation, instincts and football IQ. The athletic side of things were equally good for Mosley, as he showed he could stack up blockers and make the play to shed them and find the ball.

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    Mosley came into the league with experience as a pass-rusher from his days at Alabama, and the Baltimore Ravens flirted with him as a blitzing backer at times. Mosley accumulated three sacks, nine hits and 13 hurries on passers while flushing the pocket often to push quarterbacks to Elvis Dumervil and Co. on the edge.

    Coverage

    15/20

    You can thank Nick Saban for running a pro-style defense at Alabama, as it allowed a smooth transition for Mosley in pass coverage. His field vision and instincts were very good, and while he lacked some fluid movement to keep pace with elite tight ends over the middle or up the seam, Mosley still impressed for a rookie playing a key role on defense.

    Tackling

    35/35

    It doesn’t get much better than this. Mosley’s tackle numbers were referenced above, and for this project, we wanted to see how many tackles a player makes, how many he misses and how well he put himself into position to make a play. Mosley scored a perfect 35 points. He’s powerful, consistent, reliable and takes ideal angles to attack the ball.

    Starter

    5/5

    There is always a chance that Mosley is a one-year wonder, but what we saw in 2014 was Rookie of the Year quality.

    Overall

    88/100

2. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Run Defense

    28/30

    When you see that Bobby Wagner is 6’0” and 241 pounds, you don’t expect the third-year veteran to be a stud against the run. But he is. Wagner recorded 74 solo tackles in his 11 starts last year while proving that instincts, speed and leverage will win the day against big inside blockers. The former Utah State star has made himself into one of the league's best run-stuffing linebackers in Seattle’s 4-3 scheme.

    Pass Rush

    6/10

    Wagner isn’t asked to pull the chain and attack the backfield often, but he serves as a spy from the middle linebacker spot and will blitz through the A-gaps. That led to two sacks in 2014 as well as five quarterback hits and another five hurries.

    Coverage

    18/20

    Wagner has always impressed in coverage, and his performance last year was no different. With his smooth, graceful movements in space, he’s excelled getting depth in coverage but has also shown the toughness and instincts to knock receivers off their routes if he’s squatting at midfield and they cross his face.

    Tackling

    34/35

    Wagner was almost perfect as a tackler in 2014, notching those 74 solo tackles while missing just seven attempts all year. He’s powerful when he meets the ball-carrier and was a blue-chip tackler in space against the pass.

    Starter

    5/5

    You could make the case for Wagner as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate on last season’s play—and you can bet he’ll be motivated to ball out in a contract year in 2015.

    Overall

    91/100

1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Run Defense

    29/30

    There used to be a good debate this time of year about who the best NFL inside linebacker was. This year, our team had no trouble picking Luke Kuechly (6’3”, 238 lbs, three seasons) as the best Mike linebacker in the game. It starts with his athleticism and instincts against the run. Kuechly isn’t the biggest athlete, but he is the fastest at getting to the ball and knifing through traffic to stop ball-carriers.

    Pass Rush

    5/10

    The Panthers would rather use Kuechly in coverage than rushing the quarterback, and while he has the required speed to shoot the A-gap and make a play on a blitz, he’s so much more valuable dropping off the line than attacking it.

    Coverage

    20/20

    Hands down the best coverage inside linebacker, Kuechly is super smooth in his drops and has the footwork to turn and run with tight ends or even slot receivers. He’s the rare middle linebacker, athletic and confident enough to run with athletic tight ends such as Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski.

    Tackling

    35/35

    In a day and age where tackle numbers are inflated by team statisticians, Kuechly continues to impress with solo ability tracked by unbiased watchers. Pro Football Focus credited Kuechly with 122 solo tackles in 2014—most of any inside linebacker.

    Starter

    5/5

    If you were starting an NFL team with a fantasy draft, you’re probably hoping to find Kuechly available to be your anchor on defense. His production, impact and potential are all of the elite variety.

    Overall

    94/100
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