NFL1000: Ranking the Top Inside Linebackers of 2017 Season

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2018

NFL1000: Ranking the Top Inside Linebackers of 2017 Season

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The role of the inside linebacker in the NFL used to be very different than it is now. 

    Back in the day, Hall of Fame players such as Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Mike Singletary were tasked to play as the men in the middle, directing the action and primarily flowing to the ball-carrier while occasionally rushing the passer on special blitzes. Pass coverage wasn't really a thing, and the lateral mobility to move from sideline to sideline wasn't generally a requirement.

    Now, as NFL teams play nickel and dime defenses as their base concepts, the inside linebacker is a stationary inside guy in name only. These players must challenge run fits and blitz as in eras before, but the responsibilities have grown.

    Inside linebackers must also be able to handle the responsibilities of strong- and weak-side 'backers in 4-2-5 and 4-1-6 base fronts; cover tight ends, running backs and receivers up the seam; and adapt to an ever-expanding array of pre-snap motions designed to gain the schematic advantage.

    If you're a slow inside defender and you can't handle coverage when an elite running back flares out from the backfield to the slot or outside to run his designed route, you won't be on the field for long.

    Inside linebackers must be able to play man coverage and understand how to hand off their receivers in zone coverage. What started in the Cover 2 and Tampa 2 defenses in the late '90s, the idea of inside linebackers breaking off into basic zone coverage, has expanded into an entirely new defensive playbook.

    With that in mind, inside linebackers are lighter and faster and more agile than ever before.

    San Francisco's Reuben Foster, the consensus top inside linebacker in the 2017 draft, weighed in at the scouting combine at 229 pounds. Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, known to most as the gold-standard players at the position, weigh in at about 240.

    The days of the three-down run-plugger are past us, and the foundational inside linebackers of today are the most versatile in the game's history as a result.

    NFL1000 Inside Linebacker scout Jerod Brown has been watching every NFL inside 'backer all season, and he's ready to rank them by the following criteria:

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

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

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

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

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

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



Notable Omissions

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    When ranking inside linebackers, we wanted to see enough snaps and attempts to get a true picture of a player's development in, and effect on, his offense. Linebackers with fewer than 10 percent of their team's total defensive snaps were exempted from the rankings, including the following:

    Jerrell Freeman, Chicago Bears

    Nick Bellore, Detroit Lions

    Joe Thomas, Green Bay Packers

    Dannell Ellerbe, Philadelphia Eagles

    Note that Dallas' Sean Lee, categorized by some as an inside linebacker, will be analyzed as a 4-3 outside linebacker in our rankings.

Nos. 70-66

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    69. Hayes Pullard, Los Angeles Chargers

    Pass Defense: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    12/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    14/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    53/100

    A third-year linebacker who spent his first two seasons in Jacksonville, Hayes Pullard is relatively unknown. At 6'0", 236 pounds, he fits the mold for linebackers in the league today.

    Unfortunately, that's about where the comparisons end. He's a poor tackler and an underwhelming run defender. He's also easily exposed in coverage. It's early in his career, but it's hard to see Pullard ever being more than a spot starter.

                 

    68. Jeremiah George, Indianapolis Colts

    Pass Defense: 12/25
    Run Defense: 
    13/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    14/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    53/100

    George is a special-teamer and journeyman who lacks the traits of an NFL starter across all phases. The Colts' linebacker depth was so poor that George was able to stick around despite the fact he doesn't seem to have the processing speed to even begin competing as a starter.

                   

    67. Justin Durant, Dallas Cowboys

    Pass Defense: 11/25
    Run Defense: 15/25
    Pass Rush: 7/15
    Tackling: 14/25
    Position Value: 7/10
    Overall Grade: 54/100

    Earlier in his career, Durant was an excellent run defender, great against the pass and one of the rangiest linebackers in the game. Injuries have sapped him of most of those skills over the past few years, and when he did play for the Cowboys in 2017, he struggled to react to keys and keep up with quicker backs and receivers. Released by the Cowboys in December after seven games, Durant has limited appeal as a downhill run defender and special teamer, but at age 32, it might be time to hang 'em up.

                    

    66. Kevin Pierre-Louis, Kansas City Chiefs

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    13/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    14/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    55/100

    Pierre-Louis is a fourth-year player who is a backup at best. The Chiefs have a top-heavy linebacker group, leaving room for less talented players like Pierre-Louis to stick around.

    He lacks the aggressiveness in run support and is often overwhelmed by even adequate NFL talent. The Chiefs are due for an upgrade of linebacker depth.

Nos. 65-61

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    65. Kelvin Sheppard, New York Giants

    Pass Defense: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    56/100

    Kelvin Sheppard was signed by the Giants after an injury to second-year player B.J. Goodson, which says enough about how the Giants organization valued Sheppard's tools after he started 11 games for the team last season.

    Sheppard was signed largely due to his familiarity with the defense. As a defender, he avoids contact in run support and is much more of a clean-up player. He's easily exposed in man coverage and lacks an understanding of pattern combinations, leading to guessing that leaves the middle of the field exploited.

    Sheppard is a depth player at best and will likely be a journeyman signee who pops up as an injury replacement for starters throughout the league.

                     

    64. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions

    Pass Defense: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    13/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    56/100

    Tahir Whitehead is an excellent athlete and plays hard, but he lacks the fundamental technique to continually compete against NFL talent. He's best as a complementary piece and will likely be a starter on teams with poor depth throughout the majority of his career.

    Whitehead is easily manipulated as a middle hole defender and lacks the strength to disengage from linemen in close space.

                 

    63. Jon Bostic, Indianapolis Colts

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    57/100

    Jon Bostic is a depth player who had an opportunity to start the majority of the season because the Colts linebackers were so poor as a unit. Bostic's season is indicative of the overall level of the Colts' group, showing inconsistent ability and a lack of situational awareness in critical times.

    Bostic has good size (6'1", 245 lbs) and has no fear for contact, but he doesn't show the technical proficiency and movement skills to be more than a rotational player.

                  

    62. Marquel Lee, Oakland Raiders

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    13/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    57/100

    Marquel Lee is not ready to be a starter in the NFL. That much was clear on tape for the fifth-round rookie out of Wake Forest. The Raiders did their young linebacker no favors by expecting him to play in his first year.

    Lee is lengthy and lean at 6'3" and 240 pounds, and he lacks the leverage or strength to be an adequate interior run defender. He will need time with NFL conditioning and coaching to build his body to meet the needs of professional linebackers.

    He's a depth piece worth hanging on to, but he lacks the processing speed and physicality to be a starter this early in his career.

                  

    61. Nick Vigil, Cincinnati Bengals

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    14/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    57/100

    Nick Vigil dealt with some injuries this season, but his play was poor regardless. The second-year linebacker routinely missed tackles and struggled in all aspects of the game.

    He doesn't have an elite trait, leaving him without a plan to compete mid-play. He fails to recover from initial contact in run support and is easily misdirected as an underneath defender.

Nos. 60-56

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    60. John Timu, Chicago Bears

    Pass Defense: 13/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    57/100

    John Timu is a career backup who will get snaps inconsistently but plays with energy and enthusiasm. As a backup, that's about all he's asked to do. Teams will go directly at him if he's in a game too long, suggesting it's unlikely he'll ever be a starting-caliber player.

                

    59. Kamalei Correa, Baltimore Ravens

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    57/100

    Kamalei Correa has intriguing size (6'3", 241 lbs) and versatility for the Ravens scheme but hasn't been able to carve out a significant role on the field. The lack of a true calling card makes it difficult for Correa to unseat those in front of him.

    He's a strong depth piece but didn't do enough to garner significant snaps as a second-year player.

                 

    58. James Burgess Jr., Cleveland Browns

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    58/100

    Burgess is a backup with athleticism that teams covet. He'll stick around on rosters as a developmental project despite lacking the functional strength to stop plays at the point of attack against NFL-quality offensive linemen.

                   

    57. Mike Hull, Miami Dolphins

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    16/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    58/100

    Hull is an excellent backup and special teams player. He has the requisite physicality and speed to compete in the NFL, but he lacks traits that would make him a reliable starter. He's limited in coverage, which makes him a liability in a defense where the linebackers must be flexible.

    Hull can fill in throughout games, but he's not someone to rely on consistently. Three years into his career, Hull looks like the prototypical cheap backup option who can benefit a rotation, but should be relied on as a starter only in a pinch.

                  

    56. Christian Jones, Chicago Bears

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

    Christian Jones is a backup who has earned playing time in Chicago the last two seasons because of the issues with players above him on the depth chart. To his credit, Jones stays ready and outperformed a limited skill set in 2017.

    He doesn't do anything particularly well but manages to make tackles in space and isn't an outright liability. For a player with a backup's tool kit, that's just fine.

Nos. 55-51

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    55. Nick Kwiatkoski, Chicago Bears

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    59/100

    Nick Kwiatkoski is just two years into his career, but the traits that made him a fourth-round selection haven't quite translated. He doesn't have the speed or agility to compete with starting-caliber players.

    There are other players who have carved out careers with limited athleticism, but those guys are relying on experience and processing. Kwiatkoski will have to begin doing the same if he expects to be a consistent starter.

                   

    54. Anthony Hitchens, Dallas Cowboys

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    60/100

    Anthony Hitchens is a limited player who is likely best suited for a backup role. He struggles in coverage over the middle of the field and lacks the consistency as an interior run defender.

    His play showed flashes of improvement in 2017, but the bad plays stick out. Hitchens plays hard through the whistle and benefits from clean-up tackle stats that aren't indicative of his play as a gap-setting defender.

                     

    53. B.J. Goodson, New York Giants

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    60/100

    B.J. Goodson looked primed for the starting middle linebacker role in the Giants defense this season but could never quite get healthy. The second-year player battled an ankle injury all season before being placed on injured reserve before the Giants' final game.

    Goodson started seven games but failed to make much of an impact. In terms of evaluation, he shouldn't be written off yet, but he'll have to show better than what he did in a limited 2017. He has all of the size that is preferred for inside linebackers, but the instinctual play that carries young players doesn't show up on film.

    There's enough there athletically to suggest he could be solid, but his ceiling isn't nearly as high as other young linebackers in the league.

                

    52. Josh Bynes, Arizona Cardinals

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    16/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    61/100

    Bynes is a seven-year veteran who has existed largely as a spot starter and backup role player. His play for the Cardinals in 2017 highlights exactly why.

    He has good size at 6'1" and 239 pounds, but he lacks any elite traits to hang his hat on. He does everything at an average level, leading to average play that can be exposed by superior talent.

    Bynes is at his best as a zone defender, with the experience to match concepts in action and solid tackling ability to end plays efficiently.

                  

    51. Antonio Morrison, Indianapolis Colts

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

    Antonio Morrison has the most ability of any Colts linebacker, but his inexperience showed.

    He wins with tenacity and effort, but he hasn't seen enough NFL offenses to be the leader of a defense or process what's happening in front of him as fast as necessary. The Colts defense suffered as a result.

    Morrison has to get stronger as a point-of-attack defender and will need continued on-field time to get comfortable being the primary defender of a young and inexperienced defense.

Nos. 50-46

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    50. Manti Te'o, New Orleans Saints

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    16/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    61/100

    Manti Te'o hasn't ignited the entire defensive growth of the New Orleans Saints, but he's been an important piece of the puzzle.

    The first four seasons of Te'o's career in San Diego made it look like the linebacker would only ever be a depth piece. In 2017, however, he started 11 games for the Saints and performed much more like the second-round draft pick he was.

    Te'o doesn't have the movement skills of most linebackers in the league, especially in an NFC South with Luke Kuechly, Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones, but he's an instinctual player, and sometimes those guys guess correctly.

    Te'o may never be an unquestioned starter, but his turnaround has been impressive and suggests he may be able to keep working with a limited skill set.

                  

    49. David Harris, New England Patriots

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

    If only the Patriots could blend veteran David Harris' skill set with second-year player Elandon Roberts', they'd have one heck of a linebacker. Harris is 11 years into his career and has found a way to continue seeing playing time by being a consistent and well-prepared player.

    He doesn't have the fast-twitch athleticism that can support a lack of knowledge and has to rely on experience to compete against physically superior competition. Harris is a role player at this stage of his career, but he can be relied on as a spot starter with average traits.

                 

    48. Korey Toomer, Los Angeles Chargers

    Pass Defense: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Toomer is a spot starter who has seen time in the last few seasons due to injuries above him on the depth chart. He's an above-average backup but doesn't look like an average starter.

    He'll consistently find work as a starter for teams with weak linebacker depth, but Toomer's best asset is his ability to keep things together in the absence of a true starter. He's not the guy you want to rely on every week.

                  

    47. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Thirty-five years old isn't athletic prime. Throw in the fact that Derrick Johnson plays a position built on repetitive contact, and it's easy to see how the Chiefs defender could regress.

    Johnson would've been in the top tier of this list not that long ago. Now, he has regressed to the middle of the road. He's an adequate linebacker but not above replacing sooner rather than later.

    The quick twitch and trigger that made Johnson an excellent player is gone. He wins with intelligence but doesn't have the same power to deal with interior offensive linemen. The Chiefs defense doesn't have better options, but Johnson no longer is the untouchable centerpiece he once was.

                  

    46. Jake Ryan, Green Bay Packers

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    62/100

    Jake Ryan is only three years into his career, but it's fair to say this is his ceiling. He's a slightly below-average starter who can be beaten in coverage downfield and shows inconsistent strength in run support.

    Fortunately, teammate Blake Martinez took a major step forward this year, because Ryan seems to have maxed out already.

Nos. 45-41

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    45. Chase Allen, Miami Dolphins

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

    Chase Allen surprised everyone as an undrafted rookie who cracked the Dolphins' starting lineup Week 1, despite other more heralded linebackers on the roster. He has great size at 6'3" and 250 pounds, but the lack of competition was clear.

    The transition from Southern Illinois to the NFL is no joke, and Allen's ascension is encouraging. He'll be worth paying attention to next year, but for now, the lack of experience shows in slow processing skills and poor technique as games wear on.

                  

    44. Alec Ogletree, Los Angeles Rams

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

    Alec Ogletree is one of the great mysteries of inside linebacker play. The Rams experienced immediate turnaround with new head coach Sean McVay. Defensively, Wade Phillips has taken a Rams defense with intriguing players and made them even better.

    Ogletree, however, continues to be exposed as an interior defender each week. He struggles to take on contact square and often racks up tackle numbers downfield. Nonetheless, the Rams signed him to a four-year extension worth $42 million, suggesting they see nothing wrong with his play.

                 

    43. Dylan Cole, Houston Texans

    Pass Defense: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    63/100

    Dylan Cole largely existed as a backup in 2017, but there are significant signs that point to him being a consistent contributor for the Houston Texans defense moving forward.

    Cole is an exceptional athlete, with the agility and speed to bring force into contact despite being a smaller linebacker. He plays with tremendous effort and has instincts that translate to the NFL. The Texans have an excellent primary backup for years in the rookie Cole.

                 

    42. Jarrad Davis, Detroit Lions

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    16/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    64/100

    Davis was a major upgrade over the other linebackers on the Detroit Lions roster, but the rookie will have to improve heading into his second season. Despite a statistically strong season, Davis survived largely on athleticism and was beat easily by technically superior opponents.

    He was an inconsistent tackler and struggled as a coverage defender in space. The Lions can be patient, as Davis' skill set is enough to build on and should see improvements with more time to digest NFL offenses.

                  

    41. Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    64/100

    Karlos Dansby is in his third stint with Arizona and, at age 36, playing better football than he has in the last few years.

    Dansby is no longer an above-average athlete, and he has to succeed with preparation and timing. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Dansby has learned ways to succeed as a run defender against physically superior talent.

    Dansby is worth a backup spot on most rosters, largely due to his ability to process NFL offenses and play steady football. The Cardinals have benefitted from having a consistent defender in the middle of the field despite a poor season in the record books.

Nos. 40-36

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    40. Will Compton, Washington Redskins

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    65/100

    Will Compton looked like a solid starter in Washington last year but saw his role decreased significantly with the signing of free agent Zach Brown. Compton plays with high energy and has solid zone awareness as an underneath defender. However, he's a liability in run support against teams that commit to inside power runs. He'll flash the energy and instincts to make plays, but he lacks the strength and technique to routinely sit in gaps and beat blocks. Compton was put on Injured Reserve in Week 11, ending a disappointing campaign for the five-year vet.

          

    39. Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    14/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    65/100

    The Titans recognized a need to upgrade their inside linebacker unit from last season and elected to take Jayon brown, a rookie fifth-round pick from UCLA. Brown matches the trend of inside linebackers in the league given his size and speed. He has the highest ceiling of any Titans linebacker and was impressive as a role player in 2017. He has to get stronger as a defender at the point of attack, but there's no denying his athletic ability. Brown's coverage skills are far ahead of his run-stopping ability. On run plays, he relies on athleticism and quickness to make up for a clear lack of processing speed.

        

    38. Patrick Onwuasor, Baltimore Ravens

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    15/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    65/100

    An undrafted second-year player, Onwuasor took the place of Zach Orr, the former Raven that retired after last season because of neck injuries. Onwuasor can't quite match Orr's speed or power, but he's not a poor replacement. He'll makes plays when he anticipates correctly, but he hasn't shown down-to-down consistency needed to be an unquestioned starter in the NFL. The Ravens may not see inside linebacker as a specific area to upgrade, but there's no doubting that they'll need more than what they got from Onwuasor in 2017.

          

    37. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    The Houston Texans replaced longtime starter Brian Cushing with rookie Zach Cunningham in 2017, and early implications are that it was a wise move. Cunningham is far from a finished product, but the rookie showed promise alongside veteran Bernardrick McKinney. Cunningham's long and lean frame can be a leverage issue as an interior run defender, but his length helps tremendously as an underneath defender. Cunningham was a productive and effective tackler and showed a skill set that can be built upon as he enters his second season.

           

    36. Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    Following a brutal knee injury that ended his college career two seasons ago and forced him to rehab for the entire 2016 season, Jaylon Smith made six starts in 2017. While it's clear that Smith has lost some of the agility and explosiveness that made him an elite prospect, there's enough left to suggest he could be an above-average player for the Cowboys. He has all of the instincts and mental processing skills desired and should benefit from another offseason to continue improving.

Nos. 35-31

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    35. Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    15/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    Bucannon battled an ankle injury all season, forcing him to miss the Cardinals' first three games and their Week 13 contest. Four years into his career, Bucannon is no longer an inexperienced rookie. Most importantly, Bucannon seems to be aware of the ways he wins and how he can avoid being exploited. His size will always be a cause of concern against teams that run with power in a gap scheme. Bucannon is best as a gap-shooting weakside linebacker who can be a primary underneath coverage defender.

          

    34. Kevin Minter, Cincinnati Bengals

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    66/100

    Minter parlayed a solid season in Arizona last year into a free-agent contract from Cincinnati. Unfortunately, a Week 7 elbow injury disrupted Minter's season and eventually landed him on Injured Reserve. Throughout the first half, Minter wasn't putting up the same numbers as last year, but his play was nearly identical. He's a consistent linebacker that is at his best as a reactionary player paired with instinctual running mates. Minter is a clean-up player that doesn't have the explosiveness of other linebackers in the AFC North, but he's a sure tackler who can fight through contact at the line of scrimmage.

          

    33. Elandon Roberts, New England Patriots

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

    Elandon Roberts' development from his first to second years has been somewhat disappointing. There's no questioning that the Patriots' linebacker hits like a Mack truck, but the recklessness in his play has been an issue all season. Roberts has no issue hitting top gear and isn't afraid to meet blockers in the hole, but he plays far too wildly and takes himself out of plays. Of all teams, the Patriots surely know how to harness that playing style, but Roberts will have to become a more disciplined player himself if he plans on becoming an every-down linebacker in the NFL. If the team can be patient, Roberts shows the speed, power and aggressiveness that can be the centerpiece of a formidable defense.

          

    32. Brock Coyle, San Francisco 49ers

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    7/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    67/100

    Brock Coyle began the season as a backup and quickly found significant playing time following tremendous turnover in the 49ers linebacking corps. Coyle is an above-average backup and spot-starter that has the tenacity and thick chest to compete as an interior defender. He'll struggle to work across linemen in space that take strong angles in zone schemes. Coyle is a smart and steady defender that should see a long career as a primary backup and core special-teamer.

           

    31. A.J. Klein, New Orleans Saints

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

    A.J. Klein looked like the best backup linebacker in football last year while filling in for injured Carolina Panther Luke Kuechly. Klein signed a free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints and was able to carve out a starting role after years behind Kuechly. Klein has all of the tools to be an above-average starter in the league, but he's playing in the wrong division. Klein will consistently be compared to Kuechly, Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander, three players with incredible speed that Klein simply doesn't have. He's a consistent, high-effort player that has the strength to be adequate against gap runs, but man-to-man coverage against backs like Alvin Kamara will leave Klein exposed.

Nos. 30-26

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    30. Mason Foster, Washington Redskins

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    68/100

    Mason Foster was playing inspired football before a torn labrum landed him on Injured Reserve in late October. Foster showed the tenacity that has made him a reliable starter. He's unafraid of contact and able to use power and force to initiate tackles in the box. The Washington linebacker group may be the most well-rounded in the league, leaving Foster's starting spot following his injury up in the air. Nonetheless, Foster's ability to be an aggressive run defender will keep him on NFL rosters as the trend shifts away from players of that mould.

          

    29. Avery Williamson, Tennessee Titans

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    68/100

    Avery Williamson will likely be the odd man out in a Titans linebacker trio that overachieved in 2017. His play will likely earn him a starting spot somehow, and there's a fair chance it won't be in Tennessee. Williamson has flashed of all the traits needed at a requisite level to start, but shows inconsistency in effort and production. Too often, he's driven well out of gaps of interior runs and lacks the power and hand-usage to shed offensive linemen.

          

    28. Reggie Ragland, Kansas City Chiefs

    Pass Defense: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    68/100

    Reggie Ragland's career may have been saved with his move to Kansas City from the Buffalo Bills. He fits into the scheme well and has the thickness to compete against an Oakland Raiders offensive line that is built with maulers. Ragland doesn't match the body type of most linebackers. but he comes with experience in a major college program and the barrel-chested size that some evaluators still look for. He'll be exploited as a man-coverage defender but can be defensively schemed to be protected.

          

    27. Martrell Spaight, Washington Redskins

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    Martrell Spaight may be this year's A.J. Klein: a backup that should have an opportunity to start within the next year or two with a different team. Spaight has flashes of top-notch play, but he's sitting on a depth chart with tackling machine Zach Brown. Spaight has the upper-body strength and thickness to be stout in run support, and he offers enough speed and athleticism to be an effective edge defender. The inconsistency in Spaight's game is hard to decipher. Is it a lack of on-field playing time that will lead to more development, or has he maxed out his ability already?

          

    26. Jatavis Brown, Los Angeles Chargers

    Pass Defense: 19/25
    Run Defense: 
    16/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    Jatavis Brown's athleticism has been apparent from the moment he got playing time as a rookie last year. He excels in man coverage and can singlehandedly disrupt underneath coverage options. Brown is still developing the mental processing required to be the center of a defense. For now, working alongside Denzel Perryman is Brown's best opportunity to keep improving. His physical traits pop off the film, but his key and diagnose skills have to improve for him to take the next step.

Nos. 25-21

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    25. Demario Davis, New York Jets

    Pass Defense: 14/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    Demario Davis joined the Jets again after a year in Cleveland and had a revival of sorts. The Jets overperformed as a team, as did Davis individually. He isn't an ideal coverage defender and is at his best as the counter to another player. If Davis can be an underneath zone defender, he's got enough to continue starting. The issue is when he's isolated in man coverage, where is technique is sloppy downfield and exposes poor flexibility. As a run defender, Davis wins with leverage and geometry, and he matches angles well as an interior and edge defender.

          

    24. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    Posluszny doesn't do anything at an elite level anymore, but he is a model of consistency. He's the last of a dying breed of thick-chested NFL linebackers that excel as brute run-stuffers. The Jaguars have opted for speed in their scheme by dipping into Posluszny's playing time, but the 11-year veteran handled it well. His presence has clearly impacted other Jaguars linebackers. He helped turn the exceptionally athletic pair of Telvin Smith and Myles Jack into far more than jacked athletes. Posluszny likely only has another year or two as a contributing member before his lack of speed becomes a true liability.

          

    23. NaVorro Bowman, Oakland Raiders

    Pass Defense: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    NaVorro Bowman is existing largely on reputation. The 49ers began the season with Bowman as the unquestioned leader of their defense, but it was clear his role in Santa Clara would diminish once rookie Reuben Foster was healthy enough to play an entire game. The 49ers released Bowman and he quickly signed with the other Bay Area team. Injuries have slowed down the veteran significantly. Bowman wins consistently in the run game with processing speed and instincts, but he's far from the lockdown coverage defender he once was. One-dimensional linebackers are harder to protect each year that offenses move toward exotic passing shemes, and Bowman is trending downward.

          

    22. Blake Martinez, Green Bay Packers

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    69/100

    Blake Martinez might be the league's most improved linebacker from Year 1 to Year 2. At times, he didn't even look like the same player. The inconsistency in run support will show up from time to time, but Martinez looks far more comfortable processing the speed of NFL offenses, and the angles he takes to tackles are much improved. The Packers will need Martinez to continue improving as a man-coverage defender, but he's trending upward faster than most linebackers in the league.

          

    21. Denzel Perryman, Los Angeles Chargers

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    70/100

    Denzel Perryman was moved around by the Chargers, perhaps unnecessarily after an impressive 2016 season. The 2017 season saw Perryman in action for only seven games, leading to a major dip in production after what looked like the beginning of an intriguing career. Perryman's play as a coverage defender over the middle of the field is some of the best in the league. He has situational and pattern awareness that helps attack opposing offenses. If healthy, the Chargers should move him solely into the middle next season and let him thrive.

Nos. 20-16

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    20. Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee Titans

    Pass Defense: 15/25
    Run Defense: 
    18/25
    Pass Rush: 
    12/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    70/100

    Wesley Woodyard is the consistent veteran of the Titans linebacker group. Ten years into his career, Woodyard has figured out how to win. He's a versatile player who rushes the passer better than most inside linebackers and can be an average coverage player downfield. Woodyard doesn't have the speed or flexibility to be isolated in man coverage, but he has solid zone awareness and understands leverage against edge runs. The Titans benefit from having a do-it-all vet like Woodyard, who has managed to keep his play at a respectable level for a decade.

               

    19. Todd Davis, Denver Broncos

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    18/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    70/100

    Davis entered his second season as a starter alongside Brandon Marshall and looks like an excellent complement. Both Davis and Marshall alternate being the reckless defender, with other serving on the clean-up crew. Davis can be overwhelmed against gap schemes but shows good speed and angle recognition as a sideline-to-sideline defender. The Broncos won't need to look for upgrades as long as Marshall and Davis are starters. Davis' improvements in processing will only serve him better and allow him to shoot gaps before linemen get their hands on him.

               

    18. Preston Brown, Buffalo Bills

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    71/100

    All of Preston Brown's skills were on display in 2017 after his former sidekick, Zach Brown, left for Washington via free agency last offseason. Preston was far more consistent than Zach in 2016, and that consistency showed again this season. He doesn't have the knack for making big plays like other linebackers, but the technically sound aspects to his game will make his a starter for a long time.

          

    17. Vince Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Pass Defense: 16/25
    Run Defense: 
    17/25
    Pass Rush: 
    13/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    72/100

    Vince Williams' play last season was enough for the Steelers to let Lawrence Timmons walk in free agency. And they were right. Williams plays with tenacity and aggression that few linebackers in the league can match. He's a solid tackler who understands angles and leverage to win when he might otherwise be physically overmatched. Williams is a poor man's Dont'a Hightower, a player who can move all over the defense and do a little bit of everything on a weekly basis. At 28 years old, Williams is hitting his prime five years into his career, and the Steelers are reaping the benefits.

          

    16. Danny Trevathan, Chicago Bears

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    72/100

    Six seasons into his NFL career,  Danny Trevathan has started all 16 games just once. That's an issue, whether fair to Trevathan or not. He has all of the skills to be an elite linebacker in the league, but none of that matters if he can't stay on the field. Trevathan is hyper aggressive in run support, with tenacity into contact that is paired with excellent speed. He's stout in coverage, both locked up individually or as an underneath zone defender. The Bears signed Trevathan to a free-agent contract that hasn't quite been worth the price, but it isn't for a lack of ability.

Nos. 15-11

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    15. Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Pass Defense: 19/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    17/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    72/100

    Kwon Alexander missed games early in the season due to a hamstring injury, but played well after coming back healthy. Three years into his career, it's clear Alexander has found his niche. His tackle numbers have dipped from last year when he managed over 140 total, but he's found consistency in his game that wasn't there in previous seasons. Alexander's best trait is his athleticism, but he's paired that with mental processing that helps him remain controlled in critical settings.

          

    14. Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia Eagles

    Pass Defense: 17/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    73/100

    Jordan Hicks was wildly undervalued as a top-tier inside linebacker last year. Another season like that and Hicks would be mentioned in the top group of linebackers. Unfortunately, an Achilles injury ended Hicks' season and left him with just seven games started. In those seven games, Hicks was inconsistent at best. The athleticism to play man coverage, the awareness and instincts to be an excellent zone defender and the agility to shoot gaps in run support make Hicks an above-average player. The difference between this season and last is that there were fewer opportunities for Hicks to demonstrate those elite traits. He'll have to stay just outside of the top group for now. but a rebound next season will be exciting to watch.

          

    13. Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos

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

    The Denver Broncos defense regressed in 2017, but Marshall's play was as consistent as ever. He doesn't have the elite traits of the top linebackers in the league, but he's just underneath them as a consistent tackler and coverage defender who can win most reps. The Broncos have a solid duo that should continue to improve as it plays together. Marshall will lose when he guesses, which suggests that he's compensating athletically despite plenty of speed and strength to compete with most NFL linemen.

          

    12. Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    74/100

    Bernardrick McKinney's numbers are down this year, but that's not indicative of his play. The Houston Texans brought in rookie linebackers Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole to take some of the tackling load off of McKinney. His play has remained as consistent as last season, and he's the unheralded leader of the Houston Texans defense. McKinney is an excellent run defender who recognizes openings and fights through traffic with rare strength and balance. He can rush the passer from the interior or edge and offers tremendous flexibility as a moveable piece.

          

    11. Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns

    Pass Defense: 19/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    8/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    74/100

    Christian Kirksey is young, athletic and aggressive. The Cleveland Browns draw plenty of attention for all the wrong reasons. The front seven of the Browns defense, however, is quietly one of the best in the league, and much of that has to do with Kirksey's rapid development. At 6'2" and 233 pounds, Kirksey has the ideal build to play inside linebacker. He has speed to range from sideline to sideline, length to be a solid coverage defender and instincts to fight through traffic against interior run schemes. The Browns may be a franchise in shambles, but Kirksey is the centerpiece of an impressive defensive core.

10. Jamie Collins Sr., Cleveland Browns

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Pass Defense: 20/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    75/100

    Collins' role in the Browns defense morphes each week based on the perceived talent across the line of scrimmage. Few players in the league have the dynamic skill set of Collins. Unfortunately, his season ended early following an MCL injury. But Collins is a matchup weapon and can be an eraser in coverage or a knifing run-support player. The Browns defense will only get better upon his return.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    During his time with the New England Patriots, Collins showed he could be one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. He's also developed into a fine blitzer off the edge, and his run-stopping ability has improved. Collins' versatility is underrated in Cleveland, but it's a primary component of the Browns' potential success.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

9. Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    9/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    75/100

    Few linebackers drew more attention in 2017 than Joe Schobert. The second-year linebacker from Wisconsisn played every snap in 2017 alongside Christian Kirksey, and he looks like the ideal running mate to pair with Kirksey's athleticism. Schobert is a tackling machine (144 this year). His play in 2017 is no fluke and is a major catalyst for the rapidly improving Browns defense. Schobert is an excellent run defender, with the length and thickness to get his hands on offensive linemen in traffic and to fight through contact with balance.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Schobert, a fourth-round pick, stepped up in his second NFL season. He flows to the ball well from multiple gaps, and though his play strength isn't always optimal, he has the tackling form to take care of business. He turns and runs well in coverage, which is incredibly important for a defense when the free safety often plays 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the linebackers subsequently have more multi-faceted coverage responsibilities.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

8. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Pass Defense: 20/25
    Run Defense: 
    19/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    75/100

    Deion Jones continues to flash the speed and tenacity that made him a standout rookie defender. Any perceived lack of size is offset by Jones' relentless hustle and effort. Strong interior offensive lines can bully Jones in short-yardage situations, but the Falcons' young defensive centerpiece wins with force upon contact and athleticism to range sideline to sideline. Jones looks like the prototypical defender to compete in a good NFC South division.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    While Jones has impressive physicality for his size, he's more in the modern linebacker/safety hybrid paradigm. He's agile, and his excellent intermediate and deep coverage techniques allow him to take receivers up the middle and up the seam on deep posts and vertical routes. He's become the epicenter of Atlanta's defense in just two seasons.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

7. Zach Brown, Washington Redskins

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Pass Defense: 18/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    76/100

    Few linebackers have benefited from a change of scenery in recent years quite like Zach Brown, who started for Washington last season after a year in Buffalo and four seasons with the Titans before that. Brown has the athleticism and raw power to match any linebacker. The issue is that he's highly inconsistent in effort and almost appears to take plays off. In just 13 games this season, Brown tallied 127 total tackles. When he's on, he's great. He has the strength and timing to meet linemen in gaps with power, and to beat them to the edge with speed. The 2017 season was a step in the right direction for Brown's overall play, but his consistency will always be worth watching.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Brown flows well to the ball and is able to use his upper-body strength to defeat blockers at the line of scrimmage, which makes him an effective run defender. His primary issue with Washington last season was that he often appeared a step slow in pass coverage, which meant he allowed too many easy passes. Given his athleticism, this may have been a schematic adjustment, but it was a consistent issue Brown will have to clean up in 2018. 

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

6. Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Pass Defense: 21/25
    Run Defense: 
    21/25
    Pass Rush: 
    10/15
    Tackling: 
    19/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    78/100

    Shazier is arguably the best linebacker in the league at turning mental processing into physical activity. Shazier attacks the line of scrimmage faster than any linebacker, which created high-speed collisions at the line of scrimmage. His ability to bend and run at unorthodox angles makes him incredibly difficult for offensive linemen to get their hands on. Shazier's injury is scary and puts the future in doubt, but his pure skill pre-injury places him among some of the best linebackers in the NFL.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    It's unknown at this point whether Shazier will ever play football again, and one certainly hopes that a positive quality of life will transcend whatever his NFL career will be in the future. During his NFL career, Shazier exhibited a rare combination of demon speed and angular accuracy that allowed him to fire out of the snap like a missile and still hit the target. Factor in his coverage abilities and potential as a blitzer, and there's no question that Pittsburgh's defense will suffer in his absence.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

5. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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

    Eric Kendricks doesn't get enough love as a top-five inside linebacker, despite being the central factor behind Minnesota's dominant defense. Kendricks' ascent into the top tier of linebackers is a couple years in the making. As a third-year vet, Kendricks is reaching his prime on the inside. He recognizes play development and has exceptional processing speed to convert that recognition into action. Kendricks' play has been more consistent this season, and the stout Vikings defense is a reflection of that.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Mike Zimmer's defense is based more on player execution than exotic schemes, and he requires his defenders to be assignment-correct at a high level. As the on-field shot-caller, Kenrdicks has developed into a linebacker with a total skill set. He's an outstanding run-stopper, a fine cover man in flats and seams and he's learned to time Zimmer's A-gap blitzes perfectly. Few 4-3 linebackers have more potential.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

4. Reuben Foster, San Francisco 49ers

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    Robert Reiners/Getty Images

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

    Reuben Foster has been an absolute steal for the 49ers new front office in Year 1 of a rebuild. Foster's instincts are apparent every play. He has a knack for finding the ball that highlights his head-hunting style. The rookie looks to be every bit as good as they hoped for when they selected him at the end of the first round of April's draft. Foster's quick trigger will likely become a target of defensive coordinators using play-action concepts, forcing the rookie to continue processing at a high level.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    If Foster can stay healthy despite his wild playing style, he has a chance to be one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL for a long time. The first-round rookie out of Alabama missed six games with various ailments, but when he was able to get on the field, Foster showed elite traits. As much a read-and-react player as a downfield thumper, Foster has tremendous speed to and through gaps to get to the ballcarrier, and he covers a great deal of ground in a big hurry. 

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

3. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Pass Defense: 20/25
    Run Defense: 
    20/25
    Pass Rush: 
    12/15
    Tackling: 
    20/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    79/100

    C.J. Mosley is a complete linebacker and the unquestioned leader of the Baltimore Ravens defense. He lives around the ball and has a knack for making big plays when the Ravens need them. Mosley's ability as a legitimate pass-rusher is a dangerous tool for the Ravens. He can line up over the A-gap or on the edge and create havoc in the pocket. It's hard to find much fault in a player who has managed over 100 tackles each of the last four seasons. The Ravens had a dominant defense for over a decade led by Ray Lewis, and they seamlessly shuffled in one of the game's best current linebackers when he retired.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Under newly retired defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens ran a dizzying array of multiple fronts and disguised coverages, thereby ensuring that any defender on the field would need unusual degree of situational awareness. Mosley fits that paradigm, which is the thing that makes him a great linebacker. Yes, he's wildly fast and athletic, but it's his ability to stop the run from multiple gaps, cover ground to make tackles out of his area and cover throughout the field with proper spacing and discipline that has ensured his success.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

2. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Pass Defense: 21/25
    Run Defense: 
    22/25
    Pass Rush: 
    11/15
    Tackling: 
    21/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    82/100

    Kuechly is one of the best inside linebackers in the league despite health concerns. With a new preventative measure, he managed to play in all but one game this year. His tackling numbers are down, but not for a lack of effort or ability. Kuechly excels as an intermediate coverage defender in man or zone, while winning as a run defender by being consistent and well-prepared. His talent is undeniable and will keep him in the top tier of inside linebackers as long as he's healthy.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Through Kuechly's first five years in the league, the Panthers had a stationary, execution-based defense that required great awareness and athleticism. In 2017, under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the team started blitzing far more, which allowed Kuechly to tear it loose from multiple positions—everywhere from the A-gaps to an edge-rusher position. He's still a great tackler and cover man, and when you add in the pass-rush component, he's as good an inside linebacker as you'll find.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar

1. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Pass Defense: 21/25
    Run Defense: 
    21/25
    Pass Rush: 
    12/15
    Tackling: 
    22/25
    Position Value: 
    7/10
    Overall Grade: 
    83/100

    Another year, another opportunity for Bobby Wagner to play like the most underrated defender in the league. Seattle's formidable defensive backfield has suffered significant injuries, and Wagner's elite play kept the team afloat all season. He's quietly a top-three inside linebacker every year, with the overall athleticism and power to play sideline to sideline against any team. Wagner is above average in every category and continues to be the gold-standard for modern inside linebacker play.

    —NFL1000 ILB Scout Jerod Brown

    Wagner has always been a tremendously athletic and aware player. His Utah State tape showed a linebacker who was often left to patrol his level of the field alone, where he did everything from ferreting out the run inside, to running sideline to sideline, to dropping back in coverage. Under Kris Richard's blitz-heavier concepts in the last couple of seasons, Wagner has added a great ability to time blitzes from the inside, and he's developed a scary awareness of what's happening on the field that has him in the right place at the right time more than anyone else at his position.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar