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Ranking All 32 Linebacker Corps

As we continue to move through all of the different position groups, TRO ranks all 32 linebacking corps from worst to best (32-1) going into the 2021 season.

via Mike Siegel / Seattle Times


Last week, TRO ranked all 32 defensive line units from worst to best. If you missed it, check it out here:


Now, TRO moves to the unit behind the defensive line, the linebacking corps. Linebackers are jack of all trade type players with a wide array of responsibilities as they are tasked with filling gaps, stuffing the run, pressuring the quarterback, and dropping into coverage in the pass game. Also, some teams trot out four linebackers while others prefer three. Other play calling schemes can call for as few as two linebackers on the field. As a result, it's not easy to rank these units, but TRO will try to prioritize off-ball linebackers (guys who don't play with their hands in the dirt). Check out where your team's linebacking corp falls in our list:


32) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

via Philadelphia Eagles


The Philadelphia Eagles haven't taken a linebacker in the first round of an NFL draft in 42 years. Uncoincidentally, they've seemed to routinely suffer at the position group. The previous years that the Eagles have put together good defenses has hinged on the pairing of a stout defensive line and some strong players in the secondary, but has typically not been due to exceptional linebacker play. Eric Wilson, Alex Singleton, T. J. Edwards, Patrick Johnson, Shaun Bradley, Davion Taylor, and Rashad Smith. That is the list of true linebackers on the Eagles's roster. How many of these guys are do you feel confident in? This unit struggled last year at an unprecedented level. While Alex Singleton did emerge from the ashes of the CFL to lead Philadelphia in tackles last year, and the Eagles went out and added Eric Wilson from the Vikings, that will not be enough to nudge this unit from the bottom of the League as far as TRO is concerned.


31) CINCINATTI BENGALS

via Emilee Chinn / AP Photo


Another franchise that has not placed great emphasis on the linebacker position in recent years, the Cincinnati Bengals linebackers find themselves among the bottom of TRO's rankings. Markus Bailey, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Evans, Keandre Jones, Germaine Pratt, and Logan Wilson. Another list of guys who most non-Bengal, non-excessive NFL fans likely do not recognize. This is a young group with a bunch of guys who have not seen much time on the field. Look for this unit to continue to struggle in 2021, as the Bengals have prioritized their focus on the short term goal of loading up their offense.


30) GREEN BAY PACKERS

via PackersWire / USA Today


The last linebacker the Packers took in the first round was A. J. Hawk in 2006. You might note that the teams that find themselves at the bottom of this list have not placed a priority on investing capital on linebackers, which is bound to happen. Each team has a different philosophy, and different franchises prioritize different magnitudes of emphasis on various position groups. There's no single recipe to developing winning football, but in terms of ranking the talent and skill levels of linebackers, the Packers are simply lacking in this area, as it is their weakest unit on the team's entire roster. Again, a largely inexperienced and underwhelming unit that will be this defense's Achilles heel.


29) DETROIT LIONS

via Mike Mulholland / MLive


Jamie Collins is coming off of a decent 2020 campaign, and there's a good chance he'll look to continue to grow in the new scheme the Lions defense will be running this year. However, he's essentially alone out there. There's no supporting cast, and while Collins is a solid player, he can't carry the load alone.


28) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

via Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports


The Chiefs have one of the most star-studded rosters in all of football, obviously more so on offense rather than on defense, but even their defense has some big names in the secondary and couple on the defensive line. It's in the linebacking corp where the Chiefs could use some additional help. Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay, Jr., Dorian O'Daniel, and Darius Harris make up the Chiefs' rotational group. Hitchens is a consistent veteran, but has a low ceiling. Willie Gay, Jr. has some upside, but is more of a developmental piece as a 2020 fifth round draft pick. Overall, this group is just an underwhelming one, and improving it that be one of the primary focal points to address in the Draft and Free Agency when possible.


27) LOS ANGELES RAMS

via RamsWire / USA Today


On an island, the Rams linebacking corp is not going to turn many heads. You can afford to get away with that when you have one of the best defensive lines in the League, anchored by the best all around football player in the NFL, Aaron Donald, and one of the best secondaries in the League lead by one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL, Jalen Ramsey. It is worth noting that the Rams got a steal in fifth round of the 2018 Draft from the University of Virginia in Micah Kiser. He managed to win defensive player of the week in his second ever NFL game. He's a smart player and a tackling machine. If he can stay healthy, and continue to improve, he can help bolster this unit and they will climb the rankings.


26) NEW YORK JETS

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C. J. Mosley left Baltimore in 2019 following a standout year and signed a big deal to lead the Jet's linebacking unit for the 2020 season. He only suited up for two games due to injury, so it is hard to gauge what his impact will be on this unit, and if he can consistently maintain the level of production he displayed for the Ravens in 2019. Last season, we saw what the Jets' linebacking corp looked like without Mosley, and it was discouraging to say the least, which is why even if Mosley can stay healthy, TRO does not think he can lead that supporting cast and elevate that unit much higher than around the 26th spot in the League. Without Mosley, this group would be even closer to the bottom.


25) MIAMI DOLPHINS

via Eric Espada/Getty Images


The Miami Dolphins have a good defense. They are a well coached and disciplined unit that plays great complimentary football. However, their strength is their secondary, and the linebacking corp is below average. The Fins did gain Bernardrick McKinney from Houston who is a respectable player, but overall, this is another unit that lacks the big names to keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night. If you're game planning against this defense, you likely will want to attack this position group as much as possible and limit the opportunities the secondary can have at forcing turnovers.


24) CLEVELAND BROWNS

via BrownsWire / USA Today


In 2020, the linebacking corp for the Browns struggled. They have a good defensive line, and a fairly stout secondary, but often times struggled in the middle of the field. Sione Takitaki is a good run-gap filler, but is a bit of a liability on coverage. Former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith has shown that Super Bowl XLVIII was more of a matter of him having a really good game, rather than evidencing the kind of player he consistently is. He's a solid depth and rotational player, but can't shoulder the burden of leading a linebacking unit. Anthony Walker and Mack Wilson are mere rotational pieces that should see limited snaps. The Browns did steal Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in this year's Draft, so maybe he can take this unit over the top, but until he does, this will remain a below-average group.


23) WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

via Bill Kostroun / AP Photo


As a whole, this should be one of the top, if not the top, defenses in the NFL in 2021. However, their weak point will be its linebacking corp. This unit is on the right track, but currently, Jon Bostic can't find the adequate level of consistency to elevate this group, likely expected out of linebacker guru Ron Rivera. Rivera brought in one of his rotational guys from Carolina, David Mayo, to help provide some additional depth, and the team also selected Jamin Davis from Kentucky with their first round pick in this year's Draft. Lastly, Cole Holcomb has a bright future as he has been trending upward each of the last two years. It's an intriguing unit, and likely will be fine for how good Washington's defensive line and secondary will be, but until Rivera can develop Davis and Holcomb, the unit (analyzed by itself, without considering the other defensive position groups) will be considered below average.


22) LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

via James Gilbert / Getty Images


Kenneth Murray, Jr. is coming off of a very solid rookie season. While the League has been infatuated (rightfully so) with the Chargers lucking out on how good last year's sixth overall pick, Justin Herbert, turned out to be, Los Angeles fans should not overlook how quickly, the twenty-third overall pick, Murray, became acclimated to playing competitively in the pros. He was solid against the run, and while he has to improve in coverage, he showed flashes of his capabilities on that front. Rising third year player, Drue Tranquill, has made splashes on special teams, and made the most of a handful of starts he has had. He is poised to take that next leap to being a solid rotational or even starting player. This unit will be worth watching to see if they can continue to climb the rankings.


21) BALTIMORE RAVENS

via Baltimore Sun


Patrick Queen finished his rookie season with 106 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception, three sacks, and a touchdown. He put his name in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of Year, taking some attention away from Carolina Panthers' Jeremy Chinn, and the recipient of the award, Washington Football Team's Chase Young. While Queen is an exciting player who will stuff the stat sheet, the film will show that he has a whole lot to work on. He often found himself out of position, taking bad angles, and missing tackles. He's got a very bright future ahead of him, but his supporting cast is a bit of a question mark, and this unit's productivity will depend on Queen's growth.


20) HOUSTON TEXANS

via Eric Christian Smith


The Houston Texans have been an absolute dumpster fire since the DeShaun Watson saga began. They've lost almost everyone of notoriety and had very few draft picks to recoup. The bright spot on this roster might be it's linebacking corp. Zach Cunningham has over 500 tackles in four seasons in the NFL and finished second in tackles last season. The Texans also landed Christian Kirksey, an up and down veteran who can benefit from paying alongside Cunningham. Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kevin Pierre-Louis make for a capable supporting cast. This group won't blow anyone away, but it is stout, and will fly around to the ball.


19) ATLANTA FALCONS

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Deion Jones is one of the most athletic and quickest linebackers in the League. He is an asset in coverage and can use his speed to close down on run plays quickly. The only thing that has held Jones back has been his health and his supporting cast. Atlanta will need the remaining young linebackers to step up and support him. Falcons fans hope that will be soon, while Jones is still in his prime, rather than down the road, when they will need to find his replacement. The key is to support your star players while they can elevate the talent around them. Otherwise, you will find yourself chasing the wheel and swapping out key player after key player because the timing never lined up.


18) LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

via RaidersWire / USA Today


The Raiders added Cory Littleton to the roster before last season, and while he didn't play as well as expected and ended up on the COVID list before he could really acclimate to his new system, he is better suited to fulfill his expectations in 2021. Fellow new acquisition, Nick Kwiatkoski, was plagued by injury early in the year, but he put together a strong final stretch of the season. Nicholas Morrow put in the most work last year, and did an acceptable job doing so. The Raiders have a couple rising sophomore players who will look to take that second-year leap into solid rotational pieces. In 2021, this unit should look more like it was expected to look like last season, and if it takes the shape Gruden and Co. have envisioned, then look for them to put together a respectable effort.


17) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

via Sam Greenwood / Getty Images


Myles Jack might be the best player on the Jacksonville Jaguars roster. At least until after everyone sees how the Trevor Lawrence show pans out. He's a very good linebacker, and when he is playing up to his potential, he is a great linebacker. However, last season, his production dropped after a hot start. You can't fault Jack too much for that nosedive, as this team finished with the worst record in the League last season - everyone's production was down. Jack has a decent companion in Joe Schobert, who Jaguar fans hope will better fulfill his expectations this season, and Leon Jacobs and the remaining group of guys make for decent depth. Hopefully, the team can continue to make strides, and this linebacking corp can actually show its potential.


16) ARIZONA CARDINALS

via Christian Petersen / Getty Images


The Arizona Cardinals will have two back to back first round picks, Isaiah Simmons (2020) and Zaven Collins (2021) leading their linebacking unit this upcoming season. This young corp is loaded with potential, but Simmons did not quite live up to expectations last year. However, it is not rare for a young linebacker to take time to develop, and Simmons made some flashes late in the season to keep Cardinals fans enticed. The same will likely be true for Collins. He will have ups and downs as he has already been named the team's starting Mike backer. Given the talent level of these two, and the veteran depth behind them, this unit will be a solid, but average, linebacking corp. As much excitement and flair the two youngsters will bring, there will be as many moments of learning and mistakes. This sort of give and take relationship lands the Cardinals' linebacking group right smack in the middle of TRO's rankings.


15) CAROLINA PANTHERS

via Carolina Panthers


For an expansion team, the Carolina Panthers have one of the richer lineage of linebackers in the League. Sam Mills, Dan Morgan, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, etc. Shaq Thompson is a very solid and versatile player. He is one of those Swiss Army Knife type of linebackers who relies on his athleticism and instincts to try to be everywhere at once. Last year, he was asked to fill Luke Kuechly's shoes, which is a daunting task, especially right in the middle of a franchise regime change. This unit struggled in 2020, until the end of the season when they pulled Tahir Whitehead and gave Jermaine Carter, Jr. some well deserved playing time. This offseason, the Panthers signed Denzel Perryman, who is a wrecking ball in the run game. The inclusion of Perryman, the departure of Whitehead, and the emergence of Carter should take some of the burden off of Thompson. Look for this unit to be a solid, but average linebacking corp in 2021.



14) TENNESSEE TITANS

via TitansWire / USA Today


The Tennessee Titans seem to quietly have an above-average linebacking group. Jayon Brown is a very solid all-around linebacker, and while Rashaan Evans needs to improve in some areas, he is a tackling machine. The Titans expended a third round pick on Monty Rice, who will look to be a solid addition to this already decent unit. This group will continue play clean and solid, but not outstanding, football.

13) DENVER BRONCOS

via Denver Broncos


The Denver Broncos have two of the most underrated linebackers in the League playing side by side. Alexander Johnson racked up 124 tackles last year, and more importantly, he seems to be in the right spot on the field more often than not. Similarly, Josey Jewell picked up 113 tackles last season. These two young men are overshadowed by the exceptional edge play of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but they are the glue that holds it all together. Johnson and Jewell simply get the job done and pick up defensive stops more often than not. If they can continue to play at this level, or better, then expect their notoriety to grow.


12) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

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Last seaon, Dont'a Hightower opted out due to concerns surrounding the pandemic. He has always been an under-appreciated member of New England's dynasty. He has quietly been one of the most consistent linebackers in the League. He plays with his brain first, and ensures that everyone on the defense is where they are supposed to be each and every play. Despite his absence and the inevitable dip in production from his supporting cast, the Patriots still maintained the seventh fewest missed tackles in the League in 2020. That is simply the Bill Belichick effect. Couple that with Hightower's return, this unit can find itself ranked among the top half of the League.


11) NEW YORK GIANTS

via GiantsWire / USA Today


Going into the 2020 season, some thought the New York Giants overpaid for Blake Martinez. Going into the 2021 season, no one seems to be second-guessing that notion. Martinez finished the 2020 season with 151 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and five pass deflections. He played all sixteen games and proved to be a defensive anchor for the Giants. Martinez's production makes the job of Reggie Ragland easier as he can focus on stuffing the run. The depth outside of these two takes a big of a decline, but when Martinez and Ragland are both on the field, it makes for a very solid linebacking corp.


10) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

via Wesley Hitt / Getty Images


Demario Davis has been a model of consistency for the New Orleans Saints. He is an outstanding player and a tremendous leader. He is one of the surest tacklers in the League, and he is one of the better coverage men at the position. There isn't much to analyze outside of Davis, especially given the likelihood that rookie Pete Werner will be starting alongside him in 2021, but Davis's presence alone squeezes this unit inside the top ten.


9) CHICAGO BEARS

via Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo


The Chicago Bears have seemingly always been blessed with solid linebacker play. Roquan Smith has emerged as the most notable player of the current group, having the bulk of his impact be in coverage. He's a technician and has picked up the slack from a declining Danny Trevathan. Obviously the edge play of Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn is the focal point of this defense, but Smith complements the on-ball backers perfectly, and while Trevathan is on the decline, there are a lot of teams that could benefit from his veteran presence and starting-caliber experience. This unit will put together another prime performance in 2021.


8) BUFFALO BILLS

via BillsWire / USA Today


The Bills have the linebacker position figured out. The next step for them is to keep those guys healthy and squeeze every ounce of consistency out of them. Tremaine Edmunds is on the cusp of becoming a superstar if he can find that consistency. When he is in the zone, he is one of the most exciting linebackers to watch in all of football. Along side him is Matt Milano, who is a coverage ace. The two off-ball linebackers make a nice pairing in the middle of the field, and round out this defense that is stout across the board.


7) DALLAS COWBOYS

via CowboysWire / USA Today


Similar to the Bills, the Cowboys have some of the biggest names at the position, but can't seem to get them all playing at a consistent level, or all on the field healthy at the same time. Either way, this unit is the best in the NFC East, and a top 10 group League-wide. We all know about Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. The Cowboys also added the best linebacker in the 2021 Draft Class in Micah Parsons. In addition to the three previously mentioned, Jabril Cox and Keanu Neal make for solid depth and contingency plans. The biggest thing holding this unit back has been injuries, and now they might have the depth to maintain a high level of play no matter the circumstances.


6) PITTSBURGH STEELERS

via Steelers Now


The Steelers hit the mark when they selected Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick in the 2019 Draft. He's an outstanding and versatile young linebacker. Paired along with him is Vince Williams who is a good, but not great linebacker. Williams doesn't do anything exceptionally well, but he is pretty darn good at a little bit of everything. Most importantly, Williams excels at placing himself in the correct position the majority of the time. However, at his age, he is approaching the end of his career as a linebacker. This unit has some decent depth. When Bush went down with a knee injury last year, this group experienced an obvious dip in production, but the decline wasn't atrocious. To help keep things steady, they selected Buddy Johnson in the fourth round of this year's Draft. This unit is a no-brainer for a top ten/fringe top five ranking.


5) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

via SeahawksWire / USA Today


Bobby Wagner has been widely considered as one of the top two or three linebackers in the entire NFL for almost a decade. Despite turning 31, he has barely lost a step, and has proven that he is durable. Over nine seasons, he has only missed nine games, and the most games he has missed in a single season was five in 2014. As a result, he has piled up over 1,200 career tackles. Last season, he racked up 138 tackles, three sacks, and eight pass deflections. He has the rare ability to shrink the field, and while the Seahawks defense continues to decline around him, the bigger role he assumes. The only thing keeping Wagner from carrying this Seahawks linebacking corp straight to the top of the list is the loss of fellow Pro-Bowler, K. J. Wright. His absence will be a brutal blow to this position group. Jordan Brooks and Darrell Taylor are going to have to step it up to take some of the burden off of Wagner's shoulders.


4) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

via ColtsWire / USA Today


Darius Leonard is a linebacker's linebacker, if that makes any sense. He has this old school feel about him, and Colts fans have to feel secure every time they see him roaming the field. Last year wasn't his best year, but still he performed as a top five linebacker. He improves the quality of play of the surrounding members the corp, and he simply just plays smart, fast, and hard. He has accumulated 416 tackles, 15 sacks, seven interceptions, 22 pass deflections, and nine forced fumbles in just 42 games played across three seasons. He's already considered among the best, and he likely will only get better. Look for the Colts to climb TRO's linebacker rankings as they continue to give Leonard the additional support he deserves. Bobby Okereke took a step back after a solid rookie campaign, but if he can return back to form in year three, and if Zaire Franklin can contribute, then this unit will maintain this fourth ranking spot, and potentially climb higher.



3) MINNESOTA VIKINGS

via Bruce Kluckhohn / AP Photo


Eric Kendricks is hands down the best coverage linebacker in the League right now. He often doesn't get the League-wide love he deserves, but he is an absolute menace in the passing game. Most quarterbacks like to pick on linebackers in the pass game, but not when they're game planning for the Vikings. He's also great at all the other stuff too, making him a top five all around linebacker. However, what makes the Vikings take home the third spot on TRO's list is that the Vikings do a good job of complimenting the talents of Kendricks with other solid pieces. Anthony Barr is a good fit to pair with Kendricks's style of play, as Barr often finds himself getting involved on blitzes and plugging run gaps. Additionally, TRO is high on the Vikings' third round pick, Chazz Surratt who switched from quarterback to linebacker while at the University of North Carolina. He dominated the ACC, and if he can nudge his way past Nick Vigil for additional snaps, this will make for a complete unit. Last year, this group couldn't get healthy, and their lack of depth absolutely crushed them, but if they can all end up on the field together this year, they should impress.


2) SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

via Winslow Townson / Associated Press


Fred Warner rather quietly had a very productive first two years of his career, and then he rightfully gained everyone's attention last year in his third year, stapling himself as a household name. Last season, Warner seemed to be all over the field. He had 125 tackles, five tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, six pass deflections, and two interceptions. When you watch the film, he simply affected nearly every defensive stop in some capacity. He's a phenomenal young player who is in the perfect situation to grow as a defensive leader and exceed. Alongside Warner is Dre Greenlaw who also had a solid 2020 campaign. If Niners fans squint real hard, they can see glimpses of the early developmental stages of legends Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman, in the manner that Warner and Greenlaw fit together nicely, making a tremendous tandem, and if they can keep it up, the sky is the limit.



1) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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Lavonte David has spent the majority of the last nine seasons being one of the most productive linebackers in the League. Unfortunately for him, his team rarely found success for most of his career, so he was often overshadowed by other linebackers in the division such as Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Demario Davis, etc. Well, now, the Bucs are top dogs, defending Super Bowl champs, and David showed that he is still as good as ever despite being 31. He racked up six tackles and deflected two passes in the Super Bowl, helping his team secure the Lombardi Trophy. In 2019, David gained a new best friend when the Buccaneers selected Devin White with the fifth overall pick. White is one of the most exciting young players in the League. He exploded last season, especially in the playoffs, and if anyone other than Tom Brady should have won Super Bowl MVP it would've been White who finished the game with 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one pass deflection. David and White make the perfect pairing, as David can use his experience and knowledge of the game to groom White who can save David from doing too much by using his youth and athleticism to fly all over the field. This is easily the best off-ball linebacking duo in the League. It helps that the entire 22-man starting lineup of the Buccaneers is returning in 2021, primed for another shot at taking it all.



STAY TUNED AS TRO WILL BE MOVING RIGHT ALONG, RANKING ALL 32 SECONDARIES FROM WORST TO BEST!

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