After alive our way through the best quarterbacks, active backs, advanced receivers and arresting ends, it’s time to about-face our absorption to the off-ball linebackers as we rank the top 10 players at the position.
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It’s important to abut amid linebackers and off-ball linebackers — the closing removes 3-4 alfresco linebackers, who action afterpiece to acceptable arresting ends than acceptable linebackers.
Will Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch of the Cowboys accomplish the list? Let’s acquisition out:
Note: The afterward is based on who I accept to be the best off-ball linebackers entering 2020, not the best careers or who had the best division in 2019. Also, all burden and “stop” abstracts comes address of Pro Football Focus. All stats are approved division only.
Eric Kendricks has been a acceptable linebacker for some time now, but in 2019 he absolutely ascended to aristocratic status. He was a ascendant force for a aegis that accomplished seventh in Aegis DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), according to Football Outsiders.
Kendricks is a high-level run apostle who takes abundant following angles and showcases outstanding instincts. But the breadth in which Kendricks absolutely stands out is in coverage, breadth he bankrupt up 12 passes and accustomed a atomic 53.7% achievement amount aback targeted — baronial aboriginal in both categories amid linebackers by a advantageous margin.
He wasn’t absolutely as able as he had been in antecedent years, but with Luke Kuechly retired, no linebacker has annihilation abutting to Bobby Wagner’s clue record. Even in a bottomward year, Wagner led the alliance in accumulated tackles and accomplished 11th amid all linebackers in stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wagner was still a force adjoin the run for the best part, finishing fifth amid linebackers in run-stop allotment (9.8), according to PFF. But he saw a dip in the capability of his coverage, acceptance career highs in accession allotment (82.7), absolute yards accustomed in advantage (685), yards per accession (11), yards afterwards bolt (450) and touchdowns accustomed in advantage (three).
Still, at 29 years old, Wagner should accept a few added abundant years larboard in him. If he can be the aforementioned high-impact advantage apostle he’d been afore 2019, there’s not a linebacker in the NFL who can bout his akin of effectiveness.
While New Orleans isn’t absolutely accepted for its defense, Demario Davis has agilely developed into one of the best able linebackers in football.
He is acutely versatile, showcasing absorbing ancestry arresting the run, in advantage and aback blitzing. Davis accomplished additional amid all off-ball linebackers (excludes 3-4 alfresco linebackers) in stops (57) and third in pressures (28).
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In coverage, he accustomed aloof 6.2 yards per accession (best amid starting linebackers) and an 87.9 passer appraisement aback targeted (12th amid starting linebackers). He additionally got his easily on a lot of passes, as his eight canyon breakups ranked third amid linebackers, according to PFF.
On top of that, Davis is one of the best finishers in the NFL, missing aloof six tackles all year to accord himself the sixth-best accouterment adeptness amid starting linebackers, according to PFF.
For the aboriginal time in a while, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played competent aegis in 2019, finishing fifth in Aegis DVOA. Lavonte David has connected been one of the best accomplished linebackers in football, but he didn’t absolutely accept abundant advice to advertise the abounding accumulation of his accomplishment set.
With Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Shaq Barrett authoritative plays up advanced aftermost season, David was able to assuredly appearance out, finishing third amid all linebackers in stops (54) while announcement a career low in accession allotment (73.3). He additionally accomplished aboriginal amid linebackers in stops on canyon plays (32; bristles added than additional place).
David is the new-age linebacker in the faculty that he has the athleticism to outdistance blockers in the run bold and advance in coverage. He is a huge asset in advantage as one of the few linebackers who can absolutely bout bound ends in man coverage.
After acceptable NFL Arresting Amateur of the Year to go forth with a first-team All-Pro nod in 2018, Darius Leonard put calm addition arch year in which he was called a second-team All-Pro.
Leonard is agnate to Davis in that his able accomplishment set enables him to aftermath in a cardinal of altered situations. He’s a advantageous run apostle who is additionally an asset in coverage. Aback targeted, Leonard accustomed a beggarly 79 passer appraisement — eighth amid linebackers. He additionally accomplished aboriginal amid linebackers in interceptions (five).
On top of his adeptness to affect the canyon in coverage, Leonard is additionally one of the best advantageous blitzers in the NFL, accepting acquaint his additional beeline division with double-digit pressures and at atomic bristles sacks.
While abounding were apprehensive whether Leonard or Leighton Vander Esch was the league’s best adolescent linebacker afterwards 2018, Leonard’s comedy and Vander Esch’s injury-shortened 2019 bound alone those discussions, as Leonard is now the accessible choice.
Dont’a Hightower is a bequest linebacker in the faculty that he loves to appear decline and abort whatever is in his aisle — whether it’s a 210-pound active aback or a 300-pound abhorrent lineman, it doesn’t matter.
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He was the baton and bang for the NFL’s No. 1-ranked aegis by Aegis DVOA. Listed at 6-3, 260 pounds, Hightower would be a accountability from an able-bodied angle in man coverage, which is why New England uses him as a blitzer so abundant — Hightower accomplished with the best pressures and pass-rush snaps amid all off-ball linebackers.
Much like David, Deion Jones is an undersized (6-1, 227 pounds) but acutely able-bodied linebacker who is a huge asset in coverage.
Atlanta’s aegis as a accomplished was frustratingly ineffective, but Jones was one of the few ablaze spots. As his game-winning interception adjoin the Buccaneers showed, Jones is a awful impactful apostle in advantage who shows abundant acquaintance and an absorbing adeptness to abutting and accomplishment on the brawl at the bolt point.
One breadth in which he needs to advance is as a tackler — in 2019, he acquaint his third division with 16 or added absent tackles.
The Cleveland Browns were a blend in 2019, but that shouldn’t adumbrate Joe Schobert’s able accomplishment set. He is congenital for today’s NFL, accomplishing his best assignment adjoin the canyon — both in advantage and as a blitzer.
Schobert gets his easily on a lot of passes, finishing additional amid linebackers in interceptions (four) to go forth with four canyon breakups. Like Jones, Schobert badly needs to apple-pie up his arrest address because he’s absent at atomic 15 tackles in anniversary of the accomplished three seasons.
Scheduled to become a chargeless abettor in March, Schobert would be astute to accompany a added abiding authorization breadth his accomplishment set can absolutely abound and blossom. There’s no cogent how the connected apprenticeship changes accept afflicted his development recently.
Manning the average for the Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers, Fred Warner showed himself to be one of the best agitative adolescent linebackers in the league.
Despite actuality aloof 23 years old, Warner does a abundant job of bound diagnosing plays, which leads to him to bound accepting off his spot, outpacing blockers and affair brawl carriers in the hole.
Warner is additionally abundant in coverage, baronial seventh amid all linebackers in canyon breakups with seven. Moreover, he accomplished in the top 20 amid linebackers in accession allotment (73.1) admitting seeing the fifth-most targets in coverage.
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Like others on this list, Warner needs to become a added constant tackler — his 20 absent tackles were the second-most amid linebackers, according to PFF. He does get additional by the ample aptitude about him, but don’t let that get in the way of his abundant alone play.
It was acutely difficult to ample the 10th atom on this account because there are a cardinal of players who accomplish a accepted case, but Cory Littleton’s constant finishing adeptness puts him aloft the rest.
Signed as an undrafted chargeless abettor in 2016, Littleton acquired aboriginal acclamation for his appropriate teams ability, which not alone becoming him a agenda atom but additionally arena time on the Rams’ defense. He has fabricated the best of his opportunities as he’s connected to comedy aback earning a starting job in 2018.
In 2019, Littleton was the best tackler in football as he accomplished with aloof one absent tackle, according to PFF, admitting a aerial aggregate of attempts. On top of his arrest ability, he is additionally actual advantageous in coverage, announcement two beeline seasons with at atomic seven canyon breakups.
Littleton is an ascendance amateur who could acceleration college on this account if he becomes a added able run defender.
After arena at an aristocratic akin in 2018, both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch took huge accomplish aback aftermost season, putting calm black seasons for altered reasons.
Vander Esch was acutely hindered by a close abrasion that cut his division short. Aback he was on the field, he was a poor tackler, missing 12 times. He struggled to get off blocks abundant added than he did as a rookie, which is apparently partly due to the close issue. Hopefully, with a abounding recovery, Vander Esch can acknowledgment to his 2018 form.
While Smith didn’t comedy as ailing as a articulate articulation of the Cowboys’ fan abject will accept you believe, it’s fair to say his comedy additionally took a footfall back. The botheration with Smith was there was abundant added about-face to his comedy in 2019 than there had been before. The big-time plays were still there, apparent by the actuality he accomplished ninth amid off-ball linebackers in stops (47), but there were abounding added arresting plays alloyed in breadth Smith struggled to get off his blocks or was apathetic to get off his spot. He abnormally struggled adjoin play-action, as he had a adamantine time alteration administration and bailing to advantage afterwards dispatch advanced to ample adjoin the run.
It additionally should be acclaimed that Vander Esch and Smith’s black comedy was afflicted by abortive comedy from Dallas’ arresting tackles, abnormally adjoin the run. The arresting tackles did a poor job of befitting blockers off the linebackers and bootless to booty advantage of their one-on-one matchups in the run game, which is the better acumen why Dallas struggled to avert the run for abundant of the season.
With one abundant and one black division each, neither Smith nor Vander Esch adapted a atom amid the top 10 linebackers in the NFL entering 2020.
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