In today's NFL, teams are becoming more and more multiple on defense. While a defense may operate out of a base 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, with the advent of two tight end sets and more teams using multiple wide receiver sets to spread defenses out, defenses are going to sub packages more frequently than ever. And that means that jobs for linebackers are tougher than ever. The teams with LBs capable of meeting that rising standard are teams that should stand out without the ball.
The rankings below break down the top linebacker units in the league. Since responsibilities are inherently different for 4-3 and 3-4 linebackers, I thought it was best to split a the rankings along those lines.
Here are the top three 3-4 and 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL:
This was an easy decision. There isn't a linebacking corps in the league that comes close to competing with San Francisco's right now. They are totally stacked at all four starting positions. In fact, my only concern with this unit as a whole is the depth behind Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman on the inside. San Francisco might be wise to comb the waiver wire after final cuts for a veteran inside guy for insurance.
It's rare in a 3-4 scheme that both inside linebackers stay on the field in every situation, but that is exactly what the Niners do with these two in their exceptional defense. Both play the run superbly and rarely make mistakes with diagnoses, often battling one another to get to the ball carrier first. They are also exceptional in coverage, with the rare ability to play man against opposing tight ends and running backs on a very consistent basis in this man-heavy scheme.
On the outside, the 49ers are nearly as strong. Aldon Smith has been a huge pass-rushing threat since joining the league. Many blamed the loss of Justin Smith late last season and in the playoffs for Smith's falloff, but the younger Smith was also far from 100 percent healthy at the time. I defer to the great tape he has put out there for the majority of his career.
Finally, Ahmad Brooks is the starter that no one talks about because of the greatness of Smith, Willis and Bowman. But Brooks is close to a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his own right. He is physical at the point of attack, solid in coverage and a very good pass-rusher. Parys Haralson and third-rounder Corey Lemonier should provide solid depth, with Lemonier potentially developing as a starter down the road.
While the Chiefs get little pass rush from their defensive line, they get some of the best edge pressure in the league from their outside linebackers -- which makes what Tamba Hali and Justin Houston do that much more impressive. Like most players on this team, Hali was not at his best in 2012, but he has demonstrated over the past couple seasons that he is one of the better edge-rushers in the game and is someone to be feared. Houston benefits from the attention Hali gets from opposing blocking schemes, but he has a great first step and closing speed without sacrificing physicality. Because the Chiefs were so terrible last year, few noticed Houston's performance, but he finished the season strongly and is a player on the rise.
Derrick Johnson has also been extremely consistent and productive over the past five seasons. He is a do-it-all guy that makes big plays with his great range to go along with said consistency. The one weakness among the Chiefs' starting LBs is the inside spot next to Johnson, which I expect will eventually be owned by fourth-round pick Nico Johnson, a good-sized run-stuffing thumper. Of the four spots, that is the one where it hurts the least to be weak, as Johnson (orAkeem Jordan) will spend much of the game on the sidelines. Both are pulled when Kansas City goes to their nickel package. With a deeper secondary than last season, we might even see more nickel from the Chiefs on first-and-10 and other early down-and-distance situations.
On the depth chart, Terrell Suggs is listed as a Rush LB, Elvis Dumervil as a strongside LB, with Jameel McClain and Daryl Smith at middle and weakside, respectively. Therefore, I am putting the Ravens in with the 3-4 group although a case could certainly be made that Suggs and Dumervil are more defensive ends than they are linebackers in their playing style. But with Dumervil's stature, playing outside linebacker is probably best for him, as he struggles to hold the point of attack.
The Ravens also have Courtney Upshaw, a very good run defender with more upside to his game. Upshaw will keep Dumervil fresh for passing downs, which is a great situation to have for the Ravens. And Suggs will be on a mission to prove he is still an elite player. Add fourth-rounderJohn Simon to this mix and this is an extremely potent group of 3-4 outside linebackers.
The Ravens are also in very good shape on the interior. Smith is the key here and could turn out to be one of the best free-agent signings of this past offseason. Before his injury, Smith was among the top second-level defenders in all of football with a great ability to cover, play the run or blitz. McClain also is returning from injury, but was very solid when I watched film from last season. However, I expect McClain's job to be in jeopardy once Arthur Brown gets his feet under him at the NFL level.
The next three: Washington, Cleveland, Green Bay
While I have mixed feelings on the Cowboys' decision to switch over to a 4-3 scheme after years of stocking a roster full of 3-4 players, this linebacking corps should still be exceptional if it can stay healthy. That especially applies for new middle linebacker Sean Lee and weakside 'backer Bruce Carter. Lee fits any scheme and is one of the best playmakers in the game today against the run and in coverage. If he stays healthy, Pro Bowls will follow. Carter is one of the most athletic defensive players in the league and has started to show that he can play this game at a high level. This scheme change helps Carter quite a bit as well, as the weakside linebacker is generally protected, allowing him to run and hit everything in sight -- Carter should do that as well as anyone.
A similar scouting report was given to Ernie Sims when he came out of Florida State. Sims hasn't come close to living up to expectations, but as a backup to Carter, he is a good fit. On the strong side, Dallas isn't particularly strong, but Justin Durant is a downhill player that is good against the run and won't be on the field in clear passing situations. I also like sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman as Durant's backup and maybe a starter down the line.
It is too early to officially anoint him, but Luke Kuechly is on the cusp of being among the very best second level defenders in all of football, if not the best. He is that good. After moving from the outside to the middle, where he really belongs, Kuechly was a dominant player as a rookie. Not only does he read plays exceptionally well and rarely take a false step, but he also has superb speed and lateral movement to get to the ball carrier in a hurry. He isn't the most physical take-on player and still has work to do in coverage, but those things will come in time.
Jon Beason was a star, but injuries have derailed his career of late, and he is now on the weak side in Carolina's 4-3. He is probably best suited to be in the middle and isn't as sudden as he once was, but if healthy, Beason should remain extremely productive. Injuries have also been the story for Thomas Davis throughout his tumultuous NFL career, but he has shown great resiliency to regain a large percentage of what he was as an athlete when he entered the league. He has transitioned well to outside linebacker, and it would have been great to witness what he could have been, but Davis remains a high-quality starter.
Depth here isn't great overall, but fifth-rounder A.J. Klein could probably play several linebacker spots and has a chance to become a solid contributor. With the additions at defensive tackle, this group of linebackers should also be much better protected than a year ago. Led by Kuechly, the Panthers should have one of the league's very best front sevens in 2013 with a lot of room for growth going forward.
I see Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright as the new prototypes at their respective positions. Middle linebackers now have to do it all, which is exactly what Wagner has already proven capable of. He is an every-down player in every sense of the word. Wright has the size needed for the strong side, but doesn't compromise movement skills or playmaking ability. He can do battle at the line of scrimmage with a big blocking tight end or offensive lineman, but also can cover today's more athletic tight ends down the field. What is most exciting about Wagner and Wright is that they are both getting better.
While the weakside starting linebacker spot is the weakness of this unit, and of the defense overall, I expect the Seahawks to employ much more of their nickel defense on early downs. I say this because of the outstanding addition of Antoine Winfield, who excels as a slot corner and is an elite tackler with great physicality near the line of scrimmage. Another factor here is thatKam Chancellor is extremely comfortable and is at his best in the box as a de facto linebacker. So that lessens the weakness that Seattle has on the weak side, although Malcolm Smith seems serviceable here as well. The Seahawks have Bruce Irvin listed as Smith's backup right now, but to me, Irvin is really a hybrid Leo in this defense and a specialty player. I am not counting him as a linebacker.