Von Miller had five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in three playoff games last season
While an NFL defense may start up front with the linemen, the heart and soul of the unit is the linebackers. Not only are they responsible for making the bulk of the tackles, the most valuable linebackers are those that also can make plays in coverage.
Whether they are considered inside linebackers or outside, there are no lack of impact playmakers that make up Athlon Sports' rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. In fact leading the way is a tackling machine who already has an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award on his resume and a pass-rushing specialist who was named the MVP of Super Bowl 50.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL Inside Linebacker Rankings
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
The instinctive warhorse recorded 118 tackles in the regular season and added 29 more in the postseason.
2. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City
The 11-year veteran earned his fourth Pro Bowl bid by registering 116 tackles this past season. Has totaled 990 tackles and defended 68 passes over his career.
3. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Led the NFL in tackles during the 2015 season with 154 — a remarkable total after sitting out 2014 rehabbing from a severe knee injury.
4. Jerrell Freeman, Chicago
Signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason after ranking second on the Colts in tackles with 112.
5. Brandon Marshall, Denver
An instinctive player who plays with a good motor and hustle. A competitor who takes good angles in pursuit.
6. Danny Trevathan, Chicago
Earned his Super Bowl ring last year with the Broncos and signed as an unrestricted free agent along with Jerrell Freeman to bolster the linebacking corps.
7. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
Has collected 478 tackles in four years backing up the defensive front in Seattle. An impact hitter with great instincts.
8. Deone Bucannon, Arizona
An instinctive player who chases the ball and is physical at the point of attack. A rare combination of speed and power and the prototype for linebacker/safety hybrids of the future.
9. David Harris, New York Jets
The nine-year veteran is recognized as the defensive leader of the Jets and is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine.
10. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore
Has collected 250 tackles during his first two years on the job. A playmaker with quick hands and feet. Also shows good route awareness.
11. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati
12. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit
13. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville
14. Avery Williamson, Tennessee
15. D’Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis
16. Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh
17. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota
18. Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia
19. Christian Jones, Chicago
20. Brian Cushing, Houston
2016 NFL 3-4 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Von Miller, Denver
The Super Bowl MVP has been franchised by the Broncos as they work on a new long-term contract. In five years, Miller has gotten to the quarterback 60 times and has forced 16 fumbles.
2. Justin Houston, Kansas City
May miss part of the 2016 season rehabbing his knee from February surgery. He exploded with 22 sacks in 2014 after collecting 26.5 sacks in his previous three years in the league.
3. Jamie Collins, New England
Recorded eight tackles and sacked Peyton Manning twice in the AFC Championship Game at Denver. Forced five fumbles in 2015.
4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay
The dynamic Pro Bowl pass rusher added to his overall game by playing inside linebacker the past year-and-a-half and made all the defensive calls. He has 67.5 sacks in six years.
5. Tamba Hali, Kansas City
Has spent his entire 10-year career with the Chiefs, recording 86 sacks and forcing 32 fumbles. Started out as a 4-3 defensive end before moving to outside linebacker.
6. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
Took advantage of blockers’ attention to J.J. Watt and responded with 12 sacks. A relentless pass rusher with an explosive first step.
7. Melvin Ingram, San Diego
Overcame three previous years of injuries and ups and downs to break out with 10.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He also defended six passes and forced three fumbles.
8. Pernell McPhee, Chicago
Joined the Bears after four seasons with Baltimore as a rotate edge player with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Started 12 games in 2015 and collected 53 tackles and six sacks.
9. Jabaal Sheard, New England
Free-agent addition recorded eight sacks and forced four fumbles in his first season with the Patriots.
10. Chandler Jones, Arizona
Recorded 12.5 sacks among his 44 tackles last year with the Pats but was dealt to the Cardinals in the offseason.
11. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
12. Brian Orakpo, Tennessee
13. Aaron Lynch, San Francisco
14. Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore
15. Trent Murphy, Washington
16. Jeremiah Attaochu, San Diego
17. Markus Golden, Arizona
18. Trent Cole, Indianapolis
19. Erik Walden, Indianapolis
20. Julius Peppers, Green Bay
2016 NFL 4-3 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Sean Lee, Dallas
The quarterback of the Cowboys’ defense was drafted to make the checks and adjustments from the middle linebacker post, but he now mans one of the outside spots.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
The run-and-hit weak-side linebacker has collected 577 tackles in his four-year career, including 147 stops in 2015. He also defended 13 passes and forced two fumbles last season.
3. K.J. Wright, Seattle
The weak-side impact linebacker forced four fumbles to go along with his 116 total tackles. An instinctive downhill player with good lateral quickness.
4. Thomas Davis, Carolina
The first-team All-Pro selection was second on the Panthers in tackles in 2015 but moved into first place in franchise history with 883 career tackles.
5. Mark Barron, Los Angeles
Was in on 88 tackles in 2015 after making a move to hybrid linebacker. He was moved around to take advantage of matchups, and he impressed as a blitzer, playing coverage and filling gaps.
6. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
Barr made a bunch of highlight-reel plays in 2015 en route to his first Pro Bowl invitation.
7. Malcolm Smith, Oakland
The former Super Bowl MVP for Seattle was everything the Raiders hoped for and more after signing as a free agent. He led the Silver and Black with 122 total tackles.
8. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
Had a breakout year and finished second on the Jaguars with 128 tackles from his weak-side linebacker position. His 232 tackles are the most ever by a Jaguar player in his first two seasons.
9. Josh Bynes, Detroit
Responded with a big year for the Lions after the injury to DeAndre Levy. The versatile linebacker contributed in a variety of defensive packages.
10. Bruce Irvin, Oakland
Signed with the Raiders to reunite with Ken Norton Jr., Oakland’s defensive coordinator who was Irvin’s linebackers coach in Seattle.
11. Koa Misi, Miami
12. Manny Lawson, Buffalo
13. Karlos Dansby, Cincinnati
14. Jelani Jenkins, Miami
15. Vincent Rey, Cincinnati
16. Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia
17. Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay
18. Jonathan Casillas, New York Giants
19. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit
20. Shaq Thompson, Carolina