Every good defense in the NFL has to have solid linebackers in place to be effective. Not only are they the ones usually making the bulk of the tackles, the really good linebackers also find ways to contribute both in pass coverage and as a pass rusher.
Similar to defensive linemen, the worth of a linebacker can be somewhat measured by the role they play on their team's defense. That's why you will see the do-everything guys making up Athlon Sports' list of the top 30 at the position entering the 2021 season compared to those that are more known for their pass-rushing prowess (edge rushers, listed as outside linebackers by many teams).
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Linebacker Rankings
1. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner has been among the gold standards at his position since the Seahawks selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft, and though Seattle’s defense has slipped in effectiveness over the last few years, Wagner has not. We’ll go ahead and say that Wagner is still the man to beat in overall excellence at the position.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2012 second-rounder put up yet another 100-plus-tackle season in 2020 (his eighth in nine seasons), but it’s in coverage that the quick and agile David really shines. This was never more evident than in Super Bowl LV, when David did an outstanding job of matching Travis Kelce over the middle. The recipient of a new two-year, $25 million contract in March, David is a key cog in the Bucs’ quest to “run it back” in 2021.
3. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
The 2020 Vikings were negatively affected by a diminished pass rush and rookie cornerbacks, which made it more important than ever for Kendricks to provide consistency in the middle of that mess. Kendricks missed five games due to injury but still put up 107 tackles and allowed 29 receptions on 41 targets for 278 yards and a 58.8 opponent passer rating.
4. Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Warner built on his breakout 2019 season by again playing all 16 games in 2020, and at a very high level. Warner posted a career-high 125 tackles, excelled in coverage even when the defense was falling apart around him and did so everywhere from linebacker depth, to the slot, to the defensive line as a blitzer, to a couple snaps at free safety.
5. Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles deployed White from just about every possible gap and alignment, and White responded with nine sacks and 33 total pressures. He also was a dynamic tackler in space with 69 total stops, and when his coverage abilities catch up to the rest of his skill set, it’s quite possible that White will be the NFL’s most dangerous linebacker.
6. Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
If there’s one linebacker in the NFL who’s better at blitzing than Devin White, it’s Davis, who led the league with 36 total pressures. Davis also is a dynamic tackler who put up 119 tackles last season. He’s not quite as astute in coverage (38 catches allowed on 54 targets for 271 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in 2020), but everything else checks out for the veteran.
7. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard has more than repaid the Colts’ faith in him when they made him a second-round pick in 2018. Leonard has become a truly versatile linebacker — able to rush the passer from the line and in second-level blitzes, able to cover short and intermediate routes and more than able to blow up any run fit.
8. Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
There’s a reason the Bears were in a hurry to pick up Smith’s fifth-year option. The eighth overall pick in 2018 set career highs in 2020 with 139 total tackles and 14 total pressures. And in coverage, Smith has always been an asset, with five interceptions and just two touchdowns allowed in his three seasons (including playoffs).
9. Blake Martinez, New York Giants
Since 2017, no linebacker has more solo tackles than Martinez’s 370. In 2020, his first season with the Giants, Martinez excelled in Patrick Graham’s multi-faceted defense, with 58 stops, two forced fumbles and no touchdowns allowed in 75 targets.
10. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
The Texans’ defense finished 30th in Football Outsiders’ metrics last season, so few people know just how good Cunningham was. He led the NFL in total tackles (164) and solo tackles (106).
11. Denzel Perryman, Carolina Panthers
12. Myles Jack, Jacksonville Jaguars
13. Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
14. Devin Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Nick Kwiatkoski, Las Vegas Raiders
16. K.J. Wright, free agent
17. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
18. Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos
19. Isaiah Simmons, Arizona Cardinals
20. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
21. Patrick Queen, Baltimore Ravens
22. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
23. Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
24. Neville Hewitt, Houston Texans
25. Foyesade Oluokun, Atlanta Falcons
26. Josey Jewell, Denver Broncos
27. Jerome Baker, Miami Dolphins
28. Jordan Hicks, Arizona Cardinals
29. Kyle Van Noy, New England Patriots
30. Eric Wilson, Philadelphia Eagles