Darius Leonard had quite the rookie season for the Colts
Defensive linemen may be the ones winning the hardware, but 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.
Consider that besides accounting for the top 16 tacklers in 2018, seven different linebackers finished with double-digit sacks and four were among the league leaders in forced fumbles. So whether they line up inside or wreak havoc from the outside, here are Athlon Sports' linebacker rankings entering the 2019season.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2019 NFL Preview magazine.
2019 NFL 4-3 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis
The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year has the potential to become this generation’s version of Derrick Brooks in the Colts’ Tampa-2 defense.
2. Anthony Barr, Minnesota
True value isn’t reflected in his statistics but in the opportunities Barr creates for others. Teams that don’t gameplan around Barr usually get burned — like when he had two of Minnesota’s nine sacks in last season’s 41–17 rout of Miami.
3. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Among the NFL’s very best when healthy, he possesses the rare ability to adroitly play both inside and outside linebacker spots, which creates match-up issues for opposing offenses.
4. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
One of the few bright spots on Tampa Bay’s maligned defense last season. He will be called upon for more blitzes in Todd Bowles’ new system.
5. Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas
Took full advantage of the opportunity created when starter Sean Lee suffered an early-season hamstring injury. Only six years removed from playing eight-man football in high school.
6. Telvin Smith, Jacksonville
Play dipped after a strong 2017 season, but he still topped the Jags in tackles (134) for a second straight year. [Editor's note: This list was compiled prior to Smith announcing on May 9 via Instagram that he was taking a year off from football.]
7. Anthony Hitchens, Kansas City
Flourished in his first season with the Chiefs playing inside linebacker for the first time in a 3-4 defense. He will return to the outside in 2019.
8. Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo
Special teams standout who didn’t blossom at linebacker until his 30s. His 6.5 sacks last season trailed only Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs (seven) for the highest output of any player age 35-plus.
9. Devon Kennard, Detroit
Became the first linebacker in franchise history with at least 45 tackles, seven sacks and nine tackles for a loss in a single season.
10. K.J. Wright, Seattle
Wright missed 11 games last season with a knee injury but returned with a flourish in the Seahawks’ playoff loss to the Cowboys with eight tackles and an athletic end zone interception.
11. Christian Kirksey, Cleveland
12. Demario Davis, New Orleans
13. Kiko Alonso, Miami
14. Nigel Bradham, Philadelphia
15. Tahir Whitehead, Oakland
16. Thomas Davis, Los Angeles Chargers
17. De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta
18. Shaq Thompson, Carolina
19. Matt Milano, Buffalo
20. Fred Warner, San Francisco
2019 3-4 Outside Linebacker Rankings
1. Khalil Mack, Chicago
Proved he was worth every penny of his record-setting contract following his preseason acquisition from Oakland. Became the first player ever to force a fumble in the first four games of an NFL season en route to finishing the year with a team-high 12.5 sacks.
2. Von Miller, Denver
Rookie Bradley Chubb was able to flourish (12 sacks) in part because of all the attention opposing defenses continue to give Miller, whose career average of 0.82 sacks per game ranks third among players with at least 100 games played.
3. Chandler Jones, Arizona
Dropped 25 pounds in anticipation of the shift back from defensive end in Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense. He led the NFL in sacks at OLB in 2017 with 17 as part of the league-high 41 he has posted since the 2016 season.
4. Ryan Kerrigan, Washington
Broke the franchise record once held by Dexter Manley for most seasons leading the Redskins in sacks with six. He enjoys the longest active starting streak among NFL linebackers with 128 dating back to Week 1 of his 2011 rookie season.
5. Jadeveon Clowney, Houston
Just because he hasn’t logged double-digit sacks in five seasons shouldn’t diminish the impact Clowney makes. Has 53 tackles for a loss since 2016, which is the NFL’s third-highest total behind Aaron Donald (57) and Chandler Jones (56).
6. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh
Watt’s 20 sacks through two seasons are the highest total for a Steelers defender since the league began counting it as an official stat in 1982.
7. Jason Pierre-Paul, Tampa Bay
New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians believes JPP can make the successful transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 OLB in Todd Bowles’ defense. There are, however, concerns about his health after being involved in a car accident in May.
8. Bradley Chubb, Denver
Was the NFL’s rookie leader in sacks with 12. New Broncos head coach Vic Fangio has targeted three areas of improvement for Chubb: “Playing the run, doing a little bit of dropping that he’ll have to do [in coverage] and improving his pass rush.”
9. Terrell Suggs, Arizona
A desire to play closer to his Phoenix-area home led the NFL’s active career sack leader (132.5) to leave the Ravens in free agency.
10. Dante Fowler, Los Angeles Rams
May finally have found his calling at outside linebacker after three disappointing seasons as a 4-3 end in Jacksonville.
11. Cameron Wake, Tennessee
12. Za’Darius Smith, Green Bay
13. Kyler Fackrell, Green Bay
14. Clay Matthews, Los Angeles, Rams
15. Preston Smith, Green Bay
16. Leonard Floyd, Chicago
17. Matt Judon, Baltimore
18. Jordan Jenkins, New York Jets
19. Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh
20. Whitney Mercilus, Houston
2019 Inside Linebacker Rankings
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
Acumen at pre-snap diagnosis reflected by his franchise-record 20 tackles for a loss in 2018. He has more tackles (948), interceptions (17) and takeaways (25) than any other linebacker since entering the NFL as a 2012 first-round pick.
2. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
Seattle’s defense has allowed an average of just 17.4 points in the 103 career games he has played since being a 2012 second-round pick. Only Jack Lambert (15.4) and Ray Nitschke (17.3) have a lower career average among Hall of Fame linebackers.
3. C.J. Mosley, New York Jets
The Jets made him the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history (five years for $85 million with $51 million guaranteed) to lure him from Baltimore. Forced 15 turnovers between 2014-18, the second-highest total among all NFL linebackers in that span.
4. Deion Jones, Atlanta
Of all the injuries that decimated Atlanta’s 2018 defense, Jones’ 10-game absence hurt the unit most. Has blazing sideline-to-sideline speed and is one of three players who had 14-plus tackles in multiple games last season.
5. Jaylon Smith, Dallas
Finally fully recovered from a horrific knee injury suffered at Notre Dame, Smith showcased the skills that had him initially projected as a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft. Proved his speed is back on a 69-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay.
6. Blake Martinez, Green Bay
Had no trouble transitioning to a new defensive system in 2018 when leading the Packers in tackles (146) for a second straight season. Added bulk this offseason in hopes that improved strength helps generate more turnover-causing plays.
7. Kwon Alexander, San Francisco
The 49ers are gambling Alexander will make a full recovery from the torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2018 season in Tampa Bay. He has averaged 8.3 tackles in 46 career NFL starts.
8. Benardrick McKinney, Houston
The five-year, $50 million contract extension that the Texans signed him to during the 2018 offseason looks like money well spent. Along with a career-high seven pass break-ups last year, McKinney became the first Texans player with at least 100 tackles, one interception and one sack in a single season since fellow linebacker Brian Cushing in 2011.
9. Alec Ogletree, New York Giants
The former 2013 first-round draft pick fixed the Giants’ long-standing deficiency at linebacker following his 2018 offseason acquisition from the L.A. Rams. Ogletree led all NFL linebackers with five interceptions and finished second on the Giants in tackles (93) despite missing three games with injuries.
10. Cory Littleton, Los Angeles Rams
One of the NFL’s best special teams players transferred that talent to a stout Los Angeles defense during his first full season as a starter. The former undrafted free agent out of Washington broke up more passes (16) than any other linebacker in 2018 to go along with his team-leading 125 tackles.
11. Roquan Smith, Chicago
12. Kyle Van Noy, New England
13. Avery Williamson, New York Jets
14. Todd Davis, Denver
15. Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee
16. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo
17. Myles Jack, Jacksonville
18. Zach Cunningham, Houston
19. Jarrad Davis, Detroit
20. Anthony Walker, Indianapolis