Bobby Wagner has been named first-team All-Pro four straight seasons
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 2020 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 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Linebacker Rankings
1. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner led the NFL with 159 tackles in 2019, but as we’ve said, tackle totals aren’t the best barometer for linebacker performance. Wagner’s tackles matter because he’s so smart on the field and so quick to the ball, and he’s one of the best ’backers in the NFL in pass coverage. He’s also an excellent, if occasional, blitzer, as his three sacks and 14 total pressures in 2019 indicate.
2. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
The modern NFL requires linebackers to be full-field run-and-chase players as opposed to run-stopping headbangers, and Kendricks is the perfect such player in Mike Zimmer’s zone-based nickel defense. Kendricks is a tackle-collecting machine. With his on-field expertise and movement abilities, he can sniff out run plays before they happen, and he’s so often in the right place for the optimal coverage.
3. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
There are very few linebackers in the NFL who do everything required of the position better than Leonard does. In his rookie season of 2018, he led the league in both solo and combined tackles. In 2019, he started dropping into coverage more, doing that to the tune of five interceptions and an opponent passer rating allowed of 79.0 — a very low number for a defender dealing mostly with short and intermediate passes.
4. Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
The Saints signed Davis to a three-year, $24 million contract in 2018, hoping that he could help an underperforming linebacker corps. Given the relatively small numbers in that deal, it’s safe to say that Davis’ current team got more than it bargained for. A ferocious run stopper who has developed into an above-average cover man, Davis has one foot in the old school at his position, but he’s learned to adapt as a true full-field defender.
5. Cory Littleton, Las Vegas Raiders
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock made a very savvy move with the acquisition of Littleton, the former Rams star, with a three-year, $35.25 million contract. Littleton will immediately make that defense better as both a run stopper and especially as a short and intermediate defender in pass coverage. Few NFL linebackers have a better sense of what quarterbacks are about to do.
6. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David has been one of the most athletic and productive players at his position since the Bucs selected him in the 2012 draft. And since his rookie season, no other NFL player has more solo tackles than David’s 724, which is one indication of how quickly he gets to the ballcarrier and how suddenly he’s able to shut things down when he gets there. Add in his blitzing ability and coverage skills, and it’s fascinating that he hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2015.
7. Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco’s top-level defense had several stars last season, but Warner was as important as anybody else — especially when fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander lost half the season to a pectoral injury. At that point, Warner upped his game in every category from run fits to advanced coverage concepts, culminating in a Super Bowl LIV interception.
8. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones is the heir to the Derrick Brooks/Brian Urlacher linebacker prototype — that ’backer who can seamlessly cover seam and post routes with an easy backpedal at least 10 yards from his initial position. Jones isn’t the most definitive run stopper or tackler on the move, but few players at his position are able to handle the needs a defense has for a linebacker who can tour the field in a big hurry.
9. Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Had Smith not suffered a horrific injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, he would have been a top-five prospect. The Cowboys took a shot on him in the second round of the 2016 draft, and Smith rewarded them with outstanding production after what amounted to a medical redshirt season. In 2019, he set career highs in tackles (142), solo tackles (83) and passes defensed (nine).
10. Jamie Collins Sr., Detroit Lions
Collins was at his best with the Patriots because de facto defensive coordinator Bill Belichick has always understood Collins’ unique gifts as a pass rusher, run stopper and coverage man. Signing a three-year, $30 million contract with the Lions may or may not provide a re-run of Collins’ time with the Browns, who didn’t quite know what to do with him. The presence of head coach and former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia should ostensibly help.
11. C.J. Mosley*, New York Jets
12. Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
13. Kwon Alexander, San Francisco 49ers
14. Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans
15. Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
16. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
17. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
18. Blake Martinez, New York Giants
19. Joe Schobert, Jacksonville Jaguars
20. Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans
21. Danny Trevathan, Chicago Bears
22. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks
23. Devin Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers
24. Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
25. Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos
26. Dont'a Hightower*, New England Patriots
27. Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers
28. Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
29. Jordan Hicks, Arizona Cardinals
30. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
*C.J. Moseley and Dont'a Hightower have both opted out of playing this season due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.