Linebackers are usually tasked with relaying defensive calls, getting their teammates lined up, and essentially heading the defense in the middle of the field. Playing against a group of linebackers that is strong versus the pass and the run can be daunting for opposing offenses. This is why the league’s best defenses have outstanding linebackers atop the depth chart. Here are the top 10 linebacking units in the NFL, most of which are led by young, versatile players in the middle of the defense.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
The Texans were left off the list of the top 10 defensive lines because both Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are listed as outside linebackers. As a result, they have a top linebacking group. Mercilus is wildly underrated, and Clowney is poised for a huge year now that he’s healthy. Brian Cushing and second-year pro Benardrick McKinney lock down the middle, and both are punishing tacklers. There are still a few question marks regarding this group, which is why they aren’t higher, but there’s plenty of potential.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY SportsKevin Jairaj
Anthony Barr is poised to become one of the top players at his position relatively soon – he just needs to stay healthy. He and Eric Kendricks give the Vikings a pair of talented backers in the middle of their defense to go along with Chad Greenway. None of the three racks up huge tackle numbers, partly because of the Vikings’ stout defensive line, but each is a playmaker. Kendricks and Barr are still developing after just a couple of years together, but the Vikings are set at the position.
Getty ImagesCliff McBride
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have a young core of linebackers who fly all over the field. Lavonte David is one of the most athletically gifted players in the NFL, and it shows in his production. He’s racked up at least 139 tackles in each of his first four seasons, defending 32 passes and picking off nine in that span. He’s undoubtedly one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the game. Kwon Alexander is another young player in the middle, starting 12 games as a rookie in 2015. The Buccaneers added 34-year-old Darryl Smith to play alongside them, and he’s still incredibly productive at this point in his career.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY SportsEric Hartline
The Cardinals are one of a handful of teams attempting to revolutionize the linebacker position with smaller, faster players roaming the middle of the field. Deone Bucannon, a former safety, is the player doing such, and he’s had a lot of success with the transition. Chandler Jones, who was acquired in a trade with the Patriots, gives the Cardinals a much-needed edge rusher at outside linebacker, joining Markus Golden and Alex Okafor in that regard. Kevin Minter holds down the middle with Bucannon, though it’s Bucannon who makes most of the plays. He’s a terrific hybrid-type player for Arizona.
Getty ImagesMichael Thomas
The Steelers have an interesting dynamic of both youth and age at linebacker. Ryan Shazier, though he has a hard time staying on the field, is arguably the fastest linebacker in the NFL and makes big hits when he gets to ballcarriers. Lawrence Timmons plays inside with Shazier, while Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and the 38-year-old James Harrison rush the passer off the edge. If the Steelers can keep most, if not all, of their key backers healthy, they’ll finish the year higher on this list. There’s a great deal of potential here.
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New England Patriots
The Patriots have a group of linebackers who tend to get injured, but that has no impact on how talented they are as a whole. Dont'a Hightower has missed four games in each of the past two seasons, and Jamie Collins has missed five total in that span. When healthy and playing together, the two are as dynamic as they come. The loss of Jerod Mayo, who retired this offseason, certainly hurts, but Jonathan Freeny will assume his role. The Patriots have depth to make up for his loss.
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Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme is anchored by outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who form one of the scariest pass-rushing duos in the NFL. Derrick Johnson returned from a lost season in 2014 to start all 16 games and record 116 tackles in 2015. If he can stay healthy once again, the middle of the Chiefs defense will be in great shape.
The Broncos lost Danny Trevathan in free agency, yet they still have a top-three linebacker group in the NFL. That’s because of their edge pass rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Inside, Brandon Marshall is a playmaker in his own right and is routinely discussed among the best at his position. Shane Ray, the team’s first-round pick last year, has a boatload of potential with some off-field issues, but he’ll likely replace Ware when he calls it a career.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
The Seahawks have two stars at linebacker in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Wagner has made back-to-back Pro Bowls, and Wright has led the team in tackles twice in his career. The duo is joined by Michael Morgan on the outside. Given the amount of nickel coverage teams play nowadays, there are typically only two linebackers on the field at a time anyway, which minimizes Morgan’s inefficiencies. Wright and Wagner often get overshadowed by the Legion of Boom secondary, but they play a big role on defense.
Getty ImagesPeter Aiken
It’s no coincidence that the best linebacker in the league also plays for the team with the best linebacking corps. Luke Kuechly is head-and-shoulders the top player at his position. He’s joined by the ageless Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, a super-athletic backer with great speed. A.J. Klein is also a contributor. The Panthers are second to none when it comes to linebackers, and it’s a huge reason why they boast one of the top defenses in the league.