Playing linebacker in the NFL can come in many forms. You can be a 4-3 outside linebacker, which requires you to hold up in coverage and stop the run. Then there’s the inside (or middle) linebacker position, which is often the leader of the defense. In a 3-4, however, the outside linebackers are often pass rushers who occasionally drop into coverage.
Regardless of which role a linebacker plays, the position comes with a boatload of responsibilities. That’s what makes it such a difficult spot to play. These nine players have learned that early in their careers, and they’re poised to break out this season and put up big numbers.
Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Jets
The Jets are relying heavily on their young players this season after ridding themselves of pricey veterans. Jenkins, a third-round pick last year, is absolutely one of them, projecting as one of the team’s starting outside linebackers. After recording 2.5 sacks as a rookie, Jenkins will be expected to make a big jump this season.
He’s a physical pass rusher who also plays the run very well, which is ideal for a 3-4 outside linebacker. And though he’s not a dynamic bender like Von Miller or Vic Beasley, he can certainly get after the quarterback.
With the Jets thin on talent defensively, they’ll need their pass rush to show up consistently in order to mask the deficiencies they have in the secondary.
Kamalei Correa, ILB, Ravens
Correa played just 49 snaps on defense last season, but the Ravens weren’t really sure where to line him up. He was a mix between an edge rusher and an off-the-ball linebacker, which never helps a young player develop as a rookie.
This season, he’ll be transitioning to inside linebacker full time, likely taking over the role left by Zach Orr, who retired at age 24 this offseason. That bodes well for the young defender, who will try to prove he was worthy of last year’s second-round pick.
He’s gotten a better grasp of the playbook this offseason, which he said was the toughest part about transitioning to the NFL last year. That alone should help his development and allow him to become an every-down player in Baltimore’s aggressive defense.
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Reggie Ragland, MLB, Bills
Ragland unfortunately missed his entire rookie season due to a knee injury, but he’s on track to play a big role for the Bills in 2017. Although he’s not a great coverage linebacker, he is ferocious against the run and loves to come downhill with force.
That bodes well with him stepping in as the team’s starting middle linebacker in new coach Sean McDermott’s 4-3 scheme, and it should lead to an eye-popping number of tackles. He’s going to approach (and probably surpass) 100 tackles this season and tally a few forced fumbles.
He’s not going to be Luke Kuechly, but Ragland will be an important piece in the middle of McDermott’s defense, which will carry over a lot of elements from his time in Carolina.
Jaylon Smith, MLB, Cowboys
There are still a lot of question marks when it comes to Smith’s recovery from a horrific knee injury, particularly whether he’ll have to wear a brace for his drop-foot condition. No one knows the answer to that right now, but we could get a better idea in training camp and the preseason when he’s doing on-field work more consistently.
If he is indeed healthy and at least 90 percent of what he was at Notre Dame, he’s going to be a stud for the Cowboys. He’ll be a three-down player, remaining on the field with Sean Lee in nickel packages.
Not to mention, he could be a specialized pass rusher and blitzer for coordinator Rod Marinelli, which is something Jerry Jones alluded to this offseason.
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Bud Dupree, OLB, Steelers
Dupree has struggled in his first two seasons with the Steelers, recording only 8.5 career sacks up to this point. Part of the reason for that is he played only seven games last season, in which he had a very respectable 4.5 sacks.
In 2017, he’ll be under more pressure to perform with T.J. Watt in the mix and James Harrison returning for yet another season. The Steelers need Dupree to really take off in Year 3 in order to help the rest of the defense.
There’s no question he has the athleticism to become a prolific pass rusher, he just hasn’t been able to put it all together. Either he’s been ineffective (2015) or injured (2016), which has limited his production in a big way.
Myles Jack, MLB, Jaguars
Jack is moving positions this season for the Jaguars after struggling to find playing time as a rookie. In 2017, he’ll be the team’s starting middle linebacker, which is an important role in coordinator Todd Wash’s defense. Jack has the skill set to be a three-down player, but he’ll need to beat out Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith to remain on the field in nickel packages.
If you watch his tape at UCLA, you’ll quickly think he has the ability to do so, ranging 30 yards downfield in coverage against tight ends and even wide receivers. Jack has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the game, but his awareness was not great last season, which limited his time on the field.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY SportsReinhold Matay
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Bears
Floyd had a great rookie season, all things considered. He recorded seven sacks and 33 tackles in just 12 games, missing four starts due to concussions. He recently said it took him two months to get over those concussions, showing just how severe his head injuries were – one of which he had to be carted off the field for.
Entering 2017, he’s now healthy and ready for a breakout season. Floyd is the Bears’ best pass rusher and will most likely lead the team in sacks when it’s all said and done. His skill set and combination of speed and power are outstanding, and he’s also good against the run.
He and Pernell McPhee have the potential to really put up great numbers and reach double-digit sacks, which would be a big step for the Bears’ defense. Floyd could make a Danielle Hunter-type leap by doubling his sack total in Year 2.
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Shaq Thompson, OLB, Panthers
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks essentially told us that Thompson would be in for a bigger role this season by way of Thomas Davis’ curtailed snaps, but that’s not the only reason the young linebacker is on the list. He’s simply a versatile weapon on defense who’s capable of making big plays.
In Wilks’ defense, he’s going to be all over the field. He can drop back into coverage – as deep as a safety, really – in addition to stopping the run. As an outside linebacker playing next to Luke Kuechly, Thompson will be freed up to roam the defense with his speed and athleticism, making plays from sideline to sideline.
He’s going to have a huge season with close to 80 tackles and a couple of interceptions.
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Shane Ray, OLB, Broncos
The Broncos unfortunately lost DeMarcus Ware to retirement this offseason, but they have a very capable replacement already on the roster. Ray practically did replace Ware when he was injured last season, starting eight games and playing all 16. In those games, he recorded eight sacks and had 48 total tackles.
This season, there’s a chance he doubles his sack total and becomes a Pro Bowler. He has all the tools to be a prolific pass rusher and a solid No. 2 to Von Miller, he just needs the playing time and the opportunity to put them on display.
With Miller on the weak side, Ray will take on left tackles on a weekly basis. That won’t be an easy ask for a third-year pass rusher, but Miller will draw plenty of attention, giving Ray frequent one-on-one matchups. If he can win those, he’ll average a sack per game, which he doesn’t think is “difficult” to do.