Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders ranked the 32 NFL linebacking corps. Here are his top 10.
1. Baltimore Ravens (12)
How talented is this group? So talented that they can lose Adalius Thomas to the Patriots and still finish first in our rankings. Ray Lewis and Bart Scott man the inside. While Lewis’ best days are behind him, he’s still the leader of this unit and the man who keeps everyone in line. You’ll see the occasional superlative moment (and reasonable consistency), but he’s no longer the player who defined his position in the early part of this decade. Scott took his first opportunity as a full-time starter and enjoyed a breakout season. He finished sixth in the NFL in Stop Rate and was the Head Quarterback Terrorizer among Baltimore’s linebackers with 9.5 sacks, 11 hits and 15 hurries.
Left outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ fourth season was very much like his first three: outstanding from a pass rush perspective (he’s never finished a season with less than eight sacks and has averaged 10 per year), with an additional focus on run-stopping. Suggs finished third in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing play at 2.2, although that’s partly because he plays some defensive end in the Ravens’ flexible alignment. Replacing Thomas’ versatility and athleticism will be no easy task, and it’s possible that defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will try to do it by committee. Jarret Johnson is listed as the preseason replacement, but Dan Cody and Antwan Barnes will try to shake up the second tier in training camp.
2. San Diego Chargers (3)
If we were compiling a separate list for outside linebackers, the Chargers would take the top spot in an absolute rout. Shawne Merriman led the league in sacks despite missing four games last season after testing positive for steroids. Merriman claimed the test results came from a tainted supplement, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed in April of this year that Merriman has tested clean in 19 of the 20 drug tests he’s taken. It may be difficult for some to get over the stigma, because at his best, Merriman does things that simply defy belief. When Walter Jones pushes you to the ground on a pass play, and you somehow get up, get past the NFL’s best left tackle and still pick up the sack … well, people are going to wonder.
Lost in the shadow of Merriman’s “Lights Out” persona was the job turned in by Shaun Phillips on the weak side. Phillips had 11.5 sacks of his own and didn’t miss a beat when Merriman was out of the lineup, with three sacks and 20 tackles in three November games. The questions about San Diego’s linebackers are on the inside. The Chargers lost both of their inside starters: veteran Randall Godfrey was released after the draft, and free agent Donnie Edwards returned to the Chiefs after five seasons in San Diego. Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are in line to replace Godfrey and Edwards, respectively, and that’s a lot of continuity to ask for when the “new kids” have totaled eight starts in eight seasons between them. Third-round pick Anthony Waters from Clemson could find an early place on the inside if he’s recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in his senior season.
3. Chicago Bears (2)
The defending NFC champs have had more than their share of off-season drama, and most of it surrounded the defense that got the Bears back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years. The roster churn in the front four has been the big public story, thanks to Tank Johnson. But the real Sword of Damocles for the best defense of 2006 has been the battle between the team and Lance Briggs. The Bears franchised Briggs, and the elite weak-side linebacker has responded by threatening to sit out the first 10 games of the season. The Bears almost had a pre-draft trade done with the Redskins in which Briggs would be dealt for Washington’s first-round pick, but that fell through. We’re projecting him playing a full season, what with the potential payday and all. Briggs is a force no matter what is coming at him; he finished fifth in Stop Rate against the run and in the top five in Defeats against the run and the pass.
As good as Briggs is (and as improbable as his return to Chicago would be after this season), the defense belongs to Brian Urlacher. Urlacher continues the Chicago tradition of great middle linebackers, and may be the most versatile of the Bill George/Dick Butkus/Mike Singletary line. His closest antecedent of that group is George, the Hall-of Famer who played for the Bears from 1952 to 1965 and is credited by some as the first middle linebacker, a position he may have created when he dropped back from his middle guard spot in the five-man lines of the time and began defending the aerial game. George picked off eighteen passes in his career. Urlacher has long been regarded as one of the best in the modern game against the pass, and he matched his career highs in 2006 with three interceptions and six passes defensed. Though he didn’t record a sack last season, he was credited with 10 quarterback hits, the most of any inside linebacker. Hunter Hillenmeyer fills out the best 4-3 group in the NFL, though Briggs’ situation and uncertainty about the front four could see Chicago’s linebackers give way to …
4. Seattle Seahawks (4)
This was a formidable group on paper after the acquisition of Julian Peterson, but schematic issues and one key injury conspired to provide less than optimal results. Peterson put up a career year in the sack department with 10, but his versatility was the real worth behind the seven-year, $54 million contract Seattle gave him before the 2006 season. Lining him up as a rush end, as the Seahawks did frequently to start the season, overemphasized one aspect of his talent. As the season progressed and the fit began to happen, Peterson’s ability to drop into coverage became a factor. This also helped Leroy Hill, who was negatively affected by Peterson’s initial focus on quarterback pressure. In his 2005 rookie season, Hill posted 7.5 sacks and had the highest Stop Rate against the run of any Seahawks linebacker. Hill does these things well, but he doesn’t have a reverse gear, and this was made very evident from his rookie season when he found himself routinely embarrassed in coverage. Seattle’s defensive coaching staff promises to allow Hill to be less reactive and more aggressive in his third year.
The injury that affected Seattle’s linebackers actually happened to the front four, when defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs missed 11 games with a knee injury. Nobody was more impacted by this than middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, an undersized Tasmanian devil who makes the defense go when he can shoot gaps and make plays. With Tubbs gone, Tatupu proved unable to consistently shed blocks at the line. Still, he continued to develop his ability to read opposing offenses as if they were cereal boxes, and he’s surprisingly adept when retreating into deep coverage. He’s also a textbook tackler, but he’ll need Tubbs (or third-round pick Brandon Mebane of Cal) to man the nose and soak up blockers.
5. Dallas Cowboys (5)
The transition at head coach for the Cowboys from Bill Parcells to Wade Phillips means that more aggressive defensive schemes will be in play. Phillips, who served as San Diego’s defensive coordinator during Shawne Merriman’s development, could have another monster on his hands in DeMarcus Ware. In his second NFL season, Ware not only increased his sack total from eight to 11.5, he also blew away all other linebackers with 25 quarterback hurries (New England’s Rosevelt Colvin was second with 20). Joining Ware this season will be first-round pick Anthony Spencer of Purdue, who will bring his disruptive abilities and self-proclaimed “Fro-hawk” to a linebacker unit already stuffed with pass rushers. Spencer is an ideal outside man in a 3-4; he’s aggressive and on point, racking up 10Â½ sacks and 26Â½ tackles for loss in his senior year alone. Optimally, Spencer could play Shaun Phillips to Ware’s Merriman, though those comparisons are a reach at this point.
Ten-year veteran Greg Ellis manned the strong side last year, but concerns about his recovery from a torn Achilles, and past struggles with his role, could have Spencer in the mix sooner than later. On the inside, fellow Purdue alum Akin Ayodele has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, ranking eighth in Stop Rate against the run and 19th in Success Rate against the pass. With Bradie James, Bobby Carpenter and Kevin Burnett available for different personnel packages, the Cowboys match their enviable frontline talent with impressive depth. Whatever the doubts about his ability to maintain overall discipline with a mercurial roster, Phillips’ influence could put this bunch of linebackers over the top.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (1)
We ranked Pittsburgh’s linebackers number one last year for good reason â€” it could be argued that the Steelers went through the NFL’s four best offensive lines in the postseason on the way to their fifth Super Bowl title. The changes came quickly after the team’s disappointing follow-up year, starting with the hire of new head coach Mike Tomlin. Though Tomlin has a graduate degree in Tampa-2, he’ll defer to Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 professorship.
Joey Porter took $20 million in guaranteed money from the Miami Dolphins; now the Steelers will find out whether Porter was the defense’s soul, or just its mouth. Replacing him at right outside linebacker is James Harrison. Harrison has spent most of his time as a backup, though he did enjoy cups of coffee as a starter in 2004 and 2005. He may be good enough against the run and rushing the passer that there won’t be a decline, though Porter was one of the better linebackers against the pass last season. Looking to the future, the Steelers can turn rookies Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley loose on enemy quarterbacks. Timmons, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick, seems a natural for his new team â€” he won Florida State’s “Hines-man Award” for best overall performance.
Opposite Harrison will be Clark Haggans, a savvy and reliable veteran. James Farrior and Larry Foote have been the primary inside men for the last three seasons. Farrior’s 27 Defeats led the team, and Foote ranked 11th in the league with a 75 percent Stop Rate against the run. The concern here is that overall depth could be an issue with two rookies to rely on.
7. Oakland Raiders (26)
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan put together one of the most remarkable coaching jobs in recent memory; the Raiders defense ranked ninth in our DVOA stats even though the offense was pathetic. This defense faced the fewest pass attempts (410) and most rushing attempts (542) in the league. That may make an offensive strategy easier to discern, but the mental wear of playing at that level with nonexistent hope on the other side of the ball must be astonishing.
Middle linebacker Kirk Morrison is the star of this unit, an oft-ignored product of the same 2005 draft that produced Merriman and Tatupu. He ranked sixth with a 67 percent Success Rate against the pass, the highest among inside linebackers. His 33 Defeats tied him for third with Brian Urlacher and Cato June. Rookie Thomas Howard impressed on the weak side, though his run-stopping skills need to improve. Sam Williams and Robert Thomas alternated on the strong side, with Thomas proving to be the better player. Morrison and Howard have a world of talent, excellent coaching and an extremely solid group around them. If they had an offense that wasn’t reminiscent of the 1927 Dayton Triangles (link: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/day1927.htm), there might be some relief in store.
8. Miami Dolphins (9)
Zach Thomas led the NFL with 174 plays, and had a Stop Rate of 61 percent, one of the best percentages for any inside linebacker whose responsibilities comprised more than just staying at home in a 3-4. Add in nine passes defensed and three sacks and you have an amazing season from a 33-year old who didn’t fade out no matter how often he was targeted.
To complement Thomas’ abilities, the Dolphins threw a great deal of money at Joey Porter. Porter will try to put a somewhat disappointing 2006 behind him, but his seven sacks are still more than the 5.5 that Miami’s entire linebacker corps managed last year. The Dolphins will need continued improvement from strong-side linebacker Channing Crowder. He ranked fifth in Stop Rate against the run, but his Success Rate in pass coverage was just 32 percent, one of the worst of any linebacker.
9. Cleveland Browns (21)
The Browns haven’t posted a winning season since 2002 and suffer from several positional shortfalls, but their linebackers aren’t part of the problem. Cleveland drafted Kamerion Wimbley to get after the quarterback on the weak side, and he did so with abandon, racking up 11 sacks, 16 hits and 19 hurries. On the other side, 14-year veteran Willie McGinest might split time with Antwan Peek this season. Houston’s switch back to a 4-3 left Peek as a man without a position, but he could surprise in Cleveland. On the inside, D’Qwell Jackson and Andra Davis are players who work well in this system and would have much better numbers with better linemen in front of them. Chaun Thompson provides good depth.
10. New England Patriots (13)
The dominant linebacker sets of the recent Super Bowl years are a memory; at this point, Bill Belichick is balancing the value of experience against the effectiveness of pure athleticism. As usual, the Pats come up trumps when presented with such a conundrum. This time, they split the difference between veteran know-how and pure talent by signing free agent Adalius Thomas, formerly of the Ravens. Thomas will be a perfect fit in his new system, because Belichick may have a greater appreciation than any other coach for players who can do many things well. Thomas isn’t just another mid-level “Swiss Army Knife” guy, either. He managed to stand out in Baltimore’s ridiculous 2006 group, and fared better than any teammate when considering all aspects of linebacker play. Thomas’ prominence will increase in New England, because the talent around him is starting to fade a bit.
The names you know â€” Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau (post-temporary retirement version) â€” are still here, but there will have to be a serious re-set sooner than later. The Patriots finished eighth in Defensive DVOA last season, but remember what we’ve said about dominant front lines skewing linebacker performance. New England’s improved ranking here is almost all about the new guy. Bruschi and Vrabel are still strong against the run, but suffer in pass coverage. Rosevelt Colvin, the other outside linebacker, is an excellent pass-rusher, with nine sacks, 19 hits and 20 hurries.
Due to a lack of depth, The Patriots can’t be ranked higher. Larry Izzo is mostly a special-teamer, and Eric Alexander’s first start in his three-year NFL career (a good portion of which has been spent on the practice squad) was in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Dallas Clark has your learning curve right here, Eric.
These comparisons are a little strained given the different ways NFL teams use linebackers. Certainly, it’s easier for linebackers to dominate in a 3-4 than a 4-3, where the main rush comes from defensive ends. Still, if the Cowboys can live up to this #5 ranking, they should be much improved over last year.
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