LB rankings: The NFL’s weakening strongside

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No team in the NFL comes close to matching the Steelers' stellar linebacking corps, which includes James Harrison.
(Mark Duncan/AP)

There’s something really fascinating about rating the various linebacking corps in the NFL. Just as the fullback has generally disappeared from offensive football with so many offenses going with three-, four- and five-receiver sets, the strongside linebacker has also started to fade into oblivion.

The fade is not as drastic as with the fullback because there are still tight ends to be battled in the running game and covered in the passing game. Still, a position that was once second only to defensive tackles in terms of toughness is now a spot full of faceless players who don’t remind anybody of Andre Tippett.

As with the defensive line rankings, the prevalence of the 3-4 defense made ranking the league’s linebackers difficult. Teams with four-linebacker sets, as you will see, tend to get ranked much higher because they have the pass rushers.

Here’s the rundown:

1. Pittsburgh: With LaMarr Woodley(notes) and James Harrison(notes), the Steelers have the best combination of accomplished pass rushers among 3-4 defenses in the NFL. In fact, it’s not real close. The only team that could close the gap anytime soon is Dallas if Anthony Spencer(notes) improves. When you add in inside linebackers James Farrior(notes) and Lawrence Timmons(notes) (seven sacks last season), you have the best overall linebacking corps in the league by a pretty good margin. Dallas is really good, but the Steelers are special.

2. Dallas: Critics of DeMarcus Ware(notes) like to point out that his sacks (11) dropped by nearly 50 percent last season from 2008 and that his total tackles also saw a precipitous lag, dropping all the way to a career-low 57. Unfortunately, those critics also don’t draw up blocking schemes to deal with Ware, which is why he continues to be considered one of the most dynamic forces in the game. On the other side, Anthony Spencer made progress last season, collecting six sacks, mostly during an impressive run during the second half of the season. Inside linebackers Bradie James(notes) and Keith Brooking(notes) are solid, but the depth is untested.

3. Green Bay: Someday in the near future, NFL people will talk about how the Packers linebacking corps is like some four-headed nightmare. With Nick Barnett(notes), Clay Matthews(notes), Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk(notes) (who is almost an afterthought in this group), the Packers have the best combination of great tacklers against the run and potential pass-rush stars. Throw in the fact that Barnett is the only one older than 26 (he’s 29), and you have the makings of something marvelous. Matthews was terrific all season, and Jones was a late-season revelation with all four of his sacks coming in the last five games.

4. San Francisco: If you like good run defense, this group is excellent. Starting with stud Patrick Willis(notes), the 49ers linebacking corps is very much in the image of coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker, in his playing days. They don’t miss a lot of tackles, and they play with great intensity. With Willis and fellow inside linebacker Takeo Spikes(notes) playing behind a line that does a nice job of holding the point against the run, the 49ers are very much a classic 1980s-style defense. Too bad it’s 2010, and you have to play a lot more pass defense. That’s where the 49ers need to get a lot more out of outside linebackers Manny Lawson(notes) (who had a career-high six and a half sacks last season) and Parys Haralson(notes) (five sacks). If Lawson can finally overcome the injuries he has suffered, this group can be very good. The depth is excellent.

5. New York Jets: A quick prediction: By the end of the season, Jets fans will love Jason Taylor(notes), the same guy who used to taunt them as a Dolphins star. Taylor may be near the end, but he still has enough athletic ability to cause problems for offenses. Fortunately for him, he joins a deep and smart linebacking corps, which means he won’t have to play a lot. With Bart Scott(notes), David Harris(notes), Calvin Pace(notes) and Bryan Thomas(notes), the Jets have a great mix of players with enough talent to allow head coach Rex Ryan to run all his exotic blitzes. None of these guys are great, but all of them are very good.

6. Chicago: Oh, Brian Urlacher(notes), where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday that you were this frenetic slice of pure energy, the rare middle linebacker who could run all over the field, intercepting passes, sacking the quarterback or chasing a ballcarrier all the way to the sideline. Sadly, it has been about two years since we saw that version of Urlacher. Injuries sidelined him last season, but fortunately it was a wrist injury, not a leg problem. Still, at 32, you have to wonder how much time he has left. Lance Briggs(notes) is terrific next to him and Hunter Hillenmeyer(notes) is a solid pro. If Urlacher is healthy, this group is as good as it gets among the 4-3 schemes. If not, they’re just average.

7. Denver: Any group that starts with outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes) (17 sacks) and inside linebacker D.J. Williams(notes) is going to be very good. Dumervil is really fun to watch because of his ability to leverage just about any blocker despite being only 5-foot-11. Dumervil spins and gyrates and just plain causes problems if he’s not double-teamed. If Robert Ayers(notes) comes along, this group could be excellent and give the Broncos a collection of game-changing players as part of a really good defense.

8. Washington: As the Redskins switch to a 3-4 defense, they appear to have a great combination of outside linebackers on paper with Brian Orakpo(notes) (11 sacks) coming off a terrific season and veteran Andre Carter(notes) (11 sacks) on the other side. The problem is that the 3-4 also requires at least some semblance of pass coverage skills for its outside linebackers to go from very good to great. Carter, who is going into his 10th season, has never really played standing up. He has been an end for almost his entire career. As smart as he is, that’s a troubling situation. In the middle, London Fletcher(notes) and Rocky McIntosh(notes) are solid. Don’t buy the hype of Fletcher being some great player because he’s coming off a Pro Bowl season. Fletcher is just a plugger – a good one, but a plugger nonetheless. Bottom line, this group could be great or it could be average.

9. Buffalo: If inside linebacker Paul Posluszny(notes) could just stay healthy, he’d probably be a star very quickly. Last season, he missed four games because of injury (he missed 13 as a rookie in 2007) and still had 110 tackles. Fellow inside man Kawika Mitchell(notes) is a solid pro and should get pushed a little by Andra Davis(notes). But the real question for the Bills is whether former defensive ends Chris Kelsay(notes) and Aaron Schobel(notes) will be able to make the transition to outside linebacker. When healthy, both have been solid pass rushers from the end spot. Now, they will have to play standing up all the time and sometimes in pass coverage.

10. Minnesota: Some people disagree with my belief that middle linebackers are basically replaceable parts in this era of the NFL, with even the very good ones being little more than pluggers. For proof of my contention, let’s examine E.J. Henderson(notes), who missed the final four games of last season with an injury after being on pace for one of the best seasons of his seven-year career. The Vikings put Jasper Brinkley(notes) in the lineup after Henderson went down and didn’t miss a beat, making it to within an overtime loss of reaching the Super Bowl. Anyway, Chad Greenway(notes) had another fine season and Ben Leber(notes) continues to be an above-average player. This group doesn’t make a lot of big plays, but it works well behind the strong defensive line.

11. Baltimore: The Ravens once boasted one of the deepest, nastiest linebacking corps in the league. To be sure, they’re still tough, but they have definitely lost their fastball. Ray Lewis(notes) still knows the game so well that he can cover for his lack of speed. Terrell Suggs(notes) is coming off his worst season, both on and off the field. Tavares Gooden(notes) and Jarret Johnson(notes) are just guys and second-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger(notes) was disappointing as a rookie. Suggs better turn it around and Kruger better improve or this group is going to slip further.

12. San Diego: I get the bad feeling that Shawne Merriman(notes) will one day be one of those players we talk about in terms of what could have been. What could have been if Merriman hadn’t gotten hurt at the end of the 2007 season, causing him to miss all of 2008 and then be almost invisible in 2009. Merriman had only four sacks last season, and they came during a two-game stretch in the middle of the season. He’s still a nice player, but he’s hardly “Lights Out” anymore. Shaun Phillips(notes) is purely a complementary player, meaning that backup outside linebacker Larry English(notes) better come along fast. The inside linebackers are really just beefy pluggers with the likes of Stephen Cooper(notes) and Brandon Siler(notes).

13. Houston: Brian Cushing(notes) is coming off a Rookie of the Year season and an ugly controversy over his impending four-game suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs. Is he really that good or is he a product of PEDs, which so many people have suspected about Cushing since he was in high school? This year will be a big answer to that. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans(notes) has had at least 100 tackles in four straight seasons, making him one of the most consistent of the second-level middle linebackers around the league. In some ways, Ryans might be better than Ray Lewis right now, but Lewis brings so many other things to the table. The rest of the group is solid.

14. Seattle: Once upon a time, the combination of Lofa Tatupu(notes) and Leroy Hill(notes) figured to be the foundation of a great linebacking corps for years to come. The last couple of years, though, they’ve just been average, and both were seriously hampered by injuries in 2009 (Tatupu missed 11 games, Hill five). Aaron Curry(notes) still has a chance to be a terrific player, and he better be if this defense is going to take any strides under new, defensive-minded coach Pete Carroll.

15. Atlanta: The Falcons are hoping that first-round pick Sean Witherspoon will become the play-making linebacker the team desperately needs. Aside from end John Abraham(notes), the Falcons are decidedly short on guys in the front seven who can make a game-changing play. Fellow linebackers Curtis Lofton(notes) and Mike Peterson(notes) are above-average players, but hardly impact guys. If the Falcons defense is going to take strides in the right direction this season, it’s going to need a lot more from this group.

16. Miami: Hmmm, the Dolphins felt so great about their linebackers last year that they let go of Jason Taylor and Joey Porter(notes) … their two most accomplished pass rushers in the 3-4 scheme. OK, that’s questionable. Of course, Miami fans are excited about the arrival of Karlos Dansby(notes), the highest paid inside linebacker in the history of the game. That’s what free agency in a shallow market will do for you. If fans are expecting the second coming of Zach Thomas(notes), they are going to be sorely disappointed. Dansby is good and has pretty good pass-rush skills for an inside guy, but he’s not a great player. Fellow inside linebacker Channing Crowder(notes) is a lot smarter than people know, but there are reports that he will miss the season with a foot injury. The real key for this group is whether Cameron Wake(notes) or Koa Misi(notes) can be serious pass rushers. They better be.

17. Oakland: The Raiders made two really nice pickups this offseason at linebacker. The best move was taking Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain(notes) in the first round of the draft. The second was trading for Kamerion Wimbley(notes), even if Wimbley isn’t exactly your prototype 4-3 outside linebacker. McClain is a no-nonsense, driven player who has a chance to be another Patrick Willis. That may be saying a lot, but McClain is the rare inside linebacker who can justify being selected in the top 20. As for Wimbley, his pass rush skills are solid, although he needs to play with more urgency all the time. The big question is whether he’ll ever figure out coverage. As for the rest, Trevor Scott(notes) and Thomas Howard(notes) will duel for the other outside linebacker spot and the depth is good.

18. Cincinnati: In two seasons, 2008 first-round pick Keith Rivers(notes) has missed 12 of 32 games. That’s not a way to become great. Likewise, 2009 second-round pick Rey Maualuga(notes) finished the season hurt and then ended up in alcohol rehab. That’s not only sad, but it’s killing the Bengals’ chances of having a terrific linebacking corps. The only dependable linebacker the team has is Dhani Jones(notes), who’s a limited talent but a very smart guy. At least the depth is really good, with guys such as Rashad Jeanty(notes) and Abdul Hodge(notes).

19. Philadelphia: If Ernie “Cinnabon” Sims can get back to being the 100-plus tackle a year defender he was for the first three years of his career, the Eagles will have gotten a bargain for the fifth-round pick they gave up in the trade for him. Sims never developed into the dynamic player the Lions expected when they took him in the first round in 2006, but the Eagles aren’t looking for that. Likewise, if middle linebacker Stewart Bradley(notes) returns to full health after missing last season, the Eagles are solid there. The weakside spot is still in question with Moise Fokou(notes) looking like the starter, but the depth is good with Omar Gaither(notes) and Akeem Jordan(notes).

20. New Orleans: The Saints are sort of like the Steely Dan of NFL linebacking corps. Individually, they don’t look like much; but collectively, they play great. The loss of Scott Fujita(notes) will hurt, but Jonathan Vilma(notes) is still around to roam the middle, and Scott Shanle(notes) is coming off a really nice playoff run. The weakside spot is a competition that looks more like it could become a committee, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams does a really nice job of highlighting what guys can do … and covering up what they can’t do so well.

21. Tampa Bay: During the past three years, Barrett Ruud(notes) has become a prototype middle linebacker, cleaning up just about everything that comes his way. He posted a career-high 142 tackles last season. He’d have a lot more if the Bucs could funnel a few more plays his way. Geno Hayes(notes) and Quincy Black(notes) are likewise solid players, but none of the three is much of a playmaker. Again, the improvement of the defensive line will go a long way toward addressing whether these guys are good or just pluggers.

22. New England: If you want to know why the Patriots have slipped on defense the past two years, look no further than who lines up at linebacker these days. New England has gone from players like Mike Vrabel(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes) and Willie McGinest(notes) (who also played end) to Jerod Mayo(notes) (who’s a very good player), Tully Banta-Cain(notes), Gary Guyton(notes) and Pierre Woods(notes). Mayo better stay healthy and improve because he’s the only one of that lot with great upside. Rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham(notes) was overshadowed at the University of Florida, but he’s the best young prospect the team has for an edge spot.

23. Carolina: Thomas Davis(notes) will have no impact on the field for the upcoming season because of an ACL tear suffered in June, but his presence in the league will have a strong impact on other players. Don’t expect many players to settle for the restricted free agent tag again after seeing what happened to Davis, who was already coming off an injury-riddled 2009 season. The Panthers have a good answer for the loss of Davis at weakside, moving active middle linebacker Jon Beason(notes) to that spot, which may give him more chances for big plays. That said, the overall unit obviously suffers because the rest of the linebackers are middling talents.

24. Indianapolis: Colts President Bill Polian has spent more than a decade rolling in one Joe Average linebacker after another and somehow making it work. Gary Brackett(notes) is a good leader, solid tackler and very active guy, but he’d be hard-pressed to find a starting spot on a lot of teams. The same goes for Clint Session(notes), Philip Wheeler(notes) and the rest of the Indy linebackers. However, they all can run and play well in the system.

25. Kansas City: If the Chiefs ever become a really good team under the stewardship of GM Scott Pioli, it’s a fair bet that, at best, only one of the current four linebackers slated to start this year will still be in the lineup. Mike Vrabel has had a great career, but he’s very close to the end. Tamba Hali(notes) is a nice pass rusher, but when he’s the best you’ve got, your team is in trouble. Hali is better suited to be a complementary pass rusher. The inside linebackers are Demorrio Williams(notes) and Corey Mays(notes). Both are average players, which makes you wonder about former first-round pick Derrick Johnson.

26. Cleveland: D’Qwell Jackson(notes) is really a terrific inside linebacker, but he’s a step below the really great guys at that spot, like Patrick Willis. Sadly, there isn’t much growth potential in Jackson’s game because he’s somewhat limited as an athlete. As for the rest, the Browns are much like Kansas City in that most of these guys will probably be gone by the time the team becomes good again. Scott Fujita has the best long-term chance, but he’s somewhat miscast as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Matt Roth(notes) had six sacks in six games, but that was an aberration. Finally, Eric Barton(notes) is a solid inside linebacker, but much closer to the end than the beginning of his career.

27. Detroit: Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who’s as good a defensive mind as you’ll find, is hoping to milk two more good seasons out of outside linebacker Julian Peterson(notes), figuring the upgrades Detroit made on the defensive line will free Peterson for more sacks. That’s entirely plausible. DeAndre Levy(notes) is a middle linebacker comparable to London Fletcher: He’ll make all the tackles he’s supposed to make, but he won’t make a lot of game-changing plays. The rest of the group is a JAG-fest, with the likes of Landon Johnson(notes), Zack Follett(notes), Jordon Dizon(notes) and Ashlee Palmer(notes). But at least Follett, Dizon and Palmer are all young, giving them some growth potential.

28. Jacksonville: The Jaguars made a really nice move to pick up middle linebacker Kirk Morrison(notes) in a draft-day trade with Oakland. Morrison solidifies what had been a problematic spot for the Jags the past two years. That said, there’s nothing about this linebacking corps that jumps off the page. Justin Durant(notes) and Daryl Smith(notes) are solid, but there’s not a single guy in the group who projects to have game-changing ability.

29. Tennessee: The Titans and Jaguars should trade their linebacking groups, because they are virtually the same. Tennessee’s Steve Tulloch may be a notch below Jacksonville’s Kirk Morrison in the middle, but the Titans make up that notch with Will Witherspoon(notes) being a slightly better outside linebacker than either of the guys the Jags have. David Thornton(notes) is a typical plugger, and the depth is mediocre.

30. New York Giants: The disintegration of Antonio Pierce(notes) was both sad and fascinating to watch last year. After helping the Giants to a Super Bowl title in the 2007 season, Pierce was still solid in 2008. But by 2009, his series of injuries caught up to him and forced him to retire. Now, the Giants must not only rebuild, but replace the most focused, dutiful leader the team had. Ouch. Outside linebacker Michael Boley(notes) was pretty good last year when he was healthy, but the rest of the group is a collective question mark with the likes of Clint Sintim(notes), Jonathan Goff(notes) and Chase Blackburn(notes).

31. Arizona: On paper, the Cardinals linebacking corps is really, really … old. Between Joey Porter, Clark Haggans(notes), Gerald Hayes(notes) and Paris Lenon(notes), the average age of the four starters (if the Cardinals go 3-4 as planned) is 31. The Cardinals are hoping that youngsters Cody Brown(notes) and Will Davis(notes) will develop fast and help make up for the loss of Karlos Dansby. But this group looks to be, at best, mediocre.

32. St. Louis: Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis(notes) has potential to be an excellent player, perhaps along the lines of a Zach Thomas. However, middle linebackers really don’t matter the way they did 10 years ago. Unless you’re Patrick Willis, a healthy Brian Urlacher or Ray Lewis in his prime, middle linebackers are glorified replaceable parts – not the guys you build your defense around. That’s the cold reality. The rest of the Rams’ linebackers, starting with young guy David Vobora(notes), old guy Na’il Diggs(notes) and retread Bobby Carpenter(notes), are lacking. The defensive line is going to have to do a lot of work to make these guys look good.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jul 12, 2010