The positional rankings series resumes with a review of Linebackers. Two teams run a 3-4 defense and 6 of the teams run a 4-3 defense.
First: Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly is the top ILB in the entire NFL. Thomas Davis is strong against the run and in coverage. Shaq Thompson is a talented 1st round talent from the 2015 draft. Carolina has been strong in run defense and LB coverage for several years. This will continue with Kuechly, Davis and Thompson in the fold.
AJ Klein is experienced depth but the Panthers lack depth after Klein. However, given how good their starting 3 are, Carolina still wins this ranking.
Second: Chicago Bears
The Bears have made LB a good strength over the past two seasons. Pernell McPhee (2015), Danny Trevathan (2016), Jerell Freeman (2016), Willie Young (2014) and Lamar Houston (2014) were added in free agency. Leonard Floyd was drafted in Round 1 of the 2016 draft. McPhee is a very good pass rusher and strong against the run. Houston is a good pass rusher but lacks in coverage. Trevethan and Freeman are both good against the run and coverage. Willie Young is a good pass rusher for the OLB spot as a former 4-3 DE with speed. Floyd is a very talented rookie pass rusher.
The Bears drafted Nick Kwitkowski in the 4th Round of the 2016 draft. Christian Jones has starter experience as a second year undrafted free agent. Sam Acho is solid veteran depth at OLB.
The Bears have a very strong LB unit for their 3-4 defensive system under Vic Fangio. We will see if the costly free agent additions will help their pass rush and run defense in 2016 to take the Bears defense into the above average category.
Tied Third: Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr is a 1st round pick and good against the run and blitzing from his SAM LB spot. Barr needs some coverage work but he can be a game changer as a rusher. Erik Kendricks was a 2nd round pick from 2015 that had a strong rookie season in both run defense and coverage. Chad Greenway has struggled the last few seasons but is a veteran presence at weak side linebacker.
Audie Cole has experience as a backup ILB and special teams but struggles in coverage. Travis Lewis and Emmanuel Lemur are versatile LBs that were added in free agency from the Bengals and Lions. Both are good special team players but haven’t been able to crack the starting lineups for their former teams. Kentrell Brothers was drafted in Round 5 and Stephen Weatherly was drafted in Round 7 for more depth for Minnesota.
Tied Third: Detroit Lions
Detroit has a very good LB in DeAndre Levy. Levy was a good player in 2010-2012 and a great player in 2013 and 2014. Levy missed almost all of 2015 with a hip injury but is a game changer at weak side linebacker.
Tahir Whitehead has two years of experience at SAM and ILB for Detroit in 2014 and 2015. Whitehead is good in coverage and solid against the run. He gave Detroit a boost with his coverage in 2015 over Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch is still on the roster but likely to be cut.
Josh Bynes is a veteran and versatile LB. Bynes can play ILB, SAM and weak side LB. Bynes had a good year replacing DeAndre Levy in 2015 on the weak side and played a good amount of snaps in 2014 with Detroit’s strong defense at ILB and SAM LB.
The Lions have some talented depth but have guys that need to improve their game after being disappointments as high picks. Zavier Gooden, Jon Bostic and Kyle Van Noy are 3rd, 2nd and 2nd round picks respectively for the Titans, Bears and Lions. All three are good special team players but haven’t been able to be good starting linebackers.
Rookie Antwione Williams was drafted in Round 5 by Detroit out of Georgia Southern. Williams is a good tackler but lacks instincts in coverage. Brandon Copeland was good on special teams in 2015 and plays rush OLB and DE.
Fifth: Green Bay Packers
The Packers are strong at OLB with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliot and 3rd round pick Kyle Fackrell. Matthews and Peppers provide most of the Packers pass rush and hold their own in run defense.
Perry played only around 300 snaps but had a nice playoff campaign for the Packers in 2015 with 3.5 sacks and good run defense. Perry was a first round pick for Green Bay and playing on a contract year after signing a one year deal to return to Green Bay. Fackrell is a good rush LB that needs coverage work as a rookie.
The Packers inside linebacker unit is where they are downgraded in the ranking. Sam Barrington is average and returning from an injury. Jake Ryan is solid in run defense but struggles in coverage after his rookie 2015 season (4th round pick). Blake Martinez was drafted in Round 4 of the 2016 draft and could maybe boost the Packers coverage. Joey Thomas and Carl Bradford have some experience from 2015 but really struggled on the field. Green Bay could use an upgrade at ILB if the 4th round picks don’t pan out.
Sixth: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have a very good LB in Lavonte Davis. He has been a top 5 OLB every year in the league until a down 2015 season. Noah Spence was drafted in Round 2 of the 2016 draft and will be an OLB/DE hybrid for Tampa Bay. Spence had off field issues in college but was a good pass rusher for Eastern Kentucky and Ohio State. He may end up playing more DE.
Daryl Smith is a veteran ILB/OLB coming over from Baltimore. Smith will provide leadership and is still solid against the run and coverage. Kwon Alexander had a terrible -25.2 grade in 842 snaps for Tampa Bay. Josh Keyes was average in 42 snaps in 2015 and should be a backup again.
Sixth: New Orleans Saints
The Saints added James Laurinitus during the 2016 free agency and drafted Stephone Anthony in Round 1 of the 2015 draft. Laurinitus was a team leader and productive tackler for the Rams but had major struggles in 2015. Anthony struggled as a rookie but has talent.
2015 second round pick Hau’oli Kikaha is a pass rushing OLB. Anthony and Kikaha have talent but had some issues in 2015. A better defensive line in front of them may help the young players.
Veteran Daniel Ellerbe was added at the age of 30 but could play ILB or OLB. The Saints have a lot of seemingly ILB that may play OLB. Michael Mauti and Nathan Stupar are backup LBs from Linebacker U in Penn State.
Sixth: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons converted back to 4-3 under Dan Quinn in 2015. Courtney Upshaw was added in free agency which provides very strong run defense but hurts in coverage. Brooks Reed is an average rushing OLB. Paul Worrilow could play some middle linebacker but may fall behind Upshaw.
Former 1st round pick Sean Weatherspoon had a solid season with Arizona but was oft injured with Atlanta on his rookie deal. Weatherspoon was a 1st round pick bust from the Falcons but is getting a second chance with Dan Quinn.
Deion Jones was drafted in Round 2 in the 2016 draft to play OLB for the Falcons. He provides a much needed upgrade in youth and talent. Atlanta has a lot of solid players at LB but no really strong LB players. They have decent depth with Worrilow and Weatherspoon.
Carolina is by far the best at LB but Chicago may have closed the gap. We haven’t seen the Bears play together with their new ILBs or rookie first rounder quite yet. Detroit and Minnesota have some game changers and are fairly deep with talent LB. Green Bay is very strong at OLB but weak at ILB which hurts their run defense.
The Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers have some talent and depth but nobody that jumps out as great linebackers other than Lavonte David. None of the three teams deserve a last place ranking but ranking them 6th is the proper assessment.