Over the past couple days, we’ve looked at two positions to require pass-rushing and run defending abilities: edge rusher and interior defensive line. Today, let’s look at the most complex position on defense: inside linebacker. Linebackers have to excel in coverage, run defense, tackling, and on occasion, pass rush. Meanwhile, they also tend to be the leaders of the defense, and are in charge of relaying all the plays on defense. Therefore, a case can be made that the top players at this list are truly the most valuable defensive players in football. So, who are those players? Let’s discuss!
All Grades and Stats Via Pro Football Focus
#10: Zach Brown, Philadelphia Eagles
Oftentimes, linebackers are very strong communicators and are leaders of a defense. Zach Brown, meanwhile, may be the opposite. Known for going his own way, regardless of what his coaches desire, he tends to be a very inconsistent player. That comes on a week to week basis, as seen last season, but also over the course of the whole season as well. In 2017, he was arguably a liability, earning just a 58.8 overall grade and an abysmal 38.1 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. However, last season was an entirely different story; his grade jumped all the way up to 89.2, and suddenly, he was excellent in coverage (84.4 grade). Yet, he was still released by the Redskins this offseason, and had to wait until May to sign a one-year contract with the Eagles. Obviously, his issues listening to coaches would explain that, but the 29-year-old was also a great all-around linebacker in 2015 and 2016; he may be going from team to team, but Brown is a top-ten linebacker who also is solid in run defense and as a tackler. He should prove to be an absolute steal for Philadelphia.
#9: CJ Mosley, New York Jets
If we went simply based off of contracts, CJ Mosley would be way higher. After all, the Jets thought enough of him to sign him to a massive five year, $85 million contract. It’s an awful lot for a player who hasn’t ever had a better grade from Pro Football Focus than 76.3, but in a way, it makes some sense where former New York general manager Mike Maccagnan invested so much money in Mosley. Unlike Brown, Mosley has been extremely consistent; his grades rarely vary year to year. He wasn’t spectacular last season, but his 73.6 overall grade wasn’t bad, and his 80.1 run defense was encouraging after struggling in that department slightly in 2017. His coverage grade did regress last season, but based off the fact he had coverage grades over 72 in the two seasons before that, it’s likely he’ll be better in that department. It’s unlikely that the 27-year-old will live up to the contract he signed – he’d have to produce like the top two players on this list to do so – but Mosley should still be a massive upgrade in the middle of the Jets’ defense, and there’s clearly something to be said about his reliability.
#8: Jordan Hicks, Arizona Cardinals
The third straight player on this list to change teams this offseason, Jordan Hicks’ drawback isn’t his health or his lack of upside, like the other two players, but his health. The 27-year-old only played 268 snaps in 2017, and then missed four games due to a calf injury. He’ll probably never be able to shed the injury-prone label he’s received as a result of his misfortunes, but when healthy, a case can be made that Hicks is a top-five linebacker. In 2016, he was one of the top linebackers in the league, earning an 88.4 overall grade and an amazing 91.1 coverage grade. He was fine in a limited sample size in 2017, but in 12 games in 2018, he went back to being a great player with an 80.7 overall grade, an 81.3 run defense grade, a 78.1 coverage grade, and a spectacular 86.3 tackling grade. Judging by those numbers, it’s clear that Hicks is a very balanced linebacker that doesn’t have a clear weakness, outside of his durability. If healthy this season, he’ll be a very valuable player for the Cardinals, who signed him to a four-year, $36 million contract this offseason. That could easily turn out to be a massive bargain; when healthy, he’s worth at least $12-$13 million per year.
#7: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were one of the biggest surprises last season; projected to be a last-place team, they won ten games and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs. A huge reason for that was their very successful rookie class, which included All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith, but just as importantly, linebacker Darius Leonard. The 24-year-old was seen as a project coming out of South Carolina State, and Indianapolis was highly criticized when they selected him with the 36th overall selection in the draft. Leonard made those doubters look foolish however; he won the defensive rookie of the year award and emerged as the leader of the Colts defense. Notably, he was reliable in coverage with 84.8 grade, and was also a sure tackler with an 85.4 grade. Plus, he was also a solid pass-rusher (73.4 grade, 11 pressures), and was fine in run defense as well (70.8 grade). As clearly illustrated by those grades, Leonard doesn’t have any clear red flags or weaknesses, and although he wasn’t the best rookie linebacker last season (more on that in a moment), he’s a player who could continue to move up this list in the feature.
#6: Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Despite all the speculation regarding the contract status of popular players such as quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliot, it ended up being Jaylon Smith who was the first Cowboys player to earn a contract extension. The team agreed to a five year, $65 million deal with the 25-year-old on Wednesday, which wraps up a really great feel-good story for him. Smith was expected to be a top-five pick in his draft class, but in his last ever college game, tore his ACL. He was then drafted in the second round, and missed the entire 2016 season. After coming back strong in 575 snaps in 2017 with a 69.4 grade, Smith excelled last season in a full season. He had an 84.5 overall grade, did well in coverage (80.8), and also continued to be an elite pass rusher (84.6). Assuming he stays healthy, he’s everything you want from a modern-day linebacker; he has sideline to sideline quickness and covers well. Honestly, signing him to a relatively underwhelming contract before his stock got too high was a brilliant move for Dallas, who may have weaved their cap space well enough to extend cornerback Byron Jones to keep that elite defense intact.
#5: Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
The other great young Cowboys linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch wasn’t a very popular pick when the Cowboys selected him in the first round in the 2018 draft, despite his injury concerns and a need at receiver. Now, no one is questioning that pick for Dallas. The 22-year-old was a leader for this defense right from the beggining, and was a major reason for the defense’s transformation into one of the league’s best units. Vander Esch was even better than Smith last season; he had an 85.7 overall grade, an 82 coverage grade, and an 82.1 run defense grade. Even more significant, he pushed those injury concerns to side, playing in all 17 regular-season games and two playoff games. Even more than fellow 2018 draft pick Leonard, Vander Esch has the certain makeup and personality of a game-changing player. Just look at the team’s Week 13 game versus the Saints, where he was able to neutralize one of the most dominant offensive players in Alvin Kamara, a task no linebacker has been able to do. If he can continue to progress, the sky’s the limit for Vander Esch, whose combination of football IQ and athletic ability could soon put him in the top tier of inside linebackers.
#4: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccanneers
The Buccanneers have had one of the worst defenses in the NFL over the past couple seasons, and as a result, a very talented player has gone under the radar. Lavonte David has quietly been an excellent linebacker for them over the past two seasons, and needs to start getting the recognition he deserves. In 2017, he was easily one of the best linebackers in the entire NFL. In that season, he earned an elite 90.5 grade, which as a result of his 90.8 run defense grade and 85.6 coverage grade. Yes, he regressed in 2018 to a still-solid 77.3 overall grade, but there’s a clear reason for that. During the middle of the season, the 29-year-old dealt with a knee injury, and that’s when his performance suffered. However, in the first seven weeks and the final four weeks (when he was healthy), the lowest grade he had in a game was 65.7; his numbers are deceiving due to that knee injury, but in reality, he remained one of the top linebackers in the NFL. Paired with fifth-overall pick Devin White, who may appear on this list next season, David’s performance should only continue to improve defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ excellent defensive system. Tampa Bay still won’t have a good defense next season, but they are quickly improving, and David remains its leader.
#3: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons came into last season thinking they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster, but in the end, their defense struggled and they finished with just seven wins. While the injuries to safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were a major reason why the defense was one of the league’s worst, the fact that Deion Jones played in just six games was much more significant. After a solid rookie season, Jones, a former second-round pick, thrived in his sophomore season in 2017. The 24-year-old dominated with an 87.8 overall grade, which included a 91.7 coverage grade. Heck, in the 69 snaps he played before going on injured reserve, he duplicated his 2017 form with a 90.2 overall grade. Jones’ abilities in coverage, as well as his elite range, make him an irreplaceable linebacker. The Falcons clearly saw that; they signed Jones to a four-year contract extension worth $57 million this offseason. That will turn out to be a brilliant move for Atlanta; with Mosley getting paid $17 million this offseason, it’s impressive that the team was able to extend a superior linebacker for a far lesser price. Atlanta is currently my pick to win the NFC South this season, and the possibility of Jones playing all 16 games is a major reason why; he’s their top defensive player and one of the most valuable defensive players in the entire NFL.
#2: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Though Jones is a spectacular player, these last two players are on a tier of their own. Luke Kuechly has arguably been the face of the Panthers since they drafted him in the first round of the 2012 draft; he’s had at least a 90.2 overall grade in each of the last five seasons. To be frank, the 28-year-old has absolutely no weakness. Need him to stop the run? He can do that with ease (92.3 grade). Need him to make a big play in coverage or match up with a running back or tight end? That’s also a strength for him (84.1 grade). Keuchly’s performance has been nearly identical over the past five seasons, but even more impressive, he had at least a 61 grade in each of his games last season, proving to constantly be a reliable player for Carolina. He has had injury issues in the past, but considering he played in every game last season, we can probably push that aside as well. Keuchly’s a rare talent that single-handedly makes Carolina’s defense a potent unit on a yearly basis; he may not have the eye-popping numbers that the top player on this list has, but he produces in all areas and is arguably the most undeviating player in football.
#1: Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are a very strange team; their offense is carried by one player, quarterback Russell Wilson, who has to make up for poor pass protection, little receiving talent, and a usually mediocre at best running back. After the loss of multiple veterans, such as free safety Earl Thomas and nickel corner Justin Coleman, the case can be said Bobby Wagner will have to carry this defense by himself, similar to what Wilson does with the offense. Is he up to the task? He very well might be. After all, Pro Football Focus rated him as the most valuable defensive player in football, as his coverage ability trumps the pass rush ability of Aaron Donald. That’s been apparent over the past two seasons, in which he has had at least a 90 coverage grade, as well as a 90 overall grade. Meanwhile, he’s had a 90.2 or better run defense grade in each of the past three seasons, thrives as a pass rusher, and is one of the best tacklers in football. Coverage may be his best trait, but there’s no doubting that Wagner has established himself as an all-around player; he has taken over as the best linebacker in the NFL. He’s the only one left from the “Legion of Boom” days, and in reality, he was definitely the most overlooked piece of those vaunted defenses. The three-year, $54 million extension Seattle was able to sign him to is more than a no-brainer; without him, they’d struggle to defend anyone in 2019. He truly is an example of a perfect linebacker, and is what every team desires for from players at the position; he’s not only the best player at this position, but a top-five player in all of football, and an under-the-radar candidate as the best player.