The whole concept of the 4–3 outside linebacker, the next spot up in SI’s NFL position-by-position rankings, is undergoing a significant metamorphosis. As we will see with several of the names on this list, it is increasingly rare that a defender is asked to play a wide second-level role behind a four-man front. Almost every linebacker now—at least those that want extensive playing time—must be able to handle outside and inside responsibilities, against both the run and pass. Because of how modern offenses have grown, defenses are in nickel and dime looks more than ever, usually leaving two (or fewer) LBs out there.
The cream of the 4–3 outside linebacker crop have proven their capacity to be multi-faceted defenders. They have kept pace with what’s gone on on the other side of the ball to remain every-down playmakers.
Just missed the cut
Bruce Irvin, Raiders: Irvin is a bit difficult to pin down. The Raiders are planning to use him off the edge, so his sack numbers could improve, but he also is a better all-around linebacker than he’s given credit for. Either way, he was an important Seahawk and stands as an upgrade for the Raiders.
The next big thing
Mark Barron, Rams: Shaq Thompson deserves a mention here, too—he excelled late in the year and should thrive alongside Kuechly and Davis. However, Barron may be on the verge of stardom. The Rams certainly hope so after rewarding his breakthrough 2015 with a four-year, $45 million contract. The converted safety was good last season and has a chance to be even better now that he has a new, permanent home at linebacker.