The NFL’s best outside linebackers
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.
The NFL's best outside linebackers, No. 10: Telvin Smith
Talk about a draft find. The 2014 event was in its fifth round when the Jaguars plucked Smith off the board as the 144th overall pick, and he promptly rewarded them by securing a starting job as a rookie. Smith averaged 85.5 tackles over his two seasons, a number that could keep climbing as the Jaguars now have better pieces around him. (How exactly they unleash him and Myles Jack at the same time remains to be seen.) Smith’s size (6’ 3”, 220 lbs.) essentially cements him in as a weakside linebacker, but he is among the new wave of LBs—along with Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron, to name a couple—rewriting the norms at the position. Keep him clean from as many blockers as possible, and Smith possesses the speed and instincts to the find the ball constantly.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 9: Vontaze Burfict
The Bengals might have moved on from Burfict long ago were it not for the impact he provides in the lineup. He's reckless to a fault, as evidenced by his boneheaded high hit on Antonio Brown late in the Bengals' 2016 wild-card round loss, plus he suffered a knee injury that cost him 17 games spread from 2014–15. But when it comes to his playmaking skills, Burfict is on another level compared to the rest of the linebacking corps. He’s also a wall against the run—in the 10 regular-season games Burfict played last year, the Bengals allowed 100 yards rushing just twice (Pittsburgh in Week 7, Denver in OT in Week 16). There is no telling how good Burfict can be if he manages to reel himself in a bit. But that’s a big “if.”
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 8: DeAndre Levy
Former Detroit GM Martin Mayhew signed Levy to a contract extension last summer. At the time, Mayhew had every reason to believe Levy would follow up his star turns in 2013 and ’14. Instead, Levy wound up playing just 17 snaps in 2015, missing Weeks 1–4 with a hip injury and then reaggravating that same ailment, in season-ending fashion, upon his Week 5 return. But don’t let that setback erase the type of player Levy had been before it. Of the Lions’ 15 interceptions during that 2013 season, Levy had six. He came back the following year with 151 tackles. New GM Bob Quinn, who comes off the Patriots’ front-office tree, has said he expects to play heavy sub packages defensively, meaning Levy and Tahir Whitehead all day, every day. In that scenario, a healthy Levy should renew his place among the NFL’s top linebackers.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 7: K.J. Wright
Late in the 2014 season, the Seahawks handed Wright, 25 at the time, a four-year contract extension. The 2011 draft gem (Round 4, pick 99 overall) has only gotten better since then. There is without question a case to be made that Wright is just as integral to his team’s linebacking corps as is the oft-hyped Bobby Wagner. Wright played 97.4% of Seattle’s snaps across the entire year, per Football Outsiders, behind only Earl Thomas (98.3%) and Richard Sherman (98.0%). Wagner is a more explosive, athletic defender overall but Wright is equally comfortable vs. the run and pass, and is arguably a step ahead of Wagner defending the latter. Wright turns 27 next month and the Seahawks have him under contract through 2018. That extension is paying off.
The NFL's best outside linebackers, No. 6: Dont'a Hightower
Hightower could very well appear on our inside linebacker rankings, as well (out June 29), and he profiles with an ILB/MLB mentality—a downhill, thumping defender who is best against the run and as a blitzing pass rusher. As mentioned a little further down this list when we talk about fellow Patriot Jamie Collins, though, New England shows a ton of 4–2 looks, plus they kick Hightower outside plenty, on the strong and weak sides. The aforementioned pass-rush ability combined with Hightower’s competency in coverage allows Bill Belichick to roll him out as a three-down defender, rather than as an early-down role player who cedes his job in sub packages. To be able to pair Collins and Hightower together, no matter the situation, is an extreme luxury.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 5: Thomas Davis
The 1-2 punch of Luke Kuechly and Davis has been transcendent for the Panthers. Add in emerging young linebacker Shaq Thompson and an at-times dominant defensive front and ... well, you’ve got yourself the NFC champs. At 33 years old and with 11 NFL years under his belt, Davis is coming off of what may have been his best season yet. If nothing else, he finally received some well-earned recognition, garnering his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods (plus the PFWA’s Good Guy Award. Oh, and he played in the Super Bowl with a broken arm.) That he has maintained this level of play is nothing short of remarkable. Remember, Davis’s career was very much in jeopardy after he tore his ACL in 2009, ’10 and ’11. Yet, here we are in 2016 where Davis remains an outstanding coverage linebacker and a consistent 100-tackle-per-year force.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 4: Sean Lee
The issue for Lee never has been what he could do on the field, but rather if he could stay there. Injuries repeatedly have disrupted Lee’s career—he missed 10 games in 2012 (toe), five in ’13 (hamstring/neck), all of ’14 (knee) and battled through multiple concussions and another hamstring issue last season. That background might make this too high a ranking for Lee, but he is such a dynamic defensive weapon when available. The Cowboys’ decision to move him from the middle to the weak side last season, in part to accommodate Ronaldo McClain, paid off in the form of a career-high 128 tackles. More than that (given how flawed the tackles statistic is), playing Lee outside helped keep him free to play a chase-and-tackle role as opposed to having to knock heads in the trenches. His coverage skills remained at an elite level, too.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 3: Anthony Barr
Moments after the Vikings picked Barr No. 9 overall in 2014, I wrote, “In the perfect scenario, Barr develops into a three-down player that has as much sideline-to-sideline ability as any linebacker in the league.” Turns out the Vikings knew what they were doing with that pick, because that’s more or less exactly what has gone down. In just two years time, Barr has emerged as an irreplaceable cornerstone in Mike Zimmer’s defense. As was the case when he was racking up 23.5 sacks over the 2012 and ’13 seasons for UCLA, Barr can be disruptive as a blitzer (3.5 sacks and 12 hurries last season). But he is far, far more than a one-trick pony—Pro Football Focus graded him out as the NFL’s top pass-rushing 4–3 linebacker, the third-best in coverage and above average against the run. His development has been swift and impressive.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 2: Lavonte David
David tweeted through it when Tampa Bay fired Lovie Smith in January: “This is stupid, we can’t even have a consistent coach,” he wrote, moments later adding, “Outside looking in, y’all wouldn’t even understand how great of a coach/person he is.” Can’t blame him for being frustrated by another change at the top, but he could stand to benefit from the Smith-for-Dirk Koetter (and defensive coordinator Mike Smith) switch. While David turned it on over the second half of 2015, he never looked as comfortable under Lovie Smith as he did during his brilliant, All-Pro seasons of 2013, with Greg Schiano at the helm. On his game, David is a free-flowing missile and a standout playmaker in all phases. Despite a sluggish beginning last season, David still earned himself a Pro Bowl trip with three picks, 3.0 sacks, 19 pass breakups and nearly 150 tackles. Few defenders—not just linebackers—can cover the amount of ground David can while arriving with force.
The NFL’s best outside linebackers, No. 1: Jamie Collins
Quite simply, Collins is one of the most versatile front-seven defenders in football. To wit: The NFL Network’s Willie McGinest (slight homer alert here) recently named Collins one of the game’s top 3–4 linebackers, even though the Patriots don’t really play a 3–4. And he’s on this list, despite the Patriots not truly being a 4–3 team either. Bill Belichick’s defense spends most of its time—upwards of 75%—in two-linebacker, nickel looks. Collins’s ability to play just about anywhere, though, is a key both to that 4–2 setup and New England’s ability to match up with opposing offenses. The 2013 second-round pick finished last season with 89 tackles, six pass breakups, 5.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception. He also played 100% of the Patriots’ snaps, save for the games he missed due to a viral illness. The Patriots shipped out Chandler Jones this off-season, in theory, to help them lock up Collins long-term. He’s worth the investment.