- We begin our 2019 position rankings series with a look at the off-ball linebackers, including our top 10 ranking, a discussion of the Patriots approach and the value of new Jets LB C.J. Mosley.
On the Monday Morning NFL Podcast, Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling discuss the state of linebackers across the NFL, and unveil their ranking of the top 10 linebackers in the NFL heading into the 2019 season. Listen and subscribe to The MMQB Monday Morning NFL Podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GARY: I like the fact that the Patriots have these veteran linebackers who are doing a number of things well. You look at Kyle Van Noy, they struggled to find a role for him in Detroit, and now in New England he’s thriving doing a number of different things. I think versatility at the linebacker position—not just getting an athletic guy who can cover and run around—but guys who can serve in a number of different roles. Dont’a Hightower sets the edge, he rushes the passer he plays a traditional linebacker spot. Having those guys allows your scheme to expand so much more, and I think that is key when you get into January football you have so much stuff on tape and there’s so much of your opponent on tape.
ANDY: I agree with that. I think Van Noy was MVP of the Super Bowl and I bet a lot of those Rams guys would agree with that. Van Noy is the everything piece and their defense now, and he’s a touch more athletic than Hightower. Though Hightower is a touch stronger than Van Noy. But, basically, those are their guys that give the texture and the structure to New England’s scheme.
I’m looking at our rankings now it looks like they don’t quite make our top 10, not to spoil it. Anthony Barr did, he would be another big thumping linebacker, but the scheme in Minnesota isn’t built around Barr being a thumper. But you look at our rankings, and it’s a lot of run-and-chase guys.
GARY: I say this, not rudely, but it’s sort of simplified schemes that are that are producing these guys at the top of our ranking.
ANDY: Yeah that could be fair, I guess. But I think the bottom line, the big picture of all this, is linebackers in today’s NFL play in space more than ever before. They have to be able to run because of that. And it’s not just three-receiver sets that they’re facing a lot—though that’s a big part of it—but it’s also spread formations, it’s misdirection stuff, which means the faster you are the better chance you have of recovering against misdirection. Speed is more important than ever linebacker and that's why a lot of these guys are getting smaller but they’re getting faster.
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GARY: Let’s talk about a guy who just became the highest paid linebacker in the NFL and he doesn’t quite fit into this mold. C.J. Mosley isn’t completely unathletic, but he is not on the same tier as most of the guys we'll talk about in our in our rankings. Still, is there something you said a guy like him. He came from such a multiple, complex defense in Baltimore. For lack of a better phrase he gives you a defensive quarterback, someone who basically can get everyone lined up properly. Do we overlook that in this day and age?
ANDY: Yes and no. The other day I was talking to a coach—it wasn’t on the record—but we were talking about linebackers and how you teach them and what they did with their scheme. And I said, Well what if you have a smart veteran middle linebacker, theoretically can you just have him tell everyone else where to line up? And he said yeah, but the problem is if you really want everyone to play it fast, all your guys have to know what they’re doing out there. As a defense, you’re playing on the offense’s tempo a lot of the time. So a guy like Mosley is very valuable because he’s going to help make your scheme multiple, but he’s only as valuable as the coaching staff is good, because everyone’s going to have to know what they’re doing.
You’re right about Mosley. He’s a little bit of a different kind of linebacker—he’s what linebackers were 10 or 15 years ago. I think he runs well but he’s not a fast guy, he’s an efficient player. There were coverages that Baltimore didn’t want to run because Mosley’s vertical speed wasn’t what you desire. But there’s a lot of stuff they could do because Mosley’s lateral speed was excellent, and I think as important as anything—at least with Baltimore’s scheme, we’ll see what Mosley does with the Jets—but as a Raven his physicality and technique were outstanding. The Ravens coaches raved about Mosley’s ability to use his hands.
GARY: Well, we will have Mosley in our top 10 ranking but we’re not going to have his new teammate, Avery Williamson. What do you think that pairing from a chemistry standpoint and in Greg Williams’s scheme?
ANDY: I like it. I think stylistically it works well because Williams is a little bit of a faster player. I don’t recall him having any issues with assignments on a regular basis, so I think he can handle a lot. Tennessee asked him to do a lot of different things—that’s just how Tennessee’s scheme was under Dick LeBeau when Williamson was there. The question when you look at linebackers, is can one of them cover? Because one of them ultimately has to cover. If you’re playing two deep safeties the cover linebacker takes the tight end. If you’re playing one deep safety the coverage linebacker is going to take the running back, and the other linebacker is a free defender or blitzer. You need one guy who can cover. The Bengals, for example, haven’t had guys who can cover—Vontaze Burfict had been their best linebacker and he’s not a cover artist per se. And you saw the effect on that defense over the long haul. Williamson, to me, is the cover guy in the Jets’ equation, even though Mosley is probably the better zone defender of those two.
The MMQB Podcast Top 10 Linebackers for 2019
“Others receiving votes” is included if you listen to the show, along with more linebacker discussions including Bobby Wagner’s next contract, breakout players for the upcoming season, and rankings the best linebacker long-term from the loaded draft class of 2018. Position ranking voting is AP Poll-style among three panelists, with Andy’s votes counting double:
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina, 80 points (3 first-place votes)
2. Bobby Wagner, Seattle, 76
3. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis, 68
4. Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas, 65
5. Deion Jones, Atlanta, 58
(tie)6. Jaylon Smith, Dallas, 56
(tie)6. Roquan Smith, Chicago, 56
8. K.J. Wright, Seattle, 54
9. C.J. Mosley, N.Y. Jets, 48
10. Anthony Barr, Minnesota, 39
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