Ranking the NFC West Linebacker Groups
Linebackers have evolved.
Twenty years ago, they were slow 250-pounders. Big guys who had to defend runs between the tackles. Now, linebackers are little guys -- 225-pounders who would have played safety in the 1990s. These days, they play in the box and run sideline to sideline to defend runs outside the tackles, to keep up with modern offenses, which have evolved as well.
Some defenses have phased out linebackers almost entirely, and mostly use five or six defensive backs at a time. Other teams have found quality linebackers who fit the modern game.
Which teams in the NFC West have the best linebackers? Which teams have the worst ones? Let’s rank the linebacker groups from worst to best.
Disclaimer: No pass rushers belong in this list. If a player is an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but primarily rushes the quarterback, he’s a defensive end -- I don’t care what he calls himself. Meaning Chandler Jones of the Cardinals and Leonard Floyd of the Rams do not qualify for this article.
4. The Rams
When I ranked the NFC West cornerback groups, I explained how every team has to skimp on one position because of the salary cap, and the 49ers choose to skimp at cornerback.
The Rams skimp at linebacker.
They consider it the least important position on their team and seem to want the cheapest linebackers imaginable.
Their best linebacker is Samsom Ebukam, who will earn $2.2 million next season. He’s a good outside linebacker who started five games in 2019 and recorded 4.5 sacks. He’s similar to a young Ahmad Brooks.
The Rams starting inside linebackers are Micah Kiser and Kenny Young, both of whom will earn less than $900,000 next season. The Rams might as well pay their inside linebackers by the hour.
Last season, the Rams had an excellent inside linebacker -- Cory Littleton. He recorded 134 tackles, two interceptions and 3.5 sacks. Then he became a free agent, and the Rams let him go. So the Raiders signed him.
The Rams feel they have to skimp on linebackers because they spend big on defensive linemen and cornerbacks. So on passing downs, the Rams frequently will use a Dime defense -- six defensive backs and only one linebacker.
Maybe next season they’ll use a Quarter defense -- seven defensive backs and zero linebackers.
You tell me what their plan is.
3. The Seahawks
The linebacker evolution began in Seattle. Pete Carroll understood the need for speed over brawn at the position, and showed the rest of the league how to scout modern linebackers 10 years ago. Showed 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who was a defensive quality control coach in Seattle from 2011 to 2013, then became the linebackers coach for the Jaguars from 2014 to 2016, and now is one of the best linebacker scouts in the world. More on Saleh later.
For years, Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Last season, they combined to record 291 tackles. But they have slowed down. Wagner will be 30 in June, and Wright will be 31 in July. They don’t cover as much ground as they used to.
You can gauge linebackers’ speed by the way they defend short passes from zone coverage. The Seahawks play lots of zone, just like the 49ers. And when an opposing quarterback throws a short checkdown pass to a running back or a tight end against the Seahawks, Wagner and Wright have to swarm to the ball carrier and bring him down fast.
Last season, the Seahawks were among the worst in the league at defending tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The Seahawks gave up 1,267 receiving yards to tight ends, and a whopping 9.2 yards per catch to running backs. Meaning every check down averaged nearly a first down. Unacceptable.
What’s more, the Seahawks gave up 4.9 yards per carry (28th-most out of 32 teams) and a whopping 22 rushing touchdowns (third most in the NFL). They need new linebackers -- that’s why they drafted Jordyn Brooks in Round 1 this year.
Good start. Now they need two more.
2. The Cardinals
The Cardinals revamped their linebackers this offseason. They signed De’Vondre Campbell and drafted Isaiah Simmons. Those two will join Jordan Hicks, a solid middle linebacker who recorded 150 tackles last season.
Campbell is another solid linebacker -- he played for the Falcons the past few seasons. He has more gas in the tank than Wagner or Wright.
Simmons was the eighth pick in the draft. He’s a freak who can cover the most athletic running backs and tight ends in the NFL, which is perfect for the Cardinals, because they gave up 16 touchdown catches to tight ends in 2019. Now, Simmons gives them someone who can match up with George Kittle and Travis Kelce.
Meaning Simmons is the perfect modern linebacker. He should drastically improve a Cardinals defense that ranked dead last in 2019.
1. The 49ers
The 49ers do not skimp at linebacker. They value it more than anything on the defense other than the defensive line, probably because Saleh used to coach linebackers.
The 49ers have one of the best linebacker trios in the league, thanks to Saleh. He has helped Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw develop into two young studs.
The 49ers signed Kwon Alexander away from the Buccaneers in 2019, and he still misses lots of tackles -- Saleh hasn’t fixed that part of Alexander’s game yet. But Alexander improves the 49ers’ pass coverage.
When Saleh first became the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 2017, a mere checkdown to a running back would gain 11 or 12 yards against the 49ers, because their linebackers were so slow. I’m looking at you, NaVorro Bowman.
But since then, Saleh has put together an incredibly fast group of linebackers. And in 2019, the 49ers gave up just 5.8 yards per catch to opposing running backs, and only 8.5 yards per catch to opposing tight ends.
As if Saleh’s stock couldn’t climb any higher.
He is the linebacker guru. The 49ers are lucky to have him.