Ranking each NFL team's linebackers has been difficult. As you can see, there is an obvious first tier of teams, groups with elite players from edge to edge. Only the most partisan of fans would drop any of those teams out of the five or six best.
Things get murkier from there. There are some very good linebackers shoved in with some questionable talent around them. Other factors, most notably the timeless chestnut of a 3-4 versus a 4-3 defense, weigh into the rankings.
The position is mostly an anonymous one, save for the pass rushers and a few super-star middle linebackers. Every time I re-read this list, I struggle with the tendency to reorder it, especially the middle 15 spots or so, which tells me we should probably turn it over to the readers for further sorting and a healthy debate. Let us know in the comments what we got right, and what we got wrong.
Safety Rankings: Steelers Have Top Safeties In NFL
One thing about these rankings, they drive home just how loaded the 49ers are on defense. Patrick Willis alone is the kind of player that can make a unit elite. Willis overshadows another Pro Bowl inside linebacker in Navorro Bowman, who is just 24 years old. If Aldon Smith can keep from getting stabbed, he has the makings of a top-tier pass rusher. Keeping Ahmad Brooks from getting away in free agency rounds out a loaded unit.
Whatever anti-aging potion the Ravens are giving their players, I want some. Ray Lewis, at 36, was one of the most productive linebackers in the game last season. Jameel McClain is a solid presence on the outside. Baltimore added Courtney Upshaw to its rotation this season, and like Terrell Suggs, he will likely split his time between OLB and defensive end.
When James Harrison is not being suspended for sneezing in church, he is an essential part of a Steelers linebacking corps that includes marquee names like Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley.
Sure, we had our fun at the expense of Washington's secondary, but defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's linebackers are nothing to snicker about. London Fletcher is yet another ageless wonder in the NFL. Brian Orakpo, as you may have heard, is no slouch. Ryan Kerrigan had an incredible rookie season.
Anthony Spencer has been an effective all-around outside linebacker. DeMarcus Ware is their top defender. Sean Lee emerged as a very good inside linebacker last season, and the addition of free agent Dan Connor rounds out a fearsome bunch.
You can include Derrick Johnson among the league's elite inside linebackers, right up there with household names like Willis and Lewis. Tamba Hali deserves similar praise for his work on the outside. Jovan Belcher has been a nice pairing with Johnson in the middle.
If you forgot that Denver had other linebackers besides Von Miller, you can be forgiven. His first season in the NFL was incredible. Joe Mays is an underrated two-down player on the inside. Nate Irving's range should get him more playing time this season. D.J. Williams' pending suspension and his playbook gaffe make you wonder about his long-term future with the team.
You can be forgiven for overlooking the Jaguars' defense. They paid handsomely last spring for Paul Posluszny, but it was worth it. Daryl Smith is a classic example of a very good outside linebacker who plays well in coverage and against the run, but gets lost in the media because he is not a pass rusher. He led all outside linebackers with 63 stops last season.
Few teams could allow a player like Mario Williams to jet in free agency and not be overly concerned about the loss. The Texans are one of those teams, who have every reason to feel good about a group of linebackers that includes young cornerstones Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing.
10. Chicago Bears
34-year-old Brian Urlacher wants to keep playing beyond this season, and given some of the other super star linebackers in their mid thirties, there is no reason to think he has to hang it up anytime soon. It will be interesting to see if he tests free agency next season. Lance Briggs is showing no signs of slowing down either.
Cornerback Rankings: Jets, Ravens Top The List
All of Green Bay's linebackers had a down year in 2011, and they will need to rebound for the team to contend again this year. Clay Matthews obviously leads this group, and the addition of rookie pass rusher Nick Perry helps. On the inside, Desmond Bishop has been very good since taking over as a starter on the inside in 2010. A.J. Hawk has never lived up to his lofty draft status, but has been mostly effective.
The Panthers may not have done enough to address needs in the secondary or up front, but their linebackers should be very good this season. That made Luke Kuechly a surprise pick in the first round. Still, nobody doubts his talent, and he looks to have the middle linebacker job sewn up already. A healthy Jon Beason would help considerably. James Anderson will start on the strong side.
Free agent addition Jarret Johnson established himself as one of the better run defenders in the league with the Ravens, but he adds nothing as a pass rusher. For that, San Diego is pinning their hopes on first-round pick Melvin Ingram. Shaun Phillips had 11 sacks in 2010, but injuries and other factors limited him to three and a half last year. Donald Butler, who started for the first time last season, did a nice job on the inside, assisted by veteran Takeo Spikes.
14. Detroit Lions
Detroit was smart not to let Stephen Tulloch get away this spring. Justin Durant is a good player on the outside. Injuries pushed former Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis to the seventh round, but he has the talent to grow into a contributor if he can stay healthy. DeAndre Levy, the other starter, could play better than he has.
Minnesota has two of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the league right now with Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. The later graded out as the third best run stopper among 4-3 outside linebackers last season according to Pro Football Focus. Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley missed June minicamp, and after missing all of last season, his injuries are a concern. Tyrone McKenzie, a Tampa castoff, is Brinkley's backup.
Too bad Jonathan Vilma can't sue to get his playing ability back. Since the Saints' Super Bowl season, Vilma has not been an effective linebacker. Barring some judicial miracle, he will watch the season from the sidelines. Luckily the Saints replaced Vilma with Curtis Lofton, who should be entering the prime of his career. New Orleans also added a solid linebacker in David Hawthorne, who will man the weakside.
17. New York Jets
New York was wise to get David Harris a contract extension last year, keeping the 28 year old as the anchor of its defense through 2014. Bart Scott is weighed down by his hefty contract, and could be playing somewhere else next season. Calvin Pace rebounded from an injury-plagued 2010, but did not have much of a knack for getting to the passer, which the Jets really needed last year. This is a solid group of players, but one that probably explains why the Jets will do much of their pass rushing out of a four-man front.
As bad as New England's defense was last season, it would have been much worse without its linebackers. Jerod Mayo was often the only player capable of stopping the run. If Brandon Spikes could stay healthy, the sky is the limit. Dont'a Hightower was a great addition in the draft.
Manny Lawson re-signed after proving the Bengals right on a one-year deal in 2011. He was better off in a 4-3 system. Thomas Howard also returns for a second season with the Bengals, handling duties on the weak side. Rey Maualuga had a down season last year, missing some time with an ankle injury. A thumper in the middle, he has some extra motivation to rebound in the final year of his rookie contract.
Arizona has a centerpiece player in Daryl Washington. Sam Acho, a fourth-round pick, looked like a draft day steal with seven sacks last season. Stewart Bradley was a huge bust as a free agent, and the linebackers around Washington are questionable.
21. New York Giants
The Giants managed to get by pretty well with the linebackers they had. The addition of Keith Rivers upgrades the depth. Michael Boley is a solid starter on the weakside. Mathias Kiwanuka is their best linebacker. The biggest question mark is Chase Blackburn, who will start in the middle. A career reserve, he played well once he got healthy.
22. Miami Dolphins
The Phins' ranking suffers a little because Cameron Wake goes from outside linebacker to defensive end as the team shifts to a four-man front. They still have a solid middle linebacker in Karlos Dansby. Kevin Burnett bumps out to the weakside, and Koa Misi needs to rebound from a down year as the starter opposite Burnett.
23. Atlanta Falcons
Weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is another example of a good player who goes unnoticed because he plays in a 4-3 system. The Falcons will regret letting Curtis Lofton get away. Lofa Tatupu is not an equivalent replacement, setting up a golden opportunity for Akeem Dent.
24. Seattle Seahawks
Rookie second-round pick Bobby Wagner has been handed middle linebacker duties. Barrett Ruud will back him up. K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill have the outside spots covered and give the defense more than enough confidence with their ability. I was still a little shocked Seattle let David Hawthorne get away.
25. Buffalo Bills
Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard played well as a rookie last season, enough to give the Bills some hope after letting Posluszny get away last year. Nick Barnett more than holds his own on the weakside. Injuries limited Kirk Morrison last season, but he has an early lock on the strongside role.
26. Cleveland Browns
D'Qwell Jackson graded out as one of the ten best inside linebackers last season, according to Pro Football Focus. It was enough to get him a six-year, $42.5 million extension during a buyer's market for linebackers. As for who will play outside of Jackson, rookie James Michael-Johnson could claim one of the spots while Scott Fujita is suspended for three games. Chris Gocong will man the other side.
27. Tennessee Titans
Veteran Will Witherspoon, on the weak side, leads a pair of second-year players. Colin McCarthy took over the starting middle linebacker job late in the season, and the results have the Titans looking forward to his second season. Akeem Ayers started as a rookie last season too, on the strong side. Both he and McCarthy could be in for good season in 2012.
28. St. Louis Rams
The Rams' inability to provide middle linebacker James Laurinaitis with any help is criminal. This season they will try again, under a new coaching staff, with veterans Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan.
Probably the worst group of linebackers last year, the Eagles made a smart move dealing for DeMeco Ryans. Second-round pick Mychal Kendricks was one of the more talented linebacker prospects in the draft this year. Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney round out the depth chart after above average results last season.
30. Oakland Raiders
Middle linebacker Rolando McClain might not be playing much this season, given his assault conviction. Expectations crushed Aaron Curry, the fourth overall pick in 2009, with Seattle. He continues his weakside role that he took over after Oakland acquired him last year. Travis Goethel might be the most important player of the bunch if McClain is out for an extended period of time.
The Colts are moving to a 3-4 this season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will make the switch to outside linebacker, giving Indianapolis pass rushers. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer gave the team plenty to hopeful about last season. Kavell Conner might be better off on the inside. Jerry Hughes will move from end to outside linebacker, but his ceiling appears to be mediocrity.
Right now, this group looks like it could struggle in 2012. Mason Foster had a rough introduction to the NFL last year, and is penciled in as their starting middle linebacker. Rookie Lavonte David will start on the weakside. Strongside backer Quincy Black is the veteran of the group.