Linebacker play at the NFL level isn’t what it once was. The days of Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, and especially Zach Thomas, are over. Now, the best linebackers in the NFL resemble Darren Woodson more than Dick Butkus.
In fact, we are beginning to see teams deploy more safeties on the field at a time, and over the course of a season, than linebackers. As the passing game becomes more and more prevalent, coverage takes priority. So 215-pound safeties standing 6’2″ are patrolling the box instead of 240-pound linebackers.
The best in the league are well-rounded defenders who flash the brightest in coverage, but do more than simply survive against the run as well. But as the position becomes further devalued, more specialists end up making this list.
Note: “Linebackers” whose primary responsibility is to rush the passer will not be on this list. They are in the EDGE category.
Who’s the Best Linebacker in the NFL?
San Francisco 49ers LB Fred Warner is the best linebacker in the NFL, and it would be one heck of an argument to convince most people otherwise. The former BYU Cougar immediately shined for the 49ers. He was properly billed as an outstanding coverage defender, but there were run-defense concerns.
Those concerns quickly faded into the ether, and Warner quite quickly became one of the best linebackers in the league. Entering Year 6, there is no denying his superstardom.
If you want you be an elite NFL linebacker, you must be able to “run the pole.” There’s been a Tampa 2 renaissance at the NFL level, and linebackers are most often responsible for carrying any route up the seam. Nobody can do that quite like Fred Warner. His range was on full display as he ran stride for stride with CeeDee Lamb in their playoff victory against Dallas.
But while other linebackers are safety converts who are outstanding in coverage, none meet Warner’s talents on the back end, and they don’t hold a candle to his ability against the run.
While he’d rather slip-and-slide his way around climbing linemen than take them on face-to-face, he’s able to stack and shed at a level no other defender of his ilk can.
Rest of the Top 10 Linebackers Ranked
2) Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like tight ends, linebackers often take time to develop at the NFL level. Many of the best linebackers in the league are on the wrong end of 30, and that’s because to be an elite linebacker, you must be an elite processor, which typically only develops with time and repetition.
Obviously, nobody takes exception to a linebacker who runs a 4.40. But while a 4.4 and a 4.8 seem worlds away when discussing speed, from a reactionary perspective it’s practically instantaneous. If a LB does not understand what he sees, a half-second delay negates any athletic advantage they hold.
David is still a great athlete, but his ability to consistently be in the right place at the right time while also trying to wrangle the wild tiger that aligns beside him makes him one of the best in the game.
3) Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
Demario Davis was a late bloomer in New Orleans. And while some of his success is likely due to the Saints ability to consistently find productive bodies on the defensive interior, the plays he makes independent of his environment land him so high on the list.
When it comes to defending the middle of the field from crossers and spot routes, few have a quicker trigger than Davis. And alongside his ability to patrol the middle comes the ability to cover ground and carry backs and tight ends toward the sideline. With match-zone concepts becoming the norm, reading and reacting to route combinations is key, and Davis is always in the right place at the right time.
4) Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
Matt Milano flew under the radar for a long time because of Tremaine Edmunds, but only one of them remains in Buffalo, and it isn’t the former first-round pick. Milano is the best example the league has of a safety convert. It took time to develop consistency in the box as a linebacker, but his production has become undeniable.
He flew under the radar for a while because of the draft status and expectations for Tremaine Edmunds, but Milano’s ability has been undeniable over the past two seasons. Because of his background, he has always been a good coverage defender. He possesses great reactionary athleticism to mirror tight ends and running backs in man coverage while sacrificing very little physically against the run.
Covering at the second level provides a different challenge than in the slot or as a more traditionally aligned safety. But Milano’s reactionary athleticism allows him to mirror tight ends in man coverage and effortlessly carry backs out of the backfield.
5) Shaquille Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
If there’s a rabid dog on the list, Shaquille Leonard would be it. He is Xavien Howard in linebacker form. He’s arguably the best playmaker at his position in the entire league, but consistency keeps him from gracing the top of lists, even though he has three First-Team All-Pro nods in his five NFL seasons.
Ball production has won him All-Pro status. Voters look at the interceptions, forced fumbles, and sacks, of which there are many. But they don’t see lulls in performance and missed opportunities either.
6) Roquan Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Linebackers are like tomatoes. They need help to produce. Roquon Smith’s dipping production in Chicago coincided with their inability to field a competent defensive front. When he got to Baltimore, everything changed. He improved his own play, and the Ravens’ defense rose from the ashes like a great phoenix.
Smith was selected eighth overall in the 2018 NFL Draft because he was like the missile playing the position at Georgia.
“The missile knows where it is at all times. It knows this because it knows where it isn’t. By subtracting where it is from where it isn’t, or where it isn’t from where it is (whichever is greater), it obtains a difference, or deviation. The guidance subsystem uses deviations to generate corrective commands to drive the missile from a position where it is to a position where it isn’t, and arriving at a position where it wasn’t, it now is.”
Like Leonard, Smith is prone to taking chances and making some mistakes. But he has the playmaking chops to round into a top-five linebacker in the NFL with a bit more seasoning.
7) Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner has undeniably lost a step with age. But in 2022 the Los Angeles Rams found creative ways to maximize his strengths while hiding his flaws, and it landed him yet another All-Pro nod from voters. While his second-team nod in 2021 while still with Seattle was a legacy selection, he earned it in 2022.
He is still able to get his hands into passing lanes as a zone coverage defender, and a season ago he proved to be an excellent blitzer. How Seattle deploys him will likely be the deciding factor in whether he can remain high on this list or if he’ll go tumbling down.
8) Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco 49ers
Smith and Patrick Queen may be more explosive, but no LB combo in the NFL has more range than Warner and Dre Greenlaw. Greenlaw is another converted safety who shines against the pass, and their tandem ability helps erase the middle of the field in San Francisco.
They’re relatively interchangeable in coverage as well, which allowed DeMeco Ryans, and will allow Steve Wilks, freedom to be variable. Although the two aren’t as physically imposing as Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were, 49ers fans should get flashbacks to that time when watching their current duo.
9) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns
Many pegged Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as LB1 during the 2021 NFL Draft cycle. In case you forgot, former off-ball linebacker and built-in-a-lab defender Micah Parsons was also in that class.
“JOK” fell in the NFL Draft due to knee and size concerns. His slot-majority deployment while at Notre Dame probably didn’t help much, either. But none of that has carried over to be concerning at the NFL level.
He’ll never stack and shed blockers like a traditional MIKE LB, but he is endlessly slippery and his explosiveness and natural agility are an outright weapon versus blockers.
10) Nick Bolton, Kansas City Chiefs
It’s time to stop pretending that Nick Bolton isn’t one of the best linebackers in the NFL. His lackluster athletic testing turned a player with first-round tape into a second-round steal. And like Creed Humphrey later in that same round, the NFL made a grave mistake by letting Bolton fall to a dynastic Chiefs team.
Bolton has an instantaneous mental trigger and while many play more East-West, Bolton comes downhill and slices through blockers to make contact at the line of scrimmage. He is a natural-born playmaker against the run, but he also provides value in the passing game because of his coverage intelligence. And he’s far from a bad athlete!
Linebacker Rankings | 11-32
11) Eric Kendricks, Los Angeles Chargers
It’s not time to give up on Eric Kendricks just yet. The veteran linebacker, just two years ago, still looked like the second-best coverage linebacker in the NFL. Although the Minnesota defense was a struggle in 2022, and Kendricks wasn’t as productive, new scenery and warmer weather in Los Angeles may be good for his aging bones.
12) Bobby Okereke, New York Giants
Bobby Okereke was already shining before having to take on the lead role for the Indianapolis Colts. Now, with Wink Martindale in New York, Okereke should be able to showcase every single bit of his versatile abilities.
13) Tremaine Edmunds, Chicago Bears
If you were to build a linebacker in a lab, they would look like Tremaine Edmunds. It’s amazing to think that he’s played five NFL seasons and is only 25. He’s continually improving his trigger against the run and has been an adequate coverage defender since entering the league.
14) T.J. Edwards, Chicago Bears
T.J. Edwards’ production in 2022 is likely a product of an unbelievably talented Eagles defensive front. But there’s no denying that he’s a quick processor to click against the run. Edwards is a more traditional-version linebacker than most of the players on this list. He’s not an elite athlete or elite in coverage, but he was good in every aspect last year. Keeping the momentum in Chicago would cement his status.
15) De’Vondre Campbell, Green Bay Packers
De’Vondre Campbell became a first-team All-Pro in 2022 because of the improvements he made as a coverage defender. Joe Barry’s defense struggled a season ago, and that was partially due to Campbell’s absence in the middle of the field.
16) C.J. Mosley, New York Jets
Although C.J. Mosley isn’t 250 pounds, his style is reminiscent of the old days. He is a downhill destroyer who plays with outstanding violence. Mosley’s 51 defensive stops (tackles that matter) in 2022 tied for 15th in the league. The year before, his 60 stops ranked third.
17) Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers
Seeing a No. 7 play as an old-school thumper is a bit of an eyesore to start, but it almost becomes ironically cool the more you see it. If you blink for a second, you’d think he’s a Bill Belichick linebacker. He consistently makes a difference against the run in a way few linebackers in the league can while also surviving in coverage.
18) Logan Wilson, Cincinnati Bengals
Preference is likely the deciding factor between whether on thinks Logan Wilson or Germaine Pratt is the better linebacker on the Cincinnati Bengals roster. And while maybe Wilson simply has a better agent, he earned more guaranteed money in his contract than Pratt did in his.
19) Germaine Pratt, Cincinnati Bengals
Most safety-to-linebacker converts end up being an undersized presence as a LB until they fill out. However, Germaine Pratt was playing safety at NC State at a whopping 230 pounds as a freshman. He and his parter each earned new contracts because of their playing relationship with one another and their all-around games.
20) Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Leighton Vander Esch has now played two incredible seasons as a professional linebacker, with injury-riddled or underwhelming play stacked in between like a sandwich.
Few players stand out more than Vander Esch, who looks like the real-life version of Blue Mountain State legend Thad Castle. At 260 pounds, grown men shouldn’t be able to play in coverage the way LVE does. However, he struggles to climb his way up the list because although he is a sound run defender, he isn’t a playmaker in that arena.
21) Patrick Queen, Baltimore Ravens
Patrick Queen has been on the receiving end of abuse from NFL and Ravens fans since entering the league in 2020 at 21 years old. But he’s been a good young player for Baltimore, despite having the learning curve of all young linebackers at the NFL level.
Additionally, Queen’s proved to be a serviceable blitzer. However, there have been reports that Baltimore could look to trade the young LB.
22) David Long Jr., Miami Dolphins
A downhill, gap-penetrating run defender, David Long Jr. is a throwback. In one-gap situations, few are able to process the run quicker and get downhill faster to make plays at the line. Long provides a proper yang to the yin of his new teammate, who’s more of an undersized coverage linebacker.
23) Frankie Luvu, Carolina Panthers
Although Frankie Luvu’s production comes from his ability as a blitzer, he is an off-ball linebacker and not a rusher by trade. Still, Luvu produced 23 defensive pressures in 2022 and sacked opposing QBs seven times. On a defense that lacked pass-rush upside outside of Brian Burns, that production was invaluable.
24) Willie Gay Jr., Kansas City Chiefs
Willie Gay Jr. and Bolton are probably the most underrated LB duo in the NFL, and it’s likely because they’re simply overshadowed by the other star power on the Super Bowl championship roster.
Gay received disciplinary action for a misdemeanor offense last offseason that cost him four games in 2022. But, in Year 3, he proved to be an athletic playmaker against the run and pass.
25) Foyesade Oluokun, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Yale Bulldog is a lot like an old-school chase-and-tackle LB in a more modern package. Tackles don’t make a good linebacker, but Foyesade Oluokun is the league’s foremost tackle-getter. Nobody has more over the past two seasons, and he’s actually led the league in tackles in each of them.
26) Jerome Baker, Miami Dolphins
Despite Jerome Baker’s diminutive stature for the position, he’s been incredibly reliable for the Miami Dolphins over the course of his five-year career. Baker also continuously improved as a run defender throughout that time, becoming savvier in the way he takes on (or avoids) blocks and how quickly he triggers into his fit responsibility.
27) Ja’Whaun Bentley, New England Patriots
Ja’Whaun Bentley was born to be a New England Patriots linebacker. Belichick has made a career of zigging while the rest of the NFL zags, and that continues today. The rest of the league has gone to the modern undersized coverage LB, while Belichick wants his to be big, strong run defenders. Bentley was born to play that role, and he does it well.
28) Quincy Williams, New York Jets
About now is where we see the quality of LB play begin to dip.
There won’t be many Quincy Williams jerseys coming off the shelves at MetLife Stadium during home games, but he’s turned things around since coming from Jacksonville to New York to play in Robert Saleh’s defense behind his younger brother on the defensive line.
29) Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Devin White is more of a blitzer than he is a true linebacker, but he has value because of his ability to affect opposing passers. Although the uber-athletic former RB was drafted in the top five, he’s never rounded into the kind of linebacker the Buccaneers have needed him to be.
White’s contract situation has become a story, but he doesn’t have a ton of leverage because of his underwhelming play relative to expectations.
30) Cole Holcomb, Washington Commanders
The goatee. The jawline. The mullet. Cole Holcomb looks more like a linebacker than Vander Esch, and he’s practically a clone of Alan Ritchson’s portrayal of Thad Castle, the most talented LB of all time.
Holcomb underwent season-ending foot surgery after Week 7 but had already proven his value as a three-down player over the two prior seasons when he outshined first-round pick, Jamin Davis.
31) Alex Singleton, Denver Broncos
As we’ve moved further down the list, we’ve started seeing more specialized players. While Holcomb is more of a “master of none” type, Alex Singleton is a run defender down to his core. However, he’s not physically gifted enough to be a consistent difference-maker in zone or man coverage.
32) Malcolm Rodriguez, Detroit Lions
Last year, there were several linebackers drafted before Malcolm Rodriguez. But none of them gained the fanfare the fifth-round pick did, and it’s all because of how he was portrayed on Hard Knocks.
Oh, and then he went out and played well as a rookie. The best way to describe Rodriguez is to liken him to a bowling ball. He’s a compact run defender with a tenacious attitude. He’ll likely never become one of the best NFL linebackers, but he could maintain his status on the back half of this list for a long time if he continues thriving behind the Lions’ stout defensive front.