Who are the top 25 off the ball linebackers in the NFL? In this list, we take a look at players who make their living on the second level of the defense – the ones who “back the line.” Now, obviously, in today’s NFL, these second-level players will blitz, play a variety of coverages and align all over the defense, but for the most part, they handle the middle of the field.
Once again, rookies were not included in these ranks, but there has been an impressive influx of young linebackers entering the league in recent years that could be primed for a breakout. As a reactionary position that requires great recognition and processing, you can see why very young linebackers can struggle a bit as they get their feet under them in the NFL. Here are the best 25 linebackers in the NFL heading into the 2020 season.
Top 25 linebackers in the NFL heading into the 2020 season
25. Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans
McKinney is a thumper and a leader. But he is also pretty much a throwback player at this position in that he is much better vs. the run (mostly between the tackles) than the pass and is primarily a downhill player. His play is also starting to slip a little, but overall, McKinney still impacts the game.
24. Joe Schobert, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Cleveland Browns could miss Schobert a great deal, and his addition at middle linebacker could make Jacksonville better in two spots with Myles Jack (who has the talent to join this list next year) now going to his more natural Will linebacker spot. Schobert is a powerful tackler that reads underneath routes very well. He is a productive player that could benefit his new team.
23. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
One of the most unheralded linebackers in the league, Milano is much better vs. the pass than the run, but his prowess in coverage allows the Bills to play a lot of snaps with extra defensive backs on the field. His role in Buffalo’s excellent defense keeps growing, and next to Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills now have one of the NFL’s best pair of linebackers.
22. CJ Mosley, New York Jets
Mosley almost didn’t make this list since he is sitting out the season. Compounding the problem of where to rank him is that he has done nothing in a Jets uniform after New York gave him a ton of money ($51 million guaranteed!) to pry him away from the Ravens. But the last we saw Mosley, albeit in 2018, was an exceptional overall player who made a lot of big plays.
21. Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Like a few other high pedigree very young linebackers that have entered the league in the last few years, it is all in the future for White. His recognition left something to be desired early in the year, but he began to get a feel for the NFL as the season went on, and surely Lavonte David was a very good influence on White.
20. Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
Smith still has work to do in terms of getting to the quarterback, but he has quickly developed into a very potent run defender. His best football absolutely should be ahead of him. The young linebacker for the Chicago Bears is extremely gifted and has every attribute you look for at this position. He should put it all together very soon, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have Eddie Goldman protecting him this year. But unfortunately, Goldman opted out.
19. Devin Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bush is the youngest player listed here and should have a great future continuing the Steelers’ amazing tradition at the linebacker position. He played very well as a rookie, but he did miss a few tackles and could use more work as a zone coverage player. That said, Bush has great traits, including his ability to read and react.
18. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks
Wright has been a rock of consistency for Pete Carroll’s Seahawks going back to the Legion of Boom days. Once again, Wright logged a high number of snaps in a very reliable manner on this Seahawks defense. He is the second oldest player on this list.
Linebackers Ranked 17-11
17. Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
It’s too bad that New England won’t have Hightower’s services this year since he decided to opt-out. This guy is a thumper though that does great work coming downhill. He is one of the only off the ball defenders that will often align at the edge position and rush the passer. But if you get Hightower in coverage playing in space, he isn’t nearly as effective.
16. Jamie Collins, Detroit Lions
As is often the case in a Bill Belichick defense, Collins was asked to do many things with the Patriots, and the same will be true in Detroit under Matt Patricia. But few linebackers in this scheme have truly been as versatile and gifted as Collins, who seems to be coming into his own.
Collins can blitz very well up the middle and align on the edge and beat offensive tackles. He’s a great moveable chess piece, but there is also an inconsistency to Collins game that probably is here to stay.
15. Kyle Van Noy, Miami Dolphins
Van Noy is an extremely solid all-around football player. He does great work aligned on the line of scrimmage or off the ball. He can rush the passer. He can play the run. He can cover quite well for a bigger-bodied linebacker. Miami paid him well to help bring the Patriots culture to his new team. But they also paid him well because Van Noy is very good at what he does.
14. Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans
Brown remains somewhat of an unknown by far too many right now. His play has been under the radar. But his play for Tennessee has also been exceptional. Brown has great quickness and movement skills, but Brown’s best attribute is his overall ability in coverage. It is time that he gets recognized.
13. Cory Littleton, Las Vegas Raiders
This is an outstanding acquisition for Las Vegas. With his great athletic ability and coverage skills, Littleton never leaves the field and should make what has been a weak spot for the Raiders a strength now. Littleton isn’t physically imposing, but he’s still a great tackler. He’s the modern-day every-down linebacker.
12. Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Warner played the second most snaps of any linebacker in the NFL in 2019. He was all over the field in San Francisco’s great defense and quickly turned into a top coverage player at this position. He has star potential.
11. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Prediction: At some point in the semi-near future, Edmunds will own the very top spot on this list. Only Devin Bush is younger than Edmunds on this list, but no one is as naturally gifted as Edmunds.
His size, length, ability to eat up ground with his long strides, overall explosiveness, change of direction, and natural hip snap is a very rare combination. Right now, Edmunds is better against the pass than the run, but that is precisely what you want at this stage of his very young career.