The top 10 linebackers in the NFL
10. Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos
Even though Johnson is a big linebacker by today’s standards and superb playing the run, don’t get the misconception that he is just a heavy downhill thumper, although he certainly is that. Johnson is an athlete that can run. He has star qualities, was one of the best finds in the last few years by any NFL team, and the linebacker position is extremely important in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme.
9. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
Cunningham covers a lot of ground and is known as a very good coverage linebacker. But he played the run exceptionally well last year too. He is taller than most players at his position and has a very long linear body type that he uses well. Cunningham is coming into his own and with his talent, might continue to get better.
8. Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Vander Esch has the rare throwback-like size for the linebacker position but can still cover slot receivers and athletic tight ends downfield. Unfortunately, he only played nine games in his second season, so overall, Vander Esch’s stock dropped a little from a year ago.
But, in reality, there is no reason to question that he will be an excellent player and maybe much more. Also, expect Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to get more blitzing opportunities with Mike Nolan taking over as Dallas’ defensive coordinator. That suits Vander Esch well.
7. Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys took a chance on Smith after his horrific knee injury that took place in his final college game. They did this even knowing that it would take time before Smith even had a chance at a full recovery. He might not change directions quite as well as he did pre-injury, but overall, Smith has certainly been athletically impressive in the NFL.
He is very explosive. Coming off his best season as a pro (and he did benefit some from Vander Esch being out of the lineup), Smith keeps improving and is asked to do quite a bit in the Cowboys scheme.
6. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones missed almost the entire 2018 season with injury but returned in a big way for Atlanta last year. Jones has pretty much been an elite coverage player since he entered the league. Jones even lined up at free safety some in 2019! He does miss a tackle or two more than you would prefer, however.
The top 5 linebackers in the NFL
5. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David is amongst the most underrated players of this generation at any position. His body of work falls behind Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, but not by much. David is an elite coverage player for this position and is disruptive all over the field. He’s also a very accomplished blitzer. This 2020 Buccaneers defense could be the best one David has been a part of in Tampa Bay.
4. Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
Davis bounced around a little early in his career but has been a superstar that few talk enough about over the past three years. He gets after the quarterback as well as anyone on this list and dominates vs. the inside run. He makes a lot of plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Davis is also superb in coverage. A late bloomer, Davis is the oldest linebacker in the top 25.
3. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner is one of the elite linebackers over the last decade or so. It is extremely rare to see Wagner miss a tackle, and the angles he takes in the run game and coverage are unmatched. He’s about as fundamentally sound of a player at this position as you will find in the NFL. He also is a great pass rusher from the second level. Oh, Wagner also played more snaps than any linebacker in the league last year, showing no signs of decline.
2. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard has rare diagnostic skills and an elite short area burst to the ball carrier that helps him explode into his would-be blocker. Often considered just a run and hit style linebacker, Leonard excels at the more physical aspects of the position, including rushing the passer. And he still shines like few others in defending the pass.
1. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Kendricks might be the best run defender on this list and wastes no time attacking ball carriers with very few false steps. He also is in contention to be the best linebacker in the NFL when in coverage. Kendricks also affects the game as a blitzer. That doesn’t leave much else! He’s a superstar that not everyone seems to recognize, which is why he is the top linebacker in the NFL on my list.
Matt Williamson is a Senior NFL Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter: @WilliamsonNFL.