The top 25 linebackers heading into 2021 are challenging to place. The modern offense (and modern rules) makes the NFL difficult even for the most talented tacklers. Linebacker play has suffered for that reason. Additionally, the importance of pass coverage has taken its toll on the position, as run defenders have been pushed more to the wayside in favor of hybrid players. But not all hope is lost because the top of the position is as versatile and elite as any position in football — it offers a mold for young linebackers to follow into the next generation.
Top 25 linebackers in the NFL for the 2021 season | 25-16
Who are the best linebackers in the National Football League?
25. Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
If you need an example of how poor the landscape is at linebacker, look no further than Leighton Vander Esch. This doesn’t mean that Vander Esch isn’t a talented linebacker. When healthy, Vander Esch played fine despite moving from WILL to MIKE in 2020 and with a different style of fitting the run in Mike Nolan’s defense. However, Vander Esch struggles to stay on the field. His neck caused concerns for teams coming out of Boise State, and it caused him to miss nine games in 2019. A broken collarbone sidelined him for seven contests in 2020.
A 260-pound linebacker shouldn’t move the way Vander Esch does. That physical ability to run and chase makes him one of the top linebackers in the league. He might not ever materialize into what we believed he could be after the 2018 season, but Vander Esch still provides positive play when he’s on the field. A move back to WILL should also improve his play in 2021.
24. K.J. Wright, Free Agent
Wright should not be a free agent. He is still one of the top linebackers in the league heading into 2021. Wright is not a high-end option for a MIKE or WILL role, but as a SAM backer who plays primarily on the line of scrimmage setting the edge, he still valuable.
Wright also plays well as a zone-coverage defender and in man against the more traditional in-line tight end. At 32 years old, he played over 1,000 snaps for the Seahawks last year. Outside of 2018, he’s been one of the most durable players in football.
23. Jerome Baker, Miami Dolphins
Baker was one of the first true hybrid defenders that made that archetype of player a reality in the league. He played a lot in the slot for Ohio State and worked best when out in space. His ability in space is what makes him one of the top linebackers.
The 225-pound linebacker is severely undersized compared to what the traditional mold would ask for, but the versatility he provides makes up for it. Baker owns stellar speed to run and chase, and his ability to take on blocks has improved drastically at the NFL level.
22. Kyle Van Noy, New England Patriots
Van Noy, like Wright, is one of the top linebackers in the game that lines up primarily on the line of scrimmage. His splits between pass rush, coverage, and run defense were nearly identical in 2020 while with the Miami Dolphins. He’ll assume that same role as he transitions back to the New England Patriots. Despite his size, Van Noy is a stout coverage linebacker as well.
21. Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills
Matt Milano’s abilities in pass coverage provide a value in the modern NFL that is greater than that of the old-school thumpers. A pectoral injury hampered his 2020 campaign, but his four-year, $41 million deal is proof the Bills believe in the pairing of him and Tremaine Edmunds for the foreseeable future. It comes as no surprise that Milano’s coverage ability is his strong suit, as the three-down linebacker was a converted safety from Boston College.
20. Bobby Okereke, Indianapolis Colts
Okereke is moving to the MIKE linebacker spot after beginning his career playing the SAM role in Indianapolis. The pairing of Okereke and Darius Leonard makes for what could be a dynamic duo. Okereke’s instincts in coverage make him one of the top linebackers in the league. He possesses elite length, which undoubtedly helps him as a tackler — he’s very solid in that respect.
19. Jayon Brown, Tennesee Titans
Most football fans might hardly recognize Brown’s name despite being one of the top linebackers in the league heading into 2021. His teammate Rashaan Evans gets most of the publicity given his first-round draft status, but Brown enjoyed the better season in 2020. Brown didn’t produce exceptional athletic numbers coming out of UCLA, but his play speed is far greater than his tests suggest. His ability to change direction and his intelligence in coverage are what make him special.
18. Cory Littleton, Las Vegas Raiders
Littleton struggled in 2020, but so did the rest of the Raiders’ defense. Before moving to Las Vegas from Los Angeles, Little was teetering around as possibly one of the top 10 linebackers in the game. In 2020, however, Littleton started missing tackles he’d never missed before and looked out of place at times in coverage, which was one of his strengths coming into the season. Hopefully, 2021 yields results truer to his prior form, or he could fall off this list entirely heading into 2022.
17. Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
It’s difficult to knock a player who didn’t play in 2020. Even though Hightower is over 30, he took a year off from the physical pounding the game leaves on the body. Expect to see the same physical dominance coming downhill against the run we’ve grown used to seeing from one of the top linebackers in the NFL. He’s the perfect combination of pass rusher and off-ball linebacker the Patriots love to employ.
16. Alexander Johnson, Denver Broncos
Johnson’s rise as one of the top linebackers in football in 2021 is a complicated situation. Johnson was a star player at Tennessee. Yet, some severe off-field concerns sidelined him from 2014 until 2019, when he exploded onto the scene for the Broncos. He’s more of a downhill thumper than we’re used to seeing in the modern game. On the other hand, that does not mean he struggles in coverage.