While the 2021 NFL season is still a few months away, it’s never too early to look ahead. Fanbases will argue day and night about who has the better team. Instead of debating the entire roster, why not debate positions? In the eighth part of a 12-part series, I will rank each team’s linebacker position. These rankings are a culmination of what the player has done over the entirety of their career, how they performed last season, and projecting how they will play this upcoming season.
Be sure to check out all of Moran’s NFL Positional Rankings.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Similar to edge, the Buccaneers’ linebacker duo is the best in the NFL. Lavonte David has been a great Buccaneer for a long time. He was key for them winning the Super Bowl and re-signing him this offseason was a great move. Devin White is entering his third season with the team. He did some great things last season and has tremendous speed and ability as a blitzer. David and White should continue their top-caliber play this season.
2. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers made two great draft picks over the last few years. Fred Warner is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL. Dre Greenlaw has had a very good start in his first two years. Warner and Greenlaw are very close to David and White as the best duo. Both have speed and will be a big part of the reason the 49ers’ defense remains one of the best in the NFL. Azeez Al-Shaair should get more reps this season, too, so it will be interesting to see what he provides. These three should make for a successful linebacker group.
3. Denver Broncos
The Broncos have a very good one-two punch at linebacker with Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has become one of the best at the position in football. Jewell is a solid player who took a big step forward in his progression last season. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, look for him to keep improving. In the draft, the Broncos selected Baron Browning in the third round. Browning has a special athletic ability which gives him great potential. In his rookie year, he should have a role. This group should be amongst the league’s best.
4. Buffalo Bills
Tremaine Edmunds is still a very young player and entering his fourth season. He is a physical specimen who just has to play more consistently. His size and speed give him the chance to be dominant. In the offseason, the Bills made a smart move to re-sign Matt Milano. Milano is a rare type of talent with a coverage ability that the Bills had to keep. Moving forward, Milano has to remain healthy as he can be amongst the best in the league. Edmunds and Milano are going into their fourth season together and make a very formidable tandem. The Bills also have a good third linebacker in A.J. Klein, who should have a role against the run. This trio will have a productive 2021.
5. Las Vegas Raiders
Last offseason, the Raiders addressed a dire need at linebacker. The team signed two solid players in Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. This offseason, the Raiders retained Nicholas Morrow, who is coming off his best season, one in which he played well. Littleton, Kwiatkoski, and Morrow will all have a big role in this defense and are a top trio in the league. In the draft, the Raiders selected Divine Deablo. He will likely be a hybrid linebacker given his experience as a safety. His role within this defense will be a fascinating one to watch.
6. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have one of the best players at the linebacker position in football, Darius Leonard. Over his first three seasons, Leonard has been a key difference-maker for the Colts’ defense. He makes plays all over the field and will keep the Colts’ defense toward the top of the league this season. Meanwhile, in his third year, Bobby Okereke should have a bigger role. He has the talent needed to be a good player. Leonard and Okereke are still in their early years as players and have the potential to be impactful for this defense.
7. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have invested a good amount into the linebacker position. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were two early picks for them. It would be great for the Cowboys if they could both get back to the level they played on in 2018. This offseason, they added three players to the group. In free agency, they signed Keanu Neal, who has familiarity with the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn. Then, in the draft, their first-round selection was Micah Parsons. In the fourth round, they snagged Jabril Cox. This group of linebackers has a ton of possible contributors.
8. Chicago Bears
Roquan Smith has turned into a great football player for the Bears. He is coming off an incredible season of production and should keep improving as he trends toward the top of the league at the linebacker position. Danny Trevathan is a player who has flown under the radar most of his career. Trevathan has done great things in the league and is still capable of executing well. Going into 2021, Smith and Trevathan are one of the best one-two punches at the position.
9. Minnesota Vikings
A healthy Eric Kendricks this season will help the Vikings drastically. Kendricks has been one of the best for many years. Expect him to pick back up at the level he has shown. Anthony Barr is a good player who will be counted upon. It will be interesting to see how he performs this season. In the draft, the Vikings added Chazz Surratt. Surratt should help the second level of the Vikings defense in coverage. These three should have a very good season.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers
Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and Vince Williams are a good group of linebackers heading into the season. Bush was a recent first-round draft pick with a lot of ability, and he should take a big leap in his third season. Spillane had an opportunity last season and showed some promising things; he should keep an integral role. Williams, who can help against the run, has been with the Steelers for a long time now.
11. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have two very good linebackers in Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun. Jones and Oluokun should have successful seasons on a Falcons defense that currently has concerns elsewhere. Jones has made a great impact since the Falcons drafted him in 2016. Last season, Oluokun started to show what he could contribute. Both have good second-level speed and should make for a strong tandem this year.
12. New England Patriots
This season, the Patriots will be getting back Dont’a Hightower after he opted out of last season. The team also brought Kyle Van Noy back after he left for one year. They are older but can still help the Patriots’ defense after some struggles last season. Ja’Whaun Bentley provides good depth. In free agency, Raekwon McMillan was added.
13. Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner is now entering his 10th season with the Seahawks. Wagner, who has had a special career, is still one of the better linebackers in football. On a Seahawks’ defense loaded with concerns, Wagner should remain a staple even later on in his career. Last year, the Seahawks selected Jordyn Brooks in the first round of the draft. He should take on a sizable role in 2021.
14. New Orleans Saints
Since he signed with the Saints as a free agent in 2018, Demario Davis has been a top linebacker in the NFL. Once again, expect Davis to have a stellar year in 2021. He should make plays for the Saints’ defense all over the field. Over the last two drafts, the Saints have spent mid-round picks on linebackers Zack Baun and Pete Werner. In his second season, Baun should have more playing time. As a rookie, Werner is likely to have a chance to contribute to this defense.
15. Miami Dolphins
Recently, the Dolphins extended one of their best players, Jerome Baker, who has developed nicely into a complete football player. He makes things happen in a multitude of ways for the Dolphins’ defense. This offseason, the Dolphins also acquired Benardrick McKinney. He has had a very solid career to this point and should help the Dolphins’ defense against the run. Elandon Roberts and Duke Riley add depth to the unit.
16. Tennessee Titans
In free agency, the Titans re-signed Jayon Brown who will be back for his fifth year with the team. Expect Brown to bounce back this season and play good football. He has proven he can be very impactful and has the talent. Rashaan Evans is entering a pivotal year as a former first-round draft pick. David Long Jr. showed some good things last season when he got opportunities. Finally, rookie Monty Rice provides depth and could carve out a role.
17. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have a very exciting, young player in second-year linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. As a rookie, Murray showed some great playmaking ability on the second level. In his second pro season, expect Murray to continue to improve. Drue Tranquill will be back healthy and should have an integral role within this new defensive scheme, too. Kyzir White will be a factor with his versatility.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars
Heading into the 2021 season, the Jaguars have multiple linebackers capable of contributing. Now entering his sixth season with the team is Myles Jack. Jack has demonstrated great things throughout his first five years in the league. Last offseason, the team added Joe Schobert, who is a talented player in his prime years. Jack and Schobert make for a good second-level duo. Leon Jacobs is a third linebacker who could help this group.
19. New York Giants
Last offseason, the Giants made an awesome free agent signing in Blake Martinez. He had the best year of his career and was making plays all over the field for the Giants. Entering 2021, Martinez is one of the Giants’ best players. However, after Martinez there is a great unknown. Reggie Ragland was signed this offseason and could help against the run. Devante Downs could earn a role. In the draft last year, the Giants selected Tae Crowder and Carter Coughlin.
20. Carolina Panthers
Shaq Thompson has been with the Panthers for a while now. He has been a good football player and is talented and still capable of getting the job done for Carolina. In free agency, the team acquired Denzel Perryman. When healthy, Perryman has shown he can be a very solid contributor. Hopefully, he is available and can help this defense.
21. Cleveland Browns
Over the last three drafts, the Browns have invested a ton of capital into the linebacker position. In 2019, they selected Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson. Last year, they drafted Jacob Phillips. In this year’s draft, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields II were picked. There is a ton of youth and talent here. Now, a few of these players must step up, play good football, and bolster this Browns defense.
22. Detroit Lions
Jamie Collins will be counted on for this Lions defense. He has had his ups and downs to this point in his career but can be very effective. In the draft, the team added a very exciting prospect in Derrick Barnes. Barnes plays extremely hard and provides versatility. Jahlani Tavai was a recent second-round selection who needs to prove himself this season.
23. New York Jets
The Jets will finally get C.J. Mosley on the field this season. This is exciting for the Jets’ defense as Mosley is still a very smart and talented football player who will help. The Jets also signed Jarrad Davis, a former first-round draft pick with talent. Hopefully, being utilized the right way will lead to his best football. In the draft, the Jets selected Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Both Sherwood and Nasirildeen were safeties in college who will be making a change to linebacker.
24. Arizona Cardinals
In the first round of the last two drafts, the Cardinals have selected a pair of versatile players in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins. Last season, Simmons did not get many opportunities. Expect that to change this year. Collins, meanwhile, should have a role right away. It will be interesting to see how they play. As of now, Jordan Hicks is still with the team and capable of contributing.
25. Washington Football Team
Washington addressed one of the few needs they had on defense in the first round of the draft. They added an exciting prospect in Jamin Davis. Anticipate Davis having a sizable role on this already great defense right away. Jonathan Bostic is a solid player on the second level for Washington who will be relied on. Cole Holcomb should have opportunities to contribute as well.
26. Houston Texans
Zach Cunningham is a great player for the Texans. He is entering his fourth season and should continue to be very impactful on this defense. After Cunningham, there are a ton of players who could end up taking reps. The team drafted Garret Wallow and his speedy profile. Wallow should earn snaps early on. In free agency, the Texans added a plethora of veteran players. Out of Christian Kirksey, Neville Hewitt, Joe Thomas, Tae Davis, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Kevin Pierre-Louis, it will be interesting to see who ends up making the team and earning a job.
27. Baltimore Ravens
In the draft last year, the Ravens selected two linebackers. In the first round, they added Patrick Queen. As a rookie, Queen had some great moments but some bad plays as well. Queen possesses the needed traits to become a great player while still being very young. Meanwhile, in the 2021 draft, Malik Harrison was selected. Harrison is a big linebacker who did not have too big of a role in his rookie year. This season, that should change.
28. Kansas City Chiefs
Anthony Hitchens is the most established of this group for the Chiefs. Over the last two drafts, the Chiefs have spent second-round picks on linebackers Willie Gay and Nick Bolton. Entering his second year, Gay should see more snaps. Bolton is an exciting rookie prospect, too, and he should have a role right away. It will be interesting to see what the duties for Ben Niemann will look like.
29. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have a few young linebackers who could carve out roles as this position is a weaker one on the team. Second-year players Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin will likely be the two who see the most amount of reps. Recently, the team did add De’Vondre Campbell, who provides versatility. Rookie sixth-round draft pick Isaiah McDuffie will provide depth.
30. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles do not enter the 2021 season with a great linebacker core. Hopefully, T.J. Edwards can become a reliable player on this defense. Late in free agency, the team added Eric Wilson. Wilson brings speed and can help in the passing game as a coverage linebacker. In the draft, the Eagles selected JaCoby Stevens. Like many nowadays, Stevens will be making the move from safety to linebacker.
31. Los Angeles Rams
Going into the year, it will be interesting to see who starts for the Rams at linebacker. Last season, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, and Micah Kiser were all utilized at certain points. Out of these three, at least one will need to step up. In the draft, the Rams addressed this need by selecting Ernest Jones. Jones should get a very good chance to make an immediate impact on the best defense from a year ago.
32. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals’ current group of linebackers is a huge unknown. It will be important for second-year players Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither to improve in their development. Germaine Pratt should have a big role in this defense. The depth at linebacker for the Bengals comes from Markus Bailey and Jordan Evans. Hopefully, two players from this group can become consistent contributors.
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