The role of the off-ball linebacker in the modern NFL is one of the more fascinating positions to contemplate.
Are they a dying breed? At first blush one might think so. Last season, like other seasons before it, 11 offensive personnel was the predominant offensive package, as teams combined to run with three wide receivers on 60% of all offensive snaps in 2020. That has led to a rise of sub packages on the defensive side of the football, as defensive coordinators turn to nickel and dime packages to get more defensive backs onto the field.
But history has told us that football is a game of cycles, and often what is old becomes new again. Some offenses have started moving in a different direction, relying more on 12 or 21 personnel. Minnesota, New England, San Francisco, Cleveland and Tennessee are such examples. And as coordinators from those organizations move on to new teams — such as Arthur Smith now moving to Atlanta — that philosophy could spread.
Which could see the importance of the off-ball linebacker increase in the years to come, as defenses adjust once more.
While we wait for that day, here’s a look at the best in the game today.
Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
I'm guessing the initial reactions to this ranking will be as follows: "He did not play at all last season!?" "Didn't I read that he was going to retire!?" This is just a New England homer pick, isn't it!?" Well, let me just answer as follows. Yes, he opted out. No, he was not going to retire and he addressed those rumors on Tuesday. Perhaps, but with reason. Dont'a Hightower did opt-out last season, and one could make the case that the regression we saw from the Patriots' defense a year ago was due in large part to his absence. One could also make the case that Hightower should have anywhere from one to three Super Bowl MVP trophies on his mantle. After all, it was his play that set the stage for New England's comeback against the Atlanta Falcons, as well as his defensive effort in pressuring Jared Goff early and often in Super Bowl LIII. Oh, and the Malcolm Butler interception? It was Hightower's stop of Marshawn Lynch on a previous goal-play -- with a torn labrum in his shoulder no less -- that set the stage for that moment. With Hightower's return to the middle of the Patriots defense, you can expect that unit to perform at a higher level in 2021.
Blake Martinez, New York Giants
(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
New York Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham deserves a ton of credit for how well his unit performed last season. Graham implemented some creative pressure schemes with sub packages to put opposing quarterbacks under duress while creating a numbers advantage in the secondary. We have already outlined what cornerback James Bradberry offered in the secondary, but part of this unit's success hinged on what linebacker Blake Martinez offered up front. For example, you'll see in this video how his athleticism, combined with these sub packages, worked to pressure opposing passers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jr4C3zV0kCk Martinez also took a step forward in the coverage game, as his NFL passer rating when targeted of 82.6 was a career-best number for him. With the additions made up front in the draft, and the continued strength in the secondary, Martinez and the Giants defense should be in position for another solid season.
Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Based off his incredible post-season run alone, Devin White of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers merits inclusion on the list of the game's top linebackers. In wins over the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, White notched 11, 15 and 12 tackles respectively, for a three-game total of 38. Only Ray Lewis in 2012 and Dan Morgan back in 2003 had a better run of games in the post-season. But White's impact goes beyond a single three-game stretch. Together with Lavonte David these two make up the NFL's best linebacker tandem, and White's ability to get to the football and pressure the passer is a huge complement to David's abilities. Last season White notched nine sacks and a whopping 16 quarterback hurries. While his coverage skills are not an absolute strength of his, he had two of his best games in coverage in the post-season, allowing an NFL passer rating of just 32.5 against the Saints in the Divisional Round, and an NFL passer rating of just 53.2 when targeted in the Super Bowl.
Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
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Perhaps it took a year or two longer than Chicago Bears fans were hoping, but Roquan Smith looked every bit the top-flight linebacker prospect he was back in 2018 when the organization selected him with the eighth pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The Butkus Award-winning LB flashed his athleticism throughout the 2020 campaign, both in coverage and against the run. This clip illustrates his nose for the ball in the run game, as captured by Matt Bowen of ESPN: https://twitter.com/MattBowen41/status/1328761910804832257 But his biggest growth has come in the coverage part of the game. Dating back to his days at Georgia his athleticism allowed him to make plays at all levels of the field, but now he is adding patient zone technique to his game, as he did on this interception against Jacksonville: https://twitter.com/robertkschmitz/status/1344433052458622979 Bears fans are hoping that their offense takes flight under Justin Fields, who spent some time of his own with the Bulldogs. But on the defensive side of the ball another Georgia alum has the second level of the defense locked down for the next few seasons at least.
Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
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Last year was not the best season for the Atlanta Falcons, and that includes linebacker Deion Jones. But even as the team was struggling Jones found ways to impact the game and continue his growth as a linebacker. He set career-high marks with five sacks, six quarterback hits and eight QB hurries, as the Falcons tried to find ways to consistently pressure the opposing passer. Jones also has great man and zone coverage skills for a linebacker, as we saw back in 2019. While he was picked on a bit more in coverage last season -- he allowed an NFL passer rating of 103.8 when targeted, the worst number of his career -- he still notched a pair of interceptions and three pass breakups. If his coverage numbers return to form, he'll appear even higher on lists like this next summer.
Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
After bouncing around between the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns, Demario Davis has found a steady home in New Orleans with the Saints. That has translated into the best football of his career over the past three seasons. 2020 was yet another solid campaign for Davis in the heart of the Saints defense, as he set a career-high mark in quarterback pressures with 22. These two videos highlight what he brings to the table. In the first play you'll see him identify the run scheme and get to the ball-carrier behind the ine of scrimmage: https://twitter.com/MattBowen41/status/1313922636884443137 In this clip, you'll see those pass rushing numbers come to life as he gets to Aaron Rodgers for the sack: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1310377252723421184 Obviously change is in the air in the Big Easy with the retirement of Drew Brees, but the Saints still have their defensive QB in place with Davis returning to the fold.
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
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Since coming into the league in 2018 Darius Leonard has been one of the NFL's most consistent performers at the linebacker position. Leonard is a force against the run, has the ability to put pressure on opposing passers when tasked with blitz responsibilities, and can handle the zone and man coverage responsibilities asked of linebackers in today's game. On this play against the Jacksonville Jaguars you see that ability to get to the opposing quarterback and be a disruptive force in the pocket: https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1345854384614244352 And if you have the awareness to read and react to everyone's favorite play, even better: https://twitter.com/VeveJones007/status/1400148709002731522 The scary part? Leonard might just be getting started, and he remains motivated to continually refine his craft. The best could still be ahead.
Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
To be an impact off-ball linebacker in today's NFL you need to cover in the passing game. Minnesota Vikings LB Eric Kendricks has improved in that facet of the game each and every season he has been in the league. Last year Kendricks did not allow a touchdown pass when targeted in the passing game for the first time, and he posted four pass breakups along with a career-high three interceptions. His NFL passer rating allowed of 60.5 was also the best mark of his career. This interception of Andy Dalton highlighted Kendricks' athleticism, as well as his awareness in zone coverage: https://twitter.com/usatodaynfl/status/1330634641456263169 Kendricks is also solid against the run and gives the Vikings another option in their pressure packages, but his ability to cover in the passing game is a reason why he is one of the best linebackers in the game today.
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Similar to the discussion around teammate Devin White, one needs to just turn on the Super Bowl to see what Lavonte David means to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the runup to Super Bowl LV many wondered how the Buccaneers would try and slow down the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs offense. Part of their answer came with pressuring Patrick Mahomes. But they also found a way to limit tight end Travis Kelce, and David was a huge part of that: https://twitter.com/sblapparelceo/status/1358595461163147265 Kelce still managed to finish the game with ten receptions for 133 yards, but David broke up a few passes intended for the tight end and the Buccaneers managed to keep him out of the end zone. Prior to the big game, David had put together yet another great season in the heart of Tampa Bay's defense. His nine pass breakups were a career high, and his 114 tackles were his most since the 2014 campaign. With the Buccaneers running things back for 2021, and his running mate by his side, there is no reason to expect anything other than another great season in 2021. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/lists/lavonte-david-buccaneers-super-bowl-lv-watching-tape/
Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
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San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner might be the latest case study in the importance of emphasizing what a player can do during his draft process. While at BYU, Warner was used as more of an overhang defender, spending a good number of his snaps during his final year on campus in the slot (336 in the slot compared with 310 in the box and another 150 along the defensive line according to charting data from Pro Football Focus). That led to many wondering what his NFL role could be, causing Warner to slide into the third round. The 49ers are probably thankful for that slide, as Warner is becoming the perfect modern linebacker. His blend of athleticism, coverage skills, ability to pressure the passer and improvement against the run makes him one of the best in the game today. To see how his skill-set translates to today's NFL, you can check out this video from the brilliant Alex Rollins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Vnio6vTn-s Warner's growth as a professional might be a lesson for how linebackers are evaluated in the future, perhaps starting with Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Death, taxes and Bobby Wagner in the heart of the Seattle Seahawks defense. That cliché certainly applies to Wagner, who has been a dominant force for the Seahawks his entire NFL career. 2020 was his ninth NFL season, and he was still putting up some career-best numbers. Pro Football Focus charted Wagner with seven pass breakups, tying a career-high mark set in 2018. He also was credited with 12 quarterback pressures, a career-best number. When you watch him on film remain so consistent against the run, in coverage and when tasked with applying pressure, you'll see why he remains atop lists like this one: https://twitter.com/MattBowen41/status/1329867991492673537