In today's NFL, few positions have become as difficult to play as off-ball linebacker. Over the past decade, virtually every stage of the offensive evolution has increased stress on linebackers, putting them in a bind and asking them to account for multiple things on the same play.
The transition from college football to the NFL used to be smooth for linebackers, but even elite prospects can now struggle in Year 1. Even Micah Parsons — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate as a rookie — put up middling run-defense and tackling grades in his first year in Dallas.
Consequently, the list of consistently elite players is far shorter than for other positions, and there is much more volatility in this position group.
Tier 1: The Elite Few
1. FRED WARNER, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2. DARIUS LEONARD, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
3. DEMARIO DAVIS, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
4. ERIC KENDRICKS, MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The best linebackers in today’s league are elite coverage players, but they can also affect the game in other ways. Warner had a transformative effect on the 49ers defense when he became the starter. And even though he hasn’t quite been able to maintain an elite level of play every season, his impact on the field is obvious.
Leonard is another example of how hard it is to earn those elite PFF grades each season, but he is a turnover machine when he is at his best. Since 2020, the Colts linebacker has twice the number of forced fumbles of any other off-ball linebacker, and he has four interceptions and eight pass breakups over that time.
Kendricks is one of the game’s best coverage linebackers, able to consistently squeeze throwing lanes and make plays on the ball once it’s in the air. And Davis has been outstanding in all areas since moving to the New Orleans defense.
Tier 2: The Aging Elite
5. BOBBY WAGNER, LOS ANGELES RAMS
6. LAVONTE DAVID, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
One can make the case that both Wagner and David are still as good as it gets at the linebacker position despite getting up there in age, but each player is coming off a relative down year by their standards, which always brings up the looming specter of decline. David’s 72.3 overall PFF grade is the lowest mark he has posted in a single season since 2016, and Wagner’s 71.8 was his lowest since 2015.
While those grades aren’t poor, by any stretch, they are a notable step down from these players' excellent career baselines and some way short of their elite best. Wagner gets a new opportunity on a new team with a lot more talent around him this season, so there is good reason to suspect that his grade might bounce back. Meanwhile, David will have to get it there himself, given that the Bucs defense wasn’t exactly bereft of talent last season.
Tier 3: Whatever Micah Parsons is
7. Micah Parsons, DALLAS COWBOYS
Parsons is already one of the best defensive playmakers in the NFL as he enters just his second season in the league, but it’s difficult to rank him purely as an off-the-ball linebacker. Parsons lined up as an edge rusher on 40.6% of his snaps as a rookie, and that’s where he did the bulk of his damage. He was good as a true linebacker, but his ability to play two different roles on any given snap made him special and provided a hybrid ability that caused problems for offenses.
That flexibility is tremendously valuable to the Dallas defense, but Parsons could take his game to another level if he shows development off the ball in Year 2.
Tier 4: One-year wonder
8. DE’VONDRE CAMPBELL, GREEN BAY PACKERS
Perhaps no player better sums up the volatility of linebacker play than the newly minted All-Pro, De'Vondre Campbell. His first season in Green Bay produced an overall PFF grade of 85.0 and earned him a $50 million extension, but before that, Campbell’s PFF grades fell between 49.0 and 69.1 for two different teams. It had been three full seasons since his best play, and that best play was nowhere near elite.
Campbell is a one-year wonder at the moment, but that year was All-Pro caliber and the most recent thing we have seen from him. He, perhaps critically, chose to stay in the defense that helped produce that phenomenal season, but we are all too aware of the folly of using just one season of play to determine everything we know about a player.
Campbell’s ranking could justifiably be at the very top of this list or somewhere in the 30s, based on his career so far.
Tier 5: Best of the rest
9. ALEXANDER JOHNSON, DENVER BRONCOS
10. MATT MILANO, BUFFALO BILLS
11. ZACH CUNNINGHAM, TENNESSEE TITANS
12. SHAQ THOMPSON, CAROLINA PANTHERS
Johnson got off to an unusually late start to his NFL career and has battled injuries, but he has been an excellent linebacker when he has been on the field.
Milano was a fifth-round draft pick back in 2017 but has dramatically outperformed his first-round teammate, Tremaine Edmunds, within the Buffalo defense. Milano has put up outstanding PFF grades in both coverage and against the run but has struggled to put it all together over one season.
Cunningham is one of the most run-focused linebackers in the game, but his PFF coverage grade has declined throughout his career, dripping from average at best to outright poor over the last two seasons.
Thompson was back to his best in coverage this past season, posting a 74.5 PFF grade in that area, his best mark since his sophomore season.
Tier 6: Young Ascending
13. JEREMIAH OWUSU-KORAMOAH, CLEVELAND BROWNS
14. ROQUAN SMITH, CHICAGO BEARS
15. NICK BOLTON, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
16. JORDYN BROOKS, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
17. DAVID LONG, TENNESSEE TITANS
18. T.J. EDWARDS, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
19. COLE HOLCOMB, WASHINGTON COMMANDERS
20. AZEEZ AL-SHAAIR, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
21. LOGAN WILSON, CINCINNATI BENGALS
For all the young players' struggles, there are a lot of promising linebackers who have the talent to become elite players at this level. We have already seen that play from Smith in Chicago, but the decline of the defense around him — and perhaps more importantly directly in front of him — has led to a decline in his play. His PFF run-defense grade over the last two seasons has been in the 30s, and last season’s 47.1 overall grade was the worst of his NFL career.
Edwards has shown that as much as linebacker is one of the most athletic-traits-driven positions in football, prospects with marginal physical tools can still become solid NFL starters. Those tools caused Edwards to go undrafted despite an excellent college career, and he had to fight his way into a starting job by excelling in the preseason and on special teams. He is a fantastic story of earning a job the hard way.
Wilson showed in the playoffs that he could finally have answered a real problem area for the Cincinnati Bengals, showing up with multiple excellent PFF game grades and making plays in coverage.
Tier 7: Run-Stuffers
22. JOSEY JEWELL, DENVER BRONCOS
23. DENZEL PERRYMAN, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
The league may be trending ever more toward the passing game, but there is still a place in the NFL for linebackers who are excellent run defenders first and foremost. Perryman has been the embodiment of that in his NFL career, to the point where he was often kept off the field on passing downs. His 913 snaps for the Raiders last season was a career-high mark and more than doubled his previous best.
Jewell is actually more of an all-around linebacker, but run defense has been his best area in the NFL. Another player without elite physical tools, Jewell reads the game very quickly and is consistently in the right place at the right time against the run.
Tier 8: Roller-Coaster Ride
24. BLAKE MARTINEZ, NEW YORK GIANTS
25. DEION JONES, ATLANTA FALCONS
26. FOYESADE OLUOKUN, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
27. JAMIE COLLINS, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
28. MYLES JACK, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Some of the players in this group have been All-Pro caliber linebackers in the past, but Jones is coming off a PFF grade in the 30s after once looking like the next great young linebacker in the league. The Falcons defense has fallen apart around him, and he no longer has a free run to the football as often as he did when he was playing his best football.
Jack is now trying to reboot his career in Pittsburgh after suffering similar ill-fortune in Jacksonville. We have seen elite play from the seventh-year pro, but we've not nearly seen enough of it, given his physical talents.
The Jaguars replaced Jack with Oluokun, who also has outstanding physical traits. Those traits have allowed him to make a lot of tackles, but tackles are not always good plays for linebackers if they come after a big gain on the ground or because they were out of position in coverage. Oluokun is coming off a PFF run-defense grade of 44.0 and a coverage grade of 54.4. He allowed 81.0% of passes thrown his way to be caught and missed 17 tackles in all.
Tier 9: Grades best in coverage:
29. JAYON BROWN, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
30. KYLE VAN NOY, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
31. ANTHONY WALKER, CLEVELAND BROWNS
32. KYZIR WHITE, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
There are also linebackers who are at their best in coverage, which is useful for today’s NFL. Van Noy also has the complicating factor of being one of the multiple linebackers who only seems to function at a high level within the New England Patriots defense. This is bizarrely true even when he moves to a defense run by a former New England defensive coach. Van Noy has now had stints in Detroit and Miami, but his good PFF grades are almost exclusively reserved for his time in the Patriots defense.
Walker had a career year for the Browns in 2021, and his 78.2 PFF coverage grade was the highest of his career.