NFL News & Analysis

2022 NFL linebacker unit rankings: San Francisco 49ers claim the top spot, Seattle Seahawks crack the top 10

Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) lines up over Green Bay Packers center Josh Myers (71) during the first quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the most volatile position in football, linebackers have seen their worth in the NFL fluctuate over the years. With that said, an elite linebacker does make a defense better — there just aren’t that many of them in the league at this moment.

After ranking the best individual linebackers heading into 2022, here's how each team's linebacking corps stacks up.

For the purposes of these rankings, we are looking only at true off-ball linebackers, as 3-4 outside linebackers — though designated as linebackers — are in truth edge rushers. Therefore, they are included in our defensive line rankings despite dropping into coverage at times. With that in mind, some of these units have fewer members than others.

1. San Francisco 49ers

It’s hard to overstate Fred Warner‘s effect on the 49ers' defense in their run to the NFC championship in 2021. Amid replacement-level cornerback and safety play at times, Warner's gravitas over the middle of the field allowed the team to play a high percentage of zone coverage to protect its outside cornerbacks. His elite run-stopping ability was on display against the Packers in the divisional round, too.

After missing most of the regular season, Dre Greenlaw came back for the end of the regular season and playoffs to form the perfect linebacker tandem with Warner. 

2. Indianapolis Colts

While Bobby Okereke’s grade has fluctuated over the years, Darius Leonard — the star of the Colts' defense — has been rock solid since exploding onto the scene as a rookie. He has yet to post a sub-70.0 grade, with three out of his four years coming in above 78.0. Okereke is a solid stand-in next to Leonard. He put forth a monster rookie season in 2019 but hasn’t quite attained the same highs in subsequent seasons. 

3. New Orleans Saints

Still one of the more underrated players in the league, Demario Davis has been the heartbeat of one of the league's best defenses over the past five seasons. He’s great at every aspect of linebacker play. The Saints had been looking for someone to play the linebacker position opposite him for years and seem to have found one in Pete Werner, who was outstanding as a rookie in 2021. Only Micah Parsons graded out higher than Werner among first-year linebackers last season.

4. Green Bay Packers

This is a precarious spot for the Packers to be in, even with 2021 All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell back for another season in the same defense he broke out with. Across the three years prior to joining Green Bay, Campbell hadn’t earned a grade higher than 56.6 in any season. His first year with the Packers resulted in a whopping 85.0 mark. He was everything for the Green Bay defense, and while he might be the next linebacker to rejuvenate his career with a new team (à la Demario Davis), he very well could also be a one-hit wonder. Drafting Quay Walker out of Georgia in the first round also helps the Packers' cause. 

5. Minnesota Vikings

In Eric Kendricks, the Vikings have had a superb all-around linebacker for years. Kendricks' grade did falter in 2021 — a 59.9 mark that was down from 82.6 and 90.1 the past two years, respectively. A new defensive coordinator and scheme will help him, though. The Vikings also brought in the underrated Jordan Hicks from the Cardinals in free agency. 

6. Dallas Cowboys

Micah Parsons is one of the best young talents in the league, but he does split his time between off-ball linebacker and edge rusher, where he's at his best work. He was not as good a coverage or run-stopping linebacker as he was as a pass rusher, but his talent makes you think he will figure it out shortly. Leighton Vander Esch has not lived up to the hype he created for himself after a monstrous rookie season, and so we may see another linebacker eventually fill in for him. 

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is a case of one elite linebacker pulling along another whose narrative hasn’t really matched his production. Lavonte David has been one of the best linebackers in the league for almost a decade, whereas teammate Devin White has not graded above the 51.9 mark he attained as a rookie. David also just put forth his worst season since 2016, posting a 72.3 grade. That's still a very good grade, but there should be concerns about his age and a potential decline going forward. 

8. Seattle Seahawks

This ranking may be a surprise after the Seahawks lost future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner in free agency this offseason, but Wagner seemed to be on the downslope of his career. Jordyn Brooks is an ascending star who will get more snaps this year. Cody Barton is another interesting player who will finally get a chance to start this season. 

9. Kansas City Chiefs

A position of concern and potential weakness heading into last season has become a real strength for Kansas City. Nick Bolton and Willie Gay are two young linebackers who came on strong last season. Bolton, then a rookie, produced one of the highest individual grades for a linebacker. Gay hasn’t graded as well but possesses the characteristics to become a top linebacker. 

10. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams attacked the linebacker position this offseason, adding Bobby Wagner. Although Wagner might be on the downswing of a great career, this unit could push for a top-five spot by the season's end if he rebounds after a poor 2021. Still, it’s an interesting group because of Ernest Jones, especially after his very good Super Bowl performance as he came back from an injury-plagued season. He’s a high-upside player now playing with a future Hall of Famer. 

11. Carolina Panthers

This group could rank much higher by the end of next season. Shaq Thompson is a bona fide star, and he may be playing alongside a diamond-in-the-rough partner in Frankie Luvu. One of the five highest-graded linebackers last season in his first year with Carolina, Luvu is another “Demario Davis trajectory” candidate. 

12. Cleveland Browns

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah put together a great rookie season transitioning from more of an out-of-the-box linebacker at Notre Dame to an in-box linebacker. He subsequently graded out to 76.5 in his first season. He is set to play next to Anthony Walker, who is a solid if unspectacular player. 

13. Cincinnati Bengals

Like the Chiefs, the Bengals also went into last season with a lot of unknowns surrounding the linebacker position but found a really good pair in Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt. Both players posted the highest grades of their career, helping the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance. 

14. Buffalo Bills

Tremaine Edmunds has not quite lived up to expectations, but he’s still young and can grow into a good player. Edmunds is just 24 years old and entering his fifth NFL season. He pairs with the solid Matt Milano, who posted the second-best season grade of his career (67.0) in 2021. 

15. Philadelphia Eagles

A position of weakness for the Eagles in 2021 might turn into a position of strength in 2022 with the additions of rookie Nakobe Dean and veteran Kyzir White to pair alongside T.J. Edwards, who had a breakout 2021 season. Edwards has posted 75.0 grades or better in two of his three NFL seasons and is one of the more underrated players in the league.

16. Tennessee Titans

Zach Cunningham, if nothing else, stops the run. He’s aggressive, has a quick trigger and finds the ball carrier. He’s not great in other facets, but stopping the run is still an important aspect of the position. David Long, meanwhile, was playing at a solid level before an injury forced him to miss most of the second half of the 2021 season. 

17. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are still looking for that breakout year from Patrick Queen after two subpar seasons. He at least improved upon his 29.7 grade as a rookie with a 43.5 mark in Year 2. Next to him is the underrated Josh Bynes, who returned to Baltimore in 2021 after one season in Cincinnati. In 2019 and 2021 with the Ravens, he graded out to 80.0 and 74.8, respectively. 

18. Chicago Bears

Roquan Smith has had an up-and-down NFL career so far, and the team will be hoping he can bounce back from a 47.1 grade last season. His past two years against the run have been horrid, with him posting 39.8 and 30.0 run-defense grades. Chicago signed Nicholas Morrow from Las Vegas to fill the spot next to Smith for 2022.

19. New England Patriots

No linebacker corps gets its collective noses dirtier than the Patriots' unit. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a hard-nosed player like his counterpart Mack Wilson. Losing Kyle Van Noy, the highest-graded coverage linebacker in 2021, will hurt. 

20. Denver Broncos

Denver let Alexander Johnson walk in free agency, which depleted this unit. Josey Jewell and Jonas Griffith should be the starters, with free agent signing Alex Singleton looking for snaps, as well. Jewell missed almost all of 2021 due to injury but is a run-stuffing force when on the field. His 33 run stops in 2020 were a top-10 mark at the position.

21. Pittsburgh Steelers

Devin Bush has not lived up to his draft status as a first-round pick, and 2022 might be his last chance to prove himself at the NFL level. The Steelers brought in former Jaguar Myles Jack to play alongside him. Jack had hovered near 70.0 overall grades before a down 2021 season, and the Steelers will hope that those good years aren’t behind him. 

22. Jacksonville Jaguars

It’s a rebuilt Jaguars linebacking corps after losing Myles Jack to the Steelers. Foyesade Oluokun was brought in from Atlanta, but there is certainly hope that the team's two rookie picks at the position, Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma, can play early. Lloyd, who earned a 90.0-plus grade at Utah in 2021, does look set to start.

23. Las Vegas Raiders

Las Vegas brings in Jayon Brown from the Titans to play alongside Denzel Perryman. Brown has seen his play taper off after a really nice sophomore campaign in 2018 in which he posted an 81.2 grade. He has not graded above 70.0 since. Divine Deablo had some interesting moments as a rookie in 2021 and is worth keeping an eye on.

24. New York Giants

After looking like one of the worst linebackers in the NFL for a few years in Green Bay, Blake Martinez rebounded with a solid season in 2020 in New York before succumbing to injury early in the 2021 campaign. His 75.9 grade two years marked a career high. Tae Crowder and Micah McFadden will look to compete for the spot opposite Martinez. 

25. Miami Dolphins

Elandon Roberts and Jerome Baker are average linebackers who have just one 70.0-plus season grade among their 10 combined years in the NFL. The scheme plays a part in them making some plays. There is hope that Channing Tindall, Miami's rookie linebacker out of Georgia, can find his way on the field. 

26. New York Jets

After sitting out in 2020, C.J. Mosley endured the worst-graded season of his NFL career. That 42.0 mark was his first time dropping below 70.0 since 2015. He had been one of the more consistent players at the position in the NFL, and so there’s a chance he regains his form.

27. Washington Commanders

Cole Holcomb could yet turn into a solid linebacker, while 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis could also improve after a poor first season. There are a lot of unknowns in this group due to inexperience.

28. Detroit Lions

Alex Anzalone and Chris Board are two depth players who start for the Lions. Anzalone has always shown promise but is probably better coming off the bench, especially after finishing with a bottom-10 overall grade among 94 qualifying linebackers in 2021.

29. Los Angeles Chargers

Los Angeles' overall defense is so good, at least on paper, that it might not matter who plays linebacker. But in a vacuum, Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray are just not good enough players. Murray surrendered a near-perfect passer rating into his coverage in 2021, allowing 14 catches on 15 targets for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

30. Arizona Cardinals

A lot is riding on the development of Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons, who have simply not played well enough — especially for first-round picks. If the Cardinals had spent those picks elsewhere and held on to Jordan Hicks in free agency, they would be in a much better spot. 

31. Houston Texans

Much of this unit's potential lies with third-round rookie Christian Harris, who managed 34 run stops at Alabama in 2021 (tied for 36th among 374 qualifying FBS linebackers). Christian Kirksey has not had a season of note since 2016 with the Browns, yet he projects as a starter in this defense once again.

32. Atlanta Falcons

After looking like he might be the next great linebacker earlier in his career, Deion Jones‘ play has fallen off a cliff. He might not even start this season. Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker are solid players, though, and the team will hope that rookie Troy Andersen can make an early impact. 

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