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Ranking NFL’s top linebackers entering 2021: Bobby Wagner retains top spot, Buccaneers boast two in top 10

Here at CBS Sports, we have been ranking the top 10 players in each position group this offseason. After dedicating last week to offense, we have turned our attention to defense. Patrik Walker touched on the cornerbacks earlier this week, Tyler Sullivan ranked the safeties and Jared Dubin took the edge rushers along with interior defensive lineman. Today, we will look at the top linebackers who captain their respective defenses. 

Our top 10 reasoning will primarily focus on 2021 outlook along with how these players performed in 2020. We factor in their abilities as an athlete, a run stopper and of course how well they fare in defending the pass. Another factor will be Sports Reference’s Approximate Value tool, which is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950). We left out veterans like C.J. Mosley and Dont’a Hightower after they opted out last season due to the pandemic, and also left out a couple of tackling monsters such as Blake Martinez and Zach Cunningham. This article is sure to generate good conversation amongst your friends and some angry emails in my inbox, so let’s go ahead and jump in.

Edmunds injured his shoulder in the season opener last year, but rebounded to finish with another impressive campaign. His 119 combined tackles were tied for No. 8 among inside linebackers, and he tied his career high with two sacks. Edmunds, while incredibly athletic, didn’t dominate in coverage, but finished with an Approximate Value (AV) of 9 — which ranked No. 7 among inside linebackers. If we were ranking linebackers just off of last year’s stats, Edmunds probably wouldn’t make our top 10. However, we expect him to take a step forward in 2021. 

Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News noted that Edmunds stood out on the final day of minicamp because of his coverage skills. He reportedly used his 83-inch wingspan to stop Josh Allen from hooking up with Emmanuel Sanders deep down the field, which is something Buffalo Bills fans certainly want to hear. Edmunds is athletic enough to be one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the NFL, and he’s entering his fourth season at just 23 years old! The Bills are a team on the rise, and Edmunds is a player that is doing the same. With the Bills drafting two pass rushers with their first two picks this offseason, I’m excited to see what Edmunds can do moving forward.  

Jones entered the NFL as a top cover linebacker, but his 2020 campaign proved it’s hard to be consistent in that role — especially when you don’t have help around you. His coverage stats looked better in his first two seasons, as Jones recorded six interceptions and 21 passes defended, but he still recorded an AV of 9 in 2020, which was the second-highest of his career. Jones saw more action pressuring the quarterback in 2020, and recorded a career-high 10 quarterback hits and a team-leading 4.5 sacks. He has recorded at least 106 tackles in seasons where he has played in at least 15 games, and has proven to be a well-rounded linebacker open to doing whatever is asked of him. 

Another reason Jones makes this list is because of his playmaking ability — not in just picking off passes, but with what he does after recording an interception. No linebacker has recorded more interceptions (11) than he has since entering the NFL in 2016, and he also has two more touchdowns than any other linebacker during that same time span. He recorded 84 return yards off of two picks in 2020, and had 165 yards in his rookie season to go along with two touchdowns. He is averaging one touchdown per season. That’s pretty impressive for a linebacker. 

Some thought Davis may have reached his apex at age 30 with his inaugural All-Pro selection, but he didn’t regress in 2021. The former third-round pick out of Arkansas State recorded 119 combined tackles, four sacks and earned an AV of 14 — which ranked fifth among linebackers. Davis may have been a late bloomer, but he has evolved into the leader of what has been one of the best defenses over the past few years. He doesn’t miss tackles much, is solid in coverage, and knows how to read and react to movement quickly. He has also played a couple of different positions in New Orleans’ scheme, and has done so well. 

After Smith burst onto the NFL scene with 121 combined tackles in 2018, he took a bit of a step backward in 2019. Thankfully, he returned to form in 2020 with a career year. His 139 combined tackles ranked No. 5 among inside linebackers, his four sacks ranked No. 3 and he led all inside linebackers with 18 tackles for loss. He also ranked third with a career-high seven passes defended. He’s still waiting on that first Pro Bowl selection, but Smith was named an All-Pro in 2020. 

According to the Bears’ official website, Smith was the only player to record at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two interceptions last season. He also intercepted two passes in Week 16, which made him the first Bears linebacker to record two picks in a game since Lance Briggs did so in 2008. He’s a star in the making, and last year confirmed that. His AV of 15 was tied for second among all inside linebackers in 2020. 

White was an absolute monster in his second NFL season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His 140 combined tackles ranked fourth in the NFL among inside linebackers, his nine sacks ranked first, his 15 tackles for loss ranked second and his 16 quarterback hits ranked first. His AV of 15 was also tied for second in the league. While White missed Tampa Bay’s first postseason matchup against Washington, he still recorded 38 combined tackles, two interceptions and recovered two fumbles in three playoff games. 

Only four players have recorded over 200 tackles and at least 10 sacks in their first two seasons (since sacks became an official stat in 1982), and White is one of them. Just 23 years old, White is an emerging star in this league — and he’s not the only Buccaneers inside linebacker on this list. 

David has spent his entire career with the Buccaneers, and his production hasn’t slowed down at age 31. In 2020, he recorded 117 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 12 tackles for loss. In nine seasons, he has failed to record 100 combined tackles just once! While the Bucs picked up legendary quarterback Tom Brady last offseason, it was David who captained Tampa Bay’s defense through the postseason. In his first four playoff games, he recorded 26 combined tackles, one sack and four passes defended while playing every defensive snap possible.  

David suffered through terrible seasons with the Buccaneers, but remained motivated and showed up when he finally got the chance at a Super Bowl. Only one NFL player has recorded more tackles than David in the last decade, and he’s found later on in this list. Additionally, according to PFF, only three linebackers have earned a coverage grade of 80.0-plus while seeing at least 90 targets since 2011. David has done it twice in the last two seasons. 

Leonard’s rookie season in 2018 was unforgettable, as the South Carolina State product led the NFL with 163 combined tackles and also ranked in the top 10 among rookies in tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions and forced fumbles. In 2019, Leonard missed three games due to a concussion, but still recorded 121 combined tackles, a career-high five interceptions and seven tackles for loss — which warranted his first Pro Bowl bid. Leonard earned his second All-Pro honor in 2021 after racking up 132 combined tackles and three sacks to go along with seven passes defensed. He proved in his first NFL season that he was one of the best linebackers in the game, and our opinion has not changed. 

Linebackers who can cover extremely well help their defenses in a big way, and Kendricks is one of the best. He has the highest PFF Grade (90.6) of all linebackers since 2019, and was tied for first among all linebackers in interceptions last year with a career-high three picks despite missing five games. Even with missed time, he still recorded 107 combined tackles, as he is an important piece in stopping the run as well. According to Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune, the Vikings gave up at least 390 yards in four of their final five games last season with Kendricks out due to injury, and allowed 463 rushing yards in back-to-back losses to the Bears and Saints

No linebacker has recorded more passes defended over the past five seasons than Kendricks. Now back healthy, expect him to have another huge season in 2021. According to the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s star linebacker had three big plays in pass coverage during the second day of the Vikings’ mandatory minicamp earlier this month that were worth writing about. 

We went back and forth on whether Warner should be the top linebacker on our list, but we ultimately landed at No. 2. Warner was a player we ranked at No. 9 last year, saying that he was flying under the radar since he was part of a talented defense. He’s becoming more of a household name now, however, as some of the 49ers‘ defensive talent has left while Warner just continues to get better. Even after two impressive seasons, Warner managed to put up career numbers in 2020 with 125 combined tackles, two interceptions, seven quarterback hits and a sack. He warranted an AV of 19, which was far better than any other inside linebacker, and earned his first Pro Bowl nod as well as an All-Pro selection.

According to PFF, Warner was the highest-graded linebacker of 2020 with an 89.1 grade. He is a consistent tackler, and came in at No. 9 this year among all players with his 125 combined takedowns. His 367 career tackles are tied for No. 7 in the NFL since he entered the league in 2018. With him being just 24 and having never missed a game due to injury, don’t be surprised to see him come in at No. 1 on our list for 2022. 

While he just turned 31, Wagner is still the best inside linebacker in football. Whether it’s stopping the run or making an impact in defending the pass, Wagner can do either at a high level. His consistency is another reason he earns the No. 1 spot on our list, as he has missed just one game over the last five seasons. Lavonte David and Demario Davis have been consistent presences over the past 10 seasons, but no player has recorded more tackles than Wagner in that time frame (1,213). 

Wagner was our top linebacker last year, and those expecting him to regress in 2020 were sadly mistaken. He recorded 138 combined tackles, three sacks, seven tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hits. As previously mentioned, we considered calling our shot by putting Warner as our No. 1 linebacker this year, but Wagner outperformed him in several categories last season that made it difficult for us to get cute at the top spot.   

AV 12 (6th) 19 (1st)

Tackles

138 (6th)

125 (7th)

Sacks

3 (T-5th)

1 (T-19th)

Tackles for loss

7 (T-10th)

5 (T-16th)

Interceptions

0

2 (T-3rd)

Passes defended 8 (T-1st) 6 (T-4th)

It’s possible this could be Wagner’s last year atop our list of the best linebackers, but don’t expect any kind of steep drop-off. Wagner is the heart and soul of this Seahawks defense and has been named an All-Pro five years in a row for good reason. 




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