The job of an off-ball linebacker is to account for the possibility of a run or a pass on every single down at the second level of the defense. So, to determine the best in the league, you have to separate those two parts of the game, evaluate their abilities, and rank them accordingly. Coverage statistics are very easy to come by, but run-stopping stats are a different story.
Let’s just squash the conspiracy that total tackles can be used to measure worth as a run stopper. The statistics I’ll use are a lot more centered around ability and production rather than standard, face-value statistics. However, since run defense statistics are not readily available, some of that analysis will be based on the film as well. So, using all the free stats and game film at my disposal, these are the top-10 linebackers in the league.
10. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta’s bottom-10 defense certainly doesn’t give Deion Jones much help, but when you separate him from the rest of that laughable unit, you see a budding superstar. Jones uses his 4.38 speed in the passing game to close on routes in his zone or by his man. He was very efficient in coverage only allowing a third-ranked 58.5% completion percentage and a 92.3 passer rating, but the ladder was definitely heightened a bit by the four touchdowns he let up. While Jones’ efficiency was verging on elite, his total production was good, but not great, as he let up 427 yards on 539 snaps. That percentage isn’t awful, but it isn’t among the best on this list or in the league.
Jones has probably the best range of any player on this list. His speed and quickness enable Jones to position himself well and be disruptive in any designed run situation. However, he does lack prowess in a few areas. His tackle shedding ability isn’t ideal, seeing as he’s an undersized middle linebacker, and, to put it frankly, the dude can’t tackle. Jones’ 14.7% missed tackle rate ranks last on this list by a decent amount. If Jones can remedy his tackling issues and his elusiveness, he could be a top-5 linebacker for sure.
9. Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have themself a superstar in Jaylon Smith and he will be an integral part of that front seven for years. His injury recovery story is remarkable and I suggest you look it up if you haven’t heard it, but beyond that, Smith is one of the best linebackers in the league. His remarkable 52 total points saved, ranking sixth in the league, gives substance to his worth. However, Smith is definitely more skilled in run support than against the pass. In his 557 snaps played, he let up 460 yards, which isn’t a bad percentage point, but his efficiency wasn’t great. He had a 77.1% completion percentage and a 102.1 passer rating when targeted, both of which ranked closer to the bottom of the league than the top. Smith’s real value lies in the run game.
Smith is probably the most physically gifted linebackers in the league due to his combination of size, speed, and agility. He slips blockers in the second level with ease and he has a nose for the ball carrier. Smith is still developing his technical skills seeing as he’s only 24, but you couldn’t ask for better natural gifts in a linebacker. Smith’s 4.2 average tackle depth and 8.7% missed tackle rate are both solid, but they still don’t do his on-field performance justice. Smith can run sideline-to-sideline with the best backs in the game and hunt them down like it’s nothing. He’s a true warrior and I see him being a problem in the NFC East for a long time.
8. Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
Fred Warner is the glue that holds together the best in the league, so of course, he’s on this list. Warner’s coverage ability is unquestionably one of the best in the league. His 66.2% completion percentage and 86.2 passer rating are proof of his efficiency while his league-leading 689 snaps and 454 yards allowed are evidence of his total effectiveness as a defender. Warner’s presence on the league’s best defensive unit should not be lost on anyone who’s paying attention, and if it is, his second-ranked 66 total points saved should open their narrow eyes.
Warner isn’t nearly as sound against the run as he is the pass. Warner relies heavily on his speed and strength to get around blocks, but he doesn’t have great awareness concerning the blockers about to engage him. He is also, statistically, one of the worst tacklers on this list with his 12.5% missed tackle rate. There is no doubt that Warner has a huge presence on the defensive end and he can make plays with his raw athleticism. However, Warner’s lack of efficiency in that area caused him to slip to eighth on this list.
7. Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
Zach Cunningham may be the most interesting player on this list because nobody really talks about him. Last year he had his breakout season and was one of the best linebackers in football, but still not a peep. In coverage, Cunningham played a whopping 635 snaps and only let up 319 yards. That’s the second-best margin percentage-wise on this list, and he isn’t even known as an elite cover guy. His 77.6% completion percentage and 107.4 passer rating allowed are definitely concerning, but his lack of targets is no coincidence. Cunningham is effective in coverage and he’s even better in the trenches.
Cunningham has a brilliant ability to evade blockers with ease and get upfield to make tackles in the run game. He keeps his eyes glued in the backfield, yet he knows exactly what angle to take or what juke move to do to get by his blockers. Because of that, he was one of the best run defenders in the league last season. Cunningham was at the top of the leaderboards in quite a few advanced run figures through 14 weeks. At that time, Cunningham had racked up the second most run tackles in the league with 75 and the most tackles above expected with 25. I expect Cunningham to only get better as he enters his prime.
6. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Bobby Wagner is probably the most OVERRATED linebacker in football. He is a legitimate liability in coverage. In 666 snaps, Wagner let up an outrageous 657 yards in coverage; that’s the second-most of any linebacker in the league. His 80.6% completion percentage and 108.2 passer rating proved that he was not only letting up yards in huge volume but that he was inefficient as well. Let me just say, Wagner being a 99 in madden is a joke; he has two jobs and he’s actively awful at one of them.
Even though Wagner can only cover about as well as a twin bed sheet on a king-sized mattress, he is one of the most feared run defenders in the league. Teams run the ball away from Wagner because his reads, power, and evasiveness are so good and his blows are so crushing. Wagner’s average tackle depth wasn’t anything special at 5.0 yards downfield, but his 5.9% missed tackles rate ranks second on this list. Through 14 weeks, Wagner had a fifth-ranked 67 tackles on designed runs; that’s 20 over expected, which ranked third at that time. Wagner is not a top-5 linebacker because he simply can’t produce in coverage, but his gargantuan presence in the run game warrants a top-10 ranking.
5. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Tremaine Edmunds is probably the most UNDERRATED linebacker in football. His contributions to that Bills defense are undeniable. In 590 snaps he allowed a minuscule 266 yards in coverage. That is the single best margin percentage-wise on this list. He also only allowed a 65.4% completion rate and a 73.0 passer rating when targeted, both of which are remarkably high. If that weren’t enough to solidify him as a top-5 linebacker, he ranked 10th in the league in total points saved with 43. Probably his most impressive trait is his ability to read blocking schemes and the quarterback. He deflects passes at the line and snuffs out scrambles with ease and his intelligence is reflected in his stats.
In the run game, Edmunds has incredible range as well as tackling ability. He is one of the most explosive linebackers in the game right now; you can see the fire in his eyes on every snap. Through 14 weeks, Edmunds ranked first in the league with 15 run defense points saved. So, statistically, he is elite in both the run and pass game. Edwards’ 3.3-yard average tackle depth illustrates his nose for the football and ability to penetrate blockers at the first level of the defense with his alert eyes and quick game speed. Expect nothing but excellence from the 22-year-old as he develops in that solid Bills defense.
4. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Darius Leonard was way overhyped after he led the league in tackles as a rookie in 2018, but this year, he earned the credit that was already registered to his name. As a rookie, Leonard was fantastic against the run, but was sub-par in coverage; he remedied that a bit last season. Leonard still let up 424 yards in 460 snaps, but he caused a surprisingly low 62.8% completion percentage against him and a 72.6 passer rating. Also, even though I hate using interceptions to validate defenders, Leonard’s position-leading 5 interceptions in 13 games can’t go unnoticed. That is an absurd amount of interceptions for a linebacker in that time frame. He’s a true game-changer and there’s no denying it. Leonard was targeted a lot because of his clear ineptitudes in coverage during his rookie year, however, he was able to perform well under that heavy volume and make a huge leap last season.
Where Leonard really excels is as a run stopper. Similar to recently retired Luke Kuechley, Leonard patrols the middle of his defense knowing exactly how the play will unfold before him and that he’s going to make the tackle when they run the football. He’s got a scary insight into how a play will develop and his decisiveness and body control helps him to be the playmaker that he is. His average tackle depth was just 3.7 yards downfield last year, and his 7.0% missed tackle percentage is very impressive at that depth. Leonard also ranked fifth in total points saved last season with 57, which just goes to show how valuable he is to that young Colts defense. Leonard will only continue to grow after his clear improvement last season.
3. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Erik Kendricks is a top-3 linebacker in football without a doubt. In coverage, he can read and jump routes better than almost any linebacker in the league, and that ability is reflected in his stats. In 588 snaps, Kendricks only let up 363 yards in coverage, while allowing a second-in-the-league 53.3% completion percentage and an 82.8 passer rating. He also had a third-ranked 59 total points saved among off-ball linebackers. Opponents fear Kendricks in the second level of that Vikings defense as not just a cover linebacker, but also as a revered run-stopper.
Kendricks, like so many of his fellow top-5 guys, can snuff out the ball carrier in a swarm of blockers because he knows exactly what is coming before the play unfolds. He isn’t as aggressive in his pursuit of the back, which is one reason he isn’t in the top-2, but that in no way takes away from his intuition and the eventual brutal punishment he dolls out. Through week 14 of last season, Kendricks had the fourth-most run tackles in all of football with 73, which is 19 tackles above expected. He also managed 13 run defense points saved in that time, which ranked third among off-ball linebackers. Kendricks is a true superstar and his skill set is as eclectic as they come.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David has been the centerpiece of the Buccaneers defense for nearly a decade and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. David’s elite closing speed and hit power allow him to bait quarterbacks only to finish off the receiver with a giant blow. That aspect of his game is reflected in his stats, specifically his completion percentage. David was second in the league in coverage snaps last season with 683, and he let up 491 yards, which isn’t a bad percentage by any means. David also ranked fifth in the league with a 63.3% completion percentage when targeted which helped him to a 73.0 passer rating. David is an athletic anomaly and is one of the most fun players to watch in the entire league.
Lavonte David is a ridiculous athlete. A man of his size and strength should not have the quickness, agility, or tackle radius that David has; it just shouldn’t be possible. David led the league with 69 total points saved at the linebacker position. David’s average tackle depth of 3.0 is the lowest on the list, which proves his ability to read blocks and make plays with remarkable speed and quickness. That Bucs defense clearly would crumble without David, and I expect him to continue that level of play next season.
1. Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
Demario Davis is severely overlooked by many and is undoubtedly one of the best linebackers in the league. Davis has proven his worth time and again as a leader and a playmaker in the Saints front seven. In 529 snaps, Davis let up only 313 yards with a 68.1% completion percentage, a 75.8 passer rating, and a mere 6.4 yards/play against him. Davis always keeps the play in front of him, which is just one of the reasons he’s so special. Davis also ranked fourth in the league among off-ball linebackers with 58 total points saved, and he isn’t even known as an elite cover linebacker, but he is because he is one of the smartest players on the field at all times. He can extend the physical attributes that control his tackle radius and hit power into his closing ability in the passing game.
In the run game, Davis is probably the scariest player in the game right now. If you meet Demario Davis in the hole, you may never fully recover because this dude just straight up flattens his opponents. He rarely lets opposing backs fall forward, which is why his average tackle depth is only 3.5 yards. His ability to send backs flying backward with his bone-crushing hits is something that is almost unique to him in today’s game and is one of the reasons he’s number one on this list. He also only missed seven tackles last year, which rounded out his missed tackle percentage to just 5.8%, ranking first on this list. Davis earned the top spot for being a brick wall on the Saints defense in both the passing and running attack.
Honorable Mentions (one reason why they didn’t make the list):
- Joe Schobert (bad against the run)
- Cory Littleton (run defense doesn’t make up for his coverage)
- Dre Greenlaw (has to prove production as a starter for a whole season)
- Matt Milano (bad against the run)
- Dont’a Hightower (bad efficiency in coverage)