As we really get geared up for the 2022 NFL season, we thought we'd break down the rankings at each position group. Today: Linebackers. Many teams are starting to transition to a 3-4 defense, as stopping the pass has become critical as offenses become more pass-heavy. That means your linebackers have to be able to get after the quarterback if need be.
In general, the linebacker position has become devalued. Many teams would prefer to focus on the trenches and on the outside. However, the coverage skilled linebacker has never been more critical.
Look at teams like the Packers, who took a linebacker with the 22nd pick, and the Jaguars who traded back into the first round for a linebacker.
Note: Some teams run a 3-4 defensive front, meaning their edge rushers will be slated as linebackers. In our rankings, we included edge rushers in a 3-4 defense in these rankings.
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These rankings debuted earlier this offseason but have been edited for where the league stands now. Players who have been added to rosters since our initial rankings are noted.
A team with the Defensive Player of the Year on their roster will be high in these rankings. T.J. Watt was unstoppable in 2021. He finished with 22.5 sacks and 21 TFLs, which is hard to wrap your head around. He has 55 sacks over the last four years and is, without a doubt, the best linebacker in the NFL.
Devin Bush struggled in 2021. He never fully recovered from his torn ACL in 2020 and will need to rebound this season. The Steelers declined to pick up his fifth-year option.
They signed Myles Jack. He was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars due to his high salary, but don't be fooled: He is still a top linebacker in this league. He has 226 combined tackles over the last two seasons and should benefit from playing with Watt.
Alex Highsmith was terrific in 2021 and will only be 25 years old come Week 1. He and Watt are a scary pass-rushing duo.
Over the last decade, the Packers have been an analytically driven organization and have neglected the linebacker position. In certain years, it has bitten them, like when they got run over by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2020 NFC Championship game.
There has been a significant shift in philosophy, as the Packers now have a top-five linebacker unit in the league. Preston Smith is getting up there in age, but he is still a capable pass rusher. De'Vondre Campbell had an outstanding 2021 season, ranking as the second-best linebacker in the league, according to PFF. They selected Quay Walker with the 22nd overall pick and should slot right in and be a massive piece for this defense, and then there is Rashan Gary. He has emerged as one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL, and he might not have hit his ceiling yet.
The Packers' defense is going to be scary good in 2022.
Even with the Saints having Demario Davis and the young stud Pete Werner, the Buccaneers take the cake for the best linebacker core in the division.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is going to be a problem for years to come. He has the athleticism and length to become a top-tier pass rusher. Devin White started all 17 games last season and finished with 128 tackles and three sacks. Lavonte David has shown no signs of slowing down. He was PFF’s No. 14 ranked linebacker in 2021 and was once again the anchor of the defense. Shaquil Barrett lived up to the contract he signed last offseason and had 10 sacks with 22 QB hits last season.
The Colts take the cake for the best linebacker room in the AFC South. The Titans are close, but having Leonard on the roster gives the Colts the linebacker crown. Leonard is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. This stat blows my mind: Leonard has 17 forced fumbles over his four-year career. Seventeen.
Bobby Okereke was tremendous in his first full year, starting as a middle linebacker, finishing with 132 tackles and four passes defended. Zaire Franklin started 11 games last season and will have a more significant role in the defense in 2022.
In my rankings of every teams’ defensive lines, I ranked the 49ers first with the top defensive line in the NFL. The play from the linebackers behind them is a big reason why the 49ers' defensive line has so much success.
Fred Warner has been the best linebacker in the NFL over the last two seasons. He frequently locks down opposing teams' tight ends and is an excellent tackler. He is only 25 years old and will be one of the best linebackers in the NFL for years to come.
Dre Greenlaw had groin surgery last season and never was able to recover. They will look for him to bounce back this season, and Azeez Al-Shaair will look to continue his outstanding season in 2021. He finished with 102 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
When the Dallas Cowboys took Micah Parsons with the 12th overall pick, I'll admit, I was hesitant to believe it would work out. He had some off-field issues at Penn State and only started at linebacker one year before being drafted to the NFL.
Boy, was I wrong. Parsons had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. In his rookie season, he finished with 13 sacks and anchored one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Cowboys' defense finished second in defensive DVOA and led the league in takeaways. Parsons was the best player on that defense. According to PFF, he was the top-ranked linebacker in 2021 and is only 22 years old.
Leighton Vander Esch is a solid middle linebacker and fits well with Parsons' pass-rush ability. The Will linebacker starting job is still up in the air.
Demario Davis continues to be one of the best linebackers in the league. He has started in every game except for two in the last nine seasons. Even at age 32, he is still a top-five linebacker in the NFL.
Pete Werner had a terrific rookie season. He finished as PFFs 5th rated linebacker and had 62 tackles in eight starts. Look for him to have a much larger role in the Saints defense this season.
Zack Baun only started in four games last year and will be asked to start in 2021. He struggled last year after the Saints traded up to get him in 2020. They need more from him if he has any chance of signing a second contract with the Saints.
The defending champs upgraded their linebacker room this offseason by signing one of the best linebackers ever to play the game in Bobby Wagner. They gave him a five-year contract worth up to $65 million, so they expect him to be an essential part of this defense for years to come.
Wagner is still a solid player but nowhere near his old self. He is 31 years old and had a down year last season. He struggled in pass coverage, but Seattle did ask him to do a lot in that defense. He can rebound from last season, but it is unlikely he will return to his past play.
Ernest Jones is fascinating. He was terrific in the Super Bowl, recording seven tackles and one sack, and is still only 22 years old. Bobby Wagner had this to say about Jones last week: "He has all the attributes of a great linebacker, and if I can do anything to help, I will."
Leonard Floyd had another solid season in 2021, finishing with 9.5 sacks and complementing Aaron Donald well as a pass rusher.
The Ravens were the most injured team in the NFL last season and still managed to compete for a playoff spot late in the season. They went 0-6 down the stretch, but that was without Lamar Jackson. They should bounce back in 2022.
Tyus Bowser started all 17 games for the Ravens last season and produced seven sacks. At 32 years old, Josh Bynes had arguably one of the best seasons of his career, swatting down four passes in only 14 games. He will return and start in the middle of the defense. He will be beside Patrick Queen, who is only turning 23 years old and has started 33 games in the last two seasons.
The big one here is Odafe Oweh, the Ravens' first-round pick in 2021. He is a freak athlete but still getting used to an NFL system. He had five sacks in his rookie season and only started in two games. He will get more playing time in 2022 and could take a giant leap forward in his development.
The Bills' defense was outstanding in 2021. They finished first in defensive DVOA and finished second in takeaways, allowing the fewest points in the NFL. And then they added some reinforcements for 2022.
Von Miller was a huge acquisition. They inked him to a six-year contract, and he will bring some much-needed pass rush to this defense. Think about this: What if they just had one more sack late in the AFC Divisional Championship? They allowed Patrick Mahomes to run the offense without any pressure.
Matt Milano has emerged as one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He is outplaying his teammate Tremaine Edmunds, a first-round pick, while Milano was a fifth-round pick. Milano can do it all and be on the field for all three downs.
The Minnesota Vikings front office decided to go for it in 2022 and not rebuild the roster. They signed Za'Darius Smith to a three-year, $42 million contract and signed Jordan Hicks to a two-year deal. Both of those guys are veterans and will help the team win now.
Eric Kendricks is entering his third season of a five-year contract and will be the leader of the defense going forward. He had five sacks last season, which was a career-high. Danielle Hunter is the guy that can make this a scary unit. He is coming off a torn pectoral muscle but had six sacks in seven games before the season-ending injury. He has only played in seven games over the last two seasons.
Harold Landry emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. He got awarded too, signing a five-year, $87.5 million extension. David Long had 75 tackles in nine starts last season and is only 25 years old. Zach Cunningham is still one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL, but his coverage skills has taken a dip over the last couple of years. Bud Dupree did not live up to the contract the Titans gave him last offseason, but he is still a solid young pass rusher.
The way defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon uses his linebackers is still up in the air. It would be silly not to have Haason Reddick rush the passer majority of his snaps. The Eagles will most likely run some sort of 4-3 defense, so Reddick will slot in as a linebacker for this exercise.
There are still a lot of unknowns with this group. Kyzir White finished 8th in tackles last season with 144 but didn't garner a lot of buzz in free agency, which shows what the rest of the league thinks of him. According to PFF, T.J. Edwards was the 10th-ranked linebacker in 2021 but is still unproven and only has started 30 games in the NFL. Nakobe Dean is a dark horse with this group. He was arguably the best player on the best college defense of all time but slipped into the third round of the draft with some potential medical red flags. He says he is 100% healthy and ready to start the gate. If Dean can continue his play from Georgia, this linebacker room has a high ceiling.
Bradley Chubb had ankle surgery last year, and it showed in his play — he did not record a sack in seven games. He is only 25 years old and should bounce back.
Alex Singleton comes from the Eagles, where he has been a tackle machine. He has 257 tackles over the last two seasons. Josey Jewell had a torn pectoral muscle last season and only played in two games. He is loved inside that building and will start in 2022. Randy Gregory brings some pass rush juice to this unit and had a terrific season in 2021. He was one of the best players on the second-ranked Cowboys defense.
Bill Belichick likes to ask a lot from his linebackers. He moves them around the field the entire game and wants to confuse defenses with various fronts. He has always valued the linebacker position more than the rest of the league.
Matt Judon turned into one of the best free-agent signings last season and was arguably the best player on the Patriots' defense. He can do it all but is at his best when rushing the passer. Ja'Whaun Bentley will start again at middle linebacker and had a terrific 2021 season. He finished with 109 tackles and 5 TFLs.
Josh Uche is currently the starting sam linebacker, but he only has one career start. They will look to bring back Jamie Collins on a cheaper one-year deal. Look out for the Patriots to add to this linebacker room.
The Miami Dolphins retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who will likely run a similar defensive scheme as Brian Flores did. Mike McDaniel made an intelligent decision to keep him, as continuity on that side of the ball will be essential for the team's success.
The Dolphins signed Melvin Ingram to provide some depth at the will linebacker position, but he will be primarily used as a pass rusher. Elandon Roberts has proven to be an excellent signing for the Dolphins and will be a starter again in 2022. Jerome Baker will return in the middle of the defense and has only missed one game in his four years with the Dolphins, while Emmanuel Ogbah was signed to a big contract extension this offseason. This solid core should complement the Dolphins' secondary well in 2022.
The Jaguars will play some 3-4 defense, meaning Travon Walker and Josh Allen make this list. There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. Devin Lloyd is a rookie but has loads of talent. The Jaguars traded up for him in the first round for a reason. Travon Walker was the first overall pick, but he is still raw and will take a while to develop into the pass rusher they want him to be. Foye Oluokun had a great year in Atlanta last season, but that defense didn’t have much talent.
Josh Allen is the only player on the roster that I can trust will have a solid season. Give this unit a year before making judgments.
Nick Bolton is one of the best young linebackers in the league. He was terrific in his rookie season, racking up 112 tackles and 11 TFLs. He is only 22 years old. Jermaine Carter started all 17 games for the Carolina Panthers in 2021 and signed a deal with the Chiefs this offseason. They will be asking a lot from him, as he will start at middle linebacker.
Willie Gay started 11 games last year and battled some injury issues. He has to be better in 2022.
Denzel Perryman was terrific for the Raiders in 2021. He had 154 tackles and emerged as the leader of the defense. Jayon Brown only started six games last year but will be forced to start at middle linebacker as the Raiders don’t have a lot of depth at that position.
Divine Deablo is someone this organization is looking at to take a big step forward. He is only 23 years old and showed flashes in his rookie season.
The Falcons will be bad this season. They have one of the worst rosters in the NFL and are punting for the 2023 season once their cap situation gets better. Their linebacker core is the best unit on the roster.
Arnold Ebiketie has tremendous upside. He has all the tools to turn into a dangerous pass rusher. He just needs some coaching at the next level. Deion Jones had 137 tackles last season and is still one of the best linebackers in the league. Rashaan Evans comes over from Tennessee after starting 43 games in the previous three seasons. Lorenzo Carter started 14 games for the Giants last season and had five sacks and 50 tackles.
The Cardinals rely heavily on their linebacker core in their 3-4 defense. Vance Joseph has done a terrific job with this defense during his tenure in Arizona. They have had a top-10 DVOA defense in back-to-back years, and the talent on the roster does not match a top-10 defense.
In his four years with the team, Dennis Gardeck has been primarily a special teams player for the Cardinals. Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons are two cornerstones of this franchise. They were both drafted in the first round in back-to-back years, which is interesting considering teams are starting to devalue the linebacker position.
Markus Golden has been a terrific pickup for the Cardinals last season. He finished with 11 sacks and was arguably the best player on their defense in 2021. This group has a ton of upside and will be crucial to the outcome of the 2022 Arizona Cardinals.
This is going to be a transition year for the Bears. They are only spending $168 million this year on their roster — 31st in the NFL, behind only the Atlanta Falcons. The Washington Commanders are first in cap spending with $234 million to put that into perspective.
Even with the Bears going through some franchise turnover, the defense should be solid. New head coach Matt Eberflus had a top-10 defense in Indianapolis over the last three seasons and should bring some creativity to this side of the ball. That starts with how he uses star linebacker Roquan Smith.
Smith is one of the best middle linebackers in the league and is still only 25 years old. He has been second-team all-pro in back-to-back years, and he should only get better under Eberflus.
Nicholas Morrow is coming over from the Las Vegas Raiders, where he started 19 games over the last two years. Matt Adams should get the starting sam linebacker job and comes from Indy, where he played under Eberflus.
New Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale runs some of the most creative defensive fronts in the NFL. He mixes up his fronts more than any defensive coordinator in the league, but we will use a 3-4 front for this exercise.
Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari make a terrific pass-rushing duo. Both are 21 years old and should provide this team with a solid pass rush for many years to come.
Tae Crowder and Blake Martinez are tackle machines. Last season, Crowder finished tied for 14th in tackles, while Martinez finished 4th in 2020. Martinez only played in three games last season as he tore his ACL in late September. The Giants have one of the best linebacker rooms in the NFL.
The defending AFC champs will look to replicate their 2021 success and have, for the most part, retained most of their defense. Logan Wilson has emerged as one of the best young linebackers in the NFL. He had 100 tackles last season and is one of the better pass coverage linebackers in the NFL. Add in nine TFLs in his two years in the league; he should be the leader of the Bengals' defense for the next five years.
Germaine Pratt flew under the radar, but he had a solid season. He had 91 tackles and started in 15 games. He will be only 26 years old, heading into 2022. Akeem Davis-Gaither has been a disappointment since coming out the gate hot in 2020. Last season, he battled a foot injury and struggled down the stretch in 2020. He will look to bounce back in 2022.
Overall, the Bengals have a solid young linebacker core that could be a top-10 unit in 2022.
Shaq Thompson had a great 2021 season. He finished with 104 tackles and is the leader of the Panthers' defense. He has over 100 tackles in three straight seasons and was PFF’s No. 11 ranked linebacker last season.
Damien Wilson started all 17 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season and finished with 106 tackles and three sacks. He signed a two-year deal and was an excellent addition to this defense.
Cory Littleton signed a one-year deal and will start at the sam linebacker position. He was a disappointing signing for the Raiders and will look to resurrect his career in Carolina.
The Jets added a ton of firepower to their roster this offseason, with additions such as Jermaine Johnson, Garrett Wilson and Sauce Gardner in the draft. The linebacker core remains an issue for this defense, though.
C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams will return to start for the Jets, and both struggled in 2021. Williams ranked 70th and Mosley ranked 76th out of 87 linebackers last season. Mosley did have 168 tackles last season, but only 2 TFLs, and was the leader of the worst defense in the NFL.
Hamsah Nasirildeen only started in two games last season and is currently their starting will linebacker. The Jets should look to add some reinforcements in free agency.
Washington's defense was incredibly disappointing last season. They finished 27th in DVOA and 22nd in yards allowed. This was a considerable dropoff considering they finished 3rd in DVOA in 2020.
Defense in the NFL usually isn't sticky year to year. That's why teams should build on the offensive side of the ball. But in Washington's case, their issues were in the secondary and the defensive line not living up to expectations. There is a ton to like with this linebacker core.
Cole Holcomb is a star in the making. He is only 25 years old and was one of the best linebackers in the league last year. Jamin Davis had his struggles last season but should take a step forward in 2022. David Mayo is the big question mark here as he only has 23 starts in seven years in the NFL.
The Seahawks defense will begin a new era without Bobby Wagner. He anchored the defense for 10 years, and it will be time for someone else to step up.
It will be by committee, as they did not replace him with a single player. Cody Barton was taken in the third round in 2019 and will be asked to play a significantly larger role in the defense than he has since entering the league. He has only started five games in his three-year career but will be the starting will linebacker in this defense.
Jordyn Brooks will be the leader of the defense. He will start at middle linebacker and finished last season with 184 tackles, good for second in the league. He is a former first-round pick and one of the only young talented players on the defense.
The Detroit Lions are moving in the right direction. They added Aidan Hutchinson and Jameson Williams in the draft, and the players seem to love playing under Dan Campbell.
The linebacker core is, however, not the strength of this team. Alex Anzalone will start at middle linebacker after re-signing with the team this offseason. He was arguably the worst starting linebacker in the NFL last season, finishing in the top five in missed tackles, and PFF ranked him 79th out of 87 possible linebackers in 2021. The Lions starting will linebacker Derrick Barnes ranked 85th. They brought back Jarrad Davis after spending one season with the New York Jets, but he only started five games last season.
The Texans will return all three starting linebackers from the 2021 season. Lovie Smith did a solid job with this unit, considering the talent on the roster. Neville Hewitt had 60 tackles in five starts last season, and the Texans brought him back on a one-year deal.
Christian Kirksey signed a two-year extension this offseason and is considered the leader of this defense. Lovie Smith has been vocal on what he brings to the table and finished 2021 with 93 tackles and 6 TFLs. Kamu Grugier-Hill would ideally be a special teamer on most rosters, but the Texans are thin at linebacker. This is the definition of a mediocre unit.