1. Luke Kuechly
Kuechly does everything that you want your off-ball linebacker to do. He can defend the run, defend tight ends, the slot and can play zone defense. He has awareness, instincts and above average speed. It would be hard to make a case for any other linebacker being in his conversation.
Wagner is at his best when it comes to stuffing the run. Making plays behind or around the line of scrimmage is where he always is. He has the strength to hold up against the toughest in any holes and can fight off of blockers as good as anyone in the league. Like Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril sometimes his talent is overshadowed by the legion of boom moniker, but it is the combination of all the parts that makes Seattle’s defense so great.
3. Lavonte David
When talking about defending the run, David is right there with Wagner. In terms of sideline mobility, Wagner may have a slim edge but this feels more like a 2a vs 2b argument. David plays a bit of a different position as an outside backer in a 4-3, and his job entitles holding the edge for the majority of the time, and in that regard he could be the best in the league. He ranked third in the league in tackles, and seems to always be where the play ends, even when they specifically scheme away from him.
4. Jaime Collins
Collins could be the best pound for pound linebacker. Collins stands at 6’3”, 250, but is athletic as any of the top players in the game. He can watch tight ends as good as any player in the league and that is where his size and athletic combination really shine.
5. Thomas Davis
People will probably knock on Davis being this low after his 2015 season, but being top five in your position that technically features multiple positions is no knock. Davis is in a role like Lavonte David where he plays on the outside and mainly is used to set the edge in run defense. At the that is as strong as anybody. He can still fly around the field and in terms of toughness, I wouldn’t argue anybody in the league is tougher. He does have the luxury of not needing to be elite in man coverage, but that is a tiny knock on an elite talent.
6. Navorro Bowman
The only knock against Bowman from being much higher on the list is the bad knee injury that he has had to come back from. Bowman did bounce back, and while early on there was a little rust, he ended up leading the league in tackles. As mentioned, this is a mighty tough position to crack the top 5 in, and to see Bowman at six feels disrespectful but of the five ahead of him, he has the most baggage surrounding him. Another healthy season should have most forgetting Bowman even fell off at all.
7. C.J. Mosley
Mosley exploded into the league after his rookie year. He was second in defensive rookie of the year voting to only Aaron Donald and he had looked like a major steal. In his second year, injuries surrounding him really affected his play. He quickly became the focus of the defense, and while the attention was so much higher, and his stats took a dip, his play was still very consistent. In terms of speed and finding the ball, you won’t find many like Mosley. As he gains more experience, and should take on more control of the defense with Daryl Smith being cut his stock should only rise.
8. Telvin Smith
Smith was probably the only positive to take away from the Jaguars defense last season. He is ridiculously fast for his size, and his play awareness is some of the best in the league. Smith can essentially any linebacker position on the field, and with that brings a major need for versatility to the Jaguars. He is only in his second season and there should be more room for him to jump in the upcoming years and soon could become one of the elite in the league.
9. Anthony Barr
Barr doesn’t have the stats that would have most putting him in the top ten at the position, but in terms of on field production he may be too low. Barr is a demon on the field and a guy who can play a variety of roles. He is similar in size to a guy like Jamie Collins, but unlike Collins is better around the line of scrimmage than out in coverage. Still his play at setting the edge, rushing the passer and lining up in a versatile set of positions makes him tough to scheme against. The Vikings front seven is on the rise in a major way and he is a big piece and major reason why.
10. Brandon Marshall
Teammate Danny Trevathan got the big contract in free agency, but remember it was Marshall, not Trevathan that the Broncos made sure to hang onto this year. They are continuing to work through contract extensions and when his is announced his value to the team will be shown. Still a smart team like Denver knew they could not lose him and rightfully so. He is strong in stuffing the run and finding holes to fill. He is a heady linebacker, but has the size and strength to stuff the run.