Next up in our position examinations: linebackers! In particular, we’re talking about inside linebackers who lined up in a traditional linebacker spot. OLBs that played primarily on the edge as pass rushers were covered in last week’s article. In spite of the emphasis placed on outside LBs, MLBs are still highly valuable, with the largest contracts bringing in close to $20M per season. These players are often the signal callers of their defenses, and some tend to lead their teams in tackles. They also possess multiple responsibilities, including run support, coverage (TEs or RBs), and even a bit of pass rushing (especially for one specific player on this list). Therefore, let’s take a look at the top 10 LBs for the upcoming season below!
1. Darius Leonard, Colts
Some might prefer the next couple of guys on this list, but to me, Leonard is a player who can truly do it all. He leads the entire defense, forces fumbles at an uncanny rate, and makes tons of tackles. In 2021, he made 122 tackles (he has never produced a season with fewer than 121) and forced 8 fumbles with his superb ball-punching technique. He was not asked to rush the passer almost at all in 2021, but he is capable of doing so based on his 12 sacks over his first two seasons. Leonard is also a good mover in space, which enabled him to tally 4 interceptions in pass coverage last year. More than any other LB, Leonard is scheme-independent and can elevate a defense no matter his role.
2. Micah Parsons, Cowboys
As I alluded to last week, Parsons is the pass rushing king among these ILBs. He topped all rookies (and his veteran teammates) with 13 sacks as a rookie, but he actually played in a traditional position for the majority of his status. His 84 tackles and 3 forced fumbles on the season validate that assertion. The only thing he was not asked to do much was play in coverage, though he probably could; one play in which he covered a running back demonstrated his scary speed for a large man. The most reassuring part for Cowboys fans is that Parson is merely entering his second season, which means he has room and time to get even better.
3. Fred Warner, 49ers
Owner of the largest ILB contract for about 1 week until Darius Leonard took that crown from him, Warner is among the best coverage linebackers on this list. He has 25 career pass breakups, as well as 3 interceptions (one was a pick-6). Despite entering the league as 3rd-round pick, Warner has been a 16-game starter since day one, compiling 118 or more tackles every season. Due to his coverage prowess, he can remain on the field on third downs, which further increases his value. Versatility is his calling card, but Warner is always around the ball regardless of the play run by the offense. He and Arik Armstead will anchor the 49ers defense for years to come.
4. Bobby Wagner, Rams
Losing Russell Wilson hurt for Seahawks fans. Watching the team outright release Wagner probably stung just as much. Wager is the quintessential MLB who racks up tackles and plays well in space. A perennial All-Pro, Wagner had a whopping 170 tackles last season (I had to confirm that was correct), as well as a pick and 5 passes defended. He doesn’t appear to be slowing down, as his overall production actually increased from his 2020 level. Now patrolling the middle of the field for the defending Super Bowl champs, I anticipate that Wagner will play just as well this season…maybe a little bit better in two particular divisional matchups.
5. Demario Davis, Saints
The right situation can be the difference between a player having a good career and a great one. This is certainly true for Davis, who was a quality player for the Jets during his first few seasons. When he signed with the Saints in free agency, his level of play rose dramatically. Over his four seasons with the team, Davis has never had fewer than 105 tackles, and he has averaged 4 sacks per season. He also broke up 7 passes in 2021, showing that he affects the game at the line of scrimmage and at the second level. Davis has contributed to the Saints’ #1 rushing defense over the past couple of years, but his effectiveness in the passing game cannot be overlooked.
6. Roquan Smith, Bears
Coming out of Georgia, Smith was drafted in the top 10 because he was viewed as a polished player who was a safe bet to be a standout for years to come. After 4 years in the NFL, that has come to fruition. Smith immediately stuffed the stat sheet as a rookie, with 121 tackles, an interception, 5 passes defended, and 5 sacks. He has provided at least 1 interception each year, with his most recent being a pick-6. In 2021, he also reached a career-high 163 tackles, showing that he has gotten even better as he has gained experience. The Bears are likely to be a train wreck this season, but one bright spot should definitely be Roquan Smith.
7. Eric Kendricks, Vikings
Kendricks doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention, but I’m not sure that anyone on this list is as good in the passing game. A smaller linebacker at 6 feet tall, Kendricks uses his quickness to cover slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends with aplomb. He has picked off 5 passes over the last two seasons, adding 5 sacks and 10 passes defended over the same span. He’s not a slouch in the run game either, totaling 143 tackles in 2021. If not for the Vikings’ complete ineptitude in the secondary, Kendricks might be more of a household name because his play definitely warrants it.
8. De’Vondre Campbell, Packers
I’m not exactly sure what happened with Campbell. He was a serviceable player throughout his Falcons career, but he was grossly overpaid in Arizona before getting cut after just one season. However, upon signing in Green Bay, he became a first-team All-Pro within one year. He set a career high in tackles (146), tied career highs in interceptions (2) and sacks (2), and seemed completely rejuvenated moving around in the second level of the defense and near the line of scrimmage. The important part is that by watching the film, you’ll see that his play did not appear to be a mirage; the Packers bet on that being true by handing Campbell a 5 year/$50M deal this offseason, and I don’t think they’ll regret it.
9. Lavonte David, Buccaneers
The order of the final two players on this list might flip in the near future due to age-related reasons, but for right now, David is still slightly ahead of his teammate. David has toiled for some bad TB teams over the majority of his 10-season career, but he’s been a consistent positive for them and really deserved his ring in 2020. His instincts and positional skill are his most standout traits, and despite missing a few games due to injury, he put up strong numbers across the board, with 97 tackles, 3 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. As the leader of Tampa’s linebacking corps, his intangibles are what make him so valuable, as they help other players such as…
10. Devin White, Buccaneers
The second of our back-to-back Bucs, White’s calling card is speed. With a blistering 4.42-second 40-yard dash time, White easily shifts from sideline to sideline, tracking down players that might otherwise break free. He provides a lot of juice as a pass rusher, producing 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons to go along with 34 QB hits. His run game work is equally impressive, with 268 tackles, 23 of them for loss, over the same span. As White is only entering his 4th professional season, he still has room to grow and become one of the league’s very best in short order. I expect to see him ranked higher this time next year.