Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
By: mike Tanier
Posted: 16 minutes ago
When evaluating linebackers, you must remember one important fact: You can't trust tackle statistics.
Linebackers make lots of tackles, often more than 100 in a season. But some of those tackles come close to the line, while others occur after 15-yard gains. A linebacker who makes 50 tackles after six-yard gains isn't helping his team nearly as much as one who makes 30 tackles after two-yard gains.
What's more, linebackers on bad teams register more tackles than those on good teams. Bad teams allow opponents to hold the ball longer, which means more plays, which means more chances to hit someone. The league leader in tackles is often a good defender on a lousy team, not a great defender on a great team. Case in point: Jonathan Vilma.
At Football Outsiders, we differentiate between types of tackles. Stops are plays that prevent significant yardage; stops can be tackles, passes defensed, interceptions, or forced fumbles. (To qualify as a "Stop," a play must keep the offense from gaining 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down.) Stop Rate is the percentage of a defender's tackles that are actually Stops. Defeats are tackles for a loss, turnovers, or plays that prevent a conversion on third or fourth down. We break Stops and Defeats down by run and pass plays, so we can see who is getting burned in coverage or leaving the field on passing downs.
Of course, even advanced tackle statistics have their limits. Despite fewer tackle opportunities, life is a lot easier for Dan Morgan, playing behind the Panthers' line, than it is for Vilma in New York. Linebackers have different roles in different systems and unique responsibilities in the middle (Mike), on the strong side (Sam), on the weak side (Will), or in a 3-4 scheme. When the statistics break down, we use the information gleaned from the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, which analyzed tape from every single game from Weeks 1-16 of the 2005 season.
And while it was hard separating the 12th best linebacking corps from the 20th, picking the leader was a steel breeze.
Bill Cowher has been developing excellent linebacking corps since the Gregg Lloyd/Kevin Greene days. Every year the Steelers lose a starter, but they just plug someone else in and keep going. Last season, they lost Kendrell Bell. Did you miss him? The Steelers didn't.
Joey Porter is almost as good as he says he is, and that's pretty darn good. He had 13.5 sacks if you count the postseason, and he is also effective in coverage. James Farrior put up MVP numbers in 2004 but was content to let other players get the glory last season. Larry Foote is so underrated that he's overrated, but he's great in zone coverage and pursuit. Clark Haggans is a good penetrator and big hitter who would have produced double-digit sacks if he didn't miss three games last year.
The Steelers' depth is excellent: James Harrison has been a productive part-timer for two seasons, while Clint Kriewaldt is a solid interior run defender.
Brian Urlacher has exceptional range, uncanny instincts, and great timing when he blitzes. He's not the best linebacker in the league at stacking inside running plays, but he's solid in pass coverage and a sure tackler. Lance Briggs led the league in Pass Stops last year (42) and had more total Stops (86) than Urlacher (80). Briggs is currently in Lovie Smith's doghouse for skipping a voluntary minicamp in a contract dispute, but he'll be back in the lineup when the games matter.
The rest of the Bears linebackers are nothing special, but there is depth here. Hunter Hillenmeyer is a good run defender who doesn't make many mistakes. Rookie Jamar Williams may be the top backup this season.
The team spent the off-season trying to trade Donnie Edwards, who led all linebackers in pass tackles (72) and finished second in the NFL in Stops (94). Edwards is apparently too big for his britches, or something. He and fellow old-timer Randall Godfrey stay at home in the Chargers' 3-4 scheme, allowing Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips to rush the passer. Merriman is a star in the making, an exceptional athlete with multiple moves when blitzing and the ability to disrupt running plays. Philips is a situational pass rusher with a good mix of speed and pop. If Edwards gets traded or Godfrey can no longer cut it, Steve Foley and Matt Wilhelm are capable replacements.
Free agent Julian Peterson is the quintessential team player. When the ***** ran out of healthy defensive backs last season, Peterson moved from linebacker to strong safety, and he played well. In Seattle, Peterson will get more support from his teammates and will have more opportunities to blitz. Lofa Tatupu played like a six-year veteran in his rookie season. He has great instincts and a knack for big plays. Fellow rookie sensation LeRoy Hill may move to the left side and replace D.D. Lewis. Hill can blitz or drop into coverage, while Lewis is more of a two-down run plugger. The Seahawks have great depth: Lewis, Kevin Bentley, Niko Koutouvides and Isaiah Kacyvenski all have starting experience.
Linebacker is a thinking-man's position, particularly in a Cover-2 system, and Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles are two of the smartest defenders in the league. The savvy vets finished fifth and sixth in the NFL in total Stops (Quarles 89, Brooks 87). Time hasn't caught up with them yet. Ryan Nece, the youngster of the bunch, is fast but makes mistakes in coverage. The Bucs have several insurance policies if Brooks or Quarles starts to slip: Barrett Ruud, Marques Cooper, and free agent Jamie Winborn all have starting potential.
A late-season rash of injuries forced Tim Lewis to grab guys off the waiver wire and stick them in the lineup. This season, depth shouldn't be an issue.
Antonio Pierce, the Giants' best linebacker, recorded 99 tackles in 13 games; and 72 percent of them were Stops, giving him the highest Stop Rate among linebackers in the league. Free agent LaVar Arrington is a limited player who is at his best when attacking the line of scrimmage, but he could be a deadly weapon on a team that has two great pass rushing ends. Brandon Short, a former Giant coming off a two-year stint in Carolina, will likely battle aging Carlos Emmons in the Sam slot.
The Bengals ranked first in the league in pass defense against opposing running backs, and their linebackers deserve much of the credit. Odell Thurman, Brian Simmons, and Landon Johnson are great fits in Marv Lewis' zone-coverage system, and Thurman is developing into one of the league's best middle linebackers.
Unfortunately, pass defense is just half of a linebacker's job, and the Bengals did a lousy job of stopping the run last year. Their front four shoulders much of the blame, but the Bengals lack a big thumper who can fill the hole. David Pollack replaced Johnson at the end of last season but is more of a situational blitzer than a full-time starter. With Thurman suspended for four games, Pollack will start on the strong side while Simmons moves to the middle. Rookie Ahmad Brooks may play a role right away.
Ian Gold, Al Wilson, and D.J. Williams don't produce eye-popping tackle or sack totals because they are constantly dropping into coverage in Larry Coyer's defense. But all three are top athletes who excel at what they are asked to do. Gold and Wilson can cover most running backs and tight ends, and both are quick off the edge when they do blitz. D.J. Williams is the best athlete of the trio but is still learning. Veteran reserves Nate Webster and Keith Burns can start if they are called upon. Undrafted rookie Cameron Vaughn, a three-year starter at LSU, was a surprise in minicamps.
They used to say that Zach Thomas was a "system" player who succeeded because of Jimmy Johnson's defense. Last year the Dolphins' system changed radically, but Thomas was better than ever, finishing second in the NFL in rushing Stops (78). Thomas has lost a half-step, but rookie Channing Crowder was fast enough to pick up some of the slack. Donnie Spragan is an over-the-tight end run plugger who leaves the field on passing downs. Sedrick Hodge, Derrick Pope, and Mike Labinjo are nothing special off the bench.
Takeo Spikes tore his Achilles' tendon early in the year but should be back this season. Spikes is a Pro-Bowl caliber performer when healthy, and he's one of those motivator/tone setter guys (he yells a lot). London Fletcher is a ball hawk who can force turnovers and harass quarterbacks when he's free to roam the field. Unfortunately, Buffalo's tissue-paper defensive line doesn't offer him much protection. Angelo Crowell played well in Spikes' place last year and does a good job in pass coverage. He's expected to wrest a starting job from Jeff Posey. Backups Mario Haggan and Josh Stamer are career special teamers.
Keith Bulluck must have felt like the Lone Ranger last season. He made 19.1 percent of Tennessee's total tackles, the third highest percentage in the league. He recorded 17.9 percent of his team's pass tackles, the league high for a linebacker. Bulluck will get help this season from free agent David Thornton, a solid pass defender who will allow Bulluck to do more freelancing. The Titans ranked last in the NFL in pass defense against running backs according to DVOA in 2005, so Thornton addressed a major need. Either Peter Sirmon or Robert Reynolds will start in the middle. Sirmon is slow and lousy in coverage; Reynolds is untested.
Ray Lewis became a caricature of the tough guy linebacker from a few years ago, and it's easy to say that he's overrated when the NFL hype machine gives him the superhero treatment. Lewis has lost a step and is coming off a thigh injury. He's also an exceptional competitor, one of the league's smartest defenders, and a man with a chip on his shoulder who wants to prove that he's worth one more payday. Write him off at your own peril.
Adalius Thomas is a DE/OLB tweener who is a double threat against the pass: he has recorded 17 sacks and defensed seven passes (intercepting three) in the last two years. Bart Scott played well when Lewis got hurt last year and is penciled in as the Will. With Peter Boulware and Tommy Polley gone, depth is a problem.
Tedy Bruschi has been a force for the Patriots but, at 33, his better years might be behind him. (Al Bello / Getty Images)
Bill Belichick loves to play chess with his hybrid 3-4 defense, but he may be one piece short if one of his veterans gets hurt. Tedy Bruschi became the inspirational story of the decade last season when he returned from a stroke and played well down the stretch. But Bruschi suffered a calf injury late in the year and turned 33 a month ago. Mike Vrabel has done it all for Bill Belichick — he's been a pass rush specialist, an outside linebacker, and inside linebacker, and a tight end — but he is also getting old and has lost some of his initial quickness. Monty Beisel is adequate between the tackles, but he's mistake prone and awful in coverage. Roosevelt Colvin is a top pass rusher who plays like a defensive end. Tully Banta-Cain is Diet Colvin. Chad Brown was recently re-signed, giving the Patriots another veteran defender with a long injury history. There's very little youth here; last year's fifth-round pick Ryan Claridge has already been released, and undrafted rookie Freddie Roach will probably make the team as the only linebacker with less than three years of experience.
Tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud make life easy for the Jaguars linebackers. With Henderson and Stroud gumming up the middle, Mike Peterson only sees opposing blockers when they run out of the tunnel, so he can usually take the direct route to the ball carrier. Peterson makes the most of his opportunities. Newcomer Nick Griesen has great instincts and is difficult to block; he'll make a difference if he can stay healthy. Daryl Smith is on the upside of his career. Two rookies may have key roles off the bench: Clint Ingram is a coverage specialist, while Brent Hawkins recorded 17 sacks at the Division I-AA level last season.
If King Kong strapped on a helmet, he still couldn't have lived up to the hype that surrounded Demarcus Ware last season. But Ware was very good, bringing pressure off the edge and forcing a lot of running plays inside. Coordinator Mike Zimmer will scheme to keep Ware from facing double teams, but he'll also have to cover his other linebackers' shortcomings. Neither Bradie James nor free agent Akin Ayodele is effective in coverage, and Ayodele will be playing out of position on the inside. Kevin Burnett spent his rookie season in the doghouse but could play in the nickel package this year. Rookie Bobby Carpenter is a big hitter who may start his career as a pass-rush specialist. Al Singleton and Rocky Boiman can start in a pinch.
Keith Brooking is fast, experienced, and has a knack for big plays. He's also a freelancer who likes to pick his own gap, outsmarts himself, and tries to run around blocks. Brooking makes the Pro Bowl on reputation these days. Ed Hartwell is back from an Achilles tear, but he wasn't playing very well before getting hurt and may not be as good as he looked on Baltimore's star-studded defense. Demorrio Williams outplayed Brooking as a run defender last season but gets lost in coverage. He'll battle Michael Boley for the Sam spot. Ike Reese is a special teams standout who can help as a nickel defender.
John Fox must find a way to replace Will Witherspoon, who is now in St. Louis. Free agent Na'il Diggs will take Witherspoon's place in the lineup, but Diggs is a one-dimensional run stopper. Thomas Davis, a nickel safety in Carolina's 3-3-5 alignment in his rookie year, will slide back to the Will spot and handle most of the coverage duties. Dan Morgan is a fine run defender who can rush the passer, but he's always banged up and isn't that fast. Morgan wouldn't be as effective behind an average defensive line. Veteran Chris Draft and rookie James Anderson round out the bench.
Marcus Washington out-tackled Lemar Marshall by the narrow margin of 98 to 93, but Washington is a much better defender. His average tackle occurred 3.2 yards downfield, while Marshall averaged 5.1 yards allowed per play. Washington is a true triple threat who plays the run well, can blitz, and breaks up a lot of passes. Marshall did pick off four passes and was solid in run defense, but he mixed big plays with big mistakes in coverage. Warrick Holdman, a stay-at-home run defender, holds the edge over pass-rusher Chris Clemons at the Will position. Rookie Rocky McIntosh suffered a knee injury in minicamp, but he's a favorite of coordinator Gregg Williams and should be starting by mid-season.
Jeremiah Trotter is excellent when attacking the line of scrimmage, whether on a blitz or when shooting a gap on a running play. But he's a liability against play-action passes, and he doesn't have exceptional lateral range. Dhancin' Dhani Jones needs to spend less time getting jiggy at Florida nightclubs and designing high-fashion pocket squares and more time on his football career. Shawn Barber is fast but as brittle as a pretzel rod. Matt McCoy is being touted as the next Trotter and should start on the weak side. Oft-injured Greg Richmond will get a chance to unseat Jones. Backup Mark Simoneau is a veteran who is still effective in coverage. Rookie Chris Gocong may start his career as a pass rush specialist.
Gunther Cunningham built this unit to attack the line of scrimmage. But with Herm Edwards emphasizing a Cover-2 scheme, Cunningham will ask his linebackers to drop into coverage more often. Derrick Johnson, coming off a fine rookie season, should make the transition smoothly: he's a read-and-react player with great range. Kawika Mitchell, a gap shooter in the Jeremiah Trotter mold, may have a harder time adjusting. Kendrell Bell had an off year in 2005 and may have been a system player in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme. Coverage has never been his strong suit. Speedy Keyaron Fox will be the first linebacker off the bench if he can stay off the IR.
Andra Davis will be surrounded by new faces as Romeo Crennel injects some big-play ability into his 3-4 package. Willie McGinest reunites with Crennel this year; he's still a pass-rush threat, and he has great read-and-react ability against the run. Rookie Kamerion Wimbley was a defensive end in college with excellent pass-rush chops. Fellow rookie D'Qwell Jackson is smart enough to learn Crennel's quantum physics system in a hurry. Matt Stewart and Chaun Thompson will hold down the fort if the rookies aren't ready. Like most units in Cleveland, this one will rank higher in a year or two.
Karlos Dansby is a rising star, finishing third in the NFL among linebackers with 17 Passing Defeats. Dansby gets plenty of opportunities to blitz in the Cardinals' system, but he's also skilled in coverage and disruptive against the run. James Darling started in the middle last season, but he's a coverage linebacker who has lost a step and a half. Orlando Huff is still tough between the tackles but can be exposed in coverage. Darryl Blackstock should replace Huff on the weak side; like Dansby, Blackstock is a pass rusher and penetrator by trade. Gerald Hayes, who missed the 2005 season with a knee injury, will push Darling.
Johnathan Vilma's gaudy tackle totals were inflated by the fact that the Jets defense was lousy, and he made his share of clean-up tackles after eight-yard runs. But Vilma led NFL linebackers in Rushing Stops, Rushing Defeats, and Total Stops last season, so he was clearly doing something right. Only Donnie Edwards made a higher percentage of his team's tackles. Vilma will only have a little more help this year: Brad Cassell is a high-motor defender with no cover skills, Victor Hobson is an adequate stack-and-shed player with limited speed, and Bryan Thomas is a converted end. Why do teams switch to the 3-4 defense when they lack three good linebackers, let alone four?
In two or three years, A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge will be enforcers in the mold of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. In 2006, however, they'll take their rookie lumps. Both youngsters are quick studies who will improve as the season goes on. Nick Barnett looked like a top prospect in 2003 but hasn't developed. Free-agent Ben Taylor is a top run defender who may start over Hodge at the start of the year. Backup Bobby Poppinga is a special teams ace.
Free agent acquisition Will Witherspoon finished seventh in the league in Passing Stops and can handle most running backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Pisa Tinoisamoa is a converted safety who was asked to do too much last year but can also take care of himself in coverage. Dexter Coakley, Brandon Chillar, and Raonall Smith will battle for the Sam position. Chillar is the best pure run defender of the trio, and the Rams may need the 250-pounder on the field to complement 230-pound (when wet) Witherspoon and Tinoisamoa.
Depth was such an issue for coordinator Rob Ryan last year that he switched to a 4-2-5 base defense. Ryan hopes with rookie Thomas Howard starting, he won't have to play mad scientist with his alignments. Howard is a quintessential Raiders rookie, an uber-athlete who's a little lacking in the preparation department. He faces a big jump from UTEP to the pros. Danny Clark, the team's best defensive player in 2004, revealed his limitations last year: he's tough and aggressive, but he can be blocked or beaten in coverage. Rookie Kirk Morrison was picked on in coverage last year: he tackled receivers an average of 9.5 yards downfield, the worst figure in the NFL for a starter. Morrison was much better against the run, and he learned a lot from his baptism under fire. Depth? The Raiders don't need no stinkin' depth!
E.J. Henderson is an adequate run defender who must leave the field on passing downs. Ben Leber, a free agent who played in San Diego's 3-4 scheme, is a stack-and-fill defender coming off a foot injury. Dontarrious Thomas is currently listed as the starter in the middle, but Thomas is a nickel backer at best; his average tackle in 2005 came a league-high 8.6 yards downfield. Napoleon Harris, a free agent bust last season, will get a chance to unseat Thomas. If rookie Chad Greenway develops quickly, he'll play the Will position and Henderson will move inside.
Bad teams are bad because they don't develop the talent they acquire. Take the Lions (please). Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman were collegiate superstars who flashed big-play potential in their rookie seasons, but neither player had progressed beyond the "prospect" stage, and both are coming off injuries. New coordinator Donnie Henderson will try to get more from them than the past coaching staff did. Rookie Ernie Sims, the likely starter on the weak side, has outstanding speed but suffered at least six concussions in college. He's athletic, undisciplined, and always hurt — sounds like a Lions linebacker.
The Texans have been a 3-4 team since their inception, but they've never had four good linebackers to rub together. New coordinator Richard Smith is switching to the 4-3; now, he just needs to find three lukewarm bodies. Marlon Greenwood made 112 tackles last year, but his average play occurred 6.8 yards downfield. Free agent Sam Cowart isn't toast yet, but the butter is on the counter. Kailee Wong, Shantee Orr, and rookie DeMeco Ryans will battle for the Sam position. Many of the bench players are 3-4 specialists who will get cut if they can't fit the new scheme.
Every year, the Colts lose another starting linebacker to free agency. They always find a way to compensate, partly because their high-flying offense keeps opponents passing and allows their defense to spend 75 percent of the game in nickel coverage. This year, the team let David Thornton sign with the Titans, leaving Gary Brackett and Cato June as the team's only experienced linebackers. Brackett is a tough fireplug who fills the hole well for a 230-pounder, but he suffered a minor injury in minicamp and isn't built to take a pounding. June is a converted safety who doesn't fill any holes but excels in coverage. Third-year pro Gilbert Gardner, who weighs 225 pounds after a trip to Waffle House, rounds out Ron Meeks' pesky band of Ewoks. The staff is high on rookie Freddie Keiaho, a former kickoff returner who fits the team's fast/tiny/cheap linebacker paradigm.
The losses of Julian Peterson and DE/OLB tweener Andre Carter had the Niners scrambling to fill holes in their 3-4 linebacking corps this off-season. Hard-nosed Brandon Moore, a top special teamer who started 10 games on the inside last season, will replace Peterson. Rookie Manny Lawson, a college defensive end, will be the primary pass rushing linebacker. Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich are experienced and steady in the middle. Ulbrich lacks range and is coming off a shoulder injury, but he's smart and tough between the tackles. Smith has good range, but many of his tackles are Little Dutch Boy efforts on this leaky defense.
Coordinator Gary Gibbs has assembled a soggy gumbo of fading veterans, failed prospects, and mediocre holdovers from the Jim Haslett era. Ronald McKinnon can still thump running backs on first and second downs, but he's useless in pass coverage. Anthony Simmons, a former standout in Seattle, hasn't played a full season in five years. Scott Fujita was considered expendable in Kansas City and Dallas. Colby Bockwoldt is a good tackler with some range in run defense. Terrence Melton, T.J. Slaughter, and Alfred Fincher are the backups; only Fincher has starting potential.
Re: Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
25?? that is crazy. I thought maybe atleast 15 at the least. that shows that mike tanier know nothing. but good post RTG
Re: Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
Since when is Pisa a converted safety? He played middle and weakside linebacker in college, and we only briefly experimented with trying him at safety in the offseason prior to 2005.
It seems a little silly for him to say that the Jets don't have enough linebackers for a 4-3 much less a 3-4 and that the Packers' best players are rookies, and then still rank both teams higher than us. Oh well, if the rankings are based off how our defense performed last year, we really can't expect to be ranked too high.
Re: Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
I'll take Pisa, Will, Brandon and Dexter any time. Last seasons defense was the awful bend but don't break approach. This season will be alot different. Size and weight are referred to......let me mention a few names, Zach Thomas, London Fletcher, Tedy Bruschi........ Our linebackers will be moving up that list fast.
Re: Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
The guy doing these may just be a Hawk fan......the Hawks are gonna have a falloff this year.
Re: Fox sports Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
Going into this I didn't expect our Lb's to be rated all that high. Looking at last year I can understand why they would rank us this far down. We were horrible on defense last year. We were constantly missing tackles, being out of position, and allowing 3 year gains to become 15 yard gains. But I think that with our new acquistions that we will be ranked higher next year,