Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Aug 2006

FO Ranks All 32 Teams on FOX: Linebackers

We're back after much technical difficulty, and we come bearing linebacker rankings. The Super Bowl champions finally top one of our rankings, with the NFC champions just a few spots behind. Maybe linebacker is actually the most important position on the field...

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 02 Aug 2006

46 comments, Last at 10 Aug 2006, 2:07pm by TracingError


by are-tee (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 9:07pm

Re. The Jets - did you just forget about Eric Barton?
He's certainly going to start ahead of Brad Kassel with a "K", whom you've obviously confused with New England's backup quarterback.

by Aaron Boden (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 9:24pm

When I saw this posted I was going to say Bears #1, but I have to agree with you that depth is a problem for them. I was absolutely hoping that Hillenmeyer would go somewhere else as I am underwhelmed by him.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 9:27pm

I really can't figure out the Eagles rankings here. Of course I think that the WILL spot is an unknown, given there's a second-year rookie starting, but I don't understand the criticism of either Jones or Trotter. I know Mike's an Eagles fan, and I know the popular belief is that linebacker is one of their weak spots, but I can't see it from the statistics.

Their run defense was fantastic when run at either left end (presumedly Jones) and middle (presumedly Trotter). Left tackle and right tackle were better than average, as well - only right end (presumedly Adams) was worse than average. So I don't really see how Jones is really a liability there.

As for their pass defense, Philly was fantastic versus tight ends and running backs, the two positions most likely to be in the linebacker's vicinity. So I don't really understand how Trotter or Jones could be considered a liability in coverage, either, unless the defensive backs are just that good.

Most people typically criticize Jones because of his lack of sacks/interceptions, but the SAM linebacker never really gets sacks for the Eagles since Johnson's been there.

Philly's real defensive weaknesses last year were passes to #1/#3 receivers, and less so runs around right end. Everywhere else according to FO statistics, they were above average, and frequently well above average (there had to be some reason they were nearly able to beat so many teams last year with that God-awful offense).

by Travis (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 9:31pm

From the Jets' linebacker ranking:

Why do teams switch to the 3-4 defense when they lack three good linebackers, let alone four?

If the Jets had 4 good defensive linemen, I'd agree, but the previous FO article ranked the Jets' defensive line as the worst in the league. For the Jets, the 25th best unit is an improvement.

by Rob Z. (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 10:27pm

As a Charger fan, I tend to believe that San Diego has an unmatched front 7...however in terms of just linebackers, I agree with a top 3 placement. The guys waiting in the wings (Wilhelm, Philips) can be serious playmakers once room opens up for them to become starters.

by Terry (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 10:51pm

I'm thinking the Broncos are a little better.. but really, that's nitpicking. Great article.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 11:19pm

Reggie Torbor and Alonzo Jackson looked OK in their 2005 December call-ups and will keep Lewis from having to put helmets on mannequins if the injury bug strikes again.

No comment.

by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 11:26pm

First of all I want to say that i have enjoyed this whole series of articles. Its been a great refresher course after months of not seeing a game.
For the most part I have had no problems with the rankings.
Should the skins be higher?
According to dvoa and just personal observation they have been really good the past two years.
As far as i can tell the LB's have been just as good as the DL and secondary.
I am a Cowboys fan so I don't think I drank the Gibbs/Williams koolaid.
I don't know, maybe a few sips

by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 11:29pm

re 3
Pat you watch the Eagles more than I do but from what I saw,
yeah, the Eagles secondary is really good

by MarkV (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 12:21am

"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."

That may be the most accurate thing I have ever heard about the current broncos.

by JasonK (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 1:00am

Just to flesh out a bit of comment 7's complaint about the Giants' assessment:

Alonzo Jackson is no longer a Giant, and his performance when he was with the team was far short of "OK." Torbor, though, has some promise, and is penciled in as Arrington's backup at the SAM spot.

Emmons is probably the starting WILL (Short has a distant chance), but 3rd-round rookie Gerris Wilkinson looks like the future here. (Tim Lewis claims that the roles of the SAM & WILL are essentailly the same in his defense.)

The other important player left unmentioned is Chase Blackburn, a 2nd-year pro who will probably be the backup MLB. He started one game after Pierce went down last season, but a neck injury soon took him out as well.

by Sergio (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 3:16am

Great article, indeed.

However, I would disagree that the leading tackler often is a good defender on a lousy defense. Zach Thomas (just to be homerish) often hovers near the top spot, and the Dolphins defense is consistently among the best ones...

or at least it did back in the day. :D

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 3:40am

12: It is often true. It's not always true, but it's often true. Adrian Wilson and Keith Bulluck are the classic examples.

I opened up this page already knowing who would be in last. The Saints LB group might just be the worst unit in football, period.

by Guest (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 3:58am

“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.�

This statement alone proves that the author knows nothing.

by bowman (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 9:16am

"14. Jaguars
Tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud make life easy for the Jaguars linebackers."

Yep, working behind the 17th ranked D-Line really helps the linebackers. If FO switched these two spots, I could live with it, but anybody who thinks that the Jag's D-Line (including backups) is worse than the Jag's Linebackers (including backups) is sorely deficient at either 1. watching Jacksonville's games, or 2. analyzing productive depth. I'm going with 1.

It is interesting to see a team that went 10-4, with an average # of injuries, and lost only 3 starters during the offseason (1 was an obvious upgrade) be consistantly ranked in the middle of the pack.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 10:08am

Just to flesh out a bit of comment 7’s complaint about the Giants’ assessment:

Actually, I wasn't complaining about the assessment. I'm an amused Steelers' fan.

'Zo was one of Bill Cowher's more notable drafting mistakes.

by Drew (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 11:38am

The Texans have been a 3-4 team since their inception, but they've never had four good linebackers to rub together.

Thanks. Now I'll be trying to get homoerotic imagery out of my head for the rest of the day.

by Ben (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 12:09pm

Good article all around. The Cards are ranked pretty accurately at twenty-two but I think that they have the potential to be a top-ten unit. Hayes is good in the middle and should start over Darling. Huff failed to impress last year and will battle Blackstock. Former first-round DE Calvin Pace has converted to OLB and will provid depth all around. Clancy Pendergast is a good coordinator and I thinkd that by the middle of the year the Cardinals will be in the 10-15 range. The Darling, Hayes, and Dansby are all solid and BlackStock has shown potential. Dansby was my vote in the awards last year for player most likely to break out.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 12:20pm

Re 3 & 9:

To echo thad's point, the Eagles' secondary of Shepherd/Brown/Lewis/Dawkins really makes up for the poor coverage skills of the LB's. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Trotter, but his "ability" to drop into coverage is way down on the list of reasons for my love. And I doubt that any of the outside guys will be going to a ProBowl any time soon. If Barber can stay healthy for 16 games and recapture some of what he had during his last stint with the team he'll be a significant upgrade. And I'm pretty high on Gocong, but that's probably (read: definitely) the green KoolAid talking.

The editions to the d-line will go a long way to helping the linebackers get the job done, but they are clearly the weakest of the team's three defensive units. If I wanted to quibble, I'd say they should crack the top half of the league but I can't really agrue with 19th.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 12:48pm

Does anyone else think the Bengals are a bit too high up there at #7? I would say efficient pass defense against RBs isn't nearly as important as efficient run defense for a linebacking unit.

by mawbrew (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 2:12pm

"Thomas Davis ... will slide back to the Will spot and handle most of the coverage duties."

Quick, slightly off-topic question - how/why does the weakside LB (the guy on the opposite side of the TE) end up handling most of the coverage duties? I've seen this stated matter-of-factly previously, but I don't get it. What am I missing?

BTW, #20, I was stunned to see the Bengals that highly rated. But that's purely based on anecdotal observation, I haven't looked at the stats.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 2:48pm

I like this article, but one of the problems both with it and is partially unavoidable is the impact a defensive line has on the linebacker core. The only problem I see with the article is its sort of "pick and choose" when to allow the D-line to affect ranking.

The Jags have a good D-line that helps their LBs, so they're adjusted downward and get a middle spot, for example. but the Bears have an excellent D-line as well and their LBs are 2nd in the league when in reality if their D-line was worse, they'd probably drop a few spots (Not that I'm saying that have bad LBs, but if you put that crew behind the Jets D-line, I don't think you'd be calling them a #2 unit).

I think in situations where you can't really seperate performance, you need to just state how well they've played with their current situation and grade them on that, and not so much as another unit making one unit look good.

by Marko (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 4:31pm

"Does anyone else think the Bengals are a bit too high up there at #7?"

Yes, largely because some of their LBs (Odell Thurman, Ahmad Brooks) apparently have been "too high" in the past.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 4:34pm

After 3-4 years reading and commenting here, I finally have a major bone to pick that is not related to Indy vs New England.

The Colts had a decent D last year, right? Not great, but it actually WON a few of their games. In fact, there was a stretch of about 4 early games when they had the lowest scoring D in the league. Their DL got ranked 16 a few days ago, which seemed a little low to me, but I figured, okay, that'll be picked up by the LB corps. WRONG! They are small, but #30? That's "just about worst in the league" territory and the history does not back that up. (The offense had an off year and they won 14 games, with the 3rd worst LB corps in the league? I don't think that's possible.) Is it losing David "Walk-on" Thornton that caused them to be ranked #30? I liked him and DT Larry Triplett, but this is a pretty harsh penalty. Are we just going by combine measurables? Even if they are terrible vs the run, are yo ualso saying they are equally terrible in space against the pass? I just don't see that. Or will their DB corps being up the overall D ranking? I like Bob Sanders' highlight reel tackling, but their smurfy safeties and CBs are generally under 5-9.

Every year one of their young, cheap, fast guys goes away via free agency and makes big money elsewhere... SOMEBODY thinks their LBs are good. Like the #1 ranked team, they just plug somebody else in and seem to improve.

How can this D overall have been decent last year (ranked #8 overall in DVOA), if when the individual units are disagregated they are all so mediocre or terrible? I think there is a logical disconnect somewhere in the ranking, no?

by Zac (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 5:02pm

All I have to offer is a correction. The Packers backup LB is named Brady Poppinga, not Bobby Poppinga.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 6:11pm

In fact, there was a stretch of about 4 early games when they had the lowest scoring D in the league.

The 4 game stretch you're talking about was Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cleveland, and Tennessee. Of those 4, only Jacksonville had an above-average offense.

How can this D overall have been decent last year (ranked #8 overall in DVOA), if when the individual units are disagregated they are all so mediocre or terrible?

Still have defensive backs, mind you.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 6:18pm

OK, I've had just about enough. Every single time Larry Foote is mentioned, there has to be some snarky comment about him being "underrated" or "unsung", and then some jerk goes and links to that one thread I'm linking to. Can't we just let it die already? Do we have to drudge up the idiocy of a few loud Pittsburgh fans protesting an article about their team that was completely complimentary for the thousandth time? Can't we all just get along?

Deal with it a-hole.

by Drew (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 7:41pm

How can this D overall have been decent last year (ranked #8 overall in DVOA), if when the individual units are disagregated they are all so mediocre or terrible? I think there is a logical disconnect somewhere in the ranking, no?

And I wouldn't expect the DBs to bring up the average ranking too much. I usually think of the secondary as the team's biggest weakness. But let's not forget, a defense (or any other unit for that matter) is not just the sum of its players. There's the coaching and the system.

"System guy" and "one-dimensional" are often used as dismissives, but many of the Colts defensive players are one-dimensional system guys. Even Dwight Freeney. It's the coaches' job to put together a good system for them, and/or find players who fit the system. Polian and Dungy do that well.

With all that said, I still think 30th is too low. June is a Pro-Bowler. And I don't mean that in the "Kerry Collins is a Pro-Bowler" sense. One Pro-Bowler and a bunch of journeymen is better than what Houston has. I'd also take Dungy and the Tampa-2 against a rookie head coach installing a new system. I can't believe I'm bitching about the differnce between 29th and 30th.

by Nilblog (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 8:19pm

The Saints are ranked too highly on this list.

by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 9:34pm

There’s the coaching and the system.

Actually, that's a good point. Is FO going to rank the coaches as well? After all, one good point here is that if the #8th ranked defense comes from the #30th ranked linebackers and the #16th ranked defensive line and, say, the #20th ranked secondary (I just made that up) that kindof implies that the coach has to be one of the top 5, at least defensively.

by Drew (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 9:48pm

Re 29

Agreed. I'd put them below the Pittsburgh second string, the Rhein Fire and the Rose-Hulman Fighting Engineers.

by dCalla (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 10:07pm

But where would you put them compared to the New York Sharks?

by thepeepshow (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 10:29pm

RE#31: Id have to disagree. Rose-Hulman Fighting Engineers are clearly overrated by the weakness of their DL and Backfield.

by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 10:31pm

I think the 'Skins are ranked fairly.

The staff has a huge man-crush on Holdman, and his presence alone should drop the 'Skins backers by four more spots... he seriously sucks and all the fans think so. He has killed the defense on a couple of plays... most notably both (?) of Tatum Bell's long runs to the end zone last year... and I'm sure quite a few more. He's in the hole where he should be but he either gets juked, overpowered, and when he does make a tackle he is dragged for 4 yards.

I expect Rocky to start near the end of the season and nothing more... until the staff sees Holdman for what he is.

I'm not so sure about the comment about Lemar Marshall. I think he's better in coverage than Washington... he is a converted safety to LB. I think the play I remember most is him a step behind Jerry Porter as Porter hauled in a long ball. Matching up a LB on Jerry Porter is sheer idiocy Gregg Williams!

Other than that play the other play that sticks out in my mind is his interception against Philadelphia in Week 16.

by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 3:04am

Atlanta's #16 rank? Generous.

I hate to say it (B/c I'm both an ATL fan & GTech Alum), but I don't really get why Brooking is considered a star. He's really good, he's got heart and he's tough. But why is he an automatic annual pro-bowler? Nobody would contend that he's on par with really dominant LB's like Trotter, Urlacher and Spikes.

Okay, let's pretend that you had ATL's D-line at #16 and LB's at #26 and we'll call it even.

by J (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 4:22am

The interesting thing about the Steelers and LBs is the last LB/DEs drafted by the Steelers were A Jackson (2nd)...not on team anymore. Adibi (5th round?) was drafted, but never played. K Bell (2nd) is not on the team.

Of the guys on the team...
1st round Farrior - UFA NYJ
3rd Porter
4th Foote
5th haggans

James Harrison..undrafted
Kreidwalt..6th (UFA detroit)
Arnold Harrison...undrafted (may make team)

the last LB drafted by the Steelers and on the team is Foote.

by admin :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 10:14am

How can this D overall have been decent last year (ranked #8 overall in DVOA), if when the individual units are disagregated they are all so mediocre or terrible? I think there is a logical disconnect somewhere in the ranking, no?

Yes. The logical disconnect is that each of these lists were compiled by a different writer. While we did try to give each other advice, I gave each writer the freedom to make his own final decisions about the rankings. They are not meant to be "added together" to attempt to get the team's "total ranking" and any attempt to do so is going to look ridiculous, unless you believe that the FO writers all think with a single hive mind.

by bowman (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 10:38am


You know that us stat-obsessed people will add up the values to get an "average" rating of these articles. Yes, they will look ridiculous, but it will merely reflect the ridiculousness of the rating system.

Somebody is going to average out the rankings of the total team, offense, and defense, (and coach?). These rankings will both be compared to last year's DVOA and the upcoming year's DVOA.

At the very least, it will show if teams really do have an "underrated" person or unit, as having a top 10 team defensive DVOA, while having no individual defensive unit in the top 10 of these articles, will show either that they are well coached, or that you are not emphasizing the correct factors in compiling these rankings.

by morganja (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 2:45pm

This is the first time I've heard that Carolina LB Morgan "isn't that fast'. I've always seen him on the field as a very fast linebacker and all the press seem to label him fast. Is there something I'm missing?

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 8:53pm

RE: Redskins

Yeah, Warrick Holdman definitely holds the defense and the ranking of the LB corps here back. Check the DVOA for Dlines above to see how, though the Skin Dline contained the run fairly well, those runners who made it into the 2nd tier of the defense were able to make like Tatum Bell and break off some long ones with way too much regularity to rank the Redskins much higher than they are.

by B (not verified) :: Sat, 08/05/2006 - 12:09am

38: There are some flaws in your argument. First of all, a subjective ranking like these lists isn't necessarily going to coorelate with DVOA. Secondly the lists try to take into account factors that arn't going to be measured in DVOA, like the change in age/experience of the players, plus any free agent additions or departures. Lastly there's the problem of the different writers. Two intelligent writers could look at the front seven of a defense and make opposite conclusions about where the strength of that defense is.

by bowman (not verified) :: Sat, 08/05/2006 - 3:27pm

41. Obviously comparing these rankings with the future DVOA isn't a direct comparison. I'm merely stating that having these rankings on this site INVITES comparison. The fact that different writers compiled the lists to me is immaterial - a higher than expected performance would show that that writer subjectively weighed the factors incorrectly (such as weighing "named" players too much, discounting rookies too much, weighing the back-ups at the position too heavily, etc.)

by cinfan (not verified) :: Sun, 08/06/2006 - 7:32pm

I agree that the bengals are ranked too high here. You are right on with your run defense comment being more important than pass defense against RBs. The next responding post about Thurman and Brooks being too high is also, sadly, appropriate. IF this unit stays clean off the field and grows together on it, then they have the potential to be easily #7 or higher, but those are two really large and rather improbable ifs.

by paytonrules (not verified) :: Sun, 08/06/2006 - 10:57pm

unless you believe that the FO writers all think with a single hive mind.


Well thanks for ruining my image of you guys all dressed up like the Borg.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Mon, 08/07/2006 - 5:24pm

Speaking of tackle totals, does anyone have an 'unofficial' single-season record for tackles? I know Randy Gradishar used to get 200+ tackles every year with Denver, and Ray Lewis is sometimes credited with tackles in games he doesn't even suit up for, but the highest 'unofficial' tackle total I've seen is MLB Stan Blinka of the 1980 New York Jets tallying 263 tackles.

by TracingError (not verified) :: Thu, 08/10/2006 - 2:07pm

Re: Redskins linebackers and long runs

The problem is that they blitz, so the safeties are the second tier if the rb sees daylight, not that the lb's are missing behind the line.