Rankings: they’re stupid.
See, aren’t you glad you clicked on this article?
In all seriousness, rankings do serve a purpose. They help us compartmentalize and express how we view, well, anything. It could be ranking your favorite place to get french fries, your favorite action movies, the songs you listen to most at the gym. Whatever it is, everyone wants to know “who’s No. 1” or “who’s in your top 5”. But sometimes the topic at hand doesn’t always translate well to vertical numerical rankings.
Sports are all about rankings. Taking this player or this play over that one... when options are numerous, we want a list. Sometimes they’re important and useful, but other times there could be a handful of players, coaches, play calls, moments, whatever it is where there could honestly be three or four options you could all see as No. 1. When that’s the case and we try to force lists, the replies and comment sections are always aflame—it’s good for business and I like being employed, so I roll with it and even throw some gasoline on that fire every now and then. But I always try to be honest.
That’s what we’re here to do today: be honest. This offseason, ESPN polled more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts, and players to help rank some of the best at their position in the game. Their recent linebacker rankings got a lot of traction on social media for how polarizing they were, so I decided to take my own crack at ranking the top linebackers in the NFL to see how it stacks up against NFL’s rankings.
10. Deion Jones
ESPN rank: Myles Jack
The rest of the league chose Myles Jack to start their rankings at No. 10, but they left Jones off their list entirely, which I just couldn’t do. Jack and Jones are in similar situations where they are one of the only players worth mentioning on their defenses—at least that was the case in 2020. Both also boast a lot of athleticism in their games. Their ability to fly sideline to sideline is what makes them stand out. But coverage is going to be king in my rankings, and Jones has been so consistently good in coverage throughout his career and as of late. Jack is not to Jones’ level there.
9. Roquan Smith
ESPN rank: Demario Davis
I am not sure how Davis was as low as he was on the ESPN linebacker rankings. I have Smith here at No. 9, who really took a big step forward this past season as the centerpiece of that Chicago Bears defense, especially in coverage. At just 24 years old and coming off his best season, the best is yet to come for this former top-10 pick.
8. Devin White
ESPN rank: Tremaine Edmunds
White is the biggest drop-off player for me versus what the NFL had because he was ranked as the No. 1 linebacker on their list.
I want to be fair to White and how well he has played by saying that it’s incredibly impressive the level he impacts the game just two years into his career. As one of the fastest linebackers in the league (maybe the fastest), it feels like he can be everywhere at once. If you just watched the second half of the regular season and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ playoff run, you’d think White was a top-five linebacker. White attacks the line of scrimmage with a tenacity that is rarely matched. He is fast and strong in run support and is a force when blitzing between the tackles. But White is allowed to play as free as he does because Lavonte David is next to him. David is so good, so smart, and so reliable in coverage that it allows White to do what he does best with his eyes looking forward.
White is incredibly talented, but we don’t have to be hyperbolic to appreciate how good he is. He’s one of the best and most impactful linebackers in the league, but until his coverage impact improves, he’ll be out of the top five due to how many other great off-ball players there are around the NFL.
7. Dont’a Hightower
ESPN rank: Eric Kendricks
I think people just forget how good Hightower really is. For years and years, he has been the centerpiece of a New England Patriots defense that is constantly one of the best in the league. He’s patient, smart, aware, and when he hits you, he hits you like a ton of bricks. I honestly should have him higher on this list, but with him being 31 years old now and coming off a season where he didn't play at all due to opting out, I just don't know how much of that peak Hightower we’ll see in 2021. Regardless, he still deserves to be on this list.
6. Demario Davis
ESPN rank: Roquan Smith
When you think of the New Orleans Saints, you think of offense. You think of Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas. But you should also think of Davis on the other side of the ball.
He’s long been one of the more underappreciated players in the league when it comes to national recognition, but the fact of the matter is, from the moment he was named the starting linebacker for them, that defense has only gotten better with each season. His feel for coverage is impactful, and he has truly been elite over the past three or four years.
In ESPN’s piece, they had a quote about Davis from an NFL coach that said, "I know coaches who have coached Hall of Famers who say Davis is as good as any linebacker they've ever coached.”
5. Darius Leonard
ESPN rank: Lavonte David
We’ll get to David later. Leonard is just so good. As I said at the top of this article, rankings can sometimes be stupid because there are days where I would flip the last spot or two in my top-five linebackers with Leonard, Davis, and Hightower. They’re all just so good.
Leonard is the lifeblood of that Indianapolis Colts defense. He’s good in coverage, a playmaker when the ball comes his way, and a reliable tackler. He’s not a thumper, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s an impact player and a tier-one linebacker.
4. Eric Kendricks
ESPN rank: Darius Leonard
When you play in the middle of the defense, it’s not just about what you can individually do to impact the play and the ball. You have to be elite at recognition, anticipation, and communication. That’s Kendricks, and that’s why, for many years now, he’s been known as one of the best in the league. There are some younger guys who are hitting their stride coming to his level, but no way I’m taking this guy out of my top five.
3. Bobby Wagner
ESPN rank: Bobby Wagner
Hey, would you look at that! We have the same guy at No. 3.
I think you can make a legit argument for any of the next three linebackers I’m about to name to be the best at their position. Wagner is known for his days with the Legion of Boom defense in Seattle, but he’s only gotten better as the Legion of Boom days have become a speck in the rearview mirror. For years, Wagner has been the standard for excellence when it comes to both run stopping and pass coverage impact. He’s also missed just two games since 2015 and has played more than 90% of his defense’s snaps every year since then.
2. Lavonte David
ESPN rank: Fred Warner
One of the greatest travesties in pro football is the lack of accolades David has to represent what has been a Hall of Fame-worthy career on the field. David’s numbers and film are right up there with Wagner and Luke Kuechly over the last decade, yet he has just one All-Pro and one Pro Bowl to show for it. David is a major reason why White was No. 1 on the ESPN top 10 list, and that’s why he’s as high as No. 2 in mine.
1. Fred Warner
ESPN rank: Devin White
Warner is unbelievable. Then you factor in that he’s just 24 years old and his work becomes even more impressive.
Warner’s feel for coverage and his athletic ability to match it is second to none right now. In 2020, he was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded linebacker and posted an elite coverage grade of 91.4. In an age where NFL offenses are getting even faster and even more willing to do whatever they can to attack open space, specifically over the middle against “slower” linebackers, Warner is no mismatch.
It is rare to find a player who has both football IQ and overall athleticism at an elite level, but it appears that’s exactly what Warner has at such a young age.