The second level of defense is the most fluid of the three levels. The differences between a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive scheme give completely different roles to the outside linebacker position title, and that holds true in the NFC North.
This discrepancy puts a little twist on the evaluation of linebackers for the sake of this series. The Vikings, for instance, usually only have two linebackers on the field in their nickel-heavy defense — Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. But Green Bay and Chicago, who each run a 3-4 scheme, frequently deploy four linebackers.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s important to evaluate players based on the role they’re filling. That means evaluating pass rushers like Leonard Floyd and Clay Matthews and coverage players such as Eric Kendricks and Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Minnesota’s linebackers were a key component to its elite defensive performance in the 2017 season, and it should be no surprise to see that group at the top of these rankings.
As always, an update on the points standings (through defensive line) before diving into the rankings:
- Green Bay — 17
- Minnesota — 16
- Detroit — 14
- Chicago — 13
1. Minnesota (4 points)
When you think of Vikings linebackers, you think of the star-studded UCLA duo that brings unparalleled consistency in Mike Zimmer’s nickel package. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks provide versatility and athleticism rarely seen from a pair of linebackers on the same defense.
Barr, a three-time Pro Bowler, has the size, speed and quickness to cover both tight ends and running backs in coverage, where he recorded six pass deflections in 2017. The 6’5″, 255-pounder is an efficient pass rusher when called upon and serves as Zimmer’s on-field play-caller.
Kendricks, meanwhile, is one of the most underrated cover linebackers in the NFL. He has what appears to be unlimited range chasing running backs out of the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Kendricks was the third-best cover linebacker in the NFL in 2017 in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap, only allowing 0.71.
Depth is a slight concern for Minnesota after Barr and Kendricks. Ben Gedeon is the Vikings’ third starter in the 4-3 base as a strongside linebacker. Though he grades well against the run, Gedeon’s cover skills need developing before he is trusted as a full-time starter. Eric Wilson and Kentrell Brothers, both of whom of zero starting experience, are slated to serve as immediate backups.
Despite depth concerns, the Vikings’ heavy tendency to play nickel defense with their two Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers gives them the No. 1 spot in the linebacker rankings.
2. Chicago (3 points)
Da Bears have put together a really solid young defense that just needs a bit more polishing before it’s ready to destroy NFC North offenses. Chicago’s linebackers are young but extremely talented.
The outside linebackers in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense are Leonard Floyd and Sam Acho. Floyd battled injuries in 2017 but still managed 4.5 sacks in just over nine games played and his athleticism is a threat to opposing tackles around the league. Acho, meanwhile, didn’t register the sack numbers but provides more coverage versatility should Fangio want to drop him back.
The Bears lost Jerrell Freeman from the inside linebacker group, but they gained Roquan Smith with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to pair with experienced veteran Danny Trevathan. Smith and Trevathan could prove to be a terrific pair of inside linebackers that rivals Kendricks and Barr in Minnesota.
Additionally, Nick Kwiatoski presents an excellent depth piece for the Bears behind Smith and Trevathan at inside linebacker. Chicago’s defense is really shaping up nicely and that includes its group of linebackers.
3. Green Bay (2 points)
Green Bay’s linebackers get the No. 3 ranking mostly due to Blake Martinez. The inside linebacker serves as the leader and, arguably, the best player of the Packers defense. He plays both the run and the pass well and is willing to cover anyone on the opposing team.
After Martinez, the Packers’ linebackers leave a little bit to be desired. Clay Matthews is certainly no longer the feared pass rusher he once was, though he did tally 7.5 sacks in 2017. Nick Perry is a viable pass rusher in his own right opposite Matthews but he isn’t bringing anything special to the table. Jake Ryan, the other inside linebacker with Martinez, is primarily a run-stopper but is easily exposed in coverage.
Martinez provides the brightest spot the Packers’ linebacker group. He tied for the league lead in tackles last season and is on par to make a serious run for Pro Bowl honors in his third season.
4. Detroit (1 point)
Placing Detroit No. 4 on this list might not be totally fair because the potential for this group to become very good very quickly is there. We might look back on this list in November and laugh at it.
However, this is about ranking these groups in June 2018 and, while Jarrad Davis had a sensational rookie season at middle linebacker in Detroit’s 4-3 defensive, the rest of the group needs to prove itself before it rises above No. 4. Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Devon Kennard, the projected starters at both outside linebacker spots, do not have a ton of experience as full-time starters. JRM has shown flashes of excellence in coverage, particularly against screens, but does have things to work on against the run.
For now, Detroit ranks below Green Bay. But it’s quite possible that I feel differently about that in a few months.
Updated Points Standings
We have a new leader.
- Minnesota — 20
- Green Bay — 19
- Chicago — 16
- Detroit — 15
Up next: Defensive Backs
Previous NFC North positional rankings: