Making the Grade – 3-4 Outside Linebackers, 2008-2010

| July 18, 2011

We’ve already run through the defensive linemen and all of the offensive positions, so we’ll now tackle the remainder of our defensive sets, to give you an idea of the most consistently strong players over the past three years. The 3-4 outside linebackers are today’s focus.
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Standard rules apply: we looked at the five 3-4 OLBs who played the most snaps, found the average and then went with 60% of those snaps as a qualifying minimum (because of the relatively low number of 3-4 OLBs out there, we dropped the qualifying number of snaps a little bit as copared to what we’ve asked for other spots).
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This left players needing 1897 snaps to be considered.  Champion.
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1. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

Lost in all the fallout and chatter that came as a result of the big fines he was hit with, people seem to not realize just how well Harrison is playing. What’s remarkable is that he still puts up huge pass rushing numbers, even when he’s rushing 150 times less than some of the top pass rushers. That speaks volumes for his versatility, as he’s a truly complete outside linebacker who can do it all.

Grade:  +114.8
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2. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys

The interesting thing about Ware is the more experience he gets, the more he seems to become a pure pass rusher more so than an outside linebacker. That’s a bit unfair perhaps, but when you compare how complete Ware’s game was in 2008 and 2009, to the pass rush fest that was 2010 (with other elements of his game seeming to take a hit), it’s an interesting thing to watch.

Grade:  +109.2
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3.  Lamarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are going to tie Woodley up because they won’t be able to keep on franchising him for ever. An extremely dependable player, he is predominantly a pass rusher, but unlike some players on this list, doesn’t look lost when dropping into coverage. Having two players like that gives the Steelers the kind of versatility with their defense that means you don’t know who to watch out for most.

Grade:  +93.6
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4.  Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs

2010 was a real breakout year for Hali, feasting on below average offensive tackles and showing a relentless appetite for applying pressure. The Chief isn’t exactly the most complete OLB, telegraphing whenever he is about to drop into coverage and looking a little unsure of himself when he does. Throw in a tendency to sell out for the pass, and you’d feel comfortable calling him one dimensional. But what a dimension it is.

Grade:  +76.9
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5.  Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

It really looked like Spencer was about ready to breakout after a 2009 where he was hitting the quarterback as much as anyone. He wasn’t terrible in 2010, but he seemed to find the shadow of DeMarcus Ware and rest in it. Sure, he’s an all-around player who contributes as much as anyone on running downs, but he didn’t really bring the heat. Works well with Ware, allowing him to attack the passer more.

Grade:  +52.6
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6.  Matt Roth, Cleveland Browns

An oft forgotten man, first as a number two to Joey Porter, and then as a member of the Browns (that’s enough to make most people forget about you). But when Roth has seen the field – and not been asked to play near enough every snap of the season (he faded in the second half of 2010) – he has produced more than his reputation would have you believe. Constantly brings pressure and helps in the run game, the soon-to-be free agent would make an excellent complement to a number of top tier, one-dimensional pass rushers (Kansas City, I’m looking at you).

Grade:  +41.4
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7.  Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

Matthews deserves credit for making this list even though he only he has two years of service under his belt. Still, it is a little perplexing that he has garnered such a strong reputation for his pass rushing when he’s not really done it consistently (certainly not the level of the guys at the top). That’s not a knock on him, as much as it is to the perception of him against more rounded players. Still only two years in and the best is probably yet to come.

Grade:  +39.0
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8.  Manny Lawson, San Francisco 49ers

He’s not a number one type outside linebacker, and he’s not going to get to the quarterback enough to really make you take notice, but Lawson will go about his game and have an impact on what quarterbacks do. A solid two way defender, it’s a little odd to see him mentioned as a possible 4-3 candidate (unless it would be in a role similar to Kamerion Wimbley) given he’s no superstar in coverage.

Grade:  +27.9
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9.  Bryan Thomas, New York Jets

This is an odd name to be in here, and one that just about falls into the category of 4-3 OLB given the Jets use of a hybrid defense. Thomas is the opposite of Tamba Hali in that he won’t get much pressure but he’s superb in reading and reacting to run plays. More of a two-down outside linebacker, you’ll get production but it won’t be flashy from the Jet.

Grade:  +24.2
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10.  Calvin Pace, New York Jets

It’s a little hard to figure out what happened to Calvin Pace this year. Perhaps it was the Jets using him more with his hand off the ground, but one year after performing oh so well, he performed oh so badly. Pace has always been a better player with his hand in the dirt, but even accounting for the extra snaps as a linebacker, you’re at a loss to explain such a down year.

Grade:  +3.2
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Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus
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  • tim tellean

    Good article Khaled. I agree that Harrison is thebest all-around 3-4 OLB. Ware or the Cowboys has really moved his game to a more sack/pass rush oriented player. Hali is all pass rush and sack and Clay Matthews is only shown when he makes a sack and is very demonstrative.

  • snowman88

    Great Article