We spent Monday looking at the 3-4 outside linebackers and today we’ll call up their 4-3 counterparts.
In our continuing look at how players have graded over three years, we’re turning to those outside linebackers in the three-man units. Pass rushing isn’t quite as important to this group, but we’re still looking for those top players making an impact to their teams defense.
As per usual, there’s a snap count minimum to qualify. Looking at the five guys who played the most snaps, we found the average and then eliminated anyone who played less than 50% of that number (given how many in this group share time). The line falls at 1585 snaps.
1. Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens
Even though he’s top of this list, you wonder sometimes if Johnson is a little miscast in how the Ravens use him. A truly elite linebacker who is unmatched in run defense, Johnson has never (nor can you imagine him becoming) a player who puts the quarterback under consistent pressure. But, he’s a huge part of one of the greatest run defenses in the league, and has finished with our highest grade among 4-3 OLBs in run defense for two of the past three years.
2. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ franchise player has never hit the heights of that superb 2008 year, but he’s consistently been one of the top outside linebackers in the league. You don’t get franchised over Ray Edwards and Sidney Rice if that’s not the case (even if it may be a suspect decision). Has ranked in our top five, two of our three years.
3. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
Was our top ranked outside linebacker in 2009. In fact, only Patrick Willis had a higher rating than him of all linebackers (not including 3-4 outside linebackers). Started slowly in 2010, with too much being expected of him in terms of covering tight ends like Antonio Gates. Picked it up though, and may be the best linebacker in the league nobody talks about. Best defender on Jags roster, and can play any number of roles in any defensive alignment.
4. David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks
Should Hawthorne be in this, given his best season came as a middle linebacker in 2009? The former undrafted free agent burst onto the scene with the kind of playmaking Seahawks fans were expecting from first round selection Aaron Curry. Still, Hawthorne lost his MLB spot to Tatupu, and took over for Leroy Hill and his legal troubles, though, for some reason, was kept off the field on third downs.
5. Keith Bulluck, New York Giants
Even as age slows him, Bulluck remains one of the most solid performers at the outside linebacker spot. He’s not the athlete he was, but the move to New York (and a two down role) has prolonged his impressive and understated career. He’s what you want in a strongside linebacker and has never needed huge tackle numbers to show it.
6. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Briggs would be an awful lot higher if it wasn’t for a frankly terrible 2009 year. The burden of making up for no Brian Urlacher seemed too much and he ended the year with a negative grade. Compare that to his impressive 2010, and fantastically good 2008 and it gives you a real appreciation for how much better Urlacher makes players around him. A top talent.
7. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans
With just two years, Cushing makes this list largely on the back of that superb rookie year. His performances were so good that it made people assume linebackers straight out of college didn’t need a period of adjustment (something other have disproved). Finished second in our 2009 rankings, showing incredible tools and an ability to make plays. 2010 year was hampered massively by a suspension.
8. Geno Hayes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You get some good and some bad with Hayes. The good is he’s a playmaker, able to get to quarterbacks and runners alike with a reckless abandon style. The bad is he undoes some of that really good work with a lot of negative plays. He’s gets caught out of position, gives up touchdowns and misses tackles. He’s a boom or bust type player, but when he’s on, there are very few more exciting linebackers to watch.
9. James Anderson, Carolina Panthers
The Panther really broke out in a contract year, taking advantage of some injuries to cement his status as a starting caliber linebacker. What’s more, he displayed a previously unseen ability when it came to playmaking – rushing the passer, dropping into coverage or just going after running backs. It’s why in 2010 he finished third overall in our rankings.
10. Justin Durant, Jacksonville Jaguars
You know what you’re going to get with Justin Durant. He is excellent going downhill or sideline to sideline. At times, he looks as good as anyone in this regard, being one of those linebackers who has no problem shedding blocks and making plays. As good as he is that, when he’s left in space he’s not so good and thus he really needs to be limited to a two down role. Top end talent though.