August 23, 2012

Best Outside Linebackers in the NFL Entering 2012: The Top 15

#94 DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys


The 2012 Preseason is on going, meaning the regular season is fast approaching. I've decided to rank the top 15 defensive ends entering the 2012 NFL based on a combination of factors such as production, talent, and overall skill set. Both 4-3 and 3-4 backers are listed here. In the future I'll try to separate them, but for now, they are mixed in.

Top 15 Entering the 2012 Season: Quarterbacks / Running Backs / Wide Receivers / Tight Ends / Defensive Ends / Defensive Tackles / Outside Linebackers



1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 254 lbs.
Age: 30 | Experience: 8 Years


2011 Season Stats:
58 Tackles, 6 STF, 19.5 Sacks, 2 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced, Fumble Recovered

Career Stats:
480 Tackles, 48 STF, 99.5 Sacks, INT, 22 PBU, 27 Fumbles Forced, 5 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
16 Tackles, 2 STF, 4.0 Sacks, Fumble Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
6-Time Pro Bowl Selection
4-Time First Team All-Pro Selection
2-Time Second Team All-Pro Selection
2-Time NFL Sacks Leader
2008 NFC Defensive Player of the Year
NFL All Decade Team (2000s)









Analysis: Not only is DeMarcus Ware the best inside linebacker in football, he is the best pass rusher in the entire NFL.

Off the ball, Ware is probably the quickest pass rusher in football. He can get to the quarterback using his amazing speed or his incredible strength.

Many people want to discredit Ware as a run defender. Though he may not be "great" he is very solid, and can be just as disruptive in the backfield getting to the running back as he does the quarterback.

His production also stands out above anything else. After an 8 sack rookie season in 2005, Ware has recorded at least 11 sacks in each of the last six seasons (All Pro Bowl seasons), even going for a career high 20 sacks in 2008 (19.5 in 2011).

No matter how you spin it, Ware is the best pass rusher and outside linebacker in the league. He is also arguably one of the top 5 players in the NFL as well.





2. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 260 lbs.
Age: 29 | Experience: 10 Years


2011 Season Stats:
70 Tackles, 10 STF, 14.0 Sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 7 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
566 Tackles, 66 STF, 82.5 Sacks, 7 INT, 44 PBU, 27 Fumbles Forced, 10 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
50 Tackles, 1 STF, 10.0 Sacks, 3 Fumbles Forced, 1 PBU

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
5-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time First Team All-Pro Selection
1-Time Second Team All-Pro Selection
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2003)
NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2011)
AFC Defensive Player of the Year (2011)
2-Time AFC Defensive Player of the Month
Ravens All-Time Career Sack Leader







Analysis: Entering the 2012 season, Terrell Suggs is expected to miss significant time due to an Achilles injury. Hopefully he can still have an impact if he returns.

Despite the expectation that he will miss the majority of the upcoming season, Suggs still enters 2012 as one of the top pass rushers/3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL. The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year had a career high 14 sacks last season, and it was obviously his best season as a pro.

Suggs is obviously an excellent pass rusher, and there are some that believe he is an even better run defender. He is instinctive, a hard-hitter, and he forces a lot of turnovers (see above stats).

He may not have monster 20 sack seasons on his resume, but his consistent production as well as his high football IQ makes him one of the best in the business.





3. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 242 lbs.
Age: 34 | Experience: 9 Years


2011 Season Stats:
59 Tackles, 5 STF, 9.0 Sacks, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
547 Tackles, 41 STF, 58.0 Sacks, 5 INT, 19 PBU, 27 Fumbles Forced, 7 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
50 Tackles, 3 STF, 6.5 Sacks, INT, 3 PBU

Super Bowl Stats:
8 Tackles, 1 STF, 1.0 Sack, INT, 1 PBU

Career Accomplishments:
5-Time Pro Bowl Selection
4-Time All-Pro Selection
2-Time Super Bowl Champion
3-Time AFC Champion
NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2008)
2-Time AFC Defensive Player of the Month









Analysis: One of the most feared and fearless defenders in football, James Harrison ranks as one of the NFL's best 3-4 outside linebackers. He missed five games last season due to an eye injury, but was still very productive in 12 games.

Harrison is a complete pass rusher, and over the last five seasons has compiled 54 sacks. He is also very good in coverage and is a smart run defender.

He has been fined several times in the past for his reckless launching at players, but that's just his style of play, and that's what makes him James Harrison. He is 34 years old, so you have to wonder how long his high level of play will continue.





4. Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 237 lbs.
Age: 23 | Experience: 2 Years


2011 Season Stats:
64 Tackles, 8 STF, 11.5 Sacks, 4 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
64 Tackles, 8 STF, 11.5 Sacks, 4 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced

Playoff Stats:
3 Tackles, 1.0 Sack

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
NFL Rookie of the Year (2011)
1-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time All-Pro Selection
1-Time AFC Defensive Player of the Week











Analysis: In just one NFL season, the 2011 second overall pick has established himself as one of the top 5 outside linebackers in the NFL.

Many were skeptical of how the 3-4 outside linebacker would make the transition to Denver's fairly new 4-3 scheme. No more skeptics, Von Miller was able to answer those questions with 11.5 sacks last season.

We knew how good he was as a pass rusher, but he also proved late in the year how reliable he is as a run defender. He still could look to get stronger and with more experience, should become more disciplined, but as of now, the future looks bright for Miller.





5. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 255 lbs.
Age: 26 | Experience: 4 Years


2011 Season Stats:
50 Tackles, 5 STF, 6.0 Sacks, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 3 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
161 Tackles, 17 STF, 29.5 Sacks, 4 INT, 20 PBU, 6 Fumbles Forced, 3 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
21 Tackles, 2 STF, 4.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
3 Tackles, 1 STF, 1 PBU, Fumble Forced

Career Accomplishments:
3-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time All-Pro Selection
1-Time Super Bowl Champion
1-Time NFC Champion
2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year









Analysis: In just three NFL seasons, Clay Matthews has made three Pro Bowls. In these three seasons Matthews has been the only legitimate pass rushing threat for the Packers.

Coming off of his best season as a Pro in 2010 (13.5 sacks and 2 Forced Fumbles), Matthews's production took a hit, and he finished with just six sacks. However, with him being the only pass rusher opposing teams had to account for, you can see why.

He is so fast of the edge, turning the corner and beating opposing tackle getting to the quarterback. He is also strong enough to be an effective bull rusher. Against the run, he is better than most think. He can snuff out the run, but he does need to improve as a tackler overall.

That fact that his production was down and he missed a lot of tackles hurt, but with rookie Nick Perry joining the defense, expect Matthews to return to his 2010 form, and move up this list next year.





6. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 275 lbs.
Age: 28 | Experience: 7 Years


2011 Season Stats:
66 Tackles, 4 STF, 12.0 Sacks, 4 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
352 Tackles, 22 STF, 53.5 Sacks, INT, 10 PBU, 22 Fumbles Forced, 4 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
12 Tackles, 1 STF, 2.0 Sacks, 1 PBU, Fumble Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
NFL All-Rookie Team (2006)
NFL All-Joe Team (2009)
2010 AFC Sacks Leader
2-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time Second Team All-Pro Selection










Analysis: Tamba Hali is one of the league's premier pass rushers, and ranks as one of the top 3-4 outside linebackers.

In his first two seasons, Hali recorded 15.5 sacks, had has 35 sacks over the last three seasons. He is a complete pass rusher, as he has all of the key traits, and it is finally showing on the stat sheets.

Hali should continue to improve against the run, and he has to work on the missed tackles, but he is a solid overall player.





7. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 265 lbs.
Age: 27 | Experience: 6 Years


2011 Season Stats:
39 Tackles, 2 STF, 9.0 Sacks, INT, 2 PBU

Career Stats:
225 Tackles, 15 STF, 48.0 Sacks, 4 INT, 14 PBU, 7 Fumbles Forced, 7 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
31 Tackles, 4 STF, 9.0 Sacks, 3 PBU, Fumble Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
7 Tackles, 3.0 Sacks, 1 PBU

Career Accomplishments:
1-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time All-Pro Selection
1-Time Super Bowl Champion
2-Time AFC Champion











Analysis: LaMarr Woodley has been very productive in his five NFL seasons. He is arguably just as good as teammate James Harrison.

Not quite as complete of a player as Harrison, Woodley is a good athlete who can get to the quarterback in a variety of ways. His 44 sacks over the last four seasons is very impressive to say the least.

Surrounded by a lot of talent on defense, Woodley stands out as one of the best players in the unit, with the production to match his skill set. While he doesn't do one thing great in particular, he does many things well.





8. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 244 lbs.
Age: 31 | Experience: 10 Years


2011 Season Stats:
105 Tackles, 10 STF, INT, 4 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
969 Tackles, 73 STF, 10.5 Sacks, 13 INT, 64 PBU, 14 Fumbles Forced, 7 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
49 Tackles, 5 STF, INT, 3 PBU

Super Bowl Stats:
13 Tackles, 1 STF, 1 PBU

Career Accomplishments:
7-Time Pro Bowl Selection
3-Time All-Pro Selection
1-Time NFC Champion












Analysis: Lance Briggs is arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL. In 2011, he looked a little slower, but was still very good overall.

A great all-around linebacker, Briggs is excellent both in coverage, and defending against the run. He does a great job of getting in the backfield and tackling the ball carrier for a loss.

His production is very good as well, as Briggs is a model of consistency. There are a few young linebackers that are proving to be really good, but Briggs is still in the same class.





9. Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 257 lbs.
Age: 26 | Experience: 4 Years


2011 Season Stats:
59 Tackles, 9.0 Sacks, 5 PBU, 3 Fumbles Forced, Fumble Recovered

Career Stats:
165 Tackles, 6 STF, 28.5 Sacks, 9 PBU, 5 Fumbles Forced, Fumble Recovered

Playoff Stats:
N/A

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
NFL All-Rookie Team (2009)
2-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time NFC Defensive Player of the Week
1-Time NFL Rookie of the Week











Analysis: Two-time Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo is entering his fourth season in the league. After exploding onto the NFL landscape with 11 sacks as a rookie, Orakpo has been pretty productive the last two years.

Surprisingly, Orakpo hasn't matched the sack total from his rookie season, but has still proven to be close to an elite pass rusher, and forced more turnovers last season.

Like most young pass rushers, he can stand to improve against the run and become a more sound tackler. Based on his potential and current level of play, Brian Orakpo could be a top 5 outside linebacker in the near future.






10. Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 258 lbs.
Age: 22 | Experience: 2 Years


2011 Season Stats:
37 Tackles, 1 STF, 14.0 Sacks, 4 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced, Fumble Recovered

Career Stats:
37 Tackles, 1 STF, 14.0 Sacks, 4 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced, Fumble Recovered

Playoff Stats:
4 Tackles, 1 STF, 2.0 Sacks

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2011)
49ers Rookie Sack Record (14)













Analysis: 14 sacks in a rookie season is unheard of, but Aldon Smith made it happen. The scary part is, he wasn't even an every down pass rusher.

Smith has already proven to be an elite pass rusher, with an excellent combination of elite athleticism, speed, and strength. His 14 sacks will back that up.

Once Smith gains more experience, his recognition skills should improve. Also, he needs to prove he can be effective against the run by becoming more of an every down player. If he does these things, he will be higher on this list.





11. Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 244 lbs.
Age: 24 | Experience: 3 Years


2011 Season Stats:
115 Tackles, 10 STF, 4.0 Sacks, 8 PBU, Fumble Recovered

Career Stats:
157 Tackles, 10 STF, 5.0 Sacks, 9 PBU, Fumble Recovered

Playoff Stats:
14 Tackles

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
N/A














Analysis: Sean Weatherspoon is starting to emerge as arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL. With middle linebacker Curtis Lofton now with the Saints, Weatherspoon is bound to have an even more productive season.

An athletic linebacker with good range and instincts, Weatherspoon continues to get stronger and better in coverage. He should be able to take that next step this season.

He had a Pro Bowl caliber 2011 season, and really improved every noticeable area of his game. He will most likely rank higher after this season.





12. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 268 lbs.
Age: 32 | Experience: 11 Years


2011 Season Stats:
19 Tackles, 1 STF, 8.5 Sacks, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
286 Tackles, 32 STF, 102.5 Sacks, 14 PBU, 43 Fumbles Forced, 3 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
35 Tackles, 10 STF, 9.0 Sacks, 2 Fumbles Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
1 Tackle, 1.0 Sack

Career Accomplishments:
7-Time Pro Bowl Selection
3-Time First Team All-Pro Selection
1-Time Second Team All-Pro Selection
1-Time Super Bowl Champion
2-Time AFC Champion
AFC Defensive Player of the Year (2005)
2004 NFL Sacks Leader (16)
Colts All-Time Sacks Leader
NFL All-Decade Team (2000s)






Analysis: It is tough to project where Dwight Freeney ranks among 3-4 outside linebackers, being that it will be his first year playing the position. However, I do expect the transition to be smooth.

Freeney still ranks as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. He is a pretty strong athlete, but he gets to the quarterback with his speed and quickness.

It will be interesting to see how Freeney does in coverage, which could really determine how high he should be ranked by mid-season. Even at 32 years old, Dwight Freeney can still get it done.





13. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 250 lbs.
Age: 26 | Experience: 5 Years


2011 Season Stats:
95 Tackles, 4 STF, 1.0 Sack, 2 INT, 4 PBU, Fumble Forced

Career Stats:
501 Tackles, 13 STF, 4.5 Sacks, 2 INT, 14 PBU, 4 Fumbles Forced, 4 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
43 Tackles, 1 STF, 1 PBU, Fumble Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
11 Tackles, Fumble Forced

Career Accomplishments:
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2008)
1-Time Defensive Rookie of the Month
NFL All-Rookie Team (2008)
1-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time All-Pro Selection
NFL Tackles Leader (2010)
1-Time AFC Champion








Analysis: Jerod Mayo moved to outside linebacker last season in New England's new 4-3 defense. It was a pretty good transition, though his more natural position is still inside linebacker.

He has very good instincts, and is a good all-around player. He is arguably the most important player defensively for the Patriots.





14. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 248 lbs.
Age: 30 | Experience: 9 Years


2011 Season Stats:
107 Tackles, 4 STF, 3.5 Sacks, INT, 8 PBU, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Stats:
673 Tackles, 41 STF, 21.5 Sacks, 6 INT, 39 PBU, 9 Fumbles Forced, 5 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
27 Tackles, 1 STF, 1.0 Sack

Super Bowl Stats:
N/A

Career Accomplishments:
N/A














Analysis: Daryl Smith is a very underrated player. He has been pretty consistent during his career, but the last three years he has elevated his level of play.

He is a good all-around player who plays the run well and his solid in coverage. He does many things well, and is a pretty productive player overall.





15. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 245 lbs.
Age: 31 | Experience: 10 Years


2011 Season Stats:
43 Tackles, 4 STF, 9.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 3 Fumbles Forced. 3 Fumbles Recovered

Career Stats:
395 Tackles, 29 STF, 83.5 Sacks, 12 PBU, 39 Fumbles Forced, 14 Fumbles Recovered

Playoff Stats:
45 Tackles, 1 STF, 3.5 Sacks, 2 PBU, 4 Fumbles Forced

Super Bowl Stats:
3 Tackles, 2 Fumbles Forced

Career Accomplishments:
4-Time Pro Bowl Selection
1-Time Super Bowl Champion
2-Time AFC Champion












Analysis: Like teammate Dwight Freeney, it is a prediction of how well Robert Mathis is expected to make the transition to 3-4 backer.

Just like Freeney, Mathis bases his game off of his athleticism, using his speed to get to and take down the quarterback.

I expect Mathis to make the successful transition, especially due to his size and athleticism.