The NFL might be a pass-first league dominated by quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers, and defensive backs, but linebackers remain an integral part of the game. As the league has become increasingly pass happy, the value of a linebacker who can both plug holes against the running game while also having the ability to track pass catchers downfield has only increased. It’s what makes the likes of Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly so important.
Speaking of Wagner and Kuechly, we here at CBS Sports ranked the top 10 linebackers in the NFL and it should come as no surprise to find out that Wagner and Kuechly were in a tight race for the top spot. Below, you’ll find the complete list. Just keep in mind that these rankings aren’t my own personal rankings or the personal rankings of any one individual. The rankings were determined by nearly the entire NFL editorial team here at CBS Sports.
Because he plays in Houston with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, McKinney’s contributions on a good defense have flown somewhat under the radar. So, it’s nice to see him get recognized here. Since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2015, he’s averaged nearly 60 solo tackles per season in addition to 7.5 tackles for a loss and 2.6 sacks. He’s coming off a season that saw him finish as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-best linebacker.
9. C.J. Mosley, Jets
Ravens, but he’s probably worth the investment. In Baltimore, Mosley emerged as one of the game’s best linebackers. Since 2014, he’s averaged nearly 80 solo tackles, almost two sacks and two interceptions, and 6.4 quarterback hits per season. He’s good against the run and the pass, making him the near-perfect linebacker for the modern NFL. And he’s only 27 years old.away from the
8. Roquan Smith, Bears
Smith didn’t begin his rookie season as a starter, but it didn’t take him long to become an impact player on the best defense in football. Smith finished his rookie season with 89 solo tackles, five sacks, five passes defended, and an interception. Look for him to take a big step forward in his second season, likely surpassing Danny Trevathan as the team’s best linebacker.
It’s not David’s fault the Buccaneers’ defense was arguably the worst defense in football a year ago. David still managed to rank 12th at his position group last season, according to PFF. He’s been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Since 2012, he’s missed only seven total games. In that span, he leads all players in solo tackles with 641 — just ahead of the two players who finished atop this list.
6. Jaylon Smith, Cowboys
What a journey it’s already been for Smith, who is entering his fourth season. He spent his first season on the sidelines as he recovered from a devastating knee injury. He saw significant snaps in his second season, but didn’t look like the player we all thought he’d become. Finally, in 2018, he made the leap, helping the Cowboys reach the postseason with 121 combined tackles and four sacks. He graded out as PFF’s sixth-best linebacker last year. He should remain an important piece in the middle of the Cowboys’ blossoming defense in the wars to come.
5. Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys
Speaking of the Cowboys, they don’t just have one great linebacker. They have two with Vander Esch having already emerged as one of the top NFL linebackers after one season. In 2018, Vander Esch racked up 140 combined tackles and two picks en route to becoming PFF’s fourth-best linebacker. That Cowboys defense should be pretty darn good again in 2019 thanks to their impressive linebacker duo.
4. Deion Jones, Falcons
It says a lot about the first two seasons of Jones’ career that he ranked this high on the list even after playing in only six games last seasonThrough the first two years of his career, Jones was averaging 83 solo tackles per season. He’s still only 24 years old. So he should be able to rebound from an injury-plagued 2018 season as the Falcons seek a return to the playoffs.
3. Darius Leonard, Colts
Leonard’s rookie season almost doesn’t feel real. After becoming a second-round pick, he proceeded to tally 163 combined tackles, 111 solo tackles (both were league highs), seven sacks, and two interceptions. He earned a first team All-Pro nod in his first-ever season. He’s not just one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He’s one of the best players period. And he’ll be 24 when the upcoming season begins. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him on top of this list a year from now.
We have a tie atop the table, which is fitting. Both players are worthy of being recognized as the sport’s best linebacker. They’ve both been playing at an elite level for several years. And they’re both still playing at that elite level as the 2019 season approaches.
Wagner has been named first team All-Pro four times in his seven-year career, during which he’s averaged 84.4 solo tackles and 2.4 sacks per season. He’s not slowing down either. He finished the 2018 season as PFF’s top-ranked linebacker. Like Wagner, Kuechly entered the league in 2012. He’s been named first team All-Pro five times in his seven-year career, during which he’s averaged 88.6 solo tackles and nearly 1.8 sacks per season. He’s also not slowing down. He finished the 2018 season as PFF’s second-ranked linebacker.
These are quite clearly the two best linebackers in the league.