By Steve Silverman
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There has never been another linebacker in NFL history that played with as much ferocity as Lawrence Taylor. When Taylor was at his peak in the 1980s, he played with the energy of a waterfall, and nobody had a clue when it came to shutting him down.
The NFL has had several game-changing linebackers since Taylor’s time, and they’ve been able to create Taylor-like plays from time-to-time. However, when it comes to that need to dominate on each play, few have come close to the fear that Taylor instilled.
One who does is the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller. Along with J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, Miller has been one of the game’s premier defensive players over the last few seasons. Miller’s speed coming around the corner has been a game-changing factor since he entered the league as a rookie in 2011, but he has developed a slew of skills since.
Miller heads our class of the NFL’s 10 best linebackers, and we present the following for your consideration:
1. Von Miller, Denver Broncos
There was a time when Miller seemed like he was good at just rushing the quarterback, but he has developed all of his skills and is now a playmaker in all aspects of the game. In addition to the 14.5 sacks he had for the Broncos last year, he had 78 tackles, three forced fumbles and three passes defensed. Look for Miller to be even more involved when it comes to creating turnovers in 2017. He is capable of tormenting blockers, defeating double-teams and executing strip-sacks. Miller was the Super Bowl 50 MVP, and if the Broncos are going to get back to the playoffs, they will almost certainly need Miller to have another sensational season.
2. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Nobody has Miller’s explosiveness when it comes to putting pressuring the quarterback, but Kuechly is the game’s best all-around linebacker. Kuechly is simply always around the ball and is routinely among the league leaders in tackles. Most linebackers excel at stopping the run or playing the pass, but Kuechly does both with equal fervor. Injuries limited him to 13 games in 2015 and 10 games last year, but there’s no limit to what he can accomplish if he can stay healthy.
3. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
There have been so many high-profile players on the Seattle defense that Wagner hasn’t always gotten the credit he deserves,. But those days are over. When it comes to consistent production, Wagner’s valued can’t be overstated. He is somewhat on the short side at 6-foot and 240 pounds, but he plays like a much bigger man and there is absolutely no fear to his game. Wagner led the NFL with 167 tackles last year, and he could lead the league again this year. Wagner added 4.5 sacks, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery in 2016.
4. Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots
Hightower routinely imposes his will on opposing offenses with his size, strength and explosive hitting power. The 265-pounder is bigger and stronger than most at his position, and he is equally effective in the 4-3 and 3-4 sets. He does not produce the same kind of gaudy stats as Wagner or Kuechly, but opponents know that his hitting ability can turn any game in the Patriots’ favor.
5. Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
Jones was a defensive end during his tenure with the Patriots, but the Cardinals lined him up at linebacker last year and he was a playmaking machine. When it comes to taking over a game, few players are as effective at Jones. He had 11 sacks last year, four forced fumbles and three passes batted down. Once he makes a big play early in a game, opposing offenses become obsessed with stopping him from making another, and they often reveal their weaknesses as a result.
6. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers probably have best linebacker duo in the league in Davis and Kuechly. The 34-year-old Davis, who has overcome serious knee problems, is a relentless performer who combines his explosive talent with tremendous ferocity and instincts. Davis had 106 tackles last year along with three interceptions, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He should reach that same level of production again this year.
7. Jamie Collins, Cleveland Browns
Bill Belichick had his reasons for trading Collins to the Browns, and most of them involved finances and the salary cap. Collins signed a $50 million contract with Cleveland, and if this team does turn things around on defense, it will likely stem from Collins having a brilliant season. He is an every-down defender who had a combined 112 tackles, along with three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2016. The Browns list Collins as a strong-side linebacker, but he can play the inside or middle with equal skills.
8. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
One of the most technically sound linebackers on this list, Lee would rank even higher if he could just stay healthy for a full season. He came quite close last year with 15 games played, and he was the glue and the best player on the Dallas defense due to his sound positioning and playmaking. Lee ranges extremely well from sideline to sideline as he led the Cowboys with 145 tackles from his weak-side position. He can also play the middle, and excels at helping his teammates position themselves correctly before the snap of the ball.
9. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David has been a consistent performer who can be a playmaker for the Bucs no matter what they ask him to do. He is perhaps the best in the league when it comes to dropping into coverage. He had 13 passes defensed and three interceptions in 2015, and while the numbers were not as impressive last year, he was no slouch. The Bucs seem poised to take a step up this year, with the keys to their defense being David’s consistency, along with the continued excellence of Gerald McCoy up front and the all-around prowess of fellow linebacker Kwon Alexander.
10. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks
While we gave credit to the Panthers for having the best pair of linebackers in Kuechly and Davis, the Seahawks can make an excellent argument with Wagner and Wright. This outside linebacker has the athleticism to go along with size (6-4, 246), and he is coming off a season with 124 tackles and four sacks. Wright also plays with a nastiness that is part of the Seahawks’ defensive signature.
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