View Full Version : Ranking the Linebackers

08-02-2006, 07:18 AM
Ranking linebackers, team-by-team
Mike Tanier / FootballOutsiders.com
Posted: 6 hours ago

When evaluating linebackers, you must remember one important fact: You can't trust tackle statistics.

Linebackers make lots of tackles, often more than 100 in a season. But some of those tackles come close to the line, while others occur after 15-yard gains. A linebacker who makes 50 tackles after six-yard gains isn't helping his team nearly as much as one who makes 30 tackles after two-yard gains.

What's more, linebackers on bad teams register more tackles than those on good teams. Bad teams allow opponents to hold the ball longer, which means more plays, which means more chances to hit someone. The league leader in tackles is often a good defender on a lousy team, not a great defender on a great team. Case in point: Jonathan Vilma.

At Football Outsiders, we differentiate between types of tackles. Stops are plays that prevent significant yardage; stops can be tackles, passes defensed, interceptions, or forced fumbles. (To qualify as a "Stop," a play must keep the offense from gaining 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third down.) Stop Rate is the percentage of a defender's tackles that are actually Stops. Defeats are tackles for a loss, turnovers, or plays that prevent a conversion on third or fourth down. We break Stops and Defeats down by run and pass plays, so we can see who is getting burned in coverage or leaving the field on passing downs.

Of course, even advanced tackle statistics have their limits. Despite fewer tackle opportunities, life is a lot easier for Dan Morgan, playing behind the Panthers' line, than it is for Vilma in New York. Linebackers have different roles in different systems and unique responsibilities in the middle (Mike), on the strong side (Sam), on the weak side (Will), or in a 3-4 scheme. When the statistics break down, we use the information gleaned from the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, which analyzed tape from every single game from Weeks 1-16 of the 2005 season.

And while it was hard separating the 12th best linebacking corps from the 20th, picking the leader was a steel breeze.

1. Steelers
Bill Cowher has been developing excellent linebacking corps since the Gregg Lloyd/Kevin Greene days. Every year the Steelers lose a starter, but they just plug someone else in and keep going. Last season, they lost Kendrell Bell. Did you miss him? The Steelers didn't.

Joey Porter is almost as good as he says he is, and that's pretty darn good. He had 13.5 sacks if you count the postseason, and he is also effective in coverage. James Farrior put up MVP numbers in 2004 but was content to let other players get the glory last season. Larry Foote is so underrated that he's overrated, but he's great in zone coverage and pursuit. Clark Haggans is a good penetrator and big hitter who would have produced double-digit sacks if he didn't miss three games last year.

The Steelers' depth is excellent: James Harrison has been a productive part-timer for two seasons, while Clint Kriewaldt is a solid interior run defender.

2. Bears
Brian Urlacher has exceptional range, uncanny instincts, and great timing when he blitzes. He's not the best linebacker in the league at stacking inside running plays, but he's solid in pass coverage and a sure tackler. Lance Briggs led the league in Pass Stops last year (42) and had more total Stops (86) than Urlacher (80). Briggs is currently in Lovie Smith's doghouse for skipping a voluntary minicamp in a contract dispute, but he'll be back in the lineup when the games matter.

The rest of the Bears linebackers are nothing special, but there is depth here. Hunter Hillenmeyer is a good run defender who doesn't make many mistakes. Rookie Jamar Williams may be the top backup this season.

3. Chargers
The team spent the off-season trying to trade Donnie Edwards, who led all linebackers in pass tackles (72) and finished second in the NFL in Stops (94). Edwards is apparently too big for his britches, or something. He and fellow old-timer Randall Godfrey stay at home in the Chargers' 3-4 scheme, allowing Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips to rush the passer. Merriman is a star in the making, an exceptional athlete with multiple moves when blitzing and the ability to disrupt running plays. Philips is a situational pass rusher with a good mix of speed and pop. If Edwards gets traded or Godfrey can no longer cut it, Steve Foley and Matt Wilhelm are capable replacements.

4. Seahawks
Free agent Julian Peterson is the quintessential team player. When the 49ers ran out of healthy defensive backs last season, Peterson moved from linebacker to strong safety, and he played well. In Seattle, Peterson will get more support from his teammates and will have more opportunities to blitz. Lofa Tatupu played like a six-year veteran in his rookie season. He has great instincts and a knack for big plays. Fellow rookie sensation LeRoy Hill may move to the left side and replace D.D. Lewis. Hill can blitz or drop into coverage, while Lewis is more of a two-down run plugger. The Seahawks have great depth: Lewis, Kevin Bentley, Niko Koutouvides and Isaiah Kacyvenski all have starting experience.

5. Buccaneers
Linebacker is a thinking-man's position, particularly in a Cover-2 system, and Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles are two of the smartest defenders in the league. The savvy vets finished fifth and sixth in the NFL in total Stops (Quarles 89, Brooks 87). Time hasn't caught up with them yet. Ryan Nece, the youngster of the bunch, is fast but makes mistakes in coverage. The Bucs have several insurance policies if Brooks or Quarles starts to slip: Barrett Ruud, Marques Cooper, and free agent Jamie Winborn all have starting potential.

For the other 27 teams: http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/5834838

08-02-2006, 07:29 AM
One beef. I'm surprised Tanier left out Frazier who is young with a good future on this team.

08-02-2006, 07:30 AM
No brainer there 83....nice post.....

Although Tampa Bay gets ranked high due to Brooks legacy...they seem awful old now...maybe its me....

08-02-2006, 10:02 AM
Good Read.....Glad to be on top.

08-02-2006, 10:41 AM
Surprised to see the Bengals all the way at #7...also surprised to see the Ravens and Patriots at 12 and 13, although I would have to agree. Seems like a pretty good list overall.

08-02-2006, 05:30 PM
I dont think my list would have had the Bears there... they are decent dont get me wrong and Urlacher was great a few years ago... one of the most memorable runs by the Bus that I can recall was when the Bus ran Urlacher over after he had already been hit once and Urlacher still COULDNT keep from gettin' ran over... Lofa from Seattle is a Super Star in the making.. Cincinnati when the games count they are just like KC ... they cant tackle.. Merrimon in San Diego is also something very special.. The Bungals should be ranked lower than 7 in my opinion.. they cant tackle.. besides anyone from the Bungals just DONT GET IT!!! You have got a great coach... dont let him down...
God Bless All

08-02-2006, 05:43 PM
The reference of Cowher losing a starting LB and plugging someone else in is like Shanahan in Denver with his running game. Cowher doesn't really get the national praise for that like he should.

08-02-2006, 09:20 PM
yeah on top like we should be. also im a lil suprised on the bucs being ranked so high, guess its cause of brooks since thats the only good LB they got IMO.. also i would rank the hawks ahead of the chargers..