Oct 7, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebackers NaVorro Bowman (53) and Patrick Willis (52) react after a tackle in the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Bills 45-3. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

NFC West Power Rankings: Best Of The Best Linebacker Corps


If you haven’t been paying attention, Ramblin’ Fan has been taking an in-depth look at nearly every position in the NFC West. So far, we have hammered out ranking for nearly the entire offense (i.e. quarterbacksrunning backs and wide receivers, and tight ends), and finished off with our rating of the defensive lines, headed by the St. Louis Rams’ “2012 Sack Title” rotation. Next, naturally, we will swing over to the linebackers. Much like the defensive line, the linebacking corps in the division are some of the best in the NFL. So, even with our ranking putting the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive line as 3rd in the NFC West, their ranking overall in the league still might be Top 10, if not Top 5 in the NFL; the downfall of a dominate division. So, how will the linebackers in our out-of worldly NFC West stack up?

1. San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers have, hands-down, the best linebackers in the NFL. Period. No debate. If the Football Gods wanted to build a perfect 3-4 linebacker unit, they would include two inside linebackers that were equally as effective in run support and coverage. Check. A dominate pass rusher, that can be disruptive from anywhere on the field. Check. And, lastly, a utility linebacker on the outside that can play the traditional role of both a strongside or weakside linebacker, being a factor in coverage, run support, and the pass rush. Check.

Despite mediocrity in the middle of the defensive line, and less than stellar play in the secondary, the 49ers’ still managed, arguably, the best defense in the NFL in 2012. Give most, if not all, the credit to these four linebackers. Moving on…

Fun Fact: According to Pro Football Focus, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, and Aldon Smith all ranked in the Top 5 for their respective position in the 2012 season. Navorro Bowman ranked 7th among inside linebacker, despite leading the 49ers in tackles and allowing the lowest catch percentage of any inside linebacker in the NFC.

2. St. Louis Rams

Last season, the Rams would have battled with the Arizona Cardinals for the 4th spot in the division; funny how the NFL Draft can change a team. With the drafting of Alec Ogletree, the St. Louis Rams now have one of the more “complete” 4-3 linebacker grouping in the league. In 2012, James Laurinaitis was essentially forced to play both strongside linebacker and middle linebacker, with Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh offering little to no help when on the field. Their lack of effectiveness is supported by the coach staff opting to play a majority of the defensive snaps in the nickel package.

Alec Ogletree changes that whole picture. Ogletree will immediately step in as the weakside linebacker, a position that his skill set and experience match perfectly. The WOLB is essentially the “cover” linebacker, whose primary responsibilities typically include backside contain, “trail, or chase down” pursuit, and is, ideally, the most skilled coverage linebacker in the unit. Ogletree in the embodiment of those three characteristics, with tackling expertise from playing ILB at Georgia, the athleticism and speed to dominate as a “trailer” or as a pass rusher, and coverage skills from his time as a safety prior to converting to linebacker in college.

Ogletree will move Jo-Lonn Dunbar to the strongside, where he is much better suited. Last season, playing on the weakside, Dunbar was one of the most underrated outside linebackers in the NFL. Dunbar dominated in all three facets of the linebacker game. As a pass rusher, Dunbar was a league leader among 4-3 outside linebacker, ranked 5th in sacks (4.5) , tied for 5th in hits on the quarterback (5). As a “pure tackler” in the run game, Dunbar was 5th among outside linebacker in combined tackles (115) and trailed only two player overall in the NFL last season (Lavonte Davis and inside linebacker, Derrick Johnson) in defensive stop (62). In coverage, Dunbar tied for 5th in interceptions (2) and tied for 6th in pass deflections (3). Top 5 in nearly every pertinent, quantifiable category for an outside linebacker… not bad. Oh yea, and he single-handedly ruined the career of Alex Smith; you’re welcome San Francisco.

Last, but not least, James Laurinaitis in the middle. The Ohio State superstar led the NFL in solo tackles in 2012 (117), and finished the season with 2 interceptions and 3 pass deflections. He was also the only linebacker in the NFC West that did not allow a receiving touchdown in coverage, and led the NFC West with the fewest yards after catch allowed (175). The lone mark against Laurinaitis was his perceived struggles with “missed” tackles. However, Laurinaitis missed only 10 tackles, which is comparable to Bobby Wagner (8) and Navorro Bowman (9), and nowhere near the number tallied by players like the Cardinals’ Daryl Washington (18) or Paris Lenon (13). Laurinaitis has put up Pro Bowl caliber number the last two season, but has simply been overshadowed, understandably, by Willis and Bowman.

Random Fact: London Fletcher led all inside linebacker with 21 missed tackles in 2012.

3. Seattle Seahawks

Bobby Wagner was an all-star pickup for the Seattle Seahawks, and was right up there with players like Janoris Jenkins and Casey Hayward for Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, despite nearly identical tackle number to James Laurinaitis in the tackling game, Wagner was nowhere near as effective in coverage, allowing an 80.4% catch percentage and 2 receiving touchdowns on the season, more than any inside linebacker in the NFC West besides ex-Cardinal, Paris Lenon. On top of that, Wagner had the least “pressures” of any inside linebacker in the division, with 2 sacks, 3 hits on the quarterback, and 6 hurries. In the bigger picture of the NFL, Wagner was likely a Top 5 or Top 10 inside linebacker. However, like Laurinaitis has found out over the last 3 seasons, it isn’t easily getting recognition as a linebacker in the division.

However, the 3rd spot in the ranking comes courtesy of the other linebackers in Seattle’s corps. With Leroy Hill’s departure, Heath Farwell looks to be the next man up in Seattle, for now, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, considering he has only recorded 140 tackles in 7 season in the NFL. K.J. Wright was an above average player last season, and figured to continue progression behind, what should be, a beastly defensive end rotation. He put up nearly 100 combined tackles in 2012, and was above average in getting to the quarterback, racking up 1 sacks, 3 hits on the quarterback, and 9 hurries. Still, unless the Seahawks find a sleeper to play alongside Bobby Wagner in the middle, the ‘Hawks might have trouble repeating their 2012 dominance against the run. Or, like the St. Louis Rams last season, the Seahawks might rely more heavily on their superior secondary to compensate for their lack of talent at the second level of the defense.

4. Arizona Cardinals

Daryl Washington has one of the best seasons as a middle linebacker in recent memory, leading players as his position in sacks, 2nd in overall pressures, and still managing over 100 tackles as a 3-4 defensive signal caller. However, their best outside linebacker, Quentin Groves, bolted for Cleveland this offseason, leaving Sam Acho and the recently acquired Lorenzo Alexander as the likely started on the outside.

Acho is the Cardinals’ version of Aldon Smith, without the production in the pass rush, and without the versatility to also play effectively against the run. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Acho ranked 30th out of the 34 3-4 outside linebackers that played at least 25% of total defensive snaps in 2012. He was relatively effective in rushing the quarterback, amassing 4 sacks, 9 hits on the quarterback, and 21 hurries. Acho also was one of the best “coverage” linebacker in the NFL last season, with quarterbacks averaging a pathetic 34.2 passer rating when throwing at the Arizona backer. Still, with Daryl Washington rushing the quarterback more than any inside linebacker in the league, being a “sure tackler” on the outside is essential, and Acho was not….

The bright spot of for Arizona should be Kevin Minter, who the Cards stole in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Minter is an immediate upgrade over Paris Lenon, who ranked 52nd out of the 53 inside linebackers last season, ahead of only Rey Maualuga. Arizona also snagged Alex Okafor in the 4th round, who will likely battle with Alexander for the starting job. The Cardinals have the biggest “wait and see” corps in the NFC West. Outside of the Aaron Curry pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, the NFC West might have the best track record in the NFL of “hitting” on linebackers in the draft. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a division with talents like Navorro Bowman/Patrick Willis, James Laurinaitis, Booby Wagner, and Daryl Washington anywhere else in the league.

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Tags: Arizona Cardinals San Francisco 49ers Seattle Seahawks St. Louis Rams

  • Ben Peterson

    Heath Farwell will not be playing at WILL next year. That (barring the unexpected which you come to expect with Seattle) will be Malcom Smith.
    Also, you can’t weight draft picks more in one position than another. In the D-line rankings you mentioned that the seahawks drafted linemen, but then proceed to disregard both of them. But Ogletree as one player on the rams gets more consideration than two on the defensive line of the seahawks? Either they will have a large impact or none at all, and the same is true of Ogletree.

    • Nathan Kearns

      Both fair points, but went with the current “depth chart,” outside of a very rare exceptions where a guaranteed starter was listed as the No.2 for seemingly no reason.

      Its hard to agree with you on your second point. There is a massive difference between a 1st round linebacker, projected as a Top 10 talent in the class and a 5th rounder and a 3rd rounder, Jordan Hill, that was actually projected as a 4-5 round draftee.

      I disagree that with the idea of “they will have a large impact or none at all, and the same is true of Ogletree.” Ogletree, regardless of his actual production on the field will have a HUGE impact on the St. Louis Rams roster, in fact, he already has. His mere presence on the team has shifted Jo-Lonn Dunbar over to the strongside.

      Hill and Williams will both likely be rotational players, maybe. To be honest, Hill will likely be the only DL draftee that will see the field. Even so, the Seahawks still cannot compensate for the loss of Alan Branch. And, even with Branch (or both of those players in putting in 250 defensive snaps in the roation), the St. Louis Rams’ are returning their entire defensive line rotation, which was, arguably, the best line in the league in 2012.

  • disqus_8uTkp82LAz

    Yeah, not too sure how Farwell starts over Smith for the Hawks. Seahawks should retain Leroy Hill as a veteran backup. The rest of the LB group is young and could develop nicely.

    • Nathan Kearns

      Going with the “current” depth chart, but fair point. However, either way, even with Smith, the ‘Hawks shouldn’t be projected to “edge out” the Rams with average play from Wright and unknown play from either Smith or Farwell.

      Would love to include Leroy Hill in the rotation, because he was actually as productive as Wright last season, if not better, but until he is on the roster it wouldn’t be fair to include him.

      Developement is one thing, but I cannot stretch too far on a player with 38 career tacklesin two season, who had injury troubles in college, and was projected as a potential UDFA (Smith).

      You could maybe argue that same point about Ogletree, but there is a pretty high rate of success for linebackers coming out of the SEC that are taken in the 1st through 3rd rounds of the Draft.

      Thanks for the comment

  • Ron Grummer

    Seattle LB squad has had a weakness in the intermediate/underneath passing game and occasionally in the run game for a couple of years now. I can’t say how the new pick ups on any team will do until I see them on the field. I would expect the ‘Hawks to run their base nickel package more and Winfield to pick up some of this slack in both the intermediate/underneath passing game and where some teams run.

    At this point in the preseason, and based predominantly upon last years players and roster shifts, I would not argue with your assessment too hard. In another couple of months, after I’ve had a chance to actually watch the new rookies and pickups and see how they fit (or don’t) into the Seattle scheme, team and field-play, I may have more comments, but right now I’m not ready to say that the ‘Hawks LB corps has improved or degenerated based on highlight reels and fan dreams.

    • Nathan Kearns

      I have a feeling Seattle will be in nickel significantly more this season, and with good reason. The Rams had great success on the defensive side of the football playing primarily not in their 4-3 base, especially in the NFC West.

      Fair point on the assessment at this point in the season. Alec Ogletree could be a bust and Jordan Hill could be the next Warren Sapp, but we won’t know until they are actually on the field. I will likely do another “Power Ranking” series at some point around midseason or the three-quarter mark.

      Thanks for the comment