- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
The Cowboys and Chargers are among the favorites in their respective conferences, and it's easy to see why their defenses are so scary when you look at the talent each team has amassed at linebacker. They boast the top two linebacker units in the NFL, though the Patriots and Bears are close behind. Here's how the top 10 overall groups rank:
1. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have three outside linebackers who can get after opposing quarterbacks and DeMarcus Ware is as good as it gets at the position. Ware can do it all with his rare blend of quickness off the ball, pure speed and ideal body type for the position. He sacked the quarterback 14 times last year, but his ability to stay with backs and tight ends in coverage is often overlooked and Ware is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who keeps getting better. Greg Ellis returned from injury to have a very productive 2007 season while Anthony Spencer, last year's first-round pick, is going to be tough to keep of the field due to his ability to rush the quarterback. For now, though, Spencer is simply an exceptional No. 3 outside linebacker who could see time on throwing downs and make things very difficult on opposing protection schemes. Bradie James plays inside on the strong side and is a thumper who is always around the football. Zach Thomas came on board to finish his career at home in Texas and will play alongside James on the inside. Thomas played in a 3-4 alignment some in Miami and was very effective, and the transition to playing a 3-4 full-time should not be difficult for such a fundamentally-sound player. Dallas does not have much invested in Thomas so the risk is minimal, but if he can stay healthy it will be interesting to see how much he has left in the tank. Bobby Carpenter has yet to live up to his first-round selection and has shuffled from inside to outside, and while he does provide depth he needs to step up and become more of a contributor. Kevin Barnett is yet another talented young player who will find it hard to get on the field unless injuries intervene, which just goes to show how great this group is overall.
2. San Diego Chargers
Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips are both game-changing outside linebackers. Merriman gets more accolades but Phillips is a fine player in his own right, and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell wised up and used the two more often as upfield pass rushers midway through the season and entire defense improved dramatically. Few players in the league are on par with Merriman as a pass rusher. He is big, strong, violent and aggressive, with great quickness off the ball and impressive closing speed. Phillips does benefit from Merriman's presence on the other side, but he is also a tremendous athlete and blocking Phillips with just one man is a dangerous proposition. The front office has done a great job finding middle linebackers in the middle rounds, including starters Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper. A suspension will cost Cooper the first four games of the season, and while he does show good range Cooper's absence will open the door for second-year players Anthony Waters and Brandon Siler to make a lasting impression. San Diego also signed Derek Smith to help hold down the middle, and he could be the Opening Day starter. The Chargers also found a potential gem in OLB Jyles Tucker, who proved to be very disruptive last year in limited views. Merriman is the deserving headliner, but this group is loaded and do not be surprised if someone emerges on the inside.
5hBy Ian O'Connor
1dESPN Production Analytics