For this exercise, the term "linebacker" is used in broad terms. For example, the top two linebackers on our list, Patrick Willis and DeMarcus Ware, are extremely different players. Willis is the quintessential second-level defender who simply must do everything well, while Ware is the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, which is a position that is closer to defensive end than what is asked of Willis.
Of course for that latter group, pass-rush is king, but no matter what, a linebacker must be able to hold a gap, play the run, tackle, play several forms of coverage and set the tone for his defensive teammates. Now more than ever, and I expect this trend to continue, NFL teams are stressing second-level defenders who can cover a ton of ground and are more adept in coverage due to the way the game has continued to evolve into a passing game. The days of purely heavy downhill 'backer that reads run first and then adjusts to pass are gone. Such between-the-tackles linebackers are becoming dinosaurs in today's NFL.
Right behind Ware, there is an extremely impressive list of pass-rushing types, including reigning the defensive player of the year, Terrell Suggs, whose injury could really damage the typically great Baltimore Ravens defense. The future of this position is very bright as well with great young edge talent. The same is true for more traditional linebackers, with six or seven youngsters poised to skyrocket up this list.
Here's how they shake out.
Ware continues to be one of the most dominant outside linebackers in the league as he enters his eighth season. He is, and always has been, a gifted athlete, but he's also now a master of his craft.
He has outstanding initial quickness and burst off the edge and has a variety of counter moves to force offensive coordinators to game-plan for him. He has great instincts and reacts quickly as blocking schemes unfold. He is best attacking the line of scrimmage and is just adequate dropping into coverage. Ware is an impact player and a perennial Pro Bowler.
Willis is a dynamic playmaker who brings a lot of intensity and instincts to the position. He has been a leader both on and off the field and sets the pace for the defense.
He is a throwback in that he is a tough, physical defender who is not afraid to get his uniform dirty and do whatever it takes to make the play.
He has the speed to get to the outside and make plays on the perimeter, and the strength to step up and take on blockers in the hole. He gets good depth in his zone drops but is not natural when it comes to reading routes or the quarterback's eyes to get a jump on the ball.
Suggs tore his Achilles tendon and may miss the entire 2012 season. He is a big, strong and athletic linebacker who is one of the most physical players in the NFL at his position.
He collapses the pocket as an edge rusher with excellent counter moves to get blockers off balance. He is an instinctive player who takes chances in pursuit to make plays from the backside. Suggs is one of the most dominant linebackers in the league but his serious injury brings major concerns for the Ravens' defense.