The inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or the middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense is often referred to as the quarterback of the defense. They call the plays and make assignments based on what they see on the other side of the ball. The position used to be dominated by big names like Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis, and Patrick Willis, but the tides have turned. There has been an influx of talent at the position and now a new class of off ball linebackers has emerged.
10. Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns
Schobert may not be a household name yet, but he had a big enough season to land the last spot on this list. He struggled as a rookie, but in his second year in the league he started all 16 games for Cleveland. 142 tackles, three forced fumbles, and an interception was enough to give him his first pro bowl appearance He was drafted as the first pick of the fourth round in 2016 as an outside linebacker out of Wisconsin. The linebacker moved inside for the 2017 season and thrived. Schobert will be a key piece in the Browns improvement this year playing alongside Mychal Kendricks and Jamie Collins. His development will be key in the growth of the Cleveland defense in 2018.
9. Reuben Foster, San Francisco 49ers
I know he only played ten games as a rookie. However, the young linebacker out of Alabama surely passed the eye test in 2017. He struggled with injuries, but when he was on the field he showed his potential to be a top inside linebacker. Foster is rangy and can cover tight ends and running backs from sideline to sideline. Alabama linebackers tend to be stars in the NFL and Foster looks to be next in line. After he serves his two game suspension, look for a big year from the 49ers young linebacker.
8. Jordan Hicks, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were missing their middle linebacker for the second half of 2017 after he tore his achilles. The injury does not keep him out of the top 10 inside linebackers in the league because of his fantastic 2016 campaign. Hicks proved he was one of the best cover linebackers in football two years ago. He amassed five interceptions and 11 passes defended in 2016. This was good enough to be fifth in the league in picks as a linebacker. If Hicks returns healthy for Philadelphia he should return to form and be one of the best inside linebackers in football once again.
7. Kwon Alexander, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Alexander can easily be much higher on this list by the end of the year. The young linebacker has easily turned into a star in his three years in the league. He was a fourth round pick in 2015, but has showed he was worthy of a much higher selection. A member of the 2015 All-Rookie team, and a 2017 Pro Bowler, Alexander is the young cornerstone of the Bucs’ defense. He has put up over 300 total tackles in his career and if he stays healthy in 2018 he can easily move up this list towards the top.
6. Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Kendricks was the other inside linebacker on the 2015 All-Rookie team and has been a key piece of the Vikings star-studded defense. Kendricks was not a high pick, but has started more than ten games in each of his three seasons. His total tackles has also increased every single season since being drafted.
Kendricks signed a five year, $50 million contract this offseason and will look to improve again in 2018. Often, Kendricks is overshadowed by the other stars on the Minnesota defense. The unit includes impact players such as Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffin, and Anthony Barr. Even with all of these other key guys on defense, Kendricks has shined and earned his place near the top of his position.
5. Zach Brown, Washington Redskins
When Brown was with the Tennessee Titans, he never seemed to develop into anything special. He was good in coverage, but never was the consistent playmaker the Titans needed him to be. However, a change of scenery to the Bills allowed him to turn in one of the better seasons from a linebacker in recent years. He put up close to 150 total tackles, 4 sacks and a pick in Buffalo. He was named to the All-Pro second team. This led to a move to our nation’s capital for the 2017 season.
Last year was not as productive for Brown, but he still did enough to be named a top five inside linebacker. He should be an impact player for a Redskin’s defense in need of playmakers.
4. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
The next four inside linebackers should be considered the elite tier of the NFL. Deion Jones was drafted out of LSU in 2016. In his two seasons in the league, he has put up two fantastic seasons. As a rookie, he was named to the All-Rookie team. This was well deserved as he broke 100 combined tackles and had three interceptions. Two of these were returned for touchdowns. In 2017, increased his tackle count and still amassed three interceptions including an acrobatic game-saving touchdown versus the Saints.
Jones combines speed, strength, and athleticism to excel in coverage and against the run. He has become the leader of the young Falcons defense and could top this list in a few seasons if this trend continues.
3. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Next, another former Alabama linebacker joins the list. Mosley took on the role of trying to fill the giant shoes left by Ray Lewis. However, he has passed this test with flying colors. Mosley has played in all but two games since being drafted, starting all of them. His elite performance has awarded him with three pro bowls.
In 2017, Mosley may have had his best season yet. He amassed over 130 tackles, had two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Mosley’s season may have been the best of any inside linebacker last year. If he is able to continue to produce, he is definitely the future of the position.
2. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
The top two on this list could easily be flipped. Wagner has been a superstar for Seattle for his entire career and stayed firm in a unit that seems to be falling apart. Wagner has great range and coverage ability, but is also fantastic in run support. He was the first team All-Pro at inside linebacker over the past two seasons and has been named to four pro bowl rosters. In his career, he has over 500 total tackles and has a Super Bowl win.
Wagner could easily be number one on this list, but has only been this productive for the past four seasons. However, at age 28, Wagner can continue to play at this level and go down as one of the all-time greats at the position.
1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Although Kuechly has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons, he has been the most consistently elite inside linebacker in the game. Since his career began, Kuechly has been named to four All-Pro first teams and five pro bowls. Also, he was awarded Defensive Player of the Year twice. Kuechly has had over 100 combined tackles and at least one interception in every season since being drafted. He also has had at least one forced fumble in each of the past four seasons.
Kuechly has been a great all-around linebacker his entire career and forces turnovers regularly. If this continues, Kuechly can go down as an all time great. Even though Bobby Wagner has possibly been better recently, Kuechly would still be my first choice at the inside linebacker position.