We continue our player ratings with PFW’s top 10 linebackers. For the full rankings (1-28) and player ratings for every position, along with team-by-team season previews, get our Pro Football Weekly NFL Preview Magazine on newsstands now and online.
1. Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Kuechly didn’t have his best season in 2017, but he’s still an easy pick as the most complete linebacker in the NFL. He was once again a first-team AP All Pro – the fourth time in his six-year career – and was named to his fifth consecutive pro Bowl. Kuechly is the ultimate four-down linebacker, equally at home playing the run or the pass, and few players in the history of the game have been more instinctual. His 125 tackles, 1 ½ sacks, six passes defensed, three interceptions, one fumble forced and three fumbles recovered in 2017 was pretty much an average Kuechly statline.
2. Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
Wagner, at 6-0, 240 pounds, is undersized, and though he’s not as widely recognized as Kuechly, more than a few NFL evaluators tell us they might take him over his better-known peer. Wagner is a tackling machine who makes plays from sideline to sideline, making up for his lack of stature with exceptional quickness and relentless pursuit. He was a first-team All Pro last season for the third time and was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. While the majority of the focus has often been on Seattle’s “Legion Of Boom,” Wagner has been the lynchpin of Seattle’s defense for some time now.
3. Dont’a Hightower, Patriots
One of the great surprises of the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearance last year, is they arrived there without Hightower, who missed all but the first five games of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. All you need to know about his value to the club, though, is with impossible salary-cap decisions to make, Bill Belichick chose to keep Hightower over Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Akiem Hicks, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Hightower, who plays the game running downhill, is the master of the big hit in the hole on running plays, while also being extremely effective rushing the passer. At 6-3, 265 pounds, he is a huge presence at the second level and another four-down ‘backer.
4. Deion Jones, Falcons
If Kuechly and Hightower are the traditional big guys, Jones is an even sleeker, faster version of Wagner. At just 6-1, 222 pounds, Jones emerged during the Falcons’ run through the playoffs to the Super Bowl as a rookie. Last season, as a sophomore, he became a Pro Bowler on the strength of 138 tackles, almost all with him arriving at the point of contact before the ball carrier. Moreover, his exceptional abilities in coverage have produced three interceptions in each of his first two seasons — including 165 yards in returns and two touchdowns as a rookie, and a spectacular game-saving pick of Drew Brees in the Atlanta end zone late last season. Jones won’t turn 24 until November and appears to be nowhere near his ceiling yet.
5. K.J. Wright, Seahawks
If Bobby Wagner is underrated — and he truly is — Wright is one of the best-kept secrets in the league. Unlike his teammate, Wright is almost supersized at 6-4, 246 pounds, but much like Wagner, he is athletic and extremely active, and has been a key member of the Seattle defense since 2011. Wright started 15 games last year, ending a streak of three straight 16-start seasons, and over the past four years, he has piled up 478 tackles, seven sacks, eight forced fumbles and five fumbles recovered. He was a Pro Bowler in 2016, and like Wagner, he rarely comes off the field.
6. C.J. Mosley, Ravens
Mosley, the heir apparent to Ray Lewis as the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2014, has been to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, except 2015. At 6-2, 235 pounds, Mosley is the prototypical three-down inside linebacker, capable of playing in either a 3-4 or 4-3. 2017 was one of his best seasons, with 132 tackles, one sack, two fumbles recovered and two interceptions returned 94 yards, including one TD. Mosley has missed just two games in four seasons, both in 2016.
7. Kwon Alexander, Buccaneers
Alexander is another version of Deion Jones, just five pounds heavier at 6-1, 227, and a player who is all over the field when he’s healthy. The one concern with Alexander is whether he is stout enough at his size to absorb the rigors of an NFL season. He missed the final four games of his 2015 rookie campaign to serve a performance-enhancing drug suspension and four more last season, although he did start all 16 games in 2016. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, even missing four starts. He’s averaged 8 ½ tackles in his 40 NFL games, with three sacks in each of his first two seasons — although none last year — and six combined interceptions.
8. Sean Lee, Cowboys
Lee’s reputation as one of the best four-down linebackers in the game is well documented, and all that drops him this low on our list is his similarly well documented injury history — he enters Year Nine in search of his first 16-game regular season. He managed only six games in 2012, whereas 2014 was a complete wipeout, and last year he again missed five games. But when he’s on the field, Lee can play inside in any scheme, outside in a 3-4 and may be the most instinctive and quickest-to-recognize player of his era. Lee went to Pro Bowls in 2015 and 2016 on the strength of 14 and 15 starts, respectively, and was also first-team All Pro two seasons ago.
9. Jamie Collins, Browns
After three seasons in New England, including a Pro Bowl nod in 2015, Collins was dealt to the Browns before the 2016 trade deadline, when it become obvious the Pats couldn’t pay all their stars headed toward free agency. At 6-3, 250 pounds, he is a remarkable athlete, who has excelled at every linebacker position in a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme. Like his former teammate Hightower, the playmaking Collins is always around the ball and is equally comfortable as a blitzer or dropping into coverage. However, after signing a four-year, $50-million extension last offseason, Collins was limited by a torn left MCL to a career-low eight games.
10. Telvin Smith, Jaguars
A newcomer to our rankings, Smith sped all the way to No. 10, following an outstanding 2017 campaign, in which he earned his first Pro Bowl trip on the strength of 122 tackles, one sack, three interceptions (one pick-six) and five passes defensed. At 6-3 and just 215 pounds, the long and lanky Smith has a unique body type for the position. He might not blow them up, but almost no ballcarriers escaped from Smith.