DTR Top-10: Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly Lead Linebackers

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Twice a week this offseason Blaine Grisak and Jake Ellenbogen will share their top-10 players from each position in the NFL. We’ll discuss our lists and why we ranked players where we did as well as the position in general.

We also asked the rest of the Downtown Rams staff who their top-10’s were and will have a poll and its results at the end.

In this edition, Blaine and Jake unveil their top-10 linebackers in the NFL heading into the 2019 season and who is ready to take that next step.

Previous Top-10’s

Top-10 Linebackers

Blaine

1. Bobby Wagner – SEA
2. Luke Kuechly – CAR
3. Leighton Vander Esch – DAL
4. Darius Leonard – IND
5. Deion Jones – ATL
6. Jaylon Smith – DAL
7.  Roquan Smith – CHI
8. Kwon Alexander – SF
9. Lavonte David – TB
10. Blake Martinez – GB

Jake

1. Bobby Wagner – SEA
2. Luke Keuchly – CAR
3. Deion Jones – ATL
4. Darius Leonard – IND
5.  Leighton Vander Esch – DAL
6.  Lavonte David – TB
7. Jaylon Smith – DAL
8. Avery Williamson – NYJ
9. Cory Littleton – LAR
10. Bernardrick McKinney – HOU

Blaine:  Alright Jake, on to the linebackers in the NFL. Similarly with the defensive linemen, there is a clear top-two at linebacker. Wagner and Kuechly are in their own realm and an argument can be made for either at the top spot. Behind them I have the young guys in Vander Esch and Leonard. The Kwon Alexander move to San Francisco will be interesting and I have him at No. 8. Rounding out my top-10, Martinez had a fantastic 2018 with the Green Bay Packers and I look forward to him continuing that into this season. 

Jake: For sure! I really like Kwon Alexander, but he fell right outside my top ten NFL linebackers. I agree Bobby Wagner and Luke Keuchly are the clear 1-2 options. Wagner is just unreal and we won’t go into how the Rams literally past him up for Isaiah Pead in the draft. After those two, the only other player that could could have  an argument for the top two is Deion Jones. He has the perfect blend of elite athleticism, instincts and big-play ability. Jones is like having another defensive back out on the field that can make every play.

After that, Leonard and Vander Esch come in at four and five. I love both Leonard gets a slight edge for coming seemingly out of nowhere and doing it all year long.

Lavonte David is next who is as reliable as  it gets. He is another superb athlete in his and it will be interesting to see him play now without his running mate Kwon Alexander.

The next two guys on my list are  Jaylon Smith and Avery Williamson. It’s great to see Smith on this list and back after his gruesome injury. Williamson on the other hand may not be a household name, but he is the best the run defending linebacker in the NFL.

Lastly, No. 9 may be a surprise to many but not a surprise to myself – Cory Littleton. Littleton can do it all. He has lapses in the running game, but is becoming one of the best coverage linebackers in football.

Last, but not least IhaveBernardrick McKinney. He may not be a household name either, but he is the perfect size for a 3-4 inside linebacker. He’s just a consistent overall player, underrated coverage skills,and his overall ability as a true captain of that defensive unit. That’s how my top ten shakes out.

Blaine: That’s not a bad list. I want to start where you finished with Cory Littleton. He’s probably the big surprise on your list, but I honestly found it hard to keep him off of mine. He’s a guy that signs with the Rams as an undrafted free agent, starts on special teams, and then the Rams trade Alec Ogletree because of the confidence they had him. Many might think you’re too high on him, but I wanted to ask you why you included him on your list instead of other linebackers in the NFL like Blake Martinez, Jordan Hicks, Zach Smith, or Kwon Alexander?

Jake: All fair questions. I like Martinez and what he did for the Packers this year. Also, Alexander is fantastic, but the injury left me without being able to see him as much as Littleton.

I would make the argument all of these players are probably in the same tier group, but Littleton got the nod due to his coverage skills that are top-notch. Anytime an NFL team has a player like Littleton who alters its method of roster-building, you know you have something there.

Let’s not forget that Alec Ogletree was the first contract extension of the Sean McVay regime. Trading him was a bold move, but it was the right move. It’s tough to leave out Alexander and Martinez, but there’s so much talent at the position that they are just outside the top-10.

Blaine: Littleton was very solid for the Rams last year and I’m excited to see what he does with a full-year under his belt as “the guy.” Sticking with the Rams and going to the NFL Draft a little bit; they don’t bring back Mark Barron and outside of Dakota Allen, they don’t draft anybody. I know they were driving you crazy on draft night with the talent left on the board at linebacker.

A few topics for conversation here: Do you think the Rams addressed the position enough during the offseason and do you think too much faith is being given to Micah Kiser.  Then who were those guys in the draft that you liked?

Jake: Well first off, driving me crazy is an understatement. I was freaking out that Jahlani Tavai fell to them, Blake Cashman was available in the fifth round who was the top linebacker on my board, and Mack Wilson fell to the fifth as well. The Rams could have addressed the position better and earlier.

However, they did pick up a healthy crop of undrafted rookie talent in Troy Reeder and Natrez Patrick. I like Kiser but I don’t love him. The Rams drafted a player in Dakota Allen that projects as a better starter long-term in the NFL. The issue with Kiser has always been his lack of range and overall athleticism. Allen didn’t test much better but he plays with an intensity that can’t be replicated in his testing. Letting go of probably wasn’t easy, but it was the right move and now he has legitimateopportunity with the Steelers. 

Adding Clay Matthews is sneaky good for the inside backer room due to his experience playing there. We have no idea how he will be used, but a heavy lean as an edge rusher with some reps on the inside seem likely. That adds to the team’s depth and overall talent in that area.

Allen is better than Kiser, but being a late-round pick, the Rams may not view him as ready yet. Kiser appears to be getting the keys to the car, with the Rams. This is an expensive car and he better not crash it. I also liked the underrated re-signing of Bryce Hager. Hager is a great special teams piece, but he can actually play on defense if needed. He made a couple of pick plays in the Cowboys playoff game.

It would have been nice to have added Zach Brown who graded as one of the top five best linebackers in football last year to Pro Football Focus or added my top linebacker in the draft in Cashman,  but I’ll give the Rams a solid B- due to the addition of Matthews and Allen.

Blaine: Those criticisms  are all fair. When it comes to Wade Phillips though, he has a history and a belief that he can take those late-round or undrafted guys and trust them to run his system.

This next segment is something we’ve done with several position groups, but which teams have the best linebacker core in the NFL. You think back to the mid-2000s in Chicago with Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher and then in Baltimore with Ray Lewis and  Terrell Suggs. Who has the best group in today’s NFL? You and I both have the Dallas duo on our lists, so we’d probably have to start there, but who comes after them would you say?

Jake:  I love the Dallas group and had this been two years ago, Jacksonville with Telvin Smith and Myles Jack looked like a good bet. I would lean McKinney and Zach Cunningham in Houston, Alexander and Fred Warner in San Francisco, Wagner and K.J. Wright in Seattle, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds in Buffalo, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy from New England deserve mention as well because of how amazing their playoffs were.

After that Williamson and C.J. Mosley in New York, Zach Brown and Nigel Bradham in Phiadelphia, Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan in Chicago, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr in Minnesota, the rookie Devin White and David in Tampa Bay, Shaq Thompson and Keuchly in Carolina, and to wrap up this long list, Leonard and Bobby Okereke/Anthony Walker from Indy. There’s a healthy group of top notch duos in the NFL. 

Blaine: Ya, I’d say healthy just about describes it! There’s certainly a lot of depth and talent at the position in the NFL. Now we’ll head into our honorable mentions before we wrap up. Also,  who do you see on this list next year? I like Tremaine Edmunds and Myles Jack. Zach Brown will continue to play well in Philadelphia and Bradham is on the outside looking in as well for me. I do like Cory Littleton as well. Lastly, I’ll include Jordan Hicks the former Eagle. He heads to Arizona  this season, but is injury prone. He struggles to stay healthy, but when he’s on the field, he’s a playmaker.  

Jake: I’m a big fan of Darron Lee. He was traded to Kansas City and is worth keeping an eye on. As far as honorable mentions go: Blake Martinez in Green Bay, Fred Warner in San Francisco, Demario Davis in New Orleans, Joe Schobert in Cleveland, Jayon Brown in Tennessee, Lorenzo Alexander in Buffalo with Edmunds and Milano, Zach Brown, Jordan Hicks, C.J. Mosley and I will throw in the Miami Dolphins duo of Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker.

As far as who could indeed be on here next year, Devin Bush of the Pittsburgh Steelers is an obvious choice. Bush could end up being a genuine star. I love Cashman but he found himself in a bad situation being behind Williamson and Mosley who just signed long-term contracts.

Devin White of the Buccaneers could be another guy as well as Jahlani Tavai who was drafted by the Lions in the second round. He might be the best rookie out of all of the linebackers.

Terrill Hanks, Vosean Joseph and Te’Von Coney are all great prospects but fell into situations like Cashman in which they are buried on the depth chart. complete sleepers of this draft would be Ulysees Gilbert III with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gilbert came from Akron and was a late-round pick, but he athletic and will be the perfect running mate for Devin Bush. Those are my honorable mentions and rookies that could make some noise and on this list as early as next year.

Blaine: That’s a solid list and we covered a lot of talent here. We’re just about done with our top-10 and will jump into the secondary on Friday!

DTR Top-10 (First Place Votes)

1. Bobby Wagner – SEA (4)
2. Luke Kuechly – CAR (3)
3. Darius Leonard – IND
4. Deion Jones – ATL
5. Leighton Vander Esch – DAL
6. Jaylon Smith – DAL
7. CJ Mosley – NYJ
8. Lavonte David – TB
9.  Roquan Smith – CHI
T-10. Kwon Alexander – SF
T-10. KJ Wright- SEA

Others Receiving Votes: Zach Brown – PHI, Brandon Marshall – DEN, Whitney Mercilus – HOU, Avery Williamson – NYJ, Joe Schobert – CLE, Cory Littleton – LAR, Nigel Bradham – PHI, Myles Jack – JAX, Lorenzo Alexander – BUF, Blake Martinez – GB, Bernardrick McKinney – HOU, Anthony Barr – MIN  

Tyler Browning: 1. Luke Kuechly, 2. Bobby Wagner, 3. Jaylon Smith, 4. Darius Leonard, 5. Leighton Vander Esch, 6. Deion Jones, 7. CJ Mosley, 8. Roquan Smith, 9. Myles Jack, 10.  Lorenzo Alexander

Dan Gleason: 1. Bobby Wagner, 2. Darius Leonard, 3. Deion Jones, 4. Leighton Vander Esch, 5. Luke Kuechly, 6. Jaylon Smith, 7. C.J. Mosley, 8. Roquan Smith, 9. Joe Schobert, 10. Kwon Alexander

Max Perez: 1. Bobby Wagner, 2. Luke Kuechly, 3.  Darius Leonard, 4. Deion Jones – ATL, 5. CJ Mosley, 6. Leighton Vander Esch, 7. Roquon Smith, 8. KJ Wright, 9. Jaylon Smith, 10. Anthony Barr

Bill Riccette: 1. Luke Kuechly, 2. Bobby Wagner, 3. KJ Wright, 4. CJ Mosley, 5. Kwon Alexander, 6. Brandon Marshall, 7. Whitney Mercilus, 8. Jaylon Smith, 9. Nigel Bradham, 10. Avery Williamson

Alex Washburn: 1. Luke Kuechly, 2. Bobby Wagner, 3. Zach Brown, 4. Deion Jones, 5 . Lavonte David, 6. Leighton VanderEsch, 7. Darius Leonard, 8. Jaylon Smith, 9. Joe Schobert, 10. Lorenzo Alexander

 

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