The start of training camps across the NFL continues to draw closer and closer, and while we don’t quite know what the safety and testing protocols will look like for the NFL, the excitement for the return of football continues to build.
I left off earlier this week with the defensive lines in the division, so today I move into the linebacker rooms. Now, for some clarification: while every team doesn’t run the same system, I’m putting 3-4 and 4-3 linebackers into the same room. This is based purely on the linebackers on the roster, with very little distinction. While they are asked to do different things in each system, they’re still linebackers in the end. This is purely based off of listings on the roster. Some will agree with this, others won’t. I understand the perspective from both sides.
Just stay with me here though.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have arguably the best outside linebacker duo in the NFL in TJ Watt and Bud Dupree, and when you add in blossoming second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush and veteran stalwart Vince Williams, this starting unit has the makings of an elite one in the NFL.
Watt is arguably the best defensive player in football right now, considering he continues to rack up sacks early in his career and single-handedly change the outcome of games week to week. Opposite Watt, Dupree really came into his own last year, turning in a career year to earn the franchise tag. While I’m on the fence about paying a guy coming off of one good year, It’s clear that Dupree has transformed himself into a darn good pass rusher and a borderline elite run defender.
Watching those two bookends wreck opposing offenses will be a ton of fun in 2020.
Inside, Bush had his ups and downs during his rookie year, but it was so refreshing to see the speed and athleticism back at the position. He’s only going to get better in 2020 with added reps. Williams is the steady presence who can rush the passer and stop the run consistently. For too long Steelers fans have doubted VW, and all he does is produce.
Depth is a major concern for the Steelers overall though. Outside, Tuzar Skipper, Ola Adeniyi, rookies Alex Highsmith and James Lockhart, and local product Christian Kuntz all are slated to provide some form of depth. Should Watt or Dupree go down with a long-term injury in 2020, the Steelers are in deep trouble outside. However, there’s some intriguing talent there with Skipper, Adeniyi and Highsmith. They just need time and reps.
Inside, after cutting Mark Barron the Steelers need to replace roughly 700 snaps. Bush will definitely take on the lion’s share of snaps, but with Williams being elevated into a starter’s role, depth is hurt. Sure, Ulysses Gilbert III is a talented player, but he’s never played a real NFL snap in his career outside of the preseason. Expecting him to take on a big role is silly. Robert Spillane will pair with Gilbert as depth and high-end special teams talent, but that’s about it right now. Undrafted rookies Leo Lewis and John Houston will compete for a practice squad job.
Overall, depth is a concern for the Steelers at linebacker, but the starting talent is so good that it might not matter moving forward.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Drafting arguably the best linebacker in the draft will certainly boost a middling linebackers room.
Adding a talent like Patrick Queen to the room did wonders for the Ravens this year, giving them a potential franchise stalwart to man the middle for a decade plus.
Then, grabbing another rookie like Malik Harrison just boosts the Ravens up even more. While they’re unproven in the league, the talent of Queen and Harrison teaming up inside for a decade is a scary. Depth is really solid too with a familiar name in LJ Fort providing the ability to play both positions. Second-year pro Otaro Alaka is an intriguing depth piece that could show out on special teams in 2020.
Outside the Ravens have some issues. Pernell McPhee is back to provide some sort of a veteran opposite Matthew Judon. Judon is a high-end pass rusher, but it’s unclear if he’ll even stick around this year as he and the Ravens are at a crossroads.
Depth is just okay for the Ravens as Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson have some snaps under their belts. Neither is a fearsome pass rusher though.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals did an amazing job addressing a clear weakness by drafting guys like Logan Wilson, Markus Bailey and Akeem Davis-Gaither- all guys whom I was high on in the 2020 class.
Wilson and Davis-Gaither should start right away for Cincinnati, while Bailey is a great depth piece who could be an elite special teamer right away.
Behind the trio of high-end rookies, the Bengals bring back Germaine Pratt, Josh Bynes and Jordan Evans to provide depth and versatility. Pratt was a guy I was really high on heading into the 2019 draft coming out of NC State, but he was a mess last year on the field, but the talent is still there.
4. Cleveland Browns
Cutting Christian Kirksey and letting Joe Schobert walk in free agency really, really hurt the Browns this off-season. Kirksey struggled to stay healthy but was still a good linebacker, while Schobert was an emerging star.
Now, the Browns have to turn full time to a guy like Mack Wilson, who was mostly a mess in 2019 when pushed into an increased role. Wilson has a high ceiling, but asking him to be the leader of the LB room as a second-year pro is a disaster.
Rookie Jacob Phillips should claim a starting job quickly. He’ll rack up a ton of tackles for the Browns in 2020, but I doubt he makes much of an overall impact for that defense. Same for Sione Takitaki. He was up and down as a rookie and now elevates into a starting role. It could be ugly at linebacker for the Browns early on.
Depth-wise, not much is there. BJ Goodson is an intriguing depth guy and MLB for the Browns, while guys like Jermaine Grace and Willie Harvey return with some experience.
Cleveland’s defensive line will have to cover up a lot of deficiencies for the Browns’ LB room in 2020.
Last Year’s Rankings:
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Cleveland Browns
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Baltimore Ravens