Just like the AFC North has been known historically for its running backs and pass rushers, off-ball linebackers also fit right into that mix, thanks to previous names like Ray Lewis, James Farrior, Andra Davis, and Takeo Spikes holding down the middle of AFC North defenses in the early 2000s.
Now, that trend seems to be slowly returning in the tough AFC North, albeit with a different breed of linebackers to meet today’s wide-open, fast-paced offenses.
In today’s edition of the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot, I’ll dive into off-ball linebackers, focusing mainly on middle linebackers and those that live off the ball (hence the name). That means guys like edge rushers in T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith will not appear in this room, instead appearing in the previous edition of the EDGE rankings.
Does that make sense? Let’s dive in.
1. Cleveland Browns
The Browns have done a great job investing in the position group in recent years, building up what was once a weakness into a clear strength on the roster.
In the last few years the Browns have spent premium draft picks on Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Mack Wilson, Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki, and added names like Malcolm Smith, Elijah Lee and Anthony Walker in free agency. Now, the Browns’ depth is two deep at all three LB positions and has become the envy of the division at off-ball linebacker.
Owusu-Koramoah was a top 32 player in the draft on my big board, and only fell to the Browns at No. 52 overall due to an undisclosed heart issues. The Browns were thrilled he fell though, snatching him up as a perfect chess piece in today’s game. JOK will pair nicely with Wilson and Phillips, and I would not be surprised to see Smith and Walker hold down starting roles on this Browns’ defense.
Walker is a terrific run defender and Smith is an underrated athlete at the position and has years of experience under his belt.
Any way you slice it with this group in Cleveland, it’s the best in the division, bar none.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
This might be considered one spot too high for the Steelers’ off-ball linebackers, and I’d understand that thought process. However, I think with a trio of Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane returning, as well as the draft pick of Buddy Johnson and another year of experience for guys like Marcus Allen and Tegray Scales — not to mention the addition of Miles Killebrew in free agency — there’s a lot to like here in Pittsburgh.
Bush should return to a high level of play after tearing his ACL in Week 5 of last season. He was playing some really good football at that point and looked have taken the next step. Should his knee be healthy, look out.
Spillane was a guy who really impressed in place of Bush down the stretch. He really took a step forward and should start next to Bush, providing the Steelers with a strong tackler, blitzer and guy who has the ability to drop into coverage. As for Williams, having him around provides the Steelers with outstanding depth at this point, should one of Bush or Spillane go down again.
Behind the experienced trio, Buddy Johnson is the name to watch coming out of Texas A&M. He has the size of Vince Williams and the speed of Devin Bush and feels like an overlooked athlete at the position. He could realistically be a starter in 2022 and hold down the job next to Bush for 5-6 years.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
I was a big believer in Logan Wilson coming out of Wyoming in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he quickly lived up to my beliefs in Cincinnati last season. Wilson, a third-round pick out of Wyoming in 2020, appeared in 12 games as a rookie and started two of them. He totaled 33 tackles, four tackles for loss, three passes defended, two interceptions, two quarterback hits, and one sack in limited action, working his way into a starting role before missing the rest of the season due to injury.
He’s a great coverage linebacker with impressive ball skills for the position and is consistently around the football in the run game, making plays left and right. He looks like the Bengals’ next franchise linebacker that fits today’s NFL.
Along with Wilson, the Bengals have really invested in the position in the last few years, grabbing Akeem Davis-Gaither in the draft last season, and nabbing Germaine Pratt in the draft two years ago. When all three are healthy and on the field, they give the Bengals a dynamic, athletic group to combat today’s NFL offenses.
I also genuinely like the depth at the position with names like Jordan Evans, Joe Bachie and Markus Bailey backing up the starting trio. If the developmental arcs continue to curve correctly, this could be the best off-ball LB group in the division in a few years.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Yes, Patrick Queen was pretty darn good in 2020 as a rookie for the Ravens, starting from Day 1 and recording more than 100 tackles on his way to finishing in the top three of the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year voting, along with a Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team nod.
Queen is about it right now at the position though for the Ravens.
Second-year linebacker Malik Harrison (a guy I truly loved coming out of Ohio State) could take a step forward in 2021, but that’s projecting too much at this point. As for former Steeler L.J. Fort, he found himself slowly phased out of the defense by the Ravens due to his poor play last season. He’s still a strong coverage linebacker that provides some thump downhill against the run, but there’s a clear lack of depth behind Queen at the moment.
I would still keep an eye on names like Otaro Olaka and Chris Board inside for the Ravens, but Board is almost unplayable against the run at this point in his Ravens career.
Queen is one of the top off-ball linebackers in the division, but the Ravens really get thumped here due to depth.
2020 AFC North LB rankings:
No. 1 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 2 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 3 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 4 – Cleveland Browns