Scouts Inc. has ranked every linebacking unit in the NFL, and the young units of Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are knocking on the door of the top 10. Below is a look at how Nos. 11 to 32 shake out.
SLB Michael Boley might be the best linebacker whom you are not real familiar with. He is extremely athletic with a long build and has the ability to rush the quarterback off the edge, stack the run, or turn and run with athletic tight ends in coverage. As a rookie, Stephen Nicholas battled a high ankle sprain, but he is an explosive run-and-hit weakside linebacker who made Demorrio Williams expendable. In fact, the move might end up being considered an upgrade. Second-round pick MLB Curtis Lofton is going to be very difficult to keep off the field, even though Keith Brooking currently holds the job in the middle. Brooking is established and productive, but is probably better suited for the weak side. He is also an important leader on a team desperate for leadership. Lofton is a hammer who is very instinctive and should fortify the middle for many years. If given the chance, Lofton could have a productive season on a suspect defense. Overall, the Falcons have an impressive foursome of linebackers, and they should be set at this position for the long term, even without Brooking.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
James Harrison exceeded expectations in taking over for Joey Porter at right outside linebacker. He is tenacious and nasty. Harrison uses his power and leverage to his advantage and is a force in all aspects of his position. Opposite Harrison, second-year player LaMarr Woodley will replace Clark Haggans. In limited views, Woodley was extremely impressive. He is big and thick with natural pass-rushing skills. Woodley could be a breakout player this year with more time on the field and should be an instant upgrade over the departed Haggans. College DE Bruce Davis will be converted to outside linebacker and may see the field some in throwing situations this season as Woodley did a year ago. James Farrior and Larry Foote are the incumbent starters on the inside, but last year's first-round selection Lawrence Timmons will challenge Foote on the weak side. Even if he doesn't win the starting job, the versatile and gifted Timmons will have a prominent role in the sub-package defenses. Foote is proven and solid, but not the ideal athlete for this spot. It wouldn't be shocking to see Timmons go past him during the season. Farrior remains a rock for the Steelers. He is tough and physical at the point of attack. While his age is catching up to him and he isn't the top-notch athlete he was when drafted high in the first round, he remains very steady and important to this team. This ranking surely will fluctuate in accordance to how Woodley and Timmons perform.