The linebacker position has evolved heavily in the past decade or so. On many teams, the thumpers of yesteryear have been phased out in favor of quicker and agile linebackers thanks to the growth of the passing game. Pass catching tight ends and running backs have become staples of every NFL team, so it only makes sense to stack your linebacker group with viable counters.
With rush linebackers already covered in the defensive line preview, we will instead look at the NFC North’s off-ball linebackers. How do they stack up against each other?
- Ranking the NFC North quarterbacks
- Ranking the NFC North running backs
- Ranking the NFC North wide receivers
- Ranking the NFC North tight ends
- Ranking the NFC North offensive lines
- Ranking the NFC North defensive lines
Note: Players on each team are listed alphabetically. Linebackers does not include players listed as rush linebackers. Bold indicates probable starters.
Krys Barnes, De'Vondre Campbell, Brooks Ellis, Isaiah McDuffie, Ty Summers, Quay Walker, Ray Wilborn
Where in the world did De'Vondre Campbell come from? After some middling years with the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, Campbell was phenomenal in 2022, earning himself a First-team All-Pro nod. His performance earned him a five-year, $50 million deal to return to the Packers, and he figures to be a critical piece of their defense yet again.
Campbell is joined by Quay Walker, an extremely athletic linebacker chosen by 22nd overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. Walker was considered by many to be the second-best Georgia linebacker behind Nakobe Dean, but a larger frame and clean bill of health caused Green Bay to pick him early. It is difficult for rookie linebackers to hit the ground running, but pairing Walker with Campbell should no doubt make the transition from college to pro far easier.
Krys Barnes saw a fair share of snaps in 2021, but he will likely see a reduced role due to Campbell's dominance and Walker's presence. The remaining players are essentially special teamers with a bit of upside.
Brian Asamoah, Ryan Connelly, Troy Dye, Jordan Hicks, Eric Kendricks, William Kwenkeu, Blake Lynch, Chazz Surratt
Eric Kendricks has been a mainstay in the NFC North for some time now, but 2021 was perhaps his worst year since he entered the league back in 2015. He remains a good cover linebacker—a valuable trait in today’s NFL—but he will need to prove that his last season was an anomaly and not a trend.
He will be paired with free agent Jordan Hicks in Minnesota’s 3-4 front. Hicks has taken a step down since leaving the Philadelphia Eagles in 2019, but he logged over 1000 snaps in his three years with the Cardinals, with 2021 being his best season in the desert. Much like Kendricks, Hicks just hit his age 30 season, so there is a chance for regression, but they should otherwise form a fairly capable pair.
In the backup department, the Vikings have a few players with potential. Brian Asamoah (a 2022 third-round pick), Troy Dye (a 2020 fourth-round pick), and Chazz Surratt (a 2021 third-round pick) could all see some action as rotational pieces.
Matt Adams, Christian Albright, C.J. Avery, Noah Dawkins, Caleb Johnson, Nicholas Morrow, Jack Sanborn, Roquan Smith, Joe Thomas
Roquan Smith has been a tackling machine with the Chicago Bears, but his career thus far has been an up and down journey. Second-team All-Pro selections in 2020 and 2021 are significant achievements, but PFF has never reflected well on him, recording a grade of just 47.8 last year—does that say more about Smith, PFF, or the linebacking talent in the NFL? Smith also enters the season on the PUP, a cover for his dissatisfaction with his current contract. He’s been great at times and bad at others, but Chicago would just like to have him on the field.
Smith will be paired with Nicholas Morrow, formerly of the Las Vegas Raiders. Morrow, who has been an average linebacker as a pro, missed all of 2021 with a foot injury. He will need to shake off the rust, because the depth behind him is questionable. Matthew Adams is likely next in line for snaps, but with just 107 defensive snaps over the last two seasons, he is far from a sure-fire replacement. The remaining players are purely special teamers.
Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, Chris Board, Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman, Malcolm Rodriguez, Josh Woods
While the Lions have better linebacker depth than the Bears, the starting talent is too lackluster to elevate them beyond last in the division. Right now, Alex Anzalone is the one player guaranteed to start, and that’s not overly reassuring. Anzalone had some good moments as a starter in 2021, but as a whole, he was a notable liability. His PFF grade of 35.4 was among the worst for starting linebackers, a grade that matched what I saw on the field.
The second starter seems to be Chris Board, but almost every player on the roster could feasibly earn that role in training camp and preseason. Board has historically been a special teamer, but he played well in limited snaps with the Baltimore Ravens last season. Derrick Barnes looked like a rookie last season, but the flashes were there to instill plenty of optimism. Jarrad Davis has a history of starting, albeit not a good one, but he may find new life in his second stint in Detroit. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Anthony Pittman, Malcolm Rodriguez, and Josh Woods are competing for special teams roles, but any one of them could move up the depth chart with a good summer.