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Ranking the AFC North linebackers: Steelers on top

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The Steelers and Bengals are the class of the division when it comes to the linebacker units around the AFC North.

NFL: Preseason-Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers
Keeping tradition alive
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The linebacker corps has historically been a strength of AFC North teams, and that tradition will continue in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. While Baltimore and Cleveland also boast outstanding individual players, each of their units have enough uncertainty to keep them out of the top tier.

So, how do the AFC North linebacker units rank heading into the 2017 NFL season?

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers like to mix things up at the linebacker position, particularly on the outside, depending upon whether they are being asked to rush to passer, stop the run, or both. Pittsburgh features four players who could be considered starters at outside linebacker, while the inside is considerably more stable.

Ohio State product Ryan Shazier earned his first Pro Bowl nomination in 2016 after racking up 87 tackles, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. He also contributed 11 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and 3.5 sacks to go with nine passes defended. In short, Shazier, when healthy, is proving himself to be among the best inside linebackers in the NFL.

The other inside linebacker spot belongs to Vince Williams. Despite playing in only about one-fourth of the team’s defensive snaps, Williams was seventh in tackles with 47 last year. He also managed two sacks and four tackles for loss.

The Steelers signed James Harrison as an undrafted free agent in 2002 and he has spent all but one season of his legendary career in Pittsburgh. At 39, Harrison is one of the oldest players in the NFL, but continues to produce at a respectable level. Last year, Harrison turned in his third straight season with at least five sacks. The only time in the last 10 years that he failed to reach that mark was in his lone season in Cincinnati in 2012.

But the man who is expected to get the most work on the outside is third-year player Alvin “Bud” Dupree out of the University of Kentucky. Although injury limited Dupree to just seven games in 2016, he still managed to record 4.5 sacks and two additional tackles for loss.

Rookie T.J. Watt of Wisconsin was the Steelers’ first round selection and comes into the league with plenty of hype. So far, he has lived up to that and has drawn praise from players and coaches alike.

The final piece to the Steelers’ outside linebacker puzzle is Arthur Moats, a free-agent acquisition from Buffalo in 2014. Moats was Pittsburgh’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee last year and although he only managed 21 tackles in 2016, 3.5 of those were sacks.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

Vontaze Burfict is clearly the leader of the Bengals’ linebacker pack. In three of his five seasons in the NFL, Burfict has recorded more than 100 tackles and led the league in that department in 2013. Burfict earned a Pro-Bowl selection that year and was named second team All-Pro.

Through 58 regular-season games, Burfict, who ably mans the weakside linebacker position, has produced eight or more tackles in 37 games and has reached double-digit totals in 22 games. But Burfict, an undrafted free agent from Arizona State University, is not just a tackling machine, he has also broken up at least five passes in three separate games, has notched five interceptions and recovered five fumbles throughout his impressive career.

Vincent Rey has been a consistent performer for the Bengals since he joined them as an undrafted free agent out of Duke in 2010. According to Pro Football Focus, Rey’s coverage grade was not only tops among Cincinnati linebackers but placed him in the top 30 of all players with at least 500 snaps last year.

Newcomer Kevin Minter looks to vault this unit into one of the top groups in the NFL. Minter, who was acquired by the Bengals in free agency from the Arizona Cardinals, really came into his own in 2016, recording 81 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 16 games. Pro Football Focus rated Minter 25th among all linebackers. If Minter can continue his upward trend, the Bengals’ linebacker unit could prove to be one of the best starting groups the NFL has to offer.

Nick Vigil only saw limited action in 2016 but came on strong toward the end of the season and is in the process of locking down the starting strongside linebacker role. He’s looked strong in the preseason and figures to be the athletic linebacker the Bengals have long needed to excel in Paul Guenther’s defense.

Marquis Flowers was a safety in college, and his speed and mobility makes him another capable cover guy. P.J. Dawson, a third-round pick of the Bengals in the 2015 NFL Draft, has dealt with character issues but his skill set makes him one of Cincinnati’s better backups.

Former Oklahoma standout Jordan Evans was selected by the Bengals in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft and brings an added measure of speed to the room. Carl Lawson is also in the mix here, although he was already profiled as a defensive end, the position he played in college. The Bengals want to use him at outside linebacker, though primarily, he’ll be rushing the passer regardless of where he’s positioned.

3. Cleveland Browns

Jamie Collins, a former Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro who came to the Browns from New England via trade in 2016, is the class of the group and one of the most athletic backers in the division. He will start on the outside edge for Cleveland, but has the versatility to line up anywhere on the field.

Fourth-year player Christian Kirksey, who is expected to get the start at weakside linebacker in the Browns’ new 4-3 look, was the leader of the defense last year when he registered 148 tackles. Tank Carder was expected to get the nod at middle linebacker, but suffered a season-ending injury last week, diminishing the Browns’ group a bit. Joe Schobert, who was a starting outside linebacker for the Browns last season, is in the mix here, too and likely will take on a bigger role with Carder now done for the year.

4. Baltimore Ravens

Terrell Suggs, who will be entering his 15th season in the NFL, may be in the twilight of his career, but his light is still shining bright. Suggs still managed eight sacks last year and is a valuable locker room presence. Albert McClellan is also expected to contribute at outside linebacker, as are second-year player Matthew Judon, 2015 fourth round pick Za'Darius Smith and 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser out of Houston.

C.J. Mosley, in his fourth season with the Ravens and one of the best young linebackers in the game, is a lock at one of the inside linebacker positions. Second-year man and former Boise State standout Kamalei Correa is the early favourite at the other spot. The group is a mix of old and young but has a lot to prove as part of what looks to be a strong Ravens defense in 2017.

Poll

Which team in the AFC North has the best linebacker unit?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (32 votes)
  • 54%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (264 votes)
  • 1%
    Cleveland Browns
    (5 votes)
  • 38%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (186 votes)
487 votes total Vote Now