By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
How important is the outside linebacker position in the NFL?
To get the answer, look no further than Von Miller of the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Miller basically took over February's big game and kept Cam Newton in his sights throughout, preventing the Carolina Panthers' brilliant quarterback from doing what he normally does.
That's how Miller played throughout the majority of the 2016 regular season before stepping up his game during the Broncos' playoff run. Denver wouldn't have won the championship without Miller being a dominant force.
The Broncos certainly didn't win because of the proficiency of their offense, which operated in fits and starts behind the since-departed Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.
The outside linebacker position changed dramatically in 1981 when the New York Giants drafted Lawrence Taylor out of North Carolina and he quickly became the most impactful defensive player in the NFL. Teams have been looking for the next Taylor ever since, and while there are many fine outside linebackers, nobody can match what LT brought to the field on a weekly basis.
Here's our look at the top 10 at that position heading into the 2017 season.
1. Von Miller, Denver Broncos – Miller pulled off one of the great moves of the offseason when he ignored the franchise tag that was applied in January and threatened to hold out if he didn't get the deal he wanted. Miller was holding all the cards and he played his had expertly as he got a six-year, $114 million deal with $70 million guaranteed. In addition to being one of the best clutch pass rushers in the game, Miller is an improved outside linebacker who fuflills all the responsibilities of the position. He is very strong against the run and does a fine job in coverage, things that were areas of weakness earlier in his career. Miller has proven he can dominate in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
2. Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers – Davis is nearly as important to the Panthers as Miller is to the Broncos because of the aggressiveness he displays for 60 minutes and his ability to come around the corner with speed and a mean streak. The presence of inside linebacker Luke Kuechly enhances Davis's overall effectiveness, but the reverse is also true. The Davis-Kuechly combination is the best 1-2 linebacker punch in the NFL.
3. Jamie Collins, New England Patriots – Did the Patriots make the right decision trading Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason? That will be determined as the 2016 season plays out, but one of the reasons that Bill Belichick was willing to make the deal was the presence of Collins. He is not going to turn into a pass-rushing machine, but is such a strong all-around player that the Pats felt they could trade their best pass rusher. Collins had 5 1/2 sacks last year, and he could approach double figures this year, and dominate against the run.
4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers – Matthews has proven to be a versatile performer in recent years because he has been quite effective at both inside and outside linebacker. Still, when Matthews is at the OLB spot, he comes around the corner with game-changing speed and gets inside the head of opposing quarterbacks.
5. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs – When healthy, Houston is an explosive pass rusher who is capable of putting together a monster season. He had 22 sacks in 2014, and he has also shown he can play the run well, which is why the Chiefs use him as a three-down player. Once Houston returns from his knee problems, he should continue to be a dominant player.
6. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys – He started off as a middle linebacker, but is now an outside backer who can cause huge problems with his intelligence, instincts and play-making ability. The biggest problem Lee has had has been his health. It seems unlikely that he will stay on the field for 16 games, and that will be an issue for the Cowboys. He should be a game changer if he starts to string games together.
7. Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots – Much like Collins, the Patriots use Hightower at both inside and outside linebacker and he is effective at both. Hightower loves to play downhill and apply vicious hits in the running game, and he can also rush the passer effectively. Hightower appears to be coming into his prime at the age of 26.
8. Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings – One of the best young linebackers in the league, Barr appeared to gain full grasp of the position last season. He has eye-catching size at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, and the athletic ability to dominate against players who simply can't match his physical attributes. Head coach Mike Zimmer should be able to coax a sensational year out of him.
9. K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks – Wright is one of the quickest outside linebackers in the league and he excels against the run. He had 116 tackles a year ago and also forced four fumbles. Look for him to come close to matching last year's numbers as his consistency is another of his gifts.
10. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals – Burfict is blessed with speed, strength and instincts, but is often his own worst enemy because of his undisciplined mistakes. His meltdown in the late stages against Pittsburgh in last year's playoff game could end up being his NFL legacy unless he starts making smarter decisions. He is a tackling machine capable of playing at an All-Pro level when he concentrates.
for more features.