Posted: 5:00 p.m. Friday, June 14, 2013
By James Brady
With two positions left to rank, I've probably reached the two most controversial outside of the quarterback position: outside linebacker and defensive line. I'm running into issues with these two positions because, simply put, the teams in the NFC West run different defenses and their outside linebackers all do different things.
So we get down to questions like "Who does what they're asked to do better than the other guys?" I think I've done an alright job of answering this question below. When I simplify it to that level the rankings actually weren't that difficult to me. Maybe we'll do a be-all, end-all "Who has the best front seven?" post, but I think we all know (Spoiler Alert!) the San Francisco 49ers will top that list.
Anyway, onto the rankings.
Aldon Smith was a contender for defensive player of the year for much of last season. He's developed into one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers, and entirely too much attention was paid to his late-season slump when Justin Smith went down to injury. Simply put, Aldon was injured as well, and there's not much else to it.
They also have the second best outside linebacker in the division in Ahmad Brooks. This made the decision to put the 49ers at No. 1 very easy. They have the No. 1 and No. 2 inside linebackers in the NFL, and the No. 1 and No. 2 outside linebackers in the division. Three of San Francisco's top four linebackers -- including both outside linebackers -- ranked among the top five of their position by Pro Football Focus last season. Easy choice.
Spoiler alert: Jo-Lonn DUnbar was better than any Seattle outside linebacker last season, by a decent margin. Dunbar put up 115 tackles, 24 assists, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He played all over the field and has a bright future in the NFL, to be sure. He's very much like Seattle's K.J. Wright -- only better.
Alec Ogletree should be a starter opposite Dunbar, and while he's an unknown commodity, I think it was wise for the Rams to spend the high pick. James Laurinaitis has struggled in the middle at times, but with extra help on the outside, I expect him to have a big year. Ogletree and Dunbar make for one of the most athletic 4-3 outside linebacker pairings in the league.
It's unclear who the starter will be opposite K.J. Wright at this point. Seattle will probably make a point to get more of their new toys on the defensive line on the field as opposed to the guy opposite Wright, but either Toomer or Smith should still see plenty of time on that side.
Wright has developed really well and could be on the cusp of breaking out into being one of the league's best outside linebackers. For now, Dunbar has the better stats and is basically just a better version of Wright, but he's really not far behind at all. He can tackle, he can rush the passer from time to time and he can cover very well. I'd take him.
As far as the other side, the position might actually benefit from one of these other guys stepping up. Leroy Hill has pretty much been status quo and while neither Toomer nor Smith are "sexy" picks, they haven't gotten much of a chance, either.
The Arizona Cardinals actually have a pretty decent situation at linebacker overall. But the outside in particular has some glaring issues. Among those issues: O'Brien Schofield still isn't healthy and Sam Acho looked sub-par at times last year. Acho looked best when he lined up as a defensive end.
Lorenzo Alexander is an interesting addition, because the Cadinals plan on giving him significant playing time. I personally believe that Alexander will be good, but he did his best work on special teams in Washington, not lined up in the base defense. Who knows how Okafor will make the transition to OLB at this point?