As the NFL has evolved into a pass-happy league with an increased reliance on three-receiver sets, spread formations, and pass-catching running backs and tight ends, the value of every down linebackers who can stick with pass-catchers downfield while also plugging the ground game and rushing the quarterback as a blitzer has also increased. There are only so many Bobby Wagners and Luke Kuechlys in the NFL.
With that in mind, as we continue ranking players at each and every position group in the NFL here at CBS Sports, it's time to rank the league's 10 best linebackers. First, it's important to note that by "linebacker," we don't mean for that term to also include EDGE rushers. A linebacker like Khalil Mack, whose primary role with the Bears is to rush the quarterback, was not included. Neither was Von Miller or Chandler Jones, who like Mack, are pass rushers above all else. By "linebacker," we mean off-ball linebackers or in simpler terms, the more traditional version of the linebacker position. We'll be ranking EDGE rushers later this week, so don't you worry: There will be a time and place to rank the Macks, Millers, and Jones of the NFL. This isn't that time.
Instead, we're looking at a pool of players that includes the aforementioned Wagner. Unfortunately, Luke Kuechly is no longer eligible after his stunning retirement earlier this offseason. A year ago, Wagner and Kuechly tied for first place on our list of the top 10 linebackers heading into the 2019 season. With Kuechly retired, Wagner took first place this year by a wide margin. He's the best linebacker in football.
The only other rule to note is that we're trying to look ahead to the 2020 season with these rankings. That means, these rankings aren't based entirely on past success. It's also not based on the next five or 10 years. We're only looking at the 2020 season. The 10 players you find below are the 10 linebackers we think will be the best at their position group during the 2020 season alone.
Finally, because there are clearly more than 10 great linebackers in the NFL, it's important to note the players who barely missed the cut. Those players include: Danny Trevathan, Deion Jones, Benardrick McKinney, Jaylon Smith, Alexander Johnson, Devin White, Joe Schobert, Blake Martinez, Zach Cunningham, and Cory Littleton. If you feel strongly that one of those players deserved to be on this list, I don't blame you. I wanted to include them too. I think all 10 of those players have a convincing argument. But in the end, there could only be 10, which means a few notable snubs were inevitable.
Without further delay, the list itself ...
10. Bills' Tremaine Edmunds
Ranking Edmunds in the top 10 requires a bit of projection because to this point in his career, he hasn't played like a top 10 player at his position group. But that's OK, because Edmunds, the 16th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, is still only 22 years old and he's already flashed plenty of promise in his first two seasons. He's played in 31 of 32 possible games, racking up 236 combined tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks, 21 passes defended, and three interceptions. In that span, among all linebackers, he ranks 12th in combined tackles -- not bad for his age-20 and -21 seasons.
Edmunds has the benefit of playing on a loaded Bills defense that should continue their ascent under Sean McDermott. In his third season, Edmunds has a real shot to take off. He has all the physical traits necessary to become a top-10 linebacker. Now, he just needs to put it all together. Obviously, since I have him ranked here, I think that'll happen.
9. 49ers' Fred Warner
Warner flies under the radar largely because he's been playing on a stacked defense that has also included the likes of DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, and Richard Sherman -- not to mention, the 49ers gave another linebacker, Kwon Alexander, a gigantic contract in free agency before last season. It feels like Warner's production has been overshadowed.
But that's not fair to Warner, who has blossomed into one of the league's best linebackers since the team drafted him in the third round of the 2018 draft. Across two seasons, he's already registered 242 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, three sacks, 15 passes defended, four forced fumbles, and an interception, which he returned for a touchdown. Over the past two seasons, only nine linebackers have recorded more combined tackles than Warner. Despite his consistent production, he's yet to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.
2020 feels like the year Warner will get the credit he deserves. All he has to do is keep playing the way he has over the past two years. Eventually, the credit he deserves will come. And after ending the season on a total tear, his best days appear to be ahead.
8. Bears' Roquan Smith
The No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 draft, which made him the first linebacker off the board, broke out immediately in his first professional season, playing a key role in the Bears' return to the playoffs, which only happened because their defense was the league's best by a wide margin. In that season, Smith played in all 16 games, made 14 starts, racked up 121 combined tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks, five passes defended, and one interception. It all appeared to be setting up a second season that would see Smith make the leap from good to great.
It didn't happen, at least not in 2019. Smith was still a good player for a good, but no longer great Bears defense that the regression monster came for, but he didn't make the leap with 101 combined tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes defended, and one interception in a 12-game season that included a mysterious absence that remains murky.
It's worth reiterating, though, that Smith still put together a good second season. He just didn't make the leap we all expected. But that can still happen in 2020. He's going to be starting alongside Danny Trevathan (who just missed the list) on a Bears defense that is arguably more talented than it was during its incredible 2018 season. Smith is a tremendous blitzer, a good tackler, and has enough speed to track pass catchers downfield and sideline to sideline. If he puts it all together, he'll be one of the best linebackers in football. I think he'll do exactly that in 2020 after two good, but not great seasons to begin his career.
After a stellar rookie season in 2018, Vander Esch already emerged as a definitive top-10 linebacker. But he took a step back a season ago in terms of his production before he lost his season to injury. And then there's the injury itself, which is the real reason Vander Esch is ranked this low on the list. He missed seven games last year. This offseason, he underwent neck surgery. While the team remains optimistic that the injury won't linger into the 2020 season, it's worth noting that he dealt with serious neck issues during his college career at Boise State. At the very least, it's a mild concern.
But the fact remains that Vander Esch still possesses all of the attributes needed to return to his 2018 form and perhaps even improve as he gets more comfortable with the speed and nuances of the NFL. That's why he made it onto this list. We saw in 2018 just how good he can be: 140 combined tackles, two interceptions, and seven passes defended. If he's fully healthy, he should reclaim his status as a top-10 linebacker in 2020.
Fred Warner ranked 10th in tackles among linebackers since 2018. The player immediately in front of him? That would be Lavonte David, who is still going strong through his age-29 season. Now 30, David has yet to demonstrate any clear signs that he's on the verge of declining. He's still the great linebacker he's been ever since the Buccaneers took him in the second round of the 2012 draft.
He's durable. In eight seasons, he's missed only seven games. He's incredibly productive. He's averaging 126 combined tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 quarterback hits, 2.6 forced fumbles, and 5.6 passes defended per season. Since he entered the NFL, he ranks third in tackles among all linebackers -- only Wagner and Kuechly have more. He's still going strong. He's coming off a 2019 season that saw him make 123 combined tackles. He played a substantial role in the Buccaneers' unbelievably quick turnaround under Todd Bowles; they went from the league's worst defense to the league's fifth-best defense by DVOA in only one season.
At this point, I'm more willing to bet on David continuing to do what he almost always does rather than a sudden and sharp decline.
5. Jets' C.J. Mosley
If this list was based on production in 2019, Mosley wouldn't be on it. His first season in New York after signing a mega-deal with the Jets in free agency didn't go as planned. Due to injury, he played in only two games. Yet in only one game, he showed why the Jets gave him all that money.
I'm willing to overlook his 2019 season largely because of how great he was in Baltimore before he arrived in New York. From 2014-18, Mosley was one of the best linebackers in the sport with an average of 115.8 tackles, 6.4 quarterback hits, 1.7 sacks, 1.2 forced fumbles, seven passes defended, and 1.8 interceptions per season. In that span, he ranked fifth in combined tackles among players at his position group.
In 2020, Mosley has the benefit of rejoining a Jets defense that finished 10th in DVOA a season ago. With Mosley returning, the Jets -- assuming they don't trade Jamal Adams -- have a legitimate chance to become a top-five defense.
4. Saints' Demario Davis
The only concern I have with Davis is that his age is going to show at some point soon. He's entering his age-31 season. Then again, Davis is coming off the best season of his career at the age of 30. In his second season with the Saints, Davis racked up 111 combined tackles, 11 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits, 12 passes defended, and an interception (only the second of his career). According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed an 87.4 passer rating when targeted in coverage -- nearly 20 points lower than the average linebacker.
Thomas has long been a productive player in the NFL. But he played at a truly elite level in 2019. Whether or not he can sustain his success in 2020 remains to be seen. Obviously, given his placement on this list, I'm guessing he'll be able to do so.
3. Colts' Darius Leonard
What more is there to say about Leonard at this point in his career? It's only been two seasons and he's already emerged as one of the best defensive players in football regardless of position. Since I just ranked him No. 7 on my list of the top-25 players under the age of 25, I'm just going to plug in what I wrote about him at the time:
Fun fact about Leonard: In 2018, after an incredible 163-tackle campaign, he captured both Defensive Rookie of the Year and first team All-Pro honors, but he did not make the Pro Bowl. In that sense, the most important contribution of Leonard's career hasn't been all of his tackles (284 combined since 2018, the third-most in that span), sacks (12), or interceptions (7), it's been his 2018 season serving as further proof that using Pro Bowls as a measuring stick is as flawed as using a Rotten Tomatoes audience score as proof of a movie's quality. But the Pro Bowl thing aside, Leonard has already emerged as the best young linebacker in the NFL. He can do a bit of everything: tackle, rush the passer, and cover downfield, giving him tremendous value in the modern NFL.
Too long; didn't read: He's damn good.
The anchor of the Vikings' defense, Kendricks has been a quality linebacker for a while now. But in 2019, he experienced a career season that vaulted him up this list. For the first time in his five-year career, he garnered a first team All-Pro selection, which was well deserved after a 110-tackle season that also included 12 passes defended. According to PFF, those 12 pass breakups represent "the most we have ever seen over a season from that position." He's consistently one of the best coverage linebackers in football, which matters more in the modern pass-happy version of the sport.
Since he entered the league in 2015, he ranks fifth in combined tackles and second in pass defended among all linebackers. As the Vikings try to overcome the losses of several key contributors on the defensive side of the ball, they'll need Kendricks to maintain his level of production in 2020. The good news is that there's no real reason to expect a drop-off.
At the age of 28, after a career-best season, and entering his sixth NFL season, Kendricks is more likely to be entering his peak than his decline.
1. Seahawks' Bobby Wagner
Luke Kuechly's retirement means Bobby Wagner is now the undisputed best linebacker in the league. Before Kuechly retired, Wagner was either 1A or 1B. Now, he's No. 1 -- and by a wide margin.
He does it all. Kuechly is the only player who has recorded more combined tackles than Wagner during the past 10 seasons. He's also recorded 10 interceptions in his career. He's durable, having missed only nine games in eight seasons. He's remarkably consistent, having been named first team All-Pro in five of his eight seasons. He played a huge role on some of the greatest defenses in NFL history, during the Legion of Boom's peak. And he's the reason why the Seahawks defense hasn't completely fallen off a cliff since they moved on from nearly everyone from the Legion of Boom era, with the notable exception of Wagner. He's not slowing down either. Last year, at the age of 29, he notched the second-most tackles of his career.
He's the perfect inside linebacker for the modern game, and his position atop this list shouldn't be the subject of controversy.