#4 New Orleans Saints
The Saints have had the worst defense in the league for a few years now and a large part of that is their poor linebacking play. Their 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony has just not played the way they envisioned him to play. Dannell Ellerbe has not been the same since the hip injury that cost him the majority of the 2014 season. He recorded 193 total tackles over the 2012 and 2013 seasons but only has 85 since. Ellerbe is still an effective NFL player, as he is a terrific blitzing linebacker, but he probably should not be on the field as much as he is with the Saints at this point in his career. Craig Robertson was the lowest rated player on the Saints defense last year according to PFF. Considering the Saints featured one of the most unimpressive defenses in the NFL, you can only imagine what that means about Robertson’s play. New Orleans did try and add some depth this offseason, but nobody that seems to be starter material. This linebacking core cannot even be seen on some of the breakout runs that occurred against them last season. New Orleans needs to get a lot better in this area.
#3 Atlanta Falcons
If there is a weak link to the Falcons defense, it lies with the linebackers. However, the group does look exponentially better than it did two years ago. The additions of Deion Jones provided a huge boost to the entire defense. His speed allowed him to cover the entire field as he led the Falcons in tackles. He still needs to get bigger, which will allow him to get off blockers easier, but the Falcons have said that is going to be a priority with Jones this offseason. Atlanta also might have struck gold in the fourth-round with De’Vondre Campbell. Campbell started thirteen games and recorded 59 total tackles. He will make the full switch to strong-side linebacker this season and will look to build off that productive first season. The new weak-side linebacker could be third-round pick Duke Riley. Riley certainly has the speed that Quinn wants in his defense, but it’s his unique football instincts that will earn him the job. He is terrific in pass coverage and has the quickness to keep up with receivers. These three guys have the future of the linebacking core looking much brighter, but it still needs some work.
#2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. The two are as fierce as they get in the middle of the defense. David did experience a drop in tackles last season, as he only recorded 87 (his previous low came his rookie season was 139). That might be attributed in part to the development of Kwon Alexander who has become one of the best linebackers in the league. He led the Bucs in tackle with 145 tackles. The problem is the group does not yet have a great third linebacker. They have Cameron Lynch listed as their starting strong-side linebacker on their depth chart. Lynch was an undrafted free agent in 2015 and signed with the Bucs in 2016. He as 7 total tackles in 2 seasons. That might all change with the addition of Kendell Beckwith, who was Kwon Alexander’s teammate at LSU. Beckwith would have gone a lot higher had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury at the end of last season. He is one of the best run-stoppers in this draft. The Bucs addition of Beckwith could solidify this group as the best in the South by season’s end.
#1 Carolina Panthers
For now, the #1 spot belongs to the Carolina Panthers. Although injuries is always a concern with this unit, the talent is undeniable. It starts with Luke Keuchly, who is the best overall linebacker in the NFL. His skills against the run, as well as his terrific ability to defend the pass is incomparable to any other player. Hopefully, he can stay healthy this season as concussions may eventually end up threatening his career. Thomas Davis has only gotten better since his knee surgeries that cost him three years of his career. He has played in over 15 games and recorded over 100 tackles in each of the last 5 seasons. The Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson in the first-round two years ago out of Washington. Thompson has been a productive player against both the pass and the run. This trio of linebackers is the best starting group in the NFC South. The Panthers defense will be leaning on these guys in order to regain their 2015 form.