Ranking NFL's top 10 linebackers entering 2022: New No. 1 as Bobby Wagner finally dethroned

Ranking NFL’s top 10 linebackers entering 2022: New No. 1 as Bobby Wagner finally dethroned

The linebacker position in the game of football is one of the most important. These athletes are called upon to be run-stuffing defensive linemen on some downs, and hybrid cornerbacks on others. The strongest players are experts at open-field takedowns and make it hard for quarterbacks to feel comfortable throwing toward the middle of the field. 

Below, we will rank the NFL’s top 10 linebackers entering 2022. To create this list, we took into consideration basic statistics, Pro Football Reference/Stathead’s Approximate Value, PFF grades and a guess on how the player will perform moving forward. Something to note is that 3-4 pass-rushers will not appear on this list. Players like T.J. Watt, Matt Judon, Harold Landry and Shaquil Barrett are not included. With all that said, let’s jump in. 

Honorable mentions: Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Logan Wilson, Shaq Thompson, Alexander Johnson, Deion Jones Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Zach Cunningham, Anthony Walker, C.J. Mosley, Foye Oluokun.

Campbell was one of the big surprises of the 2021 NFL season, as he stepped his game up in a major way for the Green Bay Packers. He set career highs across the board, notching 146 combined tackles, six QB hits and two interceptions. 

Campbell recorded the second-highest PFF grade of any linebacker with an 85, and also was the second-highest graded linebacker in coverage with an 82.2. He went from having a one-year contract worth $2 million to signing a five-year deal that carries an AAV of $10 million! What a find he was for the Packers last year. Now, it remains to be seen if Campbell can replicate his 2021 campaign, but based off of how he played last year, Campbell deserves a place on this list. 

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David missed five games in 2021 due to injury, but he still had a solid season, recording 97 combined tackles. David also graded out as the No. 14 overall linebacker with a 72.3 PFF grade, and the No. 9 linebacker in coverage with a 73.9. Though he’s 32 years old, David hasn’t taken a major step backwards just yet. He was All-Pro just one year ago, and has been a leader for this Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense since the days when the franchise was going 2-14. It’s also noteworthy that David is good in coverage, something other linebackers can struggle with. Plenty of well-known ‘backers had coverage grades in the 30s this past season. David has been consistent, as only one linebacker has recorded more tackles since he entered the league, and that player is found later on in this list. 

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This is likely a polarizing selection. The former No. 5 overall pick recorded 128 combined tackles, a career-high 18 QB hits in 2021 and earned his first Pro Bowl selection this past season. He didn’t end the 2021 campaign in the best fashion, but did rebound to record 13 combined tackles, two tackles for loss, four QB hits and two passes defensed in Tampa Bay’s two postseason games. Overall, White has had an incredible start to his career, as he’s picked up All-Pro honors, a Pro Bowl bid and a Super Bowl ring in just three years. His 2021 campaign wasn’t his best, but he seems like a player that’s just going to get better, and someone who could end up becoming the next Lavonte David for the Bucs. However, he will have to get better in coverage. 

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Smith has recorded at least 101 combined tackles in each of his four NFL seasons, and his last two campaigns have been impressive. The Georgia product was named second-team All-Pro in 2020 and 2021, and recorded a career-high 163 combined tackles last year — which ranked fifth among all linebackers.

Despite the inconsistent offense, the Chicago Bears had the No. 6 defense in the league last year, and Smith was a big reason why. While Chicago lost Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack in the offseason, this unit could be rather strong again with some of the additions made in the secondary, and with the defensive-minded Matt Eberflus taking over as head coach. With Smith entering the final year of his rookie deal, Spotrac believes he’s in line to sign a five-year, $88.18 million extension. That hypothetical AAV of $17.6 million would make Smith the third highest-paid linebacker in the NFL. Just 25, he’s on his way. 

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Kendricks has long been one of the consistent middle linebackers in the league, and he stepped up his game in 2021 with a career-high 143 combined tackles, five sacks and two interceptions. The only season in which he did not record at least 100 tackles was his rookie campaign, when he missed two games. He even hit 107 combined tackles in 2020 despite playing in just 11 games! 

Kendricks is another well-rounded linebacker that can cover, as his 73.8 PFF coverage grade ranked No. 10 among linebackers last year. Despite what PFF says, I don’t think there are that many more linebackers who are better in coverage than Kendricks. While Mike Zimmer is gone, new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is an experienced coach who can get the most out of Kendricks and this defense as a whole. Minnesota Vikings players on both sides of the ball, including Kendricks, have already opened up about the culture change they have felt early on this offseason with Kevin O’Connell. At age 30, Kendricks should again be one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL in 2022. 

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Davis is a player people keep expecting to regress, but he just hasn’t. His All-Pro season in 2019 was special, but some might have thought it was just a one-year thing. Then, he was named All-Pro again in 2020 with an AV of 14 for the second straight season. There’s no way he was going to get better, right?

In 2021, Davis was given a career-high AV of 15 while again being named an All-Pro after he recorded 105 combined tackles, 13 tackles for loss and three sacks. His PFF grade of 77.9 ranked eighth last year among linebackers, and he once again showed he’s a well-rounded linebacker that doesn’t get the kind of credit he deserves. Yes, Davis was a late-bloomer, but not many players can make the impact he does in stopping the run, tackling, rushing the passer and working in coverage. 

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After Warner’s monster 2020 campaign, we thought he could be the No. 1 linebacker on this list entering 2022. Unfortunately, he took a bit of a step back from his All-Pro and Pro Bowls ways. While Warner recorded a career-high 137 combined tackles (T-No. 11 among linebackers,) his AV of 8 was tied for No. 23 in 2021. 

With that being said, Warner is still an elite linebacker and has recorded at least 118 combined tackles in each of his four NFL seasons. He also registered a fourth-best 79.4 PFF coverage grade among linebackers despite playing a whopping 680 coverage snaps. No linebacker recorded more coverage snaps than Warner in all of 2021. He signed a monster five-year, $95 million extension last July, and is worth it considering he’s just 25. 

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According to Stathead’s AV tool, Leonard was tied in having the second-best season of any linebacker last year. He recorded 122 combined tackles, four interceptions and a whopping eight forced fumbles, which led the league. Leonard was a beast in stopping the run, as his 91.1 PFF run defense grade was second among all defenders in 2021 — not just linebackers. 

Leonard burst onto the scene with 163 combined tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in his rookie season back in 2018. He’s been an All-Pro each year, and a Pro Bowler for three straight seasons now. 

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Some may think Wagner is too high on this list, and while he took a small step backwards in 2021, he’s still one of the best linebackers in the NFL. It’s funny how taking a “small step backwards” for Wagner is being a second-team All-Pro, a Pro Bowler and setting a career high in tackles even while missing a game. His 170 combined takedowns ranked third among linebackers this past season.

Wagner’s resume speaks for itself. In 10 seasons, he has been named an All-Pro eight times, made the Pro Bowl eight times and led the NFL in tackles twice. He’s a Hall of Famer, no doubt, but the reason he’s so high on this list is because he’s not done just yet. Wagner is no longer with the Seattle Seahawks, signing with the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams this offseason. The Rams have a great defense, and the 32-year-old Wagner could find himself rejuvenated in 2022. 

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Parsons took the NFL by storm in his rookie season, recording 84 combined tackles and a Dallas Cowboys rookie record 13 sacks. He told us last week that 15 sacks are the “minimum” in 2022. Parsons was the No. 1 linebacker according to PFF, with a grade of 89.7. He also registered an absurd pass-rushing grade of 93. 

We thought about if Parsons should even be included in this list since he played a fair amount of pass-rusher last season, but the bottom line is that Parsons is a great linebacker who can wear several different hats on defense. Parsons is versatile, smart and instinctive. You don’t do what he did in his rookie season if you aren’t a star. NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler. 

While Parsons proved to be a stud pass-rusher, some had questions about his coverage ability coming into the league. Parsons actually finished No. 12 among linebackers in 2021 with a PFF coverage grade of 70 in 295 coverage snaps. If you go back and watch him play throughout his rookie season, you’ll not only see a talented pass-rusher, but a good linebacker that can read and react quickly. A defender who can blow up screen plays and make takedowns in the open field. 

The Penn State product ranked No. 6 in the NFL in sacks and No. 8 in total pressures. Going back to our introductory paragraph, versatility is needed at the linebacker position, and his versatility is the reason why Parsons comes in at No. 1 on our list.

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