The cliché of football being a young man’s game might not apply to inside linebackers.
Bobby Wagner, Demario Davis and Lavonte David are all 32 or older, but the trio continued to play at a high level for their respective teams in 2022.
NFL teams are playing fewer off-ball linebackers nowadays, but they’re asking more from them. The ones who tend to succeed in today’s game are the ones who can contribute in many areas, from pass rushing to run stopping to playing in coverage. That’s why Wagner, Davis and David remain three of the best linebackers in the league.
But where do they rank? And how do they compare to the younger stars at the position?
Here are the 10 best linebackers in the NFL today.
10Nick Bolton, Chiefs
You might not be familiar with the name, but you’ve definitely noticed the middle linebacker in the No. 32 jersey flying around making plays for the Chiefs during postseason games. Bolton, 23, flashed as a rookie in 2021, but he really took his game to the next level in Year 2 by stacking 180 total tackles, the second most in the league. As a unit, the Chiefs’ defense often gets forgotten (as teammates of Patrick Mahomes); Bolton said himself that the defense doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s also time to acknowledge that Bolton is one of the best linebackers in the league.
9Tremaine Edmunds, Bears
Edmunds, 25, a two-time Pro Bowler, turned his best season with the Bills into a four-year, $72 million contract with the Bears this offseason. Edmunds, a 2018 first-round pick, started his career as a tackling machine, but he developed into one of the best coverage linebackers last season, receiving a 90.0 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, the best among off-ball linebackers. After starting his career with five consecutive seasons of recording 100-plus total tackles for the Bills, Edmunds will now be looking to make plays in the middle of Matt Eberflus’s defense in Chicago.
8Dre Greenlaw, 49ers
The 49ers locked down Greenlaw early with a two-year, $19 million contract extension during the first month of the 2022 season. San Francisco knew what it had in the outside linebacker, and it was quickly repaid with a breakout season from the ’19 fifth-round pick. Greenlaw, 26, had a career-high 127 total tackles, with two forced fumbles, one interception and six passes defended. Fred Warner takes most of the spotlight in the 49ers’ defense, but Greenlaw’s presence gives San Francisco arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL.
7Demario Davis, Saints
The 34-year-old Davis surprisingly received his first Pro Bowl selection last season after his sixth consecutive year of at least 100 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Better late than never, as Davis hasn’t shown signs of decline and might be coming off his best season since 2019 (when he was named a first-team All-Pro). Davis, who’s heading into his 12th season, is an all-around playmaker with his standout skills in coverage and run defense, and as a pass rusher.
6Lavonte David, Buccaneers
David, 33, also had a career resurgence in 2022, which earned him a one-year, $7 million contract to remain in Tampa Bay. Most linebackers become one-dimensional downhill playmakers at this stage of their careers, but David remains one of the best coverage linebackers, receiving an 88.0 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus during his 11th season (second only to Edmunds’s ’22 grade). Surprisingly, the first and only time that David was selected to the Pro Bowl was in ’15. He’s had at least 97 total tackles in each of the past six seasons.
5Matt Milano, Bills
It took longer than expected, but Milano finally had a breakout season in 2022, earning him his first career Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections. Milano, 28, went from a reliable playmaker to a vital core player for the Bills, who recently re-signed the linebacker to a two-year contract extension worth $14 million per year. The move gave Buffalo cap-space flexibility, but it also rewarded Milano with a pay raise for his dominant season (after letting Edmunds walk to Chicago). The Bills were forced to pick between their two linebackers, and perhaps they kept the better player in Milano, who had 99 total tackles, three interceptions, 11 passes defended and two forced fumbles in ’22.
4Shaquille Leonard, Colts
Perhaps Leonard, 27, should be ranked higher, but he’s coming off an injury-riddled season in which he played only three games. That shouldn’t diminish his first four seasons in the league, which included plenty of hardware, with Defensive Rookie of the Year and three first-team All-Pro selections. Leonard, a 2018 second-round pick, quickly made a name for himself as a high-motor, sideline-to-sideline playmaker and impactful pass rusher—he had 15 sacks through his first three seasons. If Leonard is fully healed from his back injury, he’ll likely regain his top spot next year on the position rankings.
3Bobby Wagner, Seahawks
Wagner, 32, had plenty to play for last season after being cut by the Seahawks without warning from the front office. The motivated Wagner proved Seattle wrong in the best way: He was named a second-team All-Pro during a one-year stint with the rival Rams before being asked to return to his (then) former team. In his 11th season, Wagner took over games as a standout run defender and pass rusher in the middle of the Rams’ defense, recording 140 total tackles, six sacks and two interceptions during his revenge tour in L.A. But the eight-time Pro Bowler didn’t experience many victories with the Rams, so he’ll look to return to his winning ways with the Seahawks this season.
2Roquan Smith, Ravens
It didn’t take Smith long to establish himself as one of the best players on a talented roster. After being traded by the Bears in November, Smith recorded 86 total tackles in nine games with the Ravens—and the Baltimore defense held opponents to 14.6 points per game with Smith on the field. Overall, Smith had a career 2022 season, with 169 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and three interceptions. Smith, 26, also earned his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections. Smith’s sideline-to-sideline speed, intensity and leadership on and off the field paved the way for him to receive a five-year, $100 million contract extension from the Ravens, making him the highest-paid linebacker in the league.
1Fred Warner, 49ers
Warner tops this list for various reasons, but what truly sets him apart is his mental edge when it comes to the chess match vs. opposing quarterbacks. As a fast processor, he’s often at the right place at the right time, which helps him quickly close lanes against the run. Warner, who’s had more than 118 total tackles in each of his five NFL seasons, also has the athleticism to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. The 26-year-old is a two-time first-team All-Pro, and he’s been instrumental in the success of the 49ers the past few seasons. If you don’t agree with this ranking, perhaps hearing Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson rave about Warner will convince you.