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The Value of Things: Ranking the AFC South Linebacking Corps

Who has the best linebackers in the AFC South?

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We now get to the other half of the front seven equation. As we said in the last post, teams ask different things of their linebackers than others. Obviously, that will have a way of effecting how rating systems like PFF rank them and it will have an effect on the numbers we generally like to look at. Most regular fans have a basic understanding of the differences between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, but even when you get between those, each defensive coordinator asks different things depending on their tendencies.

So, we will look at linebackers, but doing a power ranking of just linebackers can be done for entertainment purposes. We will look at the traditional stats for each team’s top six linebackers along with their PFF scores for defending the run and rushing the passer. I say this fully acknowledging that some linebackers also play in coverage. We won’t look at those grades knowing full well that this is deleting part of the picture.

Indianapolis Colts

Darius Leonard— 122 tackles, 4 TFL, 0,0 sacks, 91.1 Run PFF, 70.4 Blitz PFF

Bobby Okereke— 132 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 51.6 Run PFF, 72.5 Blitz PFF

*Kenny Moore— 102 tackles, 6 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 73,3 Run PFF, 71.9 Blitz PFF

Zaire Franklin— 40 tackles, 1 TFL, 0,0 sacks, 73.3 Run PFF, 63.5 Blitz PFF

E.J. Speed— 31 tackles, 0 TFL, 0,0 sacks, 65.9 Run PFF, 51.7 Blitz PFF

Tony Brown— Did not play in 2021

There is an asterisk by Moore’s name because he is clearly not a linebacker. He is actually labeled as a corner. The Colts run a 4-2-5 defensive alignment. That is similar to what my alma mater runs at TCU. Usually one linebacker is a coverage linebacker while the other plays Superman and follows the ball. Leonard plays that role well where Okereke plays the coverage role better. Only 14 tackles for a loss and two sacks seems meager, but we have to remember what is being asked. That’s a 71.0 running grade and a 66.0 blitz grade. That’s pretty damn good.

Tennessee Titans

David Long— 75 tackles, 4 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 66.6 Run PFF, 79.3 Blitz PFF

Zach Cunningham— 93 tackles, 7 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 87.4 Run PFF, 50.7 Blitz PFF

Harold Landry— 75 tackles, 14 TFL, 12.0 sacks, 62.2 Run PFF, 56.8 Blitz PFF

Bud Depree— 17 tackles, 2 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 50.4 Run PFF, 55.6 Blitz PFF

Ola Adenyl— 21 tackles, 2 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 53.0 Run PFF, 65.5 Blitz PFF

Monty Rice— 36 tackles, 0 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 51.5 Run PFF, 53.6 Blitz PFF

Welcome to the value of things. Zach Cunningham may be the best linebacker in the division against the run. He doesn’t rush the passer well and he doesn’t cover well. Some people thought he should do those things. There’s a lot of things I probably should be able to do as well. I don’t and the quicker I learned to accept that the happier I was. So, the Titans bring in a run grade of 61.9 run grade and 60.3 blitz grade, but that is awfully misleading. Cunningham almost never plays on third down or obvious passing situations because they know what he is. Ah, the value of things.

Houston Texans

Kamu Gruger-Hill— 108 tackles, 13 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 45.0 Run PFF, 66.2 Blitz PFF

Christian Kirksey— 93 tackles, 6 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 41.4 Run PFF, 63.1 Blitz PFF

John Maybin Reeves== 82 tackles, 4 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 57.0 Run PFF, 70.4 Blitz PFF

Neville Hewitt— 60 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 46.6 Run PFF, 61.9 Blitz PFF

Kevin Pierre-Louis— 10 tackles, 0 TFL, 0.0 sacks, 77.5 Run PFF, No Blitz Grade

Christian Harris— Rookie taken in the third round

There is a reason why we don’t simply go by tackles or even tackles for loss. The run grades show that reason. If you are constantly tackling the running back after five, six, or seven yards then are you really a good linebacker? I suppose it’s fair to say that maybe you aren’t terrible. After all, someone tackled him right? Someone always does, so winding up with a bunch of tackles is not by itself an indication of anything really. Harris will probably help in this regard as he was very similar to Cunningham at Alabama. He defended the run well, but never seemed to progress in coverage or as a blitzer. That’s an overall 53.5 run grade without him included and solid 65.4 blitz grade. So all is not lost, but this unit might be the weak spot of the defense.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Foyesade Oluokun— 192 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 44.0 Run PFF, 49.8 Blitz PFF

Josh Allen— 71 tackles, 12 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 69.3 Run PFF, 71.1 Blitz PFF

Dawuane Smppt— 36 tackles, 7 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 53.7 Run PFF, 73,9 Blitz PFF

Trevon Walker— Rookie taken in first round

Devin Lloyd— Rookie taken in first round

Chad Muma— Rookie taken in third round

When half of your linebacking core are rookies, it makes little sense to provide a grade. Obviously when you use both first round picks and a third rounder on linebackers, that is saying something about what you think you had. Additionally, Oluokun signed a three year, 45 million dollar deal. He led the world in tackles, but much like the Texans returning backers, those tackles are not worth nearly as much as people think. I’m sure the Jags were thinking the same thing as the Texans as the pair Walker and Allen. Both are first round picks and people expect Walker to be a great pass rusher, but that might not be the case. He might be closer to J.D. Clowney than Demarcus Ware or Von Miller. That’s not a bad thing. Walker and Lloyd together could revamp the Jaguars run defense. Meanwhile, Muma will have time to develop as well.

Power Rankings

We get back to another position group where the Texans likely finish dead lass in the division. Jacksonville makes the obvious push with two first round picks to add to a unit that features former first round pick Josh Allen along with big ticket free agent Oluokun. That’s effectively four new linebackers that are likely all rotation players. The Colts are probably still the best considering what they ask their linebackers to do. This will make a lot more sense when we combine the two position groups in our next piece.