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Assessing the Best Inside Linebackers in the 2020 NFL
Growing up as a fan of pro football, I remember being in awe of the massive numbers for so many different positions.
Passing yards and touchdowns for quarterbacks. Receptions for wide receivers. Rushing touchdowns for running backs. And tackles by defensive players.
All impressive, but much like ERA or wins in baseball, they are all inherently flawed. Well, at the very least, they’re all incredibly misleading.
Some of the worst quarterbacks in the league can rack up monster yardage and accrue touchdowns, largely because they spend the majority of the time playing from behind.
Receivers can benefit from this just as much, but the number of catches you garner tells viewers little compared to yards per catch and catch rate. Running backs can also punch in short touchdowns to improve their numbers, but that’s just as much credit to the system and o-line as it is the tailback.
This all bleeds into the “who is the best linebacker in the NFL in 2020” discussion, as tackles are as misleading of a stat as any. You have to consider it, to some degree, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Let’s figure out who the top ‘backer is by breaking the best options down going into 2020.
The 5 Best Inside Linebackers in 2020
- Benardrick McKinney – Houston Texans
- Deion Jones – Atlanta Falcons
- J. Mosley – New York Jets
- Bobby Wagner – Seattle Seahawks
- Jaylon Smith – Dallas Cowboys
If you actually dig through the best inside linebackers, two things will shock you: a lot of players that probably should work inside don’t, and the guys you thought were great on the inside, well, sometimes aren’t.
The departure of Luke Kuechly from the NFL hurts this list, as he’d probably be ranked #1 and with little resistance. That said, this is still a pretty good list, even though not everyone here has always graded out well or even enjoyed stellar 2019 runs.
Still, the best inside linebacker in the NFL is on this list. Who is it? Let’s break each ‘backer down to find out.
Benardrick McKinney – Houston Texans
McKinney wasn’t quite as effective as we’re used to seeing in 2019, but he continues to be an extremely reliable force over the middle of the field for the Texans.
While he leaves something to be desired in coverage and is not an elite pass rusher, few inside linebackers can thump and stop the run as effectively as McKinney can.
His borderline one-dimensional talent does make him a fringe pick to be in this list, but he’s steady enough to pass the eye test.
Deion Jones – Atlanta Falcons
Jones was a huge reason why the Dirty Birds were so good defensively a few years back and also why they experienced a free fall when he missed ten games in 2018.
When healthy, Jones is one of the best defenders in all of football and certainly among the top inside linebackers.
An elite athlete with natural instincts and a knack for big plays, Jones has the ability to secure tackles, sniff out the run, and stick with receivers in coverage.
C.J. Mosley – New York Jets
While rarely grading out particularly well when you compare to other positions, there’s still zero doubt that Mosley is among the best linebackers in football.
The Jets paid Mosley some serious cash to turn their weak defense around, but he lasted two games before being shut down in his first season with the team.
That small sample size isn’t a fair assessment of what he can do, as he piled up 100+ tackles four different times while with Baltimore.
Bobby Wagner – Seattle Seahawks
It feels like Wagner has been around forever, as he was part of Seattle’s two Super Bowl teams and has posted 104+ tackles every season he’s been in the league.
That’s eight seasons of elite tackling, for those keeping score at home. As noted, tackles don’t always tell the whole story with every defender, but Wagner is as reliable as they come (5.9% missed tackle percentage) and has routinely been a big playmaker.
Balanced, versatile, consistent, and reliable, the 29-year-old Wagner appears poised to take the baton from the retiring Kuechly.
Jaylon Smith – Dallas Cowboys
Of course, you always need to be on the lookout for a younger, more talented player.
Smith rebounded nicely from a devastating college injury to morph into quite the difference-maker for the Cowboys. The former Notre Dame superstar took some time to get to this point, but he’s now posted 121+ tackles in each of his last two seasons.
Far from just a tackling machine, Smith is also an adept playmaker, as he’s recorded 6.5 sacks, one interception, recovered three fumbles, and scored one touchdown since 2018.
Smith may also be getting better, so the sky’s the limit after Dallas handed him a huge contract in 2019.
Who’s the Best Inside Linebacker in 2020?
Jaylon Smith is coming for the crown, and he may very well get it. From a sheer physical perspective, I’d give Deion Jones a real shot at this, too.
But Bobby Wagner isn’t exactly ancient. He’s also no scrub athlete, and he has some of the best instincts in the league. His production, leadership, consistency, and impact for Seattle over the years also all speaks for itself.
Wagner regressed slightly in 2019, but part of that surely has to do with the Seahawks not being nearly as talented around him. If that can change for the better, Wagner should have no problem living up to the title of best inside linebacker in 2020.