Ranking the NFC South position groups rolls on, this time diving into the linebacker rankings around the division. Every team has at least one player they lean on to hold down their units, but are the Bucs the only one sporting the present and the future on their current roster at the linebacker position?
Here’s the other rankings of the divisional position groups that have been completed so far:
4. Carolina Panthers
The retirement of Luke Kuechly and departure of Thomas Davis has sent the Panthers to turning over a new leaf at linebacker, signing Shaq Thompson to a long-term extension despite an ample sample size of largely mediocre play from the former first rounder.
Still, Thompson is the best player on one of the worst positional units in the league, as new addition Tahir Whitehead has been one of the weakest starters in the NFL for some time now. The Panthers don’t have many options to push him for playing time however, as neither Jermaine Carter or Andre Smith have offered much in their brief career to suggest they are ready for that kind of role.
The Panthers don’t have any quality linebackers on their roster, and very little in the way of young and exciting talent on the second level. Bad spot to be in.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Like the Panthers, the Falcons’ unit is held back by the presence of a big-name veteran who could potentially be in the way of younger, better players seeing the field. Deone Bucannon hasn’t been good for years, and Foye Oluokon has shown some promise as a part-time player for Atlanta. The Falcons would be wise to keep working him out onto the field next to Deion Jones.
Jones is a stud who is one of the game’s best coverage linebackers, but he needs more help. Atlanta hopes that arrives in the form of fourth round pick Mykal Walker, who was one of the most over-drafted players in the 2020 class according to the consensus big board. I watched a few games of the Fresno State linebacker and couldn’t believe he was selected that high.
After Jones, it’s a unit with a lot of question marks and very few likable options for Atlanta. Only the LSU product’s presence keeps the Falcons from finishing last in the division.
2. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have a deep and talented linebacking corps, but the group isn’t without their concerns, too. Demario Davis was one of the best linebackers in the NFL last season, excelling in all phases of his position. Davis had been a good player before the 2019 campaign, but that was by far the best football we’ve ever seen him play. Now entering his ninth season at age 31, it’ll be interesting to see when and if he falls off.
Kiko Alonso missed most of last season for the Saints after spending most of his first five years in the NFL as a below average starter for three different teams. It’s only a matter of time before the rookie Zack Baun replaces Alonso in the lineup. Baun was a top 25 player on my board.
Alex Anzalone may already have replaced Alonso, but he simply cannot stay on the field due to health reasons. The Florida product has appeared in just 22 of 48 possible games since entering the NFL, including just 46 snaps over two games last season. If he doesn’t show anything in 2020, Anzalone’s career could be on the brink.
If I’m right about Baun the Saints should have a strong starting duo, but it might take a year or two for him to adjust to the NFL game while moving off the ball after playing on the edge at Wisconsin. If Anzalone can stay on the field the Saints might have a solid top three with the ability to cut Alonso loose, but these are some big ‘ifs’, which is why they aren’t higher than No. 2.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David might be the best linebacker in the NFL, and Devin White is one of the league’s most exciting young players at the position. That combination should put the Bucs near the top of the league’s linebacking units, especially if David continues to defy age. He’s truly one of the NFL’s most underrated players of all-time. What a baller.
The Buccaneers’ depth isn’t anything special, but Kevin Minter can hold down the fort well enough, and Jack Cichy was a player I liked coming out of college, if he could ever stay healthy. The Bucs young defense has a lot of nice pieces like White, while relying on vets like David to lead the way. It’s a great position to be in for the 2020 season and for the future.