Our man Ryan Van Bibber continued his run through NFL rankings today with a look at the various linebacker units across the NFL. This follows his rankings of safeties and cornerbacks across the league. It should surprise nobody that he has the 49ers ranked at the top of the charts at linebacker.
The top four teams in his rankings are the 49ers, Ravens, Steelers and Redskins. The 49ers incredible linebacker corps came together in an absurdly amazing way last season. Given the talent available it's not a shocker, but to see so many questions answered so easily, it really is quite impressive.
Heading into last season the 49ers knew exactly what they had in Patrick Willis, but you could argue they did not have a solid grasp on the other linebacker positions. You had a fairly good idea about what was expected from Parys Haralson, but with two new base defense starters in Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman and a new nickel defense starter in Aldon Smith, there were a fair number of question marks for this unit. That does not mean answers were not going to come easy, but anytime you see change in a unit, there is some measure of uncertainty about potential results.
Instead, everything came together about as well as could be expected. Bowman became an absolute monster in replacing Takeo Spikes. He was extremely talented coming out of college, but he had to more or less sit behind Takeo Spikes in 2010. He got a bit of playing time, but it was a sizable leap in 2011.
Ahmad Brooks moved into a full-time role after working in a bit more of a specialist role throughout his career. Although Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman got a ton of credit for their development in 2011, Brooks' breakthrough season was a huge key. The 49ers showed exactly what they thought of him by inking him to an extension before he could hit free agency this spring. He does not fill up the stat sheet like some outside linebackers, but he is aggressive and always finds himself in the mix.
And of course, there was the play of Aldon Smith. With Ahmad Brooks moving into the base defense starting lineup, Aldon Smith filled the Brooks/Travis LaBoy pass rush specialist role. The lockout scuttled his chances of earning the starting OLB job away from Parys Haralson, but by focusing on his pass rush work, Aldon put together a dominant rookie campaign. The next test is how he develops in pass coverage and in playing the run. He will likely be moving into the base defense, which creates a lot more responsibilities for the young outside linebacker.
The units ranked just below the 49ers all have huge performers, and are rightfully deserving of being highly ranked. The Ravens are right there with the 49ers, but the combination of youth and dominance of the 49ers would seem to justify the number one ranking. Is there an argument to be raised for one of the other units to be ahead of the 49ers?
I realize most folks here believe in the dominance of the 49ers linebackers, but for purposes of discussion, what about some of the other units?