One of the harder things to do when ranking by position is dissecting the defensive fronts. That's due to the differences between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 defense. For instance, the 49ers have the best defensive front in the division, but not necessarily the best defensive line.
Today, we're going to take a look at the linebackers. We're going to group both outside and inside linebackers together, though if we didn't and instead did an outside post and an inside post, let me just say this: it wouldn't change these rankings.
So let's get to this.
1. San Francisco 49ers with Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta
The San Francisco 49ers don't just have the best group of inside linebackers in the NFL. They have the No. 1 and No. 2 linebackers. Over at Field Gulls, they talked about Seattle's inside guy being just as good as either of San Francisco's, when really, Bowman is on an entirely different level and the comparison to Willis just isn't there. That isn't to insult Seattle's guy, it's just a testament to how good the 49ers have it on the inside.
On the outside, Aldon Smith is a pass rusher, and one of the best in the league at it, too. People will point to Justin Smith's injury and the drop in Aldon's production, but they neglect to factor in Aldon's injury, as well. Ahmad Brooks is a very capable pass rusher, though he gets penalized way too much for my liking. Parys Haralson was a starter before getting injured, and is the definition of "competent," though his big-play potential is lacking.
There's some solid depth at the position. Corey Lemonier could be a future starter, and will likely see some action as a rookie. Dan Skuta is more of a special teams player, Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming warrant a mention, but the new additions might push them out.
2. Seattle Seahawks with Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Korey Toomer, Malcolm Smith, Heath Farwell, Mike Morgan
Now, again, Seattle has themselves a very competent inside linebacker in Bobby Wagner on their hands, but he's yet to make that next big step like Bowman has the past couple seasons. Of course, I consider it incredibly likely that he does make that step and makes it in a big way, as much as I hate to say it. They've come a long way since Aaron Curry flamed out.
But, again, the position is nowhere near as close as Seattle fans seem to think (rating the position a "push" for fear of admitting that the 49ers win out on more positions). You'll see a lot of me referencing a comparison between Seattle and San Francisco, but that's just because they're the closest competition in the division. Hater respect.
As far as the outside linebackers go, K.J. Wright is turning into a very solid player. When the Seahawks give him an assignment, he does it, and it gets done. Nothing more, nothing less. He's not too far off from making headlines and highlight reels, but he doesn't match up with either of San Francisco's outside linebackers. Seattle doesn't have much on the other side, but I don't see that as a big issue next year, as they'll likely sacrifice that to bring in another defensive lineman to rush the passer, as neither Toomer nor Smith inspire much confidence.
3. St. Louis Rams with Jo-Lonn Dunbar, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree
The Rams surprised many with the selection of Alec Ogletree, given that they already have James Laurinaitis in the middle, but Ogletree's athleticism makes him a better fit for the outside in a 4-3 scheme, anyway. I love (and as a 49ers fan, hate) the selection of Ogletree for St. Louis. He'll be an immediate starter, and likely an impact player. He was my third-favorite linebacker in the draft. Could they have filled a bigger need at that point in the draft? Sure, but they can't lose with Ogletree.
I can definitely say why they chose Ogletree over other linebackers though: Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. It's a pretty simple connection to make. Ogletree is faster and has more range than Laurinaitis, and you can bet they're teaching him how to be a spy right away.
Laurinaitis has sort of slowed down in recent seasons. Rams fans thought they got their own Patrick Willis after seeing a bit of him, but he hasn't been all that fantastic these last few years. That said, Lauranaitis is a sure-fire tackler, a leader and I think having Ogletree next to him will make him much better. This is an underrated group that could easily take the No. 2 ranking from the Seahawks in a year or two.
4. Arizona Cardinals with Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington, Kevin Minter, Lorenzo Alexander
Daryl Washington is a solid inside linebacker, but was recently demoted due to some off-the-field issues. Whether or not that sticks is another matter entirely, but I'm of the opinion that he is pretty good at this point. He's not a special talent and he's not bad -- just good.
The selection of Kevin Minter was a good one, in my opinion, even if the fit was a little odd. The Cardinals are a scheme in flux right now, and Minter's fit at any one position is still up in the air. He also was not one of my favorite linebackers in the draft, but I think he's got a lot of upside and if he reaches his potential then this group becomes much better.
The offseason acquisitions of Karlos Dansby and Lorenzo Alexander are interesting. Both players have been starters, and both have even been above average at times. The Arizona linebacking group might just depend on whether or not these two players "still have it."