Linebackers are some of the most essential contributors in all of football, but in many cases it comes down to how teams use them. In recent years, the league seems to have gone away from putting an emphasis on middle or inside linebackers. While elite inside linebackers such as Luke Kuechly are still a commodity, they aren’t to the extent that guys like Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher were not too long ago.
Now, teams are putting an emphasis on outside linebackers. Whether it is a guy like Lavonte David or more of a pass rusher such as Aldon Smith, these players are freakish athletes who can make plays all over the field whether it is stopping the run or in pass coverage. The linebackers I feel can take their games to a new level in 2014 vary in terms of playing inside or outside. What they do offer is versatility to excel in various situations and that should be on display all season long.
Jamie Collins, Patriots: Collins didn’t see much regular season action in 2013, but he made the most of a great opportunity in the playoffs. Collins was all over the field in the Patriots win over the Colts and showed his ridiculous versatility. Previously used as a defensive back in college, Collins has fantastic range and the Patriots are always ones to find creative ways to utilize players. With the skills to excel in pass coverage and the athleticism to get to the quarterback, it is going to be scary to see what Collins can do now that he is a full-time starter.
Jason Worilds, Steelers: The Steelers tend to have a tendency to develop outside linebackers who can get to quarterbacks. Worilds seems destined to be the next in line to breakout. Worilds has increased his sack total each of the previous four years of his career, and it seems likely that trend will continue in 2014. Factoring in Worilds consistent year to year improvement and how he is playing under a franchise tag, a double digit sack season looks very possible.
Sio Moore, Raiders: As a rookie out of Connecticut, Moore was one of the Raiders few bright spots in 2013. He proved to be strong against the pass, stout against the run and top of that could get to the passer adding 4.5 sacks. At a time in this past preseason game, it looked like the 2014 season was in jeopardy for Moore as he was carted off the field with a neck injury. The injury came back as a strain, but the Raiders will proceed with caution. When he does return to the field, Moore will continue to develop into a weak-side linebacker as first round pick Khalil Mack will be playing on the strong-side. Even if Moore is used as more of a pass rusher, the addition of Mack will give him much more favorable opportunities to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Bjoern Werner, Colts: Werner had a tough rookie year as not only did he have the typical learning curve, but was also impacted by injury. A torn plantar fascia combined with a reserve role led to him only having 2.5 sacks in his rookie season. That should change in 2014. Werner benefits greatly from the four games Robert Mathis will be suspended to start off the season. He will now be given a chance to be the Colts weak-side linebacker which is a position known to produce plenty of sacks. If Werner can come up big early in the season, the Colts are going to find ways to utilize him as you can never have enough effective pass rushers.
Emmanuel Lamur, Bengals: Lamur showed a lot of positives as an undrafted free agent from Kansas State in 2012, but a shoulder injury ended his 2013 season before it began. Despite that, he is a name to heavily monitor this season as the Bengals are going to use him as their starting strong-side linebacker next to Vontaze Burfict. At 6’4 250 pounds, there is a lot to like about Lamur’s ability. He was a former college safety so he is very strong in pass coverage and has ability to also rush the passer. Regardless of numerous losses this offseason such as coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals are still going to field a stout defense in 2014. The development of Lamur is only going to help the unit take the next step.