When assessing or grading an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, the first thing one must look for, is if the player in question can rush the passer. Outside linebackers are almost the equivalent of a defensive end in a 4-3. They must be able to rush off the edge and put pressure on the quarterback.
However, in a 3-4, outside linebackers are asked to do a lot more than just put their hand in the dirt and rush the passer; they must be able to set the edge against the run and have fluid enough hips, so they can drop back into pass-coverage and shadow a tight end, or follow a running back out into the flat.
The elite outside linebackers can do it all. They aren’t a one-trick pony that can rush the passer, but disappear in the running game. They’re dominant players that must be accounted for every snap they are on the field.
5. Shaun Phillips
Phillips does everything an outside linebacker needs to do, and does it well. He can get to the quarterback – not a double-digit sack player, but he’ll create pressure; he can set the edge against the run, and slide out into the flat and cover a running back or tight end. What sets Phillips apart from most other outside linebackers, are the plays he makes that go unnoticed. Phillips batted down four passes at the line of scrimmage in ’09 and had an astounding seven forced fumbles credited to his name.
4. Elvis Dumervil
I’ve contradicted myself by putting Dumervil on this list. His 5’11”, 248lb frame is not suited for dominating offensive tackles at the point of attack. Dumervil is much better suited to using his speed and agility to get around tackles and make plays in the backfield, which is what he did in ’09 to the tune of 17 sacks, leading the NFL. What Dumervil lacks in defending the run, he makes up for with pure pass-rushing ability, which is why he has forced himself onto this list.
3. James Harrison
Harrison is getting up there in age (32), but is still an effective pass-rusher and excels at clogging rushing lanes. Whether or not a back runs his way, Harrison will find a way to track the runner down and give them a hit to remember. He isn’t nicknamed ‘Silverback’ for nothing. Harrison’s not exactly nimble in pass coverage, however, it will take a long time for this deficiency to wear thin on fans, after that interception he returned 100+ yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl 43.
2. LaMarr Woodley
Woodley has some of the biggest and strongest legs in the NFL – including lineman. He’s a phenomenal pass-rusher, who uses great leverage to get underneath a tackle’s pad level, and then use his brute strength to drive them back into the quarterback. Playing on the strongside of the Steelers’ defense – and opposite to James Harrison – Woodley has to deal with a lot of plays being run directly at him. Due to his great strength and ability to shed would-be-blockers, though, running backs seldom find the open field. Woodley is also rather competent in pass coverage; regularly slipping out into the flat and shadowing a back or tight end with relative success.
1. DeMarcus Ware
Without a doubt, DeMarcus Ware is the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. His repertoire of pass-rushing moves is second to none. Couple that with his freakish athleticism and ability to track down plays from the back-end, and there is no other outside linebacker in the game that has as big of an impact. Ware rarely drops into coverage, but when he does, he’s fluid enough to run with a tight end up the field and contest the catch. Ware did have a bit of a drop-off in his number of sacks last season (11), but still led the league in quarterback pressures with 56; 20 more than the next player Tamba Haili (Kansas City Chiefs), proving that Ware is still a dominant and consistent pass-rusher.
(On the fringe: Anthony Spencer (DAL) and Clay Matthews (GB)).
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