Pan­thers’ lineback­ers top- notch

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nate Davis

NFL ros­ters are es­sen­tially set un­til train­ing camps open this month. In the mean­time, USA TO­DAY Sports has an­a­lyzed each team’s depth chart and is rank­ing units through­out the league be­fore pro­vid­ing an over­all hi­er­ar­chy of ta­lent. To­day’s po­si­tional group: lineback­ers.

1. Carolina Pan­thers: Noth­ing has stopped Luke Kuechly save in­juries, which have cost him nine games since 2015. But when he’s healthy, the man in the mid­dle of Carolina’s de­fense is the stan­dard- bearer at the po­si­tion. Thomas Davis, 34, con­tin­ues to do it all on the weak side, and Shaq Thomp­son be­gan show­ing why the Pan­thers spent a sur­prise first- round pick on him in 2015. 2. Den­ver Bron­cos: Su­per Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller was re­cently voted the league’s pre­mier de­fen­sive player by his peers in an NFL Net­work sur­vey. Record­ing dou­ble- fig­ure sacks in five of his six sea­sons is a ma­jor rea­son, but Miller can do much more than rush the passer. OLB Shane Ray dou­bled his sack to­tal to eight in his sec­ond sea­son and could blos­som into a star as he takes over full time for re­tired DeMar­cus Ware. Shaq Bar­rett is an­other fac­tor on pass­ing downs but is deal­ing with a hip in­jury. Bran­don Mar­shall holds down one in­side job, and Todd Davis has proved he can be a three­down player. 3. Seat­tle Sea­hawks: Bobby Wag­ner and K. J. Wright are ev­ery bit as good as Kuechly and Davis in Carolina, com­bin­ing for nearly 2,400 snaps in 2016 — a tes­ta­ment to their all- around abil­i­ties even if they’re of­ten over­shad­owed by Seat­tle’s sec­ondary and even its line. The team hasn’t re­signed Mike Mor­gan, so coach Pete Car­roll will hold one of his beloved com­pe­ti­tions to fill the strong- side spot. Still, it’s not a huge is­sue given how of­ten Seat­tle is in nickel. 4. Ari­zona Car­di­nals: Per­haps the most un­sung group in the league, but maybe not for long. Chan­dler Jones and emerg­ing Markus Golden teamed for 231⁄ sacks last year and will be 2 joined by Jarvis Jones, who can han­dle dirty work out­side. Deone Bu­can­non — who was at the fore­front of mak­ing safety- line­backer hy­brids chic, earn­ing him the dis­tinc­tive “$ LB” po­si­tion in Ari­zona — is an im­pact player, but an­kle is­sues are a con­cern. Not to worry, first- rounder Haa­son Red­dick, who is shift­ing in­side af­ter star­ring at de­fen­sive end for Tem­ple, could be a mis­match, es­pe­cially on pass­ing downs. Ever- re­li­able Kar­los Dansby re­turns af­ter he and Kevin Minter ( Cincin­nati Ben­gals) switched sides in free agency. 5. Kansas City Chiefs: There are no­table names and ré­sumés, yet age and in­juries have taken a toll. Since his 22- sack 2014 sea­son, Justin Hous­ton has missed half of the team’s games with knee is­sues. Dee Ford and Tamba Hali, 34, would form a great al­laround player if their tal­ents could be merged. ILB Der­rick John­son, also 34, has rup­tured each Achilles over the last three sea­sons, the most re­cent oc­cur­ring in De­cem­ber. Ramik Wil­son de­serves more pub­lic­ity. Over­all, could be boom or bust. 6. New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots: Dont’a Hightower an­chors a deep and adap­tive group that pro­vides nu­mer­ous schematic op­tions. For­mer Jet David Har­ris should be a nice ad­di­tion to the base pack­age, and Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin are fea­tured on pass­ing downs. 7. Ten­nessee Ti­tans: Lineback­ers tend to gar­ner glory in Dick Le­Beau’s de­fense. Der­rick Mor­gan and Brian Orakpo haven’t quite done that, though 191⁄ com­bined sacks in 2016 2 were a nice step in the right di­rec­tion. The team needs more from Kevin Dodd af­ter a foot in­jury lim­ited him as a rookie. In­side, Wes­ley Wood­yard and Avery Wil­liamson are de­pend­able. 8. Jack­sonville Jaguars: An ex­cit­ing group for an as­cen­dant de­fense. Telvin Smith is rangy on the weak side and sturdy Paul Posluszny shifts from the mid­dle to the strong side. The X fac­tor is MLB Myles Jack, whom the Jags are ready to un­leash in his sec­ond sea­son now that he seems re­cov­ered from knee prob­lems.

9. At­lanta Fal­cons: All speed, all the time. Vic Beasley led the NFL with 151⁄ sacks, but you can 2 still run right at him. Ris­ing star Deion Jones rarely left the field as a rookie. De’Von­dre Camp­bell also started in his first year but should be wary of third- round pick Duke Ri­ley, Jones’ team­mate at LSU. 10. Hous­ton Tex­ans: Whit­ney Mer­cilus is one of the league’s best- kept se­crets, over­shad­owed by line­men J. J. Watt and Jade­veon Clowney. But aside from Mer­cilus, the Tex­ans are thin on the edge. Brian Cush­ing and Be­nardrick McKin­ney re­main stout in­side but could lose snaps in sub pack­ages to sec­ond- round pick Zach Cun­ning­ham. 11. Wash­ing­ton Red­skins: Ryan Ker­ri­gan re­mains the rock com­ing off an 11- sack sea­son. But Trent Mur­phy’s four- game sus­pen­sion opens up the other out­side job to rookie Ryan An­der­son and Pre­ston Smith, who had a dis­ap­point­ing sopho­more cam­paign. Zach Brown was a deft free agent ac­qui­si­tion. He will team with Ma­son Fos­ter and al­low Su’a Cravens to re­vert to safety. 12. Pitts­burgh Steel­ers: James Har­ri­son, 39, con­tin­ues to defy Fa­ther Time. But Pitts­burgh would surely like to see Bud Dupree, who came on to­ward the end of 2016, and/ or first- round rookie T. J. Watt play well enough to re­duce Har­ri­son’s snap count. Ryan Shazier got his first Pro Bowl nod in 2016 and will be joined in­side by Vince Wil­liams, Lawrence Tim­mons’ re­place­ment. 13. Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers: Lavonte David would prob­a­bly get a lot more me­dia at­ten­tion if he didn’t play in Tampa. And get to know Kwon Alexan­der’s name — his ar­row keeps trending up­ward.

14. Philadel­pha Ea­gles: Jor­dan Hicks and Nigel Brad­ham qui­etly ex­celled in de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jim Schwartz’s 4- 3 front. My­chal Ken­dricks was a less- ef­fec­tive fit. 15. Cincin­nati Ben­gals: Von­taze Bur­fict can be dom­i­nant ... when he keeps his cool. Kevin Minter is a solid ad­di­tion, but sec­ond- year man Nick Vigil must prove he’s a bet­ter op­tion than re­li­able Vin­cent Rey. 16. Los An­ge­les Charg­ers: Den­zel Per­ry­man, Korey Toomer and Jatavis Brown could form a nice trio if they ef­fec­tively tran­si­tion to new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Gus Bradley’s play­book.

17. Chicago Bears: OLB Leonard Floyd’s seven- sack rookie sea­son should have got­ten more at­ten­tion. Per­nell McPhee and Wil­lie Young round out a nice edge ro­ta­tion. Jer­rell Free­man was Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus’ toprated in­side line­backer in 2016, but a sus­pen­sion put an as­ter­isk on his per­for­mance. A se­ri­ous knee in­jury con­tin­ues to ham­per ILB Danny Tre­vathan.

18. Dal­las Cow­boys: Sean Lee is the linch­pin, and An­thony Hitchens has shown he can get the job done, too. The big mys­tery is whether Jay­lon Smith, who fell to the sec­ond round of the 2016 draft af­ter suf­fer­ing a dev­as­tat­ing knee in­jury dur­ing his fi­nal game at Notre Dame, can at least par­tially re­cap­ture the magic that made him a su­per­star for the Fight­ing Ir­ish.

19. Cleve­land Browns: Re­cent in­vest­ments in Jamie Collins ( four- year, $ 50 mil­lion con­tract) and Chris­tian Kirk­sey ( four- year, $ 38 mil­lion ex­ten­sion) are in­dica­tive of the club’s feel­ings. Will new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Gregg Wil­liams share the en­thu­si­asm?

20. Bal­ti­more Ravens: Ter­rell Suggs is still a pres­ence and has got­ten into bet­ter shape. Pro Bowler C. J. Mosley is a stal­wart in­side. But the Ravens could be

re­ly­ing on un­proven young­sters to re­place Elvis Dumervil and Zach Orr.

21. Los An­ge­les Rams: Per­for­mance didn’t match abil­ity last year, but per­haps the con­ver­sion to new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips’ 3- 4 front will make for a bet­ter Hol­ly­wood se­quel. Con­nor Bar­win should be more ef­fec­tive af­ter strug­gling as a de­fen­sive end in Phil­a­del­phia. The big­ger ques­tion might be Robert Quinn, who had 19 sacks in 2013 but only 191⁄ since. Ath2 letic Mark Bar­ron and Alec Ogle­tree thrive in cov­er­age but must im­prove against the run. 22. Green Bay Pack­ers: In­juries have slowed Clay Matthews, but he still finds ways to wreck game plans. Nick Perry has be­come the Pack­ers’ best backer, hence a new five- year, $ 59 mil­lion deal. Jake Ryan needs help in­side. 23. Min­nesota Vik­ings: An­thony Barr has been a Pro Bowler the last two sea­sons, though maybe mostly on rep­u­ta­tion in 2016. MLB Eric Ken­dricks is a force. Re­tired Chad Green­way will be missed.

24. Buf­falo Bills: They’re switch­ing schemes ( again), with new coach Sean McDer­mott a 4- 3 pro­po­nent. Lorenzo Alexan­der had a break­out 2016, but how will he adapt af­ter thriv­ing on the edge? Reg­gie Ragland is an un­known af­ter a knee in­jury ru­ined his rookie year.

25. Oak­land Raiders: They got very lit­tle pro­duc­tion aside from OLB Bruce Irvin ( seven sacks). Com­ing off an an­kle in­jury, Ben Heeney hopes to sur­prise in­side. Cory James and Je­lani Jenk­ins seem like stop­gaps.

26. Mi­ami Dol­phins: Part of a 30th- ranked run de­fense, there’s a good rea­son for the facelift. Kiko Alonso will move to the weak side, while free agent Lawrence Tim­mons mans the mid­dle. Rookie Raek­won McMil­lan might

re­place in­jured Koa Misi. 27. San Fran­cisco 49ers: What used to be a sig­na­ture po­si­tion for this fran­chise moves to a scheme de­signed to repli­cate Seat­tle’s. First- rounder Reuben Fos­ter is ex­pected to be a force, as­sum­ing in­juries suf­fered at Alabama don’t hin­der him. For­mer Sea­hawks Mal­colm Smith and Brock Coyle know the de­fense but won’t scare any­one. Ah­mad Brooks and NaVorro Bow­man, who is com­ing off a sec­ond Achilles tear since 2014, might strug­gle to adapt. 28. New York Gi­ants: B. J. Good­son ap­pears to be the new starter in the mid­dle with Devon Ken­nard, Jonathan Casil­las, Keenan Robin­son and J. T. Thomas po­ten­tially part of a re­volv­ing door on the wings.

29. In­di­anapo­lis Colts: An al­most un­rec­og­niz­able group. Gone are Robert Mathis and D’Qwell Jack­son. Free agents Jabaal Sheard and John Si­mon should play out­side, with Barke­vi­ous Mingo hop­ing for a role. Jon Bos­tic, Sean Spence, An­to­nio Mor­ri­son and Ed­win Jack­son will vie for in­side du­ties. If noth­ing else, the Colts got younger.

30. De­troit Lions: Not an ef­fec­tive area in 2016, which is why new MLB Jar­rad Davis was the first- round pick. Tahir White­head and Paul Wor­rilow will likely be pushed by an­other rookie, Jalen Reeves- May­bin. 31. New York Jets: They play a hy­brid front but could use far more pro­duc­tion from the sec­ond level, es­pe­cially with David Har­ris out. Jor­dan Jenk­ins had a bet­ter rookie sea­son than first- rounder Dar­ron Lee. 32. New Or­leans Saints: Whether it’s un­ful­filled ex­pec­ta­tions ( Stephone An­thony, Manti Te’o), in­juries ( Hau’oli Kikaha) or lim­ited up­side ( Dan­nell Ellerbe, A. J. Klein, Craig Robert­son), there’s noth­ing much to be ex­cited about here.

JIM DED­MON, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

When healthy, mid­dle line­backer Luke Kuechly an­chors the Pan­thers’ elite line­backer corps. He missed six games last sea­son.

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