USA TODAY International Edition

Panthers’ linebacker­s top- notch

- 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.
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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