The job of an off-ball linebacker has perhaps never been harder in the NFL.
Players need to be adept at stopping the run for defenses that are focusing most of their resources on defending the pass and not be liabilities when they are caught in coverage.
No linebacker pulls off that trick better than Fred Warner, whose versatility helped anchor San Francisco’s top-ranked defense a year ago and made him the unanimous choice by The Associated Press for the top spot among off-ball linebackers.
A panel of nine AP Pro Football Writers ranked the top five players at off-ball linebacker, making their selections based on current status entering the 2023 season. Outside linebackers who typically rush the passer were included with edge rushers instead of linebackers. First-place votes were worth 10 points. Second through fifth-place votes were worth 5, 3, 2 and 1 points.
Lavonte David got three second-place votes and was the only other player included on all nine ballots to earn a second-place finish. Roquon Smith got four second-place votes and came in third, Demario Davis got one second-place vote and came in fourth with Matt Milano fifth.
Bobby Wagner got the other second-place vote. Shaq Leonard, Dre Greenlaw, C.J. Mosley and T.J. Edwards also got votes.
1. FRED WARNER, San Francisco 49ers: Warner has been the lynchpin of the Niners defense since arriving in 2018. Warner is stout against the run and can defend wide receivers deep downfield like he famously did in a playoff win last season against Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb. Warner has had at least 118 tackles in all five seasons and his 35 passes defensed since 2018 are tied for the most in the NFL for a linebacker in that span.
2. LAVONTE DAVID, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The 33-year-old David has been one of the game’s top linebackers for more than a decade. David is one of three players with at least 25 sacks and 30 takeaways in the last 20 seasons, joining Karlos Dansby and Julius Peppers.
3. ROQUAN SMITH, Baltimore Ravens: Smith elevated the Ravens defense as soon as he was acquired in a midseason trade last year. He was third in tackles last season with 169 and also had three interceptions, 4 1/2 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
4. DEMARIO DAVIS, New Orleans Saints: The 34-year-old Davis has shown few signs of slowing down and is still one of the top linebackers in the game. He has 10 straight seasons with at least 90 tackles and had a career-high 6 1/2 sacks last season.
5. MATT MILANO, Buffalo Bills: Milano has been one of the better pass defenders at linebacker since entering the league. He had 11 passes defensed and three interceptions last season.