Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in a six-part series ranking the different position groups of the Falcons' 2017 opponents.*
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In just two short years, Atlanta has transformed its linebacker corps into one of the best in the NFL.
Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, De'Vondre Campbell and rookie Duke Riley all fit coach Dan Quinn's desire for fast and physical players. In today's NFL, versatile linebackers are crucial and the Falcons are compiling some of the best.
They aren't alone in that endeavor, though, and Atlanta will face some impressive linebacker groups in 2017. The Falcons have the offensive weapons to give any opponent trouble, but some teams are more equipped than others to slow them down.
Here are the six best linebacker corps that the Falcons will face in 2017.
No. 6: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Atlanta and Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in Tampa
- Key players: Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander
- Summary: Tampa Bay has two of the best young linebackers in the NFL in David and Alexander. David had a bit of a down season in Mike Smith's first year as defensive coordinator, but he's simply too good of a player not to bounce back. David and Alexander combined for 222 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss and seven sacks last year.
- Outlook: While David and Alexander are two great linebackers, Tampa Bay has very little options behind them. The team has yet to cement its third starting linebacker, but it's expected that rookie Kendell Beckwith will compete with former sixth-round pick Devante Bond for the spot. There's potential for the Bucs to have a top-10 unit in 2017, but it will take more than two linebackers to make that happen. #Buccaneers LB Kwon Alexander with the pick-six off Case Keenum pic.twitter.com/tNH8lMrY8m
No. 5: Minnesota Vikings
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Atlanta
- Key Players: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Edmond Robinson, Kentrell Brothers
- Summary: Like Tampa Bay, the Vikings have two Pro Bowl-level talents in Barr and Kendricks but are still trying to build a supporting cast. Barr had a down year in 2016, but he was an elite player the year prior. Kendricks emerged in his second season and finished with 107 tackles, six tackles for a loss and three sacks.
- Outlook: Chad Greenway, who spend his entire career in Minnesota, officially retired after the 2016 season, but the team never groomed a great replacement option in his final season. Robinson, Brothers and Ben Gedeon seem to be the most likely candidates to assume the open position on the outside. Barr and Kendricks are very good linebackers on a great defense, but a third piece is missing. Mike Zimmer has the centerpiece to his defense in Eric Kendricks. Going to be a fantastic player. pic.twitter.com/cBCq7KSOwG
No. 4: Chicago Bears
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Chicago
- Key players: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Pernell McPhee, Leonard Floyd, Willie Young
- Summary: The Bears' linebackers were mostly disappointing last season, with the exception of Freeman, who may have been the league's best linebacker, although it should be noted he earned a suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. Floyd registered seven sacks as a rookie, and Young is another great edge rusher who added eight sacks of his own.
- Outlook: Chicago has a very diverse and complete group of linebackers that is underrated. It remains to be seen how much Travathan will see the field in 2017, however, as he is still recovering from a torn PCL. McPhee has also struggled with injuries in his time with the Bears. If everyone stays healthy, however, there is some great individual talent in this unit. Great ones do more than expected @JerrellFreeman stays out of the trash, 2gaps, and has great movement to make this tackle @ChicagoBears pic.twitter.com/Uyd8D71k4I
No. 3: New England Patriots
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, in Foxborough
- Key players: Dont'a Hightower, David Harris, Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin
- Summary: Hightower is the obvious star of New England's linebacker corps and he's been one of the most consistent defensive players since entering the league in 2012. The five-year veteran recorded 57 tackles and five sacks last season and has a knack for making big plays. Ninkovich can be classified as either an outside linebacker or defensive end, but he's another adept pass rusher who had four sacks in 2016.
- Outlook: The Patriots made a nice move this offseason and signed former New York Jet David Harris. The veteran linebacker registered 94 tackles with the Jets last season and should be a great partner for Hightower to work with. Van Noy and McClellin add nice depth for New England, but its scheme will rely mostly on Harris and Hightower. With those two, the Patriots are set.
No. 2: Seattle Seahawks
- When they play in 2017: Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Seattle
- Key players: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Wilhoite
- Summary: Seattle's linebackers work flawlessly with its defensive line to form one of the best front sevens in the NFL. Wagner was graded the third-best linebacker by PFF after last season, while Wright was determined to be ninth-best. The duo combined for 255 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss and nine sacks.
- Outlook: While Wright and Wagner are elite players, it remains to be seen who will play the strongside linebacker position in 2017. Wilhoite and Terence Garvin have been mentioned as the players battling for that position. Seattle utilizes its nickel defense a good deal, however, meaning that Wright and Wagner are the most impactful linebackers of the group. KJ Wright @kj_wright34 closed on Fitzpatrick hard in space for a sack vs #Jets.#Seahawks #GoHawks pic.twitter.com/1mSMnYQspB
No. 1: Carolina Panthers
- When they play in 2017: Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Charlotte and Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta
- Key players: Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, Thomas Davis
- Summary: Concussions cost Kuechly six full games last season, but he's arguably the best linebacker in football when on the field. Even with the missed time, the five-year veteran was named the second-best linebacker by PFF. Kuechly doesn't have to do it all himself, however, as Thompson and Davis form a tremendous supporting cast. The pair combined for 152 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss in 2016.
- Outlook: Rivalries aside, nobody wants to see a player like Kuechly have his career cut short due to concussions. Assuming he's back on the field for good in 2017, the Panthers have three starting linebackers who should play at a very high level. Thompson, now in his third year, is continuing to ascend, and Davis is one of the toughest players in the NFL.