In a 3-4 scheme, where the responsibilities of an outside linebacker vary, there is one that does everything at a very high level. After that, pick your poison.
The responsibilities of outside linebackers vary greatly depending on whether they are in a 3-4 defensive scheme or 4-3. But even within the 3-4 scheme, outside linebackers are asked to produce different roles, making it difficult to determine who is really best.
However, the most highly sought ability is an effective pass rusher, so most of our top five were adept at bringing down the quarterback.
Among those, however, one – Justin Houston
– really stood out and has continued to build on his impressive still-young career. Houston was the best pass rusher in the league last year, but he was also a full-time defender that did everything well.
Houston was the workhorse among 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL. He played in more than 1,000 snaps in the energy-sapping position and was easily the highest rated at the position by Pro Football Focus with a 51.1 rating. He was elite rushing the passer, taking down quarterbacks for 22 sacks, causing four fumbles and hurrying the quarterback an incredible 56 times. Simply put, if a pass rusher is what is sought among 3-4 outside linebackers, it doesn’t get any better than Houston. The only question is if the Chiefs can keep him happy with a new contract. Houston has 43 sacks in the last three years and is only 26 years old.
Kerrigan provided the Redskins with stout play at linebacker, registering 64 tackles, 13½ sacks and a position-leading five forced fumbles (recovering one) in 2014. He also had nearly as many quarterback hurries as Houston, credited with 51 of them by PFF. He wasn’t as good as Houston against the run, but was better in limited coverage responsibilities.
Barwin was a bit like Houston, playing nearly as many snaps and being an all-around force for the Eagles. He had 14½ sacks, 29 quarterback hurries, 64 tackles, including 47 solo, and two forced fumbles. However, he wasn’t nearly as good in coverage or against the run.
Dumervil wasn’t far behind Houston’s sack total last year, with 17 himself, but his pass-rushing skills were easily the highlight of his overall game. He produced only 37 tackles and had only one pass defensed and two forced fumbles. And he only started two of the 16 games he played, playing in just over half the defensive snaps. If a specialist pass rusher is the desire, Dumervil is the guy.
Miller is considered one of the elite outside linebackers in the league, but officially he finished tied for 75th in tackles last year with 59. But, like most outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, his strength is in the pass rush. He had 14 sacks last year, but that could increase even more as Wade Phillips brings his 3-4 defensive philosophies to the Broncos this year and will likely lean on Miller to provide the pressure on quarterbacks. Can he reach 20 sacks for the first time in his career? Maybe, as his 47 quarterback hurries last year, according to PFF, were the top among outside linebackers in a 4-3 scheme. By next year, he could be topping our list for 3-4 outside linebackers if he acclimates quickly to the scheme.
Honorable mention: Tamba Hali
, Terrell Suggs
, Pernell McPhee
, Brandon Marshall
, Julius Peppers
, Paul Kruger
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THROWBACK: JUSTIN HOUSTON IN HIGH SCHOOL