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Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — Linebackers

Ranking the linebacker units that Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will look to exploit this season.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Haters will say it’s a dying position.

It can’t be denied that the NFL’s current propensity for the pass has led to a reduction in the value of the linebacker. But it’s also important to note that as of late, if you want to win a Super Bowl, you ought to have a at least one star at the position — or at the very least, two above-average starters.

Starting Super Bowl winning linebackers since 2012:

2016: Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin

2015: Brandon M. Marshall, Danny Trevathan

2014: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins

2013: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright

2012: Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe

Here are the linebacker units the Patriots will face in the 2017 regular season.

1. Carolina Panthers

The title of “best linebacker tandem in the NFL” has belonged to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis for the better part of the last four seasons, perhaps only challenged by Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. But the gap between Carolina and the second highest ranked team on this list isn’t as large as it is because of Kuechly and Davis alone. Shaq Thompson, the Panthers’ first round pick in 2015, saw his snap count elevate to 50% last season, and that number will rise even further as news surfaced Friday that the team plans on placing 34-year-old Thomas Davis on a “pitch count” in 2017, according to’s RotoWire Staff. Thompson’s incredible athletic ability has translated so beautifully to the NFL that he has forced his way onto the field.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lavonte David has been nothing short of a stud since entering the league in 2012, and Kwon Alexander has begun making a name for himself after an excellent sophomore season. Each played over 96% of the team’s defensive snaps last year. Tampa, looking to further improve the unit, spent its third-round pick on LSU Tiger Kendall Beckwith, who projects to be an early-down run thumper.

3. Houston Texans

If you feel the Texan’s defense is getting too much love in this rankings series, you’re wrong. Bernardrick McKinney was outstanding in 2016, his second NFL season. He is joined by a physically healthy and mentally psychotic Brian Cushing, and second-round pick Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt, who many in New England coveted prior to the draft.

4. Atlanta Falcons

Simply put, Deion Jones is the truth. Anything to the contrary is blasphemy.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

Ryan Shazier is a player poised to make some noise in 2016 — if he can stay healthy. The play maker’s reaction time and burst are elite. It will be interesting to see where rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt lines up this season as well.

6. Los Angeles Chargers

Fifth-round rookie Jatavis Brown was one of the pleasant surprises at the linebacker position last year. And when injuries occasionally sidelined Brown and Denzel Perryman, Korey Toomer filled in admirably. This defense could gel into something special in 2017.

7. Kansas City Chiefs

It will be interesting to see how twelve-year veteran Derrick Johnson looks upon his return from the Achilles injury that cut his 2016 campaign short. Ramik Watson looks to build on what was a solid second-year performance last season in Johnson’s absence.

8. Buffalo Bills

The strong-side linebacker spot is once again a question mark for Buffalo. The Bills let Nigel Bradham walk in free agency a year ago after an injury riddled 2015 season, only to see him flourish in Philadelphia last season. Then they drafted Reggie Ragland and signed Zach Brown to a year one year deal. Brown was excellent in September and October, and faded as the year went on and the games took on less meaning. He signed with Washington this offseason. Ragland, after spending 2016 on IR, will battle Preston Brown for the starting job on the inside, with the loser presumably taking an outside role in the team’s new 4-3 scheme, according to insider Chris Brown.

9. Denver Broncos

Brandon M. Marshall has quietly developed into one of the better players at the position in the AFC, but the jury is still out on the rest of the linebacker unit in Denver. Although a liability in coverage, Todd Davis was serviceable against the run last season when healthy, but the group still longs for the volume tackling and instincts of Danny Trevathan.

10. Miami Dolphins

Lawrence Timmons was less than stellar in his final season in Pittsburgh. He’ll join recent extension recipient Kiko Alonso. Seven-year veteran Koa Misi still awaits clearance from team physicians following a spinal fusion procedure to correct a neck injury that landed him on IR after three games in 2016. Rookie Raekwon McMillan could look to make an immediate impact should some snaps become available due to injury or poor play from others in the unit.

11. New Orleans Saints

Craig Robertson, a special teamer who was thrust into action after the retirement of James Laurinitis last season, finished the year with 115 tackles. Despite the solid production, Robertson will likely be relegated to his special teams role in 2017 according to Larry Holder of The issue for this unit will be figuring out who will join a healthy Dannell Ellerbe in the starting lineup.

12. New York Jets

Only three qualifying linebackers received a lower PFF grade than Darron Lee last season. He’ll look to rebound as the pesky Demario Davis rejoins the Jets defense as a result of the Calvin Pryor trade.

13. Oakland Raiders

Linebacker is the only position group in Oakland with a bleaker 2017 outlook than their interior defensive linemen — which is saying something. Malcolm Smith, their leading tackler last season, signed a five-year deal across the bay in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the unit’s most effective contributor in 2016 (and a top-15 player at the position according to PFF) was veteran Perry Riley, who currently remains on the free agent market. The two played a combined 1,560 defensive snaps last year. Wake Forest rookie Marquel Lee could be looked upon to make an immediate impact.

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP