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Top 10 off-ball linebackers entering 2021 NFL season

NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2021" premieres Sunday, Aug. 15 and will air over three consecutive weekends. Players ranked 100-41 will be revealed Sunday over the course of six hours -- each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees -- beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Three linebackers make an appearance on the list, which is voted on by the players themselves, between Nos. 70 and 61. With that in mind, NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest -- a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and three-time Super Bowl champion -- provides his own ranking of the league's top 10 off-ball linebackers heading into the 2021 regular season.

Jaylon Smith
Dallas Cowboys · MLB

If you look at the success Dan Quinn's defenses have had, there's always been a great linebacker at the second level. That's what Smith can be for Quinn in Dallas: a playmaker who serves as the QB of the defense in both "Mike" or "Will" roles. Ranking second in the league in tackles (154) last season, Smith is a physical player and solid in the open field. With a high motor and the determination to be great -- plus, rookie Micah Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch pushing him to get better -- look for Smith to make a jump in 2021.

Lavonte David
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · ILB

Nobody is tougher than Lavonte David, I can promise you that. Sometimes being a linebacker of David's size (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) can be a disadvantage, but his physicality and ability to make blockers miss and work in space put him on this list. Last season, he racked up 117 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three takeaways for Todd Bowles' Super Bowl-winning defense. He's been putting up this type of production for years. Since 2012, David has 1,123 tackles (trailing only Bobby Wagner in that span) and 129 tackles for loss (trailing J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald). That's a lot of guys who've been introduced to his shoulder pads. 

Zach Cunningham
Houston Texans · ILB

Cunningham is a tall, rangy linebacker who uses his length to his advantage by creating separation between blockers. He's always around the football and is a sure tackler -- that's the main reason why the Texans starter led the league with 163 tackles last season. 

Roquan Smith
Chicago Bears · ILB

Entering his fourth NFL season, Smith is a great downhill player and embodies what a Chicago Bears middle linebacker looks like. He's extremely physical in the trenches, has great feel and the ability to beat blocks and disengage. He's coming off a career-best campaign in which he logged 139 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, four sacks, six QB hits, two INTs and one forced fumble. With a new contract potentially around the corner, expect the most in 2021 from this grinder.

Eric Kendricks
Minnesota Vikings · MLB

Kendricks has been a force in the middle of Mike Zimmer's defense -- and he keeps getting better. Entering his seventh NFL season, Kendricks is always around the ball and thrives in coverage. Over the last two seasons, he's posted 18 pass breakups and a Pro Football Focus cover grade of 91.2, both ranking second in the league among linebackers. In addition, Kendricks gets the job done in the trenches and is one helluva finisher.

Demario Davis
New Orleans Saints · MLB

It's all about mindset for Davis. He has a great combination of the right mentality, physicality and anticipation. Davis processes information quickly, which allows him to routinely be in the right spot. A thumper in the trenches with the ability to shed blockers, he makes his money in the run game -- but he still gets the job done in the pass game. One thing worth noting: Davis is the only player in the NFL with at least 300 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 20 QB hits and 10 sacks since 2018, the year he joined the Saints.

Fred Warner
San Francisco 49ers · MLB

Warner is a big, athletic linebacker who has a knack for being around the ball. That's partially why he's tallied at least 118 tackles in each of his three NFL seasons, including a monster 2020 performance that saw him log 125 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and a pair of picks. He's a great player in space -- evidenced by being the lone linebacker to make Nick Shook's Next Gen Stats' top 10 coverage players in 2020 -- with the ability to make plays when the ball is in the air. With his ability to cover tight ends and running backs in a pass-heavy league, Warner deserves every bit of the five-year extension he signed in July

Darius Leonard
Indianapolis Colts · WLB

The Colts just made Leonard the highest-paid linebacker in total value and average per year with a five-year, $99.25 million extension. The two-time first-team All-Pro is extremely athletic, talented and fluid in space -- and the scary thing is, he can get better. Leonard's sideline-to-sideline movement is second to none, as there's not a lot of hesitation in his game. His ability allows the Colts to use him in a lot of different ways, including incorporating him into their pass-rush scheme, which is partly why he leads traditional linebackers in sacks (15.0) and forced fumbles (nine) since 2018. He's the heart and soul of Indy's defense, and his effort on every play proves it.

Devin White
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · LB

Including both the regular season and playoffs, White finished with an astounding 178 tackles, 16 QB hits and nine sacks in 2020, so the fact that he earned second-team All-Pro honors is a bit of a joke. I like to call him the Great White, because he hunts like a shark, with great patience while processing information quickly. His reaction time is unbelievable, as is his ability to track players, and the coverage skills he showed last year were perhaps better than those of anyone else on this list. He is tenacious and embraces what it takes to be an elite off-ball linebacker. You have to love this guy's mentality.

Bobby Wagner
Seattle Seahawks · MLB

Wagner is the full package and has been a model of consistency throughout his career. He has registered 130 tackles in six of his nine NFL seasons, including a 2020 performance of 138 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 11 QB hits, three sacks and a fumble recovery. One of the few Seahawks still around from those Super Bowl teams, Wagner has maintained his dominance thanks, in part, to his ability to read and identify formations and quickly diagnose plays, allowing him to always be in the right place. The six-time All-Pro is great in coverage and one of the best open-field tacklers (you don't hit the 100-mark every year of your career if you aren't). Simply put, Wagner is still the prototype for the position heading into his 10th NFL season.

Follow Willie McGinest on Twitter.

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