Who's the NFL's Most Effective Linebacker? You Might Be Surprised

Who's the NFL's Most Effective Linebacker? You Might Be Surprised

By Michelle Bruton and Sean Culligan


This job is harder than ever. That doesn’t faze Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley. 

By Michelle Bruton and Sean Culligan

As he metaphorically brushed his shoulders off while working the press circuit during NFL Hall of Fame induction festivities in August — shoulders that would soon don a signature gold jacket — former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said something that turned a few heads.

That’s not unusual for the outspoken former player turned broadcaster, but this time Lewis was singing a current Raven’s praises. “I would love for you to show me a better middle linebacker in the game than C.J. Mosley,” Lewis told ESPN that week. 

The Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly and the Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner — the Nos. 1 and 2 highest-paid inside linebackers in the league — would likely raise their hands. But, as it turns out, the numbers support Lewis’ statement.

Since 2014, C.J. Mosley is the only NFL player with 500-plus tackles, 8-plus sacks, 8-plus interceptions and 6-plus forced fumbles.

The Ravens drafted Mosley out of Alabama at No. 17 overall in the 2014 NFL draft, and ever since, he’s been challenging them to find an area of the field he can’t cover. Middle linebackers’ roles have become increasingly complicated in the NFL, as they’re asked not only to defend the run and pressure quarterbacks but also to cover increasingly athletic tight ends and running backs built more like receivers.

You look at the numbers most of these players put up, and you see right away they excel mostly in one area. Maybe they have a nose for the ball, reflected in their high interception total. Or maybe they have a target fixed on the quarterback, racking up sacks as a result.

To understand Mosley’s effectiveness is to understand how he improves the Ravens’ defense simply by being on the field.

The league’s best middle linebackers, however, can do it all. But does Mosley do it best? With a $2.1 million average annual salary, he’s paid a fraction of what Kuechly ($12.3 million) and Wagner ($10.7 million) earn each year. But in the past five years, he’s outperformed them in multiple categories. That’s a general manager’s dream — more production for less money. Thanks to a fast start this season, Kuechly has matched or surpassed Mosley’s sack and interception totals, but he boasts fewer forced fumbles in the past five years. Wagner has only three picks and two forced fumbles since 2014. What we’re looking for here is production all over the field, across all categories. 

“What we’re asking linebackers to do these days is everything,” says Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald. “It’s hard to find. When you look at the landscape of the league, you see this guy is great at stopping the run, this guy is great at blitzing, this guy is great in coverage.”

But when you have a player like Mosley, says Macdonald, “you just try not to get in his way.”


Anyone can cherry-pick some stats and make an argument about a player’s value based on them. It’s frowned upon. To understand Mosley’s effectiveness is to understand how he improves the Ravens defense simply by being on the field. Though he’s only missed three of a possible 73 games in his career — rare in the rough-and-tumble NFL — the Ravens’ defense has suffered in his absence. In Week 2 of this season, after Mosley left the game in the first quarter with a bone bruise, the Cincinnati Bengals orchestrated four straight touchdown drives. Those 28 first-half points were their best result since 2012.

When healthy, Mosley wears the communication headset for the Ravens’ defense, playing the essential role of relaying play calls to his teammates and getting everyone set before the snap. Macdonald likens the process to decentralized command in the military — while coaches relay “the spirit of the call” to Mosley, they trust him to run with it from there. You can see, then, how a change in that orchestrator role would be jarring for the other defensive players on the field. 

“Those guys play faster and with more confidence when he’s out there,” says Macdonald.

To be sure, Mosley’s effectiveness and his current team-friendly contract are correlated. There are many reasons a player might do his best work during his rookie deal, from optimal health to a drive to prove he deserves a big payday come the next contract. Mosley is set to become a free agent in March, and the numbers clearly show he deserves to be one of the best-paid middle linebackers in the league. Whether or not he’ll do so with the Ravens is a question only that team’s front office can answer.