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Von Miller tops ATL's outside linebacker rankings

Every Thursday, Chris Wesseling rolls out the power rankings for one specific NFL position.

So far, we have ranked the top running backs and inside linebackers in the league. This week, we turn our attention to the NFL's best outside linebackers.

Top shelf: Von Miller, Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith

The challenge in ranking outside linebackers is that the 4-3 linebacker is off the line, plays more in space, has contain duties and is responsible for picking up running backs and tight ends in coverage, while the 3-4 linebacker primarily rushes the passer. Miller laughs at that dichotomy, combining the best traits of both schemes as the rare 4-3 linebacker who gets after quarterbacks and stuffs the run better than any 3-4 linebacker.

According to Pro Football Focus, the only linebacker within sniffing distance of Miller's combined 86 quarterback sacks, hits and hurries last season was Smith (72). How unique is Miller? No other 4-3 linebacker came within 50 of Miller's total. He's the dictionary definition of an NFL difference-maker.

While Smith is a superior pass rusher, Matthews is the more well-rounded defender of the two.

Next-level edge rushers: Mario Williams, Terrell Suggs, LaMarr Woodley, Trent Cole, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Elvis Dumervil, Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo, Paul Kruger

Williams is coming off a "disappointing" season with 10.5 sacks, an indictment of former defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Now in Mike Pettine's attacking system, Williams served notice that he's back with his 4.5 sacks of Cam Newton in the BillsWeek 2 victory. Suggs appears to have recaptured pre-injury form after easing back from Achilles tendon surgery late last season.

In better shape this season than last, Woodley spent the majority of Pittsburgh's loss last week in Cincinnati's backfield. If he stays healthy, double-digit sacks are a lock. Even at age 30, Cole remains a disruptive force in Philadelphia. Hali and Houston are perhaps the game's best pair of bookend pass rushers, with Dumervil-Suggs and Kerrigan-Orakpo as stiff competition. Kruger is a key cog in Cleveland's vastly improved front seven.

The cream of the 4-3 crop: Lavonte David, Jerod Mayo, Lance Briggs, Chad Greenway

David's 20 tackles for a loss in 2012 were the second-most by a rookie since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 2000. Only Miller and J.J. Watt finished with more tackles for loss among all defensive players last season. He's picked it up a notch this year, filling the suspended Miller's void as the NFL's premier 4-3 outside linebacker.

One of the most efficient tacklers in the NFL, Mayo has received the ultimate compliment from coach Bill Belichick: "He's a football guy." Briggs shows no signs of slowing down after seven consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Like the rest of Minnesota's linebackers, Greenway is off to a slow start this season. It's something to watch for a player coming off meniscus surgery in June.

Solid starters: Dwight Freeney, Bruce Carter, Zach Brown, Junior Galette, Jabaal Sheard, Ahmad Brooks, Robert Mathis, Sean Weatherspoon, Thomas Davis, DeAndre Levy, Dont'a Hightower, Vontaze Burfict, Koa Misi, Akeem Ayers

We noticed last season that Freeney still was a terror off the edge when healthy. He embarrassed the Texans' Duane Brown -- viewed by some as the NFL's best left tackle -- in the season opener. Carter and Brown are neck-and-neck for most impressive closing speed among 4-3 linebackers. Galette is the apple of Rob Ryan's eye in the Saints' new 3-4 defense.

Sheard refuses to be overlooked after the Browns drafted Barkevious Mingo to take his job. Brooks is one of the league's stiffest run defenders at outside linebacker. Mathis is losing a step. Arguably the Falcons' most important defensive player, Weatherspoon is out at least two months with a Lisfranc sprain. Davis remains one of the game's best coverage linebackers. Levy is off to a fast start in 2013.

Best of the rest: Jarret Johnson, Connor Barwin, Shaun Phillips, Philip Wheeler, James Harrison, Kevin Burnett, Brooks Reed, Jon Beason, James Anderson, K.J. Wright, Geno Hayes

Johnson won't get after the quarterback, but he's a premier run defender. Phillips is enjoying a renaissance in Denver. Wheeler was among the NFL's most disruptive 4-3 linebackers last season. Injuries have turned Beason into a mediocre linebacker.

Upstarts: Barkevious Mingo, Jarvis Jones, Whitney Mercilus, Alec Ogletree, Danny Trevathan

Mingo and Jones boast the highest ceilings as a pass rusher in this group. Ogletree plays with the speed and playmaking instincts of a safety. The Texans need more consistency from Mercilus as a complement to J.J. Watt. Trevathan is a coverage specialist.

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