There are great players. Then there are great units. And sometimes, the two go hand in hand. In terms of linebacking corps, we saw that in Super Bowl 50. On one side, you had the game's MVP, Von Miller; on the other, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. And all three guys were first-team All-Pros this past season.
More often than not, though, the linebacking units with the most production have exceptional group play, with two particular things in common: great preparation and communication.
As a linebacker alongside Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and several others throughout my years in New England, I felt that our LB group -- which never had an All-Pro honoree (Vrabel went on to win the honor in 2007, when I was with Cleveland) -- had these components when we helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004. We were always on the same page, whether we were watching film or playing on Sunday, because we gave our full attention to preparation. We not only knew our own job but the position of every other person in the unit. We were moved around a lot and interchangeable, and that worked to our advantage. However, we could only play this way with good communication. When you're lacking in that area, there is a lot of confusion, players are frequently a step slower and the defense gets beat on the play. If communication is smooth, players can simply react to what the offense is doing, because they know assignments and can diagnose formations quickly.
There are several elite linebacking corps -- that all have these qualities -- heading into the 2016 season. Here's a look at my top five:
1) Denver Broncos
This group begins with one person: the Super Bowl 50 MVP. Miller's ability to dominate and take over games is incredible, and we saw him do it in last season's AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl -- recording 2.5 sacks in each of those games. Miller and Ware comprise one of the best outside linebacker tandems in the NFL, and they take advantage of weak offensive lines. These two are versatile and can play in the trenches or drop in coverage.
The Broncos lost Danny Trevathan in free agency, but Marshall and Nelson will be just fine in the middle. I also believe we'll get a lot more of Shane Ray, who saw time in 14 games as a rookie in 2015. After learning from this group for a season, he'll be more comfortable and should have a larger role in Year 2.
2) Carolina Panthers
I can't say enough about what Kuechly and Davis do for Carolina's defense. Look back at the postseason: Kuechly had two touchdowns -- tied for third-most among non-quarterbacks, as Jonathan Stewart and Rob Gronkowski each had three. This duo's reaction time is like no other -- the veteran LBs quickly diagnose formations and have great closing speed. Because of their high football IQs and preparation, these two guys are more often than not in the right place, taking away the quarterback's first option. Thompson is another key component to this group; like Kuechly and Davis, he is a run-stopper and is good at dropping and covering receivers in the open field. The Panthers have a good argument to hold the No. 1 spot on this list.
3) Kansas City Chiefs
Houston and Hali have been two of the best pass rushers in the game over the past five seasons -- combining for a whopping 100.5 sacks in that span -- and we see that especially on third downs. On top of that, they play the run better than anybody on Kansas City's defensive line. Houston and Hali show a lot of versatility, and opposing offenses often have to incorporate double-teams, which is hard to do against two guys. They make their teammates better, and when they are healthy, this Chiefs defense is so very good. And when Ford stepped in to replace an injured Houston last season, the youngster was effective. In the coming season, I think this group will be just as good -- if not better -- than it was in 2015. Of course, we'll have to keep an eye on Houston's balky knee.
4) New England Patriots
This group brings a traditional, physical style of play. These guys are stout against the run -- and they're solid pass rushers, as well. All of these players feed off each other. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia puts his 'backers in the right positions to be effective. Like I mentioned earlier, Bill Belichick and Co. tend to move linebackers around and change their responsibilities each week, depending on the opponent. It worked with our group over a decade ago and it continues to work with the current players -- specifically Hightower.
5) Seattle Seahawks
I think Seattle's linebackers have always been underrated, playing in the shadow of the "Legion of Boom." While the Seahawks lost Bruce Irvin this offseason, Wagner and Wright are two of the best in the game. Against the run, they break down plays based on formation and attack. In the pass game, they've shown they can cover tight ends, so they have the versatility. Seattle's defense is so consistent, and that is a credit to Wagner's ability to quarterback the unit.