In an effort to level the communication playing field, the NFL allowed for one defender to be outfitted with an in-helmet transmitter. This player, who wears a green dot to signify the communication device, is responsible for transmitting coaches' signals to teammates. Here are the defensive players expected to receive green-dot responsibilities for the 2021 season.
The Cardinals' affinity for off-ball linebackers should not be questioned at this point. GM Steve Keim has drafted three in the past five first rounds while signing the likes of Jordan Hicks and De'Vondre Campbell in 2020. This year's Arizona first-round pick, Collins, is set to usurp Hicks (268 tackles in 32 starts from 2019-20 in Arizona) at middle 'backer and wear the green signal-caller dot. With 2020 first-round linebacker Isaiah Simmons alongside him, this will be a lot of responsibility to place on the Tulsa product.
Not much doubt here. Jones started as a rookie for Atlanta's Super Bowl LI-qualifying team and earned a lucrative contract extension from the franchise in 2019. Jones is one of the NFL's top off-ball linebackers and will anchor a Falcons back seven that is light on experience. While several members of this year's Falcons starting defense may be gone by 2022, when the Terry Fontenot-Arthur Smith rebuild progresses, Jones remains a building-block player.
The Ravens are one of the few teams who have issued signal-calling responsibilities to a non-linebacker. Clark wore the headset and relayed Baltimore's defensive signals last season and is entering his third year as a Ravens starter. Earl Thomas' former running mate -- and later punch recipient -- is a trusted veteran on a vet-laden defense. With the Ravens ranking as a top-three scoring defense in each of the past two seasons, defensive coordinator Don Martindale would be unwise to change too much.
The other 2018 first-round pick the Bills made receives more attention, but Edmunds went off the board not long after Josh Allen. Edmunds, the No. 16 overall pick in 2018, is going into his fourth season as a starter. He is just 23 and will not turn 24 until May. This early NFL entrance and run of back-to-back Pro Bowls gives Edmunds a chance at a lengthy prime. The Bills re-signed Matt Milano to a $10.4 million-per-year extension; it will take more to re-up Edmunds (355 tackles in three seasons) in 2022.
The last man standing from Carolina's Super Bowl 50 defense, Thompson leads the team's linebacker troops after Luke Kuechly's 2020 retirement created a void. Thompson played a career-high 97% of the Panthers' defensive snaps last season, despite Matt Rhule parting ways with numerous players from the previous regime that offseason. A seventh-year starter, Thompson joins Jermaine Carter and hybrid player Jeremy Chinn as Carolina's top linebacker options in 2021.
A low-key torch pass occurred in Chicago last year. Veteran Danny Trevathan handed over green-dot responsibilities to Smith, his longtime protégé. One of the pillars of Chicago's defensive success over the past three seasons, Smith has excelled in a few facets. The former first-round pick graded as a top-five coverage linebacker, per Pro Football Focus, last season. He also registered a career-high 139 tackles -- including 18 for loss -- and tallied four sacks from his off-ball 'backer spot. Smith is set to play for a third defensive coordinator (Sean Desai) and on track for a massive extension.
This season will bring multiple changes for Wilson. A part-time player as a rookie last year, the third-round pick is set to both call the Bengals' defensive signals and be an every-down player. In 2020, the Wyoming product started just two games and played 32% of Cincinnati's defensive snaps. The team will expect more from Wilson in 2021 when he will be one of the team's few homegrown defensive starters.
The Browns lured Darius Leonard's former sidekick away from the Colts, signing him to be their middle linebacker. This will bring a promotion of sorts, with no Leonard-like presence present among Cleveland's linebacking corps. While Kevin Stefanski said multiple players will wear the green dot in Joe Woods' defense, Walker will be the primary on-field information distributor. A former fifth-round pick out of Northwestern, Walker started 33 Colts games from 2018-20. The 26-year-old defender is one of many new faces on what should be an improved Browns defense.
Hopes are quite high for Parsons, whom the Cowboys selected 12th overall this year. The Penn State alum will disrupt Dallas' status quo, invading the team's previous Jaylon Smith-Leighton Vander Esch (under optimal conditions) three-down linebacker duo. But the Cowboys allowed the most points in franchise history last season. Change is necessary, and Parsons will relay signals from new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. This will be a big transition for Parsons, who will go from opting out of his junior season to anchoring a rather popular team's linebacking corps.
This will be a seminal year for Johnson, who was an unusual restricted free agent in March. Although Johnson navigated the legal issue that delayed his NFL career, he did not become a Broncos regular until he was 27. The Tennessee alum will turn 30 this year, which may give him one real chance to sign a notable contract. Johnson has been essential to two Vic Fangio defenses that have seen injuries strip key components. The third-year starter made a big impact upon taking the team's middle linebacker job in 2019 and kept the momentum going in 2020 (124 tackles). The bulky 'backer will be expected to have a vocal contract-year role.
Anzalone has significant experience with new Lions head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. All came over from the Saints, and the Lions will expect their newcomer to wear the green dot in his initial Motor City season. Anzalone came relatively cheap, signing a one-year, $1.75 million deal in free agency. The former third-round pick was a part-time starter in New Orleans, but on a rebuilding Detroit team, he is in line to factor in more prominently.
The Packers are not known for big-ticket additions at inside linebacker. They regularly staff this position with Day 3 picks. In Barnes, Green Bay found a starter via a longer-odds investment. A former undrafted free agent, Barnes started 10 games in his first NFL season. And, after the Pack cut both Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin this year, Barnes will be looked to in a leadership capacity on Green Bay's defensive second level. Although Green Bay signed De'Vondre Campbell, look for Barnes to be the green-dot player and the cog who leads Packers inside 'backers in snaps.
This new Texans reality will include a host of recently acquired starters. Veteran Lovie Smith will return to an NFL sideline after several years in the Big Ten, and Kirksey is on track to get his teammates lined up in the Houston DC's scheme. Kirksey joined the Texans as a street free agent, marking the second straight offseason he was classified as such and brings eight years experience as a starter. While the Browns cut Kirksey in 2020 and the Packers dropped him this year, he started 65 games before his 29th birthday. Kirksey will help out during what could be a tough year in Houston.
The only thing that has changed for Leonard is his bank account(s). The fourth-year linebacker is in his fourth season under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Leonard has started in each year and become one of the NFL's top defensive players. The Division I-FCS success story recently signed a position-record five-year, $98.5 million extension that ties him to the Colts through 2026. Fantasy IDP GMs know all about Leonard's exploits, as he contributes across the board. Featuring Leonard, Braden Smith, and Quenton Nelson, the Colts' 2018 draft class is one of the best in modern NFL history.
Urban Meyer has given both Jack and newcomer Damien Wilson the green dot, but the long-tenured Jaguars linebacker is expected to wear it more often this season. Jack is the Jaguars' top linebacker and is signed long-term, though the contract was finalized during the previous regime's run. Jack has taken on signal-calling responsibilities in the past and will do so under new DC Joe Cullen. Jack is the last man left from the Jags' "Sacksonville" defense that pushed the team to the 2017 AFC championship game, being a Jags starter two years before any of the other Jags' defensive first-stringers arrived.
This duty may still go to Willie Gay for the bulk of the season, but the second-year linebacker is currently on IR with a toe injury. Hitchens is the Chiefs' longest-tenured linebacker and has worn the dot in the past. It would make sense for the two-time Super Bowl starter to fill in for Gay here, even if he is more run-down thumper than cover man. Hitchens' usage rate dropped to 56% last season, and Gay also missed training camp time due to a head injury. The Chiefs may need to adjust their defensive communication plans early this season.
The Raiders have shuffled their linebacker corps considerably in recent days, adding two ex-Gus Bradley charges. After trading for former Chargers starter Denzel Perryman, the Raiders signed K.J. Wright, who played for Las Vegas' new defensive coordinator to start his career in Seattle. Wright has been one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers over the past decade, and Bobby Wagner's longtime sidekick will not need much acclimation time given his extensive work in Bradley's system. Wright's seasoning and three-down skill set makes him a logical choice to relay signals.
The Chargers have not seen much of James over the past two seasons, and the team is transitioning to a new defensive scheme. But head coach Brandon Staley will entrust the versatile safety with the green dot primarily this season. James delivered one of the all-time great rookie seasons by a defensive player in 2018, being the first post-merger safety to be named first-team All-Pro. Since injuries have limited the Florida State alum to five games over the past two seasons. The Chargers will be counting on James to be available ahead of a potentially promising season for the team.
This status has fluctuated in recent weeks, with linebackers Micah Kiser and Ernest Jones wearing the green dot at various points. But it is looking like Fuller will join the small club of safeties to primarily call signals. The Rams cut Kiser and stashed him on their practice squad. A sixth-round pick in 2020, Fuller moved into the Rams' starting lineup immediately and intercepted three passes as a rookie. With John Johnson defecting to Cleveland in free agency, the Rams are in transition at safety. But they clearly believe in Fuller.
The Dolphins made a trade to pair Baker with longtime Texans starter Benardrick McKinney, but the team showed how highly it regards the former by giving him a $13 million-per-year extension this offseason. And Miami just cut McKinney. Baker has worn the green dot in the past and is expected to continue as a three-down presence on Brian Flores' defense. The former third-round pick has started 37 games and played both inside and outside linebacker as a pro. Baker displayed some versatility last season, registering seven sacks to help the Dolphins reach the playoff precipice.
Barr and the Vikings are entering their eighth season together, with the parties agreeing on a restructured deal that kept the outside linebacker in Minnesota this offseason. The UCLA product once reneged on a Jets agreement at the 11th hour to stay in the Twin Cities, and he will be a key presence on Mike Zimmer's eighth Minnesota defense. Barr missed most of the 2020 slate due to injury, but the four-time Pro Bowler is set to reprise his role alongside Eric Kendricks as a three-down 'backer.
Dont'a Hightower's opt-out hurt the Patriots in 2020, but even though the longtime New England middle linebacker is back, the Pats are expected to entrust a younger player with green-dot responsibilities. Bentley became a full-timer last season for the Pats, after mixing in during the 2019 season, and the former fifth-round pick looks again set to be a frequent presence this season. Good timing for the ex-Florida Gator, who is going into a contract year.
Other Saints received more attention in recent years, but Davis played a big part in keeping New Orleans' defense as an upper-echelon unit over the past three years. An outside linebacker in DC Dennis Allen's 4-3 scheme, Davis has been one of the NFL's best second-level defenders for years. New Orleans' centerpiece linebacker, who signed an extension late last summer, has not missed a game in nine pro seasons and is one of the best QB pursuers at his position. The off-ball 'backer has 13 sacks in his three Saints seasons, adding an atypical element for opposing offenses to navigate.
With Daniel Jones on a rookie contract, the Giants have been busy paying up for talent over the past two offseasons. Their 2020 splurge involved deals for Martinez and James Bradberry. Both made early impacts for what was an improved defense last season. Martinez, who led the NFL in tackles in 2017 as a Packer, has made at least 144 stops in each of the past four seasons. The reliable tackler has not missed a game in five years and has played north of 93% of his team's defensive snaps in each of the past four. He profiles as the obvious choice to call the Giants' defensive signals.
Mosley's Jets deal has been an abject disaster thus far, which is not out of step with several Gang Green outside investments in recent years. Mosley missed most of his initial Jets season due to injury before opting out last year. But the former Ravens Pro Bowler is back from his 2020 opt-out and healthy. The Jets have major questions about their edge rushers and cornerbacks, but Mosley, Marcus Maye, and Quinnen Williams give them three proven players up the middle. The 29-year-old linebacker has four 100-tackle seasons on his resume, and after his contract tolled last year, his Jets deal runs through 2024.
Wilson wore the Vikings' green dot at points last season and represented one of this offseason's value signings, trekking to the Eagles on a one-year, $2.75 million deal. Wilson joins ex-Minnesota teammate Anthony Harris in Philly. The Eagles' linebacking corps is rather thin, making Wilson the logical choice to call signals. Wilson made a leap last season, starting 15 games and working as a three-down player for a Vikings team that finished the season without both Barr and Kendricks. Wilson made 122 tackles (eight for loss) and three sacks last season. He will aim to impress in a second contract year.
The Steelers were quick to throw considerable responsibility at Schobert, whom they traded for during training camp. The former Browns and Jaguars linebacker will wear the green dot for his new team, taking pressure off Devin Bush, who is finishing off his recovery from ACL rehab. In an effort to not put too much on Bush's plate, defensive coordinator Keith Butler will turn to Schobert, who has been a participation fiend for years. Schobert played 99% of his team's defensive snaps in 2019 and '20 and led the NFL in tackles in 2017. The Steelers have him signed through 2024.
Warner helped set the market for Darius Leonard, signing his 49ers extension shortly before the Colts locked down their standout linebacker. San Francisco signed Warner to a five-year, $95 million extension after his breakthrough 2020 performance. Warner will lead the 49ers' linebacking corps into a new era of sorts, working under first-year DC DeMeco Ryans. But the former linebacker has been on Kyle Shanahan's staff since 2017. PFF rated Warner as its No. 1 all-around linebacker last season, with the former third-round pick's coverage skills netting him that slot.
Every linebacker to earn six first-team All-Pro honors is in the Hall of Fame. Wagner, who notched his sixth such honor last season, will join the likes of Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary, and Bobby Bell in Canton one day. For now, the 31-year-old middle linebacker remains the centerpiece of Seattle's defense. Wagner has dominated in all facets for the Seahawks, who have him signed through 2022. Wagner and Aaron Donald are the only active players with six first-team All-Pro nods, and each will again play the lead defensive role for contending NFC West squads.
In addition to convincing Tom Brady to move to Florida, Buccaneers GM Jason Licht has notched some extra-base hits in the draft recently. A year before his Tristan Wirfs- Antoine Winfield Jr. draft, Licht used a top-five pick on White. While that is high for an off-ball linebacker, White has rewarded the franchise. The ultra-athletic inside 'backer made 140 tackles and added nine sacks last season, playing a major role in the Bucs snapping their playoff drought and stampeding to a defense-powered Super Bowl title. Despite Lavonte David re-signing, White will remain the Bucs' defensive signal-caller.
One of the NFL's more quietly effective defenders, Brown is going into his fifth season with the Titans. They are keeping the green dot on the linebacker's helmet. The former fifth-round pick has been a full-timer on each of Tennessee's past two defenses. Although the Titans delivered historically inefficient defensive work last season, PFF has graded Brown as a top-20 linebacker in each of the past three years. Coverage ability has keyed this climb. The Titans, who have gone through some issues at linebacker recently, will need Brown to stay on this level to help their contender cause this season.
Washington turned to Holcomb as a starter during his rookie season and kept him in that role on a higher-profile 2020 defense. The recently renamed team rocketed from 27th to fourth on defense from 2019 to 2020, and Holcomb will be asked to play a lot again this season -- for a team with increased expectations. The ex-North Carolina Tar Heel may end up relinquishing green-dot responsibilities at some point in the near future, with Washington drafting inside linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round. But for now, the signal-calling responsibility is on the elder off-ball 'backer.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.