|Patrick Willis and James Harrison set the standard at inside and outside linebacker.|
In many ways, the essence of what it takes to play football is epitomized at the linebacker position.
The ability to play linebacker requires a love for the physical aspects of the game, a nose for the ball and a level of toughness that matches any other player on the field. A great linebacker imposes his will on the offense, uses keys to diagnose plays in a split second, always finds a way to get to the ball and is a versatile enough athlete to play sideline to sideline.
Inside linebackers are usually credited with more than 100 tackles per season. The best outside linebackers typically play in 3-4 defenses and have half the number of tackles but produce double-digit sack totals. Because many of the teams in 4-3 schemes utilize so many "stack" looks, I decided to put the strong-side linebackers in these defenses in the same group with inside linebackers.
To do the position justice I split up the linebackers into two groups, inside and outside 'backers. As I have done with the other position rankings in this series, the players are listed in groups of five and in alphabetical order within each group. The list has 20 players, which is only about 18 percent of the approximately 112 starting linebackers in the league. The result is a large number of players will end up in the honorable-mention category or nowhere on the list at all.
Each player listed has either an (^) for players on the rise with room for growth, (>) for players maintaining their status and playing at their peak level or (v) for those who can't sustain their level of play and are on the decline.
1. Ray Lewis, Ravens (v): It's straight to the Hall of Fame for Lewis, who still plays at a high level and has the most commanding presence on an NFL field. He was in on 139 total tackles in 2010 and had 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. His pass-coverage skills are not what they used to be, but still good enough to get the job done.
3. Lawrence Timmons, Steelers (>): Some would be surprised to see Timmons up this high, but he is overshadowed by all the great players on the Steelers' defense. Check his production in 2010 before you criticize this spot. Timmons had 135 tackles last year, 2 interceptions, 11 passes defended and 3 sacks. Time to recognize this young man.
4. Brian Urlacher, Bears (v): Is the heart and soul of the Chicago defense and possesses rare coverage skills. He struggles at times to disengage from blocks but still found a way to be in on 125 total tackles and deliver 4 sacks, 10 passes defended and register 10 tackles for a loss.
6. Jon Beason, Panthers (>): A very smart player with a tremendous work ethic. Beason's ability to read keys and diagnose plays led to 121 total tackles, 8 passes defended, 8 tackles for a loss and 1 sack. He played without much talent up front last season and also lost fellow linebacker Thomas Davis to an injury.
7. Lance Briggs, Bears (>): Even Urlacher was quick to point out recently that Briggs doesn't get the credit he deserves for his excellent play. Briggs is a sideline-to-sideline, run-and-hit, weak-side linebacker who also is an excellent blitz rusher. He was credited with 89 total tackles in 2010 and had 7 passes defended, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles.
8. London Fletcher, Redskins (v): Fletcher, now 36, just keeps rolling along as one of the best at what he does. He was credited with 136 tackles last season, which is just another day at the office. He also defended 11 passes, which was better than Lewis and Urlacher.
9. Chad Greenway, Vikings (>): He plays the strong-side in the Vikings' 4-3 scheme and is as steady as they come. Greenway sees plays quickly and is rarely fooled by play-action. He was in on 144 total tackles last season, a big total considering he plays one side and teams often run away him. He also made 12 run stops behind the line of scrimmage last season.
10. Jonathan Vilma, Saints (>): The leader of the Saints' defense. Defensive coordinator Greg Williams has a complicated scheme, and Vilma's job is to quarterback the unit and make all the adjustments. He was in on 105 total tackles with a career-high 4 sacks in 2010. He had some competition for a top-10 spot from many on the honorable-mention list.
Honorable mention: David Harris (Jets), James Farrior (Steelers), Paul Posluszny (Bills), James Laurinitis (Rams), Curtis Lofton (Falcons), Derrick Johnson (Chiefs), Stephen Tulloch (Titans), A.J. Hawk (Packers).
1. Tamba Hali, Chiefs (>): The Chiefs' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense did wonders for Hali's career. He registered a career-high 14.5 sacks last season along with 51 tackles and 4 forced fumbles.
2. James Harrison, Steelers (>): Harrison plays at another level from just about every defensive player in the NFL. He managed to get in on 100 total tackles playing on the right side, which tells you his backside pursuit is great. He also had double-digit sacks (10.5) for the fourth straight season and, maybe even more impressive, had 6 forced fumbles to push his total to 25 over the last four seasons.
4. Terrell Suggs, Ravens (>): Suggs was almost inculded in Group B, and I understand why some believe strongly that he should be there. But he had 11 sacks and 68 total tackles while playing without the complementary player on the opposite side that Harrison has. Suggs has 10 sacks in his last seven postseason games.
5. DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys (>): Will rank among the league leaders in sacks every year. Bill Parcells knew he found the next Lawrence Taylor when he drafted Ware, who has 80 sacks in his first six seasons. Taylor had 75 in the first six years they counted sacks.
6. Brian Orakpo, Redskins (^): Had 8.5 sacks and 56 total tackles in his first season in a 3-4 defense. Orakpo has 19.5 sacks in his first two seasons in the league, playing in two different schemes without much help from the rest of the defensive front. I wonder what his numbers would have been had Albert Haynesworth felt like playing.
7. Shaun Phillips, Chargers (>): With Shawne Merriman gone and Larry English not playing up to his draft status (mostly because of injuries), Phillips has picked up the slack. He registered 11 sacks, 55 tackles and 7 passes defended in 2010, a very good season. He now has 45.5 sacks in the last five seasons.
8. Cameron Wake, Dolphins (^): Consider that Wake played at Penn State and went undrafted before having to to prove himself in Canada, and Aaron Maybin also went to Penn State and was drafted in the first round but can't hold a candle to Wake. Anyway, Wake had 57 tackles, 14 sacks and 3 forced fumbles for the Dolphins last season.
9. Kamerion Wimbley, Raiders (>): Has had a very up-and-down career. As a rookie for the Browns, he had 11 sacks in 2006 but only 15 over the next three seasons. He was shipped off to Oakland and got right back into his rookie groove with 9 sacks and 58 tackles last season. Wimbley is the 10th OLB on my list and will be challenged by the honorable mentions next year. Mario Williams will factor into this list next season, and who knows if Merriman will rebound.
10. LaMarr Woodley, Steelers (>): Woodley has had a chip on his shoulder since his college days, when scouts told him he wasn't that good and was a product of the players around him. He is still on a great team but now stands on his own laurels. Had 50 tackles, 10 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 5 passes defended on a defense that likes to blitz Harrison. A case can be made that Woodley, who has 11 sacks in seven postseason games, belongs in Group A.