|Paul Spinelli/Associated Press|
|Patrick Willis (left) and NaVorro Bowman both earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2011, combining for 240 tackles.|
Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah is getting into the Olympic mindset early this summer, handing out NFL Podium Awards for the top three players at each position group. Remember, this list is based on where these players are ranked heading into the 2012 season. Today, he takes on linebackers.
First of all, before Dallas Cowboys fans start to panic, this list does not include outside linebackers who play in a 3-4. Those players will be grouped with 4-3 defensive ends in Friday's "pass-rusher" installment of the Podium Awards. There were several fine candidates to choose from for this edition, but these three players stood out above the rest because of their combination of size, speed and instincts. I spent four years working for the Baltimore Ravens' scouting department while current New York Jets coach Rex Ryan was on the staff. He always used to say that a big hit was just as valuable as a turnover. All three of these players make their presence felt with explosive tackles.
For over a decade, this spot was firmly in the grasp of the Ravens' Ray Lewis. However, Willis has been the gold standard for the last few years, and he hasn't shown any signs of relinquishing the title soon. Through his first five seasons, Willis has been to five Pro Bowls and been named first-team All-Pro on four occasions. He's averaged 138 tackles per season and also collected 17 career sacks. His combination of speed, explosiveness and instincts is tops in the league. The 49ers' defense has become the most feared in the NFL, and Willis has been the captain of the ship since arriving in 2007.
If Willis is going to face any competition for the top spot over the next few seasons, it will likely come from the player who lines up right next to him every Sunday. Bowman exploded on the scene in just his second season in the league. He led the team in tackles with 143 -- his 111 solo tackles ranked second in the NFL -- and also recorded a pair of sacks. Bowman was named first-team All-Pro for his efforts. His style of play is very similar to Willis'. He has the speed to range from sideline to sideline, and he's explosive on contact. At only 24 years old, he's just scratching the surface of his potential greatness.
This was a tough decision. The Bears' linebacker duo of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs continues to perform at a very high level. Lewis isn't quite the same player that he used to be in Baltimore, but he still plays the game with more intensity than any other linebacker in the league. There are several talented young players at the position who deserve consideration (see below), but Cushing gets the nod because of his size, speed and versatility. He played outside in his first two seasons. He was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009 after he recorded 133 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions. His reputation took a bit of a hit following a positive drug test, but he played well again in 2010. This past season, he moved to the middle in Wade Phillips' 3-4 attack and responded with an outstanding campaign. He totaled 114 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. It's very difficult to find linebackers with the size and strength to take on linemen in the run game while also possessing the speed and athleticism to cover running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Cushing excels in both areas.
Others considered: Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers; Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens; Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears; Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears; Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs; Desmond Bishop, Green Bay Packers; Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots; D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns; Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings; Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons; Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals; London Fletcher, Washington Redskins; James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams; Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.