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Luke Kuechly tops inside linebacker rankings

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

Last week, we ranked the top running backs in the league. This week, we analyze the NFL's best inside and middle linebackers.

Top shelf: Luke Kuechly, Patrick Willis, Sean Lee

ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden, who presumably remains well-connected in league circles,  confidently stated a few weeks ago that 31 general managers would trade their middle linebacker for Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Carolina Panthers star has taken the torch from Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher as the new model for the middle linebacker, capable of covering tight ends and tailbacks and chasing down quarterbacks in the read-option. Don't be surprised if Kuechly makes a serious run at Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Willis has been the player against whom all other inside linebackers have been measured since he entered the league as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. It will be interesting to see if he and San Francisco 49ers teammate NaVorro Bowman are someday regarded as the best inside linebacker duo in NFL history.

On film, I thought Lee was the most impressive inside linebacker in the league last season before a toe injury knocked him out of the final 10 games. No tandem has better closing speed than Lee and Dallas Cowboys weakside linebacker Bruce Carter.

Next level: Derrick Johnson, Brian Cushing, Lawrence Timmons, NaVorro Bowman, Bobby Wagner

If the Kansas City Chiefs find a stud to play next to Johnson on the inside, they will have a linebacker foursome to rival the 49ers as the best in the league. Cushing made the play of the game in the Houston Texans' 21-point comeback victory Monday night -- a sign that his surgically repaired knee won't be a major issue this season.

Timmons was the Pittsburgh Steelers' MVP in 2012, racking up 134 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions, 19 QB pressures and two forced fumbles. Bowman is the Robin to Willis' Batman. Wagner set a Seattle Seahawks rookie record with 140 tackles as last season. According to Football Outsiders, he had a tackle or an assist on 27.5 percent of run plays against Seattle -- the highest figure in the league.

Pro Bowl potential: Daryl Washington, Daryl Smith, Wesley Woodyard, James Laurinaitis, Brandon Spikes, Donald Butler, D'Qwell Jackson, Dannell Ellerbe, David Harris

Washington was the best pass-rushing inside linebacker in the NFL last season, but he's out three more games on suspension. A lot of teams missed the boat on Smith, who arguably was the Baltimore Ravens' top defender in preseason action. Woodyard arguably was the best coverage linebacker in the NFL last season.

The anchor of a young St. Louis Rams defensive nucleus, Laurinaitis never has missed a game in his five-year career. Spikes is one of the hardest hitters and most reliable run defenders in the NFL. Butler is overlooked on the San Diego Chargers' defense. Harris must prove that last year's disappointment was an aberration in what is now an improved front seven.

Solid starters: DeMeco Ryans, Brad Jones, Mychal Kendricks, Paul Posluszny, Stephen Tulloch, London Fletcher, Demario Davis

Now that former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Billy Davis is running the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, Kendricks is playing the Daryl Washington role. The season opener was a success, as Kendricks led the Eagles in tackles playing sideline to sideline. Posluszny is a candidate for a bounce-back season behind an improved defensive line.

Fletcher has to lose a step at some point, right? The Eagles picked on him in Week 1. Davis saved the game for the New York Jets, catching receiver Vincent Jackson from behind to save a long touchdown that would have given the Tampa Bay Buccaneers an insurmountable lead late in the fourth quarter.

Best of the rest: Karlos Dansby, Erin Henderson, Curtis Lofton, Mason Foster, D.J. Williams, Jerrell Freeman, Kiko Alonso, Perry Riley, Craig Robertson, Nick Roach, Akeem Dent

Will Dansby keep his starting job when Washington returns from suspension? Henderson was exploited last Sunday in his middle linebacker debut. Williams might have trouble holding off impressive second-round draft pick Jon Bostic. Riley was the Washington Redskins' most effective pass rusher against the Eagles in the season opener. Robertson has quietly impressed with his coverage skills since entering the Cleveland Browns' starting lineup last season.

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