When I was a defensive back for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I asked our defensive coordinator, Dick Jauron, a straightforward question: What is the key to building a dominant defense in the NFL?
After pondering my question for a few minutes, Jauron told me that an elite D must be strong down the middle, with blue-chip players at defensive tackle, inside linebacker and free safety.
According to the wily defensive mind, this premise holds true in every sport -- including baseball (catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman, center fielder) and basketball (point guard, center) -- but it is especially imperative to have dominant players down the middle in football. And many defenses revolve around the play at inside linebacker, where communication, instincts, playmaking and intimidation are essential to winning in a pass-centric league. Jauron spoke of the importance of having a versatile man in the middle who possesses the athleticism and agility to be effective in coverage, while also displaying the toughness to be a factor as a run supporter.
While I didn't think much of the conversation at the time, I recognized the brilliance in Jauron's philosophy when, as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, he drafted Brian Urlacher in 2000 and inserted him into the lineup as a middle linebacker. The former collegiate safety gave the Bears' defense a dynamic presence in the middle, helping to transform the D into one of the league's elite units with his combination of speed, athleticism and physicality. He was, to put it simply, the quarterback of the defense.
Given the crucial nature of this demanding role, I'm dedicating the final installment of my "Bucky's Best" series to the top inside linebackers in the game. Before we get to the rankings, though, a couple quick notes on some players you won't find below. Sean Lee (injury) and Daryl Washington (suspension) were omitted because they won't be participating in the coming season. And while Brian Cushing boasts the raw talent to crack this lineup, he just can't stay on the field of late (20 missed games over the past two seasons), so I can't include him on the list.
10) James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams: After years of toiling in relative anonymity in St. Louis, Laurinaitis is due to receive the attention he deserves, as the leader of the most talented front seven in football. He has eclipsed 100 tackles in each of his first five NFL seasons, and the Rams are poised to field a top-10 defense in 2014. With an increased spotlight on the unit, observers will appreciate Laurinaitis' versatile skill set; the linebacker will wreak havoc as a pass rusher in Gregg Williams' ultra-aggressive scheme, but he also will provide plus coverage. If the Rams emerge as the dark-horse contender that many expect to see, Laurinaitis' stellar play in the middle will be a primary factor.
9) Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers: The key to the Steelers' defensive success throughout the years has been the presence of standout performers in the linebacking corps. While the unit took a step back in 2013, Timmons' steady play on the interior should help this D get back on track this fall. The eighth-year pro is a dynamic defender capable of thriving on "read and react" plays or aggressive blitzes through the A-gaps. (Timmons is a natural pass rusher with a knack for getting home on pressures -- as evidenced by his 26 career sacks.) As Dick LeBeau attempts to rebuild the Steelers' defense, he can count on this wily veteran to make an impact up the middle.
8) Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks: The "Legion of Boom" secondary casts a large shadow over the rest of the Seahawks' defense, but astute observers recognize Wagner's key contributions to the NFL's No. 1 defense. The 24-year-old is a destructive force in the middle, wreaking havoc on opponents with his speed, quickness and explosiveness. Wagner is a tackling machine with exceptional rush skills and underrated coverage ability. He can play a myriad of roles in the Seahawks' aggressive scheme, allowing him to be a true stat-stuffer (120 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions in 2013).
7) Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars: Despite playing for a perennial loser in Jacksonville, Posluszny has earned the respect of scouts, coaches and his peers around the league with standout play over the past few seasons. The eighth-year pro boasts remarkable instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills. Last season, he relied on those traits to register 162 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions as a designated playmaker for the Jags. With a handful of veterans coming aboard this offseason to solidify the front line, Posluszny could enjoy his best season yet.
6) Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots: Despite missing most of last year with a torn pectoral muscle, Mayo earns a spot on this list due to his steady track record prior to the injury. The Patriots' unsung leader has been an ultra-productive player in the middle of the defense, notching 100-plus tackles four times in his six pro seasons. He is a classic "Mike" linebacker ideally suited to stop the run between the tackles, but he flashes enough quickness and explosiveness to create disruption on blitzes from the second level. Although his pass-rushing numbers don't jump off the stat sheet (nine career sacks), Mayo's aggressiveness on pressures leads to easy playmaking opportunities for his teammates.
5) Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs: Although Johnson didn't receive a whole lot of publicity last season, his steady play between the tackles played a big part in the Chiefs' return to prominence in the AFC. The inside linebacker topped the 100-tackle mark for the fourth straight season, while adding 4.5 sacks and two interceptions to the ledger. The spectacular production accurately portrays his versatility and impact as a dynamic linebacker with exceptional instincts and awareness. While others garner headlines for big hits and splashy plays, Johnson is a "hard hat and lunch pail" type who simply gets the job done. This blue-collar brilliance doesn't go completely unnoticed, though, as Johnson has made three straight trips to the Pro Bowl.
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4) Karlos Dansby, Cleveland Browns: The old head on the list continues to defy the odds by playing at an all-star level despite his advanced age (32). Dansby is coming off a sensational season with the Arizona Cardinals, having piled up 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and one forced fumble while establishing himself as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. That marked the fifth time in Dansby's 10-year career that he surpassed 100 tackles and the third time he posted at least three interceptions. It's hard to find another linebacker capable of rivaling his versatile playmaking skills.
3) NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers: Despite suffering a devastating knee injury in the NFC Championship Game that could sideline him until the middle of the 2014 season, Bowman demands inclusion here. Prior to the injury, he arguably had surpassed Patrick Willis as the premier player on the 49ers' defense after totaling 145 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2013. Bowman displayed outstanding instincts, awareness and physicality supporting the run, yet he was agile enough to stick with tight ends and running backs down the seam. He also showcased fantastic diagnostic skills in breaking down routes, which is why he was routinely in position to snag interceptions off tips and overthrows. Bowman's recovery obviously looms large, but it's hard to bet against this 26-year-old with three straight first-team All-Pro nods to his name.
2) Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers: With five first-team All-Pro notches on his belt, Willis has been a marquee player at the position since stepping into the league in 2007. Possessing exceptional speed, quickness and burst as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, he has racked up 100-plus tackles in six of his seven NFL seasons. This is a punishing tackler with a knack for delivering teeth-rattling shots to runners in the hole. Although Willis seemingly has lost a step in coverage, he remains an effective player on passing downs due to his superb instincts and recognition. The 49ers also use him on a variety of A-gap blitzes designed to take advantage of his aggressiveness as a rusher (... while masking some of his growing shortcomings in coverage). With Bowman rehabbing from serious injury, Willis gets a slight nod over his linebacking cohort.
1) Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers:The 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year is the NFL's premier inside linebacker, with back-to-back seasons of 150-plus tackles to open up his professional career. Kuechly is starting to redefine the position with his remarkable instincts, non-stop motor and penchant for playmaking in the middle. Although his spectacular tackling production leads some observers to view him primarily as a run stopper, it is his standout skills in pass coverage that separate him from the rest of the pack. Kuechly has a terrific feel for reading routes and anticipating throws, as evidenced by his six picks and 15 passes defensed in 32 career games. Given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, Kuechly's terrific ballhawking skills help make him the new standard-bearer at the position.