With "The Top 100 Players of 2011" winding down, it got us thinking: Who are the greatest players of the new millennium, the Y2K era? Since 2000, broad developments in NFL strategy have taken place, as well as the specialization of the players who fit into these new schemes. So who has thrived most in the league's ever-evolving environment?
Today, Jason La Canfora and Elliot Harrison debate the best linebacker. Got an opinion of your own? Sound off in the comments section below.
La Canfora: A case for Ray Lewis
What's the one constant with the Baltimore Ravens' defense during this era, the one unwavering, indestructible, motivating force that lifted a franchise that couldn't beat anyone before his arrival to an echelon where it has joined Pittsburgh as standard of defense in the league?
Ray Lewis. The name alone now connotes everything, in the same way as Butkus or Lambert.
Lewis has been the heartbeat of the franchise. He put a team that couldn't score a touchdown for a quarter of a season on his back and led it to an improbable Super Bowl XXXV victory. That defense, to many people, is in the discussion as one of the three greatest of all time.
Lewis' productivity is legendary. Just look at the tackle stats year after year after year. That he remains the soul and inspirational leader of one of the game's top units at this stage of his career, to say nothing of his ability to still change a game with a single hit, tells you all you need to know. Just ask Dustin Keller.
Lewis is as football smart as anyone who has ever played his position. While his former coordinators and coaches such as Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Jack Del Rio, Mike Singletary and Rex Ryan have moved on to head coaching, Lewis has remained in Baltimore, keeping everyone aligned and calling out plays before the ball is snapped. Lewis does this by feeding off of the tells and tendencies of opponents gleaned through repeated nights of film study.
Lewis can't quite go sideline to sideline like he could during his prime. He isn't quite as explosive. But he still finds the ball in his hands at critical junctures. He still goes to war -- and often wins -- against the game's best running backs. He will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the NFL, and the best of the 2000s.
Harrison: A case for DeMarcus Ware
The operative word here is "era." The linebacker position has changed as much as any position in professional sports. There are so many variations at the position that judging a player's ability and productivity completely depends on the scheme in which he plays.
For most of Ware's tenure in Dallas, that scheme has been an attacking 3-4 that relies on big, athletic outside linebackers to generate almost all of the pass rush. In Baltimore, Lewis has been asked to diagnose plays, get to the ball-carrier unimpeded and make the tackle. Both Lewis and Ware have been great at what they are specifically asked to do. So what's the difference between the two?
Pro football has morphed into a game played in space. Passing is king. The 4,000-yard passing mark -- reached just 38 times in NFL history prior to 2000 -- has been accomplished 51 times since Y2K. That's unbelievable. The air assault has put a premium on pass rushing rather than stopping the run.
Simply put, Ware is the best of this era at getting to the passer. In fact, he's already one of the best sack artists of all time. Since entering the league in 2005, Ware has 80 sacks, six more than the next closest player and 25.5 more than the next closest linebacker (Joey Porter). Since the NFL officially started recording sacks in 1982, no player has led the league three times. Ware has done it twice and is still in his prime.
While Lewis' leadership has led the Ravens to success, one can't discount Ware's productivity. Not every player is the vocal type, and Ware shouldn't be penalized because he's not a rah-rah dude. He just does his damn job, Bill Belichick-style.
The guy is dominant, plain and simple.