Washington Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh brought up a good point this week when discussing how he and fellow linebacker London Fletcher play in relative anonymity despite garnering 100-plus tackles apiece for the NFL's fourth-ranked defense in 2008.
"Our defense was one of the best in the league and most people don't know that either," he said. "I can assure you this, the guys who we play against know who (him and Fletcher) are. That's for sure."
McIntosh could be speaking for just about any linebacker in the rugged NFC East. The division made up of Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia and the New York Giants is stocked with Pro Bowl talent at nearly every position. Yet, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware was the only linebacker in the NFC to make it to the NFL's all-star game in February.
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While Ware led the NFL with 20 sacks and totaled 84 tackles, there were several other players in the division who posted equally as impressive numbers on some of the best defenses in the league.
In fact, defense is what the NFC East is about. Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Giants ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in overall defense last season. The Cowboys were No. 8. Key to the production, as understated as it might seem, was linebacker play.
"There are two schools of thought about not having any linebackers from our team in the Pro Bowl," Philadelphia middle linebacker Stewart Bradley said. "The guys who went had great seasons and were deserving. For us, we had the top defense in the NFC and we had players go at other positions, so we were represented.
"As far as the linebackers in the division, different teams ask players to do different things and it's a lot how you're perceived. Are you involved in nickel and dime packages? If you win games and your defense is playing good football and you're on the field a lot, recognition will come."
Here are some of the linebackers in the division who might not be household names, but should be -- and soon, could be:
London Fletcher, Washington -- Arguably the most overlooked linebacker in the league for years. The 5-foot-9, 245-pound, 11-year veteran middle linebacker has started 135 straight games and accrued more than 100 tackles for 10 consecutive seasons. He tied Pittsburgh's James Farrior as the NFL's sixth-leading tackler with 133 stops last season. Each year he expresses his dismay of not making it to the Pro Bowl, but he gets bypassed annually. With Albert Haynesworth now playing in front of him, the steady, but unflashy, Fletcher should rack up big-time numbers again. If Washington gets to the playoffs, he might finally get the recognition he seeks.
Rocky McIntosh, Washington -- The Redskins starting weak side linebacker is a rising talent, who is steadily making a name for himself. The two-year starter registered 87 tackles last season (the Redskins had him down for 104 tackles) and he could benefit not only from the attention Haynesworth will receive, but also by the focus that will be put on rookie OLB/DE Brian Orakpo. McIntosh will likely find himself in a lot of one-on-one matchups this season and should be able to make the plays that no longer will have him living off his rep from the University of Miami.
Stewart Bradley, Philadelphia -- Fletcher and the New York Giants' Antonio Pierce might be the more highly regarded 4-3 middle linebackers in the NFC East, but Bradley could be poised to make a move to leapfrog one, if not both. In his first full season as the starter, the 6-4, 255-pound Bradley had 108 tackles (the Eagles had him down for 151 tackles, including nine for loss). He is rangier and younger than all of his MLB peers in the division and he plays in a system that allows him to be aggressive attacking the line of scrimmage.
Bradie James, Dallas -- James follows the format of how to ideally play the strong side, inside linebacker position in a 3-4. James is frequently responsible for taking on the lead block and he is a violent knee buckler, whether it's a guard, fullback or trapping tight end. Besides playing his role responsibly, James also has been Dallas's top tackler for the past three seasons. He had a career-best 116 tackles last season and he added eight sacks, a very high total for an inside backer.
Antonio Pierce, New York -- Pierce is probably the best known of the group and he's actually played in a Pro Bowl (2006 season). However, Pierce still sits on the fringe, when the top inside linebackers in the league -- even the NFC (Patrick Willis, Jon Beason, and Barrett Ruud) -- are mentioned. Pierce's nasty approach and production is well known in league circles. His tackle total dipped below 100 last season after two straight seasons of being above the mark -- but those numbers could be back on the uptick with a healthy and stocked defensive line.
Michael Boley, New York -- Boley spent his previous four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and was on the verge of stardom during the 2007 season as the strong side outside linebacker. He fell off significantly last season (73 tackles, one interception) and was used solely as a coverage linebacker by the end of the season. Boley, a freakish athlete, might not fill the tackle chart, but will have production in nearly every defensive category. Plus, he could be afforded the opportunity to rush the passer again and have clear lanes with Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck occupying much of the traffic.