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B/R NFL 1,000: Top 40 Inside Linebackers

Matt MillerFeatured Columnist IVDecember 23, 2016

B/R NFL 1,000: Top 40 Inside Linebackers

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    Who are the best inside linebackers in today's NFL? Fans of a certain team are going to be happy with our selections. 

    Inside linebackers have to be able to stop the run or break back in pass coverage. They need the speed to range to the sideline and the strength to bust through blockers and tackle big backs. To determine who's best, we've assessed how well today's ILBs exemplified those traits in 2011.

    The quest comes as part of the B/R NFL 1,000. The series offers an in-depth look at every position in the NFL, breaking down players' skills in a way never before seen on the Internet.

    B/R 1,000 rankings don't assess who had the best year, or even who has the most potential. Rather, players are judged on their current skills and mechanics, based on film study of the 2011 NFL preseason and regular season only.

    After hours spent scouting every starter and every potential starter, the top 40 inside linebackers have been scored on 10 criteria (more on the criteria here). In the slides that follow, we'll explain each player's strengths and weaknesses as the final ranking is revealed.

40. Barrett Ruud, Seattle Seahawks

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    Has his limitations but is talented enough to be effective between the tackles.

    Of no use against the pass.

    Can't get to the quarterback.

    Good instincts. Will get to the right place in time.

    Needs to work on taking the right angles.

    Not powerful or fast enough to break free with any consistency.

    Unable to be a threat at the edge.

    Decent strength, but not enough to make a big impact.

    Sorely lacking this fundamental key to the position.

    Missed seven games in 2011.

    Barret Ruud was replaced in the Titans lineup by Colin McCarthy after going down on injured reserve, and McCarthy flourished in his place. Just picked up by Seattle, Ruud could serve as David Hawthorne's replacement in the Seahawks linebacking corps if he's recovered from the groin and shoulder injuries that kept him out for most of 2011.

39. Jovan Belcher, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Flexibility and quickness are average at best for Belcher.

    Not a benefit against the pass.

    Relative lack of speed and agility limits him.

    Doesn't anticipate too well. Will take false steps.

    Gets bogged down in traffic.

    Belcher won't intimidate many blockers.

    Limited athlete who struggles to reach the edge.

    Solid base allows him to hold his ground.

    More misses than makes.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Belcher had a decent year, but the writing is on the wall that he's likely to be replaced this offseason by KC for a younger player who brings more speed and better tackling skills to the table.

38. Mason Foster, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Foster boasts good quickness and strength.

    More effective going forward than dropping into space.

    Doesn't help much here.

    Slow to diagnose.

    Physical talents are wasted because of his inability to get to the ball.

    Foster is easily manhandled by many.

    Quick enough to give chase, not always to catch up.

    A little more muscle would be a big help.

    Misses far too many tackles for an inside linebacker.

    Battled small injuries but didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Mason Foster struggled mightily in his first year as last year's third-round pick, and the team could move him to outside linebacker in 2012 to lessen the pressure placed on the youngster.

37. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Maualuga isn't bad between the tackles but is limited on the edge.

    Can't be counted on to stick with potential receivers.

    Not a factor off the edge or through the middle.

    Often fails to see what's coming in time.

    Can be effective when he stands his ground. Too easily knocked off course when in pursuit.

    Will get stuck in traffic.

    Struggles to reach the edge.

    Has what it takes to hold his position against the run.

    Lots of misses without the right instincts or technique.

    Sat out three games in 2011.

    Maualuga has the overall skill set to be very good, but his issues on and off the field have added up. The Bengals need more consistency at the position. It's time to put up or shut up for the former USC star.

36. Kelvin Sheppard, Buffalo Bills

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    A decent athlete, but Sheppard will struggle making plays sideline to sideline.

    Liability in coverage. Much better at the line of scrimmage.

    Decent pass-rusher, but more average than anything.

    Slow to diagnose, needs to work on his first read step moving forward.

    Must work on the angles he takes to the ball. Oftentimes finds himself in poor position.

    Sheppard doesn't possess elite size or strength to allow him to move off the better blockers in the league.

    Has decent quickness but will get burned from time to time.

    Below-average strength, which impacts his ability to plug the gap in the middle.

    Liability as a tackler, especially for a middle linebacker. Must improve on this part of his game.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A young player with tons of room to grow, Kelvin Sheppard did well after a lockout-shortened offseason for Buffalo. His baseline skills all have room to improve over the 2012 season. 

35. Kevin Burnett, Miami Dolphins

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    Burnett is a decent athlete, but he won't blow you away in this department.

    Horrible in coverage. Susceptible to getting burned.

    Below-average ability to get after the quarterback. Not his strong suit.

    Good instincts that help him diagnose the play. Burnett has solid first step and pre-snap recognition.

    Good recognition skills and pursuit of the ball-carrier. Needs to get better in space, though.

    Struggles to get off blockers mainly due to below-average strength.

    Decent speed but has trouble getting to the corner.

    Below-average strength. Gets caught up on blocks and washed away from the ball.

    Needs to get lower on tackles and work on wrapping up.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Kevin Burnett is a solid player with the potential to get much better with work on fundamentals and strength.

34. Perry Riley, Washington Redskins

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    Riley is an average athlete that thrives when playing in limited space.

    Very bad in coverage. Will get burned when he drops into space.

    Below-average pass-rusher that gets caught up in the A-gap far too often.

    Must work on his first step. Oftentimes makes the wrong read.

    Riley has a hard time breaking through traffic and closing on the ball-carrier.

    Needs to work on getting his hands free when escaping blockers. Oftentimes gets locked up and pushed out of his lane.

    Decent speed, but nothing special. Struggles to meet the runner at the edge.

    Does not possess the strength you're looking for out of an inside linebacker.

    Putrid tackling skills for a guy that's supposed to patrol the middle of the field.

    Didn't miss time last season.

    Underwhelming player that doesn't play up to the talent he possesses. The two-year vet must improve his fundamentals and tackling.

33. Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans Saints

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    Fairly good athlete but doesn't possess elite agility.

    Slow to react to passing situations and is susceptible to getting burned.

    Horrible pass-rushing skills for such a big-name player.

    Very smart player that serves as the quarterback of his defense. Vilma's a leader.

    Takes poor angles for a player with his football IQ.

    Does not have elite size and will get locked up by bigger and better blockers.

    Decent quickness with good chasing ability.

    Below-average strength. Oftentimes will be a non-factor in the middle.

    Good instincts and fundamentals as a tackler. Needs to work on wrapping up in the open field.

    Missed five games in 2011.

    Jonathan Vilma's leadership abilities and raw playmaking really make up for a lack of some basic fundamentals. He is an overachiever at his position.

32. A.J. Hawk, Green Bay Packers

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    Average athlete that has a knack for making plays but is highly inconsistent.

    Slow to react to the ball in passing situations. Will get burned by a receiver going over the top in the middle.

    Good timing as a pass-rusher that stems from hard work ethic and veteran understanding of the game.

    Must develop a better first step and will sometimes step lateral. Hawk's knowledge of the game is far greater than his execution.

    Subpar run defender that will get pushed out of his lane or take bad angles, putting him out of position.

    Possesses poor fundamentals when trying to get off a block. Has good strength but doesn't use his hands well.

    Average speed going downhill, but it drops off in pass coverage.

    Plays strong as a downhill gap-filler. Will stick his nose in the gap and cause some havoc.

    Poor tackler. Doesn't wrap up or get low enough. Will oftentimes get run over because of an arm tackle.

    Missed two games in 2011.

    Hawk is a leader and a fan favorite because he can make plays. However, the former Buckeye great does have a tendency to be inconsistent and get burned.

31. Dan Connor, Dallas Cowboys

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    Average agility for an inside linebacker. Won't impress anyone with his lateral movement.

    Subpar coverage skills. Doesn't react well in pass situations and will get burned by quicker slot receivers or tight ends.

    Connor is a decent downhill player that can get into the backfield and occasionally get after the quarterback.

    Slow to diagnose plays and oftentimes can't get in good position.

    Does not have a major impact in the run game. Takes bad routes to the ball.

    Uses his hands well to break off his blocks, but must get better using his base during impact.

    Nothing special about his speed but can generally chase the ball effectively.

    Above-average strength. Susceptible to being pushed back by blockers.

    Poor tackler that struggles with wrapping up and pad level.

    Missed one game in 2011.

    Dan Connor is a serviceable linebacker that is more average than anything. Needs to work on tackling and his coverage in open space if he wants to have a sizable impact for the Cowboys defense.

30. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams

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    Not an elite athlete but is serviceable.

    Still needs to work on reading the quarterback's eyes in coverage, but overall he is solid.

    Laurinaitis struggles as a downhill pass-rusher. Must improve this part of his game.

    Fairly good reaction skills and football IQ.

    Must improve the angles he takes to the ball, as well as his first read step.

    Needs to work on getting his hands free. Has a tendency to get locked up inside his block.

    Decent speed but will struggle to keep up with the elite runners.

    Solid base and power allow him to plug his gap and not get pushed around.

    Above-average tackler. Elite skills wrapping up as well as getting a lower base when hitting the ball-carrier.

    Didn't miss any games last year.

    The young Rams 'backer is very good at what he does do well but needs to improve on other facets of his game. Overall, Laurinaitis is a young, exciting player with room and potential to grow.

29. James Farrior, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Displays average agility—nothing special, but gets the job done.

    Below average in pass coverage. Not the guy you want in open space.

    Does not play a factor as a pass-rusher.

    Excellent instincts that are near elite as far as pre-snap reads and getting his teammates lined up correctly.

    Below-average run defender that oftentimes takes bad routes to the ball.

    Good fundamentals when getting off blocks by Farrior. Uses his hands and lower body well.

    Below-average speed. Won't be winning any races anytime soon.

    Possesses good upper-body strength and a solid core.

    Decent tackler but doesn't have elite fundamentals in this area.

    Missed two games in 2011.

    Farrior is indisputably a leader and has an incredible football IQ that makes up for some of his deficiencies. Farrior battled injury in 2011 and is seeing his career near its end, as his recent release from the Steelers indicates.

28. David Hawthorne, New Orleans Saints

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    Hawthorne is a very good athlete with top-notch quickness and strength. Not quite elite here, but very good.

    Serviceable in pass coverage but can be slow to the ball in spots.

    Hawthorne is below average as a pass-rusher. Gets caught up in the middle.

    Needs to be more aggressive and work on his first-read step.

    Not a good run-defender. Takes poor angles in pursuit.

    Oftentimes gets caught in blocks. Must improve use of hands when getting off blockers.

    Above-average speed allows Hawthorne to move from his stance to the ball-carrier effectively.

    Good when he gets into his gap. Strong enough to hold his ground.

    Below-average tackler that must wrap up better and work on a lower base.

    Missed one game in 2011.

    He's a good athlete that has the raw abilities to make plays and be a positive contributor.

27. Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders

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    Very athletic player with good flexibility and speed.

    Horrible in pass coverage. Well below average when dropping back and can be a liability.

    Nothing special about McClain's pass rush. Doesn't make much of an impact on the edge or through the middle of the line.

    Must develop a better first step. Oftentimes will read himself into a bad position off the snap.

    Average run-defender that must get better closing on the ball.

    Has trouble getting off blocks and using his hands to create separation.

    Explosive runner that can really make a difference and beat a runner to the edge.

    Strong player that can make an impact at the line of scrimmage.

    More of a big-hit player. Needs to develop better fundamentals.

    Missed one game last season.

    The No. 8 overall pick a couple of years ago, Rolando McClain is a highlight-reel player that needs to work on his overall fundamentals if he wants to become anything more than that.

26. Pat Angerer, Indianapolis Colts

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    Angerer isn't overly athletic but can get the job done.

    Decent in coverage but is still slow to read and react at an NFL level.

    Struggles to get inside of guards in the A-gap. Needs to become more explosive as a rusher.

    Angerer sees the backfield very well and makes good pre- and post-snap reads.

    Below-average impact in the run game. Must improve his physicality and agility in this department.

    Struggles to keep his hands free in blocking situations.

    Average speed at best. Needs to work on his closing speed.

    Possesses good strength at the line of scrimmage. Can take on blockers and control his gap responsibilities.

    Well below-average tackler. Misses far too many for an ILB.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Pat Angerer is a young player with good intangibles that can improve, but the former second-round pick from Iowa must work on his fundamentals to do so.

25. E.J. Henderson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Average athleticism that has regressed for the 31-year-old.

    Major liability in pass coverage. Not good in space and will be burned by receivers and tight ends.

    Below average at rushing the passer, Henderson is not usually a factor.

    Good veteran understanding of the game. Needs a better first step though.

    Elite run-stopper with an explosive strength that will meet the runner at or behind the line of scrimmage.

    Uses his hands very nicely to disengage blockers.

    Above-average speed. Can track down the ball-carrier.

    Good, powerful inside linebacker that makes an impact at the line of scrimmage.

    Could be a better form tackler, but he gets the job done.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    E.J. Henderson is a good veteran player that still has a lot left to offer as an NFL linebacker.

24. Joe Mays, Denver Broncos

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    High-level athletic linebacker.

    Not a big factor in pass coverage. Big weakness in Mays' game.

    Below-average pass-rusher that has a hard time beating guards into the A-gap.

    Average reaction that stems from a lack of attention to his first step.

    Good run-defender that closes on the ball to make a big hit.

    Uses his hands well when shedding blockers but has room for improvement.

    Mays is a quick player but not necessarily fast. Can normally get to where he needs to be but will be beat by speedy runners.

    Good strength. Isn't a liability to get pushed around by blockers.

    A big-hit player that needs to work on wrapping up and form tackling.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    At 26, Mays is a young player with good athleticism. Could develop into more of a consistent presence but has to put in the work.

23. Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots

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    Decent athlete that won't be confused as a side-to-side player.

    Needs to get better in dropping back into his zone. Displays decent instincts though.

    Good pass-rusher with very good timing when blitzing his gap.

    Spikes has a natural instinct for flowing to the ball and is usually in good position.

    Can track down ball-carriers but could improve on his lateral movement.

    Uses his hands well to disengage but needs to learn how to set his feet.

    Needs to improve in this area if he wants to be among the league's best.

    Above-average strength for a linebacker. Holds his ground and can move blockers or runners backwards.

    Tackles a little bit too high, holding back his rating a bit, but he's got good form.

    Missed eight regular-season games last year.

    Young player with enormous upside and great football skills. The 24-year-old Pat can become elite in time and with the proper coaching.

22. Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers

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    Above-average athlete with good quickness and strength.

    Poor in coverage. Not an effective drop-back defender.

    High-level pass-rusher that can storm his gap and get into the backfield.

    Average reactions and play recognition. This will only improve for Butler in time.

    Good run-defender that can get to his lane and close in on the ball.

    This is a huge part of his game that needs to improve. Bigger, stronger and more veteran blockers can take him out of his game.

    Average speed and quickness. Can run down the ball but will get burned by quicker players.

    Above-average strength for a young player. Will continue to grow and get stronger.

    Weak fundamentals as a tackler. Another area Butler needs to improve on moving forward.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A third-round pick in 2010, Donald Butler is a great pass-rusher that will continue to learn and grow in the other facets of his game.

21. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia Eagles

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    At 247 pounds, Ryans is a very good athlete with above-average agility and quickness.

    Fairly good in coverage but needs to learn how to make quicker reads.

    Not a huge factor as a pass-rusher.

    Very good reactions and natural football instincts allow Ryans to put himself into positions to make a play on the ball.

    Good reaction and pursuit but needs to get better playing in space.

    Struggles at getting trapped and in getting his hands free.

    Great speed at inside linebacker. Can run down the ball-carrier with ease.

    Pretty good strength. Nothing elite, but he is able to hold his own.

    Good instincts as a tackler and good fundamentals. Ryans needs to work on breaking down his stance when meeting a runner head-on in the open field.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    A solid linebacker, the newest Philadelphia Eagle can be very effective stopping the run sideline to sideline.

20. Desmond Bishop, Green Bay Packers

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    Bishop is a good athlete with solid quickness and flexibility.

    Can be slow to transition into coverage. Doesn't offer much in terms of cover skills.

    Does a nice job attacking through the A-gap and making plays on the backfield.

    Bishop does a good job getting the defense set up, but he can be slow to react to play-action and misdirection.

    Strong enough to make tackles but can struggle to close gaps.

    Doesn't show great strength to take on and release from blockers at the second level.

    Shows the speed to extend and make plays outside the tackle box.

    Has good strength to take on backs in the hole and win battles.

    Won't let many runners get through his grasp.

    Sat out three games in 2011.

    An athletic inside linebacker with good range, Bishop has the skills to extend and reach the ball on outside plays. Where the five-year vet struggles is taking on blocks and breaking free to lock down the inside run.

19. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys

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    Lee has good natural quickness and strength with a solid athletic streak.

    Doesn't show the quick feet or hips to keep up with receivers and tight ends in space.

    Has the strength and burst to be a major impact rushing the passer through the middle and even off the edge on blitzes.

    A smart player who is rarely out of position but can be late to read and react. More experience will help.

    Tough to get around in the middle of the field, he shows good range to take on off-tackle runs.

    Uses his hands well to break free of blockers who do work through and take him on.

    Initial quickness is solid, but we won't see him running down any backs from behind.

    Has good strength throughout, showing the power to stand up blockers and lock down gaps.

    Shows good range but will often let runners slip through his arms. Needs to be better at locking up.

    Missed one game in 2011.

    Sean Lee is a great fit in a 3-4 defense, and given more experience, the Cowboys' Round 2 pick in 2010 has the tools to become very good. Lee's physical makeup and run-support skills make him one of the more impressive young run defenders in the NFL.

18. Bart Scott, New York Jets

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    Range and quickness aren't what they used to be for the 10-year vet, but he's more than athletic enough to hold his own.

    Runs hot and cold in coverage, showing good strength to stick tight ends coming over the middle but with feet too heavy to keep up in coverage.

    Has the strength to get through the line of scrimmage but lacks great closing speed.

    Scott does a great job recognizing the formation pre-snap and getting himself in position to make plays.

    A very strong run-defender who is strong enough to lock down the inside run. Can extend to the outside with good consistency.

    Strong enough to shed blocks and run free.

    Scott has good, not great, speed.

    Shows good strength to take on blockers and bang with runners inside the tackles.

    Will make good impact and puts himself in good position, but he misses far too many tackles.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Bart Scott has become more of a thumper in the Jets defense, taking on blockers and directing the defense while David Harris and others clean up the mess and make tackles. Scott's missed tackle numbers are a big part of his low score.

17. Colin McCarthy, Tennessee Titans

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    A deceptive athlete with great range and quickness off the snap.

    Has good ability to flip his hips and run in coverage.

    McCarthy has the burst to get the jump on interior linemen, showing a productive and successful pass rush.

    McCarthy got better throughout his rookie campaign but started out slow to read the line and was missing his keys.

    Struggled at times to reach the run outside the tackle box. Could be stronger presence in the middle of the field.

    Could stand to learn how to use his hands better to break free of fullbacks at the point of attack.

    McCarthy moves with good quickness and has the ability to accelerate and close on the ball in a hurry.

    A naturally powerful player with good enough strength to stand up blockers.

    Improved throughout the season with clean, efficient tackling. Good strength results in few missed tackles.

    Missed three games in 2011.

    A young stud on the Tennessee Titans defense, McCarthy had a great first year in 2011 out of The U. The future is bright in Nashville with Colin McCarthy, Jurrell Casey and Akeem Ayers in place.

16. David Harris, New York Jets

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    Harris may not be fast, but he has very good quickness and natural strength.

    One of the better inside linebackers at jamming tight ends and turning his hips to run in coverage.

    Isn't asked to rush the passer much, as he's much more valuable in coverage than closing on the quarterback.

    Shows good instincts and a good ability to anticipate where the ball is going.

    Harris has good natural strength to lock up inside runs, but his production and efficiency stopping the run isn't great.

    Has strong hands and upper body that let him toss blockers off if they don't get their hands inside his shoulders.

    Is a bit limited in his ability to reach the sideline.

    A strong 250-pound player with good upper- and lower-body strength. Definitely not an issue.

    Will miss a few tackles too many but has the strength and aggressive style of play to improve.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    David Harris is a solid run-stopper who is one of the more underrated coverage 'backers in the game. Harris looks like a big, strong, heavy linebacker, but he has very good speed and agility to make plays both in space and in coverage.

15. Curtis Lofton, New Orleans Saints

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    A quick player with fluid feet and hips, Lofton shows great range in space.

    Shows good ability to turn and run but can be weak in press coverage.

    Has a good feel for the pass rush and can use his speed to beat interior blockers on delayed blitzes.

    Smart player who gets into good position before the snap and has shown the ability to read and flow to the football.

    Does a good job taking out the run game, showing nice range and good ability to reach the edge.

    Doesn't have great strength to disengage from blockers.

    Has very good speed to keep up with tight ends or catch backs running on the edge.

    Doesn't have great strength to dominate players at the point of impact.

    Lofton won't let many runners get through his arms.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    Curtis Lofton is a very athletic, rangy inside linebacker who fits well in a 4-3 scheme, where he can be protected from blockers and free to run. Lofton takes very good angles to the ball off-tackle, but the new New Orleans Saint needs to get stronger and improve his ability to shed blockers.

14. Karlos Dansby, Miami Dolphins

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    The 250-pound Dansby is a good athlete with nice range, quick feet and nice balance when moving in space.

    A player with good quickness to get out from middle and keep up with targets.

    Can extend and get to the quarterback up the middle but needs to show stronger moves inside.

    Has quick instincts but can find himself out of position on run plays.

    Dansby does a good job getting to the edge and is quick enough to cut off the ball. Could work on his discipline a bit more.

    Uses his long arms to generate space between himself and blockers.

    Fast enough to get to the edge, Dansby has pursuit-style speed.

    Strong enough to take a hit on the move and stay on point.

    Will miss too many tackles both in run and pass situations.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Dansby has done well transitioning from a hybrid defense in Arizona to the 3-4 in Miami, and he'll get to make the move again as the Dolphins transition to a 4-3 in 2012. As a middle linebacker, Dansby has very good range and athleticism, showing solid skills in coverage but weak tackling skill.

13. Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals

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    A super fluid athlete who has quick feet, loose hips and excellent speed.

    Has the speed to be a factor in coverage. Shows the quickness to keep up with most players he covers.

    Washington isn't used much in pass-rushing situations, but he's athletic enough to be a threat.

    Instincts and recognition skills could improve, but at 25 has room to grow.

    Shows great range but doesn't have the strength to shut down the run between the tackles.

    Lacks the strength to beat blockers when locked up. Does a better job beating blockers to the ball.

    Has rare speed for the inside linebacker position. Can get to the edge and keep up with receivers, backs and tight ends without missing a step.

    Has improved his strength but could still add a little bulk to his 230-pound frame.

    Lets runners bounce off him too often, but improved strength and technique (head up, arms wide) should come this offseason.

    Sat out one game in 2011.

    One of the brightest young linebackers in the NFL, Daryl Washington's speed and athleticism separate him from most ILBs in the league today. A second-round pick out of TCU in 2010, if Washington continues to improve at his current rate, he'll be a top-five player very soon.

12. London Fletcher, Washington Redskins

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    Fletcher's age has caught up to him, as he shows noticeably more stiffness and less speed towards the tail end of his career.

    Has very good instincts but lacks the range to make plays in coverage.

    Rarely gets to the quarterback on a pass rush; Fletcher isn't asked to rush very often.

    One of the smartest, best-prepared players in the NFL. He's rarely out of position.

    Tough and instinctive in the run game, Fletcher is nearly impossible to run away from.

    Uses his hands to break free, does a great job turning his shoulders to keep an arm free.

    Lacks elite speed for the position.

    Has great natural strength combined with a very good understanding of how to use his body.

    Fletcher missed a surprising number of tackles in 2011—14 total according to ProFootballFocus.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    London Fletcher is on the last leg of a very good career, and at this point the free agent's value comes from experience, leadership and production. Few players are better at preparing each week for the opponent. Fletcher remains a solid run-stopper who defies odds with his smaller-than-ideal stature.

11. Takeo Spikes, San Diego Chargers

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    Never fleet of foot, the 35-year-old's agility has taken a downturn in recent years.

    Limited quickness and agility keep Spikes from being a factor in coverage.

    Has the strength to get through blockers but isn't quick enough to press the pocket.

    An instinctive, smart middle linebacker who brings incredible leadership and vision to the defense.

    Is no longer the lockdown run-defender he used to be due to limited range and quickness.

    Still strong enough to shed blocks but can be susceptible to being blocked on the move.

    Limited speed to react to plays outside the tackle box.

    Has great strength, including good bulk and power in his upper body.

    When Spikes can make an impact, he rarely misses tackles. Has a strong, fundamentally sound form.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Takeo Spikes is quickly nearing the end of his career, with maybe one more good year left in the tank. His 2011 was successful, as Spikes moved to San Diego and appeared as a "TED" linebacker, where he was asked to stop the run and take on blockers. Spikes' role in 2012 will be to provide leadership and experience on the Chargers defense.

10. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Timmons has ideal quickness and flexibility but lacks some body control and balance that would score him higher.

    Wasn't much of a factor in coverage in 2011, struggling to turn and run on time. Was out of position often.

    Has very good skills as a pass-rusher. Can blast the inside gaps or loop around the edge.

    Stepped up in 2011 for the limited James Farrior. Timmons is showing nice recognition skills when looking at the offense pre-snap.

    Has nice range but was too often getting washed down at the point of attack.

    Has the upper-body strength to get through blocks but could do a better job keeping his outside arm free to turn runners back inside.

    Upper-level speed and burst are a strong point. There aren't many parts of the field he can't reach.

    Is powerful enough to make plays through traffic, showing nice total-body strength.

    Shows good ability in run and pass defense, using a tight grip when wrapping up ball carriers.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Timmons' production went down some in 2011 as the team around him suffered injuries, but the Steelers' first-round pick in '07 remains one of the best in the game (and turning just 26 in May). Timmons brings good size, strength and a solid run-stopping ability. What often gets lost on onlookers is that he's also capable as a blitzer and in coverage. One of the most well-rounded inside linebackers in the game.

9. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions

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    Doesn't possess great agility but has nice footwork and clean technique.

    Does a good job jamming ends and backs, combined with good ability to turn and run with targets.

    Tulloch has limited ability to shoot the gaps and bring down the quarterback.

    Is excellent at sniffing out the ball and picking up on tells before the snap.

    Does a good job not only making tackles in the run game, but also closing down his assignment and forcing the run inside for his Lions teammates.

    Tulloch shows good hand strength and speed, but he also runs out of a lot of blocks. Is a hard 'backer to keep a hold of.

    Has good enough speed to lock down the field between the tackles.

    Has very good overall strength with big, solid legs and arms.

    A powerful, violent hitter, but Tulloch lets too many tackles go in the open field.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    Stephen Tulloch is a perfect fit at inside linebacker in Detroit's 4-3 scheme. The six-year vet from NC State is a big, aggressive hitter who puts the fear of God into tight ends, backs and wide receivers who decide to cross the middle. More sure-handed tackling would lead to a higher overall score.

8. D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns

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    Shows good open-field range and the quickness to attack in space.

    Has nice lateral movements to slide and mirror in coverage, but lacks the ability to turn and run with his man.

    Can pull the trigger and fire through gaps, showing a solid ability to close on the football.

    Jackson sees the ball very well and did better in the 4-3 at reading and reacting.

    Charting Jackson's run defense was incredibly impressive. He showed toughness in the middle, fighting off blocks, and was a sure tackler in the middle of the field. Did a great job playing off his defensive tackles.

    Can be limited in his hand use but showed good strength to keep his legs churning and eventually using his leverage to get out of blocks.

    Jackson has enough speed to reach the edge and can be a factor in pursuit.

    Has good natural strength and is not limited in what he can or cannot do.

    Let a few tackles go, which drops his efficiency score.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    D'Qwell Jackson's game took a big upward turn in 2011 as the Browns moved to a 4-3 defensive scheme. The 240-pounder is tailor-made for the position, showing the instincts, burst and strength to be a lockdown MLB.

7. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears

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    When healthy, Urlacher still shows elite athletic ability for the position. He's fast, fluid and strong.

    Has the skills to turn and run with tight ends. Does a great job getting depth in zone coverage.

    Isn't utilized as often in a pass-rush situation but has the strength and quickness to get to the quarterback.

    There are few better. Urlacher has been known to call out the offense's play pre-snap. His preparation and instincts are top-notch.

    A noticeable regression can be seen in the run game, as Urlacher is making fewer tackles outside the box.

    Has good strength to disengage but will get tied up when running angles.

    A few years ago, Urlacher would have been in the 9-to-10 range, but his speed has taken a hit after injuries and age have set in.

    Incredibly strong at the point of attack, has high-level strength.

    In anticipation of complaints about this score, we charted Urlacher's tackles. I counted 10 missed tackles last season, giving him a fairly high miss rate.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    While the eight-time Pro Bowler continues to be one of the better inside linebackers in the game, Urlacher's not quite playing up to his reputation as an elite middle linebacker these days. Missed tackles and a natural regression of his skill set have led to a sizable drop down the rankings for the Bears great.

6. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Shows good lateral agility with nice quickness and acceleration.

    So much better than we expected. Posluszny does a great job redirecting receivers and tight ends, but he's also physical enough to put a body on them over the middle and limit receptions.

    Able to fire off the line and get to the backfield in a hurry. Once there, he knows how to seal the deal.

    There is some room for improvement here, especially on play-action.

    Has a big body to jump in and take on blockers, but Posluszny needs to do a better job getting to the edge to make plays.

    Has the strength to bang with blockers and disengage to make the tackle.

    Can be limited in his efforts to play sideline to sideline.

    Shows very good strength in his tackles and when pressing tight ends off the line.

    A wrap-up, form tackler who rarely misses the takedown.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Another product out of Linebacker U in Penn State, serious improvement was noticed throughout the year as Paul Posluszny settled into his gig with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Following the Week 9 bye, Poz was one of the best inside 'backers in the game, showing great coverage skills and missing just three tackles in the eight games tracked.

5. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

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    One of the best athletes at the position, Johnson has quick feet and great body control on the move.

    Has the athletic ability to contribute in coverage, but too often he lets his man get behind him.

    A natural pass-rusher who does a good job squeezing down on the ball coming through the middle or off the edge.

    Has nice instincts and is quick enough in recognition to line up in multiple locations without getting lost or confused.

    The 29-year-old took a gigantic step forward in 2011, getting selected to his first Pro Bowl. Johnson became an elite run-defender with his excellent range and good tackle skills.

    Has a natural rip move that lets him keep moving with at least one arm free.

    Can close on the ball in a hurry, moves very well for the linebacker position.

    Is strong enough to take on blockers when moving but can get pushed off the ball in head-up situations.

    Can struggle to tackle from behind in pursuit. When coming at the ball head-on, or even at an angle, he's lockdown.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    It's hard to not be overwhelmed with Derrick Johnson's athletic ability. The Chief is incredibly fluid in space, moving effortlessly to attack the ball on the edge and in coverage. Few linebackers in the NFL rate better at attacking the run on the edge.

4. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

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    An athletic specimen with good balance, footwork and flexibility. Cushing can do it all.

    Has the range of motion to run with receivers or bang with tight ends over the middle.

    The delayed blitz was created for guys like Brian Cushing. Has great timing and brings an unstoppable combination of speed and strength on his blitzes.

    Improved his recognition skills when the Texans moved to a 3-4 defense, as it better opened up his line of sight to read the guards and running backs.

    Shows great range to make plays outside the hashes but could be a stronger presence on inside runs.

    Big enough and strong enough to bounce off blockers. Does a good job ripping through hands.

    A blur in the open field, Cushing shows great range and excellent acceleration.

    Has always had amazing weight-room strength, which is starting to translate more to the field. Could stand to play with better leverage.

    Was letting tackles slip at times in 2011 but has the strength to improve here with better technique.

    Didn't miss any games in 2011.

    Cushing rebounded from a poor 2010 with a monstrous campaign last year, emerging as a leader on the Houston defense and a lockdown inside linebacker. His speed makes everything a possibility—be it coverage, rushing the passer or getting outside to take on the run.

3. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

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    Shows the flexibility and speed to be a factor athletically. Lewis' agility hasn't dropped off much with age.

    Does a good job locking up tight ends going over the middle. Gets very good depth in his drops.

    Struggles to get guards turned to effectively blitz through the A-gap. The Ravens prefer to use him in coverage.

    Lewis has legendary ability to read the offense. He is an instinctive player who is quick to locate the level of the ball and takes good angles to get there.

    An explosive run-stopper with good strength and instincts, Lewis can shut down the run inside the hashes and still shows the ability to stretch to the flats.

    He does a good job of using his hands to keep blockers off him and keeps working his way to the play.

    Has enough speed to close on the ball in space. An explosive runner.

    Strong enough to hold his ground against the run, Lewis can contain the best backs in the game with strong arms.

    Is an explosive tackler who shows great snap and wrap on contact but had a handful of missed tackles in 2011.

    Lewis missed four games last year.

    What more can you say about Ray Lewis? He's a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker who has etched his name in NFL history books. Basing our scouting reports on 2011 alone, Lewis comes in just shy of the No. 1 spot. Historically, there are few—if any—better than Lewis.

2. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers

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    Bowman has excellent change-of-direction skills and the top-level speed to give chase all over the field.

    Does a nice job getting initial depth and plays well with the ball in front of him. Can struggle to turn and run.

    The 49ers love to pull the trigger on inside-linebacker blitzes, and Bowman has the quickness to slide through the A-gap and beat down the quarterback.

    Showed exceptional skills for a young player starting for his first full season.

    Able to lock down the run from sideline to sideline, showing exceptional range and good ability to shed blocks on the move.

    Strong and slippery at the point of attack. Bowman doesn't always overpower blockers but is rarely tied up for long.

    Has elite speed and acceleration to the ball. Can run down backs and receivers from behind and close off the edge.

    Very good functional strength to take on blockers and stand up ball-carriers.

    The only real glaring weakness from Bowman's 2011 film—he must become a better form tackler. Too often he was going high and missing.

    Didn't miss any time in 2011.

    One of the surprise stars last year, NaVorro Bowman's first year as a starter in San Francisco was a memorable one. Another former Nittany Lion, he is quickly becoming one of the best all-around linebackers in the NFL. The scary part is that Bowman is turning just 24 years old on May 28 and is just starting to realize his potential.

1. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers

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    Throw out positions—Willis is one of the most athletic players in the NFL. Period.

    Has the speed and agility to keep up with his man over the middle and up the seam. Throwing Willis off track in coverage doesn't happen.

    Shows good success in attacking the quarterback through the guard-center gap on delayed blitzes. His burst and aggressive tackling style are a huge asset here in the pass rush.

    Sees the field well, reading the offensive line to determine where the ball is going and making the right calls to get the Niners defense in position.

    Saw his run defense drop off a bit last season, but some of this was due to teams targeting him and letting NaVorro Bowman run free early in the year. By the playoffs, Willis was once back to form.

    Has textbook form when taking on and discarding blockers, using his arms and hands to create space and then exploding through the blocker.

    Willis moves like a running back in space—which is why he's so successful stopping them behind the line of scrimmage.

    As strong as any linebacker in the NFL, Willis is impossible to block and strong enough to bring down the best backs.

    A violent, aggressive tackler who rarely misses tackles. Willis has a rare combination of ability here.

    Willis sat out three games in 2011.

    The best of the best, Patrick Willis is among the best overall players in the NFL today. Whether you look at him as an athlete, his intangibles or his statistics, few can hold up to what Willis did in the 2011 regular season and playoffs. As captain of the most dominant defense in the NFL, the five-time Pro Bowler out of Ole Miss is deserving of the high praise and grade he receives here.

Honorable Mentions

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    A list of those players close to making the final grade, but not quite close enough to be in the Top 40 inside linebackers in the NFL.

    Jacquian Williams, New York Giants

    Overall: 51

    Chase Blackburn, New York Giants

    Overall: 50

    Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos

    Overall: 48

    JoLonn Dunbar, St. Louis Rams

    Overall: 47

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