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B/R NFL 1000 2013: Top 60 Inside Linebackers

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2017

B/R NFL 1000 2013: Top 60 Inside Linebackers

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    If you ask 10 people who the best inside linebacker in football is, there’s a good chance that most of them will agree. But who is No. 2? How about No. 10? No. 20?

    The inside linebacker position has seen solid young players come into the league. With more teams running a 3-4 defense, more attention is being placed on the men in the middle like Patrick Willis, Daryl Washington, Lawrence Timmons.

    This is an age of excellent middle linebacker play.

    As with all the positions in this year's position-by-position rankings, we are scoring criteria at different weights but always adding up to a maximum of 100. Players can receive up to 30 points for run defense, 10 for pass rush, 20 for pass coverage and 40 for tackling.

    Our scouting team reviewed film from the 2012 season of more than 65 linebackers to come up with the top 60. The rankings are based on the linebackers’ 2012 performance, with no credit received for career achievements or potential.

    Players who played fewer than 150 snaps at middle linebacker didn't qualify for the rankings. Among them: Desmond Bishop of the Green Bay Packers.

    In the case of a tie, we broke it based on which linebacker we'd rather have on our team right now.

     

    All stats from Pro Football Focus.

60-56. Blackburn, Siler, Sharpton, Ruud, Maualuga

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    Run Defense: 15/30; Pass Rush: 6/10; Coverage: 6/20; Tackle: 26/40

    Blackburn is a solid athlete who can get to the quarterback on occasion and create some big plays. He has good size and strength, but he doesn’t always use it to his advantage and will get pushed around. He isn’t as consistent of a tackler as you would like to see for a middle linebacker, and he will too often not make a play when he is in position. Although he doesn’t have great speed, he is a capable pass defender on the short-to-intermediate routes.

    Run Defense: 11/30; Pass Rush: 5/10; Coverage: 13/20; Tackle: 25/40

    Siler was coming off a torn Achilles that kept him out of the entire 2011 season, and he didn’t see much action until the end of the year. He has a quick first step, though he doesn’t have the overall speed to be effective in space. He's an inconsistent tackler who misses too many tackles by using poor form and not wrapping up. But he is able to use his hands to shed blocks and fill gaps. 

    Run Defense: 11/30; Pass Rush: 7/10; Coverage: 11/20; Tackle: 25/40

    Sharpton has great athleticism and is a solid tackler who doesn’t let ball-carriers out of his grasp. He is undersized and lacks the strength to go toe-to-toe with offensive linemen. Although he lacks the deep speed to keep up with tight ends running down the seam, he is able to stay close underneath and not allow very many yards after the catch.

    Run Defense: 10/30; Pass Rush: 4/10; Coverage: 15/20; Tackle: 25/40

    Ruud is a between-the-tackles linebacker who lacks the athletic ability to make plays outside of the box. He relies on his ability to read a play and be in the right spot, but he isn’t a consistent enough tackler to be anything more than a spot starter or backup in the league. He is horrible in coverage due to his lack of agility and isn’t able to put any pressure on the quarterback when blitzing.

    Run Defense: 15/30; Pass Rush: 5/10; Coverage: 10/20; Tackle: 25/40

    Maualuga has the strength to hold his ground against the run, but he isn’t able to consistently get off blocks and make plays. He lacks the ability to make plays outside of the box and is a liability in coverage. He isn’t asked to rush the quarterback very often, but he isn’t able to produce any big plays when he does. Maualuga struggles diagnosing plays and is slow to react.

55-51. Gaither, Sims, Albright, Ayanbadejo, Bynes

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    Run Defense: 8/30; Pass Rush: 5/10; Coverage: 12/20; Tackle: 31/40

    After a fairly good start to his career, Gaither has seen his production decline over the past four seasons. This past season was his worst to date, finishing with a career low in tackles. He doesn’t do anything exceptionally well but can be a spot starter in a jam. A solid tackler, he struggles shedding blocks and making plays behind or at the line of scrimmage.  

    Run Defense: 15/30; Pass Rush: 6/10; Coverage: 10/20; Tackle: 25/40

    An extremely undersized linebacker, Sims has to rely on his outstanding speed and athleticism to make plays. He gets pushed around and isn’t able to get off blocks once he is engaged. Someone with his athleticism should be much more effective covering backs out of the backfield, but he is awful in coverage. He also doesn’t show great form in wrapping up the ball-carrier, which leads to too many missed tackles.

    Run Defense: 15/30; Pass Rush: 4/10; Coverage: 11/20; Tackle: 29/40

    Albright has great size but lacks the quickness and awareness to be effective as an every-down linebacker. He got to see the field a lot more toward the end of the 2012 season, including one start, but he didn’t take advantage of his opportunity. In the final three games of the season, he saw action on 124 plays and only came away with seven tackles. He is much more effective on special teams, where he can make plays in the open field and isn’t asked to take on big and physical offensive linemen.  

    Run Defense: 14/30; Pass Rush: 5/10; Coverage: 10/20; Tackle: 30/40

    Ayanbadejo is a capable backup linebacker who makes his living on special teams. He doesn’t have the instincts or strength to to be effective against a power-running team, but he has the quickness to get to the outside and make plays. He is used mostly in coverage and is ineffective as a pass-rusher.

    Run Defense: 14/30; Pass Rush: 4/10; Coverage: 11/20; Tackle: 30/40

    A very active and athletic linebacker, Bynes has the speed to run plays down from the opposite side of the field. He has good size, but he lacks the strength and awareness to be anything more than a spot starter at this stage of his career. He isn’t able to shed blocks or make consistent plays between the tackles and will be out of position on too many plays. Bynes has potential and showed some flashes this past year of being able to take that next step, but he will need to bulk up a little and polish up his technique if he wants to get there.

50. Moise Fokou, Tennessee Titans

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    An outside linebacker at Maryland, Moise Fokou played well in his first full season as an inside linebacker. Making the move from outside in a 4-3 to inside in a 3-4 isn’t easy, but the former Terrapin did it well. Fokou is an attacking player, and that can be a bad thing against the run. He’ll struggle with over-pursuit and missed keys, but he has the quickness and strength to take on runners head up.

    With good size and initial speed out of his stance, Fokou has the physical skills to be a good pass-rusher, but his technique is lacking. A good inside pass-rusher must be able to use their hands to keep blockers away from their bodies, and he currently doesn’t show that skill. It can be learned, but Fokou wasn’t a productive rusher in 2012.

    His experience at outside linebacker came in handy when Fokou was asked to make plays in coverage. He’s quick in space and showed the short-area quickness to collapse on the ball in-flight. He was taken advantage of at times when quarterbacks caught him peeking into the backfield or got him to turn his hips in coverage.

    Missed tackles weren’t a consistent problem for Fokou, but he didn’t flash on film as a productive tackler either. Fokou makes good impact when in position to take on runners. He will need to learn to play lower and faster to better attack ball-carriers.

    A rotational linebacker in a loaded Colts’ depth chart at the end of 2012, Fokou has talent and versatility to make an impact as a 3-4 inside linebacker and third-down presence.

49. Tim Dobbins, Houston Texans

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    Tim Dobbins came onto the scene to fill in for Brian Cushing, but he saw his own season end with injury. He isn’t an elite athlete, and with his limited quickness comes limited range. He will fight to take on the run between the tackles but can’t get out to the hashes to make stops on a consistent basis. Dobbins is fast enough to track the ball and make plays, but he can’t fight through traffic to take on the outside.

    Despite having good quickness and athletic ability, Dobbins doesn’t get through the line to pressure the pocket. He won’t beat blockers to the quarterback or play with the strength needed to shed blockers on the line.

    A smooth athlete, Dobbins has the quickness to turn and run with tight ends and backs. He can be timid at times when asked to read the play and close on routes.

    Dobbins didn’t blow us away with his tackling skills, but he didn’t cost the team games with missed tackles. He’ll close on runners with good quickness, but can get bulldozed by backs coming at him unimpeded. 

    Dobbins may be best remembered for an illegal hit on Jay Cutler. But looking at his entire season, he did well filling in for Cushing and has earned a chance to be a No. 3 inside linebacker once healthy.

48. Bradie James, Houston Texans

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    Called on to be the Texans’ No. 2 linebacker next to Brian Cushing, Bradie James started 18 games for the team in 2012 but struggled to regain his former stock. Against the run, James struggled to free himself from blockers and get to the edge. In the 3-4 defense, he did a good job stepping up to take on blockers and free the other inside players to make tackles, but he failed to make plays on his own. To only have 61 tackles in 770 snaps shows that James wasn’t the impact the team needed against the run.

    A limited athlete, James isn’t a pass-rushing factor through A-gaps or on delayed blitzes. He rarely did more than help put pressure on the pocket, and he recorded no sacks on the season.

    In coverage, James is still a quality player. He does a good job getting depth and reading the play in front of him. He can be stiff at times and will look heavy-footed against skill players, but he does a good job directing traffic and coordinating linebacker coverage.

    James didn’t make many tackles, and you had to focus on his plays when watching film. To end the season, there were too many missed tackles, including two big ones in the playoffs. But when looking at his entire season, he did well to bring down ball-carriers without allowing them to get free for yards.

    A veteran player best at home in the 3-4 defense, James saw his ability and production drop off in 2012. 

47. Joe Mays, Denver Broncos

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    A superb athlete at the position, Joe Mays has potential to develop into a quality inside linebacker, but he’s not there yet. His speed to the corner is good, but his average reaction time hinders his ability to cut off the edge and take away outside runs. Mays uses his hands well to shed blockers, but he’ll get pushed back off his stance when hit head up. The quickness and agility to be a good pursuing linebacker are here, but Mays' awareness and recognition have to improve.

    Rarely asked to shoot the gaps in the Denver scheme, Mays has the quickness to force the pocket when asked to go after the quarterback. But he lacks solid pass-rushing moves and hand use to be a factor.

    With good quickness, we expected more from Mays. He was improving before injury, but looking at the season on a whole, we didn’t see the quickness in space or read-and-react skills.

    A smaller linebacker, especially in the middle, Mays does a good job getting into position to make tackles but will struggle to secure ball-carriers. Too often the runner bounces off his initial hit and continues to pick up yardage. He has to be more efficient to make tackles on first impact.

    A season-ending knee injury hit Mays at the end of October, ending a season that was showing promise early on. He’s penciled in as the team’s starter for 2013.

46. Kelvin Sheppard, Buffalo Bills

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    A decent athlete, Kelvin Sheppard struggled when asked to make plays outside the tackles. He didn’t show the quickness needed to react to the outside run and cut off runners at the edge. He can be slow to make his reads in the run game, as misdirection kept him stuck in the mud. He struggled to work angles and get to the ball cleanly, too often allowing big yardage by making his play five to 10 yards down the field. His slow reaction time and average quickness adds up to a linebacker who can’t make plays in front of him.

    Sheppard isn’t a top-level pass-rusher, but he has decent quickness and strength to get through the line and make a play on the quarterback. 

    Sheppard showed nice improvement in his coverage ability in 2012, playing with more balance and lighter feet on underneath routes. 

    Sheppard struggled to get into position to make the plays he should, but the result was positive when he was in position. He has the strength to bring down runners in space and doesn’t lose contact with the player once impacted.

    Sheppard took a step back in 2012, thanks in large part to poor run defense. His struggles to get to the ball were an issue all season and could be the reason he’s replaced in the offseason.

45. Tim Shaw, Tennessee Titans

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    A versatile linebacker, Tim Shaw started the season as a reserve outside linebacker but moved inside due to injuries at the position. He didn’t let the team down, stepping in as a solid run defender. Shaw didn’t show great range to go attack the ball, but he held his own when the ball came his way. 

    Despite his experience on the outside, Shaw doesn’t show up as a pass-rusher. He has the speed to beat blockers through the hole, but he has no followup or secondary pass-rushing move to win when engaged.

    Shaw moves well when getting initial depth off the snap, showing quick feet and fluid hips. He’ll react well to the pass, but he doesn’t have the anticipation or diagnosing skills to break on the ball before it gets to the receiver.

    A quality tackler, especially when the play came his way, Shaw locked down runners and receivers and limited yardage. He didn’t make a ton of tackles on a talented Titans defense, but Shaw made his mark by taking on blockers and limiting big plays.

    Shaw stepped into action once Colin McCarthy was injured and showed the skill set to be a quality No. 2 inside linebacker. He’s not McCarthy’s equal, but he’s a dependable inside presence.

44. Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens

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    With limited range in the middle of the Ravens’ hybrid defense, Jameel McClain struggled to make plays on runs away from his starting point. 

    A quality pass-rusher through A-gaps, McClain has the strength to overpower blockers (especially backs) and get to the quarterback. He’s versatile enough to be used as a blitzer off the snap or on delayed pressures, and he can be an inside or outside rusher.

    McClain doesn’t play with quick feet and balance at all times, which affects his coverage skills. He does show good awareness and can read the quarterback, but he hesitates and allows players to get positioning on him. McClain has to learn to use his body to knock receivers off their routes.

    A solid tackler, McClain is strong enough to make contact and bring down runners. He’ll get shook in space due to heavy feet and limited quickness, but he’s solid and strong in the box. You won’t see many missed tackles when he is in position.

    McClain heads into the offseason with pressure to perform in a linebacking corps decimated by free agency and retirement. Barring additions in the draft, McClain will start at inside linebacker in 2013.

43. Akeem Dent, Atlanta Falcons

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    A limited athlete without the speed to run and make plays, Akeem Dent doesn’t jump off the screen when scouting the Falcons. He is tough and can get dirty in the trenches to make plays, but he doesn’t show the speed to get outside the tackle box and make plays. Despite good bulk, Dent doesn’t show the strength to hold up in the box. Locating the ball and getting into position is Dent’s biggest weakness.

    The Falcons don’t send Dent up the middle to get after the quarterback. With limited speed and agility, he doesn’t flash the skill set needed to get to the passer consistently or effectively.

    With limited athletic ability and stiff hips, Dent isn’t a factor in coverage if matched up in man coverage. In zone drops, he is solid at taking his steps and then changing direction to go after the pass. Better recognition skills to read-and-react would speed up his game.

    A sound tackler who shows solid range to chase and pursue the ball, Dent struggles to get low and take on runners in the box. He’ll let receivers shake him in space, but he does a good job delivering powerful hits when in position.

    A young linebacker with the tough, physical mentality needed to hang in the middle, Dent is overshadowed by the team’s talented and athletic outside linebacker. He needs to develop quicker recognition skills and find better range.

42. Bart Scott, New York Jets

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    A big, thick linebacker who can lock down the middle of the field, Bart Scott has become more of a two-down, inside-gap linebacker. His range and ability to get outside the tackle box has regressed. He’s not quite the impact he used to be when putting his pads on a runner, but Scott flows well within the confines of the A- and B-gaps. Anything outside of that, and he’s limited.

    Scott has always been a good pass-rusher up the middle, and that’s a trait he still carries as he ages. His first-step quickness is good, and he has natural moves to free himself from blockers and get into the backfield. Scott can put quarterbacks down as well as flush the pocket to create havoc.

    He's a decent cover man, especially when asked to sit in the middle of the field and simply bump and shove receivers coming over the middle. Scott will get caught with heavy feet if asked to turn and run or get outside the tackle box in coverage. 

    Missed tackles showed up far too often when viewing Scott’s 2012 film. He failed to make and maintain contact on simple plays. Runners were able to shake him and cause a miss as well as simply run over him when hit head up.

    Scott was hardly the impact in 2012 that he was in 2011. But in the right scheme with the right talent around him, he could be solid. 

41. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions

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    At under 6’0”, Stephen Tulloch is a tough linebacker in the middle of the defense. He doesn’t possess great agility or footwork, but he shows the technique and change-of-direction skills to take away inside runs. His vision and awareness allow him to get into position to make plays, but he's marginalized when blockers get through the offensive line. For the second straight season, we noted too many missed tackles against the run.

    A limited pass-rusher, Tulloch doesn’t show the skills or speed to shoot gaps and bring down passers. He won’t add pressures or hits in the backfield.

    As a dropback linebacker in the middle of the defense, Tulloch does a good job getting depth and breaking on passes. The 2012 season was his best at getting between the ball and the receiver. Tulloch wasn’t often relied on in coverage in past seasons, but the Lions let him roam more on passing downs.

    Missed tackles kept Tulloch from being a bigger impact as a run defender, and he showed up as a liability for the team’s defense. He totaled 19 misses on the year and otherwise struggled to bring down power backs and runners who hit him head up. 

    Tulloch saw a dropoff in 2012 unlike any other player at the position. His powerful, violent hitting from 2011 and excellent run defense weren’t visible on film.

40. Larry Foote, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    A 16-game starter in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense, Larry Foote was once again solid in his 11th season. What he lacks in size and strength, Foote makes up for with good quickness and an ability to read-and-react on the go. He’ll track the ball well and reads his keys to find the ball and get there in a hurry. Blockers or big backs have always given him trouble, and he struggled to get free from blockers or make plays in traffic last season.

    A productive pass-rusher when looking at the stat sheet, Foote doesn’t have great quickness to close on the quarterback. He does flush the pocket well and finds himself in position to clean up the play when others get the passer moving. Foote makes more plays as a pass-rusher based on positioning than ability.

    A smooth mover in space, Foote gets depth and finds the ball well. His range isn’t what it used to be, but coming out of a zone coverage, he can break well on the ball and move to separate the receiver from the pass.

    Foote won’t wow you with big hits or highlight-reel plays, but he hits low and hard. The veteran linebacker will struggle at times with shorter running backs who can manage to get lower than him in the hole, but it’s rare that runners beat him for positive yardage after he makes his first hit.

    Foote has survived in the NFL as a smart, instinctive linebacker in the 3-4 defense. He’ll come up to make plays and is solid in coverage.

39. Pat Angerer, Indianapolis Colts

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    Limited to a rotational role early in 2012, Pat Angerer took back a starting job to end the 2012 season. The Colts got in return a powerful two-down inside linebacker. His strength is not as a block-shedding defender; he’s at his best reading the ball behind a wall of defenders who are holding on to blockers. He doesn’t show the strength to shed blocks consistently. Coupled with his lack of great quickness, his limitations in coming off blocks kept Angerer from making plays against the run, especially outside the hashes. He was consistently playing a step behind the offense on rushing downs.

    You won’t see big plays in the pass rush from Angerer. With limited speed and burst, he’s not athletic enough to effectively get through inside gaps and attack the quarterback.

    Angerer was strong when asked to drop back into coverage in 2012, showing awareness and instincts that made him a surprise player in 2011. His quickness isn’t great, but his feel for the play and ability to plant and drive on routes underneath his zone did impress.

    Getting to the ball was a chore for Angerer at times in 2012, but when he was in place to make a stop, he did so with good consistency. Missed tackles weren’t a problem for No. 51.

    Angerer took a step back in 2012 as he struggled to find his fit in the team’s 3-4 defense. An ideal 4-3 inside linebacker, he’ll be fighting for a starting job in 2013.

38. Kavell Conner, Indianapolis Colts

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    A thickly built, stout inside linebacker, Kavell Conner has the strength to be an effective No. 2 linebacker in the middle of a 3-4 scheme. He does a good job using his hands to generate space when facing blockers, but he can struggle to shed those blockers to make tackles. Conner’s range between the tackles is good, but his angles to the ball outside the tackles can be weak and long. He has to learn to run with more direct, concise angles to the football. Conner is fast, but he has to be more aggressive.

    The Colts don’t ask their inside linebackers to rush the quarterback often, but Conner did not show the ability to get to the passer despite being an incredible athlete with elite speed. 

    A former college outside linebacker, Conner has the athletic ability and speed to get depth in coverage and attack the ball. He’s fast enough to drop back into coverage, plant and then run to contest passes. Experience to better recognize passes will move his ranking up.

    Our team noted Conner making tackles consistently as he split snaps with Pat Angerer, but we also noted missed tackles at a high rate. He has to play with more strength to make sure his first contact brings down the runner.

    An intriguing athlete at inside linebacker, Conner’s overall speed and experience as an outside linebacker make him a prospect worth watching in the middle of the Colts defense.

37. Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts

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    Placed in the middle of a 3-4 defense, Jerrell Freeman is undersized. He moves well for an inside linebacker, showing nice quickness and range to get outside the tackle box and make plays. His lack of size and strength makes him a liability when facing blockers, especially pulling guards. Seeing an offensive player come between him and the ball means Freeman isn’t making the play.

    Freeman has the quickness to get into the backfield. But when asked to shoot inside gaps and make plays, he lacks the strength to beat blockers through pass-rushing lanes. 

    Freeman moves like a safety in coverage, showing the quick feet and fluid, athletic movements needed to attack the ball in-flight. His skills in zone coverage allow him to flow to the ball and make a play on passes. Freeman has the hands to become a ball hawk at linebacker.

    With average strength and below-average size, Freeman would struggle when stepping into a hole to meet a running back. His reach and range were limited as a tackler, due mostly to short arms, but he closes on the football with speed and power. Take away a few poor games, and Freeman was a consistent, efficient tackler both against the run and when trailing receivers.

    When the Colts signed Freeman as a free agent, little was expected. But then the formerly undrafted linebacker started making plays. That led to a starting job and a big role in the defense heading into 2013.

36. A.J. Hawk, Green Bay Packers

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    A.J. Hawk isn’t what most people expected, but he’s still a solid No. 2 inside linebacker. Hawk can be heavy-footed and slow to the edges. But between the tackles, he does well to stop the run and take on blockers to free up his counterparts at linebacker. What he doesn’t do well is attack the boundary or make stops behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, it’s rare to see either one. He’s a two-down mauler in the middle, what us old football guys call a “TED” linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Hawk won’t impact the game outside the hashes, but he can do damage and accumulate tackles in the middle of the field.

    Thanks to limited quickness and athletic ability, you won’t see Hawk making plays as a pass-rusher. The Packers have wisely not asked him to pull the chain and go after quarterbacks, as he lacks the speed to pull down moving passers or chase them as the pocket rolls. Hawk’s struggles show up when facing quick quarterbacks and are flat-out offensive against speedy zone-read styles.

    Hawk was surprisingly efficient in coverage. He does a good job keeping the ball in front of his face and is able to drop back into a soft zone and then react to the ball. Hawk will bully receivers over the middle and can knock the timing off on crossing routes.

    Hawk will make sure tackles when the ball comes to him. His limited range keeps him from making plays outside his zone, but if the ball comes inside, he’s a lockdown tackler with the strength and technique to bring down ball-carriers.

    Hawk’s career may be seen as a disappointment due to expectations and his draft positioning, but he’s a solid two-down linebacker with good tackling ability and strength in the box.

35. Demario Davis, New York Jets

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    When facing blockers, Demario Davis struggled to free himself from contact and make plays. His speed and athletic ability show up in his range and fluid style of play. In his first season as a pro, Davis didn’t show up as a stack-and-shed linebacker who could consistently beat blockers to the ball. But his speed and quickness made for big plays.

    Davis showed good quickness and speed when asked to close on the backfield and create plays in the pocket. He was much more effective at flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket and setting up his teammates to make plays. Davis hasn’t yet developed the skills needed to chase and breakdown passers.

    A quick, fluid player, Davis had no trouble picking up the passing game in his rookie season. As a rotational player early in the year and sometimes starter, he saw the field often on third down. His ability to get depth in coverage and read the quarterback allowed him to limit receptions and targets. 

    Davis went through the season with a streak of games where he consistently put runners down. Take away a poor game against New England in Week 7, and he didn’t miss one tackle all season. 

    The Jets drafted Davis with the expectation that he would slowly move into a starting role, but he was starting in the New York defense by Week 7. He showed his potential and athletic ability and should see the field early in 2013.

34. Jasper Brinkley, Arizona Cardinals

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    A strong player with limited athletic ability, Jasper Brinkley is a classic between-the-tackles defender. He will fight through traffic to take on inside runs, but he'll struggle in space when asked to get outside and take away tosses and sweeps. 

    Brinkley wasn’t an efficient or productive pass-rusher over the course of the season. He has a good first step, but he lacks the followup speed and strength to close on the ball and sack the quarterback. Brinkley didn’t create pressures or hits on his own.

    When asked to get depth in coverage, Brinkley struggled to locate the ball and keep pace with targets up the field. Against speedier players, he would get lost in turns and changes.

    Brinkley had over 20 missed tackles on the season, but most of those came in a two-game stretch. Looking at his 2012 season, he was a talented wrap-up tackler and a player with good strength to stop ball-carriers. 

    Brinkley struggled to affect the game on every down. Against the run, he was limited when asked to get outside the tackle box. His lack of speed was an issue in coverage.

33. D.J. Smith, Green Bay Packers

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    Blockers found D.J. Smith and made his life rough in the first three weeks of the season. But once the second-year player found his footing and got past the 49ers and Seahawks on the schedule, he showed good quickness and awareness in the middle. Smith’s sample size is small due to injury, and because potential isn’t factored in, he is graded on his six games. With two of them being very poor, his score comes in lower than it would if potential were factored in. Smith has to get better against power teams—Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch are case studies in poor run defense from Smith—but his quickness and range are assets.

    Smith was asked to pull the chain and crash the backfield in the Packers scheme, and he deserves more chances there. He is fast enough to get into the backfield and force quarterbacks to flee, and if facing an inexperienced passer, he was able to cause them to double-back and make mistakes.

    Quickness is the key to Smith’s game, and this allows him to match up well in man coverage or when dropping into a zone. He did well against some talented tight ends in his six games, showing the awareness to read and react to routes and go after the ball in the air. He could do better to get his hands on players off the line and over the middle, but Smith looked very good for a second-year guy.

    Missed tackles were not a problem for the Packers inside linebacker. Smith hit with force and the closing speed needed to put ball-carriers down without giving up positive yardage after contact.

    Smith took the next step to becoming a quality starter in the middle, but injury ended his season with 10 games left. If he can come back strong in 2013, he should see plenty of playing time.

32. Dan Connor, New York Giants

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    A rotational player to begin the year, Dan Connor stepped in well as a starter down the stretch for the Dallas defense. Against the run, his lack of speed and agility did limit his range, and offenses were able to run off-tackle against him with success. Connor is a big enough body to shed blockers if they came at his shoulder, but when engaged or locked up, he can be controlled by blockers. His lateral movement is average, and that limitation keeps him from being better on the edge. He’s a downhill, two-down run defender between the tackles.

    The Cowboys didn’t ask Connor to rush the quarterback often, as it’s not something he does well. Connor lacks the speed to close on the passer. He’s strong enough to beat a blocker on the inside, but that lack of burst will keep him from being an impact.

    With good instincts and enough lateral agility to slide with receivers, Connor plays the pass well in coverage. He has a smooth backpedal from the middle of the defense to get into zone coverage. From there, he does a good job reading the play and closing on targets. Connor uses his length and his frame to get between the ball and the receiver.

    A strong tackler who didn’t rack up huge production, Connor didn’t miss tackles when the ball came his way. He has the upper- and lower-body strength to put runners down when they came through his lane. 

    A limited athlete, Connor will always fit best in a scheme that helps keep blockers off his frame. Now with the Giants, he has potential to play much better in a 4-3 scheme.

31. Curtis Lofton, New Orleans Saints

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    Curtis Lofton has the strength, size and lateral agility to stop the run. That said, he needs help. Lofton doesn’t show the stack-and-shed skills to take on blockers and beat them to the ball. He needs someone up front taking on blockers and keeping his jersey clean, but the Saints didn’t consistently have someone to do that. Because of this, blockers came at him early and often. His physical skills should result in better range, but having guards and fullbacks constantly on him kept the Saints linebacker from making plays.

    Lofton has a good feel for the blitz and can be effective cleaning up the pocket after others flush the quarterback out. He won’t do much damage on his own, though, and will struggle to beat interior blockers one-on-one.

    With good ability to turn and run, Lofton has the agility to be an asset in coverage. He’s much better playing with his face toward the line of scrimmage, as he’ll get lost on double-moves and breaking routes in man coverage if he has to turn his back to the quarterback. Lofton needs to be free to read and react.

    A hard-nosed tackler, Lofton will put his pads on the ball and make plays. He doesn’t have elite strength but is big enough to stop runners before they get upfield. Missed tackles showed up when he failed to move his feet and play light; he’ll get in trouble playing on his heels and not staying active. Lofton missed tackles at a rate of close to one per game.

    Lofton suffered some lumps in his first season with the Saints. Those struggles pushed him down our board in 2012, but he has the potential to be an impact player in the team’s 3-4 scheme.

30. Perry Riley, Washington Redskins

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    With good size and strength, Perry Riley is a natural in the middle of the defense on rushing downs. When the ball is inside the tackles, he’s solid at reading the ball and making stops. When forced to get outside the tackles, even just to the hashes, his ability breaks down. He has to work on shedding blockers—something we pointed out last year as a problem for him too. By not being able to get free from contact, he’s automatically taken out of many plays coming right down his alley.

    Riley may not be someone you associate with pass rushing, but he did have games where he was able to make an impact up the middle. The trouble was finding consistency. He ran hot and cold from week to week as a pass-rusher and struggled to put together a secondary move to beat blockers.

    When asked to drop into coverage, Riley was often lost. He will get beaten on double-moves in man coverage and didn’t show the speed to drop into zone coverage and then come up to attack the underneath routes.

    Riley had good success as a tackler, notching almost 90 takedowns on the year. But on film we saw a player who did miss too many tackles to have a higher score. Sealing his contact with better pad level and more force would make Riley one of the better tackling inside linebackers in the game. He just needs to clean up some technique problems.

    Riley saw improvement in 2012, but he’ll be looked upon to take on an even bigger role in 2013. The potential is here for him to break out.

29. David Harris, New York Jets

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    David Harris has a good reputation as a run-stopper, but that ability didn’t show on film in 2012. He is strong enough to take on blockers and get through traffic to get to the football, but his range was limited. He didn’t show the quickness to explode to attack and takeaway outside runs. Good strength allows him to get past blockers, especially on the move. But when faced with a head-up guard or fullback, he struggled to get free and make plays. Harris is tough and stout, but he made too many plays past the line of scrimmage and downfield. 

    Harris doesn’t show the quickness or speed to consistently make an impact as a pass-rusher. His four sacks may fool you, but he makes those sacks when cleaning up the pocket and not when forcing pressure on his own. His lack of speed and burst prevent him from pulling the chain and chasing down quarterbacks. If a passer steps up, Harris can come through the line to put them down.

    Coverage wasn’t a strength for Harris due to limited speed and agility, but he held his own over the middle. When matched up against a tight end, he’s strong enough to jam players and knock them off their route and timing. But he won’t turn and run with a receiver.

    Harris is a strong, productive tackler, though he also misses quite a few opportunities when the back isn’t right inside his arms. He is strong enough to pull down ball-carriers with one arm and does a good job in pursuit, but those missed tackles added up and kept his score down.

    Harris is a quality player with a great reputation as a 3-4 inside linebacker, but his 2012 season was slightly above average. Harris needs better play around him to let his talent shine.

28. Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers

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    Injuries have killed Jon Beason’s last two seasons. In 2012, we started to see a glimpse of his former self before he missed the final 12 games of the year. Beason is an athlete and a fluid player in space when asked to track and flow with the ball. He didn’t show good strength to break free from blockers or shed traffic, but he will beat runners to the edge and can take on runners head up. He’ll get caught overpursuing and can put himself into a position to make plays from behind instead of upfront.

    The stat sheet won’t show Beason having a major impact in 2012, but he’s athletic and fast enough to make plays coming up the middle as a blitzer. He doesn’t have the flexibility or strength to win one-on-one, especially in space, but if given the chance to simply outrun a blocker, he’ll win.

    Coverage is a strength of Beason’s, as he’s quick and fluid in space. He looked stiff and hesitant at times in 2012, and that caused him to miss out on plays he could have made. Being matched up in man coverage wasn’t something he was ready for coming off his 2011 injury.

    A strong tackler for a smaller linebacker, Beason makes an impact but will let runners bounce off his pads. In just four games, he missed seven tackles—four of those against the New Orleans Saints and their varied style of runners. Beason has to do a better job getting low and breaking down in space to change direction with runners. He played with his cleats stuck in the ground too much in ‘12.

    Injuries ended Beason’s season before it could get rolling, and in the four games he played, the former star wasn’t the same player we last saw healthy in 2010.

27. Demorrio Williams, San Diego Chargers

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    Demorrio Williams played the best football of his career in 2012, showing the athleticism and technique to be an impact. Inside power gave him trouble all season, and we noted too often he gave up ground against blockers. But as a No. 2 inside linebacker, he cleaned up the run well and made tackles when able to come off blocks. 

    Although he had no sacks on the season, Williams showed the quickness and closing speed to hit the quarterback in the pocket and force pressures in the backfield. 

    A quick, fluid player in space, Williams did a good job adjusting to routes and finding the football. There were bad games, but he showed the athletic ability needed to change direction and attack the ball in zone defense. He would get overmatched at times in man coverage, but he showed good consistency against tight ends and backs.

    Of all the games we viewed, Williams did an excellent job in securing tackles and bringing down ball-carriers. He didn’t miss tackles when in position to make a play.

    Many will be surprised to see Williams ranked this high, but when he was on the field, his play matched his grade as a coverage linebacker and tackler. From a long-term perspective, we wouldn’t take him over others ranked lower. But based on 2012 alone, he earned this spot.

26. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery had a tough decision to make this offseason with the departure of linebacker Brian Urlacher. He has been the face of the franchise since being drafted ninth overall by the Bears back in 2000 out of the University of New Mexico. He has lost more than just a few steps and became a major liability in run defense for the Bears last season. Fading athleticism, bad angles, mounting injuries over the past few seasons and inability to shed blocks has led to the recent struggles for Urlacher against the run. He was too easily washed out of running plays by offensive lineman getting up in his face. When they didn’t, it was a bad angle that led to an easy cutback for a running back. 

    Urlacher doesn’t provide anything in the pass-rushing department at this point in his career. He’s got 41.5 sacks in his 13-year career but just four over the past four seasons he’s actually played. 

    Urlacher still shows an ability to drop into coverage and get deep on those drops. Despite his fading ability in run defense, he still shows an ability to provide something in pass coverage. 

    Urlacher is still one of the better tackling linebackers in the NFL if he’s in the right position. The problem is that he just didn’t put himself in enough positions to make tackles last season. 

    Nobody can blame Phil Emery for the tough decision he made to let the face of the franchise walk by not reaching out and re-signing Urlacher this offseason. There’s no right way to handle a situation like that. Urlacher is a liability in run defense at this point in his career, and that’s a huge red flag for any team showing interest moving forward.  

25. Brad Jones, Green Bay Packers

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    Brad Jones is a converted outside linebacker who moved to the inside after an injury to starter D.J. Smith. Jones is one of the more purely athletic inside linebackers you’ll find in the NFL. He moves well within traffic to get to the ball-carrier in run defense. He isn’t overly physical shedding blocks and can get swallowed up pretty easily by lineman once they get their hands on him. There isn’t much hesitation from Jones when diagnosing plays, though. He’s got the speed and athleticism to blow up plays at or near the line of scrimmage with ease. He’ll beat blockers trying to get him at the second level simply by diagnosing the play quickly and using his speed to get there. 

    Jones wasn’t asked to get after the quarterback much in the games we scouted. When he was sent, it was on a delayed blitz where he didn't need to display a repertoire of moves. He did a good job of not tipping his blitzes, though, and has the athleticism and speed to get to the quarterback from anywhere.

    Jones spent a lot of time in coverage for the Packers defense. He’s fluid in space and can run with speedier offensive players. Jones is a rare three-down NFL inside linebacker who can do all things pretty well. 

    Jones’ speed helps him get to the ball-carriers quickly, but it can also work against him. He has a tendency to overrun plays and take bad angles that lead to missed tackles. 

    Having just one year under his belt at inside linebacker, Jones is a player who is worth keeping an eye on as he develops a better understanding of the inside linebacking position moving forward. There’s a high ceiling for him. 

24. London Fletcher, Washington Redskins

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    Small and stout, London Fletcher is a role model for the undersized football player. He doesn’t have the length to keep blockers off his body, but he follows up with good strength and hands to break free from blockers. Where Fletcher struggled in 2012 was to get outside and make tackles. He's one of the best between the gaps, but he's a step late on outside runs.

    The 2012 season saw Fletcher make a bigger impact as a pass-rusher, but he’s still not an elite or high-level blitzer through the middle. His four sacks are more due to outside rushers forcing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket.

    A fluid player in zone coverage, Fletcher can move well in his backpedal and has enough hip flexibility to turn and run when needed. His shorter arms and squat body style keep him from being able to reach to break up passes.

    Fletcher makes a ton of tackles, but his efficiency as a tackler has to be questioned after watching his play in 2012. He struggled to pull down runners consistently, resulting in 24 missed tackles. Even taking into account his high number of attempts and exposures, 24 missed tackles are far too many.  

    A smart veteran, Fletcher saw his athletic ability drop off in 2012, but he was still an impact as a between-the-tackles defender.

23. Colin McCarthy, Tennessee Titans

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    An injury-filled 2012 kept Colin McCarthy from realizing his potential in his second season. He has the size and strength to stuff the run between the tackles, but injuries limited his ability to move laterally and take on outside runs. McCarthy looked stiff and heavy after missing Weeks 2-4 with an injury. His ankle seemed to bother him more and more each week, limiting his ability to slide and attack off-tackle. With a healthy ankle and free and clear of a concussion, he could be a better player. But in 2012, he was healthy just one week. 

    The Titans know that McCarthy’s strength is not as a pass-rusher, so he’s not asked to get through gaps and attack the quarterback. He’s a read-and-react linebacker, not a blitzer. That part of his game may develop, but he didn’t show the speed or hands to work his way through the muck and get to the quarterback.

    Limited range and mobility due to injury kept McCarthy from taking the next step as a coverage ‘backer. He has good natural quickness to turn and flip his hips, showing that he can get depth in zone play and run with receivers in zero coverage.

    We saw McCarthy become a better tackler in 2012 thanks to better strength and a stronger ability to shed tackles, but injuries kept him from moving to lock up runners. He’s strong enough at the point of attack to put runners down without missing tackles, but it was clear by his play that McCarthy was hurting all season. 

    McCarthy saw a small dip in production and ability in 2012, largely due to injury. But he’s still one of the more exciting young players in the game at middle linebacker.

22. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Paul Posluszny is stout at the point of contact when engaging ball-carriers in the hole. Has the strength to shed blocks from offensive linemen and can make plays in traffic inside the box. He takes good angles in run defense and doesn’t give up on plays. Running backs don’t get many yards after contact on Posluszny. He diagnoses the run well and is rarely caught overpursuing when running downhill toward a ball-carrier. 

    Posluszny can drive offensive linemen back when rushing the passer, but it’s not something he’s asked to do often from his inside linebacking position. He understands leverage and delivers a punch when asked to bring it up the middle. 

    Posluszny is an average coverage linebacker who isn’t overly athletic out in space. He knows his responsibilities and where he’s supposed to be, which helped him get those five interceptions over the past two seasons. He tends to bite hard on play-action. That can put his defense in bad situations, although it helps him make plays in run defense because he’s quick to jump the run. 

    Posluszny is a stout tackler who doesn’t give ground after first contact. Within the box against the run is his forte. He shows a great ability to play inside out and take proper angles to drive through ball-carriers with his shoulders against the run, thus allowing him to limit yards after contact. 

    Posluszny is the quintessential NFL inside linebacker without being elite at any one specific skill. He’s solid across the board, but he is just lacking elite athleticism. 

21. Takeo Spikes, San Diego Chargers

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    When Takeo Spikes hits someone, they go down. Even after turning 36 years old at the end of the 2012 season with San Diego, Spikes still ranks among our three best tackling inside linebackers. He doesn’t have the same range he once did, and that limits his ability to make plays all over the field, but he has great awareness and quickly diagnoses plays. This helps him make some plays out on the edge. When running inside the box, offenses had a tough time running through him. 

    Spikes got good push on the inside and has the size and strength to drive offensive linemen into the backfield. He won’t beat anyone off the snap or finesse his way around an offensive lineman, but he understands leverage and how to disrupt the play when coming up the middle. 

    Anything other than getting to the flat to cover a back out of the backfield or a tight end would put Spikes at a borderline liability at this point in coverage. He quickly recognizes passes to the flat and can get there, but if the ball-carrier has time to turn upfield, Spikes is in trouble. 

    To put it simply, if Spikes gets his hands on you, then you’re going down. Whether it’s in the box, where he’s at his best, or even out in space. 

    Spikes is still a player who should be looking at situational duty. He’s limited in his range both in run defense and pass coverage and has made up for that with his ability to quickly diagnose plays. But a well-run offensive play will expose those weaknesses. 

20. Bruce Carter, Dallas Cowboys

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    Bruce Carter has the physicality at the point of attack and enough athleticism to play out in space. That trait is becoming more and more valuable for an inside linebacker across the NFL with teams’ spreading the ball around with more consistent, intricate passing attacks. When Carter gets moving downhill, he’s a force to be reckoned with in run defense. He doesn’t diagnose plays quickly enough at times, and the false steps created by the indecision will allow offensive linemen time to get to the second level and seal him off from the play. If an offensive player initiates contact with Carter moving anywhere but downhill, he’ll get washed out of the play. 

    In the games we scouted, Carter was strictly an A-gap blitzer from his middle linebacker position. Just like in run defense, once Carter gets moving downhill, he’s tough to stop. He’ll push the center/guard upfield and blow up the play behind the line of scrimmage. He wasn’t asked to blitz much, though. 

    Carter is a very athletic and above-average coverage linebacker. He’s got fluid hips and the ability to turn, open and get deep in his drops. He has the athletic ability to run with tight ends in man coverage but will be a step late in zone coverage with players coming into his area. It’s similar to his knock in run defense that he seems just a step/count late at times reading the play. 

    Carter is a solid tackler overall. If coming downhill from his linebacker position, it’ll be a hit that gets a few replays. He's fierce at the point of contact once he knows where he’s going. 

    Carter is one of those players that you’re waiting for everything to just click before he becomes a household name. A dislocated elbow cut his 2012 season short after just 11 games, and hopefully he can bounce back from that injury. If he becomes just a bit quicker in diagnosing plays and eliminating those false steps he shows at times, he’ll have more negative plays caused at or behind the line of scrimmage and get to that next tier of elite linebackers.

19. D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns

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    D’Qwell Jackson started the 2012 season on a hot streak, but he faded throughout the middle of the season. A look at his whole season showed a player who struggled to stop the run between the tackles and outside the hashes. Jackson struggled against teams with power-running schemes, fairing better against quicker backs. His lack of size and strength showed up, as guards and fullbacks were able to keep him pinned down and out of the play. For a 16-game starter at middle linebacker, Jackson failed to make the impact plays needed to grade out higher in run support.

    Jackson had one huge game in Week 2 against the Bengals, but he was otherwise a non-factor as a pass-rusher. He added very few pressures or hits throughout the rest of the season. The Browns asked him to drop back into coverage more and play less near the line of scrimmage on passing downs.

    A talented cover man, Jackson graded out as well as any player in the league against the pass. He’s quick and fluid in space, showing the feet and hips to get depth in coverage and come up to contest passes. Jackson’s agility and athletic ability jump off the screen.

    When in position and free from traffic, Jackson did a great job bringing down ball-carriers. When there was traffic around, he wasn’t an impact. The number of missed tackles that showed up in contrast to his actual tackles was something that caused us to take a second look at Jackson against power-rushing teams. He isn’t strong enough to shed blockers and make tackles in traffic.

    A talented, athletic inside linebacker, Jackson saw a regression in 2012. He has the skill set to be back in the top 10 at the end of the 2013 season.

18. Karlos Dansby, Miami Dolphins

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    Karlos Dansby is an excellent athlete with the range, quickness and strength to make an impact as a "Mike" ‘backer in the 4-3 defense. Dansby struggled in 2012 to show the outside speed needed to get to the corner and shut down outside runs. He has a tendency to overrun the play and will get caught making too many tackles from behind instead of coming down and meeting ball-carriers in the hole.

    When asked to rush the quarterback, Dansby didn’t leave his mark. He does a good job getting upfield and pressuring blockers, but he lacked the follow-through to get through the line and get his hands on the quarterback. He’ll clean up the pocket, but he won't create on his own.

    Dansby has good quickness when asked to move laterally or from a zone position. He can plant and run toward the ball and reacts well to plays as they happen. His vision and awareness really show up on film, and he’s able to see and flow to the ball without hesitation.

    Dansby was one of the more active tacklers coming out of the 4-3 defense, and he did so with few missed tackles. His long arms allow him to reach runners that others might not be able to get to. When asked to take away outside runs, he can struggle to get in position to make a tackle. But when he gets his hands on a runner, they’re going down. 

    Dansby played well in 2012, showing the all-around game that a team needs from a middle linebacker in a 3-4 defense. His athletic ability and strength are starting-caliber.

17. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

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    Ray Lewis’ last season saw him struggle in ways we had never seen. His speed was all but gone when asked to chase and pursue the ball. His legendary agility was a fraction of what he once possessed. Lewis had to rely on instincts, his ability to read the offensive line and some luck to get to the ball on time throughout the 2012 season. After missing time with injury, more often than not, teams came right at him on the ground. That resulted in big yardage for the offense and a frustrating example for Lewis that his best days were behind him. His lack of agility and quickness were shocking at times. Lewis looked his age when the ball was coming his way.

    The Ravens’ asked Dannell Ellerbe to fill the role of an inside pass-rusher from the linebacker spot, which didn’t allow Lewis as many opportunities to go after the pocket. That was fine, as his lack of speed before injury and lack of speed and strength post-injury kept him from being a factor.

    Lewis’ ability in coverage was nearly non-existent by the time the Super Bowl came around. It was painful to watch Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree running past him on a consistent basis over the middle. Throughout the year, Lewis never showed the same pass-coverage skills that made him such a dual-threat in his career. His pass-coverage skills were pretty miserable.

    Looking at Lewis as a tackler—not his range or quickness—there was none better in the NFL. He still closed on the ball with enough power to put ball-carriers down consistently. In space, Lewis was a terror on runners. He breaks down well and has the total body strength to attack the ball and consistently make tackles.

    Age caught up to Lewis in 2012, and he’ll retire as one of the NFL’s all-time greats. He was wise to hang up his cleats after the 2012 season.

16. Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders

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    The off-field negativity surrounding Rolando McClain put a spin on his on-field production and ability—when he was on the field, at least—and cast a dark cloud over his performance in 2012. The film showed a player better than we expected. McClain hardly missed tackles and otherwise put himself in good position to take on the run. Take away one poor game against Miami in Week 2, and all of his starts were plus performances between the tackles. His burst wasn’t impressive, but good range and the strength to take on blockers and bring down runners was easy to spot on film. Between the hashes, McClain was solid. Yes, a lack of range hurt his run defense, but as a true inside linebacker, he made more plays than he missed.

    A pass-rusher, he is not. McClain’s quickness has fallen off over time, which is surprising for a young player, but that lack of straight-line speed and burst keep him from doing anything as a blitzer.

    A lack of speed and quickness hurt McClain in coverage, limiting him to more of a two-down player. He moves well when coming up to play underneath routes, but a tight end or back cutting upfield will tear him up in man coverage. 

    When McClain was in position to make the tackle, he made it. Whether or not he was always in position is another story. But looking at him purely as a tackler, he was one of the better guys we scouted.

    He may not be a stable character in the locker room or off the field, but McClain is still a good inside linebacker. Knowing his strengths and weaknesses as a player will be key in 2013.

15. DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The 2012 season started with DeMeco Ryans playing lights out against the run, but he was a different player to end the season. His grade reflects the highs and lows of the season. Ryans has good quickness to track down the ball, and he’s aware and alert to the play call off the snap. Offenses won’t fool him with misdirection or play-fakes, but good guards and fullbacks can get into his frame and drive block him back off the hole. Ryans is a quick player, and he tracks the ball well side to side. If asked to take away an outside run, he’s there. Better ability to shed blockers between the tackles is where he has to get better moving forward.

    Ryans isn’t the speedy type of athlete needed to rush the quarterback from inside. He put some pressure on quarterbacks with delayed pressure when the pocket was rolled, but Ryans was a nonfactor as a pass-rusher otherwise.

    Ryans moves well in space, and when asked to drop back off the snap, he showed nice balance and timing in coverage. His ability to go side to side in man coverage—especially running with receivers—was above average but not great. Being aware of the ball and having the timing to step in and disrupt the pass were two things we liked in his film

    When the season started, Ryans couldn’t miss when attacking the ball. But by season’s end, he was routinely missing tackles and struggling to break down and attack ball-carriers. Injuries and/or fatigue could be to blame, but something changed for Ryans in the second half of the season. His athleticism and flexibility when tackling looked poor.

    Ryans was back at home in the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme, but a likely move to the 3-4 in 2013 could hurt his overall production and impact on defense.

14. Dannell Ellerbe, Miami Dolphins

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    A smallish inside linebacker in a hybrid defense, Dannell Ellerbe has to win with speed, quickness laterally and vision. He has all three, but too often you will see blockers getting free of the front line and getting into his frame. Being quick to the hole is great, but he can be neutralized when engaged by a blocker. The former Raven doesn’t shed blockers well, but if the front of his defense can keep him clean, he’ll rack up tackles like crazy.

    A scary-good pass-rusher up the middle, Ellerbe has the closing speed to beat blockers to the hole and flush the pocket. Not only does he put pressure on the backfield, but he finishes plays too and was one of the game’s more productive blitzing inside linebackers on film. 

    Ellerbe shows the quickness to flow in coverage. He’s fast enough to line up in man coverage with tight ends or crossing wide receivers. He’s able to use his hands to jam at the line or on the go, and he can knock route runners off their balance and disrupt the timing. If thrown at, he doesn’t show great hands or timing, but he is a physical presence in coverage and shows enough versatility to not be a matchup problem.

    A productive tackler with few misses on the season, Ellerbe is very good at pulling down runners in space. When asked to take on traffic and make tougher tackles against running backs, he can struggle to get free and will miss opportunities on the ball.

    Time will tell whether or not Ellerbe will be worth the money the Miami Dolphins handed him, but if you’re looking for a tough inside linebacker, he fits the mold.

13. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

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    One of the most productive tacklers in the NFL, Luke Kuechly stands out on film as a player constantly around the ball. When grading his ability, you see a player who struggles to come off blockers and will overpursue the ball. This can lead to him giving up ground and allowing runners to pick up yards in his backyard. His speed and ability to chase runners is well-noted, but to be scored higher as a run defender, Kuechly has to do a better job holding down the fort and not moving backward when engaged by blockers. Shedding blocks is a major part of the job description, and that’s his weakness right now.

    The Panthers didn’t ask Kuechly to do much damage as a pass-rusher, and this doesn’t suit his skill set. He doesn’t show enough burst to shoot through gaps and get to the quarterback. He’ll put some pressure on the quarterback, but he doesn’t generate sacks. Kuechly wasn’t a factor here in 2012.

    With good quickness and light feet, Kuechly has the physical tools to be very good in coverage. His 2012 film showed a player lost at times, but you could see the foundation being laid for him to flow with receivers across the middle. Kuechly has a pretty backpedal and drops well into deep zones. Once he learns to pull the chain and attack off his reads, he’ll move up.

    Few players can match Kuechly’s production as a tackler. He plays with a nonstop motor and will chase down ball-carriers. Kuechly has a nose for the football and makes more effort tackles than anyone in the NFL.

    After making a move to middle linebacker, Kuechly’s stock went way up. He’s an active, aggressive tackler with the quickness and athleticism to become equally good in coverage.

12. Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers

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    Donald Butler plays strong and fast, using his physical gifts to close on ball-carriers and attack the line of scrimmage. Watching his film, you see a player who needs to better stack up blockers—using his hands and the length of his arms to keep blockers from getting inside his frame and driving him off the ball. Butler can be a big impact against the run when he’s free to make plays, but he was tied up and kept from attacking inside runs too often last year. When he reads an outside run play, he’s quick to run alleys and shed blockers to get to the ball.

    The stats show Butler had success getting to the quarterback, but from watching his film, you don’t see the agility to beat blockers consistently and get to the quarterback. He has the physical ability to become a better A-gap blitzer if needed.

    With good feet and the agility to run in space, Butler shows up as a positive cover man. He moves well side to side when taking away underneath routes. Running upfield with a receiver isn’t his strength, but he’s good against tight ends and backs.

    Butler wasn’t highly productive for an inside linebacker, even in the 3-4 set that the Chargers run. He didn’t miss a ton of tackles or let runners pick up yardage after contact. When clean and free to make a tackle, Butler did a good job putting his pads on the ball and bringing runners down.

    A promising young player, Butler has a chance to better stand out in 2013 with more support around him, especially as the defensive linemen in front of him develop.

11. Mason Foster, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    In his second season, Mason Foster made a seamless transition to the NFL by showing the quickness, toughness and instincts to make a living on the inside. A player I viewed as a potential outside linebacker coming out of Washington, he’s been better than expected at using his arms to keep blockers off his frame. Foster’s quickness allows him to track the ball well behind the line of scrimmage, and he can pull the chain and attack once he makes his read. Getting off blockers is still a struggle at times. If there’s anything he must improve in his third year, it is his ability to stay clean when going after the ball.

    Over the course of the year, Foster was able to add a handful of pressures and hits on the quarterback, but this isn’t his game. He’s not strong enough at the point of impact to rush the line of scrimmage and beat blockers consistently. If you’re rushing the passer with Foster, it’s on delayed pressures.

    An agile athlete with quick feet and good instincts, Foster was able to make plays in coverage thanks to his physical abilities. His awareness and recognition skills when matched up in man coverage weren’t always ideal. But in zone coverage, he was able to get a good initial drop and then read and react to the ball. With good speed to close on the ball, Foster played the pass like a free safety might.

    During his second NFL season, Foster didn’t rack up a ton of tackles, but he didn’t miss many either. He’s a solid tackler with good burst to put power into his hits. He has the reach to pull down runners from behind or beside the play.

    Foster is an excellent athlete, and that allows him to make plays on and behind the line of scrimmage. His versatility as a linebacker will aid him well in the future.

10. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams

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    A true "Mike" linebacker, James Laurinaitis is an expert against the run. He’s strong enough to shed blockers and use his bulk to keep offensive linemen from pushing him upfield. He doesn’t show elite speed to track the ball on outside plays, but teams won’t find space against the St. Louis linebacker between the tackles. Our team loved his tough style of play in Jeff Fisher’s defense.

    In the 4-3 defense, it’s rare to see Laurinaitis make plays as a pass-rusher. He’ll put some pressure on the pocket as a delayed blitzer, but he rarely gets home to sack the quarterback.

    Earlier in his career, Laurinaitis didn’t look like a coverage linebacker due to stiff hips and slower feet, but that started to change in 2012. He showed better quickness and anticipation in the Rams’ new defensive scheme, which allowed him to be more impactful as a cover man. Laurinaitis isn’t a top-level coverage linebacker, but he’s no longer a liability.

    A sure-tackler with hard hits and good technique when coming up to put a play on the ball, Laurinaitis does a good job breaking down in space. He can get heavy-footed at times and allow runners to shake him. You don’t see him make contact and lose the tackle, though.

    More of a two-down linebacker, Laurinaitis bucked some of the doubts in his game in 2012, showing a more well-rounded approach.

9. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    An undersized defender for the inside of a 3-4 defense, Lawrence Timmons will struggle to stack and shed blockers, but he’s quick to the hole and shows excellent quickness and agility in space. Timmons is tough and will fight through blocks, but he doesn’t consistently make plays in traffic or free himself of contact.

    Timmons ended the year on a tear, attacking the line of scrimmage and showing previously unseen ability to close on the quarterback. When freed to blitz through A- and B-gaps, Timmons can have a major impact on the backfield.

    Quick and fluid in his movements, Timmons gets depth off the snap and can excel in zone coverage when asked to read and react. He doesn’t have the length you want from a coverage linebacker, but his footwork helps cover up some of his deficiencies.

    Missed tackles were not a problem for Timmons. He hits with power and uses his speed and burst to close on ball-carriers and put them down. Despite his smaller reach and shorter arms, he’s able to make impacts over the middle and when running down the ball. He's one of the better tacklers you’ll find.

    Timmons is a high-level athlete at the position. When watching him on film, you gain a new appreciation for his range and burst. If he can improve his ability to come off blocks and make plays, he’ll shoot up the rankings.

8. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys

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    Dallas Cowboys inside linebacker Sean Lee is an active run defender, but he can be bumped by blockers and pushed off the line. He’s instinctive and smart when asked to read and react, but unlike some of the top ‘backers in the game, Lee can be beaten up underneath by blockers. He needs more help in front of him to draw blockers’ attention.

    The Cowboys rarely asked Lee to rush the quarterback, as this isn’t part of his game. He is best in a run-stuffing and pass-coverage role. To ask him to rush the quarterback would pull him out of covering tight ends and backs.

    One of the better coverage inside linebackers in the game, Lee has the quickness and athletic ability to match up with tight ends and backs without surrendering catches or yards. His awareness is best when he can see the ball and drop back from the middle of the field. When asked to turn his back, he did struggle at times.

    One of the more consistent tacklers we scouted, Lee has the reach and strength to be an effective tackler in space and in traffic. He’ll cut through lanes to pull down ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage, and he does a good job following down the line of scrimmage to the play.

    Lee has been a top player at the position, but moving forward in 2013, he’ll benefit from a move to a 4-3 scheme in Dallas.

7. Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots

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    Brandon Spikes isn’t the fastest linebacker in the NFL, but he is impressively strong and instinctive in the middle of the field. When asked to read and flow to the ball in the run game, few are better at finding the football and getting through traffic to put pads on the runner. He’s a lockdown linebacker between the tackles, which is all the Patriots need him to be.

    With good strength, Spikes can push the offensive line and generate pressure or scare quarterbacks. But he lacks the speed to generate sacks or hits on the passer.

    With limited speed and quickness in space, Spikes isn’t much help in pass coverage. Tight ends and receivers will want to avoid his punch over the middle, but he’s not a threat to turn and run or stick with players in their routes.

    Spikes shows up consistently on film as a knockdown tackler. When he makes contact, it’s solid and final. Rarely did we see backs get through Spikes’ arms.

    Spikes won’t win points for his quickness or flexibility, but when asked to stop the run—especially the inside run—there are few players you’d rather have.

6. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

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    Brian Cushing is a big, physical inside linebacker with impressive quickness. His lateral agility to slide and explode to the ball are good on tape, but he can be neutralized when met by a blocker. Cushing is naturally strong and stout, but he will struggle to work through traffic and contact. This impacts his ability against the run. More often than not in his injury-shortened 2012, we saw Cushing taking on blockers and freeing up others to make the play.

    The Texans used Cushing to get to the quarterback often in his five games. He had some success creating pressure and flushing the pocket, but he didn’t show the ability to close and attack to bring down the passer. He’s a bit stiff when asked to change direction on the fly.

    One of Cushing’s best assets is his ability to get depth off the snap and read the play in pass coverage. He’s smooth in his backpedal and showed good ability to plant and go to attack underneath routes. Receivers that run routes over the middle know that he’s waiting to knock them off their timing and balance.

    A strong, physical tackler with the arm length and size to maintain contact, Cushing can be a deadly tackler. Ball-carriers have had little success getting through his grasp.

    Injury cut short what started out as a very promising year, but before being lost for the season, Cushing was playing his best ball.

5. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

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    Bobby Wagner was supposed to be too small to play at a high level in the NFL, but he proved those doubters wrong in his first season. Wagner was a missile against the run, showing excellent read-and-react skills off the snap. He made quick work of ball-carriers in 2012, showing a nose for the football on inside runs. When asked to track outside and take angles to the ball, he was excellent. Few players in the NFL played the run better in 2012.

    Not used often as a pass-rusher, Wagner has the athletic skill set to do damage here. The Seahawks defense rarely asked to him to do more than clean up the pocket as a pass-rusher.

    Wagner excelled in man and zone coverage in 2012, showing the quickness and awareness to be very good at shutting down the pass. His agility and burst allow him to backpedal, turn and run against tight ends. He’s strong enough to jam and get physical with anyone coming over the middle.

    Wagner didn’t fall prey to the rookie wall, meaning he didn’t decline once the season wore on. Instead, Wagner actually got stronger as a tackler from week to week by showing better closing speed and more power behind his hits. He’s the type of tackler who hits you and brings you down without letting up.

    Few expected such a great year from Wagner as a rookie, but he delivered with the production and ability that few first-year inside linebackers can.

4. Derrick O. Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

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    As an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, Derrick O. Johnson is asked to make a lot of plays individually against the run, and he does so at a high rate. Johnson is a fluid player with the agility to slide laterally or attack the run in front of him. His value is in his range, as he can effectively track the ball side to side. He has the speed to pursue and cut off the edge.

    Johnson isn’t utilized as a pass-rusher as much as he could be with his speed and strength. When asked to shoot through A- and B-gaps, he does well to drop his shoulder and make himself a smaller target. Johnson may be more effective as part of a stunting duo where the offensive line has to make a decision. This would be a better fit for his speed.

    One of Johnson’s best attributes is his ability in coverage. He’s fast, plays light on his feet and shows good vision to read and react to the route. Johnson will get physical over the middle and can rub and bump tight ends off the line. He’s versatile enough to be matched up in man coverage or deep zone play.

    In games we scouted, Johnson missed more tackles than the top players at the position, but he was better than other 3-4 inside linebackers with his size and skill set. He did miss too many tackles in 2012, but it wasn’t a major problem. A lack of play upfront allowed blockers and runners to get to Johnson in a hurry.

    Johnson has a smooth, graceful style of play, but he hits like a truck when coming down on backs. He’s a Pro Bowler for a reason.

3. Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals

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    Daryl Washington is a quick, smooth athlete when attacking the run. He plays with great balance and is able to make sharp changes to plant and go toward the ball. He’s not the biggest or strongest linebacker and can be tied up and driven off the ball by blockers, but his quickness and agility make him tough to tie up.

    The Cardinals like to send their inside linebackers after the quarterback, and Washington did a great job getting through the line and pursuing the passer. His quickness and burst make closing on the quarterback possible. Washington shows developed pass-rush moves—like a shoulder dip and hip bend—that few inside linebackers show.

    Washington can be very good when asked to run with backs or tight ends into their routes. Athletically, he’s as gifted as anyone in coverage, but his awareness and route recognition could use some work to keep him from guessing.

    Scouting Washington as a tackler, we saw misses and whiffs that kept his score lower than you might expect. While he hits with power and aggression, his efficiency isn’t always elite. He allowed backs to bounce off his pads too often, especially early in the season.

    A talented all-around linebacker, Washington is on his way to being one of the top players at his position. A four-game suspension to start 2013 won’t help, though.

2. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers

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    There is little separating NaVorro Bowman from teammate Patrick Willis. He might be faster and smoother when running alleys and getting to the ball. He’s instinctive and quick to recognize the play and can get through traffic to take on the ball.

    Being able to pull the chain and attack the backfield is a strength for Bowman. He’s quick enough and aggressive enough to be used as an effective blitzer through the middle of the offensive line. His field speed is impressive.

    A smooth athlete, Bowman does a good job turning his hips to run and get depth in coverage while also showing the lateral agility to run with crossing routes. He’s aware and active in coverage and makes his mark on the game by taking away target opportunities.

    A hard tackler with a high level of success, Bowman doesn’t miss many tackles. His quickness and vision allow him to beat his teammates to the ball-carrier often.

    Bowman is one of the game’s absolute best. For a while there, it looked like he might be the best inside ‘backer on his team—an impressive feat. The 49ers have something special with the Penn State product.

1. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers

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    Patrick Willis excels and wins with his vision and ability to diagnose the play pre-snap. He quickly reads and reacts to the play and moves well laterally to shut down the run between the tackles. Willis is strong enough to shoot gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

    The 49ers do a good job of using their inside linebackers to rush and blitz the A-gaps, and we saw plenty of results there. He has the quick first step and agility to get through gaps and beat blockers to the hole.

    Willis is an instinctive linebacker with good lateral quickness to slide and keep pace with tight ends. He has the speed and agility to be a top-level cover man when taking away tight ends and wide receivers over the middle.

    Willis is one of the best tacklers in the NFL. He hits with power and with a consistent impact needed to wrap up and take down ball-carriers. He rarely misses tackles or takes himself out of plays with poor positioning or effort.

    Willis has become synonymous with excellent inside linebacker play. He has the perfect balance of speed, size, strength and vision to shut down an offensive game plan.

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