The retirements of Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—two of the iconic defensive players of the last 15 years—have opened the door for the next era of dominant middle linebackers to get their due.
Lewis, a 17-year veteran, leaves the game with arguably the most complete resume of any linebacker in NFL history. Urlacher spent 13 years building a Hall of Fame career as the cornerstone of the Chicago Bears defense. He announced his retirement Wednesday.
The two middle linebackers combined to earn 21 Pro Bowl and 15 All-Pro nominations, plus three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Lewis won two Super Bowls, while Urlacher lost his only attempt at a championship ring.
He doesn't yet have a comparable running mate, but it's abundantly clear Willis will lead the post-Lewis and Urlacher era.
A first-round pick of the 49ers in 2007, Willis has already developed into the game's premier inside linebacker. Even with Urlacher and Lewis around the last handful of seasons, Willis has been the most dominant defender at the position.
Since 2007, Willis has an NFL-high 812 combined and 621 solo tackles. He also has 17.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and 49 passes defensed. But his worth extends much further than just surface stats.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Willis has graded out as the first- or second-best inside linebacker in every season since 2008, the first year PFF began grading NFL players. No other player, including Urlacher or Lewis, has graded out in the top two more than than once since '08.
The NFL awards have also reflected Willis' dominance at the position.
Since entering the league, he has been named to six straight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. No other linebacker can match either mark, even Urlacher and Lewis.
In fact, the two veterans only have seven Pro Bowls and three All-Pro nominations combined during Willis' brief career.
Now, Willis can unquestionably assume his rightful spot as the game's most recognizable inside linebacker. He's more than earned the right to take the torch from the likes of Urlacher and Lewis.
More than likely, however, Willis will eventually have to share that spotlight.
Several young and comparable linebackers are capable of becoming the Brian Urlacher to Willis' Ray Lewis.
Here are the most likely candidates:
Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite helping anchor good defenses in Pittsburgh, few inside linebackers are as underrated as Timmons.
In just his last three seasons, Timmons has averaged over 100 tackles while also adding 11 sacks, six interceptions, six forced fumbles and 19 passes defensed. Few are more complete in terms of stopping the run, rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.
Maybe now that Lewis is out of the AFC North, Timmons will start to get the recognition he deserves.
Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys
It seems only injury can keep Lee from ascending near or to the peak of NFL inside linebackers.
In fact, over the six games before he was lost for the season in 2012, he posted the sixth-best grade (subscription required) among inside linebackers at PFF. Averaged out over a full season, Lee would have finished as the highest graded player at his position, even above Willis.
Lee could be even better if healthy in 2013, as the Cowboys are shifting from the 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive front. The fourth-year linebacker could really take off next season as both a tackling machine and effective coverage man.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly took home Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season after tallying an NFL-high 164 tackles. He added a sack, two interceptions and eight passes defensed in an impressive opening act.
Now, Kuechly has to add to his resume by improving in other areas outside tackling, such as pass coverage and rushing the passer.
Once Kuechly becomes more of a complete package, he'll have a chance to contend for a spot along Willis as the game's best inside linebacker. For now, he's in the second tier. His ceiling is high.
NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
Surprisingly enough, Willis' own teammate in San Francisco likely has the best chance of becoming the next great inside linebacker.
Bowman, a third-round pick out of Penn State in 2010, has quickly blossomed into one of the very best while playing alongside Willis. In fact, over the last two seasons, it would be difficult to separate the contributions made by Bowman to those provided by Willis.
Bowman graded out as the best inside linebacker at PFF in 2011 (subscription required), and then finished seventh last season.
Just 25 years old, Bowman has nearly 300 combined tackles over the last two seasons. He's on the path to super stardom.
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
First-year returns on Wagner were very encouraging for the Seahawks in 2012.
PFF graded the second-round pick as their second-best inside linebacker (subscription needed) last season, topped only by Willis. His advanced stats were even better, as Wagner led his position in run stop percentage and finished in the top 10 of pass-rushing productivity and tackling efficiency.
One year won't make Wagner into the next Brian Urlacher, but he does appear to be talented enough to challenge for a spot alongside Willis. Like Kuechly, Wagner needs to build on his rookie season with a strong sophomore campaign.