Inside linebackers in the 3-4 are fairly similar to the MIKE linebacker in a 4-3, except they may be asked to drop into pass coverage and blitz a little more often. They also may deal with guards more than a MIKE linebacker, because unlike the MIKE, they are lined up directly in front of the guards.
There is a certain skill that goes to play inside linebacker in the 3-4 rather than playing MIKE, as Jonathan Vilma found out when the Jets made the transition around him.
With the 3-4 now being run by about half the league, the position is in greater demand and gaining exposure around the league.
These are the guys who every 3-4 wishes they could have.
5. Jerod Mayo (New England Patriots)
16 games started, 1 forced fumble, 98 tackles, 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year
Mayo only has one season under his belt, but what a fine season it was.
Bill Belichick doesn't usually use rookies in his linebacking corps because it's difficult for them to transition into his complex system, and it's much easier for him to find a veteran guy who can come in and do it right immediately.
In Mayo's case, he didn't need to wait. Mayo came in on day one and made an impact on that defense. He became a leader by example, and instantly gained the respect of all the veterans around him.
The defensive rookie of the year will almost certainly have countless Pro Bowl appearances in his bright future.
4. Bradie James (Dallas Cowboys)
66 games started, 13.5 sacks, 1 interception, 6 forced fumbles, 1 touchdown, 328 tackles
It took James a little while to gain the starting job, but three years into his career, he took the spot and has not let go of it.
Last season was by far his best yet, as he racked up eight sacks, three forced fumbles, and 80 solo tackles.
In fact, looking at it now, he just may have been snubbed for the Pro Bowl.
He's a guy who is steadily getting better as the years go on, and he should find himself in a few Pro Bowls before all is said and done.
Maybe he won't ever be considered that "great" player, but he is a very good linebacker who may always be just a little underrated.
3. Bart Scott (New York Jets)
58 games started, 16 sacks, 3 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 315 tackles, 1-time Pro Bowler
Scott just recently got his big free agent deal coming to New York from Baltimore, where he was overshadowed by Ray Lewis and didn't receive all the attention that he deserved.
The bottom line is that Scott is a playmaker. He's great on shedding blockers and making the key tackle when it matters. He hasn't had a lot of sacks though, barring his 9.5 sack season in 2006 when he made his only Pro Bowl.
Scott will be a main focus in Rex Ryan transitioning his defense from Baltimore to the Jets, where he recently became the new head coach.
Scott could very well hold Ryan's future in New York on his shoulders based on how effectively he's able to run Ryan's defense without Ray Lewis by his side.
2. Patrick Willis (San Francisco 49ers)
32 games started, 5 sacks, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles, 1 touchdown, 246 tackles, 2-time Pro Bowler and 1-time All-Pro
Give Willis two or three years, and not only will he be the best 3-4 inside linebacker, but the best linebacker in the game, regardless of defensive scheme.
Give him a few years after that, and people will be talking about him in the same breath as Mike Singletary (his current coach) and Ray Lewis.
Willis is big, strong, fast, smart, and everything else you could ever want from a linebacker. In his first two seasons, he's earned Pro Bowl honors, including earned All-Pro honors in his rookie season. Not to mention, he was also named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Were it not for the next guy on this list, he already would be the best in the league.
1. Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens)
177 games started, 33.5 sacks, 28 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, 3 touchdowns, 1,255 tackles, 1 safety, 10-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All-Pro
Ray Lewis might be the very best linebacker to ever play, so he was the obvious choice for the No. 1 spot. Even if he has lost a half-step over the past couple of seasons, it's not enough to bump him out of this spot.
He's the absolute bar for inside linebackers, and any linebackers in general.
There's not much you can say about a guy who does everything right and already has his ticket to the Hall of Fame punched five years after his retirement.
He's the greatest linebacker in the history of the NFL, and still the best playing at the moment.
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