Player Profiling: NFL Inside Linebacker Rankings

Thom Cunningham@ThomBhombCorrespondent IJuly 13, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 18:  Linebacker Patrick Willis #52 of the San Francisco 49ers during a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders on August 18, 2007 at Monster Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Greg Trott/Getty Images)

Ranking the league's overall best inside linebackers entering the 09' season

1. Patrick Willis (SF)

Willis has every characteristic of a great football player. He has a big build to his body with the perfect amount of speed. His awareness and overall knowledge developed quickly along with his leadership skills. Willis explodes into holes faster than any other linebacker and rarely misses tackles. His power and strength combined with his athletic skills make him one of the toughest backers to block. Willis led the league in tackles his rookie season and finished second last year. He is a young talent who has already proven his dominance and reliability as a top player in the league today.

2. Ray Lewis (BAL)

Lewis is still one of the most feared linebackers in the game today. His aggression and emotion should go unquestioned, and his all around talent is close to perfect. Lewis is one of the best pursuit tacklers and can sniff out any play. His leadership in the Raven clubhouse separates himself from many other linebackers today with equal talent. He makes everyone around him better and brings confidence to any teammate sharing the field with him. He reacts to plays better than most backers and will never give up on a play. This is a hard working, proven player that brings confidence and emotion to his game. Combine all of that with his pure ability and you'll find that Lewis is still one of the best overall players in the game.

3. DeMeco Ryans (HOU)

I always thought Ryans was a steal when Houston drafted him in the second round. Ryans is a tough player who brings a bruiser attitude on the field. His tackling skills are amazing along with ability to hit holes hard. Ryans can take on most fullbacks and does a good job of exploding through blocks. He is a player who can change the entire direction of an offense's running play and has the ability to create many turnovers (through picks or fumbles). Another young, athletic talent who has proven his dominance in a short time period.

4. Brain Urlacher (CHI)

Urlacher is still one of the smartest and most complete backers today. Urlacher's toughness has not faded, nor his capability of taking over an entire defense. His ability to read plays is one of the best and has the strength to run over most ball carriers. His toughness and leadership makes him one of the best, but his coverage skills could still improve. Overall, Urlacher is another solid player who you can trust to make the big play for your defense. Now that Cutler is in Chicago, the whole Bear team might have a different attitude throughout the season. Chicago's defense was already one of the best, and I think it is up to Urlacher to elevate them to a higher standard this season.

5. D'Qwell Jackson (CLE)

He is another young talent with a bright future. His hitting skills are some of the best which has been proven by recording the most tackles last year. His intensity is ridiculous along with his awareness and play recognition. His speed, both physically and mentally, combine to make him a dangerous player from any part of the field. His athletic talent should go unquestioned along with his reliability and big play capability. Jackson's success shouldn't be viewed as a fluke because of his pure athletic talent and consistent mature play.

6. London Fletcher (WAS)

Fletcher is an underrated backer who has some of the best fundamental skills at that position. Fletcher does a good job of filling holes and makes the little plays that help defenses. His tackling skills are impressive and his ability to quickly shift the momentum of an offense is rare to find. Fletcher is a deceiving player with a lot of talent and knowledge. He has playoff experience in his career and can help lead any defense with talent (let alone Washington's) deep into a NFL season. A hard working player with tons of talent, knowledge and maturity makes Fletcher a threat to many teams who like to run inside.

7. Antonio Pierce (NYG)

Another reliable veteran with some of the best leadership qualities. Pierce is another fundamental player who brings a hard hitting style to his game. He fills holes nicely and  hardly lets ball carriers break into the secondary. His pursuit skills are not as strong as some other backers, but his awareness and mechanics still make him a dangerous talent. Pierce's strength is underrated as well as his athletic talent. Pierce is a sound player with tons of fire power and leadership that brings a high level of confidence to his game (along with the best defensive line in the league).

8. Jon Beason (CAR)

Beason had an argument to make the Pro Bowl over Fletcher. He has ranked third in tackles the past two seasons, which were also his only two seasons in his career. There seems to be a bunch of young backers who have proven their dominance early and Beason is another one. His combination of speed and power make him a dangerous threat to any offense. He is a tough down field runner with a hit-first,think-second mindset. His aggression and ability at such a young age will make Beason a reliable player to have for a very long time. His athletic talent and skills will allow him to become a serious leader for a championship ball club, just not this year. This is another player I believe has impressed so well, but hasn't hit his prime (which is scary to think about).

9. EJ Henderson (MIN)

He could be the most underrated linebacker today. Henderson is a quick and elusive backer with tons of power and strength. He has quickly taken over as a leader on the Minnesota defense, which is impressive to me. He has some of the hardest hitting skills I've seen in the game and runs through ball carriers extremely well. His ability to make make his presence felt in the backfield makes him an under-estimated, but dangerous player for opposing offenses. Henderson is a player who can make the entire core better just by his determination and skill to be everywhere the ball is on every play (along with his kick-ass attitude after every hit he delivers).

10. Lofa Tatupu (SEA)

A lot of people forget about Tatupu when it comes to ranking the best inside backers. Tatupu is a proven superstar with play making ability many inside backers don't hold. Injuries seemed to be his problem last year (along with every Seattle player). He has some of the best skills at reading a quarterbacks eyes and making a play on the ball (which many backers don't have). He can pick off a ball as well as he can make a tackle. He is always looking to make the big play for a defense, but also understands when he just needs to do his job. Tatupu is a smart player who has proven he has the skill to help a defense succeed deep in a season. His mental toughness makes him a winner already, but his ability to make plays on the ball gives him an advantage over the offense lining up on the opposite side of the field.

11. Karlos Dansby (ARI)

He is another underrated back with tons of athletic talent. Dansby has a skill for reacting quickly on plays and exploding to the football. His speed lacks from his actual explosiveness, but his ability to wrap up and hit is solid. Dansby can make big plays from time to time, but does a better job setting up the players around him. Dansby has the skill to quietly sneak in for a sack, but has a motor that never turns off. He is always looking to strip the ball before actually bringing ball carriers to the ground. Dansby's all around quickness and play making awareness is often over-looked. He is a pretty solid, but at times risky, backer who can set up and execute big plays for your defense.

12. Bart Scott (NYJ)

Scott's fun attitude and leadership qualities have really surprised me more than anything. His tacking skills are some of the best along with his ability to read plays and react. He is explosive in his hitting and has a determination when making plays. Scott's success comes from being a hard working player with a lot of skill. He is one of the more "coachable" players in the league and plays with a level of intensity that may surprise you (a player who lets his play do the talking). His success was proven in Baltimore and he is running the same scheme in New York (along with the same coach).

13. Jonathan Vilma (NO)

Vilma has the ability to completely take over and lead any defense far into a post-season. His fundamentals and mechanics are just as good as his pure athletic talent. He reads plays extremely well and does a good job of wrapping up and bringing down ball carriers. He is a tough defender to get by for most ball carriers and can create or set up big plays at any time during a game. I think he can be more productive than he was last year, but needs more support around him to become a great player on a consistent basis.

14. Barrett Ruud (TB)

Ruud is one of the best fundamental hitters in the game. Ruud's best qualities include wrapping up and not letting ball carriers get by him. His overall quickness and explosiveness to get to a hole can improve, but his ability to rarely miss tackles makes him as reliable as they come. He is a tough player with a great work ethic. I am not doubting Ruud's ability to control a franchises' line backing core; but he didn't show any leadership signs last year. His statistics don't lie and he is still one of the most motivated defensive players in the league. I like Ruud as a reliable backer for many teams but if you rely on him to be your game changing presence, you are sadly mistaken.

15. Bradie James (DAL)

James has just as much skill to run over ball carriers as he does to create turnovers. He is arguably one of the best big play linebackers. He can put his head down to make a big stop on the ground. He has the athletic talent and correct mindset to set up big plays and turnovers for the Cowboy defense. He is another player who can feed off of the success of players around him (Ware, Ratliff, etc.), but is a reliable player to give defenses a smart, play making presence at the middle linebacker position.

16. James Farrior (PIT)

Farrior is a tough linebacker with amazing awareness skills. He seems to know what offenses are running and always positions himself to make ball carriers go where ever he wants them to go. His ability to fill a hole quickly also benefits the talent that surrounds him. Farrior has underrated leadership skills and has an overlooked intensity many people don't realize. His physical toughness measures equally to his mental toughness, allowing him to become one of the more intelligent and clutch players on the field. He is one of the most experienced players from a fundamental and accomplished stand point who has been overlooked the majority of his career.

17. Jerod Mayo (NE)

Mayo's impact last year was well noticed, but I thought it could've been better. He was a rookie last year, so his overall football game should be brought to a higher level entering the 09' season. Mayo will be entering this season in a more comfortable atmosphere as opposed to last season. Skill wise, Mayo is a fast and strong backer who has a nose for the football. His elusiveness and pursuit skills really impressed me along with his hitting strength. Mayo's presence in the backfield could be felt more often, but his overall football talent will make him a household name in time to come.

18. Kirk Morrison (OAK)

Another underrated backer with some of the best pure athleticism today. He accumulated the fifth most tackles last year and has very dangerous speed in his arsenal. His hitting skills are underrated (from a power stand point) and his explosiveness to make plays behind the line seems like a habit. Morrison does over pursuit on plays many times, but overall he makes plays more than he gives them up. Recording the fifth most tackles in the league is no easy task, but to ask him to do it on a consistent level for his entire career needs to be proven in my opinion. I think he has the potential to do it however, but he needs to become a bigger leader with a much more aggressive mindset if he wants to secure himself as a long-term starter with Oakland.

19. Mike Peterson (ATL)

Peterson is due to have one of his best seasons he has had in his career. Peterson is a straight athlete with a high level of intensity and insanity. He is fast enough and explosive enough to  stop many plays before they cross the line. He has been a proven leader everywhere he has gone and Atlanta should be no different. He will be taking over a group of young linebackers (including one that played well last season). His role in Atlanta's defense will be crucial, but he can fill the boots. When Peterson plays a full season, he puts up Pro Bowl numbers. His most successful season up to this point in his career was the time he spent in Jacksonville. He recorded over 350 tackles in three full seasons with the Jaguars (seasons he played 16 games). His defensive coordinator at the time was Mike Smith, who is now the head coach for Atlanta. His overall ability and reliability has already been proven, but he had big problems with Del Rio in Jacksonville. Now that he is re-united with his former defensive coordinator, expect the same capable Peterson with a hard working mindset to lead a young team far.

20. Dhani Jones (CIN)

Dhani can make almost any tackle on the field. His ability to get to the ball carrier quickly needs improvement; but from an overall stand point, Jones is arguably one of the best pure tacklers in the game. He knows when to wrap up players as opposed to just knock them out and force a turnover. Jones is one of the most precise backers in the game and has an overlooked toughness in his mental game. He makes big plays more with his tackling rather than his coverage. Overall, Jones' presence delivers a reliable and fundamental player with a lot more football skill than most people give him credit.

21. Will Witherspoon (STL)

His speed is extremely underrated along with his awareness. Witherspoon is arguably one of the best players on the Rams defense, but he never gets credit. He is a reliable veteran who understands the game inside and out. He knows what must be done in certain situations and has the skill and speed to set up big plays. His ability to create turnovers individually has sadly passed, but he can still make an immediate impact for any ball club. Witherspoon is an all around underrated player who has just as much speed and awareness as some of the best.

22. Stephen Tulloch (TEN)

Tulloch might be one of the most unstable hitters today. He has an unorthodox style to his game and runs around like a mad man who escaped from prison. His mental focus is uncanny and his overall toughness is some of the best in the league. Tulloch can fly into holes like a missile and wrap up ball carriers very quickly. His consistency as a reliable player has improved for the most part and playing alongside Kieth Bullock should keep his high level of confidence up. Tulloch is an amazing athlete that should bring a scary presence to any opposing offense; and if you don't think he is, then he has already beaten you.

23. Channing Crowder (MIA)

Crowder has developed very nicely these past few years. He has become a more aware player with much better tackling and pursuing skills from when he first entered the league. Learning the position from Joey Porter doesn't hurt either. Crowder has the ability to become a Pro Bowl player for a consistent amount of time. His athletic talent combined with his NFL developmental skills can transform this once mediocre player into a superstar in the future. If Crowder continues his development, I see one of the most confident, hard hitting, aware backers the league will see down the road.

24. Zach Thomas (KC)

Thomas can still produce solidly for any team he is on. The Chiefs needed a reliable veteran to help guide the young but improving Kansas City defense. His presence might make everyone else on that team better (like Jarrad Page), but he can't do it himself. Thomas is as blue-collar as they come and can still read a play better than most backers. His overall quickness and speed has never been impressive, but it has slowly gotten worse each season. Thomas still has the skill and mentality to produce for the Kansas City defense, but his speed can not match with the young talent in the game today.

25. Lawrence Timmons (PIT)

Expect a huge season from Lawrence Timmons. He is a fast, explosive and tough backer who has athletic potential through the roof. He took Larry Foote's job, so he obviously has impressed someone in Pittsburgh. His hitting skills are very impressive, but can still improve. To sum it all up, Timmons is a solid player who is still working on the little things to become great. His athletic talent and play making ability has been proven already in my opinion.

26. Andra Davis (DEN)

This was a one time play maker who has seemed to fall off the map due to injuries. Davis has some of the best tackling mechanics and play recognition skills. He has always played with a chip on his shoulder which makes him more dangerous to me. His tough attitude and hard working demeanor can make Davis a consistent player like he once was in Cleveland. It is the same case with Thomas, I'm just not sure his athletic talent matches up with his football skills. Davis has the potential to return to a dominant force on defense, but he will have to play harder than he has ever before played in his career to seriously get back on that level.

27. Eric Barton (NYJ)

He is an underrated blitzer who can set up big play opportunities for his teammates. Barton has low-key speed that surprises many opposing blockers. His ability to come up and make a play on the run is not the best, but manageable. Barton, I believe, is most effective coming from the outside rather than inside. His pure strength does not match to other inside backers, but his overall football skill still allows him to be a presence on the field. He is an effective player who I feel would be used to his best potential on the outside rather than in.

28. Nick Barnett (GB)

It was hard to rank Barnett this low. He is still one of the best pure hitters on defense and is a reliable player to fill open holes at the line. Injuries scare me for Barnett more than any other player I can think of (which might be why he is ranked pretty low). It's not that I'm not confident in Barnett's consistency or proven skill; but I feel he has played up to the best he is going to get. The fact that he struggled and got hurt last year really makes me fear for his future as a top backer again.

29. Stephen Cooper (SD)

Cooper is another linebacker who hits like a man and runs around like a mad one. He brings a tough and unorthodox style to his game that is effective. Cooper does a good job of running through ball carriers with a determination and technique that almost seems flawless. The intensity he shows in every aspect of his game makes me think high for him and the future. Cooper has never really gotten the chance to prove he can become a reliable long-term player for a franchise. He has the ability, talent, mindset and mechanics to deliver solid performances week in and week out.

30. Paul Posluszny (BUF)

This play might develop into his own this season. He is a hard working player with as much toughness as pure aggression. His quickness and explosive abilities are weak compared to other backers in the league and on his team. He does a pretty solid job of filling the inside role for Buffalo, and the talent around him only enhances his confidence and success. Posluszny has the best attitude and mentality coaches like in their players, but his overall performance in the league up to this point has not even come close to what he is actually capable of doing. I like everything about Posluszny other than his pure football skill compared to most players he lines up against.

31. Leon Williams (CLE) - A under-the-radar player who has had great success in the 3-4. He can fill holes extremely well and delivers a big body presence to the field.

32. Gary Brackett (IND)
- Brackett is a smart player who is always thinking about making the big play. He is one of the best linebackers at executing what he wants to accomplish on a play.

33. David Harris (NYJ)
- Another reliable veteran who fills in as one of the best role players on defense.

34. Larry Foote (DET)
- Although he lost his job in Pittsburgh, he is still one of the most underrated athletes with great awareness. He might have been the missing piece in Detroit's new and improved line backing core.

35. Rey Maualuga (CIN)
- Another candidate for defensive rookie of the year. Brings the same toughness and emotion that players like Ray Lewis and EJ Henderson show.

36. Stewart Bradley (PHI)
- This may be a low ranking to many. Bradley has become a dependable play maker in clutch situations of a game. His tackling skills are underrated, but his presence is widely recognized.

37. Takeo Spikes (SF)
- He might find success this year (mainly because of Singletary). He is still a fiery player with a winning mindset. His toughness and skill shave not gone anywhere and I think this season is an opportunity for him to prove it.

38. Tedy Bruschi (NE) -
Still a productive player for a franchise who specializes in using their talents the best way possible. As long as he is healthy and active, Bruschi will always help rather than hurt a defense.

39. Nate Webster (DEN)
- He disappointed me a lot last season. His big hits seemed to come and go, but missed more tackles than made. He has the potential to play consistently productive, but the signing of Andra Davis might mean Denver wasn't too impressed with him either.

40. Napoleon Harris (MIN)
- He can make big plays from time to time, but rarely sees the field due to EJ Henderson's dominance. Henderson does get hurt more times than none, so his PT shouldn't get in the way of what he can deliver each week.


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