Defensive Captains; The Top 10 NFL Inside/Middle LineBackers

Matt ShervingtonCorrespondent IIJuly 17, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 18:  Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens kneels over Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers as Roethlisberger grimaces after he was hit by Lewis during the AFC Championship game on January 18, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

1.) Ray Lewis, Baltimore

I know that some people think that Ray Lewis has lost a step, but I just fail to see it. I should hate the Ravens’ players, yet all I can do is respect them and what they do, and the one player the Ravens cannot afford to lose is Ray Lewis. He may have lost some speed over the years, but the position isn’t about speed.

It’s about instincts, and no one has better ones than him.

Lewis has a complete skill set. He can crash the line of scrimmage with the best of ‘em, and loves to tackle. He can cover the middle of the field and he can create the turnover.

There’s a reason that he’s one of the best ever, and while I expect him to drop out of the top 5 by the end of next season, I’ve been expecting that every season for the past three years.

2.) London Fletcher, Washington

Perhaps the most underrated LineBacker in the NFL, London Fletcher has been the face of several good defenses. Fletcher can do everything Lewis can do, which has him placed this high and one might even argue that he can do more as Fletcher is one of the only Linebackers in the NFL that can line up against elite Halfbacks one-on-one and succeed.

Don’t believe me? Ask Brian Westbrook in which Fletcher was given man responsibilities against him and found much success.

Fletcher’s numbers, on paper are, arguably, good enough for Hall of Fame candidacy, though he might not actually find Canton. With that said, Fletcher has mine, and should have your respect until he starts to slow down.

3.) Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay

Barrett Ruud is what Brian Urlacher never actually was… a young LineBacker that is capable of making plays along both sidelines, being excellent in coverage, and capable of crashing the line of scrimmage. Barrett Ruud is madly underrated, and is, in my opinion, the best young LineBacker in the NFL right now.

Ruud can run with any HalfBack in the NFL in isolated coverage. He can make plays along both sidelines, and last year made additions to his came indicating that he is well rounded. He became an adept blitzer last year and has forced 7 turnovers in his short career. Ruud is one amazingly underrated player

4.) Patrick Willis, San Fransisco

Patrick Willis is the future of the LineBacker position. In his rookie season Willis was a one-dimensional tackler and was criticized by idol Mike Singletary for it. Willis worked on it, and improved massively in coverage last season. While not elite in coverage, Willis is now good at it and the only thing that could be asked that he become better at is becoming a better “playmaker” by forcing more turnovers.

Willis, as a third year LineBacker, is already the league’s best tackler, and it’s not even close. His football IQ is pretty high, and I firmly believe that he will sit snugly into the one or two spot on this list by the end of the 2009-10 season.


5.) Lofa Tatupu, Seattle

Lofa Tatupu seems to be one of those guys who just has bad luck. He was massively heralded after a rookie season in which he captained his defense to a Super Bowl appearance, and then had similar success as a 2nd-year player.

Then came Patrick Willis and everyone seemed to forget about Lofa. Lofa then got injured and everyone seemed to forget that Tatupu was ever actually in the NFL. Well I haven’t forgotten about you Lofa.

Tatupu might be the best zone coverage LineBacker in the NFL when he’s healthy, and he is a natural leader, which needs to be taken into account. Tatupu knows how to crash the line of scrimmage, and he knows how to create a turnover.

Not the most athletic Linebacker, Tatupu still succeeds due to one of the highest football IQs in the business.

6.) Karlos Dansby, Arizona

What makes Dansby so good is his ability to play so many Linebacker positions. Dansby’s versatility in having the ability to play the 4-3 Mike, 4-3 Will, 4-3 Sam, 4-3 Mike and 3-4 Mac make him a special specimen.

Many people hypothesize that guys like Patrick Willis can succeed in any system, and while it’s probably true, we actually know that Dansby can because he does in Arizona.

Over the past two seaons Dansby has been lights out, despite the fact that he really doesn’t have any help in the Linebacking corp, and the Cardinals secondary, though talented, has had a propensity to underachieve every year.

7.) James Farrior, Pittsburgh

James Farrior seems to get overlooked. I even see people placing D’Qwell Jackson and Bart Scott over Farrior which is kind of an insult to this guy. But James Farrior has had the most tackles near the line of scrimmage since 2004.

But he’s not a one-dimensional line stuffer, he was an elite coverage Linebacker for some time and is still good in coverage.

Farrior is the leader of the Dick Lebeau called defense in Pittsburgh which is very complex and requires intelligent players to run it, and yes that includes James Harrison. I believe that this year is Farrior’s last year as his play is starting to decline, but as long as a LineBacker is required to crash the line Dick LeBeau will probably have a role for James Farrior.

8.) Nick Barnett, Green Bay

Another one of those guys that seems to get overlooked, people seem to have forgotten than Nick Barnett is one smart LineBacker with play to match. It is either him or Barrett Ruud that is tops in the NFL at sniffing out screen passes and blowing them up, which is a hell of a thing to be able to do.

Barnett is vastly underrated in coverage in my opinion, and plays much bigger than he is. The Packers defense missed him last year, and it’ll be very interesting to see what he can do in a 3-4 next season given that his skillset does transition well into it.

9.) Jon Beason, Carolina

Unfortunately for Beason he and Willis are always going to draw comparisons to one another. Also unfortunate for Beason is that, in the eyes of the American public, tackles are overrated and used to judge the measure of a LineBacker. Beason is an awesome coverage guy and an excellent leader.

He seems to be a younger version of Ray Lewis, though the system in Carolina doesn’t call for him to crash the line of scrimmage as that is the Weakside LineBacker’s job down there. Not to mention that, at this point in his career he’s shown good signs of being a playmaker.

10.) DeMeco Ryans, Houston

DeMeco Ryans was Patrick Willis before Patrick Willis; a rookie that led the league in tackles. However, Ryans just never seemed to get the hype that Willis got for some reason.

Ryans had displayed a strong understanding of the Xs and Os in his first two years of his NFL career, but for some reason last year seemed to regress in terms of making plays within the box. Ryans is fluid in coverage and does it all without any talent around him except for fellow high picks Akoye and Williams.

Honorable Mention

E.J. Henderson

~ To one-dimensional

Brian Urlacher

~ No longer capable of playing the run well

Kirk Morrison

~ Misses too many tackles

Jonathan Vilma

~ Misses too many tackles

~ Not good enough in coverage

Stewart Bradley

~ To one-dimensional

~ Need one more good year out of him

Bart Scott

~ Can he do it without Ray Lewis

~ To one-dimensional

D’Qwell Jackson

~ Need one more season

~ Is he a benefactor of the bad defense leads to nice stats equation?

Will Witherspoon
~ Had a down year


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