Generally, the months of May and June are rather slow when it comes to NFL headlines. What better way to pass the dog days of summer than with a few flashbacks?
With the first decade of the century in the books, we are given the perfect opportunity to take the time to look back at a decade filled with great players, games, moments and controversies.
My first look at the decade will center on the linebacker position, which is, by far, the most important position on the defensive side of the ball. Some analysts and coaches call the middle linebacker the "quarterback" of the defense. The defensive linemen have to be the most physical, but linebackers, especially the two outside linebackers, have to be very versatile. It's rare to see linemen sent in to coverage, but at linebacker you must be ready for anything. The greats (i.e. Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor to name a few) were sideline-to-sideline, physical players.
Lets take a look at the game's best all-around 'backers of the 2000s. Note: I chose my top ten list based on a variety of different factors such as the team around the player, personal statistics (accumulated from 2000-09), playing style, leadership and even reputation.
1. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
2000-09 stats: 866 tackles, 23.5 sacks, 21 INT, 12 FF
Personally, I don't think this is even close. Lewis kicked off the new millennium with a Super Bowl MVP to cap off the 2000 season. That year he was part of one of the greatest defenses in the history of the game as they defeated the NFC champion New York Giants 34-7. Lewis earned his way on to eight Pro Bowl and six All-Pro teams in the decade despite playing in six or less games in '02 and '05.
Lewis has it all: physical ability, vast football knowledge (and instincts) and leadership. He makes the guys around him better. Not to mention he has surprised everyone with four straight Pro Bowl appearances despite an aging body.
A couple of years ago I named him on one of my "washed-up" lists and then he goes out and plays two full seasons in 2008 and '09 while putting up big numbers. At age 35, Lewis looks like he could have a good two or three seasons left in the tank.
2. Tedy Bruschi, New England Patriots
2000-08 stats: 526 tackles, 18.5 sacks, 11 INT, 11 FF
Bruschi's statistics may not look quite as good as most of the other guys out there, but he has everyone beat in the category that matters most: championships. Bruschi won three Super Bowls with New England in the 2000s and played a vital role in all three. He seemed to be more of a role player, but Bruschi sure had the guts and leadership abilities to get the job done.
It's true he never managed to record more than 81 tackles in a season, or even sack the quarterback five times in a single season, but he did what it took to win games and got the job done. Heck, he even managed to get in to the end zone four times throughout his 13-year career, all with the Patriots. Bruschi's heart, alone, deserves to make this list and I doubt many people will disagree with me.
3. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears
2000-09 stats: 816 tackles, 37.5 sacks, 17 INT, 8 FF
Urlacher has seen better days (missed all but one game this past season), but when he first started his pro career back in 2000, Urlacher was one of the most feared 'backers in the game, and was the heart and soul of the Bears defense. First and foremost, Urlacher was a solid pass rusher, racking up 37.5 sacks. Had he been a bit more consistent in that category (had three seasons without a single sack), he may have racked up more than 50. Urlacher was used in many different ways and mastered the art of tackling.
Discounting his failed 2009 campaign, Urlacher averaged 90 tackles a season. One more thing Urlacher brought to the table is the fact that the Bears could count on him showing up. He started all 16 games in seven of his 10 seasons, allowing him to rack up 100+ tackles twice.
4. Joey Porter, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins
2000-09 stats: 444 tackles, 90 sacks, 12 INT, 22 FF
Porter is an entertainer and likes to run his mouth, but does a great job at backing up that talk. I wouldn't say he's a sideline-to-sideline guy like Lewis and Urlacher, but he's one of the best pass-rushing LBs in the game right now.
His worst season came in '99, his rookie season, in which he recorded just 10 tackles and two sacks in 16 games (zero starts) with Pittsburgh. After that, Porter went on to record 90 more sacks in Pittsburgh and Miami.
In the decade, Porter has had double-digit starts every season and, at age 31, Porter put up a career-high sack total of 17.5 with Miami in 2008. Now a Cardinal, Porter looks to add on to his list of accomplishments (four Pro Bowls, one All-Pro selection) in 2010.
5. Zach Thomas, Miami Dolphins
2000-08 stats: 652 tackles, 15 sacks, 9 INT, 9 FF
Thomas, one of my favorite LBs ever, accumulated 1106 tackles over his 13-year NFL career (four of which were pre-2000), giving him an average of 85 tackles a season.
Thomas was certainly an underrated force in the Dolphins defense, most likely because he was overlooked while playing alongside star Jason Taylor. Thomas' stats, obviously, weren't exactly what you would call staggering, but he was a hard worker and kept under the radar.
Six of his eight Pro Bowl appearances came in the 2000s, so I guess you could say he wasn't entirely underrated, but still deserved more credit than he received. Thomas just barely made this list because of the fact that his last few years were unimpressive. But nonetheless, Thomas was one of the five best linebackers of the 2000s.
Others of Note:
DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Didn't make this list for the simple fact that he's only been in the league since 2005. But, his 20 sacks in 2008 were definitely tough to ignore.
James Farrior, Pittsburgh Steelers
Farrior is a workhorse and has seemed to been overlooked in Pittsburgh by the likes of Joey Porter and James Harrison.
Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
Briggs' numbers are solid enough (630 tackles despite entering the league in '03), but again, another guy (Urlacher) stole his thunder.
Junior Seau, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
Seau, without question, a top five linebacker in the '90s but misses the cut for the 2000s because he had a pretty slow finish to the decade (82 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INT in 27 games from 2007-09)
Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
His 57.5 sacks, five interceptions and 16 forced fumbles in seven seasons (2003-09) are worth mentioning. Suggs put up 12 sacks and forced five fumbles in his rookie campaign.
Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
I like to compare this guy to Zach Thomas. All this guy does is make tackles, which is exactly what you want your linebacker to do.
Brian Cushing, Houston Texans
Despite the drug policy suspension (which almost cost him his Rookie of the Year award), Cushing is one of the best young talents in the game right now.
Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers
Beason entered the league in '07, with Willis, and has recorded 106+ tackles in all three pro seasons, not to mention his 7 career interceptions with Carolina.
PLEASE: I am bound to miss some guys on my list. Please name any guy you think is worth mentioning on this list of players. I hope I didn't miss any obvious ones, I'm only one person. Thanks for any feedback.