Middle linebacker is like the quarterback of the defense. He's the guy that has to keep the defense together and make sure everyone is doing their job. Inside linebackers have to play the run, the pass, and on occasion, rush the quarterback. They have to be extremely versatile, and play with a combination of speed and power.
Before the season started I ranked the top 10 players at several positions. I never released the 10 best middle linebackers. So after over a month here it is—the top ten middle linebackers in the NFL.
London Fletcher has played 13 seasons in the NFL, but hasn't got very much credit until the past two years.
He has played for three teams: St. Louis (1998-01); Buffalo (2002-06); and Washington (2007-present). He has over 1,500 career tackles and has eclipsed the 100-tackle mark in 11 straight seasons, but hasn't made a Pro Bowl until the last two years.
In 2009, Fletcher had 142 tackles, and at 34 years old made his first Pro Bowl. Last season he recorded 136 tackles and made his second straight Pro Bowl.
He's now 36 years old and going into his fourth NFL season. He may only have a year or two left in the tank, but for now I have him as the 10th-best inside linebacker in the NFL today.
DeMeco Ryans was injured most of last season, but that doesn't mean he should be excluded from this list.
The season before last, Ryans had 123 tackles and made the Pro Bowl.
Here are his stats from his first four seasons: 519 tackles, 7.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and two Pro Bowl selections.
Lawrence Timmons is the least recognizable name on the best linebacker core in the NFL.
Last season he led this great defense with 134 tackles. He also recorded three sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
In the last three seasons in Pittsburgh, Timmons has played in 46 games and started in 30 of them. In that span he has 268 tackles, 15 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and three interceptions.
David Harris isn't a name the typical NFL fan might have heard of, but you better start to know him.
He's going into his fifth year and is only going to get better. Since Vilma's departure to the Saints, Harris has taken over his role on the defense.
In 2007, his rookie season, Harris had 127 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. The next season he missed five games but still managed to record 75 tackles. In 2009 he again had 127 tackles, two picks, 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Last season Harris was the leader of the Jets' linebacking core that only gave up 90.9 rushing yards per game (third in the league).
Harris hasn't made a Pro Bowl yet, but expect to see him there very soon.
Jonathan Vilma had a great start to his career in New York, but he was injured in 2007 and the Jets shipped him to New Orleans after the season.
Vilma has been fantastic in a Saints uniform. He's been the vocal leader of that defense since his arrival.
In his first season with them, Vilma had 132 tackles and two forced fumbles. The next season he again totaled over 100 tackles and made his first Pro Bowl with the team. He led that underdog defense to the Super Bowl where they defeated the Indianapolis Colts.
Last season, Vilma again had over 100 tackles and made his second straight Pro Bowl.
Jon Beason has played both inside and outside linebacker. He's on the Panthers' depth chart as their middle linebacker and his two best seasons (2008 and 2009) he played solely middle.
Beason was part of a great linebacker draft of 2007: Patrick Willis; Lawrence Timmons; Paul Posluszny; LaMarr Woodley; David Harris and Anthony Spencer. With a class like that, it's hard to stand out, but Beason has.
In his rookie season he totaled 140 tackles. The next season he had 138 tackles and made his first Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro linebacker over his draft-mate Patrick Willis. In 2009, he had a career-high 142 tackles and again made the Pro Bowl. Last season, Beason had a career-low 119 tackles, but made it to his third straight Pro Bowl.
So far his career totals are 539 tackles, eight interceptions and three Pro Bowl selections.
He had a season-ending injury earlier this year, but look for him to come back strong next season.
Many people thought Urlacher's career was over after the 2009 season. He hadn't made a Pro Bowl in two years, and in the first game of the year suffered a season-ending injury. At the beginning of last year he probably wouldn't have made this list, but he showed doubters wrong (including me) with a great season.
Urlacher started every game, had four sacks, 125 tackles and defended 10 passes. He was the centerpiece of a Bears defense that was second in the league in rush defense (90.1 yards per game).
At 32 years old and in his 11th season, Urlacher looked like his old self again.
Jerod Mayo is coming off a huge year in New England. After two good seasons to start off his career, Mayo stepped up in his third.
He had over 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons, but was not named to a Pro Bowl. Last season Mayo led the league with 175 tackles, made the Pro Bowl and was selected as a first team All-Pro linebacker.
Mayo was the heart of a Patriots defense that gave up less than 20 points per game last season.
We all know Ray Lewis is an absolute stud and one of the greatest NFL players of all time (maybe the greatest middle linebacker). But at 36 years old and going into his 16th season, he's still one of the league's best.
Lewis has almost 2,000 career tackles, is one of two 30/30 club members, been to 12 Pro Bowls, named NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, and was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.
Those are some crazy good accomplishments, but this is a list of who the best current linebackers are, and I'm going to focus on his last three seasons.
He has made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons and was named a first team All-Pro linebacker in 2008 and 2009. His totals for the last three years are 390 tackles, 8.5 sacks, five interceptions, six forced fumbles and 20 passes defended.
Lewis is in the latter part of his career, but shows no sign of slowing down, physically or mentally.
Patrick Willis is one of the most physically intimidating players in the NFL today. The guy is an absolute beast. He's 6'1", 242 pounds and built like a Greek god.
In his rookie season he took the NFL by storm. He led the league with 174 total tackles (next best was 141), made the Pro Bowl and was selected a first team All-Pro linebacker. The next season he was second in tackles, and in 2009 he again led the league.
In four seasons, Willis has 594 total tackles, 15 sacks, made the Pro Bowl every year, and three times has been named a first-team All-Pro linebacker.
If Willis can keep it going and avoid injury, he'll go down as one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time.