The middle linebacker has long been called the quarterback of the defense. Hall of Famers like Bill George and Chuck Bednarik first gained popularity for this key position, soon to be followed by legends like Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Les Richter, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Jack Lambert, and more.
Even though the game today is ruled by quick passes that covers few yards in the air, the middle linebacker is still very important for more reasons than calling audibles and realigning teammates in the right positions.
Once know mainly for run support, the inside linebacker is generally more active in pass defense today. They cover more than running backs and tight ends, often peeling out deeper in coverage to try to stop the oppositions wide receivers.
Here are the best inside linebackers in the NFL today :
Fletcher started in the NFL as an undrafted free agent rookie for the Saint Louis Rams in 1998. Though he spent his rookie season as a reserve, he impressed the organization enough to be named Rams Rookie of the Year that year.
He started the next year, and has started every game but once since. Ever durable, Fletcher has played in every 208 games possible in his career. After helping the Rams win Super Bowl XXXIV, he joined the Buffalo Bills as a free agent and stayed there five seasons before becoming a member of the Washington Redskins in 2007.
Though he made his first two Pro Bowl squads the last two years, Fletcher is the most complete middle linebacker Washington has had since Harold McLinton. McLinton was the Redskins starting middle linebacker for most of his 10-year career from 1969 to 1978 before being killed by a reckless driver as he helped a stranger change a flat tire on a highway.
No player accumulated more tackles than Fletcher from 2000 to 2009, and this includes more media lauded players like Ray Lewis and more. All Fletcher does in pile up tackles game after game without missing any time because of injuries.
He isn't just great against the run. In 2010, his 12 defended passes was tied with Takeo Spikes as the third most by all NFL linebackers. He led all NFL linebackers in the category in 2006.
Besides 16 career interceptions and three touchdowns in his career, Fletcher has also recorded two safeties.
He has a knack for diagnosing the right defensive action and is often seen around the football. While severely underrated because his not boisterous nor loud-mouthed to seek attention, his numbers show he is one of the best middle linebackers out there.
This was proven further in 2010, when the Redskins switched to a 3-4 defense. He finished seventh in the NFL with 136 tackles, and has been one of the NFL's top six tacklers seven times since 2002.
Beason has been nothing short of quietly spectacular since the Carolina Panthers drafted him in the first round of the 2007 draft, The 140 tackles he got as a rookie adds to the total of 539 in his four seasons.
His 2007 total was good for third best in the NFL for tackles, and one short of second place. However, Patrick Willis had 174 and won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award instead, as Beason finished second in voting.
He has also played outside linebacker when injuries have depleted the Panthers linebacker unit. Beason volunteered to do so before moving back inside after his replacement also got hurt.
A three-time Pro Bowler with one First Team All-Pro nod, Beason was recently rewarded with a five-year contract worth $50 million.Carolina joined the NFL in 1995, and Beason is already only 146 tackles shy of replacing the excellent Mike Minter as the Panthers all-time leader in tackles.
He is as consistent as they come for an NFL linebacker the last four years. He has 29 passes defended, and the 119 tackles he had last year is his career low. While this was caused by him moving outside, he averaged 140 tackles in his first three years.
Now back in the middle of the defense for 2011, the Panthers leader fully expects to continue his excellence despite the fact the media hasn't seemed to focus much on it because Beason decides to let his work speak for him rather than his mouth.
Tulloch was brought along slowly by the Tennessee Titans after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. He didn't become the Titans starter at middle linebacker until 2008, but has steadily improved each season since.
After 80 tackles his first year as a starter, he improved to 120 in 2009. Last year saw Tulloch finish second in the NFL with 160 tackles. He then left the Titans as a free agent and joined the Detroit Lions this year.
While the Lions got two good years from Paris Lenon, it has been since the 2000 season since the Lions got Pro Bowl play from their middle linebacker. Stephen Boyd had just given Detroit his second straight Pro Bowl year in his four years as a starter. He lost his career to injury four games into 2001.
Detroit would love for Tulloch to duplicate Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt in the middle of the defense, but they wouldn't be disappointed with him having seasons like Mike Lucci or Chris Spielmen for them either.
Tulloch is just 26-years old and should be entering his prime soon. The Lions are expecting big things from this rising tackling machine.
Legendary Patriots head coach Bill Belichick smartly positioned his team in the first round of the 2008 draft to select Mayo with the tenth overall pick. Mayo rewarded him by being named the Defensive Rookie of the Year after he piled up 126 tackles.
He keeps progressing, even despite missing three games in 2009 because of injury. While he led the NFL with 175 tackles last year, he also showed improvement in his pass defense by knocking down a career best five attempts.
He was named to the Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro last season, and Patriots fans look forward to him getting many more similar honors in the years to come.
He is just 25-years old, but he is already the leader of a young and productive New England defense. The Patriots started 13 players with six or less seasons of experience in 2010 on defense. The now departed Tully Banta-Cain was the greybeard of the unit with seven years under his belt.
Despite being near the bottom in passing yards allowed, as well as around the middle of the pack in rushing defense, the Patriots were eighth in points allowed. This young unit will only get better, especially with Mayo leading the way.
Posluszny slipped to the second round of the 2007 draft because he had injury issues in college. The Buffalo Bills snagged him and started him right away, and he was soon lost for the year after getting injured in the third game. He had 26 tackles at the time.
The 2008 season is the only one in his career he lasted an entire season healthy. The 110 tackles he got that year was matched in 2009 despite the fact Posluszny missed four games.
He had 151 tackles last year, despite missing two games. It was the third most in the NFL in 2010, just 24 behind the leader. Posluszny then became a free agent and signed a six-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jacksonville is hoping he can keep averaging over 10 tackles a game like last year, but they are gambling he can finally stay healthy an entire 16 games. When he is healthy, "Poz" is certainly one of the best middle linebackers in the league.
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent Timmons first two seasons using him as a reserve and trying to find a place on their defense for someone they spent a first round draft pick on in 2007.
Things changed in 2009 when he was moved to the inside linebacker slot and he responded with 77 tackles and seven sacks. Timmons began rounding his game even more in 2010 by getting a career best 134 tackles and two interceptions.
The Steelers organization thought enough of him to just sign him to a five-year $50 million contract earlier this year. Timmons already owns a Super Bowl ring, and Pittsburgh hopes he can help bring more.
How can a guy make this list with just one of his six NFL seasons as a middle linebacker? Especially after the first five years saw him generally view as an average player after the Kansas City Chiefs used the 15th overall pick of the first round in the 2005 draft.
It happens after the 2010 season he had as a middle linebacker, one thought of by many as a breakout season. Not only did Johnson get a career best 121 tackles, 25 better than his previous best set in 2005, but he did a lot more.
Johnson led all NFL linebackers with 17 passes defended, which was the 18th best total in the league. His four forced fumbles was tied as the second most by a linebacker in 2010, but he led all middle linebackers in that category.
Johnson spent 2009 as a reserve for the first time in his career, getting a career low 33 tackles. But he still intercepted a career best three passes for 175 yards in returns that got him the first two touchdowns of his career. He scored off another interception in 2010.
His three touchdowns off interceptions tie Chiefs legend Sherrill Headrick as the third most ever by Kansas City linebacker. Johnson's 175 interception return yards in 2009 are the most ever by a Chiefs linebacker, and the fifth most in team history.
At just 28-years old, this move to middle linebacker may have been the best move he has made in his NFL career so far. If he can keep up the pace he set last year, the Pro Bowl should soon be calling for his appearances in the not so distant future.
Willis won the 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award after being the 11th overall selection in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers. He did this after collecting 174 tackles that season, though the 49ers claim he had over 200.
Not only has Willis earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of his first four seasons, he has been named the NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year three times. The 128 tackles he had in 2010 was the lowest of his career so far.
His tackle totals may go up this year now that veteran Takeo Spikes, who played alongside him the last three years, has left to join the San Diego Chargers. He is being replaced by second-year pro Navarro Bowman, who has 28 career tackles.
The 49ers also lost their starting nose tackle to free agency, increasing the prospects of an increased workload for Willis in 2011.
Urlacher was the seventh player chosen overall in the first round of the 2000 draft by the Chicago Bears. He would go on to make the first of his seven Pro Bowls and be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year after getting 125 tackles and a career best eight sacks.
Despite the fact the NFL did not start officially recording tackles until 2001, Urlacher is considered the Bears all-time leader in tackles. Fans of Bears Hall of Fame middle linebackers Bill George, Dick Butkus, and Mike Singletary might beg to differ.
Yet it is agreed Urlacher has continued the long tradition of great Chicago middle linebackers. He is the 2001 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by Football Digest, as well as the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
Urlacher is a member of the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team. His 2010 season was just another excellent year for Urlacher. He had 125 tackles, four sacks, and 10 passes defended.
Urlacher has always been excellent in pass defense, maybe the best ever by a Bears middle linebacker. Discounting the 2009 season, which was shortened to one game because of injury, he has 41 of his 72 career passes defended his last four healthy seasons.
Not only can he stuff the oppositions running attack or blitz the quarterback, he can peel off deep with excellent speed and knock down passes meant for wide receivers.
Yet one of his greatest strengths is something that Bears fans saw in George, Butkus, and Singletary too. His leadership is already legendary in the Chicago locker room, something that might help Urlacher one day get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Lewis was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 1996 draft, 25 other teams passed on a player who now has 12 Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring, and will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.
Not only has Lewis been named Super Bowl XXXV MVP, he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice and set an NFL record for middle linebackers by being named First Team All-Pro 10 times. It is tied with Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor as the most ever by any linebacker.
He has the most interception return yards ever by a middle linebacker, and his 210 games played is also an NFL record by a middle linebacker. Lewis is a member of the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team.
He is the fastest player to ever reach 20 sacks and interceptions, as well as 30 sacks and interceptions, though it should be noted sacks were not recorded as an official statistic until 1982.
Now 36-years old, Lewis shows little sign of slowing down. He is unquestionably the leader of the Ravens. He had 139 tackles in 2010, and also scored off an interception.
Discounting the 2002 season, which was cut short to five games because of injury, and 2006 season that was cut to six games due to injury, Lewis has exceeded 100 tackles every year.
When the list of best middle linebackers the NFL has seen the past 20 years is brought up, Lewis is typically one of the first mentioned. He is still a big part of the reason why the Ravens defense has their team considered a Super Bowl contender once again.