Because the NFL is a copycat league, the amount of teams running the 3-4 has been on the rise over the past decade after a couple teams used it to win a few Super Bowls. It’s become so popular, in fact, that nearly half the league runs it.
Therefore, we’ve lumped 4-3 middle linebackers and 3-4 inside linebackers into one collective group. Mainly because if we take the other route the talent listed gets a bit thin. And either way, there’s not too much of a difference in responsibility, although it does take a better athlete to play MIKE in the 4-3.
And once again keep in mind that these rankings are a bit of personal preference mixed with past performance and how my crystal ball tells me they will perform in the future.
5. London Fletcher (Washington Redskins)
Fletcher has been overlooked his entire career — mainly because he has played on some bad teams. However, he’s now finally getting the recognition he deserves as one of the smartest defensive players in the league. What the guy is losing in athleticism with age he makes up for in experience and being able to read a play.
He knows where the running back is going before he does and still has the burst and physical ability to reach him at the line of scrimmage and take him down. Also, especially for a smaller player, his ability to get off of blocks and defend the pass is very impressive.
4. Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens)
There’s no doubt that Lewis will one day wind up in the Hall of Fame, and part of that goes to the fact that even at 34 years old he was still one of the best linebackers in the league.
Many, including myself, thought his numbers would dip a little once Bart Scott followed Rex Ryan to New York, but in fact he stepped up and his numbers only got better. Along with Denver’s Brian Dawkins, Lewis might be the very best defensive leader in all of football and backs up every impassioned speech with even more passionate play.
Lewis is a big reason why that Ravens defense hasn’t had a worse regression after Ryan left.
3. DeMeco Ryans (Houston Texans)
Ever since coming into the league as a second-round pick in 2006 — and winning defensive Rookie of the Year — Ryans has been an absolute animal that running backs hate to see on the other side of the ball. He’s one of the hardest tacklers in the league and can stop even the biggest running backs in their tracks.
The only problem with Ryans is that he set such a high bar during his rookie season that the last three haven’t appeared so great by comparison. However, Ryans has also been playing behind a patchwork group of defensive tackles including first-round under-achiever Amobi Okoye.
Even still, Ryans has consistently been one of the best linebackers in the league and returned to the Pro Bowl in ’09.
2. Jon Beason (Carolina Panthers)
Quite frankly, the fact that Beason missed out on the Pro Bowl last season is a catastrophe. He started all 16 games, had three sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble, and 112 solo tackles. If those numbers aren’t good enough to get him into the Pro Bowl, then no one deserves to go.
Beason, like Ryans, has not missed a game since entering the league. Beason has also never had less than 106 solo tackles in any given season and at least one interception. He is an absolute freak and isn’t called Jon Beast-on for nothing.
1. Patrick Willis (San Francisco 49ers)
Willis, to put it simply, is on a level of his own. Since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2007, Willis has never missed a game, has been to three consecutive Pro Bowls, has been an All-Pro twice, was the defensive Rookie of the Year, has always had at least one interception and forced fumble, has scored two touchdowns, and has never had less than 109 solo tackles, with a high of 137 in his rookie year.
Can you fathom that? As a rookie, the kid had 137 tackles that he made by himself. No one else around. He also had four sacks that season, one in 2008, and four more last season in 2009.
His head coach, legendary Chicago Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary, has said he will be remembered as one of the best linebackers to ever play the game.
That’s good enough for me. Willis is, without a doubt, the best inside linebacker (and perhaps linebacker, period) in the NFL today.
Tags: AFC AFC North AFC South Baltimore Ravens Carolina Panthers DeMeco Ryans Football Houston Texans Jon Beason London Fletcher NFC NFC East NFC South NFC West NFL Opinion Patrick Willis Ranking Ray Lewis San Francisco 49ers The Top Five Washington Redskins