Did you know "The Tranformers" mechanized movie characters are based on NFL linebackers? No? Well if they aren't, they should be. They hit opponents with a speed and violence like no one else in the NFL. It's also my favorite position in the game of football. Given this, I decided to take a quick look at the best linebackers in the league. While a few visitors may scorn my use of a single baseline statistic, I chose to use 120 total tackles (solo tackles and assists; Ibid: TT) as the barrier line for inclusion, so no Clay Matthews. I also removed players who were injured and didn't complete at least 75% of the 2012 season, so no Terrell Suggs or Brian Cushing here. Sad I know, but it's all about the starting point...
"It is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though perhaps a meretricious effect..." - Attributions to Frederick Douglass and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Yes, I may give way to the expeditious every now and then, but these kinds of articles are the opinion of a single mind, so what drives my thoughts - as well as the amount research time expended to arrive at the penultimate consideration - is for me, driven by the amount of coffee at hand...
The idea of ranking the great NFL linebackers playing today isn't all that daunting. Linebackers tackle people. They tackle them on the field on Sundays, and more than likely chase the mailman down the street out of sheer habit. They don't shake hands - they tackle. It's in their blood, and it manifests itself in the form of a "physically expressed" Tourette Syndrome. In other careers, these near super humans would be Marines, or those mean looking head nurses who can make you cower with a simple glance.
Based on the sample size of 13 current and recently retired linebackers I'm using, the average height is 6' 1", and weighs in at 242 lbs. The biggest linebacker in the group is recently retired Brian Urlacher at 6'4" and 247 lbs, and the smallest would be future Hall of Famer London Fletcher at 5'10", 242 lbs - who is currently still playing.
The St. Louis Rams have my #6 linebacker on the list. James Laurinaitis is as solid as they get. A three time All-American at Ohio State, he was the fourth linebacker taken in the 2009 NFL Draft. The son of a pro wrestler, he's posted back to back 142 TT seasons. While he belongs in any Top 10 mention, his use in St. Louis over his first 4 years in the NFL has caused some to wonder. Used to augment poor secondaries in the first three years of career, he played so far off the line of scrimmage - sometimes 7 or 8 yards off the line - Laurinaitis rarely made a tackle for a loss. In late 2012, he began to inch closer to the line. He showed the quickness to meet running backs at the point of contact, but suffered when he tried to shed blocks against offensive linemen. This lack - of being able to both control and disengage - drops him down the overall rankings a bit.
Lavonte David is going to be a special player. The former Nebraska's rookie season featured 139 TT and 1 interception. Taken in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, he immediately improved their run defense. While some draft scouts knocked his size to be an effective outside linebacker in the NFL, he showed a remarkable nose for the football. He features sideline to sideline speed, and I can't help but think he'll improve as he adds pass rushing to his repertoire.
Much has been said - with near endless-mind numbing repetitiveness - of how Seattle is mirroring the San Francisco 49ers. While I think both defenses are remarkable, I don't find their personnel all that similar, with the exception of Bobby Wagner. He could easily be mistaken for Navarro Bowman, which to me is a great compliment to the second year linebacker out of Utah State; where he averaged 111 TT in each of his four years as a starter. You can almost hear the Mayock-ism "This is a guy...", as you read this, right? Well, this isn't a normal linebacker. He stepped the Seahawks' defense up a notch or two with his play at middle linebacker in 2012. So much so, I'm almost shocked Pete Carroll didn't do more to give his position some quality depth. Wagner is quite literally the linchpin of the Seattle defense. He showed excellent pass coverage ability to match his high impact tackling skills. This is my guy to watch over the next couple years, and don't be surprised to see his named replace one of the two San Francisco linebackers on the All-Pro team very soon.
Daryl Washington is in trouble. All his off-field miscues are drowning his career. If not for his personal life glitches, Washington would be in anyone's discussion of the NFL elite linebackers. He's in my thoughts though, and it's based purely on his talent. Quite possibly the most athletically gifted linebacker in the NFL, Washington is the only player in my ranking who could play any of the four linebacker positions in a 3-4 defense, and excel at each. He could easily play safety too, with his wide range and field vision. An aging Karlos Dansby will be replacing him during his four game suspension at the beginning of the 2013 season, and while no slouch, he can't hold a candle to Washington.
Luke Kuechly had a "lights out" rookie season. His 164 TT and two interception performance led to his being named AP's Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2012. In a defense bereft of line talent, Kuechly showed why the Carolina Panthers grabbed him with the 9th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Boston College product was all over the field for the woeful Panthers' defense. My biggest misgivings are about his durability. At 6'3, and 235 lbs, his build could be considered slight by many. Yet, I can't help but liken him to former Pittsburgh Steelers, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, who measured 6'3 1/2" and 203 lbs his rookie year. What will separate the two is toughness, which Lambert personified. Still, Carolina has to be ecstatic over Kuechly being a cornerstone for their rebuilding defense.
Now here's where I mention a few guys who really do deserve more than an afterthought. Jerrod Mayo is definitely a top tier linebacker, as is the amazing London Fletcher. Mayo has been phenomenal in his first five season. His 2010 performance - 175 TT, 4 fumble recoveries and 1 interception - is his high-water mark so far. As an outside linebacker, he's never really become the pass rushing threat Bill Belichick envisioned. Yet, he doesn't really play a traditional outside linebacker position, often cheating inside in a hybrid 3-4 formation. I can't help but think Mayo would be "All-World" if he were allowed a more fixed position in the Patriots' defense, but who knows, eh? London Fletcher is a flat out shoe-in for a first ballot Hall of Fame nod. I'm not going to drown you in his other-worldly stats. Just go here and have a look, and prepared to be in awe... At 38 years of age, he is still mentioned in the same breath with the league's finest, and for good reason. Fletcher may be the smartest guy to ever play the position of middle linebacker. He'd almost have to be, since his 5'10" - 242 lbs frame doesn't intimidate monster NFL offensive linemen. If I were to write a book about how to shed blocks, it would feature Fletcher. His field vision makes him one of the best linebackers in NFL history.
Also without much notice here are Minnesota's Chad Greenway (148 TT) and Indianapolis' Jerrell Freeman (145 TT). They had great a statistical 2012. While I think Greenway is the better of the two, both showed peaks and valleys in their performances.
Now we get to the rarefied air of the best in the NFL, and I don't think the names Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman here will shock anyone. If there's a better matched pair of 3-4 inside linebackers anywhere in NFL history, I'd love to know who they are? While Bowman may have the huge tackle numbers (148 TT in 2012), the field general Willis ( 120 TT in 2012) stacks up as one of the five or six best to come along in the last two decades. Fast, physical and smart, these two are the very core of why San Francisco are what they are today. They excel at every facet of their positions, rarely being caught off guard. Both can handle blocks, and get to the ball carrier with ferocity to spare. In pass coverage, they augment the secondary to the point it seems like there are seven defensive backs on the field at any given moment.
My All-NFL Top 10 Linebacker rankings: