NFL Best of the Decade- Part 7- Linebackers
The 3-4 defense changed the way the linbacker position is played, especially the outside linebackers. Defensive ends who played in college are now learning how to play outside linebacker.
With the skill players on offense getting faster, the defense has to adjust. Linebackers are getting smaller and faster.
Thus let’s look at who were the best linebackers of the decade.
Top 10 Inside Linebackers
1. Ray Lewis- Before the 1996 NFL Draft, scouts stated that Lewis was too small for the middle linebacker position. At 6’1 235 pounds, Lewis may have been a tweener, but he was relentless. Lewis has since then bulked up, now 260 pounds. Lewis wound up being picked 26th in the first round. Since then, Lewis has won 2 Defensive Player of the Year Awards (2000 and 2003) and a Super Bowl MVP. Lewis is just so instinctive, he flies to the football. He’s also one of the most emotional players I have ever seen.
2. Brian Urlacher- At New Mexico, Urlacher played safety. At 6’4 260 pounds, Urlacher simply had unreal athleticism for his size. He was picked 9th by the Bears in 2000 to play linebacker. The transition to the middle linebacker position worked out just fine. Not only could Urlacher close in on tackles, he used his experience playing safety in college to become one of the best linebackers in pass coverage ever, period.
3. Zach Thomas- Tough, the one word Thomas is associated with. He wasn’t the tallest, he wasn’t the most athletic, but he was tougher than a $2 steak. Thomas played middle-linebacker for the Miami Dolphins for 12 seasons. Year after year, Thomas’ name would be on top or near the top of the list in tackles. He was only 5’11, but he was an incredible worker.
4. London Fletcher- In my opinion, the most underrated player of the decade. He finally got some due by making his first pro-bowl this past season. He went undrafted in the 1998 NFL Draft after winning the Division III Defensive Player of the Year Award at John Carroll. Like Zach Thomas, Fletcher was a phenomenal tackler.
5. James Farrior- His career really got going after signing as a free agent in 2002. He fit perfectly for Defensive Coordinator’s Dick Lebeau’s zone blitzing scheme. Farrior had great timing on his blitzes up the middle, and backing out of a blitz into coverage. He was also a great tackler, consistently leading the Steelers in tackles during the decade.
6. Al Wilson
7. Keith Brooking
8. Donnie Edwards
9. Tedy Bruschi
10. Patrick Willis
Honorable Mentions- Nick Barnett, Jeremiah Trotter, Junior Seau, Jonathen Vilma, Jamie Sharper, DeMeco Ryans, Jon Beason, Mike Peterson, Antonio Pierce, Mike Peterson
Some Names to Throw Out for Next Decade- Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga, James Laurinaitis, Jerod Mayo, Curtis Lofton, DeMeco Ryans, David Harris, Rolando McClain, Brandon Spikes, Quan Sturdivant
Top 10 Outside Linebackers
1. Derrick Brooks- He could roam sideline to sideline and make tackles as well as he could drop back into coverage in Tony Dungy’s Tampa 2 Defense. He was blistering fast and incredibly agile. He excelled at making tackles in the open field. In 2002, Brooks won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He had an NFL Record 4 returns for touchdown. (3 interception returns and 1 fumble return)
2. Joey Porter- He had a huge mouth, but he backed his trash talk with his play on the field. He had 90 sacks in the decade, 2nd to only Jason Taylor. Porter had great speed off the edge, he closes in on the quarterback in a hurry.
3. DeMarcus Ware- He has revolutionized the 3-4 outside linebacker position. An exceptional pass rusher with extreme explosiveness. He had 20 sacks in 2008, the most since 2001 when Michael Strahan broke the single season sack record with 22 1/2. As we head into the new decade, Ware is still improving.
4. Julian Peterson- A very uniquely talented outside linebacker because of his ability to dominate in all facets. He was strong v.s. the run, solid in pass coverage, and could rush the passer. His 2003 season proves my point, 144 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 picks and 2 forced fumbles. That is a true smorgasbord of NFL statistics.
5. Keith Bulluck- He was a very versatile player. In college at Syracuse, Bulluck played strong safety, middle linebacker and outside linebacker. As a Titan, Bulluck settled in on the outside. He had nimble and quick feet. He shined in coverage as he could cover a lot of ground. He also had great ball skills.
6. James Harrison
7. Lance Briggs
8. Shawne Merriman
9. Takeo Spikes
10. Lavar Arrington
Honorable Mentions- Willie McGinest, Shaun Phillips, Adalius Thomas, Terrell Suggs, Jason Gildon, Peter Boulware, Ernie Sims, Cato June, Mike Vrabel, D.J. Williams
Some Names to Throw Out for Next Decade- Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Aaron Curry, Sergio Kindle, Sean Witherspoon, Greg Jones, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter