Making the Grade – Middle / Inside Linebackers, 2008-2010

| July 22, 2011

Ah, it’s finally Friday and we wrap the week with the final part of our week-long look at how linebackers have performed over the past three years.
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If you missed it, Monday’s focus was the pass rushing 3-4 outside linebackers, and on Wednesday, we gave some ink to the guys who have primarily been outside linebackers in 4-3 schemes. So, we’re now left with one obvious group: the men in the middle. Given the differing roles involved, we’ve broken this into two short lists: the 3-4 inside linebackers and the 4-3 middle linebackers.
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As with all of these, we’ve set a snap count qualifier of two thirds the average amount of the five guys who have played the most at either position. That comes out to 2165 snaps for middle linebackers, and 2137 snaps for inside linebackers.
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So without any further ado, here are the Top 5 for each:
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Top 5 Inside Linebackers
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1.  Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers

A clear winner and, to no one’s surprise, it’s Patrick Willis. He’s finished in the top two of our ILB rankings for three years now, and is so good it’s unavoidable to notice. He was slowed down by injury this year, and still finished second in our rankings. Can drop into coverage, is a beast in run defense, and has improved his blitzing. Oh, and he doesn’t miss many tackles. When you draft a linebacker in the top ten, you pray he’s something like Patrick Willis.

Grade:  +98.1
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2.  Bart Scott, New York Jets

If you don’t know why we rate Scott, a linebacker who doesn’t make all that many tackles, so highly, read our interview with him and what we have to say about him in this piece. I like to think of him as a facilitator. A player designed to make others look like stars, and without whom his team wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Lives to disrupt run plays.

Grade:  +75.4
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3.  Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers

You could forget Takeo Spikes is on the field sometimes given he plays next to Willis. But he is, and he’s one half of an extremely potent partnership. Nobody is a more reliable tackler and he’s a linebacker who can drop into coverage and make good things happen. Probably not quite the athlete he was, but still better than most. He’s a real under the radar free agent for a team looking for a short term upgrade.

Grade:  +64.6
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4.  Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers

If Timmons keeps playing the way he did last year, he’s going nowhere but up in this ranking. Showed plenty of potential in 2008, got even better in 2009, but in 2010, he exploded onto the scene as an every down linebacker capable of playing all phases of the game. A playmaker who acknowledges his weaknesses (mentioning his need to turn his high pressure rate into more sacks), you wonder how good he could be – could he challenge the dominance of Patrick Willis?

Grade:  +60.1
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5.  James Farrior, Pittsburgh Steelers

Much like Takeo Spikes, it’s been easy to look past James Farrior this year. You’ve got three All-Pro candidates playing alongside you, but Farrior isn’t far off the pace. Is coming off a great year where he picked up plenty of sacks and pressures, even if he was outshined by Timmons in other areas of the game. Amazing to think he’s 36 when he plays the way he does.

Grade:  +52.2
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Top 5 Middle Linebackers
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1. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

Yes, the Ravens middle linebacker is a middle linebacker, and not an inside linebacker (as my colleague Sam Monson is about to further discuss in an article that’ll hit soon). It’s a pretty underwhelming field behind him because of snap count rules, but Lewis dominates this bunch. Remarkable given that, for the first time, he showed real signs of slowing down as the season wore on. Still, in 2009 and 2008 he finished at the top of our MLB charts, emphatically stating his case for this ranking.

Grade:  +66.0
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2.  Stephen Tulloch, Tennessee Titans

It will surprise many to see Tulloch this high, and it’s fair to say but for injuries both the man at number four on this list and E.J. Henderson would have been ahead of him. But Tulloch is an underrated player, even if he doesn’t  make the kind of highlight reel plays that live long in the memory. What he is though is a sideline to sideline, free flowing tackling machine. Teams need like guys like that.

Grade:  +28.5
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3.  Paul Posluszny, Buffalo Bills

It may seem weird to have Posluszny here, given last year he either played at OLB in a 4-3 or inside in a 3-4. But this is where he’s played the majority of snaps over the past three years, and so this is where he belongs in this exercise. The sad thing is Posluszny may be one of the most complete middle linebackers in the league, who struggled with the Bills scheme not knowing what it wanted to do. Still, put him back in the middle and he’s a talent.

Grade:  +25.7
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4.  Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears

The amazing thing about Urlacher is he looked a little on the downside of his career in 2008, then missed most of 2009 and just when you were thinking of writing him off … he came back better than ever. Has always excelled in coverage, but just looked a bit fresher after a year off to earn his Pro Bowl spot.

Grade:  +24.4
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5.  Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers

He misses a few too many tackles, and is possibly a tad overrated by some, but Beason deserves credit for having good season after good season. The only thing you’d say about Beason is his aggressiveness leads to some big plays, and some big holes that the opposition can take advantage of. A quality player still.

Grade:  +21.2

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  • snowman88

    okay can someone explain the diffrence between ILB and MLB…in your rankings u classify these players as ILB but u have broken them down to two groups…Just curious

    • Jason Burns

      Inside linebackers play in 3-4 defenses while the middle linebackers play in a 4-3.

      • Jason Burns

        You will notice that Ray Lewis is listed as a middle, but the Ravens employ a 4-3 front at times as well. The Saints also employ multiple fronts which makes me wonder what your thoughts on Jonathan Vilma are.

    • rberger909

      As Khaled said, the difference is in the scheme, 3-4 vs. 4-3. As such ILB have to be better and shedding blocks and covering because of the lack of support in front of them. 4-3 MLBs can be much more aggressive in favor of the run.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Khaled Elsayed

    ILB will play in a 3-4 set, MLB will play in a 4-3 set

  • snowman88

    I mean i know the concepets of the 3-4 and 4-3..my question is do you all grade them diffently or just seperating them because of that’s how doing the other articles when breaking down defensive postions

    • Rick Drummond

      No, snowman, you don’t understand – one plays in a 3-4 and the other in a 4-3.

      ;)

      They are graded the same way, just separated here because we’ve been splitting the positions out.

  • snowman88

    Thanks Rick..so my next question applies to all the positions in the front seven…4-3 ends and tackles are graded just the same as 3-4 NT and ends and 4-3 OLB as 3-4 OLB am i right???