Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Linebackers
Nathan Jahnke dissects five years worth of PFF data to compile the 10 best linebackers over that span.
Five Years of PFF Grades: Top 10 Linebackers
It’s been five seasons since PFF opened its doors and tackled the subject of performance-based evaluation in the NFL.
We’ve seen many breathtaking performances, whether it be over a year or in an individual game, but we’ve never really looked back on things in a longer sense. So consider that something we’re rectifying, adding up the grades each player has earned and then normalizing their performance on every snap based on the position they played.
(*Players had to have participated in at least three seasons to qualify, so for those expecting to see Von Miller you’ll have to wait until next year.)
Overall Grade for Linebackers
1. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers (+139.4)
There was no doubt that Willis would be atop this list, as he has been one of the Top 2 inside/middle linebackers in each of the past five years. After getting drafted in the early first round of the 2007 draft, he has amazed in both the run game and pass game.
His 289 stops over the past five years is the most of any player, while his 25 passes defended is the most for all linebackers over that time. Although he doesn’t have a reputation as a pass rusher, his 16 sacks are the fourth-most for inside/middle linebackers. There is no linebacker who can do as well in all three aspects of defense as Willis. While there are never any guarantees for who ends up in the Hall of Fame, Willis is certainly on the right path.
2. Bart Scott, Baltimore Ravens & New York Jets (+69.9)
While the top spot was a no-brainer, Bart Scott’s place on the list might be a surprise. He was decent in coverage and at times as a pass rusher, but made his mark in the run game. While Scott was never one to compile a lot of tackles, 73.8% of his running game tackles over the five-year span were stops. This was the second highest rate for all inside/middle linebackers with at least 120 tackles.
In his last year with the Ravens in 2008, as well as his first two years with the Jets, he rarely missed tackles with just 11 misses in those three years. Over the past two years though, Scott has had his snaps decrease and missed tackles increase which led to his recent release. His greatness in those first three years was enough to counteract his recent decline to land him second on this list.
3. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (+61.9)
It took a few years for Johnson to live up to being a first-round pick in the 2005 draft. Fast forward to the past four years and we have seen Johnson become the most well-rounded linebacker in the AFC. While no particular year of Johnson’s stands out, the culmination of year after year of solid play has given him some well-deserved respect.
In the run game alone he has 178 stops (fourth-most among linebackers) and seven forced fumbles which is the most at the position. In the passing game, his 20 passes defended is also the fourth-highest. With most of the linebacker talent now in the NFC, we should see Johnson make the Pro Bowl year after year until someone takes his throne as the AFC’s best inside linebacker.
4. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars (+53.7)
It’s hard for a 4-3 outside linebacker to get much respect since they aren’t often the ones to get sacks, and the middle linebacker is typically the one to get the most tackles. Like most linebackers on this list, Smith has built his game around being a well-rounded player. In 2009, Smith had a breakout year with 55 stops and 27 pressures.
While he didn’t have the same year in 2010, in 2011 he ended up having the best year we’ve seen out of a 4-3 outside linebacker not named Von Miller. He tallied eight passes defended which was the most out of a 4-3 outside linebacker in any of the past five years. After missing nearly all of 2012, he is now with the Ravens. If he can play anywhere near like he has in the past, then Baltimore can continue their trend of great players in the middle of their defense.
5. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers (+49.3)
If this were a list of the best linebackers of the past two years, then Bowman would be second on the list behind his teammate Patrick Willis. After seeing little playing time as a rookie in 2010, he broke out as our best inside linebacker in 2011. While in 2012 he didn’t play as well in 2011, he was still one of the best players at the position.
He has a Run Stop Percentage of 12.3%, which is by far the best at the position for those who have played more than a year. Bowman has also been a Top-5 player in passes defended over the past two years. If you were to ask me to predict the Top 10 linebackers for the next five years, Bowman is one of the few who would end up on both that list as well as this one.
6. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens (+44.8)
Even though the past five years were the tail end of Lewis’ outstanding career, and his play was clearly on the decline, he still played well enough from age 33 on to be among the best linebackers in the league.
He has his 2009 and 2011 seasons to thank for his placement on this list, though — in those two seasons he produced 58 and 59 stops, respectively, with just eight missed tackles in each season. He was a liability in coverage when healthy in 2012 which really hurt his ranking on the list, but after earning another Super Bowl ring I’m guessing he won’t mind.
7. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers (+43.4)
Over the past five years Timmons has built his reputation as a pass rusher in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. His 118 overall pressures, as well as his 23 sacks are by a comfortable margin the most for players playing inside linebacker over the past five years.
By far his best season came in 2010 when the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl. In that season his Run Stop Percentage of 12.3% topped the league at the position. He has yet to show that excellent play since that season which has prevented him from being mentioned among the best in the league.
8. Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers & San Diego Chargers (+40.6)
Prior to Willis and Bowman being the best linebacking duo in the league, there was Willis and Spikes. In 2008 Spikes was our highest rated inside linebacker thanks to three interceptions, allowing just 8.5 yards per catch, and registering only two missed tackles. His ranking among linebackers decreased by a small margin in 2009 and 2010, but it was those three years that placed Spikes on this list.
After the 2010 season, the 49ers made the wise choice to insert NaVorro Bowman in the starting lineup, which brought Spikes to San Diego. A healthy Spikes wasn’t a liability for the Chargers, but then again he wasn’t much of an asset either.
9. Desmond Bishop, Green Bay Packers (+37.5)
The best individual game by an inside/middle linebacker over the past five years belongs to Bishop in his very first start of the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl season. He had seven quarterback hurries as well as five additional stops against the Redskins. Ironically, the fifth-highest overall game by an inside/middle linebacker also belongs to Bishop in his last game in the ‘Green and Gold’ with five pressures and four stops against the Giants in the 2011 playoffs. Bishop was very consistently above average in every game in between, which was enough for him to make this list.
10. Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears (+34.5)
While Brian Urlacher has a better reputation than Briggs in Chicago, over the past five years Briggs has impressed the most. This is mostly due to his coverage play, where 99 stops in the pass game is the most for 4-3 outside linebackers — just barely beating out Chad Greenway of the Vikings. While Urlacher has also been very good in coverage, Briggs has put up some solid seasons in the run game as well.
Top 10 Overall: Run Defense
1. Bart Scott, BAL & NYJ (+71.2)
2. Patrick Willis, SF (+67.7)
3. NaVorro Bowman, SF (+35.8)
4. Brandon Spikes, NE (+35.5)
5. E.J. Henderson, MIN (+35.3)
6. Derrick Johnson, KC (+32.4)
7. Chad Greenway, MIN (+32.3)
8. Ray Lewis, BAL (+31.7)
9. Mario Haggan, DEN & STL (+29.8)
10. Danny Clark, NYG & NO (+28.8)
Top 10 Overall: Coverage
1. Patrick Willis, SF (+52.3)
2. Brian Urlacher, CHI (+34.1)
3. London Fletcher, WAS (+24.1)
4. Ben Leber, MIN & STL (+21.5)
5. Thomas Davis, CAR (+20.7)
6. Ray Lewis, BAL (+20.6)
7. Karlos Dansby, ARZ & MIA (+20.4)
8. Takeo Spikes, SF & SD (+20.1)
9. Stephen Tulloch, TEN & DET (+19.7)
10. Paul Posluszny, BUF & JAX (+18.7)
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke