Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 PFJ All-Rookie Teams

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Darius Leonard picks off his second pass of season

Baker Mayfield

Phillip Lindsay
For the fifth year, Chris Willis of NFL Films chose our All-Rookie team. We'd invite you to check out his books on pro football.



Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018 PFJ All-Pro Team

OPINION
By John Turney
Picking All-Pro teams is fun, but it is also nerve-wracking because one never thinks he's seen enough of the All-22 or talked/texted enough coaches or scouts to be completely fair. There are always mitigating factors and there are always razor-thin margins between players. Aaron Donald is one player where there is a gap between the best and second-best, but that's the exception, not the rule.

Thus, even hours or days or years after the one makes his picks you have some remorse, wondering if you blew it and picked the wrong guy, especially if you have comments enabled on your blog or if you post them on Twitter.

So, all we can say is we've done due diligence and talked to some extremely informed people and mixed that with what we say on film. That said, here is our team:

None of the receivers had major issues with drops this year so that eliminated one factor we look at but we ended up picking Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins as the wide receivers. Jones totaled 113 catches for 1,677 yards for a 14.8 average and 8 touchdowns. Hopkins was our number one all season and he totaled 1,572 yards and 11 scores.

Antonio Brown led the NFL in touchdown scores and we have a bias for TDs over catches and even yards in many cases. He's one of our second-teamers. Tyreek Hill is the other Second-teamer, totaling  1,479 yards and 12 scores and is a factor in the run game with jet sweeps and other gadget plays.

Davante Adams and Adam Thielen are honorable mentions. Adams was solid all year but Thielen kind of tailed off late in the year after a monster start.
Travis Kelce is our tight end and Greg Kittle back him up and Zach Ertz is the honorable mention. Kelce set the tight end receiving yardage record on the season's final Sunday and Kittle broke it later in the day. Ertz has the best hands but seemed more and more like a short outlet that deep threat.

The highest graded tackle in our view, Terron Armstead missed too much time to be All-Pro in our view. So we went with Duane Brown of Seattle and Ryan Ramczyk of New Orleans as First-team selections and the Second-teamers are Kelvin Beachum of the Jets and the Patriots Marcus Cannon.

Joe Thuney and Zack Martin (his best year) are the guards, followed by the Browns guard Joel Bitonio and Brandon Brooks of the Eagles. Thuney's man rarely got to the ball and was excellent in pass protection all season. Martin is always good but was special this year. Quenton Nelson was the number three left guard in the NFL and in the AFC. He has John Hannah-like skills, which means he can dominate most of the time but will 'whiff' at times and make some errors (six holding calls). Next year, he should be the top, but he needs to eliminate the mistakes.  Cody Whitehair of the Bears is the top center this year and following him is Graham Glasgow of the Lions.
Pat Mahomes is an easy choice at quarterback and we are choosing Drew Brees as the Second-team signal caller. The Second-team All-Conference picks were harder and Andrew Luck edged Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson took the Second-team All-NFC slot.

From the beginning of time All-Pro teams have been made up of two running backs, even the Associated Press, when they chose a fullback, still had two running backs. We are not going to break that tradition, though we can call one of them a "flex" if you wish. The AP added that spot recently and all the picks have been running backs and we suspect it will occur again.
Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott get the first two slots and Alvin Kamara and fantastic rookie Saquon Barkley get the next two. Gurley sat out the final two games and still led the NFL in total touchdowns by three and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns for the second consecutive season. He even left one touchdown on the table to going down rather than scoring to run out the clock in one instance. He is a fine pass blocker and an excellent receiver. Elliott led the NFL in rushing and caught 77 passes and Kamara totaled 18 touchdowns and Barkley had 15. 

Football platoons are no longer eleven guys, they are 13- or 14-man platoons, it's been an age of specialization for a long time and we choose to honor those players.

Kyle Juszczyk of the 49ers is the fullback and he's backed by James Develin of the Patriots. Juszczyk had an unfortunate fumble in the season finale in Los Angeles, but hey, no one's perfect. He was fine lead blocker and receiver.

Our "big butt" or in-line tight end (not the guys running up and down the field) are Jordan Thomas of the Texans and Darren Fells of the Browns. They are key players in blocking and can also catch a pass when needed. Thomas (who does have a big rear end) is around 280 and Fells is 6-7 277.

Our third wide receiver is by definition a non-starter except if teams open a game in 3-wide. Calvin Ridley is First-team and Golden Tate who played for the Lions and Eagles is the Second-teamer. Ridley caught 64 passes for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns  playing in all 16 games and starting five

Our third-down is also a non-starter but is a key player in passing games for teams and the best this year is the Patriots James White followed by Tarik Cohen of the Bears. White caught 87 passes for seven touchdowns and ran for five scores as well. 

In keeping with specialists, here are the defensive role players. The rushers are Chris Long and are Sam Hubbard of the Bengals. Both Long and Hubbard are designated or "wave" rushers, coming in on likely passing downs and recorded 6.5 and 6.0 sacks respectively in no starts. Dallas's Randy Gregory was productive enough but had too many dumb penalties. 

The fifth defensive back is Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Dolphins and the Second-teamer is Desmond King of the Chargers. Fitzpatrick was terrific as was King.

Here are the starters on defense:

The starting secondary is composed of cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Shaquill Griffin, along with Derwin James of the Chargers and Justin Simmons of the Broncos at safety. Lattimore just seemed glued to receivers and forced four fumbles. Last year Griffin looked like Richard Sherman. This year he played like him on the left side of the Seahawk defense. Simmons had great range and smarts. James, a rookie, did a little bit of everything.
Our Second-team secondary has corners Stephon Gilmore of the Patriots and Byron Jones of Dallas and John Johnson III and Eddie Jackson at safety. Johnson played some linebacker in the Rams alternate base 3-4 when they deployed Cory Littleton at OLBer rather than his usual ILB spot. Jackson was chosen because he made so many game-changing plays. Gilmore was solid all year. There were lots of players in contention for the Second-team but have to be regulated to honorable mention:  Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman (allowed only 1 TD); pickoff artists Kyle Fuller and Xavien Howard head that list.

Luke Kuechly takes the top middle linebacker spot and is backed by Bobby Wagner on the Second-team. Really, we could have tied them but thought with a rare performance by Keuchly he deserved the top spot. In all, Kuechly made 130 tackles with 22.0 of them going for losses, not counting his 2.0 sacks. Wagner had a terrific year, too. He finished with 126 tackles (4.5 were stuffs), a sack, 11 passes defensed, an interception that he returned 98 yards for a touchdown and two forced fumbles.

We always choose a rushbacker and a weakside or strongside outside backer who has coverage responsibilities. The edge linebacker is Khalil Mack on the First-team and the Second-team pick is Von Miller. Mack missed some time but made lots of big, big plays, seemingly at the exact right time to turn a game around or seal a win for the Bears.

The off-the-ball backer is rookie Darius Leonard of the Colts and the Bucs Lavonte David. Leonard was a big-play guy who did miss a few too many tackles, but he had 8 stuffs, 7 sacks, forced four fumbles, two picks, eight passes defensed and made 163 tackles. Leighton Vander Esch played well enough to be an honorable mention with his 140 tackles, seven passes defensed and two picks. 

Our nose tackle, call it the defensive interior shade if you will is Snacks Harrison, NYG-Det and a player who sure benefitted from a new scheme and/or coach. Margus Hunt of the Colts.
Harrison played 17 games after being traded from the Giants to the Lions and ended the season with 81 combined tackles 23 (28.4%) of which were either for a loss or no gain (8.5 were run stuffs) and was his usually immovable self in the Big Apple and the Motor City.

Hunt was a bust in Cincinnati as a 3-4 defensive end. He began 2018 as a starting left defense end in base, but quickly moved inside and he played the vast majority of his snaps inside the guards in a shade position in a 4-3 where he was able to use his height and long arms to keep blockers and bay and also got a good rush, especially coming of stunts with the defensive end or three-technique.

Our rush tackles were easy with Aaron Donald first and Fletcher Cox, though DeForest Buckner is a very strong honorable mention. The league is loaded with good three-techniques right now.

Donald buried the single-season defensive tackle sack record of 18 previously held by Keith Millard and Alan Page (officially and unofficially). He also was double-teamed more than anyone in the NFL and had the most QB hits/hurries by more than one source. He also had nine stuffs (actually 10, one was a mismarked) and was simply the slipperiest defensive tackle we've ever seen and his 2018 season is arguably the best-ever by any defensive tackle, ever Cox ended with a career-high 10.5 sacks and 34 QB Hits and is as technically solid a defensive tackle as there is. 
Our base 3-4 end is JJ Watt, who plays edge in nickel. The Second-teamer is Akiem Hicks of the Bears. Another strong honorable mention is  Chris Jones and his 15.5 sacks. Hicks is just more of a force in the run game and part of a far better defense. Jones had few tackles for loss, apart from his sacks. Watt had 16 sacks and tied for the NFL lead with seven forced fumbles. He is a strong contender for NFL Comeback Player
The hardest position to separate for the second year in a row is the 4-3 defensive end or edge rusher, or whatever you want to call it. Cameron Jordan ended up first on our list and was followed by Calais Campbell and DeMarcus Lawrence, both of whom were very, very close and is a super-strong honorable mention and  Danielle Hunter is an honorable mention as well.

Cameron Jordan as stellar all year. He simply had fewer big plays than the others but he was fun to watch, as always. He played left end in base and in nickel but when the Saints would show a 3-4 look, he'd play one of the outside linebacker spots and when he dropped from his edge position on a zone blitz, he'd get to his area, and actually play it well, checking the first threat, then the next. He wasn't just 'there' if you will. The difference maker is that he seemed to get the most consistent pressure all year, in addition to his all-around skills of chasing down running plays across the field.
Lawrence ended the season with 63 tackles and 10.5 were for losses not including his 10.5 sacks. He also had another 5 tackles for no gains and forced two fumbles. Adding his plays for losses and no gains he had 26.0—fourth in the NFL. On the old 'eye test' he seemed like he was always in the mix in the pass rush and as attested to his 15.5 tackles for losses or no gain, he was a force in the run game as well. Lawrence likely had the second-most hurries among defensive ends, though final numbers from the stat websites are not out but when it comes to subjective stats like that it's more art than science when comparing. Needless to say, Jordan and Lawrence were excellent pass rushers.

Calais Campbell had another terrific year, even though the Jaguars didn't. He came on towards the end of the season and had 72 tackles, 13.0 stuffs and another 8.5 tackles for no gain and when matched with his 10.5 sacks it was a total of 32.0 plays for no gain or a loss—only Aaron Donald (33.5) and JJ Watt (33.0) had more. Campbell is not a pure edge player, he plays end in the base and in nickel reduces to an interior rusher, most often over a guard but sometimes over the center.

In the end, we made both Lawrence and Campbell Second-team selections. It was simply too close to call.

Hunter faded late in the season but finished with 71 tackles, 14.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss or no gain and a pair of forced fumbles. he had 11.5 sacks after nine games and just three the remaining seven games. He he played the second half of he season like he did the first half he would have been the choice, but the slump cost him. We also like Frank Clark a lot, he is elite and is an all-around player, but there are just so many slots on All-Pro/All-Conference teams and Clark gets left out.

For the special teams here are our picks:

Jason Myers is the top 2018 kicker, though Justin Tucker is already an all-time great. Myers did miss three PATs but was the best field goal kicker by our metrics and was in the top four in kickoff performance. Tucker was above average in kickoffs and was excellent in kicking, but he just didn't quite have the year Myers did.

Aldrick Rosas was considered, he did well on placements but kicked a couple too many out of bounds on kickoffs so he wasn't far enough ahead on accuracy to mitigate the so-so kickoffs.
The best punter is Johnny Hekker, but he didn't have the best season going into the final weekend. That honor went to Michael Dickson of the Seahawks.  Thomas Morstead, Cameron Johnston, and Hekker were neck-and-neck in net average—all competing with being second in net average.

Then on the final weekend, Dickson had a punt blocked and it knocked him back to fourth in NFL in net punting average. Morestead and Hekker were one and two with 43.2 and 43.0 net average respectively. So, we were left looking at those two.

Hekker gets the selection because he is not only a great punter for distance and net but also in pinning returners inside the 20 and is a real threat on fakes, either running or passing. And he filled in for an injured kicker and didn't miss a kick when tasked with those duties. Also, for good or bad, Morestead had the advantage of playing half his games indoors, though Hekker's Los Angeles weather was good all year. So, Hekker takes the First-team All-Pro honor due to those above reasons and in his excellence in metrics like his inside-the-20 percentage and the low percentage of returns and others measures of punting. Overall, when all things are considered he was the best.

We stuck with Dickson as the Second-teamer since he really did have a great year, but in razor thing races we look at everything and Dickson had plenty of intangibles of his own. Morestead is an honorable mention as is Tress Way who had 41 punts inside the 20 and zero, ZERO touchbacks. His only 'super negative' was having a punt returned for a touchdown on him. Yes, one block and one return, in a league full of excellent punters can knock you from All-Pro in our view. 

Andre Roberts of the Jets secured both the punt return and kick returner All-Pro spots. For kickoff returns, he's backed by Cordarrelle Patterson of the Patriots and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Jakeem Grant is an honorable mention at both kick- and punt returner. The only negative with Roberts is he had a high number of fair catches, which is understandable these days, as good as punters are, but back in the day, it was considered a badge of honor to have few fair catches when you were a punt returner.

For core special teams we are going with Taysom Hill followed by Joseph Jones. Punt blocker Cory Littleton gets a spot on the Second-team on the All-NFC team. Littleton, as a starting inside linebacker, didn't play kick and punt coverage this year is why we are not going with him on the All-Pro teams but he did block two punts and deflected another.

Hill was a presence on all the Saint special teams and had a blocked kick of his own and Jones had 12 special teams tackles and a blocked kick as well. Again, back in the day, you could find several players with maybe 20-25 special teams tackles. But with punters booming footballs so high and kickoff resulting in touchbacks so often, it's not easy to get lots of tackles on coverages.

Here are the All-NFC and All-AFC selections:
Position Awards:
Offensive Lineman of the Year—Zack Martin, Dallas
Defensive Lineman of the Year—Aaron Donald, Los Angeles
Linebacker of the Year—Luke Kuechly, Carolina
Defensive Back of the Year—Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans
Running Back of the Year—Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Receiver of the Year—DeAndre Hopkins, Houston
Returner of the Year—Andre Roberts, NY Jets
Special Teams Player of the Year—Taysom Hill, New Orleans
Kicker/Punter of the Year—Jason Myers, New York Jets

Agree or disagree? Let us have it in the comments section below.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Strictly Personal

By John Turney

Early in the Fall, my niece signed up her daughter for co-ed flag football.  There were to be right 10-person teams for a total of 80 players in the league. As it turned out, there were 79 boys and one girl—my niece's daughter.

In the second game, she got her first carry, a dive through the 2-hole and here are the results:



NFL MVP Mahomes or Brees?

OPINION
By John Turney
Reading the Internet tea leaves isn't always wise, but it can be interesting. If we are looking at them correctly it seems Drew Brees is gaining some momentum in the MVP race, gaining on Patrick Mahomes.

You can read or watch some of the posts Here, here, or here. And there are certainly more.

We don't have a dog in the fight, but if they do somehow take the MVP award from Mahomes it will really be unprecedented.

Numbers are not everything. Nor are wins. Nor are the "intangibles" or "eye test" if you will. All of those are something.

But in the case of Mahomes, he has the numbers, the wins, and the "eye test: in our view. Certainly, there is room for disagreement but it is rare for a QB to throw for 48 touchdowns. Below is a chart of the most touchdown passes in a season. It' skews recent so most of the entries are in the past two decades or so.

The last player to throw a lot of TDs (let's call it 36 or more) was Brees in 2011. He lost the MVP to Aaron Rodgers and for good reason. Rodgers, in one fewer game, threw one less TD and had one more win (14-1) and the Packers went 15-1.

In 2012 Adrian Peterson was a solid MVP and several QBs with big TDs numbers were passed over. But by and large monster passing seasons coupled with a double-digit win total leads to an MVP.

Here is our chart on the subject:
Highlighted records to the right represent the NFL's best or tied for the best record that year.
It is our view that the only reason Drew Brees is being mentioned as a potential MVP in 2018 is that he's never won it before and there is some sentiment that this is his last chance so it may be turned into, by some voters, a 'Long a Meritorious Service Award'.  Well, again, our view is that is what the Hall of Fame is.

For 2018 there is little choice for MVP than Mahomes, if that is, voters care about history and precedent. Voters for the MVP Awards (AP and PFWA) are not bound by any kind of historical perspective or standard, they may vote for whomever they wish based on any definition of MVP they chose to adopt or create. So, Brees will get some votes. And maybe he should. Maybe Mahomes isn't having a "unanimous" MVP-type year, those are very, very rare.

But, if he loses this out and gets the Offensive Player of the Year as some sort of "consolation prize" it will not be anything but "Let's get this guy an MVP before it's too late" sentiment. 

We think it's pretty clear Mahomes wins the eye test, the stat test. Brees wins the "wins" 13-2 versus 11-4 and Mahomes could go to 12-4. Brees is sitting out the Saints finale. However, two wins is not a definitive enough of a lead to make up for the big deficits in the 48 TD passes versus 32 and all the other numbers, nor the unique skills Mahomes has shown.

Ask yourself if there were some QB, who is, say five years into the NFL and had Brees's record and stats. Would he even be mentioned as MVP? We have some close to that, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, though their wins are not quite that high, they are the "what would the team be without him" equals of Brees, we think, anyway. And they are not serious candidates for MVP.

The same goes for Jared Goff—excellent numbers, 13 wins, but a late-season mini-slump killed his chances. Brees' late-season slump (84.7 passer rating in last four games) was mitigated by a 3-1 record, but in our views of the Saints, it sure appeared that they are 2-3 bad referee calls from two extra losses. So, when looking at wins, and getting into the nitty-gritty, requires looking at ALL of the nitty-gritty, not the esoteric stats that help only Brees.

We will see what happens, we think Mahomes will end up with the AP and PFWA MVP Awards but Brees will get some strong support—support that will come, to some degree, for his career greatness. Not all of if, but enough to be looked at.

Now, if it were 2011 Drew Brees versus 2018 Mahomes for MVP, then you have a case. Not a sure thing, but a case.

The Beginning of the Stretch Run to Super Bowl III

By John W. Lesko
A wise frog once said, "It's not easy bein' green." A green-clad football team known as the New York Jets know all about what that frog meant. As this 2018 season winds down the Jets are having another tough go of things. This is the eighth consecutive season in which the Jets will not qualify for the playoffs. Other than seeing young players develop such as quarterback Sam Darnold, safety Jamal Adams, and tight end Chris Herndon, Jets fans have not had many reasons this season to be happy.

The Chargers on the other hand? Oh, things are going a little bit better for them. Led by head coach Anthony Lynn, a former Jets assistant coach, they have a record of 11-4 and have given their fans reason to believe that the team can reach the summit of pro football just as the Jets did in 1968. Like those Jets, the Chargers had some struggles early in the season (they lost two of their first three games) before they blasted off.

These franchises are in very different places right now. One is going to spend January trying to make it to the Super Bowl whereas the other is probably going to spend January looking for a new coaching staff. However, going into their matchup on November 24, 1968, these teams were not in very different places. The Jets flew to San Diego with a record of 7-3 and the opportunity to clinch a tie for the AFL Eastern Division title. The Chargers sported an 8-2 record. They were a half-game behind the Kansas City Chiefs and were tied with the Oakland Raiders.

To that point in their history, the Jets had never reached the playoffs. During those same eight seasons, the Chargers played in five AFL title games. The Jets only won one of the first 12 meetings between these two teams but the tide started to change in Joe Namath's second season. The Jets split the season series that year and then won the lone matchup in 1967. On October 5, 1968, the teams met on a Saturday night in New York. The Jets squeaked out a 23-20 victory. It was a win that indicated the Jets may have turned the corner from also-ran status to title contender. Alas, maybe not. The Jets dropped a home game eight days later against the rotten Denver Broncos and their record fell to 3-2. They had defeated two top teams but also lost to two bad ones. Maybe the Jets were just pretenders.

The loss to the Broncos was the wake-up call. That was it. Nobody was kicking sand in their faces anymore. This team was tough as a female alligator sitting on eggs and it was time to show it. Including the postseason, the Jets went 10-1 the rest of the way with the lone loss being the freakish Heidi Bowl on November 17.

A week later, on an overcast day deep in the canyon of Mission Valley, the Jets announced to the football world that they were for real. Like a house cat toying with a mouse, the game was really no contest.
Jim Turner
51,175 fans were in attendance. Most hoped to see the five and a half point favorite Chargers topple the upstart Jets and their fancy quarterback Namath. Most exited three hours later disappointed. The Jets lead 10-0 after one period. The scoring started via the right leg of Jim Turner. Turner's 13-yard field goal was his 29th of the season and established a new pro football record. The Jets second possession ended on an 87-yard bomb from Namath to Don Maynard. Chargers cornerback Bob Howard was the victim.
Namath to Maynard
The Jets increased their lead to 20-0 in the second quarter on a Matt Snell touchdown run and another Turner field goal. Later in the period, the Chargers got an idea of turning the game around when Speedy Duncan returned a punt an AFL record 95 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers idea? It died, and it died quick. The ensuing Jets drive ended with a 19 yard Namath touchdown pass to running back Bill Mathis. The Jets took a 27-7 lead into the halftime break. They broke the Chargers.
Speedy Duncan
Namath completed 13 of 25 first half passes for 277 yards. Due to the large lead, Namath didn't pass much in the second half as the goal was to run the ball, avoid interceptions, take time off the clock, and not let the Chargers get one of those ideas again. A 1-yard run by Mathis in the 4th quarter gave the Jets a 37-7 lead. It was certainly curtains by that point. The Chargers did add a second touchdown and then converted a two-point pass to make it a final score of 37-15.

Namath would finish the game 17 of 31 for 337 yards and two touchdown passes. Maynard caught six passes for 166 yards. Split end George Sauer tallied five aerials for 124 yards. Led by the tough Snell and the shifty Emerson Boozer, the Jets gained 142 rushing yards on 40 carries. Conversely, the Chargers only ran the ball a dozen times.  The Jets offensive line featuring excellent left tackle Winston Hill kept Namath extremely well-protected. Namath was not sacked. Asked after the game if he ever was afforded better protection, he said, "I can't remember it. The only time I threw the ball away was when they had our guys covered. I never had to throw it away because I was rushed." He was later asked if he thought he could throw the ball well vs the Chargers. Namath said, "I always think I can pass against anyone with our receivers. When we get time, Sauer and Maynard are awfully hard to cover." Chargers head coach Sid Gillman said, "We played badly and we were coached badly. We didn't do anything . . . the way Namath was throwing today, he could have beaten anybody."
Hadl
Namath's counterpart, John Hadl, had a very difficult day. He completed only 19 of his 46 passes for 190 yards and four interceptions. The pigskin pilferers were cornerbacks Randy Beverly and Cornell Gordon, safety Bill Baird, and linebacker Ralph Baker. The Jets defense did not allow any significant San Diego yardage until the game was already decided. The Chargers only gained 235 yards from scrimmage. The Jets had shut down the league's top-ranked offense.
Baird's pick
Beverly's pick
Baker's pick
Gordon's pick
The Jets followed up the win by winning their final three regular season games, the AFL title game vs the Raiders, and something called Super Bowl 3. The Chargers did not recover. Although they did beat the Broncos to improve to a record of 9-3, they then were severely beaten by the Chiefs at home by a score of 40-3. They dropped the season finale to the Raiders 34-27 to finish with a disappointing third-place record of 9-5.
Time will tell if the 2018 Chargers can have a finish to their season close to that of the 1968 Jets. If they win their season finale, play on Wild Card weekend, and win all their playoff games, they will finish the season having won nine of their final 10 games. That would be very-1968 Jets-like.
The Jets had already started on their 10-1 finish so the win over the Chargers was not truly the turning point of the season but it was the first win on the winning streak to end the season.


John W. Lesko is a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association and a graduate of Seton Hall University. He is a contributing writer of  "The 1958 Baltimore Colts: Profiles of the NFL's First Sudden Death Champions" and wrote an article for "The Coffin Corner" on all the major pro football games without a touchdown.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Top MLB/ILBers of All-Time

OPINION
By John Turney
In this installment of looking at the great players ever, we tackle the middle/inside linebackers. We will rely heavily on the views of our own T.J. Troup the author of The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons That Changed the NFL as well as others.
We will look at statistics, honors but also the skill sets of these players and give our view of who did their job the best and most consistently. We look at longevity but more so the 'peak' performance.

Here we go:

1. Dick Butkus
Six-time All-Pro, twice Second-team All-Pro and eight Pro Bowls, two-times All-Decade (though we think the 1970s selection was dubious), twice the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the NFL All-Century team and 75th Anniversary Team and a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also  the NFLPA NFL/NFC Linebacker of the Year five times, from 1968-72.

Here are Coach TJ's thoughts, "Instincts—the elite just KNEW where the ball was going. Dr. Z when talking, writing about Butkus, he got to the hole in a foul mood. His impressive size and quickness are traits discussed, but there have been others, so that is minor.

His angles or scrapes to the ball in the running lane were/are unparalleled—no one will ever be better. though no doubt he made some tackles with his helmet, he was the most concussive shoulder tackler EVER. Watch film of him and his shoulder angle in hitting the ball carrier.

The next aspect is the takeaway—whether he caused fumbles, recovered fumbles, and his ability to play pass defense, and not be running to an area, but playing the ball in flight and taking the proper angle to intercept. He was tested as a rookie, and watching film of his interceptions were easy, he rad his keys, and took the correct angle, and on top of that, he had excellent hands.

Raymond Berry talked about him forcing fumbles, and recovering—which he did over and over. finally, if applicable, the pass rush. his blitz against Norm Snead in '70 to finish off the Eagles shows it all.

He is the best ever combining all the above traits, and the fact that he played so hard for 7 years, and then hung on for his final two. the strange part of 1972 though is that probably his greatest game came in shutting out Kelly and the Browns in Cleveland in '72.  Not sure the tackle total, but possibly near 20 lead & assists".

Butkus picked off 22 passes in his career and recovered 27 fumbles and he had a lot of QB hurries, but not a lot of sacks (five in his career). He averaged 141 tackles per 16 games in his career.

2. Ray Lewis
Lewis was a seven-time All-Pro (and twice more a Second-teamer) and 13-time Pro Bowler. Like Butkus he was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a First-team All-Decade selection—all among the best-ever in those categories. In 2000-01 and 2003 he was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year. In 1997-99 he was the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year and in 1999 and 2003 he was the NFL Alumni NFL Linebacker of the Year. And like Butkus, he was a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Statistically, he was also among the best ever, if not the best among MLBers. He totaled 2,055 tackles, 118 of which were behind the line of scrimmage, he had 41.5 sacks and 32 interceptions. The interceptions figure is impressive given that when he played the overall league interception percentage was 3.1% whereas during the Butkus era it was 5.4% making interceptions, statistically, anyway, almost twice as hard to get. He forced 19 fumbles and recovered 20 and scored three defensive touchdowns and one safety.

Says Coach Troup, "R. Lewis, was protected better than Butkus by his massive defensive tackles, yet his quickness negated blocking angles. His impressive speed and his ability to gear down and stay in proper tackling position was his greatest trait, runners could not outrun him, or cut back on him.

He was a concussive helmet hitter as a tackler, and the sound was undeniable. His height and angles on pass defense were excellent, and of course, that was showcased in the Super Bowl in 2000. He filled the hole and again the best open-field tackling MLB ever. When the champion Ravens were in the "nickel"  he split the field underneath with Rod Woodson and thus opponents had ample opportunity to complete passes to backs and tight ends, but those two men covered so much ground and tackled so well—they became the greatest defense simply because you did not gain yardage by avoiding the tackler.

3. Joe Schmidt
Said Troup, "Since there was no one for him to watch on film play the position he is simply the FORERUNNER of MLBers. His lack of height was not an issue due to his impressive strength in his shoulders and chest, and watching film—his body is in position to tackle and deliver a blow. One of the reasons the 4-3 became the defense was his sideline to sideline pursuit, if he does it, then maybe we need to find a guy to do it. The problem was, finding someone with his instincts, quickness, and the proper angles, and tackling ability. some teams tried the 4-3 and had to shift back to the 5-2 since they did not have a Joe S. he did blitz, and though effective since Detroit blitzed so often, he was not a difference maker here, but you had to account for him.

It is the takeaway department where he is the BEST. Teams did not pass as much in those days, and look at his interception totals (film of his 3 int. day against the Rams shows his outstanding ability to drop into coverage exactly where he should, and he had excellent hands). In a 12-game season and 8 fumble recoveries so is there any doubt he was around the ball? And he did this the first year he played in a 4-3 (1955).

Schmidt was a middle linebacker that did not miss tackles, recovered 8 fumbles one year to set the league record, and three years later intercepts 6, with 3 in one game. His one-handed interception for a touchdown against Philly in '60 demonstrates his athleticism and hand/eye coordination. Though injuries limited him during 63-65, he hung in there, and was solid, but just not like he was from 56-62. Keep in mind that the Lions in 58 & 59 stunk, but once again when he had help, the Lions were the best defense in football. his play against the Colts in '62 is still the greatest play of his career."

Schmidt was a First-team All-Pro ten straight seasons and was a Pro Bowler each of those seasons as well (1954-63) and he was named the top lineman/Defensive Player of the Year three times, in 1957, 1960 and 1963. The latter two were from an NFLPA poll of players and in 1957 it was AP Lineman of the Year Award. He also won two NFL champions rings with the Lions in 1953 and 1957. He is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Schmidt finished his career with 24 picks, 17 fumble recoveries, and three defensive touchdowns. We feel, and Coach TJ agrees Schmidt should have been one of the MLBers on the NFL 50th and 70th Anniversary Teams, rather than Ray Nitschke. We also think Schmidt will likely be overlooked when the 100th Anniversary Team as well since Schmidt doesn't get the notice that some other MLBers get. But if they voters went by who had the better career, who played the position more efficiently Schmidt would get the nod over his contemporaries.

4. Jack Lambert
Lambert was a starter on four Super Bowl-winning teams, was All-Decade twice (though he would have been a better choice for a mythical 1975-85 team) in that his 1980s selection was a bit dubious because he played so few years in the 1980s. Lambert was a nine-time Pro Bowler, eight times All-AFC (plus one Second-team All-AFC) and a First-team All-Pro eight times (seven consensus) and a  was a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Additionall he was voted the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year twice.

He ended his career with 1,4237 tackles, 23 sacks, 28 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries.

Here are Coach Troup's comments, "Count Dracula in Cleats—though some would talk about his weight, it was a non-issue since his leverage and strength was impressive and almost always the runner or receiver went backwards when he tackled. He was protected by the 'stunt 4-3' since it allowed him to use his sideline to sideline pursuit skills to the maximum.

Though he had great help from the two OLB's early in his career, he ALWAYS brought his A-game. he never looked fast, yet always got where he needed to go, and did not overrun plays, so he was under control. not sure about him on the blitz. Lambert was a master at 'banjo' coverage, and later what is now known as Tampa-2, which should be renamed "Jack in the Hole" as he was able to get deeper than any other MLB ever. He played the ball well, and other than Joe Schmidt he was the best pass defender of MLB's ever, and yes that includes Brian Urlacher.

5. Randy Gradishar
According to Troup, "Gradishar had pass defense responsibilities no other MLB/inside linebacker ever. He was asked to cover the tight end on his side in the flat, he was asked to go to the so-called Tampa-2 hole from the opposite side, though the coverage was not called that at the time. He was a strong tackler, just not a helmet splitter."

Talent evaluator Joel Buchsbaum wrote the following over the course of Gradishar's career— "Randy Gradishar may be the smartest and most underrated (Linebacker) ever. Had rare instincts, was faster than Lambert and very effective in short yardage and goalline situations . . . isn't the flashiest player in the league but I have seen enough film of him to know he's the best" . . . Superior diagnostician with exceptional strength, balance, tackling form and very good lateral mobility . . . “Randy Gradishar is the most valuable defender in football. As good as Dick Butkus ever was, but not as brutal . . . Although not as brutal as Butkus or Bergy, he's strong at the point of attack, does a superb job of playing off blocks and getting to the ball, gets good depth on his pass drops and is consistently excellent . . . Perhaps the most instinctive linebacker in football, he has great anticipation and feel”

Said Mike Giddings of Proscout, Inc, "He and Lewis best all-time of neutralize and pursuit", meaning that it's difficult to find a player who can take on blocks and shed well and also have sideline-to-sideline ability.

Gradishar made 1,337 tackles in 10 seasons and had 19.5 sacks and 20 picks and 13 fumble recoveries. He was a Five-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 and received votes for that award in three other seasons, showing remarkable consistency.

6. Willie Lanier
Lanier was the first African-American MLBer that was a star, and one of the first two or three who were entrusted as a starter. At that time there was prejudice against black players at certain positions, quarterback and middle linebacker among the most prevalent. Lanier was the player who pioneered the position and made it possible for others to excel later, much like Marlin Briscoe and James Harris did for quarterbacks, although Lanier was a far better player than those quarterbacks.

He led the 1969 Chiefs defense which was pro football's best and a Super Bowl winner. Lanier was an 8-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro/AFL First-team pick six times and a Second-team pick twice. However, only once was he a consensus All-Pro (making the majority of teams). He played in an era that included Dick Butkus, so that is the major reason why. Additionally, he was voted the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year five times, from 1970-74 and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In his career Lanier picked off 27 passes and recovered 18 fumbles but only had a few sacks, he was just not asked to blitz very often, his forte was coverage. He scored two defensive touchdowns and one safety.

7. Bill George
George was an eight-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. He picked off 18 passes and recovered 16 fumbles recovered and had 38 sacks and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He spent a lot of time with his hand in the dirt well into the 1960s, giving the Bears a 5-2 look using the same personnel as their base 4-3. As such, he rushed the passer a lot. he would also move around some in some of Clark Shaughnessy unique defenses. We've seen him as a stand-up defense end as late as 1960 and getting good pressure from there. He's what John Gruden would today call a "defensive joker".

Said Coach Troup, Finally, "The General" was the key to the Shaughnessy defense. George was brilliant at game plans and adjustments. He was adequate pass defender.  His wrestling background served him well-shedding blocks.

"Few, if any, MLBs history can surpass the following criteria: at least 16 opponent fumble recoveries (he had one as a guard), 18 interceptions, so he was around the ball, and at least 40 sacks, as no MLB in history had his knuckles in the dirt as often. 1960 when Bears go to nickel, he replaces a d-tackle. and rushes Johnny Hightops over and over again. When Bears beat Cleveland in '61, he aligns in guard/center gap and shoots through, sack, forced fumble, and a Bear victory. Neck injury limited him from 1962-64. From 1955 through 1961 was just a cut below Joe Schmidt though they played so different

8. Mike Singletary
Singletary was a seven-time All-Pro (six consensus) plus a one-time Second-team All-Pro. He also was selected to ten Pro Bowls. He had 1,200 tackles according to NFL gamebooks and had 19 sacks and 7 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, and 12 fumble recoveries. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, being elected on the first ballot. Also, he was the NFL Alumni and NFLPA Linebacker of the year in 1985 and 1988 and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year those seasons as well.

Troup, "Mike Singletary was, early on, overweight, and an abundance of early mistakes suck as overrunning plays.  He was a concussive hitter stepping into the hole, and though not speedy, strong in pursuit due to angles and determination. It helped that the "46" was designed to protect him. with experience became a very savvy MLB even when he lost his speed. He was average on pass defense, but more than made up for it, on the times he blitzed.

9. Patrick Willis
Troup, "Patrick Willis is the best MLB in the last 20 years". Willis was a top coverage backer and could fill an scrape."

He was a five-time First-team All-Pro and once was a Second-team pick to go with his seven Pro Bowls. He ended with 950 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 8 picks, and 16 forced fumbles. In Willis was voted the 2007 and 2009-10 he was the NFL Alumni NFL Linebacker of the Year.

Willis was a sure tackler and a team leader whose career was cut short due to injuries.

10. Luke Kuechly
Kuechly is ending his seventh season, one in which he will likely be selected First-team All-Pro for the sixth time and he's been named to his sixth Pro Bowl. He was also the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.

This season, 2018, he's leading the NFL in run/pass stuffs with 22.0, taking his career total to 76.0. He currently had 977 career tackles and 16 interceptions and remember in his era interceptions are about half as common as they were in the 1960s, making his total of 16 even more impressive. Statistically, it would translate to about 30 ot so back in the day, in just seven seasons.

11. Ray Nitschke
Said Coach TJ, "His physical attributes and hitting ability stand out, and Bengston made him into a Hall of Fame player, but THREE YEARS to become the full-time starter, and most folks do not know this. Bettis started the NFL Title game in 1961. Once he got into the line-up in 1962 though, boy oh boy did he stand out.

Once in a while a struggle in adjusting to scheme and blocking (Dallas title game in 1966, where he got his ass kicked).

Nitschke is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a three-time First-team All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro selection in three other seasons. He was a member of the NFL's 50th Anniversary team and a member of five NFL Championship teams.

12. Sam Huff
Troup, "Huff, excellent range, and pass defender, and a strong tackler.  He did sometimes "pile on" because he was average at best at the "scrape".  Drazenovich was the first MLB to actually standout at this technique. Watching film of Huff as a Redskin, he was a motivated leader, yet average at best, and very poor at shedding blocks, as he did not have to do this often in NYG."

Huff recorded 30 interceptions and recovered 17 fumbles and had at least 32½ sacks in his career. He was a First-team All-Pro three times and a Second-teamer in three other seasons and in nine seasons he was a Pro Bowler an/or an All-Conference selection.

13. Bobby Wagner
A very good athlete, with speed and a sure tackle. He will likely be a First-team All-Pro in 2018, his fourth selection in seven seasons (and five Pro Bowls in seven seasons).  He was a key player in the Seahawk's "Legion of Boom" although the secondary got most of the glory.

Wagner has 968 tackles, 42.5 are stuffs, 16.5 sacks, 4 defensive touchdowns, 16.5 sacks, and 9 picks. In time he will move up this list if he stays are his current level of play.

14. Brian Urlacher
Urlacher was a four-time First-team All-Pro and a one-time time Second-team All-Pro along with being an eight-time Pro Bowler. In 2005 he was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In 2001 and 2005 he was the NFLPA Linebacker of the Year, and in 2005 and 2006 he was voted the NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

He finished his career with 1354 tackles, 104.5 of which were stuffs, 22 interceptions, 41.5 sacks and four defensive touchdowns.

Said Troup, "Urlacher is least instinctive MLB on the list, he was an oversized safety that made big plays. Enjoyed watching him play, yet cringed on short yardage running plays. Once upon a time Dr. Z and I listed Ray Lewis & Levon Kirkland as 1, and 1a as MLB's in the league in short yardage with Urlacher near the bottom. Z also shared that a more than one of the great Giant linebackers gathered on the field before a game for a special event, told him that they though Urlacher was soft".

But the upside for Urlacher in his era was excellent because he was good in coverage and big-play machine. He could run with tight ends in the hole and his height was a great advantage for him, along with his speed. So, while he may not have been the best at getting off blocks, he was a MLBer who could do so many things well that it more than made up for any shortcomings.

15. Nick Buoniconti
Buoniconti was a Five-time All-Pro/AFL and eight-time ProBowl/AFL All-Star in his career. He was also an All-AFL Decade Team member. He intercepted 32 passes and sack the quarterback 18 times, most of them coming in his Patriot days and their dogging defensive scheme.

Says Troup, "Outstanding overachiever since day one with Boston. He was instinctive, quick, and a very sound tackler. His lack of height was not an issue on pass defense as he handled zone coverages with aplomb. His trade to Miami was the key for Don Shula since he never had to worry about his performance.  Buoniconti had a quick mind and his leadership stood out. The downside was simple—he did not handle o-lineman that had the angle on him. The Super Bowl loss to Dallas, and games against Raiders. did not shed blocks well. Overall; consistent, and fine tackler."

16. Zach Thomas
Thomas was a fine MLBer who made 1,727 tackles (93.0 for losses), plus 20.5 sacks and 18 picks, four of which he returned for scores.

He was a Five-time All-Pro and twice was a Second-team All-Pro although there is a bit of an asterisk with that. From the mid-1980s through the mid-2010s the AP All-Pro team selected two middle linebackers, not one. And in all those cases, Thomas was the 'Second' All-Pro, not the leading vote-getter. The idea for the AP was that since many teams in that era were 3-4 teams that it was appropriate to choose two inside linebackers, one for a 4-3 defense the other for the 3-4. But by the time Thomas began his career the league had shifted back to a predominate 4-3 league and there were few 3-4 inside linebackers, so the AP voters simpled picked two MLBers most of the time. So, Thomas ended up behind the likes of Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher or others.

Thomas was smart and active and was a three-down MLber who had good speed. His lack of height was not a detriment in that he was able to cover a back or get to his zone and play good pass defense.

17. Harry Carson
Carson was an excellent inside linebacker versus the run and could dog effectively as well. In the early 1980s, though, he became a two-down linebacker, usually getting replaced in nickle/dime situations. He was a hard hitter and great run defender, though his pass coverage lacked, which is one reason he was replaced in nickel/dime.

Still, he was respected enough to be voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Carson was All-Pro in 1981 and 1984 and was Second-team All-Pro in 1978, 1982, 1985 and 1986 and was voted to nine Pro Bowls. He was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year twice, in 1978 and 1979

Carson ended his career with 1,541 tackles according to gamebooks and had 17 sacks, 11 interceptions and recovered 14 fumbles. He was a key player in the 1986 Giants defense that ended the season with a Super Bowl ring.

18. Bill Bergey
Bergey was a four-time All-Pro with one additional season as a Second-team All-Pro. He was voted as a Pro Bowler or All-Conference selection eight times in his career and was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year in 1976.

Bergey has 18½ sacks, 27 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries. He had Butkus-type size, but didn't have quite have the instincts (who did?).

19. Tommy Nobis
Nobis ended his career with 1,203 tackles, 8 sacks, 12 picks and 13 fumbles recoveries. He was a mainstay of the Falcons defense of the late-1960s through the mid-1970s. He was a two-time First-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. There has been a lot of Hall of Fame talk for Nobis over the years but the question is being a two-time All-Pro enough?

20. Steve Nelson
The first modern 3-4 ILBer since the Patriots converted to that scheme in Nelson's rookie year (along with Sam Hunt). He was underrated and didn't get a lot of post-season honors, having to compete with Jack Lambert, Randy Gradishar and Mike Singeltary for those mentions.

However, he was First-team All-AFC in 1980 and 1984 and a Second-teamer in 1978, 79 and 85 and was a Pro Bowler in 1980, and 1984-85. He was a First-team All-Pro in 1980 and a Second-teamer in 1984.

His 1,440 tackle total with 57 for losses is impressive as are his 19 sacks, 21 forced fumbles, 16 fumbles recovered and 17 interceptions especially since late in his career he was a two-down linebacker.

21. Sam Mills
Mills totaled 1,265 tackles in the NFL with nearly another 600 in the USFL. He had 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, 22 forced fumbles, 23 recoveries and four defensive touchdowns.

He was a three-time First-team All-Pro and was a Second-team All-Pro in 1991 and a five-time All-Pro. His best season may have been 1995 when he was a Second-team All-NFC pick, not All-Pro.

"Mouse" was a smart leader and like Mike Singletary or Jack Reynolds, was a computer on the field. Says coach Troup, "Deserving of consideration for the HoF. Instinctive, exceptional tackler he filled the hole and of course got under the run in a squared position. He was more than adequate on zone coverage and also strong in leadership."

22. John Offerdahl

Offerdahl was a one-time All-Pro and twice a Second-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. Injuries cut his career short, but he was a very highly regarded inside linebacker in his time in the NFL. Says Coach Troup, "Offerdahl had it all—instincts, pursuit, striking/hitting ability, and of course tackling, while adequate at pass defense. Who knows how great he would have been if not injured."

23. Chris Spielman
Spielman totaled 1,362 tackles, 63.0 of which were stuffs, 10.5 sacks, 6 picks, 19 fumble recoveries and 13 forced fumbles. He was All-Pro twice and Second-team All-Pro once and named to four Pro Bowls.

Troup, "Sentimental choice for me. An overachiever and though lacked speed, he was strong in pursuit due to angles taken. He shed blocks as well as any 3-4 linebacker ever. He was an excellent tackler/and hitter. He was not asked to do much on pass defense, yet was at least adequate."

24. Les Richter
Richter was First-team All-Pro in 1955 and 1956 and Second-team All-Pro from 1957-60 and went to eight Pro Bowls in nine years. However, it seems some of his Pro Bowls may have been because he was a versatile player, one who could kick and snap. And since the Pro Bowl is a flesh and blood game, not on paper, coaches made sure they had guys who could fill all positions.

He did pick off 16 passes and recovered 12 fumbles but many don't think he was quite as good as the elite MLBers of his era even though he was voted to the Hall of Fame.

Troup on Richter: "One of the few overrated Hall of Famers ever.  I have studied a ton of Ram film and he sure had some strengths:  1) he played consistently hard all the time even on some poor Ram defenses. 2) outstanding open-field tackler, due to superb speed for a big man, and with that speed—rock solid on pass defense. His drawbacks: for a big man did not fill the hole quick enough (lacked instincts) and was not near the hitter that others were. He was very poor on scrape, and at times "piled on" even more than Huff did. At end of his career, he was moved to center, and he actually played well there—maybe should have been his position all along."

25. Chuck Drazenovich

Drazenovich was the NFL's first middle linebacker. The Redskins committed to that scheme earlier than the other teams of that era. He began his career as a fullback and was decent there, though not a star. He moved to linebacker and excelled.

Troup's comments, "Drazenovich was most instinctive besides Joe Schmidt in the 1950s. He was superb at scrape, and a savage tackler hitter. He was strong on zone coverage and was selected to four straight Pro Bowls in the beginning era of the 4-3 MLB. He was a three-time Second-team All-Pro but that is mitigated by the fact he was competing for post-season honors with players like Schmidt, Huff, George and Richter (all Hall of Famers)."

26. Hardy Nickerson
Nickerson was a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time First-team All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro once. He ended his career with 1,525 tackles, 21 sacks, 12 picks, 19 forced fumbles, and 14 fumbles recovered.  He was a Second-team 1990s All-Decade selection. In 1993 he was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year.

27. Lee Roy Jordan
A key to Tom Landry's 4-3 Flex defense, Jordan was not a big man but was smart and quick. He was good in coverage and always in the right place in the run game. Twice he was First-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. Jordan had 19.5 sacks and picked off 32 passes in his career, among the highest ever for middle 'backers. He also recovered 18 fumbles and averaged well over 100 tackles a season in his career.

28. London Fletcher

Fletcher will be an interesting case when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. He was never voted to a Pro Bowl, though he was an 11-time alternate and since so many players get hurt or beg out of the game, Fletcher played in four Pro Bowls as a replacement. Twice he was a Second-team All-Pro (2011-12) and he did get some minor honors in his career. Here are a couple of examples—in 1999 Peter King chose Fletcher as his All-Pro MLBer and in 2006 ESPN's named him to their All-Pro team.

Fletcher played 16 seasons and totaled 2,031 tackles, 80 of which were stuffs. He had 39 sacks and 23 interceptions to go with 20 forced fumbles and 12 recoveries. He scored two safeties and 2 defensive touchdowns.

So, his stats or 'numbers' seem to meet Hall of Fame standards as does his Super Bowl ring, but he does lack the type of honors that most Hall of Famer LBer have on their 'resume'.

29. Mike Curtis
Curtis began as a fullback, then moved to outside linebacker where he was All-Pro once then in the middle of 1969 moved to MLBer where he was All-Pro. He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1970 and was a Pro Bowler in 1970, 71 and 74. He finished with 19.5 sacks, 25 interceptions, and 9 recoveries and three defensive touchdowns.

30. Levon Kirkland
Kirkland was All-Pro in 1997 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1996. He was voted to Pro Bowls after those two seasons. His career tackle total was 1,023 and he had 19.5 sacks, 11 picks, 16 forced fumbles and 11 fumbles recovered.

He was one of best-ever at short yardage and goal line and could fill a hole as well as anyone. Not as good at coverage, though he did pick off 4 passes in 1996, pretty good for a 6-1 270-pound linebacker.

31. Karl Mecklenburg
Mecklenburg was a unique three-down linebacker. He was an inside linebacker in the base 3-4 defense and in nickel he was a defensive end (sometimes a defensive tackle). He averaged 69 tackles a season, a low average for a player on this list, but averaged 7 sacks, the most on this list (Bryan Cox is the closest with an average of five sacks a season). He just wasn't a player who could play coverage very well.

He was a four-time All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler, so his unique combination gained plenty of notice from the media. He finished with 776 tackles, 79 sacks, 5 picks, 17 forced fumbles and 14 fumbles recoveries (2 went for touchdowns).

32. Jack Reynolds
Hacksaw was a two-down linebacker, for the most part, and was a good one. Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf named him as one of the best 10 MLBers ever in a Sporting News article in the late-1990s. Reynolds solidified a 49er defense that won two Super Bowl rings in 1981 and 1984, but he made his bones as the Rams MLBer for most of the 1970s where he was a Pro Bowler in 1975 and 1980 (and All-NFC in 1979) along with his Second-team All-NFC selection with the 49ers in 1981.

Reynolds was like a computer on the field for the Rams defense that was first in the NFL from 1970-80 in allowing the fewest rushing yards, fewest total yards, fewest points allowed and sacked the quarterback the most times.

He totaled 1,191 tackles and recovered 14 fumbles. As someone who was not on the field much on third down he had just 6 picks and 4½ sacks on his career, but his forte was run-stopping and at that he was among the best.

33. Derrick Johnson
One of our favorites, Johnson was a fine three-down linebacker from 2005-17, starting as an outside linebacker then moving inside a few years into his career. He ended with 1,168, 27.5 sacks, 14 picks (four went for touchdowns) to go with his 22 forced fumbles, He didn't receive many post-season honors—one-time First-team All-Pro and once a second-teamer and four Pro Bowls.

34. Donnie Edwards

Edwards played a lot of outside linebacker, but was also a MLBer in the majority of his years and was always an inside linebacker in the nickel. He was similar to Derrick Johnson in that he did everything very well. He was A second-team All-Pro twice and deserved more post-season honors in our view.  From 1998 through 2001 he was certainly Pro Bowl worthy but was never higher than a Pro Bowl alternate in those years.

He totaled 1,490 tackles (75.5 were stuffs), 23.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 28 interceptions (a very high number for his era) and scored six defensive touchdowns.

Again, he is a linebacker who is hard to peg because he was good both inside and outside. His most natural position would likely be will, but team needs caused him to play a lot inside.

35. Jessie Tuggle
Tuggle was voted to five Pro Bowls and was a Second-team All-Pro in 1998. He ended his fine career with 1,371 tackles, 21 sacks, 6 picks, and 10 fumble recoveries. You will see higher tackle totals for him but our totals come from the gamebooks rather than the coaches on our site to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.



As with any list, things get redundant after a while and also the separation between players becomes less and less. For example, the difference between number 5 and 25 on this list may have some separation in the greatness of their careers, numbers 35 and 65 might not be all that far apart. As such, we will write less for each player (if any) from number 36 to the bottom. But we will link the Pro Football Reference on each of the names and if readers will follow those links they can get an idea of a player's career from that.

But another shorthand might be the top of the list are "blue" players, the top. Then as you go down players might be "red" with some "blue" traits. Then further down to the "red players". The bottom of the list might be players who have a "red trait" or two but are not quite on the second level (blue being first level, red being the second level). Then, after that are players whose names we might recognize has having a decent career with some longevity, or short careers who may have had one or two excellent seasons.

Again, we're not going to pretend as though our list is the be-all, end-all. All we claim is through research, film watching and some historical perspective, we gave this list some thought and peppered with stats you cannot find anywhere else. And we hope you enjoy it.

Here are numbers 36 through 135:

36. James Farrior
Farrior was a fine 3-4 ILber on some fine teams and some not-so-fine team. Had a knack for big plays. He finished with 1,412 tackles, 35 sacks and 11 picks and was named to two Pro Bowls. 

37. Jeff Siemon
A solid player, a good 1970s MLBer who lacked speed, but was smart and could tackle well. He was replaced by Scott Studwell who was a bit better athlete but didn't have Siemon's instincts. Siemon was a four-time Pro Bowler.

38. Bob Breunig
Similar to Siemon, a solid, but unspectacular MLBer who took over for Lee Roy Jordan in the Dallas flex defense. He was a three-time Pro Bowler.

39. Bryan Cox

Started out as an outside linebacker because of his rush ability, but moved to the middle and like Urlacher (did it one year) and Karl Mecklenburg he was usually a defensive end in nickel. He averaged 5 sacks a year, very high more a middle backer.

40. Keith Brooking
Very good player, but only verged on being great. But finished with 1,435 and 22 sacks and went to five Pro Bowls. He played some outside linebacker but was usually in the middle in a 4-3 or on the inside in a 3-4 defense.

41. Tedy Bruschi
Likely underrated but he was a big play machine who helped the Patriots to those early 2000s rings. Also overcame a stroke, which is a big plus in our eyes because toughness does count. Bruschi finished with 1,063 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 12 picks (four of which were pick sixes) and was a Second-team All-Pro twice.

42. Pepper Johnson
A two-down-type 3-4 ILber. Good tackler, smart (coached by Bill Belichick) and could get some good pressure when he dogged.

43. Matt Millen
A converted college defensive tackle who was a two-down ILBer in the NFL. Was a starter on four Super Bowl-winning teams, twice with the Raiders, once with the 49ers and once for the Redskins.

44. Myron Pottios
Lacked speed, was kind of a poor man's Bill George. Was solid with the Steelers then George Allen used him in George's role with the Rams, with his hand in the dirt as a middle guard on occasion. Poor in pass coverage was often replaced by a quicker linebacker or nickelback in passing situations as Allen was among the first to regularly implement nickel defenses.

45. Karlos Dansby
Very solid, made a lot of tackles for losses in his career.

46. NaVorro Bowman
Not the player that Patrick Willis was, but very solid, very active in his on right.

47. Joe Federspiel
Underrated, played for poor teams. But he was one who had some "blue traits". Good tackler, though not fast, he took good angles. On a good team, he was capable of leading a Super Bowl winning defense, but he never got that chance. Finished with 1,220 tackles in his 10-year career.

48. Jim Collins
A neck injury slowed and eventually ended Collins' career but from 1983-85 he was more than solid, he was an excellent three-down linebacker. Good in coverage, could dog fairly well and was godo hitter and great instincts, a poor man's Randy Gradishar in the 3-4.

49. Al Wilson
A quality MLB in the Broncos defense that won Super Bowls.

50. Vincent Brown
A hitter, played on some poor teams, might have been All-Pro if he had played for say, the Giants or Steelers, teams that featured and promoted linebackers.

51. Shane Conlan
Smart, tough leader of the early 1990s Bills defenses. However, more of a two-down linebacker than one who'd do really well in coverage.

52. Ted Johnson
Similar to Shane Conlan.

53. Jim Haslett
Silimar to Conlan and Ted Johnson.

54. Jeremiah Trotter

55. Lawrence Timmons

56. Al Smith

57. Dont'a Hightower

58. Jerod Mayo

59. Jon Beason

60. Dale Dodrill

61. Archie Matsos

62. Lofa Tatupu

63. Jerry Robinson


64. Jonathan Vilma

65. David Harris

66. Bart Scott

67. Mike Lucci
Was a solid MLBer for his era who earned some post-season honors. Maybe a bit like a Jeff Sieman or Bob Breunig.

68. Jim LeClair
Again, similar to Lucci.

69. Dick Ambrose
Similar to LeClair.

70. Scott Studwell
An athletic upgrade to Jeff Sieman, but really never was a star, either. A solid player who'd occasionally get some post-season honors.

71. Dale Meinert
Solid pro for some decent defenses on the 1960s Cardinals.

72. Don Paul
Was one of the two LBers in Rams 5-2 defense, his career ended before the Rams went to a 4-3 full time. He was known as a dirty player in the 1950s (who wasn't?) and got some post-season honors and a ring with the Rams.

73. Gregg Bingham
Had a solid career with the Oilers. Was likely the second-full time 3-4 LBer in modern NFL history as the Oilers committed to the 3-4 at mid-season in 1974, though they had toyed with it in 1973 and the first-half of 1974.

74. Sherrill Headrick
One of the better players in the AFL in its early years.

75. Micheal Barrow

76. Al Atkinson

77. Harry Jacobs

78. Mike Johnson
79. Jeff Herrod

80. Antonio Pierce

81. Dan Morgan
82. Stephen Boyd

83. Cecil Johnson
Johnson  split his time between ILB and OLBer in a 3-4 scheme, but had most success inside, though he had fine outside cover skills, he just wasn't the kind of pass rusher coaches wanted on the outside so when Hugh Green arrived in Tampa Johnson moved inside.


84. D'Qwell Jackson

85. E.J. Henderson

86. Frank LeMaster

87. Jack Del Rio
Another player who began outside but moved inside and had his most productive years as a MIKE.


88. Eugene Lockhart

89. Fred Strickland
Played for several teams, most of them as a traditional middle linebacker who had a good combination of size and speed. With the Rams, from 1988-92 he was a "joker" type defensive player. He was a moving piece in Fritz Shurmur's defenses playing inside linebacker in base defense and nose tackle in the Eagle defense and defensive tackle in nickel. Later, in 1991, with Jeff Fisher's defense, he'd play some base defensive end, some outside linebacker—a poor man's Karl Mecklenburg.


90. Randall Godfrey

91. DeMeco Ryans

92. Dan Conners

93. Dat Nguyen

94. Winfred Tubbs

95. Jerry Tubbs

96. Kendrell Bell
Bell was one of the handful of inside linebackers who'd play on the edge on passing downs due to special pass rush skills.

97. Carl Ekern
Ekern began his career with the Rams in specialty roles, short yardage and some nickel defenses. Became the starter in 1981 and fought through some injuries. As a replacement for Jack Reynolds he was good, but never to the level of Reynolds, even though he had more height and speed—similar to what happened with Scott Studwell and Jeff Sieman in Minnesota. Sometimes the more talented player in terms of size or speed is not the better player.

  98. Marlin McKeever
  99. Sam Cowart
Short career for Cowart, spent some time on outside, but was a very active player who went to one Pro Bowl.


100. Nick Barnett

Barnett, solid, was Second-team All-Pro once, 1,041 tackles 20.5 sacks, 12 picks (two went for touchdowns).

101. Daryl Washington
Washington was building a fine career with a unique skill set until he kind of self destructed off the field with an indefinite suspension stemming from drugs and domestic violence. 

102. Fredd Young
Young was another of the 1980s ILBers who would play defensive end quite often in nickel. He was a great special teams player but was undersized for both the base and nickel positions he played. His speed and toughness could get him by, but he wasn't int he NFL long, largely because it was difficult to always be physically outmatched.

103. Stephen Tulloch
Solid but unspectacular type who had some 'red traits".

104. James Laurinaitis
Laurinaitis was an okay tackler, not great, but was another of the "computer on the field"-type MLBers. He played on some sorry teams but was always on the field, even in dime, he was the lone linebacker. He knew the defenses inside and out and he had to play under two styles with the Rams. He was better in coverage than most, which is why he could be on the field in dime, he could dog okay, but in some ways was like Urlacher and didn't get off blocks well, even though he had good size and strength.

105. Paul Posluszny

Similar in many ways to Laurinaitis but a bit lighter.

106. Greg Biekert
107. Ken Fantetti
108. Jim Carter
109. Richard Wood
110. Gary Plummer
111. Dino Hackett
112. Shane Nelson
113. Kyle Clifton
114. Neal Olkewicz
115. Barry Krauss
116. Gary Spani
117. A.J. Duhe
Duhe converted from defensive end to inside linebacker and had a few really good years, then tailed off. Made his only Pro Bowl in 1984 when he really didn't deserve it as he had been benched during an injury-plagued season. However, from 1981-83 he was quite a good playmaker.
118. Earl Holmes
119. Brian Noble
120. Eugene Marve
121. Sam Hunt
Along with Steve Nelson the first 3-4 linebackers in league history.
122. Eddie Johnson
123. Kwon Alexander
124. Vince Costello
125. Jim Cheyunski
126. John Ebersole
127. Chuck Allen
128. Bob Babich
129. Frank Nunley
130. Garland Boyette
Actually started at MLB in 1962, making him the first African-American to play the position, but he was not really full-time starter until 1967.
131. John Grimsley
132. Ray Bentley
133. Allen Aldridge
134. Carlton Bailey
135. Dennis Gaubatz