Dallas Cowboys: Tamba Hali
Lee’s play has been nothing short of incredible this season and the Penn State alum is helping to bring back the school’s Linebacker U. moniker.
Along with Lee, Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny, Carolina’s Dan Connor, Miami’s Cameron Wake, Kansas City’s Tamba Hali and San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman are carrying on the tradition.
“I remember going to the combine and coaches saying, ‘Linebacker U? I haven’t seen an NFL linebacker from there in a long time,’” Lee said. “I’d name some guys, Brandon Short, LaVar Arrington. It’s one thing we take a lot of pride in at Penn State and make that tradition.”
The first Linebacker U. alum Lee mentioned was Dennis Onkotz, but he is more of a Jack Ham guy with his Pittsburgh ties.
“I didn’t get to talk to him as much, but that guy was on two undefeated teams, a Hall of Famer, a great linebacker,” Lee said. “That’s a guy you look up to. Shane Conlan’s a guy who’s around we look up to. He won a national title. I had Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny ahead of me, great, tough guys who were role models.”
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.
All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.
Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.
"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."
Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.
Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.
"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."
There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.
"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."
First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.
"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."
Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
- There was the time, as a rookie in 2007, when Willis tracked down and tackled Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Sean Morey 62 yards downfield, in overtime, to save the game.
- There was the time in 2008, when Willis picked off Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and weaved his way 86 yards to the tying third-quarter touchdown -- the longest interception return by a linebacker since Willis entered the league.
- There was Willis' crushing hit against the New York Jets' Brad Smith in 2008, the hit that left Hasselbeck with a broken rib in 2009 and the two-game stretch last season when Willis collected 28 tackles despite wearing a cast following in-season hand surgery.
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.
"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."
Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.
Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.
Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.
Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.
Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.
Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.
"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."
Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.
"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."
On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).
Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:
- "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
- "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
- "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
- "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
- "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
- "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
- "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
- "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."
We'll look at one matchup from both sides of the ball:
Adams struggled during last week's loss against a speed rusher making the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, allowing two sacks to Denver's Elvis Dumervil. The 6-3, 275-pound Hali, Kansas City's first-round pick in 2006, presents a similar challenge.
If Adams can handle Hali, Tony Romo should have plenty of time to get comfortable in the pocket against the league's 28th-ranked defense. Hali has two of the Chiefs' five sacks this season.
If Hali can get pressure, he could throw a wrench in a Cowboys game plan that doesn't include injured weapons Felix Jones and Roy Williams. Jason Witten was a non-factor as a receiver against the Broncos in large part because he spent much of the afternoon staying in to protect Romo. The Cowboys would much rather have Witten running routes than helping Adams against Hali. They need a strong performance from Adams to get their best weapon the ball.
Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff vs. Chiefs' interior offensive line
The Chiefs have the league's worst third-down conversion rate (17.6 percent) in large part because they haven't been able to get their running game established.
Kansas City will continue to deal with a lot of third-and-long situations if running back Larry Johnson keeps averaging 2.6 yards per carry. To have a chance to establish the run against the Cowboys, the Chiefs have to prevent Ratliff (team-high three tackles for losses) from disrupting plays in the backfield.
That responsibility falls primarily on center Rudy Niswanger's shoulders, but he'll need help from guards Brian Waters and Mike Goff. Four-time Pro Bowler Waters, an undrafted North Texas product the Cowboys tried to make a fullback as a rookie free agent, has developed into one of the league's elite guards. Goff, to put it kindly, isn't very good.
If the Cowboys can shut down the run, watch for Wade Phillips to try to create one-on-one opportunities for Ratliff against Goff on passing downs. Goff has allowed 3.5 sacks this season, tied for the fifth-most in the league.