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.
Ranking the Linebackers
1. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers 2. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers 3. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys 4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers 5. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens 6. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots 7. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears 8. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers 9. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs 9. Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers
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:
"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.
Patrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."
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."
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."