Dan’s Top 10 Inside Line-backers Heading Into the 2015 NFL Season
With the secondary squared away, it’s time to move to the inside line-backers. In future weeks we’ll be splitting positions dependant on whether they’re in a 3-4 or 4-3, but inside line-backers we thought we could group together, despite obviously big differences in the positions for both systems. This list sort of fell into place for me and was certainly easier than the safeties and corners. There were a couple of players knocking on the door, but nowhere near as many as there has been in previous years.
There were a couple of really interesting things that came from this. 4 of the players play for 2 teams, with 2 sets of inside line-backer tandems making the list. What’s even crazier is that the 49ers could have had 3 players on this list if Patrick Willis and Chris Borland hadn’t have retired; as it is they have just 1 player on this list. So let’s see where he makes it on my list.
10) Koa Misi – Miami Dolphins
Misi has spent most of his career lining up on the outside, but in 2014 the decision was made to move him to the middle, which worked really well. Misi formed a partnership with Jelani Jenkins, who had something of a breakout season on the weak side. After the loss of both Dan Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler, the line-backer corps took a big hit, but in Misi the Dolphins hope they have a solid starter in the middle after years on the outside. Misi racked up 60+ tackles last year in just 11 games, which leads me to the biggest issue with Misi, which is a spotty injury history. If he can stay healthy, then there is no reason we don’t see a career season for Misi behind newly acquired defensive tackle Ndamakong Suh.
9) Karlos Dansby – Cleveland Browns
Dansby rounds up a solid hat trick of Cleveland Browns defensive players that have made my defensive top 10 lists, which goes to show that this was really not their problem last year. Regularly the Browns defence would keep them in games for the offence to go ahead and win…it just never happened. Dansby was a mainstay in an exceptionally talented line-backer group. Kruger and Mingo on the outside might be one of the most underrated outside line-backer pairings in the league, Dansby takes one of the positions in the middle with the other being a straight fight between Craig Robertson and Christian Kirksey. Dansby had great stats, with 71 tackles and 3 sacks. A chunk of this can be chalked up to the Browns defence constantly being on the field, but the 8 missed tackles shows that Dansby did a great job in the middle of the field. Dansby believes he can play better and with additions of Danny Shelton and Randy Stark, this could be a standout season, but this I need to see it actually happen before I move him higher up on the list.
8) Daryl Smith – Baltimore Ravens
Daryl Smith joined the Ravens in 2013 on a budget 1 year contract. Since then he’s proved his worth, earning him a well-deserved 4 year contract. Smith last year was paired with CJ Mosley, who both combined to show that the team might not have Ray Lewis any more but they haven’t really lost a step. The Ravens inside line-backer managed to notch up 93 tackles with only 7 missed, all on a team that is loaded in the middle of the field. Smith is perfect for a team that can line up with a number of different looks, fitting in as both a 4-3 and 3-4 line-backer. Smith and Mosley made a great pairing with Smith leaving a chunk of coverage duties to Mosley. Smith is 33, which means we’ve probably seen his best days, but combined with the up and coming Mosley, Upshaw, Suggs and Dumervil, the Ravens have a versatile line-backer unit that might be the best in the league.
7) Navorro Bowman – San Francisco 49ers
It is easy to forget how good Bowman was before he suffered the season ending injury, but the general consensus was that Bowman was beginning to overtake Willis as the best inside line-backer on the niners. Since then however a lots changed. Chris Borland came into the team and would have made this list too if he hadn’t retired. Patrick Willis has been consistently one of the best line-backers in the league, but he also retired. Bowman re-joins a team that isn’t just missing Willis and Borland, but also defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, to be taken over by Eric Mangini, who gets his 2nd shot in the league. So now Bowman is looking at lining up next ex-Dolphins Phillip Wheeler and could now be the top player on this league and step out of the giant shadow that Patrick Willis casts. In 2013 Bowman was ranked the top inside line-backer on pro football focus, with 112 tackles, 5 sacks and 14 hurries. If Bowman can recover from his injury to a level even close to that of 2013, then Bowman probably deserves to be higher up. Bowman could be the difference between this team carrying on from the previous few seasons’ success and a need to rebuild.
6) CJ Mosley – Baltimore Ravens
There were a number of rookies last year that impressed on defence last year, particularly at line-backer. Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr and Chris Borland were all excellent, as well as CJ Mosley, who slipped into the Ravens team like he’d been playing in the NFL for years. Mosley didn’t have to wait long to receive a reward for his exceptional play, when he got picked for the pro bowl. The 2nd Ravens line-backer on this list managed to start all games, racking up 1100 snaps, gaining 107 tackles, 3 sacks and 61 defensive stops. Basically Mosley looked like a veteran line-backer right from the get go. If I had one complaint about Mosley, it would be that occasionally he would struggle against some of the bigger tight ends in coverage, which can be partially to blame for the 400 yards he allowed after the catch. This though is an issue he can iron out, with Mosley seemingly being a natural fit for one of the league’s most talented line-backer groups.
5) Dont’a Hightower – New England Patriots
With the likes of Revis and Browner only being in New England for as long as it takes to win a Super bowl ring (which with the Patriots isn’t long), there is some thought that the team has taken a massive step back. However the middle line-backer group remains as exceptional as ever. To be honest classing this group is difficult. Hightower, Mayo and Collins have all lined up in the middle and on the outside, which shows how important versatility is to this unit, especially when all 3 can be useful in non-traditional versions of a 3-4 and 4-3 defence. Hightower benefitted heavily from Jerod Mayo going down injured early in the season and took full advantage of his shot. With no Mayo and a rise in the amount the team lined up in the sub, Hightower made waves as a middle line-backer, gaining an exceptional 8 sacks and 17 hurries. The main concern about Hightower however is recovery from torn labrum surgery, but all reports suggest that he seems to have recovered fully and has narrowly avoided the PUP list. Truth be told Hightower could spend some time on the outside, but I wanted to highlight his success in the middle.
4) Mychal Kendricks – Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have been somewhat quiet on these lists, which can’t be said for the daily NFL news. Kendricks however is in a situation similar to the Patriots, where he is 1 of 3 exceptionally talented inside line-backers, amongst Demeco Ryan and Kiko Alonso, who are all putting forward a good case for being starters at inside line-backer. Add to this that the trade rumours surrounding Kendricks have been abundant and anyone would have a good reason to move him down this list. Personally though I really like him. Last year, despite less snaps than a number of players 0n this list, still racked up 4 sacks and 18 hurries, on top of 72 tackles. Kendricks competing with Ryan and Alonso could eat into his playing time, but overall I think he showed enough last year that should still make an impact on both this team and the NFL. It’s also worth noting that this is just his 4th year and he’s been getting progressively better. 2015 could be a very good year for Kendricks.
3) Jamie Collins – New England Patriots
Another player that can line up in pretty much every position in that exceptional Patriots line-backer group, but due to injuries saw a chunk of last year in the middle. Collins is physical freak. lining up at 6’3 and 250lbs he can keep up with pretty much any running back and is excellent when lined up in coverage against bigger tight ends, boasting only a 60.7 completion percentage in coverage. Collins versatility makes the perfect weapon for the Patriots defence who like to keep opposing offences guessing, plus his versatility means you can keep him on the field pretty much all the time and he remains useful. With the return of Jerod Mayo we may see Collins move outside, but I would imagine we see him line up an awful lot on the inside. If it hasn’t already been considered to have happened, this could very well be the breakout year for Collins.
2) Bobby Wagner – Seattle Seahawks
Wagner missed 5 games last year, and it was noticeable. during that run Seattle had numerous scares from the likes of the Panthers, Raiders and a poor Giants team and outright lost to the Rams and the Chiefs. Wagner goes under the radar, but is every bit as important as any member of the legion of boom. Despite missing 5 games, Wagner still racked up 74 tackles and allowed 0 touchdowns in coverage, although with the LOB it does tend to make that job slightly easier. What I like about Bobby Wagner is that he keeps himself to himself. On a team where everyone is trying to be heard, Wagner just goes about his business. This tied up with the new contract which means he can concentrate on playing, turn up to training camp and be an active member of the team during camp, as well as a belief that he is yet to hit his prime, makes me think that Wagner is easily one of the most important inside line-backers in the league. However the no. 1 guy… he’s a bit special.
1) Luke Kuechly – Carolina Panthers
There was never any doubt in my mind that Kuechly would be number 1 on this list. Kuechly is a phenomenon. He is everywhere. Stats wise he was exceptional. 122 tackles, and 81 defensive stops, more than any other middle line-backer, he was targeted 81 times, 2nd most of any line-backer and he still kept it to a decent completion percentage of 73.6%. When they did catch the ball Kuechly would be able to shut them down, only allowing 262 yards after catch, which is staggering for someone targeted that often. In short there is nothing he does badly. Having Kuechly on the field makes up for the equivalent of 2 line-backers, giving the Panthers insane flexibility. Having Thomas Davis next to him does help, there is no denying that, but with just the 2 of them they can fill pretty much any gap, meaning the Panthers can use their nickel package without losing a step. Last year Davis & Kuechly played nearly every snap, with the next nearest line-backer only racking up 23%. Kuechly is going from strength to strength and I see no reason why that would change this season.
So an obvious number 1, but what do you think? Hit us up on twitter: @gridirongents