Simon’s Top 10 Inside Linebackers Heading Into the 2015 NFL Season
We’re coming toward the end of the Top 10 positional lists ahead of the 2015 season and this week it’s the turn of the inside linebackers.
The anchor to any good defense, the inside (or middle) linebacker has to have the tools to be able to take on bruising fullbacks head on one play, then drop in to coverage on some of the best Tight Ends in the League the next.
So who are the best in the middle heading in to 2015? This is my take. As always, let me know who you agree with, who you think should have made it, and who you think doesn’t belong. You’ll find me lurking on Twitter @headedforhades so come and debate the list with me.
As is often the case when compiling these Top 10 lists, a number of players could arguably occupy the number 10 slot, but in this instance I’m giving the nod to a Rookie.
- Avery Williamson
On a defense that was largely uninspiring in 2014, Avery Williamson’s progression over the season was notable. From being used sparingly in the opening few weeks Williamson had earned the starting spot by Week 5 and, by the end of the season, was playing every defensive snap.
Whilst his numbers weren’t as impressive as another Rookie who will feature later in the list, he did record 74 tackles on the year (third highest of all Titans), missing just 4 all season, proving him to be a solid hitter who can stop the run effectively. He also recorded 4 sacks despite being used mainly in coverage, and could realistically see more of opposing Quarterbacks with some better talent around him for 2015.
His speed saves him on occasion and he will need to enhance his coverage as his career progresses, but the potential and steady improvement shown through 2014 is enough for me to have him squeak my list for 2015.
- Karlos Dansby
At 33, Dansby isn’t getting any younger, but his first season in Cleveland last year following his off-season move from Arizona showed he has no intention of letting up.
His athleticism and experience make him dangerous against the run, although I think he’s better chasing down outside runners than in at the line, using his closing speed and well judged angles to get to the ball carrier. That speed helps when Dansby is called upon for pass coverage too, allowing just 26 receptions against him in 2014.
Given his age, there is likely to be some drop off in performance on the way, but I’m not sure Dansby is ready to let that happen just yet.
- Daryl Smith
Spoiler alert: Smith is the first of two Ravens to feature on this list and has quickly established himself on the Ravens D following his move from Jacksonville ahead of the 2013 season.
Some considered the move to be something of a risk for Baltimore given Smith’s history of injury but, since the move, he’s recorded 251 tackles, 6 sacks, 4 interceptions and the same count for forced fumbles, earning himself a new 4 year deal in the process.
Whilst he’s more comfortable in coverage than up against fullbacks due to his lack of size, his solid tackling and quickness means he is still effective whether playing 4-3 or 3-4.
Like Karlos Dansby previously Smith is also 33, but he too looks unlikely to suffer a drop off just yet in a defense that is set to be one of the best in 2015.
- Mychal Kendricks
Over the course of this off season, there was considerable talk of Kendricks being on the trade block as Chip Kelly added the likes of Kiko Alonso and Brad Jones to the roster as well as picking up Texas LB Jordan Hicks in the 3rd round of the Draft. Depth at ILB is not something Chip needs to worry about just yet.
Now in his fourth year Kendricks has continued to improve every season and, whilst his numbers were down a little in 2014, he did miss a large part of the first half of the season through a calf injury suffered in Week 2.
When he was on the field he showed much improved abilities both in coverage and taking on the run, and his tackling was far more reliable than previously (just 9 missed tackles on the year compared to 23 in 2013).
He’ll have plenty of ability around him this season and, in a contract year, will likely have something to prove to Chip, so I think it could be another year of improvement from Kendricks.
- Jamie Collins
Following a solid if unspectacular Rookie year in 2013, former College Safety Collins established himself as a lynchpin on the Patriots defense last season and saw playing time at both inside and outside linebacker.
Whilst he was effective outside (recording 4 sacks, 6 hits and 16 hurries) using his speed, he’s better inside in my opinion using that speed to great effect in coverage, or using his immense power to close down the run at the line although with 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles last season as well, he proved to be a threat pretty much anywhere he lined up.
With another season under his belt, and the starting ILB slot under his belt, I think we’ll see big things from Collins this year.
- NaVorro Bowman
Putting NaVorro Bowman at number 5 on a list of the best linebackers in the game feels a little wrong, but 2015 will see him make his comeback from a year-long recovery from a horrific injury sustained in the NFC Championship Game at Seattle, making him something of an unknown.
Whilst these lists aren’t generally about looking back, I’m making an exception here given we saw no playing time from NaVorro in 2014.
In his first four years in the League, he has earned First Team All-Pro Team honours three times, recorded 482 tackles, 9 sacks, 3 interceptions, forced 5 fumbles, and recovered 5 himself. Sadly for Bowman, the last of those forced fumbles saw him suffer the injury to both is ACL and MCL and sidelined him for the entire 2014 season.
Whilst early indications are Bowman is looking strong in training camp as he looks to make a comeback, I think it will take some time for him to regain that step and get up to speed with competitive football again and expect we’ll see a slow start to his season as a result.
As such, I’ll hedge my bets and sit him mid-pack and hope he proves me wrong. If he can be as effective again as he was in 2013, he’ll be much much higher next time around.
- C.J. Mosley
The second Raven to appear on this list is the Rookie out of Alabama who the Ravens picked up with the 17th overall pick in the 2014 Draft, and he got to work right out of the gate.
Starting all 16 games for the Ravens in his first year and playing more snaps than any other middle/inside linebacker, Mosley proved he was equally at home blitzing at the line or dropping back in to coverage recording 3 sacks and 2 interceptions on the year.
His exceptional tackling saw him responsible for 61 play ending tackles, the second best of anyone on this list, and second only to someone yet to feature. He racked up a total of 133 tackles over the course of the year and could have had even more were it not for the 14 missed tackled attributed to him although that’s not surprising given the huge number of plays he was involved in.
It will be interesting to see which way the curve goes with Mosley but, if it wasn’t a fluke of a Rookie year and he repeats or improves his 2014 performance, I think he will fast become considered as one of the best inside linebackers in the game.
- Dont’a Hightower
Another linebacker who is equally adept playing inside or outside, Dont’a Hightower was a vital part of the Patriots’ journey to victory in Super Bowl XLIX, despite playing most of the season injured.
A demon against the run, the 6’3”, 270lb Hightower is capable of shutting down even the most powerful of backs using his powerful frame and lightning reactions to get to the ball carrier quickly and effectively.
That same speed and power also means frequent trips to the opposition backfield, and Hightower recorded 8 sacks and 26 hits/pressures on opposing Quarterbacks in 2014. Even more impressive when you consider he played just 12 games in the regular season.
Whilst the run game is Hightower’s forte, he’s hardly a slouch when called in to coverage duties, albeit across the middle rather than deep. He has more than enough speed to match most Tight Ends and he has the strength to compete for the ball when thrown in his direction. As a result, he gave up just 232 yards in his coverage.
There are questions over his fitness following shoulder surgery at the end of last year although he’s reportedly ahead of schedule with the recovery and says he should be ready for Week 1.
Given the turnover on the Patriots defense this off-season, they’ll be hoping that’s the case.
- Bobby Wagner
It seems every Top 10 I compile has a Seahawks player in there somewhere and this list is no exception courtesy of the ever-reliable Wagner.
Whilst his colleagues in the secondary tend to get all the headlines, Wagner consistently delivers when he’s on the field and, I think, is an important part of the “Legion”. It’s a view the Seahawks themselves would seem to share with the ink still wet on a $43 million contract extension signed this week.
Wagner brings to the table an impressive combination of strength and speed that means he is capable of delivering on almost every play that crosses his path.
In coverage, he uses his speed to cover deep or his power to knock the receiver off his route across the middle. Up at the line, his strength and incredible tackling make him one of the most effective in the League against the run, and he’ll use that speed to fire a gap if called upon, getting in to the backfield and disrupting the play.
The Seahawks front office have been diligent with their contract talks meaning the majority of the “Legion” are signed through 2017. That’s a scary prospect for opposing offenses, and I think Wagner will continue to be a cornerstone of the defense’s effectiveness throughout that time.
- Luke Kuechly
Whilst there is normally a lot of moving and changing toward the bottom of these lists each week, for this list at least, the number 1 spot was nailed on. Speed, tackling, strength, instinct, tenacity, Luke Kuechly has it all, and in spades.
There is no better ILB in coverage than Kuechly in my opinion who has the footwork and speed to compete every down with even the best Tight Ends or slot receivers, and has an engine that means he could easily be sponsored by Duracell if the League allowed it.
His 12 defensed passes on the year were a League-high for any linebacker in 2014 and he didn’t allow a single pass of more than 30 yards all year.
Put him up at the line and he’s just as effective against the run using his speed and instinct to get to the ball carrier quickly whether that be on the inside or the outside. When he gets there, he knows how to wrap them up too, with 147 tackles on the year (a massive 122 of those being solo tackles), resulting in him recording a list topping 81 offensive stops over the year.
In his three years in the League so far, he hasn’t had a single season with fewer than 150 tackles on the year. If you want to run it effectively on the Panthers, you had better run away from Kuechly!
In my opinion whichever way you look at it, Luke Kuechly is the best inside linebacker in football right now.