The NFL’s Top Linebackers

Dick Butkus, LT (the real one), Mike Singletary, Ray Lewis; not the eyes you want staring back at you from across the line of scrimmage. Who’s my top choice to instill that same fear in 2011? Let’s review the candidates.

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of my journey to determine the one player, at each position, I’d want over all the rest. Still to come: RB, DL, DB, WR, and QB. Apologies to the offensive line, special teamers, and fullbacks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate you, it just wouldn’t be much fun to write about you. Sorry.

Remember, contract, fantasy value, and whether or not I despise the player will not influence my decision, nor will statistics and popularity. There’s no mathematic formula. It’s simply one humble man’s opinion. I’m picking the one player I want most on my team, regardless of what anyone else believes. Feel free to share your opinion. Agree, laugh, yell, kick, scream; it’s all welcomed.

Another quick note: Due to the resurgence of the 3-4 Defense, it’s unfair (and nearly impossible) to combine all NFL linebackers into a generic “Linebacker” category. Therefore, I divided them into two distinct groups: Linebackers functioning as defensive ends, and traditional – playing three yards off the line of scrimmage – linebackers. I hope that made sense.

Here we go. In reverse order.

Lawrence Taylor Division

3. LaMarr Woodley
A difficult pick. I’ve always been a Terrell Suggs fan, but, if given the opportunity, I would choose Woodley over Suggs. Many would argue Woodley’s teammate James Harrison belongs in this spot. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. However, Harrison is well over 30. I fear his best days are behind him now. (More importantly, Roger Goodell will undoubtedly encourage/order NFL officials to swallow their whistles while offensive lineman chop block Harrison until he voluntarily retires or snaps and finds himself in prison.)
Back to Woodley, the guy is a bull. Other linebackers may have flashier moves and nicer hair, but none are as strong as Woodley. Plus, I watched him get a tattoo from Ami James on NY Ink. We’re basically friends.

2. Clay Matthews III
Clay Matthews is the third “Clay Matthews” to don an NFL jersey. The family blood is obviously juiced. Forgot HGH. Find some Matthews blood and you should be good to go.
In his first two seasons, Matthews racked up double digit sacks (10 in 2009, 13.5 in 2010) and eliminated any questions about his size being an issue. If he really did play with a stress fracture in 2010, then I suppose we can expect close to 20 sacks in 2011. Stress fracture or not, it’s fun to watch Matthews on Sundays. I’m a water skier. Part of the fun of slaloming (skiing on one ski) is seeing how horizontal you can get to the water while still skiing. It’s not easy. Somehow, Matthews accomplishes this feat while blitzing the quarterback. It’s what makes him unstoppable. Well, that and his endless motor. This fall, be sure to pay attention to how low and close to the ground Matthews gets when attacking the backfield. Offensive linemen are too big and slow to get under Matthews. As a result, opposing quarterbacks find themselves draped in flowing locks of blonde hair.

1. DeMarcus Ware
Just get out of the way, that’s all you can do. After five consecutive seasons of double digit sacks, it’s obvious DeMarcus Ware is on another level. Although it pains me to select another Cowboy, it’d be hard to justify anyone else in the top spot. No other player has done it better or more consistently than Ware in recent years. As an Eagles fan, I’ve learned to close my eyes if our quarterback is still holding the ball after three seconds. (Ok, not true anymore since Vick showed up.) I know what it looks like to see #94 beat on a quarterback as if he stole something. I don’t need to see it again. That’s why I want him on my team. It’d also be nice to celebrate his talents than have nightmares about them.
While Clay Matthews may soon give him a run for the crown, DeMarcus Ware is hands down the best linebacker in the NFL when it comes to chasing quarterbacks. Ask any fan of the NFC East, they’ll tell you.

Honorable Mention
Terrell Suggs – Like I said before, he’s long been my favorite. You could convince me that Suggs took it upon himself to punish Ben Roethlisberger for being a perve all these years. That’s how many times he’s taken a run at Big Ben.

James Harrison – He’s undoubtedly one of the best. Unfortunately, he’s getting old. As Charles Barkley likes to remind us, “Father time is undefeated.” Plus, Harrison called out the Puppet Master. He’s destined for a career-ending injury.

Cameron Wake – I know what you’re thinking; “who?” Well, apparently the Miami Dolphins still exist, and they have a sack specialist in Wake. I’m not totally sold yet because he’s only performed at this level for a year, but it didn’t feel right leaving him off the list. I also wanted the people in Miami to have something to be excited about. You know, because Chad Henne sucks and LeBron James continues to pretend the 2011 NBA Finals never happened.

Dick Butkus Division

I’m a simple guy. I get flustered when I don’t know what’s going on. I like when everything is obvious and I know exactly how I’m supposed to perform and what I’m supposed to do in any situation. I stopped shopping at GAP for this reason. I’d walk in and have no idea what clothes were for men. I’d start to sweat. I’d frantically walk around like a deer that wandered into a grocery store. I need to be able to tell the difference between men and women’s clothes. I feel the same way about linebackers. To me, DeMarcus Ware is a defensive end more than he is a linebacker. I like linebackers hovering over center, staring coldly at quarterbacks, and waiting to send ball carriers to an early retirement.

3. Jerod Mayo
I’ll be honest, I don’t know too much about Jerod Mayo. Since the Patriots stopped playing defense four years ago, I usual only pay attention to Tom Brady and the offense. However, Mayo is impossible not to notice. At one point, I was convinced he made every tackle for an entire quarter. I love him. His nose is always in the play as evidenced by his league-leading 175 tackles in 2010. Let’s hope Albert Haynesworth flopping around in front him doesn’t make Mayo’s life twice as hard.

2. Jon Beason
I’ve never been run over by a bulldozer, but I imagine that’s what it feels like to be laid out by Jon Beason. There have been very, very, very few reasons to watch the Carolina Panthers recently. Three that come to mind: 3. If Steve Smith was on your fantasy team. 2. If you had the opposing defense and wanted to count the points Jake Delhomme showered on you in real time. 1. Jon Beason.
If you don’t know who Beason is, you should. Tell your friends you want to take a peek at Cam Newton and hope they forget to change the channel after a punt. You won’t regret it. Beason runs with tight ends, crushes running backs, and reminds unsuspecting wide receivers that he owns the middle of the field. He’s also a good teammate. After injuries depleted the Carolina linebacking core in 2010, Beason surrendered his place in the middle and moved outside to better the team. While his statistics suffered, he still received Pro-Bowl honors for the third time in his four-year career. Spend a Sunday with Jon Beason and you’ll thank me later.

1. Patrick Willis
I’m not convinced Willis is that much better than Beason. Nonetheless, he’s the guy I want anchoring my defense. Like Mayo and Beason, Willis is all over the field. One of my favorite moments of the 2010 season was watching Willis chase down Reggie Bush on Monday Night Football. He closes faster than any linebacker in the NFL. Don’t be fooled, though. Just because he’s fast doesn’t mean he’s a pansy. When he lowers his shoulder, someone is going for a ride. YouTube has footage to prove it. What’s more, he’s young (26) and getting better. In fact, Willis, Beason (26) and Mayo (25) should keep the torch at linebacker burning bright for the foreseeable future.

Honorable Mention
Ray Lewis – The best linebacker of all time, at least in my opinion. I wanted him on the list but he’s got to start regressing at some point, right? (Somewhere, Rashard Mendenhall is emphatically praying for the same thing at this very moment.)

Brian Urlacher – When he’s healthy, there are few better. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the last time he had two good/healthy years in succession. He was good in 2010. I expect injuries in 2011.

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