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The torch at middle linebacker has been passed down over the years.

When we think of some of the great players in the history of football, players that truly epitomize what professional football represents, some of first players that emerge are middle linebackers. Current-day players like Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher may come to mind. Historically speaking, you cannot tell the story of the NFL without mentioning legends at the position like Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Ray Nitschke and Sam Huff. What made and make these players great were not just their physical attributes like speed, strength, and size. But more importantly, coveted intangibles like on-field awareness, toughness, and leadership are what distinguish these players and made them memorable.

The players included in the Hindsight Sports list of the NFL’s best middle linebackers possess these same qualities. Seasoned veterans like Ray Lewis , and young upstarts like Lawrence Timmons carry the torch set by the legends at the position.

Speaking of the list, it is important to remember, though, that with the many teams shifting from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, roles have subtly changed for middle linebackers. Middle linebackers in a 4-3 scheme are in a better position to rack up tackles for 2 reasons:

(1)There are more defensive linemen in front of him to take up blockers, and thus freeing him to make a tackle; and,

(2) He doesn’t play along side another middle linebacker, which means that instead of having to cover the entire field, he now covers half of it, and has fewer chances to make tackles.

With that said, a low tackle total will not be held against a player because his team’s defensive scheme puts him at a disadvantage in this area. Moreover, there is a lot of ambiguity when it comes to recording tackles, and what constitutes as a solo and assisted tackle.

You will notice that some of the players in my rankings have not even entered their prime yet, while others are in the tail end of their careers. Either way, all of these players can get it done, and I would take any of them as the leader of my defense.

Here is the list:

10. London Flectcher After entering the league as an undrafted free agent, this John Carroll alum has and is continuing to proof skeptics wrong and defy the odds. He brings a veteran presence and leadership to a Redskins defense who needs it. His most surprising stat from last season? 11 deflected passes, which was more than that of Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis…. combined.

9. Curtis Lofton He was the top tackler on the fifth best scoring defense in the league. He isn’t an elite athlete, but makes up for it with sound technique and always being a step ahead mentally. Lofton is an effective run defender, because he takes good angles when perusing the ball carrier.

8. David Harris He gets overshadowed by some of his teammates with biggerreputations and consequently has become one of the most underrated players in football. Perhaps this explains why Harris has never been selected to a Pro Bowl roster despite histeammates selecting him as MVP of the Jets. He displays great recognition skills and can blitz the quarterback, which fits perfectly into Rex Ryan’s scheme.

Rex Ryan’s main man.

7. Lawrence Timmons Like Harris, Timmons gets overshadowed by the players around him and doesn’t get enough credit for the impact that he has. Timmons fits into Dick Lebeau’s scheme because he is one of the best blitzing middle linebackers in the league (15 sacks last 3 seasons), and is skilled at dropping back into zone coverage (9 deflected passes last season).

6. Jonathan Vilma After arriving in New Orleans as a free agent from the Jets, Vilma immediately provided valuable experience and a contagious work ethic to a then soon-to-be-much-improved Saints defense. He is an above-average athlete who excels at dropping back in pass coverage.

5. Brian Urlacher After missing nearly the entire 2009 season due to injury, Urlacher returned to the Bear’s defense last year. His return allowed the Bears defense to return to dominance. At 33, he has seen it all in the NFL, and has great instincts because of that. He

The monster of the midway. (James Earl Jones voice)

is the heart and soul of that Bears team and can effectively stuff the run and drop back in coverage.

4. Jon Beason One of the few bright spots on a Carolina team that only won two games last season. Beason provides a lot of locker room leadership for his age (26). He possesses great sideline to sideline speed and is a tackling machine. New (defensive minded) head coach Ron Rivera will love having the active Beason in the middle of his defense next season.

3. Jerod Mayo You knew this kid had to be a pretty good football player when Bill Belicheck, who is infamous for trading down in the draft, picked him 10th overall in the ’08 draft. Mayo led the league in tackles last season with 175, despite playing in a 3-4. Mayo is a bright spot in an otherwise unimpressive Patriot defense, and displays superb reactive skills for a young linebacker.

2. Ray Lewis I have already written about how his reputation among his fellow players led him to be overrated as the 4th best player in the NFL. So, let us instead focus on the positives. He is, without a doubt, the best defensive player of his generation and among the Top 5 ever. At 37, his football instincts and have to compensate for what his body is no longer able to do. He is the biggest reason that Baltimore’s defense has ranked among the elite every year for the last decade, and he continues to mentor and help out younger teammates. Oh, and Minutes!!

1. Patrick Willis Sorry Baltimore fans, but Patrick Willis has irrefutably surpassed Ray Lewis as the best middle linebacker in the game. Much like Lewis at Willis’ age, Willis not only posses physical attributes to be elite, but he is also a student of the game. His hours of film study become apparent with his intuitive play on Sundays. Considering his immense talent and bright future, I still believe that he was ranked too low on the players list at 22.

Biggest Snub: DeMeco Ryans He only played 6 games last season due to injury, which was one of the reasons why he didn’t make the list. Ryans has a great nose for the ball and plays a physical style of football. The Texans will depend on him to lead the defense next season as it switches over from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Stay tuned for my tight end rankings coming this week! If you missed my running back rankings, you can check it out here.

Published with permission from Matt Zabierek.