Ranking the LBs: Patrick Willis is No. 1
San Francisco's Willis is the top linebacker in the NFL
After watching games and breaking down film, Scouts Inc. has evaluated and graded more than 2,500 NFL players heading into the 2011 season. Here's how the linebackers stacked up.
This is the broadest of spectrums, and it's easy to see these rankings starting the biggest of arguments.
How can Patrick Willis top a player like DeMarcus Ware, who piles up game-changing sack totals? Well, the short answer is that competing against sack masters like James Harrison, Clay Matthews and Ware is difficult, but Willis is just a smidge better at what he does than those guys.
The longer answer is you could almost argue that the pure pass-rushing outside linebackers are more like 4-3 defensive ends than "second level" defenders. And many of them were ends in college.
There are two mentalities here. For one, the pass rush is king. For the other, it's a mix. But really, no matter the defensive philosophy, a linebacker must be able to hold a gap, play the run, tackle, play several forms of coverage and set the tone for his defensive teammates.
Willis has been a very productive starting linebacker since day one. He has started every game he has played in since his rookie year and has missed just one game in the past four seasons. He is an instinctive player who is quick to locate the level of the ball and takes good angles to get there.
He does a good job of using his hands to keep blockers off him and keeps working his way to the play. He has the speed to make plays near the sideline and a knack for filtering his way to the ball when attacking the inside run.
He gets good depth in his pass drops but still needs some work on route recognition and reading the quarterback's eyes from zone coverage. He is an intense competitor who leads the team on the field as well as in the locker room.
Harrison uses his lack of height to leverage blockers at the point of attack and gets under larger tackles' pads when coming off the edge. He has great natural strength as a run defender and rarely gives ground in his gap responsibility.
Harrison has a variety of pass-rush moves; his bull rush is as good as any in the league. He closes with ferocity and does not give up on plays. In coverage, Harrison covers ample ground in the short zones and is quick to close on routes in front of him.
Ware had another outstanding season for the Dallas defense in 2010. Ware has been a dominating force on the outside for the Cowboys since entering the league in 2005. He has excellent size and athleticism with deceptive strength attacking the line of scrimmage.
He has active hands as both a run defender and pass-rusher. He has excellent edge quickness and speed to rush the passer. He has great balance and body control to leverage blockers in the running game.
Ware plays with a big motor and shows great range in pursuit. He has developed his pass-rush package with excellent counter moves. He has improved his ability in coverage but is not great in this phase of the game. Ware continues to be one of the most durable impact players in the league.
Matthews is a solid tackler, utilizing proper body position and wrapping up well in the open field. He has the instincts to leverage the ball with proper run fits to the defensive line.
He uses his hands well and has improved his ability to separate from blockers quickly. Matthews makes his biggest impact in pressure packages in the passing game. He has great initial quickness and speed off the edge.
He is a natural blitz linebacker, getting blockers off-balance with a variety of moves. He has excellent timing and uses his hands well to slip blockers in passing situations.
Suggs is a great combination of size, strength and athleticism for the outside linebacker position. He has excellent quickness and speed off the edge with enough burst to close in on the quarterback. He understands leverage and how to get his opponent off-balance as a pass-rusher.
He uses his hands well to disengage as a run defender and work the edge of blockers. He is a versatile player who can effectively drop into coverage and is best in underneath zone schemes. He isn't extremely fast in pure man coverage and is rarely used in that way. He reacts quickly as plays unfold, which enables him to be active to the pile.
To see the rest of the linebacker rankings -- and get access to the entire 2011 Scouts Inc. Big Book -- you must be an ESPN Insider.
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