Gone are the glory days of the middle linebacker. The visages of dominant defenses past—”Wildman” Ray Nitschke, “Count Dracula in Cleats” Jack Lambert, “Samurai” Mike Singletary—and more recent monsters of the middle like Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis have been made obsolete. In their stead stand nimbler men ready to take on today’s pass-happy offenses. Flipping hips are now more valuable than lowering shoulders. Versatility has replaced viciousness on the scouting reports of today’s greats, and as a result, playing middle linebacker has lost its luster.
Three of the best at the position entered free agency this off-season and exited with average salaries around $6 million a year, which is less than half of what elite edge rushers pull in for taking down opposing quarterbacks. But even if today’s MIKEs don’t gain the notoriety of their predecessors or lose as many teeth, they still have a massive impact. The best in the NFL can cover the seam, track down screens, and still dominate at the point of attack.
Just missed the cut
Brandon Marshall, Broncos: The Broncos’ brass made it quite clear who they thought their best inside linebacker was last year by re-signing Marshall for more money than Danny Trevathan got in Chicago.
Next big thing
Eric Kendricks, Vikings: Last year, Kendricks became the first Viking since 1961 to lead his team in tackles as a rookie, drawing comparisons to Bobby Wagner. It’s still very early in his career, but if Mike Zimmer can rein his young stud in a bit, the six-foot ballhawk has Hall of Fame potential.