Inside linebackers don't gain the notoriety of their predecessors, nor do they make as much money as elite edge rushers, but they still have a massive impact. Here’s a look at the NFL’s best at the position.
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.
Hightower's value to the Patriots was proven during his time on and off the field last season. In the 12 games he started and finished, New England was 10–2. In the other six, it was 3–3. That discrepancy was particularly evident in the Pats' Week 12 loss to the Broncos. Before Hightower sprained his left knee late in the first half, Denver rushed for just 43 yards and no scores, but after he exited, it ran for 136 yards and three TDs. Overall, opponents gained .85 more yards on each carry when he was not on the field. Pro Football Focus ranked Hightower seventh among all linebackers and had him as their top pass-rusher at the position by the end of the regular season as he mastered the A-gap pressure to the tune of four sacks, two hits and 18 hurries on just 116 rushes. The 26-year-old is not your standard middle linebacker (as evidenced by the fact he also made our OLB list), but he's shown the smarts and aggressiveness necessary to excel inside as well as out.
After getting drafted by the Cardinals as a safety out of Washington State in 2014, Bucannon was moved into the box by then-defensive-coordinator Todd Bowles. He didn't just go 0 to 100 there, he went 0 to 995, playing that many snaps in 2015, his second NFL season. He attacks running gaps like a natural but can also make plays on the perimeter when needed. And when he gets to a ball carrier, he doesn't fail. He finished with 127 tackles on the season and did not miss a single tackle attempt in the final three games of the year, including the playoffs. His best game came against the Eagles and their fast-paced attack, when he showed off his versatility in becoming the only player last year to record 10 tackles and tally a pick-six in the same game. This off-season, he's bulked up from 208 pounds to 220, which should help him continue to excel. By creating a new position for Bucannon—$ILB, or money backer—the Cards have allowed him to change the league. Just this off-season, the Seahawks, Redskins, and Falcons all brought in players they hope will fill a similar role. But it's yet to be proven if Bucannon’s success can be replicated.
No one on this list can match Freeman for narrative. Despite playing high school in Baylor's back yard (at University High School in Waco, Texas), the Bears were only interested in Freeman as a walk-on, so he ended up at DIII power Mary Hardin-Baylor. Following a similar path in the pros, Freeman led the CFL in tackles after the NFL passed on him. When the Colts gave him a chance in 2012, he showed how great he could be immediately, recording 145 tackles in his first year. Despite missing three games in 2015, he finished with 112 tackles. He reads plays exceptionally well, and though he can still be caught flat-footed in pass coverage, he has improved there, plus his motor keeps him in plays many linebackers would never impact. In Week 16 against Miami, Freeman made two goal line stops despite starting both plays on the weak side. After signing with Chicago this off-season, he has a chance to join Cameron Wake as one of the best active CFL success stories.
Bowman missed the 2014 season after a gruesome ACL tear in the NFC Championship against the Seahawks. But he returned in 2015 to start 16 games despite health concerns—a rare bright spot on a defense that ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed. He finished second in the NFL with 19 pressures and also garnered the second-most All-Pro votes, and has played 16 games in every season except for '14. His pass coverage suffered upon his return, but expect him to improve there with more time to rebuild the explosiveness that the injury sapped. And this time he'll have the help of Chip Kelly's new age training staff. Bowman made a statement by showing up for the first day of the team's voluntary conditioning program, and at 28 years old, he still has multiple prime years ahead of him. His style might not perfectly fit the modern style of play, but there are few linebackers you'd rather have on running downs.
Another player who returned from injury in 2015 to great success, Johnson also played all 16 games last year, racking up 116 total tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Only four players finished the season with more defensive stops than he did, and none of them can boast zero touchdowns allowed in coverage as Johnson can. In fact, PFF’s stats had him allowing the fewest yards per coverage snap among linebackers at .55. He also proved a serviceable spy on passing downs and showed the ability to disrupt quarterbacks when called on to blitz. The 33-year-old’s reward after his comeback season was a fourth Pro Bowl invite and fourth place in All-Pro voting. He tends to get overshadowed by KC's edge rushers, but Johnson's versatility is what allows Tamba Hali and Justin Houston to stay so aggressive, as he prevents openings behind them in both phases of the game. KC recognized his importance this offseason, inking him to a three-year deal despite his advanced age. Initially a weak fit in the 3-4 five years ago due to his inability to shed oncoming guards, Johnson has learned to use his size and speed to his advantage, whether that means shooting gaps and disrupting plays inside or chasing down outside rush attempts. In the Chiefs' Week 13 comeback victory against the Raiders, Johnson tallied six tackles in the 4th quarter, three of which were for a loss or no gain.
Between signing the aforementioned Freeman and adding Trevathan, the Bears have rebuilt the heart of their 3-4 defense in one off-season. Initially a sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft (a pick Denver received in the Tim Tebow trade, for you trivia nerds), Trevathan gradually gained responsibility under Wade Phillips thanks to his versatility and reliability. In a pivotal late-season Monday Night Football win over Cincinnati, he stood up to the Bengals' bully ball, bringing down Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard a combined 12 times and earning a +4.7 grade from Pro Football Focus. Three wins later, he showed off his ability to rush the passer and drop back in Super Bowl 50, leading the team with eight tackles and a fumble recovery while helping to limit Cam Newton's No. 1 option, Greg Olsen, to 41 yards and his lowest catch-percentage since Week 4 of the regular season. Now we'll get to see what Trevathan is capable of under Vic Fangio, who built Bowman and Patrick Willis into the best inside linebacker duo in the league during his time with the 49ers. Among the many excited to see what he brings to Chicago? President Barack Obama, who told the ‘backer during his White House visit, "I can't wait to see you play with the Bears."
Entering last season, Wagner made headlines by intimating that he was the "best linebacker in the league." While he did not do quite enough to reach the top of this list, the 26-year-old proved with another Pro Bowl appearance and a second-team All-Pro nod that he belongs among the position's elite. He started the year slow, possibly due to a pectoral injury, but found his form late. In Seattle’s playoff loss to Carolina, Wagner was one of the few defenders who had a positive first half as he made eight stops in the first two quarters, including a goal-line tackle on Jonathan Stewart after standing his ground amid a mess of blockers. He finished that game with 13 combined tackles. The Seahawks will seek revenge this year. They'll continue to rely on Wagner's speed in the middle of the field, which he uses to avoid linemen and find the ball carrier on running downs while quickly dropping into coverage to protect his part of the zone in passing situations.
The best pass defender at the position and one of the best run-stoppers too, Kuechly is the quintessential modern linebacker. PFF gave him an absurd 99.5 coverage grade this year, and According to their accounting, throws involving Kuechly led to a 48.7 passer rating, 50 points lower than the average for linebackers. He finished the year leading the group with four interceptions, not including the two playoff picks he pulled down. He has the size to box out tight ends in the red zone and the eyes and feet of a safety, which help him patrol the center of the field. Then there's his closing speed, which is most often seen when a teammate blows a coverage because Kuechly makes so few mistakes. His run-stopping abilities don't match his pass coverage, but third in the league according to PFF and a 30/30 scouting score from Bleacher Report ain't bad at all.