Middle linebackers are a dying breed in the NFL, as pointed out by SI.com's John P. Lopez (link to story below.) What follows is a look at the starting MLBs for teams that run a 4-3 defense heading into the 2009 season.<br><br>They call Willis "The Truth" and "Bam Bam." And they're right. He is young, talented, has a nasty streak and is coached by the last linebacker to earn Hall of Fame enshrinement. He still hasn't reached full potential, either. Scary.
2 of 20John Biever/SI
The very noticeable slide by the Bears defense in 2008 was directly connected to Urlacher's drop in production. But he still is in his prime, or should be. Only injuries can keep Urlacher from rebounding.
3 of 20 Ned Dishman/Getty Images, Mark Lyons/Getty Images
Dhani Jones/Rey Maualuga
In 2008, Jones settled what had been a decade-long problem area for the Bengals. How'd they reward him? By drafting his eventual replacement. Jones is OK, but Maualuga will man the SAM position if Jones can duplicate his 2008 numbers.
4 of 20Kellen Micah/Icon SMI
With Terrell Owens now in town, perhaps Posluszny will get some much-deserved national attention like what he receives in Buffalo. He's a solid linebacker, a solid human being and a solid teammate. Nothing spectacular -- but solid wins a lot of games.
5 of 20Chris Livingston/Icon SMI
Ruud is considered by many to be underrated. Not really. He is consistent, productive and a leader on the team. He's a sponge when it comes to studying the game and learned a lot from Derrick Brooks. But while productive and an important piece, he never will be what anyone calls great.
6 of 20Damian Strohmeyer/SI
It became clear once he was out with an ankle injury why Brackett is one of the most under-rated linebackers in the game. The Colts struggled without him. There's plenty of star power on the DL with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. All Brackett does is make tackles and plays.
7 of 20Bob Rosato/SI
He earned the job in 2008 and performed nicely. He's not great against the pass, but doesn't need to be. He's been compared to Brian Urlacher, but as a first-year starter wasn't Urlacher considered over-rated? Bradley has to do it more than one season.
8 of 20Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI
One of the many "two-down" linebackers in today's NFL, Lofton has dropped weight and is trying to be an every-snap player. If he can produce in passing situations, his stock will improve. He could be special, eventually.
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Everyone in the organization keeps saying news of Pierce's decline has been greatly overblown. Still, he has to prove it on the field. Too many blunders, too many bad plays, too few tackles and not enough sacks made 2008 a struggle.
10 of 20Al Tielemans/SI, Chris Livingston/Icon SMI
Justin Durant/Daryl Smith
The Jaguars have to replace the exiled Mike Peterson and it's going to be a battle between Justin Durant, penciled in as the starter, and Daryl Smith, who could end up in the middle if Durant falters.
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He went from the Super Bowl champions to an 0-16 team. Foote was productive with the Steelers while surrounded by great talent. But overall, he is an over-rated player. That much will become clear in 2009.
12 of 20David E. Klutho/SI
He has great instincts, is a big-time finisher at the point of impact and is athletic enough to drop into coverage. And he's just getting started. It's a race between Beason, Patrick Willis and DeMeco Ryans to earn the title of best middle linebacker in the game.
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Unspectacular, but consistent, Morrison figures to have a huge season in 2009 -- it's a contract year. Morrison still is not exactly great in coverage, but if he gets you in his sights, you're tackled. Period.
14 of 20Damian Strohmeyer/SI
He remains the standard-bearer and greatest middle linebacker of the decade. With defensive personnel and schemes changing to accommodate spread offenses, Lewis may be the last truly great middle linebacker we see.
15 of 20Damian Strohmeyer/SI
He's a leader. He's a consistent playmaker. He's also 34. Fletcher-Baker's heart never will be questioned, but the simple truth is he looks like a player on the decline.
16 of 20G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
The name of the game on defense is to tackle the guy with the ball. On that front, Vilma is Pro Bowl-caliber. But in other ways, he is not the dominant player some portray him to be. He doesn't force a lot of turnovers and doesn't produce sacks.
17 of 20Peter Read Miller/SI
With Tatupu already a consistent playmaker and leader, if rookie Aaron Curry produces and keeps pressure on opposing offenses, it should only make the Seahawks' linebacking corps better. Tatupu has a knack for the ball. This could be his best season yet.
18 of 20Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Like former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips once said of Earl Campbell, he may not be in a class by himself, but it sure doesn't take long to call roll. Along with Patrick Willis and Jon Beason, Ryans is proving that star-power at the position is not altogether dead.
19 of 20Jamie Squire/Getty Images
He took over the job from Ryan Fowler and produced, especially down the stretch. But with Fowler healthy and back, Tulloch recently got the dreaded vote of confidence from coach Jeff Fisher. That's never a good thing.
20 of 20John Biever/SI
Neither dominant nor flashy, Henderson is efficient and had been touted as a potential Pro Bowler before dislocating toes and being put on Injured Reserve in 2008. He has to prove himself healthy, but being surrounded by a very talented defense makes it a lot easier.
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