NFL’s top 5 ILBs/MLBs for 2015

Inside linebackers are used differently depending on scheme and skills, but there are plenty of good ones to choose from, including one dominant one at the top.

The NFL game is changing and that impact might not be felt anywhere more than at middle linebacker, where the old, tough-nosed run-stuffers are a dying breed.

Middle and inside linebackers are asked to have coverage skills more than ever, resulting in a more athletic breed directing defenses, whether those are inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme or middle linebackers in a 4-3 scheme.

Today’s best inside linebackers provide a rare mix run stuffing, pass coverage and blitzing abilities, and there are plenty to choose from, with worthy ones left off this list.

1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers rely heavily on Kuechly, for good reason. He’s just that good at everything he does. He was one of a handful of inside linebackers to play more than 1,000 snaps last season and they were productive turns. He brings incredible intensity, stamina and range to the position, able to chase down running backs from behind on outside runs and diagnose offenses with the best of them. In 2013, he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and tied the NFL single-game record with a 24-tackle performance, and in his three NFL seasons he has never had fewer than 150 tackles.

2. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
Matthews is the do-it-all linebacker for the Packers. Last year, with the defense reeling from injuries, the Packers moved Matthews to inside linebacker and it appeared to be an instant fix. He isn’t quite the tackling machine or prototypical inside linebacker of the past, but he can chase down plays from sideline to sideline and is one of the best linebackers in the league at blitzing – he had 11 sacks last year to complement nine passes defensed, one interception and two forced fumbles. This year, he is expected to remain at inside linebacker in the base defense and switch to outside linebacker in nickel situations, showing off his versatility in a defense that relies heavily on him in the front seven to create havoc.

3. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Mosley played more snaps than any other middle/inside linebacker last year and garnered 133 tackles. His strength is stopping the run, but he still had eight passes defensed, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was also effective in blitzing, garnering three sacks and 13 quarterback hurries. He was just a rookie last year so big things are expected ahead.

4. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner isn’t often recognized as one of the top players on the NFL’s No. 1 defense, but he’s an underrated reason why the Seahawks have been so good defensively the last several years. He brings a mix of speed and explosiveness that allows him to be effective in run stopping and pass rushing, and he’s a decent coverage linebacker, too. Last year, he was credited with 104 tackles and two interceptions.

5. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers
Timmons wasn’t great against the pass last year, but he continues the Steelers’ strong tradition of solid linebacker play. He had 132 tackles, including 87 solo, proving his worth as a run stopper. But in coverage, quarterbacks had a 110.2 passer rating against him, according to Pro Football Focus, showing he has work to do in that area before he is considered truly elite. He also holds value as a pass rusher, generating two sacks and eight quarterback hurries.

Honorable mention: Jerrell Freeman, Karlos Dansby, Dont’a Hightower, Rolando McClain, Daryl Smith.

FLASHBACK: CLAY MATTHEWS AT USC


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