Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Middle Linebacker

 Well, I’m back from vacation and am long overdue for a rankings column.  This article will focus on the men in the middle.  The middle linebackers in the 3-4 defense need to work together to be effective.  In order to do so, you need to find a unique type of player.  Strength and athleticism are crucial traits for any player in the NFL, but to be an efficient “mike” linebacker, you have to be extremely intelligent too.  Throughout the course of a game middle linebackers are likely to see every different lineman and tight end on the opposing team at one point or another.  Because of this, they need to be able to read and react very quickly or face the risk of being totally blown up on any given play. 

 At this position, you have to rely on your teammates a lot, none more important than your defensive tackle.  The nose needs to occupy one, if not two blockers, allowing you to move freely in the middle.  Both middle linebackers need to work together and feed off of one another.  Think of volleyball, one guy needs to set and the other needs to spike.  Depending on where the run is headed, the middle linebacker’s job is to force flow to the opposite linebacker to clean up.  In the passing game middle linebackers need to communicate on crossing patterns and know their responsibilities both in man and in zone.  When rating a defense, whether it is a 4-3 or 3-4, you always look the player in the middle of it all. You can gauge a defenses success off of how strong they are up the middle, and there is no position more crucial than the middle linebacker.

  1) New York Jets-  The New York Jets led the NFL in 7 defensive categories; yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per play, first downs allowed, 3rd down conversions allowed, and points allowed.  Remember that line about gauging a defense by the guys in the middle, I’d say the #1 spot is a good fit for this duo. Bart Scott and David Harris are one of the best combinations in the entire league let alone the AFC East.  Last year was a bit of a breakout season for Harris and the schemes of Rex Ryan’s defense certainly helped.  In Ryan’s defense he uses an assortment of blitz packages geared to both pressure the quarterback, and to free up his linebackers.  Harris finished the season with 142 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, three passes defended, and two forced fumbles.  In his fourth year out of Michigan, Harris really set the tone for the best defense in the NFL.  Bart Scott played the “will” (weak side middle linebacker) position in the same defense he was in at Baltimore.  Following his coordinator from the Ravens was a great move for Scott.  He is comfortable with all of the calls and terminology, and he is able to talk all the smack he wants when a microphone is anywhere near his vicinity.  Scott was able to amass 107 tackles alongside Harris and was no doubt the vocal leader of this defense.  The Jets have a veteran backup in Ryan Fowler who comes over from the Tennessee Titans in case tragedy strikes.  He’s is a serviceable vet but is in no stretch Harris or Scott on a bad day.

  2) Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins could’ve found themselves at the bottom of this category without the signing of Karlos Dansby, but they did sign him and that is why they are at the #2 position.  Karlos Dansby could prove to be the best free agent signing in the league depending on his and this defense success this season.  Dansby is one of those guys that seems to always be around the ball.  In 6 seasons he has deflected 25 passes, intercepted 10, and forced 12 fumbles.  He will no doubt help the abysmal tackling of former Dolphin Akin Ayodele and allow Channing Crowder on the other side to flourish.  Crowder is becoming the elder statesman of the Dolphins defense and he is only 26 years old.  Channing has received rave reviews from his head coach about his intelligence and athleticism, but he isn’t a playmaker like Dansby.  Best known for his verbal feud with Rex Ryan, I feel that Crowder has a chance to really produce with a quality linebacker next to him.  The Miami front office loves having depth at key positions inside linebacker is no exception.  Tim Dobbins was acquired from San Diego in the draft day trade that allowed Miami to regain its 2nd round pick lost in the Marshall deal, and San Diego to get Ryan Matthews.  Dobbins is a special teams stud and has performed well enough in Dolphins camp to start the grumblings of a position battle between him and Crowder.  I doubt it will get that far but the fact that he is putting pressure on the vet certainly doesn’t hurt.  Another inside linebacker that should see the field this season is rookie A.J. Edds out of Iowa.  Jeff Ireland projected Edds into the starting Nickel “coverage linebacker” position the day he drafted him.  As a senior at Iowa Edds picked off 5 passes…..as a linebacker!  This is a solid unit for the Dolphins and it will be interesting to see if there is in fact a battle for a starting position.

  3)- New England Patriots- The Patriots could very well take the #1 spot by the end of this season with its youth at this position.  Jerod Mayo is on his way to being a possible elite middle linebacker and Brandon Spikes seems to have all the tools to be a solid player in the NFL.  2 years removed from his defensive rookie of the year Mayo looks primed to put the defense on his back this season.  His teammates made him a captain in his second season and he didn’t disappoint.  After tearing his knee on opening night, Mayo returned in only 3 games and still was able to tally over 100 tackles to lead the team in the category for a second straight season.  Brandon Spikes will start alongside Mayo and hopes to follow the same path as his teammate.  Coming out of Florida Spikes was only criticized for his lack of speed (ran a 5.0 40 at his pro day).   What Spikes may lack in speed he makes up for with his strength and sure tackling.  It’s no secret that Belichick and Urban Meyer are bff’s, and with the hoodie watching over Spikes he should develop just fine in this defense.  Both Eric Alexander and Tyrone McKenzie will serve as backups with Alexander most likely getting the first shot.  Mckenzie, if healthy, could challenge for a starting role but his development has been stunted due to a knee injury during his rookie camp. 

  4) Buffalo Bills- One of the stronger position for the Buffalo Bills is middle linebacker.  There are a few quality players in this group.  If Paul Posluszny could stay healthy he would be a real force for this defense.  The former Penn State standout had 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 1 sack last season despite missing 3 games with an injury. Going into his fourth season with the Buffalo Bills Posluszny will be playing a different role than he is used to.  The play calling duties for this defense have been awarded to veteran Andra Davis.  Davis is an eight year vet at the position and has played in the 3-4 scheme mostly his whole career. It makes sense for the coaching staff to award Davis with this responsibility because even though Posluszny played some middle linebacker in the 3-4 at Penn State, it is nothing like the scheme George Edwards intends to run with the Bills. Davis will bring some stability to this defense and looks to lead a solid corps for the Bills.  There is great depth at this spot with veterans Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor.  Both players played for the New York Giants and Torbor was just recently signed after being released by the Dolphins.


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