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Silverman: Kuechly, Johnson, Wagner At Top Of ILB Class

By Steve Silverman
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The inside linebacker position was once one of the most glamorous positions on defense. It was the domain of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Mike Curtis and Mike Singletary, and they would roam the field with a sense of justice and foreboding.

"You come into my area, you are about to get punished severely."

The position has evolved dramatically. While the responsibility of stopping the running game is still there at the inside linebacker position, there is more control and more discipline associated with the position.

Also, in addition to the power, it's all about the speed that an inside linebacker launches his attack. It must be done with speed, decisiveness and purpose, and it requires a lot more than a well-placed shoulder or forearm to do the job correctly.

Here's our look at the top 10 inside linebackers in today's game.


1. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly has become one of the most consistent and dangerous defensive players in the NFL. He has led the league in tackles in two of the past four years, and he excels as a big-play maker. Unlike many of the greats who played the position in years past, Kuechly excels against the pass in addition to his superior play against the run.

2. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
At 6-foot-3, 242 pounds, Johnson has the build of a classic middle linebacker, and he returned to top form last year after his 2014 season was ruined by a ruptured Achilles tendon. Johnson may not be quite as effective as Kuechly, but he is a three-down player and excels against the run and the pass.

3. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks

Bobby Wagner
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner tackles Mike Tolbert of the Carolina Panthers during an NFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 17, 2016, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Wagner is still somewhat underrated around the league because opponents may think of his talented teammates, namely Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett, before they think of Wagner. However, as the game plays out, Wagner is directly in the middle of everything for the Seattle defense, as he diagnoses quickly, moves with tremendous speed and is a powerful hitter. Wagner keeps his mistakes to a minimum, and he rarely repeats them.

4. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
While a devastating knee injury suffered in the 2013 NFC championship game forced him to miss all of 2014, Bowman showed tremendous heart during the 2015 season and appeared to get better with each passing week. Bowman was as effective as any inside linebacker before the injury, and he is once again near the top of the list. He's very effective when shooting the gap and getting after the quarterback.

5. Jerrell Freeman, Chicago Bears
Freeman is a self-made player who started off in the Canadian Football League after getting cut by the Tennessee Titans. He learned the nuances of the position and got his opportunity with the Indianapolis Colts, where he quickly became the conscience of their defense. Look for Freeman to give the Bears an upgrade when it comes to run defense and overall defensive efficiency.

6. Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos
Von Miller may have gotten all that money in Denver and keyed the Super Bowl run that the Broncos' defense made, but he had plenty of support from his defensive teammates. Marshall was one of the key players on the unit. Marshall has gotten better each year, and this 250-pounder may be the hardest hitter of all the Denver defenders. He's tremendously effective against the run.

7. David Harris, New York Jets

David Harris
Jets linebacker David Harris tackles the Colts' Josh Robinson on Sept. 21, 2015, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The nine-year veteran is the brains behind the Jets' defense and a player who is capable of going sideline to sideline to make key plays on an every-game basis. Harris has played in every game since the start of the 2009 season, and there's a well-deserved air of dependability about his game that is felt by management, his coaches, his teammates and the fans.

8. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers
There are plenty of problem areas on the Steelers defense, but Timmons is coming off a strong season in which he used his speed effectively and picked up 5 sacks. He is a tremendous hitter who is quite effective, even though he is undersized, because he packs a nasty punch every time he hits the ball carrier.

9. Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
Buchanan is the prototype when it comes to the linebacker/safety hybrid. He flies to the ball against the run, and he is quite dependable when defending the pass. Bucannon combines speed and power, and while he is not big at 6-1 and 220 pounds, he packs a tremendous wallop as he excels at delivering big hits at full speed.

10. C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
Mosley has stepped into the breach for the Ravens and quickly established himself as one of their most valuable defensive players after two fine years. Head coach John Harbaugh needs Mosley to become even more of an impact player this year after recording 117 tackles (77 solo, 40 assists) and 4 sacks in 2015.

Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy

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