Defense wins championships. Forget all you have heard about how the NFL is now an offensive league and without a high-flying passing attack you cannot win a Super Bowl. This is a completely false observation. The last Super Bowl was won by the Seattle Seahawks who had the best defense in the NFL. The one before that featured the Ravens and 49ers who were both defensive giants. Obviously, defense is extremely important in winning.
The most important position on the defensive side of the ball is linebacker. The linebackers are the guys who do everything. They rush the passer and are forced to drop back in coverage. They are responsible for making the tackles. If a linebacker misses a tackle, that ball carrier has an excellent chance of making a first down.
Both outside and inside linebackers are equally important. Typically, outside linebackers get all the glory. This is because they are the ones who are more likely to compile sacks and interceptions. However, the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. They are the leader. When a play is called by the defensive coordinator, it is sent to the middle linebacker. He is the player making all the adjustments while the snap is about to happen. Both positions are equally important; they just play different roles.
This list is not about fantasy football. Statistics are not necessarily important. They are a good indicator as to how good a player is, but they do not really state just how important a player is to their specific team. This list is about importance. These players are indispensible not only because of their stellar play, but because of the leadership they provide within the locker room. They are play makers on every play even when they are not the one who got the sack or interception. They make an impact just by being on the field.
10. Kiko Alonso — Buffalo Bills
Last year’s undisputed Defensive Rookie of the Year, Kiko Alonso, is the centerpiece of the Buffalo Bills’ defense. After being drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft, Alonso went on to make an immediate impact for the Bills’ passing and rushing defense. After recording nine tackles in week one he recorded interceptions in the next three games. He became the first Bill to have interceptions in back to back games since 2007. Then in week six he tallied an astonishing 22 tackles. Alonso’s ability in the passing game combined with the fact that he does not miss tackles is a huge reason why Buffalo’s defense improved so much from 2012 to the 2013 season. This year, General Manager Doug Whaley announced Alonso will be moved from middle linebacker to outside linebacker. This will allow Alonso to have an even bigger impact when it comes to rushing the quarterback.
9. Derrick Johnson — Kansas City Chiefs
Derrick Johnson is the longtime middle linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. He is the leader of the team’s defense which ranked first in the NFL for the first half of the 2013 season. After a slow start to his career, Johnson has been a Pro Bowler in each of the last three years. He was last year’s Pro Bowl Defensive MVP. There really are no weaknesses in Johnson’s game. He plays the run and the pass extremely well and does not miss tackles.
8. Von Miller — Denver Broncos
Von Miller may be the best edge rusher in the NFL. The Broncos’ outside linebacker was selected second overall in the 2011 draft. He was the highest linebacker chosen since LaVar Arrington was taken second overall by the Washington Redskins in 2000. Since entering the NFL, he has been to two Pro Bowls and was named the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year. The 2013 season was not a very good one for Miller even though his team won the AFC Championship. He was suspended for the first six games of the season after attempting to cheat a drug test. He only played two games after he returned before getting injured. This season he is going to be paired with DeMarcus Ware at defensive end. The combination of Miller and Ware make for one of the most dangerous pass rushing duos in the league. The Broncos hope this added pressure on quarterbacks will allow them to win the big game this year.
7. Tamba Hali — Kansas City Chiefs
Tamba Hali is the second Kansas City Chief to make the list. He and Derrick Johnson are both keys to the defensive unit. He ranks slightly above Johnson due to his uncanny ability to get in the quarterback’s face. He was a member of the 2006 NFL All Rookie team after being selected in the first round by the Chiefs. Hali was originally drafted as a defensive end, but was moved to outside linebacker once the team switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. Since the position change, Hali has made the Pro Bowl four times. He was the AFC’s sack leader in 2010. He followed up his amazing 2010 season by finishing second in sacks in the AFC the next year. Even though he was suspended for the first game of the 2013 season, Hali was a starter in the Pro Bowl. Hali’s ability to shake up the quarterback is a major reason why the Chiefs were able to turn it around last season.
6. Clay Matthews — Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers absolutely need Clay Matthews. The outside linebacker is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Matthews only played eleven games in 2013 due to injuries. When he was not in the lineup the entire Packers defense struggled. He has made the Pro Bowl four times; 2013 was the first year in his career he did not make it. The 2010 NFC Defense Player of the Year has already recorded over 50 sacks in his first five years in the NFL.
5. Vontaze Burfict — Cincinnati Bengals
Vontaze Burfict did not have an easy road. He was originally expected to be a first round pick in the 2012 draft. He unfortunately went undrafted due to poor workouts and off the field issues. However, the Cincinnati Bengals signed him as an undrafted free agent and the risk definitely paid off for them. He started 14 games in 2012 at outside linebacker and then started every game in 2013. Burfict got 171 tackles in 2013 and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. The young linebacker is the most valuable member of the Bengals defense and allows them to compete in the very tough AFC North.
4. LaVonte David — Tamp Bay Buccaneers
LaVonte David may be the most underrated player in the NFL. Despite an extremely impressive 2013 season, he ended up getting snubbed by Pro Bowl voters. He became only the second player in NFL history to record over 100 tackles, six sacks and five interceptions in a single season. The only other player to have accomplished this feat is Rodney Harrison. David has recorded over 20 tackles for a loss in each of his first two seasons a pro. He ranked third in the stat category behind Robert Quinn and J.J. Watt in 2013. He is now pinned as the leader of Lovie Smith’s defense. David’s new head coach compares him to Buccaneers legend Derrick Brooks. Obviously, Lovie is going to love his new young linebacker.
3. Terrell Suggs — Baltimore Ravens
Terrell Suggs may not actually be as good as some of the other linebackers on this list. However, his 2013 stats do not really tell the whole story. Suggs is the leader of the Ravens’ defense. Following Ray Lewis’s retirement and the departure of Ed Reed, Suggs was the player who stepped up in that locker room and took control of the defense. Suggs is the Ravens’ all-time sack leader. He is a six-time Pro Bowler and was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2003. In 2011, he led the NFL in sacks and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was also a key contributor to the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII winning team. A player like this can have an off year and still be one of the most important players in the NFL.
2. Luke Kuechly — Carolina Panthers
Luke Kuechly is the best young linebacker in the NFL today. In fact, many would argue he is the best linebacker in the entire league. The Panthers’ middle linebacker was the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league in tackles. He currently holds the single game record for the most tackles. He was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2013 and was also given the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Kuechly led the Panthers’ defense which ranked first in the NFL in sacks and second in points allowed per game.
1. Patrick Willis — San Francisco 49ers
Patrick Willis has been the best linebacker in the league for quite some time now. He was banged up through a good portion of the 2013 season. However, when Willis was out, fellow middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman stepped up big. In fact, if Bowman had not gotten injured in the NFC Championship last year and was scheduled to miss half the 2014 season, he would also be very high up on the list. However, the 49ers’ defense is and has always been centered around Patrick Willis. Willis is a seven-time Pro Bowler. He has never missed a Pro Bowl in his entire career and he’s even more important than ever this season for the 49ers because of the loss of Bowman.