Well, we made it through an article about the NFC West quarterback position and I am still alive an relatively unharmed after it. This is what's known as progress, people! Anyway, the rankings actually get tougher from here on out, as we visit positions that are fundamentally different based on 3-4 vs. 4-3 defenses and then so on.
Today, I'm writing about another position and it was the most difficult one to do, for certain: inside linebacker. In years past, the 49ers would have run away with this award and honestly, it hasn't ever been close. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman combined for easily the best group in the NFL at their position.
But now that Willis is gone, can the 49ers really remain in the top spot, especially given Bowman's significant injury? Why yes, yes they can.
San Francisco 49ers with NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody
This is where things get interesting. I think both Willis and Bowman were better than any other linebacker in the division (and the entire league), but with Willis' retirement and Bowman's injury, what can we say? I don't think it's accurate to say that you can count Bowman out because of his injury, because the last time he was playing, he was the best inside linebacker in the league. I have confidence Bowman will reach that level again.
So the 49ers have to be on top. I think Bowman has the potential to remain the best linebacker in the NFL, and while the Seattle Seahawks have made this position very, very close, Bowman was just too good when healthy to pass up. Maybe folks will point to this post as a sign of me being a homer and biased, and I can't do much to refute that. I can only point to the rest of my rankings and suggest I've done my best to keep things relatively fair.
Then there's Michael Wilhoite who has actually flashed elite potential at times. Wilhoite filled in very well in 2013, but he did falter somewhat last season. I think the more he played, the more chances he had to get exposed and that started happening later in the season, but ultimately he's an above average starter at inside linebacker.
Seattle Seahawks with Bobby Wagner, Brock Coyle, Quayshawn Nealy
Bobby Wagner is a very, very good 1b, if I was ranking things like that. He wasn't as good as Bowman was when Bowman was healthy, but for the purposes of this ranking I cannot overstate just how good Wagner is and has been. The Seahawks defense -- which is lauded for its strong defensive backs -- looked very beatable when Wagner missed time with a turf toe injury last season.
Wagner is going to get a pretty hefty contract extension in the near future, and for good reason. In 11 games last season, Wagner put up 104 tackles and two sacks. In 41 career games, he has 364 tackles, 9.0 sacks and five interceptions. He's a tackling machine, he's good in coverage and he's absolutely one of the best inside linebackers in the league.
But Bowman is better! I actually like a lot of what Brock Coyle brings to the team, he reminds me of Wagner, just not as good. The Seahawks shifted K.J. Wright to the middle when Wagner was injured and that worked out OK, but it ultimately hurt the team outside. If Bowman doesn't come back to full strength, Wagner will easily lead this list next season.
St. Louis Rams with James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Bryce Hager, Darren Bates
James Laurinaitis started his career looking a lot like a Patrick Willis-lite kind of player, but he has struggled in recent seasons. He's not bad by any means, but he's definitely regressed to the average at this stage. Still, he's played in all 16 games every year since being made a second-round pick by the Rams in 2009. Last season, he had 109 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. In 96 career games he has 743 tackles, 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions.
Last season, Laurinaitis had probably his worst season yet, especially when it comes to stopping the run. St. Louis has an excellent defensive line, and Laurinaitis was still awful at stopping the guys who made it past them. Looking over at Pro Football Focus, they had Laurinaitis rated as one of the worst starting inside linebackers in the league. It certainly wasn't a good year.
That said, I don't think he's typically egregiously bad or anything. It was just a down year for him, and the Rams did very little to address the position this offseason so it will be Laurinaitis again this season and I think he will bounce back, to a degree. I think he's hit his ceiling.
Arizona Cardinals with Kevin Minter, Sean Weatherspoon, Darryl Sharpton, Kenny Demens, Edwin Jackson, Glenn Carson
Sean Weatherspoon is an interesting player. He's been a 4-3 outside linebacker for the bulk of his career, and he's been mostly solid. He's really good in pass coverage, but not particularly great at getting after the passer and below average as far as his run defense goes. But he always puts forward an intense effort and has long been well-respected around the NFL.
I just don't think that's translated to high level play for me to give him the benefit of the doubt going forward. He was a first-round pick in 2010, and at 27 years old there's certainly room for him to get things back on track if he's healthy. He's missed multiple games in all but one season, and it just so happens he had a really, really good season that year. But he's now three years removed from that and he's a total wildcard at this stage.
Kevin Minter was more of a role player last season, but he's strong in run defense and should be able to cover up some of Weatherspoon's weaknesses. I actually like Minter a lot and think he can rise to the occasion with more playing time this season, but for now he too is a wild card.