In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
Carolina’s Luke Kuechly may be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but according to Ourlads, he’s not even the best at his position. The top two inside linebackers — NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis — play for the same team in the NFC West. In fact, when you pair Bowman and Willis with Aldon Smith, San Francisco boasts three of the top eight linebackers overall.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, the likelihood of this trio being intact at the start of the season doesn’t appear to be too high. Bowman sustained a serious knee injury in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle and is a fairly safe bet to start the season on the PUP list, while Smith is facing a possible suspension of some length from the league for his various off-the-field incidents. It may be more of a one-man show in the middle of the 49ers’ defense this fall.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Inside Linebackers
1. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Joins teammate Patrick Willis as a Pro Bowl-caliber productive athlete. Instinctive with rare change of direction. Aggressive and competitive. Coming off a knee injury.
2. Patrick Willis, San Francisco
Had another Pro Bowl season with his excellent tackling ability versus the run and the speed to excel in coverage.
3. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Tackling machine is the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense. A sideline-to-sideline player who is only entering his third year.
4. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City
Was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season. A downhill sideline-to-sideline player with speed and a closing burst.
5. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland
Signed with the Browns in the offseason. A productive and athletic run-and-hit linebacker with good speed and range. A good blitzer who makes plays.
6. Sean Lee, Dallas
Has been the leader of the Cowboys’ defense since stepping on the field in 2010. Injuries have set him back at times, but he’s productive when on the field. (Editor's note: Lee tore the ACL in his left knee during OTAs on May 27 and will miss the entire 2014 season.)
7. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit
An undersized but instinctive linebacker who makes plays all over the field. Elevated his game in 2013 after coming off a 2012 knee injury.
8. Kiko Alonso, Buffalo
Played beyond expectations as a rookie in the middle last fall and will be moved to the weak side in 2014. A focused and intense competitor versus the run and pass. (Editor's note: Alonso tore the ACL in his left knee while working out earlier this summer and will miss the entire 2014 season.)
9. Brian Cushing, Houston
Was lost for two years in a row with injury. When on the field, this big-time hitter is instinctive and active in defending the run and pass.
10. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
Battled an injury in 2013 after an outstanding rookie campaign. A quick and explosive reactor who attacks blockers. Has good range and takes good downfield angles in pursuit.
11. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
12. Daryl Washington, Arizona (Editor's note: Washington has been suspended for the entire 2014 season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.)
13. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
14. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis
15. Brandon Spikes, Buffalo
16. Josh Bynes, Baltimore
17. Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee
18. Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis
19. Akeem Jordan, Washington
20. David Harris, NY Jets
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Outside Linebackers
1. Von Miller, Denver
Became a more complete linebacker, excelling in coverage before an ACL injury late in the season. His impact is immense — pressuring and sacking the quarterback.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
Is one of the more unheralded and well-rounded linebackers in football. His skills are tailor-made for the new Tampa-2 scheme.
3. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis
Versatile enough over his career to play as a down end or a standup rusher for the Colts. Undersized athlete with rare initial quickness and speed. Can turn speed to power. Plays low to the ground with good knee and hip flexibility. (Editor's note: Mathis will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.)
4. Aldon Smith, San Francisco
Has been a productive player on the field, especially when Justin Smith helps clear a free running lane. Has outstanding athletic ability and long arms to rush the passer. Productive with 42 sacks in three years.
5. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati
Led the Bengals in tackles his first two years in the league. Has come a long way from his undisciplined college career, where the talent was evident, but production was uneven.
6. Thomas Davis, Carolina
Came back from a third ACL tear to play at a high level in 2013. An aggressive and explosive hitter who is a consistent wrap-up tackler.
7. Akeem Ayers, Tennessee
Will be making a move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme linebacker, which may get him to the quarterback more in 2014. Drives quickly on check-downs and ball-carriers in front of him.
8. Danny Trevathan, Denver
Had a breakout year in 2013 and racked up 129 tackles from the weak side. Physical and tough in his play. Quick to key and diagnose a play.
9. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie and hasn’t looked back since. A physical run-stuffer who sheds quickly at the point of attack.
10. DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Elevated his playmaking ability in 2013. An athletic linebacker who can run and hit. Plays square with good hand and arm use to shed and tackle.
11. Malcolm Smith, Seattle
12. Sio Moore, Oakland
13. Jerod Mayo, New England
14. Bruce Irvin, Seattle
15. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis
16. Chad Greenway, Minnesota
17. James Anderson, Chicago
18. Philip Wheeler, Miami
19. Kevin Burnett, Oakland
20. K.J. Wright, Seattle