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Sons of Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy.

I’ve already spent some time this off-season discussing the Rams fantastic front four. Robert Quinn made the Pro Bowl last season, and he’s a good bet to make the trip to Hawaii again this year as long as he stays healthy. Adding Aaron Donald to a line that also has Chris Long and Michael Brockers means St. Louis should have the best 4-3 defensive line in the NFL this year.

The best 3-4 defensive line? That honor probably belongs to the New York Jets. Muhammad Wilkerson made the Pro Bowl last year and would have been a second-team AP All-Pro choice if that organization knew anything about how to create a ballot. The other defensive end, Sheldon Richardson, was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. The nose tackle, Damon Harrison, was easily the top run-stuffing tackle in the NFL last year according to Pro Football Focus, and was PFF’s highest-graded nose tackle overall.  You will probably find this hard to believe, but Rex Ryan has said that he wants to have all three of the Jets starting defensive linemen make the Pro Bowl.

How rare is that? Pretty rare — in fact, a 3-4 line has never sent all three players to the Pro Bowl. But even among 4-3 teams, sending three defensive linemen to Hawaii is a very rare feat. Although you might be surprised about when it last happened.

Trivia hint 1 Show


Trivia hint 2 Show


Trivia hint 3 Show

Click 'Show' for the Answer Show

What other teams have sent three defensive linemen to the Pro Bowl during the Super Bowl era? [click to continue…]

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In the first round of the 2014 draft, five cornerbacks were selected:

  • the Browns traded up from 9 to 8 to ensure that Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert would be coming to Cleveland;
  • at 14, the Bears drafted Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller;
  • at 24 and 25, the Bengals and Chargers took Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) and Jason Verrett (TCU), respectively;
  • the Broncos, perhaps still reeling from the Legion of Boom’s Super Bowl performance, took Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st pick

In addition, four safeties were drafted in round 1:

That’s nine defensive backs in the first round.  At one point, we saw a string of 7 defensive backs taken in 14 picks at the back end of the round. This was the first time in NFL draft history that nine defensive backs went in the first 32 picks. So this is the new normal and the NFL is now a crazy passing league, right? [click to continue…]

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A special bonus article this week at the New York Times, as I took a look at the incredible career of London Fletcher.

On Sunday, Fletcher, a Washington captain, will play in his 256th straight game, the third-longest streak in N.F.L. history for a player who was not a kicker, behind only Brett Favre’s 299 games and Jim Marshall’s 282.

Having somehow survived for 16 seasons without sustaining any kind of disabling injury, all while playing amid the chaos and attrition rates that are parts of an inside linebacker’s life, Fletcher has said he plans to call it quits after Sunday’s game while he is still ahead.

By the end of this week, though, he was hedging a bit, not quite sure he was truly ready to walk away.

Five weeks ago, Fletcher moved ahead of Eugene Robinson, a safety for 16 seasons, and became the career leader in games played by an undrafted defensive player. Earlier this season, he broke Derrick Brooks’s record of 208 consecutive starts at linebacker. On Sunday, Fletcher will start his 216th consecutive game. He has, in effect, dodged a million bullets in a game that is tough for any player to endure physically.

You can read the full article here. In addition, related readings on Fletcher can be found here and here.

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Mathis takes down Manning

Mathis takes down Manning.

Good stat courtesy of Bill Barnwell this week: Robert Mathis has 11.5 sacks, while the rest of his Indianapolis teammates have just 10.5 sacks. Jerrell Freeman is second on the team with 3.5 sacks, Cory Redding has a pair of sacks, and no other Colt has more than one sack. That’s obviously very impressive: no other defensive player in 2013 has even 40% of his team’s sacks, with only LaMarr Woodley (5 sacks), Mario Williams (11), and Robert Quinn (10) having more than one-third of their team’s sacks.

Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, the record for percentage of team sacks by an individual player was set by right outside linebacker Tim Harris on the 1989 Packers. Green Bay ran a 3-4 defense under Hank Bullough, and Harris had 19.5 of the team’s 34 sacks.  That means 57.4% of all sacks by Packers players that year came from Harris; no other Green Bay player had more than three sacks.

Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks, too, playing on the 2012 49ers. Last year, San Francisco recorded 38 team sacks, meaning Smith — playing that same ROLB position in the 3-4 defense — had 51.3% of his team’s sacks.  Two other players recorded exactly half of their team’s sacks.  In 1984, when Mark Gastineau (playing at left defensive end in New York’s 4-3 defense) set the sack record, he recorded 22 of the Jets 44 total sacks. Fifteen years later, Football Perspective All Underrated star Simeon Rice (who lined up at right defensive end) had 16.5 of the Cardinals 33 sacks.

Mathis was a star 4-3 defensive end, but he’s already matched his single-season career high in sacks. He’s having perhaps his best season playing as rush linebacker in the system devised by Greg Manusky and Chuck Pagano. And his numbers look even better as a percentage of team sacks. Below are the top 50 leaders from 1982 to 2012 in percentage of team sacks, which is a cut-off deep enough to bring in another Robert Mathis season:
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Not doing a squirrel dance.

Not doing a squirrel dance.

Last year, I wrote about how rare and impressive it was to see Ray Lewis and London Fletcher still playing at high levels. Lewis did not have a great 2012 season, but managed to walk away from the game as a defending Super Bowl champ. Fletcher was even better, and was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value system goes back to 1950. Only five times since then has an inside linebacker recorded 10 points of AV at age 36 or older: London Fletcher and Sam Mills are each responsible for two of them, with Bill Pellington (’64 Colts) rounding out the group.

Fletcher has never missed a game in his career, a remarkable accomplishment for the 15-year veteran. Consider that only three linebackers have appeared in more games than Fletcher (240): Bill Romanowski (243), Junior Seau (268), and Clay Matthews, Jr. (278). And all three of those players were outside linebackers, giving Fletcher more games than any inside linebacker in NFL history.

Which is pretty incredible for a player who received no awards or postseason recognition until turning 34. If all you knew about Fletcher was his performance from age 34+, you would assume he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. In 2009, he made his first Pro Bowl, and Fletcher was sent again in 2010 and 2011. The last two years, he’s been a second-team All-Pro, giving him some recognition in each of the last four years. Fletcher is on the short list (with Mills and Lewis) for the title of most successful inside linebacker from age 34+.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patrick Willis, who has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. The only other defensive players to do that: Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olsen. That’s mighty fine company, but it’s hard to find any flaws in Willis’ game. Not a fan of Pro Bowls? Since 1970, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Willis are the only defensive players with five first-team All-Pro honors in their first six seasons.
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Great Linebackers Playing Together II

One of the many great pairs of Bears linebackers

One of the many great pairs of Bears linebackers.

Four years ago, I wrote version 1 of this article. With Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis retiring, I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic.

This post is NOT a look at the greatest linebacker groups ever. Instead, this post seeks to identify teams that had a bunch of great linebackers playing together while those players were in their primes.

The first thing we need to do is rate the linebackers. I used PFR’s Approximate Value system, which assigns a value to measure the approximate contribution of each player in each season since 1950. I then analyzed each player’s single-season AV score to come up with a base rating for each linebacker.1 It’s always difficult figuring out how to grade a player’s career, as you need to balance career length with peak production. I decided to average the best five years (they need not be consecutive) for every linebacker since 1950 to come up with a “peak AV rating” for each linebacker. Then I adjusted each linebacker’s peak AV rating for each season of his career depending solely on his age. That age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each linebacker for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.2
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  1. One other note: I applied an AFL qualifier for players in the earlier days of the AFL. []
  2. If you used the actual AV score, you would essentially be compiling a list of the best defenses of all time and little more. []
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Adjusting team sack rates in the NFL for SOS

I’ve got sacks on the mind today. A few hours ago, I looked at the single-season sack records by various players in both the 3-4 and 4-3. Today I also want to look at things from the team perspective. In 2012, which team is the best at getting to the quarterback? You might think that’s as simple as looking at a list of defensive statistics and sorting by sacks, but I’d like to take a more nuanced approach.

There are two factors that heavily impact a team’s sack rate: the opponents they face and the number of passing plays they defend. Using sack rate instead of sacks helps to solve the latter issue, but we still need an opponent adjustment even if we use sack rate. It’s a bit tricky doing it correctly, because you need to iterate the results just like you do with the SRS. What I mean by that is the sack rate of the Denver defense will need to be adjusted for the sack rate of the Kansas City, Oakland, and San Diego offenses (among other teams), and those will need to be adjusted for the Denver defense (and all the other defenses those teams faced).

Once you properly iterate the results, what are the results? The table below shows the top defenses this year at getting to the quarterback, although note that these numbers exclude the games from week 15. The table shows how many pass attempts each team has faced, the number of actual sacks they have recorded and their actual sack rate; the next column shows the SOS adjustment to the sack rate, with a positive number indicating a difficult strength of schedule (i.e., they’ve faced teams that are difficult to sack). The last two columns show the SOS-adjusted sack rates and total sacks.

RkTeamATTACT SKSK RTSOSADJ SK RTADJ SK
1DEN506397.7%0.9%8.6%43.3
2CIN542437.9%0.5%8.4%45.7
3ARI426348%-0.5%7.4%31.7
4DAL429296.8%0.3%7.1%30.4
5CAR483306.2%0.9%7.1%34.2
6KAN389246.2%0.9%7.1%27.5
7STL489398%-1.2%6.8%33.1
8PHI467286%0.8%6.8%31.6
9HOU533376.9%-0.2%6.7%35.9
10MIA532377%-0.2%6.7%35.7
11GNB524356.7%-0.1%6.6%34.6
12BAL506305.9%0.6%6.6%33.3
13CLE531346.4%0.2%6.6%34.8
14NYG464316.7%-0.1%6.5%30.4
15SFO478326.7%-0.4%6.3%30.3
16PIT434266%0.3%6.3%27.4
17ATL463286%0.3%6.3%29.2
18BUF484316.4%-0.2%6.2%30.2
19CHI498336.6%-0.5%6.1%30.6
20SDG508254.9%1%5.9%30
21TEN481275.6%0.3%5.9%28.3
22SEA475326.7%-1.1%5.7%27
23NWE511285.5%-0.1%5.3%27.3
24NOR496255%0.2%5.3%26.1
25MIN515316%-0.8%5.2%27
26DET490306.1%-1.1%5%24.4
27WAS539234.3%0.7%4.9%26.6
28TAM541244.4%0.5%4.9%26.5
29NYJ446224.9%-0.1%4.8%21.5
30IND470245.1%-0.4%4.7%22.3
31OAK465173.7%0.7%4.3%20.1
32JAX464143%0%3%14

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Monster

J.J. Swatt.

Houston’s J.J. Watt sacked Andrew Luck three times on Sunday, bringing his season sack total to 19.5. Entering 2012, Bruce Smith was the single-season record holder for sacks by a defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme with 19 in 1990. The sack has only been an official statistic since 1982, but since the 3-4 only entered the NFL in the mid-’70s, we can be pretty sure that Watt is now the all-time record holder.

The tables below show the single-season leaders by various defensive players in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes from 1982 to 2011.

Let’s start with a look at the most sacks by a 3-4 defensive end:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1990BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE19
1983SFOFred Dean3-4 DE17.5
1984PHIGreg Brown3-4 DE16
1983MIADoug Betters3-4 DE16
1983SEAJacob Green3-4 DE16
1992NORWayne Martin3-4 DE15.5
1986RAISean Jones3-4 DE15.5
1985NYGLeonard Marshall3-4 DE15.5
1993KANNeil Smith3-4 DE15
1986SDGLee Williams3-4 DE15
1986BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE15
1984KANArt Still3-4 DE14.5
1984SEAJeff Bryant3-4 DE14.5
1983GNBEzra Johnson3-4 DE14.5
1997BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1993BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1992BUFBruce Smith3-4 DE14
1989SDGLee Williams3-4 DE14
1984MIADoug Betters3-4 DE14
1984CLEReggie Camp3-4 DE14
1983PITKeith Willis3-4 DE14

As you can imagine, 3-4 defensive linemen don’t rack up many sacks. Bill Pickel, a nose tackle for the Raiders in the ’80s, recorded 12.5 sacks in both ’84 and ’85, making him the only 3-4 tackle to record more than 12 sacks in a season. Karl Mecklenburg, with 13 sacks for the Broncos in ’85, remains the only inside linebacker in a 3-4 with more than a dozen sacks.

Of course, 3-4 outside linebackers get all the glory in that scheme. San Francisco’s Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks so far in 2012 with two games remaining, but here were the leaders prior to 2012:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1986NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB20.5
2008DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB20
1990KANDerrick Thomas3-4 OLB20
2011DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB19.5
1989GNBTim Harris3-4 OLB19.5
1984NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB18.5
2008MIAJoey Porter3-4 OLB17.5
1995BUFBryce Paup3-4 OLB17.5
2009DENElvis Dumervil3-4 OLB17
2006SDGShawne Merriman3-4 OLB17
1992SFOTim Harris3-4 OLB17
1991NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB17
1989NORPat Swilling3-4 OLB16.5
1989RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1988RAMKevin Greene3-4 OLB16.5
1985NWEAndre Tippett3-4 OLB16.5
2008PITJames Harrison3-4 OLB16
1992DENSimon Fletcher3-4 OLB16
1990SFOCharles Haley3-4 OLB16
2010DALDeMarcus Ware3-4 OLB15.5
1988NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15.5
1998CARKevin Greene3-4 OLB15
1989NYGLawrence Taylor3-4 OLB15
1984PITMike Merriweather3-4 OLB15

What about 4-3 defensive ends?

YearTeamNamePosSacks
2001NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE22.5
2011MINJared Allen4-3 DE22
1984NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE22
1989MINChris Doleman4-3 DE21
1987PHIReggie White4-3 DE21
1992PHIClyde Simmons4-3 DE19
1983NYJMark Gastineau4-3 DE19
2003NYGMichael Strahan4-3 DE18.5
2002MIAJason Taylor4-3 DE18.5
1986WASDexter Manley4-3 DE18.5
2011PHIJason Babin4-3 DE18
1988PHIReggie White4-3 DE18
1984CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17.5
1999STLKevin Carter4-3 DE17
1992SDGLeslie O'Neal4-3 DE17
1985CHIRichard Dent4-3 DE17
2011NYGJason Pierre-Paul4-3 DE16.5
2008ATLJohn Abraham4-3 DE16.5
2000MIATrace Armstrong4-3 DE16.5
1999ARISimeon Rice4-3 DE16.5
1998SEAMichael Sinclair4-3 DE16.5
2005OAKDerrick Burgess4-3 DE16
2004INDDwight Freeney4-3 DE16
1998GNBReggie White4-3 DE16
1983STLCurtis Greer4-3 DE16

And 4-3 defensive tackles:

YearTeamNamePosSacks
1989MINKeith Millard4-3 DT18
1986PHIReggie White4-3 DT18
2000NORLa'Roi Glover4-3 DT17
2000TAMWarren Sapp4-3 DT16.5
1997MINJohn Randle4-3 DT15.5
1997SFODana Stubblefield4-3 DT15
1992SEACortez Kennedy4-3 DT14

4-3 outside linebackers rarely rack up huge sack numbers. In fact, Denver’s Von Miller, who has 16 sacks this year, is already the record holder in the official sack era. Derrick Thomas (14.5 sacks in 1992, 13 in 1996) in Kansas City, Washington’s Ken Harvey (13.5 in ’94) and Cleveland’s Jamir Miller (13 in ’01) are the only other 4-3 outside linebackers with more than twelve sacks in a season since 1982. (Of course, Thomas also had a 20-sack season a 3-4 outside linebacker.) Charlie Clemons, with 13.5 sacks in 2001, is the record holder among 4-3 middle linebackers.

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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 14

This week at the New York Times, I take a look at how three defensive stars from the 2011 Draft have dominated the league and helped make their teams Super Bowl contenders.

The 2011 N.F.L. draft class was initially talked up for its star potential at quarterback: Cam Newton (the first overall pick), Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10), Christian Ponder (12), Andy Dalton (35) and Colin Kaepernick (36).

Twenty months later, the  most dominant players have been guys named Smith, Miller and Watt. Those three are the front-runners for the defensive player of the year award:

Aldon Smith San Francisco took Smith, a Missouri linebacker, with the seventh pick in the 2011 draft. As a rookie, he was a role player who participated in fewer than half of his team’s snaps but recorded 14 sacks as the team’s designated pass rusher. This year, Smith is a full-time player and continues to be a dominant force. After sacking Miami’s Ryan Tannehill twice on Sunday, he has 19.5 sacks, the most of any player through 13 team games since the sack became an official statistic.

Smith has recorded more sacks in his first two seasons than Reggie White, Derrick Thomas or anyone else who has entered the league since 1982, the year the N.F.L. began officially tracking the statistic. Against the Bears on “Monday Night Football,” Smith recorded five and a half sacks against Jason Campbell, the most by a player in a game since 2007. He is within reach of Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5, set in 2001. But as good as Smith has been, he is arguably just the third-best defensive player from his draft class.

Von Miller The Denver Broncos selected Texas A&M’s Miller with the second overall pick. He had an eye-opening rookie season that was somewhat overshadowed by Tebow Time, but he helped transform the Bronco defense and rightfully earned defensive rookie of the year honors. In 2011, Pro Football Focus rated Miller as the second-best defensive player in the league, and ranked him as the top linebacker against the run and the best pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker.

He has only gotten better in 2012. Miller has recorded a sack in each of the team’s last six games, all wins, and now has 16. More impressively, according to Pro Football Focus, Miller’s 16 sacks and 45 quarterback hurries are more than triple the numbers produced by the second-best 4-3 outside linebacker. He ranks as the best pass-rushing linebacker and the best run-stopping linebacker in the N.F.L., and neither race is particularly close. Miller is arguably the best all-around linebacker in the league and perhaps one of the three or four best pass rushers in the N.F.L., too. But Miller still isn’t the most highly regarded member of the 2011 draft.

J.J. Watt The presumptive favorite for the defensive player of the year award remains Houston’s Watt. With an 11-2 record, the Texans are tied for the best record in the N.F.L., and Watt, drafted out of Wisconsin at No. 11,  is a huge reason for that. According to Football Outsiders, entering Week 14, Watt led the league with 41 “Defeats” (a turnover, a tackle for loss or a play that prevents a third- or fourth-down conversion); the next-closest player was Miller with 33. According to an e-mail conversation Monday with Aaron Schatz  of Football Outsiders, who has been tracking the metric since 1996, only linebackers Ray Lewis (45) and Derrick Brooks (42) have recorded more “Defeats” in a full season, both doing so in 1999.

Watt’s production is remarkable for any player, let alone a 3-4 defensive end. Generally, defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are not expected to fill up a stat sheet; they are supposed to absorb blockers to enable the linebackers behind them to achieve the glory. But Watt has recorded 16.5 sacks this season and became the first player to officially record 15 sacks and 15 passes defended in the same season. Pro Football Focus ranked Watt just ahead of Miller, and says he’s more than twice as valuable as the next best 3-4 defensive end in football, the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson.

Looking for a darkhorse? To identify the  man who probably should win the underrated player of the year award — watch a Bengals game. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was taken in the same draft as Ndamukong Suh but has delivered  more production with a fraction of the hype. Atkins was at it again on Sunday against the Cowboys, delivering a sack and two other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, to go with two additional hits and six hurries against Tony Romo.

You can read the full article here, which notes that Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson are both chasing the 2,000-yard mark and highlights one really, really sad bit of Lions trivia.

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Under Raheem Morris, the Tampa Bay rush defense was always… what is the polite way to put this… accommodating to opposing running backs. Over Morris’ three-year tenure, the Buccaneers joined the Bills as either 31st or 32nd in all three major rush defense categories: rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed.

This was the case despite the organization’s best efforts to find players that could stop the run. The Buccaneers’ second selection in the 2009 draft was used on defensive tackle Roy Miller.  That season, Tampa Bay finished last in both rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed.   The following April, the Bucs used the third pick in the draft on Gerald McCoy and the 35th selection on Brian Price, making them the rare team to take multiple interior defensive linemen with top-40 picks.  That season was the one successful year of Morris’ tenure, but Tampa Bay still finished 28th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in yards per rush allowed.

Linebacker Lavonte David has been a monster for Tampa Bay.

So Tampa continued to focus on the defensive line in the 2011 draft, this time taking Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers with their first and second round picks and middle linebacker Mason Foster in the third round. In 2011, Tampa finished the year 32nd in rushing yards allowed, 32nd in rushing touchdowns allowed, and 31st in yards per carry allowed.

Enter Greg Schiano and defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan.  With a horrible run defense for three consecutive years, the Bucs couldn’t ignore the problem just because they had failed in prior attempts to plug the leak.  With the seventh pick, the team selected Alabama’s Mark Barron, an in-the-box safety who was considered one of the safest picks in the draft.

Schiano, Barron, McCoy, and second round pick Lavonte David (who was just named the NFC defensive rookie of the month for November) have completely reformed the Tampa rush defense. The team currently ranks first in both rushing yards and yards per rush allowed. That’s unbelievable. Nothing more could be said about the magnitude of a leap from 32nd to 1st, so let me close with a look at the biggest jumps in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed in NFL history.
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An interesting story today on Antonio Cromartie, courtesy of Bob Glauber of Newsday. Cromartie says that after Revis was injured, the All-Pro cornerback told Cromartie that he needed to start taking his job more seriously and that it was time for him to reach his potential. Cromartie stated: “Hearing it from your peers, you take more out of that than hearing it from your coach…. Your peers expect so much out of you and expect you to play at a higher level, especially when he’s one of the best corners in the league.”

I’ve been very impressed with Cromartie this season, and Pro Football Focus’ numbers back in up. PFF’s subscriber content ranks Cromartie fourth in pass coverage among cornerbacks this season, behind only Charles Tillman, Casey Hayward, and Richard Sherman. He’s playing as well as I’ve seen him since he’s been a Jet, and he’s changed his demeanor off the field, too.

Your reaction to Cromartie’s comments is essentially a Rorschach test of your views on life. Whether you find it disappointing that this is what it took for the light to go on (and who knows when the bulb will need to be replaced) or inspiring that he was able to elevate his play is left to the reader.

Cromartie realized he had to take on more of a leadership role, and admitted that his level of play leading up to this season wasn’t as proficient as it should have been. It was a startling admission from a player who rarely suffers from a lack of self assurance, yet it was a moment that signaled a major turnaround. Cromartie is indeed playing his best football, and now laments that he didn’t take his craft more seriously before.

“It shouldn’t have taken for Revis to go down for me to be playing at a very high level,” he said. “There’s something I think I took for granted having Revis on the other side and not being able to play at a high level when he was here.”

“I think the biggest thing that’s changed for me is the leadership role,” Cromartie said. “Just making sure everyone was on top of everything, helping guys study film and knowing how to study film. I think I just took on a role that once [Revis] left, and I wanted to make sure I played at a higher level every single week.”

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The fountain of youth consists of two parts levitation and one part Matt Schaub

In a year where offensive fireworks dominated the headlines, here’s a piece of trivia on the other side of the ball: 36-year-old London Fletcher led the league in tackles. Fletcher, like Ray Lewis, is past the point where he can be referred to by his name alone. Instead, both get the honorific “ageless” before their names. The ageless Ray Lewis made his thirteenth Pro Bowl last season, putting him one behind Merlin Olsen and Bruce Matthews for the record. While it’s tempting to say Lewis is making Pro Bowl berths based on reputation now, I don’t think it’s his play is undeserving of such recognitiion. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis was the 5th best inside linebacker last season. As for London Fletcher, he also registered in the top ten according to PFF. And while Fletcher was never as dominant as Lewis, ‘ageless’ simply has replaced ‘criminally underrated’ for Fletcher, a moniker that preceded his name most of the time for the last decade.

I think most of us know that it’s pretty incredible that these two are 37-years-old and still playing at high levels (well, at least we expect them to in 2012). But do we really recognize how truly rare this is? There are eleven modern era inside linebackers currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The table below lists them chronologically based on the year they entered the league. The columns show the “Approximate Value” or “AV” score (as defined by Pro-Football-Reference) assigned to each linebacker for each season during his thirties.

Linebacker3031323334353637
Mike Singletary181213159000
Harry Carson71013149600
Jack Lambert1717200000
Willie Lanier95500000
Dick Butkus156000000
Nick Buoniconti91116149010
Ray Nitschke16151097220
Sam Huff118860600
Les Richter119200000
Joe Schmidt172190000
Bill George171415919609
Average13
10875201

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When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.

There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.

The best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.

The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.

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  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []
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