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Inside Linebacker Moldbreakers: London Fletcher and Patrick Willis

by Chase Stuart on July 24, 2013

in Defensive Players, History

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.

Willis has played well on bad defenses (2007, 2008) and on exceptional defenses (2011, 2012). He’s actually tied with Ray Lewis for 6th in most AV accumulated through six years. They both trail only Alan Page, Taylor, White, Jack Ham, and Herb Adderley.

Willis has shown no signs of slowing down, but expecting a Fletcher-like tail end of his career is probably unrealistic. This time three years ago, Willis was being mentioned with Jon Beason and DeMeco Ryans as the game’s next group of great linebackers. Generally, inside linebackers have some of the shortest shelf lives, as the physical component of their roles leads to very short careers. It will be interesting to see how long Willis can last, and it’s always worth a minute to step back and appreciate how unique the accomplishments of Willis — and Fletcher — truly are.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric July 24, 2013 at 12:25 am

Great post. Thanks.

Always hard appreciate players until they no longer play. You just get so used to them suiting up. Normalcy.

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Tim Truemper July 24, 2013 at 9:42 am

Pro Football Focus gave Fletcher a low score for his past season. However, he made many big plays and I would think they’d be moving him on if he was not effective. Fletcher and Sam Mills are so remarkable given their small college bkgd, diminutive size for their position, and the torturous road they took to make it into the NFL. There is something to be said for longevity– effectiveness over a long period is undervalued (even though it does involve the good fortune of not experiencing a debilitating injury).

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Richie July 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Any theories as to why Fletcher gets so little publicity? Is it because he came into the league with no fanfare? Does he just shun the spotlight?

He was a good player on two Super Bowl teams. Maybe he’ll get more adoration this year with Lewis gone? I assume he’s going to be one of the 5 or 10 oldest players in the league in 2013. Last year he was 14th: http://pfref.com/tiny/WSij5 Hanson, Barber and Driver(?) are retired, so he’ll move up a few spots.

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Andrew July 24, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Fletcher is a great linebacker and has had the kind of longevity that Lewis had, but the reason Lewis got the fanfare that he didn’t was that Lewis was possibly the best football player in the league for a few seasons. Essentially, Lewis had a higher peak.

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John July 24, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Fletcher was a Pro Bowler last seasons as well but PFR hasn’t updated all the replacements from that game yet.

Lewis’ longevity was quite remarkably. He was a 2nd Team All Pro in his 2nd season and even in his 16th season was a 1st team All Pro from PFF.

*Heading into the 2003 season Lewis was voted the the best PLAYER in the NFL regardless of position by coaches vote and it wasn’t even close as he received votes on 10 ballots and no one else exceeded 2.
http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/story/6427963

*Heading into 2004 Lewis was the #1 player according to Sporting News scouts regardless of position as well. There is a very strong case that for a 4-5 season span he was and that is very rare for any defensive player especially a non pass-rusher.

*Lewis has the 2nd most AV ever for a defensive player during his 20s and his 1st among All LB.
http://pfref.com/tiny/UpyNk

*He is tied for 2nd in AV among ILB in their 30s with 89 (Note: PFR hasn’t updated their database to match their AV rerun so the 88 listed is wrong and is an 89)
http://pfref.com/tiny/GSzA7

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John July 24, 2013 at 1:35 pm

A side note, who is voting in that Elo Rater?

Ray Lewis is only the 340th best player in NFL history?

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Richie July 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Maybe the same people who voted Baltimore down to 32nd in the 2013 team elo rater.

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John July 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Chase,

Why did you delete my longer comment? There was nothing profane or vulgar in it.

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