There are six modern players in the Hall of Fame who primarily played the inside linebacker position.1 Ray Lewis will be number seven. Brian Urlacher, who retired the same year as Lewis, will likely be number eight. And Patrick Willis is now very likely to be number nine.
There is only one knock on Willis’ star-studded career: he played in just 112 games, spanning 8 seasons. But let’s compare Willis to the other six modern HOF inside linebackers (Mike Singletary, Nick Buoniconti, Jack Lambert, Harry Carson, Willie Lanier, and Dick Butkus), Lewis, and Urlacher. The best way I can think of to compare defensive players is through Approximate Value, the all-encompassing metric created by Pro-Football-Reference.com. I’ll leave it to a different writer to debate the merits of whether AV is an appropriate metric by which to measure Willis.
Through seven seasons, Willis accumulated 104 points of AV: he recorded 16 points as a rookie, then 13, 19, 15, 16, 16, and 10 in 2013. Those other eight inside linebackers averaged 83 points through seven seasons, which puts Willis’ remarkable start to his career in the proper light. In fact, other than Willis, just three defensive players have recorded over 100 points of AV through seven seasons: Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Alan Page. [click to continue…]