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FR: 2011 Retirements

Coach Russ Grimm and Alan Faneca of the Pittsb...

Alan Faneca with Hall of Famer Russ Grimm, during their Pittsburgh years. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we use our Football Relativity tool to compare the careers of NFL players who retire. So in this post, we’re comparing 2011 retirees on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2011 season. (This version is as of August 10.)

10 – WR Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had a 13-year career with incredible highs. He burst onto the scene as a rookie with the Vikings, earning All-Pro accolades as a rookie. He had five Pro Bowls in his first six season with the Vikings, along with three first-team All-Pro nods, but he grew unhappy in Minnesota and his play slumped in 2004. He moved to Oakland, where he had a mid-career lull and seemed to be on his last legs. The Raiders gave up, and Moss went to New England and exploded once again, catching 23 touchdown passes and returning to first-team All-Pro status during the Patriots’ undefeated regular season in 2007. Moss had three 1,000-yard seasons in New England and made two Pro Bowls, but in 2010 the team traded him back to the Vikings. As had happened too often in his career, off-field issues affected Moss in Minnesota, and he was released to land with Tennessee via waivers. Despite the infamous ending to his career, Moss is in the top 10 all time in catches (8th), receiving yards (5th), and receiving touchdowns (2nd). Moss had some lows in his career (as did other prominent receivers of his era), but his highs were as good as any receiver in the post-Rice era. Ultimately, the off-field issues will fade, and Moss will be remembered as a Hall of Fame receiver.

9 – OG Alan Faneca, Cardinals – Faneca has been perhaps the most respected guard in the league over the past 10 years, as proven by his nine Pro Bowl berths and equal number of All-Pro nods. Faneca was a first-round pick by the Steelers, and for a decade he was the earth-mover for Pittsburgh’s run-first offense. For those efforts, Faneca was named to the Steelers’ all-time team. He then moved to the Jets with an incredible contract for a mid-30s guard, andfor two years he continued as an effective run-blocker. He then spent one final season with the Cardinals. Throughout his career, Faneca was durable – missing just two games in 13 seasons – and he proved to be a terrific leader as a veteran. Faneca and Steve Hutchinson are clearly the best guards of their era, and they will be the only two at that position to merit Hall of Fame consideration. Faneca will be a borderline case, but the fact that he is in the conversation speaks to just how fine a career he had.

8 – RB Fred Taylor, Jaguars – Taylor, a longtime Jaguar who had an end-of-career cameo with the Patriots, signed a ceremonial contract to retire in Jacksonville. He had a fine 11-year career, running for 11,695 yards with seven 1,000-yard seasons. For a long time, he was known as the best player never to make a Pro Bowl, but he finally got the Hawaii trip in 2007, his last thousand-yard campaign. He finishes his career at No. 15 on the all-time rushing list, which is quite an accomplishment, and he has a strong 4.6 yards per carry average in his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he is probably the best Jaguar ever. That’s saying something.

7 – QB Kerry Collins, TitansWhen I was in college back in the mid-90s, my summer job was working for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, and the biggest perk of that gig was covering Carolina Panthers training camp each year. So I got to see Collins’ career from the very beginning. Collins’ career with the Panthers started with promise, as he led the team to the NFC championship game in his second season. (Then living in Chicago, I went to Green Bay to cover that Packers/Panthers game and wrote a story about whether Collins was on the verge of becoming a great QB.) But then it all fell apart for Collins in Carolina. He got in a racially-charged fight with a teammate, and then asked out of the lineup, leading to his release. But to Collins’ great credit, he did not let the fact that he busted out of Charlotte make him a bust. He got a second chance with the Giants and led that team to the Super Bowl (where they lost to the Ravens). And after the Giants drafted Eli Manning, Collins had a couple of decent seasons in Oakland and then became a starter in Tennessee, making his second Pro Bowl in 2008 in leading the Titans to the playoffs. Collins’ 16-year career has left him high up the lists of all-time passers, which speaks to his longevity and his productivity. The fact that several teams – the Titans and Panthers included – viewed him as a worthy backup/mentor for young QBs in 2011 speaks to how he completely changed his legacy over the course of his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he had a fine career after nearly losing everything just a few years in. So much for retirement; Collins signed with the Colts two weeks before the season.

7 (con’t) – DT Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins had a terrific two-act career, starring as a 4-3 defensive tackle in Carolina and then making just as much of an impact as a 3-4 nose tackle with the Jets. The result was three All-Pro nods and four Pro Bowl berths in a 10-year career. Jenkins might have been the best defensive lineman in football during his prime in Carolina, at least before major injuries shortened his 2004 season and cost him nearly the entire 2005 campaign. Injuries also cost Jenkins in his last two years as a Jet, although he gave the team a terrific first-season performance after it gave up two draft picks to acquire him in 2008. (His New York star turn was also when we gave him one of our favorite nicknames ever – Jackpot.) Jenkins was hurt too much over his 10 years to make the Hall of Fame conversation, but he was a terrific, impactful player for two strong contenders. That’s a fine legacy to leave.

7 (con’t) – RB Ahman Green, Packers – Green didn’t play in the NFL last year, but over his 12-year career he piled up more than 12,000 yards from scrimmage and 74 touchdowns. After a sputtering start to his career in Seattle, Green was traded to the Packers, and in seven seasons he had six 1,000 yard campaigns for the Pack. He was a terrific West Coast back who could run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. He was recognized with four Pro Bowl berths, and in 2003 he ran for an eye-popping 1,883 yards. Green wasn’t the most dominant back of his era, but he fit his offense perfectly and performed remarkably well. He’s not a Hall of Famer in Canton, but chances are he’ll be recognized in Green Bay one day.

6 – LB Mike Vrabel, Chiefs -Vrabel was the ultimate Bill Belichick player. After four seasons in Pittsburgh in which he was primarily a backup, Vrabel was one of the 19 unrestricted free agents whom Belichick signed for the Patriots after his first season, and thus he became a part of the team-first group that upset the Rams and won the Super Bowl. Vrabel became a mainstay for the Pats, starting at outside linebacker for eight seasons and providing solid play against the run, the pass, and as a rusher. His versatility didn’t just apply to defense; he also played a little tight end in goal-line situations, recording 10 TD catches over the course of his career. When Scott Pioli left the Patriots to become the GM in Kansas City, he got Vrabel as part of the Matt Cassel trade, and Vrabel started for two more seasons as part of the Chiefs’ recent renaissance. Vrabel fit the Belichick wish list to a T – versatile, team-oriented, good but not overly talented, smart, and productive. Now he goes back to his alma mater to help the Buckeyes try to recover from the Jim Tressel mess. Vrabel left a bit of meat on the bone with his playing career, but if he takes to coaching he could become even more of a star in that arena than he was on the playing field.

6 (con’t) – ORT Damien Woody, Jets – Woody, a former first-round pick in New England, had a long career in which he played virtually everywhere on the offensive line. He started out as a center, making one Pro Bowl for the Pats and starting for the team’s 2001 Super Bowl champ. He then moved to left guard in 2003, starting for another Pats championship squad. He moved on to Detroit as a free agent, starting three seasons at right guard before moving to right tackle. He then spent three more years as a Jet, starting at right tackle. His versatility no doubt elongated his career, and to the end he remained an effective run blocker. He had good if not great athleticism for a lineman, which made him effective as well. After starting 166 games in 12 seasons, Woody can retire knowing that he made the most of his opportunities – no matter where on the offensive line they came. Now the Jets turn to Wayne Hunter, who got a four-year, $13 million contract the same day Woody retired, as their new right tackle.

6 (con’t) – QB Marc Bulger, Ravens – Bulger’s career started with a whimper, but before he was done he made some pretty significant impacts in the NFL. The sixth-round pick by the Saints in 2000 landed with the Rams and broke into the starting lineup in 2002. Before long, he had replaced Kurt Warner as a triggerman in Mike Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf offense, and Bulger wasn’t much of a drop-off. He made Pro Bowls in 2003 and 2006 as he completed 60-percent plus of his passes and had three 20-plus TD seasons. But Bulger also took a terrific beating, suffering at least 37 sacks in five different seasons (plus 26 in a half season in 2005). By 2007, Bulger’s performance in St. Louis started to decline, and he lost the starting job for good in St. Louis in 2009. Last season, Bulger didn’t play as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore. And this season, he had the chance to return to Baltimore as a backup, or to fight for starting jobs in Arizona and Carolina, among other places. But Bulger’s heart wasn’t in it any more. Bulger leaves with a solid 10-year career that far outpaced his draft position. Leaving that kind of legacy – and leaving when you want – is a pretty fond way to say goodbye.

5 – OG Stephen Neal, Patriots – After a 10-year career, all with New England, Neal retired just after the 2011 season. He leaves as a major scouting success story. Neal never played college football, instead wrestling collegiately at Cal State-Bakersfield. But he developed into a starting guard for the Patriots, holding down a steady job at right guard from 2004 until this season. Neal started in one Super Bowl and claimed three rings overall. His career typifies the kind of player development and scouting acumen that contributed to the Patriots’ success, and he deserves credit for taking utmost advantage of his unusual opportunity.

5 (con’t) – S Donovin Darius, Jaguars – Darius, the Jaguars’ first-round pick in 1998, had a strong career for the team, playing nine seasons for the team, all as a starter. He was always a solid safety during his long Jacksonville tenure. Darius last played for the Dolphins in 2007, but he signed a one-day contract in February so he could retire with the team for which he started 105 games.

5 (con’t) – LB Dhani Jones, Bengals – Jones played 10 years for the Eagles, Giants, and Bengals, and he ended up as a starter in the last nine of those seasons. While he was never an impact player, he was always a smart and reliable center of the defense he was on. His last three years with the Bengals were at the level of his best, which speaks to his consistency. Jones had the ability to keep playing, but his varied media interests made it easier for him to walk away before his skills eroded.

4 – LB David Thornton, Titans – Thornton, who missed the 2010 because of a hip injury, decided to hang up his cleats instead of trying to rebound. The former fourth-round pick developed into an eight-year starter in the NFL with the Colts and Titans, and at his best he was a clean-up outside linebacker who occasionally made a big play with a pick or a sack. He had a nice career, both for the Colts who drafted him and for the Titans who inked him to a big deal as a free agent.

3 – CB Ellis Hobbs, Eagles – Two serious neck injuries forced Hobbs to retire after six seasons with the Patriots and Eagles. Hobbs was only a full-time starter for two years in New England, but he provided a ton of excitement as a kick returner and also notched 10 interceptions in 79 career games. Hobbs is still talented enough to at least play as a nickelback in Philadelphia, but neck injuries are nothing to mess with. So he ends his career early with some good plays but also some regret.

3 (con’t) – PK Matt Stover, Ravens – Stover broke into the NFL with the Browns in 1991, and for nearly 20 years he was the franchise’s kicker, first in Cleveland, then in Baltimore. He made two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl despite kicking in conditions that were often unfavorable. Stover After 18 years with the Browns/Ravens, Stover lost his job, getting a late-season cameo with the Colts to conclude his career. (Coincidentally, my wife and I visited Baltimore in 2009 during the week of a Ravens/Colts game. Stover was the center of all the coverage. I’ve never seen more game coverage focused on a kicker than that week.) In his two decades, Stover connected on an impressive 83 percent of his kicks – a number even more impressive because he was in the low 70s in each of his first three seasons. Stover isn’t a Hall of Fame kicker – the bar at the position is impossibly high – but he could end up in the Ravens Hall of Fame given his lengthy career there.

3 (con’t) – ILB Channing Crowder, Dolphins – After six years and 74 starts, the Dolphins cut Crowder this offseason and replaced him with Kevin Burnett. Crowder then said he would retire and pursue a media career instead of seeking to land with another team. Crowder still has something left in the tank as a run-down player, but he’s never had the athleticism to be an every-down linebacker. He’s a marginal inside 3-4 starter who ended up having a decent career.

2 – DE Paul Spicer, Jaguars – Spicer wasn’t drafted, and he had to bounce around and visit the CFL before getting his best shot to play in Jacksonville. He took advantage of the opportunity the Jaguars offered, playing nine years for the team and finally emerging as a starter over the last four. He finished his career with 28.5 sacks, including two 7.5-sack seasons. Spicer, who last played in 2009, signed a one-day contract to retire with Jacksonville in February.

2 (con’t) – OG Justin Smiley, Raiders – Smiley, who started 78 games over seven seasons with the 49ers, Dolphins, and Jaguars, retired during training camp after signing with the Raiders. His performance had slipped due to nagging injuries, but Smiley was once a decent starter.

2 (con’t) – FB Heath Evans, Saints – Evans, a 10-year veteran, retired when he didn’t find an offer to play in 2011. Instead, he got an offer to join the NFL Network as an analyst. Evans played 10 years for the Seahawks, Patriots, Dolphins, and Saints, starting a few games at fullback along the way. He leaves the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and a future gig – that’s not a bad way to go out.

1 – Ken Dorsey – Dorsey, who played six years in the NFL with Cleveland and San Francisco between 2003-2008, last played in the CFL in 2010. The former national championship quarterback at Miami started just 13 NFL games but was a quintessential backup. He appears headed down the Jason Garrett career path, as Dorsey is now coaching Cam Newton at IMG’s academy in Florida. A QB coach position somewhere is probably next for Dorsey, who could be a bright coaching prospect in a few short years.

1 (con’t) – TE Ben Patrick, Giants – After four years in Arizona, Patrick signed with the Giants. But once he got into training camp, he opted to retire instead of fighting for a roster spot. Patrick had 45 catches in 42 career games, and was known more for his blocking than his receiving.

1 (con’t) – OT Billy Yates, Browns – Yates bounced around the NFL for nine seasons, but he started just 11 games and played in just 25 in his career. Still, he earned a Super Bowl ring in New England and also played for the Dolphins and Browns. That’s not a bad career.

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FR: The PUP list

Ed Reed

Image via Wikipedia

The NFL is full of acronyms, but none is as fun to say as the PUP list. It stands for Physically Unable to Perform, and that strong designation is the official language that saves teams a roster spot for players they hope will return at midseason. When a team places a player on the reserve/PUP list before the season, it benches him for the first six weeks of the season. After that point, teams have two weeks to evaluate a player in practice before decided whether to activate the player or leave him on the PUP list for the remainder of the season. For a player to be eligible for PUP, his injury must be lingering from offseason work or the previous season, and not from training-camp practices or preseason games.

In this post, we’ll compare the impact of the NFL stars, starters, and hopefuls on the PUP list around the league, with the 10 level noting the most important players and the 1 level merely noting players. For comparison of training-camp and preseason injuries that left players on injured reserve, check out this post.

10 – FS Ed Reed, Ravens – Reed has been one of the league’s dominant players for years, but his physical playing style has worn him down in recent years. He had hip surgery in May, and his recovery from his torn labrum is still coming along. So the Ravens decided to put Reed on PUP in hopes that he’ll be ready to go by midseason. It’s a blow for Baltimore not to have Reed, but for a team with hopes of contending, having a healthy Reed for 8-10 regular-season games is a bigger reward than trying to get him to fight through injuries through the first two months of the season. At his best, Reed is a ball-hawking safety who’s incredibly dangerous when he gets the ball, and he adds a dimension that makes the Ravens’ defense especially dangerous. Tom Zbikowski, a second-year man who’s a big hitter but doesn’t have the range of Reed, will fill in for the six-time All-Pro and former defensive player of the year.

9 – WR Sidney Rice, Vikings – After a breakout 2009 season, Rice fought a hip injury lingered through the offseason, and eventually he decided to have surgery instead of waiting on it to heal. As a result, Rice will miss at least half the season, which makes PUP a natural fit. He’s a big, tall receiver who is great at catching the ball in traffic. His absence makes Brett Favre’s job a lot harder, and it takes away one of Minnesota’s best receiving threats. That’s a big loss.

8 – FS Darren Sharper, Saints – Sharper was a huge addition for the Saints last season, adding veteran wiles to the secondary and making more than his share of plays. Yet after Sharper’s nine-interception, three-TD season, the Saints were reluctant to resign him, and that was because of his slow recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee. The Saints eventually brought Sharper back, knowing that he might not be ready for the beginning of the season. Now Sharper will sit for at least the first six games, and the Saints believe that ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins can fill in until Sharper is ready. If Jenkins excels, Sharper becomes an insurance policy, but if he doesn’t Sharper could add a nice element to the defense in the second half of the season.

7 – LB Thomas Davis, PanthersDavis suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in a June minicamp, which should have knocked him out for the year. But he went on PUP instead of injured reserve because the Panthers are holding out hope that he can return for the second half of the season. Davis is a versatile linebacker who can rush the passer and drop in coverage, and he’s a big hitter as well. In his absence, the Panthers have moved Jon Beason from middle linebacker to outside ‘backer, hoping to unleash him as a playmaker.

7 (con’t) – DBs Atari Bigby and Al Harris, Packers – The Packers lost two veteran defenders for the first half of the season when Bigby, who started at free safety, went on PUP with an ankle injury and Harris, a starting cornerback, went on with a knee problem. Both losses are blows to the Packers, who have a talented but aging secondary that must hold up if Green Bay is to contend. Bigby will be replaced in the short term by second-year man Morgan Burnett, and Harris’s place will be held by Tramon Williams. Maybe the Packers will get both players back in time for a second-half push, but the trouble signs for an aging secondary shouldn’t be ignored.

6 – LB David Thornton, Titans – Thornton has been the Titans’ starting strong-side linebacker for the last four years since coming over as a free agent from the Colts. But hip and shoulder issues from last season didn’t heal as quickly as the team hoped, and so Thornton landed on PUP. It’s a blow to a Titans team that lost stalwart defensive leader Keith Bulluck in the offseason. In his place, the Titans will give third-year man Colin Allred a chance to start.

5 – LB Gerald Hayes, Cardinals – Hayes suffered a back injury last season, and when his rehab didn’t produce the desired results this offseason, he had to opt for surgery. That’s a blow for a Cardinals defense that  lost ILB Karlos Dansby this offseason. While the Cards expect rookie Daryl Washington to take one ILB spot, Hayes’ absence leaves a hole at the other one.

5 (con’t) – LB Clint Ingram, Saints – Ingram, a former Jaguar, had a chance to start for the Saints after the departure of Scott Fujita in the offseason. But Ingram has a shoulder injury that will prevent him from starting the season. That’s a blow to the Saints, who also lost LB Jonathan Casillas for the season due to injury.

4 – LB Brendan Ayanbadejo, Ravens – Ayanbadejo, a two-time Pro Bowl special teamer, has a torn left quadriceps that landed him on PUP. He could provide a nice burst for the Ravens if he returns to action at midseason, but as good as he is, there are always cheap options for special-teams coverage players.

3 – DE Victor Abiamiri, Eagles – Abiamiri saw his most significant action in his third season in 2009, starting five games and playing 13. He adds a more physical dimension against the run than some of the Eagles’ other DE options, which makes him a valuable role player. Microfracture knee surgery in February forced him onto the PUP list, since it takes so long to bounce back from that particular surgery.

2 – S Tom Nelson, Bengals – Nelson, who made the Bengals as an undrafted free agent/Hard Knocks storyline last year, had offseason knee surgery and landed on PUP. Nelson is a nice reserve player, but the Bengals’ trade for Reggie Nelson could leave him without a job.

2 (con’t) – S Jon Corto, Bills – Corto has played all 32 games for Buffalo the last two years, starting once, for Buffalo after joining the team as an undrafted free agent. Wrist surgery in the spring left him in position to land on PUP.

2 (con’t) – CB Jack Williams, Lions – Williams hurt his knee in his first game with the Lions last season after claiming him on waivers from the Broncos. Williams, a former fourth-round pick in Denver, has promise if he can bounce back from his current knee injury, and the Lions still need significant help at cornerback.

1 – LB Stephen Hodge, Cowboys – Hodge, a 2009 sixth-round pick, missed his rookie season with a knee injury, and that injury continues to plague him. At this point, it seems uncertain if he’ll play again, but the Cowboys put him on PUP instead of completely cutting the cord on the former Texas A&M star.

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Jersey Numbers: Linebackers

This is our next to last post choosing the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post. Now we move to linebackers, who can wear numbers in the 50s and the 90s with a few exceptions. If a number is omitted, it’s because no linebacker who has played this season wears those digits.

46 – Vinny Ciurciu, Lions – Ciurciu is the only linebacker currently wearing 46. He has played in six games this year, seeing most of his action on special teams. Now with his fourth team, Ciurciu also has a good locker-room nickname (see the bottom of the linked post).

47 – Brit Miller, 49ers – Miller is the only linebacker currently wearing 47. The rookie out of Illinois has played in two games this season.

49 – Zack Follett, Lions – Follett is the only linebacker currently wearing 49. The rookie out of Cal has played in nine games this year, mostly on special teams.

50 – Curtis Lofton, Falcons – Lofton, a second-year middle linebacker, has emerged as a tackle machine for the Falcons. His growth allowed the Dirty Birds to let stalwart Keith Brooking leave via free agency, and now it’s Lofton who will lead Atlanta’s defense for years to come. Lofton is tied for second in the NFL with 118 tackles. We give him the nod over OLB Mike Vrabel, who had great years in New England and is now a veteran leader in Kansas City. Other notable 50s: Russell Allen, Jaguars; James Anderson, Panthers; K.C. Asiodu, Rams; Antwan Barnes, Ravens; Eric Barton, Browns; Monty Beisel, Cardinals; Rocky Boiman, Steelers; Diyral Briggs, 49ers; Isaiah Ekejiuba, Raiders; Vernon Gholston, Jets; A.J. Hawk, Packers; Erin Henderson, Vikings; Lance Laury, Seahawks; Matt McCoy, Buccaneers; Marvin Mitchell, Saints; Rob Ninkovich, Patriots; Ernie Sims, Lions; David Thornton, Titans; Erik Walden, Dolphins; Philip Wheeler, Colts; Will Witherspoon, Eagles

51 – Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ruud has emerged as a do-everything middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, and he’s one of the few bright spots on the team’s defense. He’s fifth in the league with 113 tackles and also has six passes defensed. He gets the nod over Jonathan Vilma of New Orleans, who may be better in pass coverage. Also worth mentioning are long-time veterans Keith Brooking of Dallas, James Farrior of Pittsburgh, and Takeo Spikes of the 49ers; youngsters Jerod Mayo of the Patriots and Paul Posluszny of Buffalo; and injured Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu. Other notable 51s: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens; Akin Ayodele, Dolphins; Tim Diles, Chargers; Ryan Fowler, Jets; Tony Gilbert, Falcons; Alex Hall, Browns; Clint Ingram, Colts; Ben Leber, Vikings; Corey Mays, Chiefs; Joe Mays, Eagles; Gerald McRath, Titans; Brady Poppinga, Packers; Dan Skuta, Bengals; Chaun Thompson, Texans

52 – Ray Lewis, Ravens – This is a loaded number that features Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers in Carolina MLB Jon Beason, San Francisco MLB Patrick Willis, and Jets ILB David Harris, but Lewis gets the nod for his long, productive career that continues at a very high level. Other notable youngsters include rookie Clay Matthews of Green Bay, Kirk Morrison of Oakland, Daryl Smith of Jacksonville, and injured Browns ILB D’Qwell Jackson. Other notable 52s: Xavier Adibi, Texans; Eric Alexander, Patriots;  Michael Boley, Giants; Cody Brown, Cardinals; Jonathan Casillas, Saints; Channing Crowder, Dolphins; Chris Draft, Bills; Larry English, Chargers; Cody Glenn, Colts; Chad Greenway, Vikings; David Herron, Chiefs; Abdul Hodge, Bengals; D.D. Lewis, Seahawks;  Rocky McIntosh, Redskins; Jamar Williams, Bears; Coy Wire, Falcons

53 – Keith Bulluck, Titans – Bulluck has long been the emotional leader of the Titans’ defense, and he remains a solid sideline-to-sideline player. His three interceptions tie him for the lead among linebackers, and his 10 passes defensed place him second at the position. He’s also among the top 10 in tackles for linebackers. That’s enough to give him the nod over Atlanta’s Mike Peterson, another long-time, solid performer. Other notable 53s: Marcus Buggs, Bills; Derrick Burgess, Patriots; Khary Campbell, Texans; Na’il Diggs, Panthers; Moise Fokou, Eagles; Clark Haggans, Cardinals; James Holt, Chargers; Thomas Howard, Raiders; Larry Izzo, Jets; Rashad Jeanty, Bengals; Bryan Kehl, Giants; Niko Koutouvides, Buccaneers; Paris Lenon, Rams; Jameel McClain, Ravens; Tyrone McKenzie, Patriots; Steve Octavien, Cowboys; Nick Roach, Bears; Matt Roth, Browns; Mark Simoneau, Saints; Bryan Smith, Jaguars; Reggie Torbor, Dolphins; Jeff Ulbrich, 49ers; Demorrio Williams, Chiefs

54 – Andra Davis, Broncos – This number lost its stalwart when Brian Urlacher of Chicago was knocked out for the season. So among a group of solid if unspectacular inside linebackers, we’ll give Davis the nod for his contributions (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) in reinvigorating the Denver defense. Other contenders were Chargers ILB Stephen Cooper and Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch. Other notable 54s: H.B. Blades, Redskins; Jasper Brinkley, Vikings; Prescott Burgess, Ravens; Bobby Carpenter, Cowboys; Brandon Chillar, Packers; Blake Costanzo, Browns; Kenwin Cummings, Jets; Zac Diles, Texans; Troy Evans, Saints; Andre Frazier, Steelers; Jonathan Goff, Giants; Nic Harris, Bills; Geno Hayes, Buccaneers; Gerald Hayes, Cardinals; Will Herring, Seahawks; Freddie Keiaho, Colts; DeAndre Levy, Lions; Stephen Nicholas, Falcons; Jeremiah Trotter, Eagles; Tracy White, Eagles; Sam Williams, Raiders

55 – Terrell Suggs, Ravens – This is a tough call, because Suggs has just 3.5 sacks this season and has missed three games. But on the whole, he’s the most complete linebacker at this position, because he can be a dynamite pass rusher and also do well against the run and in coverage. I’d rather have Suggs that Miami OLB Joey Porter, who has eight sacks thus far this season, or Chicago’s playmaking WLB Lance Briggs, who stars in the featured position in the old Tampa 2 defense the Bears run. Other solid vets wearing 55 include Detroit’s Larry Foote and Denver’s D.J. Williams, while youngsters Clint Session of Indianapolis and James Laurinaitis of St. Louis deserve mention as well. Other notable 55s: Jon Alston, Raiders; Patrick Bailey, Steelers; Desmond Bishop, Packers; Alvin Bowen, Redskins; Stewart Bradley, Eagles; Ahmad Brooks, 49ers; Danny Clark, Giants; Dan Connor, Panthers; Scott Fujita, Saints; Stephen Hodge, Cowboys; Kawika Mitchell, Bills; Kenny Onatolu, Vikings; Keith Rivers, Bengals; Justin Rogers, Chiefs; Junior Seau, Patriots; Reggie Walker, Cardinals; Jamaal Westerman, Jets

56 – Brian Cushing, Texans – It’s hard to imagine giving a rookie like Cushing the honor at a highly populated number like this one, but Cushing has earned it. He’s sixth among linebackers with 116 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a safety. That’s huge impact that earns him the nod over Shawne Merriman of San Diego, who isn’t the same after last season’s knee injury, pass-rushing stud LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh, and solid all-around players Nick Barnett of Green Bay and Bradie James of Dallas. Other notable 56s: Colin Allred, Titans; Charlie Anderson, Dolphins; Robert Ayers, Broncos; Quinton Culbertson, Panthers; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Saints; Justin Durant, Jaguars; Keith Ellison, Bills; Tavares Gooden, Ravens; Tyjuan Hagler, Colts; E.J. Henderson, Vikings; Leroy Hill, Seahawks; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs; Akeem Jordan, Eagles; Kaluka Maiava, Browns; Scott McKillop, 49ers; David Nixon, Raiders; Chike Okeafor, Cardinals; Rod Wilson, Buccaneers

57 – Bart Scott, Jets – New Jets head coach Rex Ryan brought Scott with him from Baltimore as a high-dollar free agent to be the emotional leader and scheme expert in the middle of Gang Green’s defense. Scott has played fine for the Jets, but over the year it’s been fellow ILB David Harris who has emerged as a top-tier player. Still, Scott gets the nod over veteran Dhani Jones of Cincinnati and David Hawthorne, who’s having a terrific season as a fill-in starter at middle linebacker for Seattle. Other notable 57s: Stanley Arnoux, Saints; Kevin Bentley, Texans; Chase Blackburn, Giants; Ricky Brown, Raiders; Victor Butler, Cowboys; Chris Chamberlain, Saints; Jon Corto, Bills; Jordon Dizon, Lions; Keyaron Fox, Steelers; Chris Gocong, Eagles; Mario Haggan, Broncos; Adam Hayward, Buccaneers; Jordan Senn, Panthers; David Veikune, Browns; Matt Wilhelm, 49ers

58 – Karlos Dansby, Cardinals – It’s hard to imagine a better physical specimen at outside linebacker than Dansby, who is a leader on a strong Cardinals defense. He gets the nod over Gary Brackett, an undersized middle linebacker at the heart of the Colts defense. Other notable 58s: Marcus Benard, Browns; Quincy Black, Buccaneers; Thomas Davis, Panthers; Marques Harris, Chargers; Robert Henson, Redskins; Rey Maualuga, Bengals; Slade Norris, Raiders; Antonio Pierce, Giants; Scott Shanle, Saints; Tim Shaw, Bears; David Vobora, Rams; Jason Williams, Cowboys; Pierre Woods, Patriots

59 – London Fletcher, Redskins – Fletcher doesn’t have ideal size, but year after year he is a leader, a reliable tackler, and a playmaker, no matter what team he’s playing for. He’s a great success story as an undrafted player. He gets the nod over Julian Peterson of Detroit and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Other notable 59s: Spencer Adkins, Falcons; Jovan Belcher, Chiefs; Angelo Crowell, Buccaneers; Aaron Curry, Seahawks; Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens; Heath Farwell, Vikings; Larry Grant, Rams; Gary Guyton, Patriots; Ramon Humber, Colts; Brian Iwuh, Jaguars; Brandon Johnson, Bengals; Landon Johnson, Panthers; Brad Jones, Packers; Cato June, Bears; Stanford Keglar, Titans; Ashlee Palmer, Bills; Brandon Siler, Chargers; Pisa Tinoisamoa, Bears; Gerris Wilkerson, Giants; Brandon Williams, Cowboys; Wesley Woodyard, Broncos

74 – Aaron Kampman, Packers – Kampman, who moved from defensive end to outside ‘backer this season as Green Bay implemented a 3-4 defense, kept his old D-lineman number. Kampman didn’t have a great transition season, with just 3.5 sacks in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. But he’s still a good player, and he’s the only linebacker wearing 74, so he merits a mention.

90 – No linebackers wearing 90 have played a game this season.

91 – Tamba Hali, Chiefs – Hali is emerging as a solid pass rusher in Kansas City, with 7.5 sacks thus far this season. He gets the nod at this number over Cameron Wake, Miami’s CFL import who has 5.5 sacks in his first NFL season.

92 – Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – In one of the toughest calls of this whole project, we’re going with Dumervil, the NFL leader with 15 sacks, over 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison of Pittsburgh. Both guys play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and both add the fright factor to their respective defenses. But while Harrison may be a better player in pass coverage, Dumervil is having a defensive player of the year caliber campaign in Denver, and so for 2009 we have to opt for him. Other notable 92s: Bertrand Berry, Cardinals; Hunter Hillenmeyer, Bears

93 – Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer has been a disappointment at outside ‘backer since the Cowboys made him a first-round pick three years ago, but as a full-time player he gets the nod over Jason Trusnik, who has moved into the starting lineup in Cleveland after a midseason trade from the Jets.

94 – DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys – Ware is a preeminent pass rusher with nine sacks this year and 62.5 in five seasons so far. Also deserving mention is Lawrence Timmons, an emerging inside ‘backer for the Steelers. Other notable 94s: Arnold Harrison, Browns; Marques Murrell, Jets; Jyles Tucker, Chargers

95 – Shaun Phillips, Chargers – In a close call, the nod here goes to Phillips, a pass-rushing outside ‘backer who has seven sacks for San Diego, over Cleveland OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has 6.5 sacks. The six fumbles Phillips has forced was the determining factor. We’ll also shout out to Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson, another emerging pass-rusher. Other notable 95s: Tully Banta-Cain, Patriots; Ali Highsmith, Cardinals

96 – David Bowens, Browns – Bowens came with Eric Mangini from the Jets to Cleveland. He has long been an above-average pass-rushing outside ‘backer, and he has five sacks in that role this season. He gets the nod over declining Patriot Adalius Thomas. Other notable 96s: Omar Gaither, Eagles; Andy Studebaker, Chiefs

97 – Calvin Pace, Jets – Pace missed the first four games of the season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension, but since returning he has continued to provide pass rush off the edge with six sacks. Other notable 97s: Clint Sintim, Giants; Pierre Walters, Chiefs

98 – Brian Orakpo, Redskins – Orakpo, Washington’s first-round pick, has 11 sacks in his rookie season, including four last week against Oakland. That’s the kind of defensive jolt Washington was hoping for when it drafted him. Other notable 98s: Shawn Crable, Patriots; Parys Haralson, 49ers; Darrell McClover, Bears

99 – Jason Taylor, Dolphins – Taylor spent most of his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has seamlessly made the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker over the last few years. After a slow season in his one campaign in Washington, Taylor has six sacks this year for Miami, giving him 126.5 in his 13-year career. Other notable 99s: Kevin Burnett, Chargers; Paul Kruger, Ravens; Manny Lawson, 49ers; Bryan Thomas, Jets; Jeremy Thompson, Packers

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