A Tale of Two Linebackers

KickCanEarlier today, Ray Lewis announced that this postseason will be his “last ride” and regardless of the result of his push for a second ring, this postseason will be the last time that we see one of the most electric players in NFL history take the field.  Ray Lewis is an all-time great and five years from now will likely be enshrined in Canton.  More than that, he is the identity of the Baltimore Ravens and his #52 will likely be the first number the Baltimore Ravens retire.  You can debate the all-time greatest 49er or greatest Packer or Cowboy but when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens there is no debate, Ray Lewis is the greatest Raven to ever play the game.

As with any great player who retires, the media feels the need to reflect on that player’s career and more than anything, the recency-bias of the sports media comes out because we have a media that tends to forget there were sports prior to the existence of ESPN.  So of course today the debate was not whether or not Ray Lewis was a Hall of Famer (because that’s a given) but whether or not he is the greatest middle linebacker of all time.  ESPN writer Jamison Hensley took it a step further and called Ray Lewis, the “greatest defensive player in NFL history”.

With all due respect Mr. Hensley, how can you call a player the best defensive player ever when it’s arguable whether they weren’t the best at their position when they played? (You can read his asinine article here) For more than a decade all eyes have been on Baltimore but only 32 miles away there’s a linebacker with similar stats who has been just as good, if not better.

ESPN's Jamison Hensley had the audacity to call Ray Lewis the greatest defensive player ever when another player on the beltway could very well challenge him for the title of greatest middle linebacker of his era.

ESPN’s Jamison Hensley had the audacity to call Ray Lewis the greatest defensive player ever when another player on the beltway could very well challenge him for the title of greatest middle linebacker of his era.

Just two years after Ray Lewis was drafted, London Fletcher signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent where he was named the Rams Rookie of the Year in 1998.  In his second year (and first year as a starter), Fletcher anchored the Rams defense that went on to win the Super Bowl and was a key piece in the Rams returning to the Super Bowl after the 2001 season.   While Ray Lewis will always be “Mr. Raven” so to speak, Fletcher left the Rams after the 2001 season to join the Buffalo Bills and in his first year, set the Bills franchise record for tackles with 209.   He led the Bills in tackles every year that he was with the team and continued that tradition when he joined the Redskins in 2007.

Not only has Fletcher led his respective teams in tackles year in and year out, he has led the NFL.  Nobody has more tackles this millennium than London Fletcher.

But the fact is that when London Fletcher does retire he will probably go quietly into the night.  While five years from now Ray Lewis will bring his evangelical stylings to the podium at Canton, London Fletcher will likely have to fight for years and years to get in the Hall if he ever does get in and my question is why?

I have compiled the following to show the similarity in the careers of London Fletcher & Ray Lewis:

LondonRayAs you can see in two fewer seasons, Fletcher has posted similar numbers to those of Hensley’s “greatest defensive player ever” and he has done so in a number of different schemes for different teams that did not have nearly the defensive personnel that Ray Lewis has surrounding him.   These are both great sets of numbers but forget arguing for the best defensive player ever the question really is – who is the best middle linebacker on the Beltway?

While the stats will be cited (and it is impressive to note that Ray Lewis is the founding and lone member of the 40 sack/30 interception club) the big thing people keep talking about is the leadership and longevity of Ray Lewis.

But if we’re going to talk about leadership then we have to talk about the quiet, reserved leadership of a man who has won the Bart Starr Award and never had issues with the law.  A man who seems ageless and has set the single season tackles record for 2 different franchises; a man who has led his respective team in tackles for nine straight seasons;  and a man whose leadership propelled an ailing Redskins defense into the playoffs this season; and that man is London Fletcher.

If we’re going to praise the longevity of Ray Lewis at a physical position, then we should be reminded that London Fletcher has never missed a game playing in 240 games over 15 seasons.  His 195 consecutive starts are second most among active players behind Ronde Barber.

If we’re going to praise Ray Lewis for his longevity then maybe we should take the time to ask ourselves whether longevity should be judged by playing for a long time or the level you play at over that time?  The fact is that Ray Lewis’s legendary career peaked  in the middle of last decade while London Fletcher continues to play at a high level having led the league in tackles in 2011.  While Ray Lewis has 9 more Pro Bowl appearances than Fletcher, it is due to the folly of the voters; not to the fact that Ray Lewis was better than Fletcher for more seasons.

If we want to talk about true longevity then we need to remember that Ray Lewis has not topped 139 tackles in a season since 2004.   In that same span, Fletcher equaled or topped that mark 5 times.   Fletcher had more sacks in the month of December than Ray Lewis had all season.   London Fletcher’s interceptions (5) in 2012 were more than Ray Lewis has had in the last 4 years combined (3).   London Fletcher has 1 more forced fumble over the past four seasons (with 8) than Ray Lewis.  This is not to discount the career of Ray Lewis but in what is supposed to be the twilight of his career, London Fletcher is still playing at an incredibly high level and shouldn’t that be a true measure of a player’s longevity.

Today many are asking if Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time and those clouded with Baltimore or recency bias (or maybe a shred of both) are asking if Ray Lewis is the greatest defensive player of all time.    There’s no doubt he’s had a Hall of Fame career and while this is an acceptable conversation to have the better question is:

Was Ray Lewis the best linebacker/defensive player of his era?

Because while Lewis was dancing in front of the cameras in Baltimore, Fletcher was grinding away in St. Louis, Buffalo, and D.C. getting the same results.  While Ray Lewis was not much more than an emotional cheerleader the last two seasons, Fletcher was busy leading his team and the league in tackles.   While Ray Lewis dazzled the sports media and was voted into Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl, Fletcher put up the same (and better) seasons as Lewis and was ignored.

And while Ray Lewis will get a call from Canton within the first two years of eligibility; Fletcher will likely wait and wait on a call that may never come.   And it’s not because Ray Lewis was that much better but it’s because the story the sports media told us was a lie.

The media would’ve told us that Ray Lewis was the greatest defensive player ever when he wasn’t even the best active player at his position.

Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ’em!
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2012 NFL Final Mock Draft – Round 3 plus a few

Alright, well we’ve made it through the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.  With the third round comes the first time that the Saints are on the board and due to the departure of Asomugha after the 2010 season, the Raiders sneak in right at the end of the 3rd round, with a compensatory pick.  Without further ado, I round out my top 100 of the 2012 NFL Draft.

The Colts talked Reggie Wayne into returning but the rebuilding process has to involve surrounding Andrew Luck with some weapons.  Criner is a big, physical receiver who has large hands that seemingly swallow up every ball thrown his way.

The Rams would like to get some depth at the running back position as well as find an heir to Stephen Jackson’s position.  Wilson is a fierce runner and an absolute steal at the top of the 3rd round.

The Vikings have been trying to find an answer for the safety position ever since Darren Sharper went to the Saints.  Tyler is one of the best safeties in the draft and a great value for Minnesota here.

Trumaine Johnson is one of the more underrated players in this draft.  He’s a very physical cover corner who has a great ability to make a play on the ball.

The Buccaneers are in desperate need of running back help.  In the 3rd round, they land one of the top running backs in the draft.  Lamar Miller can be a threat for Tampa both on the ground and in the passing game.

The Redskins need some help at the tackle position and now that they have their QB of the future they must protect him.  Schwartz is a tough tackle who is excellent in the run game and shows promise as a pass protector.

The Jaguars have a number of needs but solidifying the offensive line is a big one.  Jacksonville lands one of the draft’s best centers here.

The Buffalo Bills have got to get someone opposite of Stevie Johnson and Marvin McNutt is their man.  He’s a large target who has great separation skills and shovels for hands.  Definitely a much needed addition to this receiving corps.

The best receiver left on the board at this point, Jenkins has good separation skills, great hands, and is unbelievably humble which may be a nice change of pace for the Dolphins who just traded away Brandon Marshall.

The Dolphins are back on the board again and with this pick they select Jared Crick.  A player who can play the defensive end or tackle position, I believe if Crick has success in the NFL, it will be on the interior defensive line.

And so far the Kansas City Chiefs are having an excellent draft.  Here in the 3rd round, they select the 3rd best pure nose tackle in the draft at a great value.  This fills the one remaining void in a very young and potent defense.

Even though Seattle was able to extend Marshawn Lynch, they are still looking for depth at the position.  Landing one of the top 5 running backs in the draft in the third round is a no-brainer for the Seahawks.

There are a lot of things I love about Zebrie Sanders and I believe he’s a steal in the third round.  He’s a tough athletic tackle who excellent a pass protection.   While his run blocking is lacking, this is a great addition to the Texans’ line

The Jets land Zach Brown in the 3rd round which allows them to commit Upshaw to the defensive end position.   A superb tackler who is great against the run, Brown’s a perfect fit for Rex Ryan’s defense.

The Chargers definitely need some help in their secondary and Bentley is the best corner left on the board at this point.  Bentley is  a potential “ballhawk” type corner who could be a huge part of San Diego’s rebuilding efforts on the defensive side of things.

The Bears made a must-needed move in the offseason by trading for Jay Cutler’s all-time favorite target in Brandon Marshall but the Bears’ receiving corps still needs a lot of work.  In Keshawn Martin, the Bears select a very athletic and skilled, but very raw wide receiver with a high ceiling.

The Cardinals were able to re-sign Early Doucet but they still have to bolster their wide receiving corps.  Ryan Broyles was originally projected to be a late 1st round/early 2nd round pick.   He has fallen due to injury but Arizona will take a chance on him here.

The Cowboys continue the much needed project of building up their offensive line by selecting Ben Jones here.  Jones is a very instinctive and aware tackle who is  a solid blocker in both the passing and running game.  He is the best center left on the board and a necessary pick for Dallas here.

The Titans really need some help in their receiving corps.  There are some good young weapons there in Kenny Britt and Jared Cook but this corps is lacking.  Projected by many early on to be an early to mid second round pick, Toon is an excellent route runner with a great ability to make a play on the ball.

The Bengals are a young team on the rise who have some major concerns in their secondary.  They have already addressed the cornerback position and here they find one of the top 5 safeties in the draft in Martin.  He’s a great value this late in the 3rd round and the right pick for Cincy.

There are a lot of things I love about Brandon Boykin and I feel that he is vastly underrated. A lights out cornerback at Georgia, Boykin is great against the run, has the ability to make a play on the ball, and has phenomenal coverage skils.  While many have questions about Boykin’s instincts and recognition skills, he represents a great value for the Falcons here and I believe he can be a successful corner in the NFL.

Most seasons, Chase Minnifield and Brandon Boykin would be top 40 draft picks but where they fall shows you how deep this cornerback class really is.  Chase Minnifield is a cornerback with phenomenal ball skills and a very rare sense of awareness.  He reads defenses well and plays exceptionally well against the run.  Most of the questions surround Minnifield are in regards to his size and a knee injury that required surgery in January, 2012.

The Steelers need some help on the offensive line and Stephenson is best offensive tackle left on the board.  In college, Stephenson was excellent in pass protection and pretty solid at opening up lanes for Oklahoma’s backs.  The issue with Stephenson is his inconsistency and his lack of hustle.  Doesn’t always block until the whistle but he has the tools to be a good lineman for Pittsburgh.

Many will be shocked that I have Nick Foles falling this far but after the run on quarterbacks in the 1st and 2nd rounds, there are a number of teams with much bigger needs.  Now that Elway has shipped out Tebow and taken out a 3-5 year lease on Peyton Manning, the Broncos need depth at the quarterback position and somebody to develop behind Peyton.  Foles is a large quarterback with a big arm who is a proven leader.  While his pocket presence leaves much to be desired, he is an accurate quarterback with great athleticism who has a pass first mentality but can gain yards on the ground.  Something tells me Elway will see a little bit of himself in Foles.

The Eagles have not had a safety since the departure of Brian Dawkins and any thought that the Eagles might move Asante Samuel to the safety position is out the window now that he’s been traded to Atlanta.  Antonio Allen is the best safety on the board and fills a huge need for Philadelphia.

And for the first time all draft, we see the New Orleans Saints make a draft pick. The Saints largest need is overwhelmingly the outside linebacker position and Terrell Manning represents a good value at this point.  He’s a solid tackler with good instincts who could help New Orleans’ defense.

Love ’em or hate ’em, you have to respect how well Green Bay drafts.   The Packers are in need of some help in their backfield and Pead is the best available rusher.   He’s a competitive runner with good vision who is solid between the tackles and adds much needed depth behind Starks.

It’s no secret that Baltimore needs to bolster their wide receiver corps and Joe Adams is a speedy dynamic receiver who could be dangerous in the slot.  As an added bonus, Adams can be a threat in the return game and adds one more dimension to a very talented and dangerous Baltimore team.

The Miami of Ohio product is the best interior lineman available at this point and could go a long way to help solidify San Francisco’s offensive line.  He’s excellent at pass protection and pretty good at run blocking as well.  Most questions that surround Brooks are in regards to a shoulder injury he suffered in 2010.

The Patriots also have a number of needs on their interior offensive line and Joe Looney is the best available option.  Bellichick knows the value of a strong offensive line and he must address that need here.  He’s a big guard who blocks extremely well and has good instincts.   Looney could’ve gone much higher but drops because a left foot injury held him out of 2012 workouts.

Josh Norman is an exceptional athlete with superb coverage skills who is great against the run and has Darren Sharper type potential as far as being a “ballhawk-type” corner are concerned.  There are questions about his instincts and character but the Giants need help at the position and Norman is the best possible pick here.

The Raiders finally get to make a pick! Thanks to the departure of Nnamdi Asomugha last offseason Oakland receives the highest possible compensatory pick.  While the team has a number of needs the overwhelming need is outside linebacker.  Spence is a fierce outside linebacker who was great on 3rd down for Miami and is a solid tackler.  He has excellent instincts and reads plays well.   There are questions about his size and durability but he’s likely the pick Oakland makes here.  But you never know – Oakland could feel the need to take yet another quarterback…

THE 4TH ROUND

And now, as an added bonus to round out the top 100 picks, the first five picks of the 4th round.  A nice little bonus for all of you whose teams had just an awful season.

For all the St. Louis Rams fans who complained about a lack of receivers after having a tradition that boasted Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, you are welcome to rejoice.  Tommy Streeter is my biggest sleeper at the wide receiver position and someone who I believe, in the right situation, could be a #1 wide receiver in this league.  He is the perfect complement to Justin Blackmon.   He is 6’5″ and has the big play ability to stretch the filed.   While he has issues with separation, he is the type of guy you can throw a jump ball to and have confidence he’ll come down with it.  He has great hands and long arms and is a great addition to this St. Louis team.

The Colts have always loved the tight end position and I don’t see that changing under Pagano.  Orson Charles is the 3rd best tight end in the draft and a necessary weapon for the Colts to add if Luck’s going to win any games.

The Vikings have to be excited to be getting Chris Cook back after some legal trouble but Cedric Griffin is gone and Antoine Winfield is getting older.  Casey Hayward is a great value in the 4th round and fills a necessary need for Minnesota.

I don’t know how Brandon Thompson falls this far but he does and the Texans are here to snatch him up as a result of the DeMeco Ryans trade.   Thompson is a violent player who is a perfect fit for Wade Phillips’ defense.

The Browns have a need at the inside linebacker position and will be thrilled to find Wagner available at the 100th overall pick.  A superb tackler who plays well against the run, he’s an excellent pick for Cleveland at this point in the draft.

Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ’em! As always follow me @can_of_corn

Enjoy the Draft!