What used to be just a grunt, run-stuffer slot, middle or inside linebacker has lately gained popularity around the league as a position of impact. The Oakland Raiders selected inside 'backer Rolando McClain with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and that certainly reflected the position's uptick in respect.
"I think people are starting to realize that [inside linebackers] can be real difference-makers now," said San Francisco's Patrick Willis, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the league. "More guys are staying on the field [for passing downs], and we're seeing a real change in focus."
Middle linebacker might never return to its halcyon days as the glamour role of NFL defenses, in part because the recent predominance of the 3-4 front has meant there are so many tandem inside linebackers instead of pure 4-3 "Mike" defenders, but the position definitely has gained in respect.
Counting McClain, there have been six middle or inside linebackers selected in the first round of the past five drafts. That's compared with 10 outside linebackers in the same period, but it's obvious the emphasis is narrowing.
This isn't quite a new age of inside 'backers, but recent first rounds have produced standout young players such as Willis, Jerod Mayo (New England), Jonathan Vilma (New Orleans) and Jon Beason (Carolina). Two of the biggest contract extensions of this offseason were for inside linebackers Willis and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Beason is regarded by some as the best defensive player in the NFC South. Not too far behind might be Curtis Lofton of Atlanta.
Said Falcons coach Mike Smith of Lofton: "I'm not sure people understand how good he is but he's very good."
There is still a place in the NFL for relative graybeards such as Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, James Farrior, Gary Brackett and Keith Brooking, among others. But it has always been a young man's game. And the under-30 group of inside linebackers is coming on strong, headed by some of the names already noted, but also featuring players such as Stewart Bradley (Philadelphia), James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle), Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay), David Harris (New York Jets), Paul Posluszny (Buffalo) and Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh).
The recent run on the position, highlighted by the Raiders' choice of McClain, certainly continues the momentum. Clubs are getting back to the old notion that a defense is built from the inside out.
"We've become more than just [run-stuffers]," Harris said. "The way defenses are set up anymore, we can be playmakers."