Young LBs coming of age quickly

It has become clear the position where first-year players have made the biggest impact this season is linebacker. It used to be running backs were the rookies who were expected -- and were able -- to make the biggest immediate impact, but you could argue 10 of the top 20 rookies this season have been linebackers.

The list is long and distinguished. Seattle's Lofa Tatupu, perhaps the leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year (although he has plenty of competition), is his team's leading tackler and has four sacks and three interceptions, returning one for a TD. Teammate LeRoy Hill has seven sacks despite starting only half the games so far this season.

Bengals MLB Odell Thurman, who slipped in the draft because of character concerns, was the second linebacker the team drafted (David Pollack was the first), but he has 92 tackles, a rookie-best five interceptions and has become a leader on Marvin Lewis' defense. Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman -- one of the fast risers before the draft -- could be the blueprint of a new breed of linebacker: Big, fast and mean. Merriman leads all rookies with nine sacks but has excelled vs. the run, too. He was a hero in the Chargers' recent ending of the Colts' hopes for an undefeated season.