Dying breed: Classic middle LBs are roaming their way to extinction
Middle linebackers like Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus are big part of NFL's past
Defenses are now built around DEs and DTs, who also get biggest contracts
Young MLBs Jon Beason, Patrick Willis and DeMeco Ryans offer hope for future
Picture in your mind the NFL's all-time most dominating defensive players.
Middle linebackers have been so much a part of the league's history, they might as well be part of the logo, like the silhouette of Jerry West in the NBA.
But where have all the great middle linebackers gone? Once roaming wild, today dominating middle linebackers practically are on the verge of extinction.
They have been replaced as feared game-changers by sleek rush-ends, massive defensive tackles and shut-down corners. Recent free-agent signings reflected as much, with Albert Haynesworth signing a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Redskins, Nnamdi Asomugha signing a three-year deal worth $15 million a year and Carolina's Julius Peppers signing a one-year tender worth more than $16 million.
The evolution of defenses and, more significant, offenses, has broken the mold of what a middle linebacker should look and play like.
Quick: Name the five best middle linebackers in the league today.
And ... and ... who else?
Most impact NFL middle-linebackers today are either relics, such as Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi, or hybrids playing the inside-linebacker spot in the ever-popular 3-4 defense, like Karlos Dansby and Bart Scott.
The position has changed and been devalued, literally.
Once the premier position on the defensive side of the ball -- the proverbial quarterback of the defense -- middle linebackers now are more like the tight ends of the defense. Or at least that's how they're paid.
If you averaged the top-five salaries at every position on the field in 2008, the five highest-paid middle linebackers averaged $5.68 million. Only kickers ($2.24 million) and tight ends ($3.74 million) averaged less. Cornerbacks ($10 million), defensive tackles ($8.04 million) and defensive ends ($8.02 million) averaged significantly more among the five highest-paid players at their respective positions.
Clearly, owners and general managers are investing significantly more elsewhere on the field. It speaks to how much value is put on finding a premier playmaker in the middle. It also speaks to how difficult it has become to find big-time talent at the position.
Where have you gone, Chuck Bednarik?
The position is going the way of the dinosaur for the same reason real dinosaurs disappeared. The landscape and climate have changed.
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