Now that arguably the best linebacker of all time has called it a career, which present-day studs could be the NFL's next Ray Lewis? There are four prime candidates and one under-the-radar player worth watching.
The top five is dominated by members of the linebacker-rich NFC West. This includes a dominant pair from the team Lewis and the Ravens vanquished in Super Bowl XLVII.
NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
Often unjustly overshadowed by his more illustrious counterpart, NaVorro Bowman is an outstanding linebacker in his own right. The ex-Penn State star was the driving force on the 49ers' fearsome defense in 2012.
A thumping hitter, Bowman has the strength, speed and tenacity to wallop anyone who has the ball. However, the shrewd 24-year-old's best attributes are his athletic range and instincts.
Take a look at the play below from the NFC Championship game to see how much the 49ers trust Bowman.
The 49ers are facing a critical fourth down against the Atlanta Falcons, who have aligned the dangerous receiving duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White on the same side.
White is in the slot, with Bowman assigned to guard him. A wide receiver of White's talent against a linebacker would normally be a large mismatch.
However, Bowman is quick enough to match White stride for stride and break on the ball. Look how he stays locked onto White, anticipates the throw and knocks it away.
Lewis was known for hard hitting over his career. However, he also was excellent defending the pass in the shallow and underneath zones.
Bowman offers that same ability. Not many linebackers would be trusted in coverage on a receiver with the game in the balance.
But Bowman, who is growing in stature every season, may soon even surpass the next player on this list.
Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
For many, any conversation regarding a natural successor to Lewis should begin and end with Bowman's teammate, Patrick Willis. That praise is deserved, as the six-year pro is eerily similar to Lewis in his prime.
Willis combines awesome brute force on a large frame with incredible speed. That's exactly the mix that allowed Lewis to dominate the league for nearly two decades.
A brief snapshot from the 49ers' divisional playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers shows Willis at his best. In the screenshot below, the Packers are setting up to run against San Francisco's nickel front.
Willis (52) is circled. His knack for quickly diagnosing plays and elite athleticism allows the 49ers to repel the run, even from an undermanned front. The image below shows how he does it.
The Packers have set up a trap play and attempted to have the center kick out to block Willis. However, Willis reads the flow of the run and the blocking scheme.
He is simply too quick for the center's block and flies to the ball-carrier. This screenshot shows Willis closing in to make the tackle in brutal fashion for a minimal gain.
At his best, Lewis was a dominant force. He exuded an aura that challenged offenses to get the better of him every play.
Willis is in that same mold. Any offense facing the 49ers has to first scheme ways to get around No. 52.
Both Bowman and Willis benefit from a system designed to set them free on every play. They are protected from blockers by a powerful defensive front and the right alignment. Whether he played in a 4-3 or 3-4, Lewis benefited from that same smart scheming.
The next linebacker on this list is a player Lewis knows very well. He is arguably the most complete linebacker in the league and the key player on its toughest defense.
Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley grab the headlines, but Lawrence Timmons is the Pittsburgh Steelers' best linebacker. Wily coordinator Dick LeBeau is lucky to have a player so versatile at his disposal.
The 26-year-old isn't merely a factor against the run, on the blitz and in coverage. He excels in every area. That makes him a true playmaker.
The play below, from Week 8's win over the Washington Redskins, shows one example of Timmons' flexibility.
Although he's listed as an inside linebacker, Timmons offers elite outside pass-rush skills. This allows the Steelers to move him to edges, shown in the blue circle.
When in a blitz alignment, Timmons has the speed and power to wreck offensive plays at their source. He is quick enough to take the kind of wide rush path, as demonstrated in this screenshot.
Timmons is athletic enough to prevent even a quarterback as fleet-footed as Robert Griffin III from escaping. The screenshot below shows him closing in on Griffin, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and delivering a vicious hit.
Timmons is the Steelers' best counter to the run and the underneath pass. He is also an invaluable asset in their pressure schemes.
That's the kind of complete skill set any successor to Lewis must possess. He set the benchmark for versatility at his position by recording 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions.
Lewis' natural successor might be a linebacker in the NFC West who offers the same all-around dynamism as Timmons.
Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals
Daryl Washington deserves more recognition than he gets. It's amazing that 134 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and nine sacks didn't earn him a Pro Bowl nod.
Washington is carving a niche as the kind of complete performer Lewis was for years. He boasts the same level of athleticism and physical dominance.
One of his nine sacks, from Week 7's loss to the Minnesota Vikings, shows Washington at his best.
Notice how Washington, shown in the yellow circle, is creeping up to the line, threatening blitz. His actions are dictating what the offense will do.
Washington is signalling his intent to blitz and is still athletic enough to quickly crash a single gap. This blitz path is shown below.
Once the ball is snapped, Washington showcases the pure speed and anticipation that defined Lewis in his prime. Notice below how fast he breaks through and gets to the quarterback.
Washington is so quick on this play that he beats the interior of Minnesota's line and the running back's block.
Washington is the true playmaker on the Cardinals' improving defense. Like Timmons and Lewis, the third-year pro can destroy offensive game plans in a variety of ways.
Also similar to Lewis in his early years, Washington needs more talent around him to help him hit his peak. Without that, the 26-year-old may come close but ultimately fail to emulate Lewis.
The final linebacker on this list is a dark horse who could surprise many in the next few years.
Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts
Former CFL standout Jerrell Freeman is an under-the-radar candidate to succeed Lewis. In his debut season, Freeman became the star of the Colts' new hybrid 3-4 defense.
He led the unit with 145 tackles and also made two sacks. Freeman also had an interception return for a score and forced a fumble.
Instinct marks Freeman's style. He excels at anticipating plays and attacks decisively once he reads the intentions of an offense. The play below, from the Colts' Week 14 win over the Tennessee Titans, is the perfect example.
Freeman is shown in the white circle. On this play, he is smart enough to adjust the defensive formation. He is waving the safety back to a deep coverage rotation.
This is the kind of intelligent directing of a defense Lewis displayed from day one of his pro career. Freeman then sets about diagnosing the Titans' play call.
The Titans are running a counter play designed to draw the defense inside and exploit any over-pursuit with a cutback. Notice how Freeman has initially moved toward the inside handoff.
Then he stops and has two possible pursuit lanes to attack. He instinctively suspects the Titans' intentions and reads the counter. The screenshot below reveals how Freeman destroyed this play.
He was the key player the Titans were hoping to force into over-pursuing to the inside. However, Freeman stayed smart and held his position. As a result, he was in the perfect spot to stuff this run for a short gain.
This play was typical of the ex-Saskatchewan Roughriders star's performances all season. Freeman has instantly become the quarterback of his defense. That's the same role Lewis performed his entire career.
Freeman will need to build on his impressive first campaign. He is in the right scheme, with the Colts tweaking their three-man front to keep him free from blockers. However, Freeman still needs to be consistent with his numbers to achieve elite status.
It will take a special player to succeed Lewis as the best linebacker of a generation. It could be too much to ask even for the players on this list.
Fortunately, the NFL boasts several fine linebackers. Keeping this list to five was no easy task.
If Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner can build on promising rookie years, they will belong in this conversation. The brilliant but brittle Dallas Cowboys duo of Bruce Carter and Sean Lee must stay healthy.
St. Louis Rams ace James Laurinaitis has handled plenty of responsibility and still produced since entering the league in 2009.
The linebacker who emerges to replace Lewis needs the right scheme to allow him to flourish. However, he must play with the intelligence and dynamism that Lewis made his trademarks during his 17 superb seasons.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.
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