San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.
All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.
Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.
"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."
Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.
Ranking the Linebackers
1. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
2. James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers
3. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
4. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
5. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
6. Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots
7. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears
8. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
9. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
9. Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers