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3) NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers: Despite suffering a devastating knee injury in the NFC Championship Game that could sideline him until the middle of the 2014 season, Bowman demands inclusion here. Prior to the injury, he arguably had surpassed Patrick Willis as the premier player on the 49ers' defense after totaling 145 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2013. Bowman displayed outstanding instincts, awareness and physicality supporting the run, yet he was agile enough to stick with tight ends and running backs down the seam. He also showcased fantastic diagnostic skills in breaking down routes, which is why he was routinely in position to snag interceptions off tips and overthrows. Bowman's recovery obviously looms large, but it's hard to bet against this 26-year-old with three straight first-team All-Pro nods to his name.
2) Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers: With five first-team All-Pro notches on his belt, Willis has been a marquee player at the position since stepping into the league in 2007. Possessing exceptional speed, quickness and burst as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, he has racked up 100-plus tackles in six of his seven NFL seasons. This is a punishing tackler with a knack for delivering teeth-rattling shots to runners in the hole. Although Willis seemingly has lost a step in coverage, he remains an effective player on passing downs due to his superb instincts and recognition. The 49ers also use him on a variety of A-gap blitzes designed to take advantage of his aggressiveness as a rusher (... while masking some of his growing shortcomings in coverage). With Bowman rehabbing from serious injury, Willis gets a slight nod over his linebacking cohort.
1) Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers: The 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year is the NFL's premier inside linebacker, with back-to-back seasons of 150-plus tackles to open up his professional career. Kuechly is starting to redefine the position with his remarkable instincts, non-stop motor and penchant for playmaking in the middle. Although his spectacular tackling production leads some observers to view him primarily as a run stopper, it is his standout skills in pass coverage that separate him from the rest of the pack. Kuechly has a terrific feel for reading routes and anticipating throws, as evidenced by his six picks and 15 passes defensed in 32 career games. Given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, Kuechly's terrific ballhawking skills help make him the new standard-bearer at the position.
[ Edited by frankie on Jul 19, 2014 at 7:25 AM ]