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Top 10 linebackers of the decade

Peter King sits down with Panthers star LB Luke Kuechly to talk about old faces no longer at training camp, Cam Newton's health and more.

As the decade comes to a close, we’re creating some Top 10 lists for 2010 to 2019. Up next, our Top 10 linebackers.

1. Luke Kuechly: There aren’t convenient counting stats to appreciate how good he is at his job. Linebackers with large numbers of tackles sometimes play on defenses which can’t get off the field, giving them more opportunities to pile up stats which may or may not mean anything. But Kuechly defines the middle linebacker position in the modern game, with his combination of athleticism, preparation, and instincts. He has the ability to cover tight ends (like Rob Gronkowski), and play in the box. The 2013 defensive player of the year has been to seven Pro Bowls over the last decade.

2. Von Miller: Paired with DeMarcus Ware to lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl title, one of the truly special tandems the game has seen. His 105.0 sacks this decade are more than any player in the league over that span. He has just 7.0 this year heading into Week 17, and unless he gets three more against the Raiders, it would be just his second single-digit sack season. He also has 26 forced fumbles in his career, and remains one of the players opponents have to account for on every snap.

3. Chandler Jones: Only Miller has more sacks over the last 10 years than the Cardinals’ pass-rusher, whose 96.0 sacks are tied with J.J. Watt at the top of the list, when you start counting in 2010. He has 19.0 sacks and eight forced fumbles (so far) this year, and it’s not like he’s never put up numbers before. He had 17.0 sacks for the Cardinals in 2017. While he was always a good player with the Patriots (and had much more team success), he has blossomed into a playmaker during his time in the desert.

4. DeMarcus Ware: Much like Julius Peppers on the lineman list, Ware gets some credit because he achieved at such a high level for two decades. He was an All-Decade player in the 2000s for the Cowboys, and had 74.0 sacks from 2010 to 2016. He helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl, with their defense dragging along the husk of Peyton Manning. He finished his career with 138.5 sacks, which is eighth on the all-time list. Everyone ahead of him other than Peppers is already in the Hall, and those two will join quickly upon being eligible.

5. Clay Matthews: Matthews could have probably put up bigger numbers for himself, but he kept doing things that benefitted the Packers. A natural outside linebacker, he was often tasked with moving inside in Green Bay, showing the kind of versatility that not many players have. He still had 81.5 sacks this decade, and could still add to that total with the Rams.

6. Bobby Wagner: He’s been paired with Kuechly since they walked into the league together in 2012, and reasonable minds could argue about their relative standings on lists like this one. Wagner’s probably played with a better grade of talent around him, and was part of a Super Bowl champion with the Seahawks.

7. Ryan Kerrigan: His inclusion above better-known players might raise some eyebrows. But the numbers alone make a strong case for the Washington pass-rusher. He has 90.0 sacks this decade, and only Miller, Jones, J.J. Watt, and Cameron Wake have more over that span. It’s a shame his talents are wasted playing for one of the league’s truly dysfunctional franchises, which has only played in two playoff games (losing both) and finished above .500 three times in a decade. His team’s a mess, but he’s very good.

8. Navorro Bowman: Was a four-time All-Pro, and part of one of the great defenses of the decade. He got caught in a regime change in San Francisco that saw him exiled to Oakland, but when he was well, he was one of the best players at his position.

9. Khalil Mack: Believe it or not, there was a team recently which decided they couldn’t use this guy. All he’s done in his career is collect 61.5 sacks and 20 forced fumbles in six seasons, and the Bears are glad to have him. He’s still adding to those numbers, and should for years as part of a Bears defense which is built around him.

10. Patrick Willis: Like his old 49ers teammate Bowman, Willis would be much higher on this list if not for injuries. He also suffered for timing, as he played just four full seasons this decade. But over the course of his career, he was a six-time All Pro seelction, who covered all the ground. He was Kuechly, maybe better, but with worse luck.