Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/22/12
The average NFL fan is aware of some of the best players in the league, such as Ray Lewis, Tom Brady, and Adrian Peterson. Not all, but some of these better players were greatly successful for only a few years. Injuries, age, and personal setbacks derail the careers of some of football's finest icons. Nevertheless, many of them remain atop the fan pyramid, if only because of name and pedigree. What the average NFL fan may not know, however, are those players who are successful in their own right somehow remain unnoticed and unpopular amongst the NFL family. There are many reasons for this ignorance: some play on a bad team in a poor market, some were not first-round Draft picks, and some don't have the flashy, eye-popping statistics. In any event, these players are not as visible. Therefore, I will analyze the top five most underrated inside linebackers in the NFL today.

No. 5. London Fletcher, Washington Redskins

London Fletcher (or Fletcher-Baker, as some know him), is one of the most productive linebackers of the past 15 years. As a matter of fact, Fletcher has more stops than any other player in that time span, totaling an unprecedented 1,782 tackles in his career. Upon seeing that, one would guess that Fletcher is a household name, and therefore should not be included in this discussion. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. Other linebackers have instead become the icons for hard-hitting, manic defensive leaders. Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens has become the model for inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense. Similarly, the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher is the poster child for the standard 4-3 middle linebacker, or MIKE. In contrast, London Fletcher has played for three poor teams, and has never gotten his due respect, regardless of statistics and incredible play. He also has experience in both base defenses.

The 36-year-old Fletcher went undrafted in 1998 out of Division III John Carroll University and signed with the St. Louis Rams. He appeared in all 16 regular season games and won the Rams' Rookie of the Year Award. The following year, Fletcher won the starting middle linebacker spot, and eventually lead the team in tackles at the end of the regular season with 138. He also was the starting middle linebacker in the Rams' Super Bowl XXXIV victory. After losing to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, Fletcher signed with the Buffalo Bills, where he played for an awful stretch of teams from 2002 to 2006.  The Bills never finished higher than third in the AFC East standings during his five-year stay. However, Fletcher still accumulated more than 130 tackles in each season, and never missed a game.

Following the 2006 season, the 14-year NFL veteran signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Washington Redskins. Once again, Fletcher dominated the tackles column and continued his incredible health streak. He has recorded 125 tackles or more in his five seasons, and has never missed a game. In fact, Fletcher has never missed an NFL game in his entire career. Are you kidding me? In today's game, it seems as if every player misses some time with injury...except for Fletcher, of course. It's an amazing feat that might never be accomplished again. Not to mention his fourteen consecutive years of 100 or more tackles. He also has 34 career sacks and 18 career interceptions. The most amazing aspect of it all, perhaps, is his career-high and league-best 166 tackles for the 2011 regular season. Did I mention he is 36-years-old and 5-foot-10, 245 pounds? 

London Fletcher was a Pro Bowl alternate eight times before finally earning his first berth following the 2009 regular season. It was his 12th NFL season. He has now made the Pro Bowl the last three years, but then again, justice will never be served. The travesty that is the lack of recognition for London Fletcher must be noticed around the league. It should not have taken 12 years for him to earn his bid. That is clear and obvious. At the same time, it's certainly not far-fetched to include him with future Hall of Famers Lewis and Urlacher in a discussion of some of the best inside linebackers in recent history. His play speaks for itself. Three years ago, he is No. 1 on this list. Ultimately, three Pro Bowls and increased visibility have pegged him down four spots. Nevertheless, his productive play at an old age leaves everyone wondering when he'll hang up the cleats.

No. 4. Nick Barnett, Buffalo Bills

Nick Barnett may have been ousted from the Green Bay Packers organization in early 2011, but the Buffalo Bills could not have been happier that it turned out that way. Barnett was drafted by the Packers with the 29th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft . A first-team All-PAC 10 selection at Oregon State University, Barnett primarily played outside linebacker in his collegiate tenure. However, the Packers shifted him to the middle of their 4-3 base defense. The move paid off; he immediately started 15 regular season games and recorded 112 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 interceptions. In his next four years, Barnett spearheaded the Packers' defense, proving to be a tackle machine. Then come the injuries.

In 2008, Nick Barnett played in only nine games before suffering a torn knee ligament that landed him on injured reserve. Then, in 2010, Barnett missed the Super Bowl season, playing in only four games due to a season-ending wrist injury. The Packers, with young, prosperous linebacker Desmond Bishop, and teammate A.J. Hawk, decided to part ways with the 30-year-old veteran. He was their leader for eight years, the face of their defense, and three years into a six-year contract extension worth $34.85 million. However, it's business as usual in Wisconsin.

In April 2011, Nick Barnett signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Buffalo Bills. This proved to be one of the biggest steals of the post-lockout free agency bonanza. Barnett brought his leadership and intelligence to the Bills' defense, and successfully learned their version of the 3-4. Even though they ranked 26th in the NFL in total defense, Barnett arguably had the best individual season of his career. He totaled 130 tackles, 3 sacks and 3 interceptions, including one for a touchdown. I guess sometimes change really is a good thing. He's got his ring. Now he's starting a new chapter. On another note, he failed to make the Pro Bowl for an ninth consecutive time. For a guy who's been as successful as him, he's never been mentioned with the elite. Next season he'll be 31-years-old, so hopefully the Buffalo Bills can get a couple or more great campaigns out of him.

No. 3. David Harris, New York Jets

David Harris was a stud at Michigan University during some of their glory years in the mid-2000's. He played with current Pittsburgh Steelers' star LaMarr Woodley on a loaded Wolverine defense. In my opinion, Harris is a do-it-all type linebacker. That is why it was hard to imagine him falling into the hands of the New York Jets and their 47th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. Harris actually ran a 4.59 at the combine and is listed at 6'2'' 250. He's a very good athlete. It didn't make any sense.

Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma ended the 2007 regular season on the I.R., giving David Harris nine starts in 16 appearances. He totaled 127 tackles, 5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles on the season, earning him various All-Rookie honors. In the off-season, the Jets traded Vilma to the New Orleans Saints, and Harris was named a starting inside linebacker for the 2008 season. Since then, Harris has only gotten better. While his stats may not be as tell-tale as someone like London Fletcher's, his multidimensional game is no secret. He makes the big play too. Most importantly, he's been the leader of a heralded defense for the past four years. The Jets have placed first, third, and fifth in total defense in the last three years, respectively. Davis Harris has been a big reason for this.

This year, in particular, the Jets needed him more than ever. Bart Scott looked old and clearly lost a step. The offense went three-and-out often. The pass rush was suspect at best. Harris did all he could to make up for these deficiencies, and recorded 5 sacks and 4 interceptions! He was all over the field this year. The good news for the Jets is that at 28 years old, Harris is in the prime of his career, and should continue to provide consistent play and unquestionable leadership for the foreseeable future. Hopefully he'll earn that first Pro Bowl because he deserves it.

No. 2. D.J. Williams, Denver Broncos

D.J. Williams was a highly touted outside linebacker from the "The U" or the University of Miami. He played with fellow NFL stars Jonathan Vilma and Antrel Rolle, to name just a few. He also won a National Championship in 2002, and was a two-time All-Big East performer. The Denver Broncos decided to make Williams the 17th overall pick of the 2004 NFL Draft. He then had a very successful rookie campaign, losing the AP Defensive Rookie of Year Award to his former teammate, Vilma. He finished his rookie year with 114 tackles, 2 sacks and 1 interception. Williams would remain a force for the next seven years. His career-high 141 tackles in 2007 was among the league leaders, but still no league recognition or Pro Bowl nod.

A DUI in November of 2010 resulted in the suspension of his captaincy for the rest of the season. He has yet to regain it, but his leadership should not be overlooked. He has remained the leader of a porous, post-Elway Broncos' defense for eight seasons. He's tough, smart, and very athletic. He's played both inside and outside, 3-4 or 4-3. Williams is the prototypical linebacker. Hopefully people are aware of him after another solid season in which an early year injury limited him to 13 regular season games. He still managed to record 90 tackles, 5 sacks  and 2 forced fumbles in that many games. I'd say that's pretty darn good. He's a pretty darn good hitter as well; a thunder stick.

D.J. Williams will have the chance to continue his progression as a player with rookie sensation Von Miller teaming up with him in the linebacking corps. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil takes a lot of pressure off. There's a lot of good pieces in place, and at 29-years-old, Williams is still in the prime of his career; that is, as long as he stays healthy. In any event, Williams has never been recognized or respected like other great linebackers, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him go off in his ninth year, vying for that first Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection.

No. 1. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

Has anyone seen this man close on the ball carrier? I sometimes swear there is no faster linebacker than Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs. In any case, he's one of the most exciting defensive players in football. A personal favorite, this former 15th overall pick out of Texas University was slated to be the starting weakside linebacker in the Chiefs' base 4-3 defense in 2005. Coming off a second consecutive All-American season, the Butkus and Nagurski award winner clocked in at a blazing 4.52 at the combine. There was no reason for the Chiefs to pass on this phenomenal athlete: a 6-foot-4, 245 pound specimen.

The first four years of Johnson's career consisted of the occasional highlight hit or incredible play. Although a force when he wanted to be, Johnson had a knack for taking a play off. His best season of the pre-Todd Haley era was 2007, where he recorded 94 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. Once Haley took over, Johnson found himself in the dog house. His inconsistent play and blatant difficulty in learning the newly installed 3-4 base defense cost him a bench spot for most of the season, and he started only 3 games despite some fantastic plays. It seemed as if the "bust" label was only inches away. Then along came defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Derrick Johnson managed to grasp the 3-4 defense once Crennel got on board. Crennel has many years of experience in working with young, versatile linebackers, such as Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest of the Patriots. Johnson and Crennel clearly hit it off, as Johnson's play and production have both improved in the past two seasons. Finally comfortable playing inside in the 3-4, Johnson totaled 121 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception and 4 forced fumbles in 2010. He also had a highlight reel of hits and a defensive touchdown. However, Johnson got even better this year. In his second full year under Crennel's dictation, Johnson blossomed into the havoc creator many knew was in him. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth and was named First-Team All-Pro following a 131 tackle, 2 sack and 2 interception year. He also ended Bears' running back Matt Forte's season with a bone-crushing tackle.

Derrick Johnson is solely 29-years-old. His full potential, although very high, hasn't yet been achieved. He is still in the prime of his career, and is only getting better. What makes Johnson so special is is athleticism. Fewer players close on a ball carrier like he does, absolutely driving through the runner or smashing them awkwardly. Talk about closing speed. He’s like a thunderbolt when he hits the right angle. He can also harass and sack the passer. Therefore, with a young, promising team and overall defense, I expect Johnson to do even better next year, and fully erase his name from the "most underrated" list. However, only time will tell.

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