The Best Linebackers of All-Time
February 24, 2010 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
I know how you feel. You're going through football withdrawal. The Super Bowl was only two weeks ago, but it feels like two months. It was a pretty good game, but it left you wanting more. I've got more for you.
It's 2010 now, a time for reflection. People are considering all-decade teams and reflecting on the game's history. Most of this era's great linebackers are nearing the ends of their careers. Derrick Brooks and Zach Thomas didn't play last season. Junior Seau, defense's answer to Brett Favre, will stay retired eventually. Brian Urlacher, now 31, missed the whole season with an injury. Ray Lewis can't keep things up forever. Where do these players rank in history?
Here's my list of the 30 greatest linebackers of all time. I didn't distinguish between inside linebackers and outside linebackers, so you'll find both on the list below. There are fine players who didn't make my list: Maxie Baughan, Bill Bergey, Sam Mills, Les Richter, Dave Robinson, etc. There just wasn't room. Particularly tough to cut were several active players who could easily make this list a year or two from now: Lance Briggs, Keith Bulluck, James Farrior, London Fletcher, and DeMarcus Ware. You also won't find two-way players like George Connor or Bulldog Turner on this list. I didn't see them play, and it's very hard to judge their defensive contributions separately from what they did on offense. But let's get started: the best LBs in NFL history.
30. Sam Huff
1956-69, New York Giants, Washington Redskins
Sam Huff was the first superstar middle linebacker. He may have been the first middle linebacker, period, in Steve Owen's revolutionary 'Umbrella' defense, but there is no denying his stardom. He was the subject of a television special (The Violent World of Sam Huff) and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Playing in New York when the Giants were a great team, Huff was bound to attract some attention, but it was not undeserved. Huff intercepted 30 passes during his career, one of only six linebackers to do so.
29. Andre Tippett
1982-93, New England Patriots
Andre Tippett had the misfortune to play at the same time as Lawrence Taylor. Everything Tippett did well, Taylor did a little better. It wasn't just LT, either. When Tippett had 18.5 sacks in 1984, he didn't win Defensive Player of the Year because DB Kenny Easley had his best season. The next year, Tippett recorded 16.5 sacks, but Mike Singletary won DPOY for leading Chicago to a 15-1 record, and Singletary's Bears beat Tippett's Patriots in that year's Super Bowl . His star may never have shone as brightly as those of his more celebrated peers, but Tippett was one of the most feared pass rushers of his era and was chosen to the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1980s. He made 5 Pro Bowls and retired with 100 sacks, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
28. Joe Fortunato
1956-66, Chicago Bears
Inside linebackers have always gotten more attention than outside linebackers. This was especially true when Fortunato played, and he played alongside two of the greatest middle linebackers in history, Bill George and Dick Butkus. Despite being overshadowed by his famous teammates, Fortunato earned the respect of opponents throughout the league. Fortunato is one of the few eligible players on this list not to have a bust in the Hall of Fame, but his résumé compares favorably to Huff's. Both made the All-Decade Team of the 1950s, and both appeared in five Pro Bowls, but Fortunato was first-team all-pro three times to Huff's twice. He retired as the all-time leading linebacker in fumble recoveries (22).
27. Rickey Jackson
1981-95, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers
What was the greatest OLB tandem in history? It could be Jack Ham and Andy Russell on the Steel Curtain, or Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd for the '90s Steelers. Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks in New York? Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch for the Chiefs? Maybe even Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest for the Bill Belichick Patriots. Put me down for Ham and Russell, but my second choice is Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling with the Saints. Together, they made a combined 11 Pro Bowls, 243.5 sacks, and 76 forced fumbles. Jackson didn't share his contemporary Tippett's reputation, but he made more Pro Bowls and had more sacks. Unlike Tippett, Jackson also had some coverage responsibilities, intercepting 8 passes during his career. Among LBs, Jackson is the all-time leader in fumble recoveries (29) and second all-time in fumbles forced (40).
26. Harry Carson
1976-88, New York Giants
A converted defensive lineman, Carson brought an extremely physical style to the inside linebacker position. If I have a reservation about including him and Jackson on this list, it's that neither was ever a first-team all-pro on the Associated Press team. On the other hand, Carson did qualify for nine Pro Bowls. That exemplifies Carson's career, which was less about the spectacular and more about doing what needed to be done. He wasn't a big-play guy, with only 8 official sacks and 11 interceptions in his career. He wasn't the biggest defensive star on his own team, playing next to Lawrence Taylor. Carson was, however, a big-game player, and he always seemed to make a play when the Giants needed one.
25. Brian Urlacher
2000-09, Chicago Bears
The hardest selection on the list. It's always difficult to evaluate active players, and Urlacher has only played nine seasons in the NFL (not counting the '09 campaign, which he missed on injured reserve). Urlacher was madly overhyped early in his career, and in some ways, he doesn't really stand out from contemporaries like Farrior, Fletcher, and Keith Brooking. What ultimately sets Urlacher apart is the big play. He's extremely quick, and that speed facilitates impact plays. Among active ILBs, only Ray Lewis has more sacks than Urlacher, and only Lewis has more interceptions. Urlacher makes the plays that turn games, and he's been the centerpiece of Chicago's defense all decade.
24. Derrick Thomas
1989-99, Kansas City Chiefs
At his best, Derrick Thomas was unblockable. His speed coming off the edge was startling. Only four times since the sack became an official statistic has anyone recorded 6 sacks in a single game. Two of those four are credited to Thomas, including the record, 7 against the Seahawks in 1990. Thomas was a one-dimensional player, yes, but he was the most feared pass rusher of his era. During his career, he was Defensive Rookie of the Year, a nine-time Pro Bowler, and a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team.
23. Robert Brazile
1975-84, Houston Oilers
In his first season, Robert Brazile recovered 5 fumbles and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. The next year, he made the first of seven consecutive Pro Bowls. Dr. Doom was a talented, versatile player, but more than anything, he excelled at rushing the passer. Sacks did not become an official statistic until 1982, when Brazile, a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team, was almost done with his career, but he was one of the first great pass-rushing linebackers. Derrick Thomas was almost a mirror image of Brazile. Thomas was a superior pass rusher, but Brazile was much better at pass coverage and at stopping the run. Both won DROY, they made about the same number of Pro Bowls and all-pro teams, and both were selected to All-Decade Teams.
22. Chris Hanburger
1965-78, Washington Redskins
There are 12 linebackers who have made 9 or more Pro Bowls: Maxie Baughan, Bobby Bell, Derrick Brooks, Harry Carson, Chris Hanburger, Jack Lambert, Ray Lewis, Joe Schmidt, Junior Seau, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, and Derrick Thomas. All except Baughan and Hanburger are in the Hall of Fame or not yet eligible. Hanburger's résumé compares favorably to those of his more celebrated contemporaries Dave Wilcox and Chuck Howley. Hanburger was small for a linebacker, a 218-pound shrimp drafted in the 18th round, but he was quick and very smart, George Allen's defensive captain for the Over-the-Hill Gang. Hanburger was also a threat with the ball in his hands, scoring 5 touchdowns and averaging 18.3 yards on INT returns.
21. Randy Gradishar
1974-83, Denver Broncos
A rare Hall of Fame snub who played inside linebacker, Gradishar was a seven-time Pro Bowler and the heart of Denver's Orange Crush Defense. A devastating hitter, he made the Pro Bowl both as a 4-3 middle linebacker and a 3-4 inside linebacker. Official tackle statistics were not kept during Gradishar's career, but he consistently ranked at or near the top of the league, and was the 1978 Defensive Player of the Year.
20. Kevin Greene
1985-99, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers
Derrick Thomas had high-impact games, and his premature death attracted a lot of sympathy, but there's no good reason he should have gone to Canton before Kevin Greene. Both were sack specialists, pass rushers almost exclusively. But Greene had more sacks (160.0) than Thomas (126.5). In fact, he is the all-time leader in LB sacks, by a wide margin. He had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks, and in 2004, Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, named Greene the second-best pass-rushing LB in history, behind only Lawrence Taylor. Greene is the only LB to lead the NFL in sacks more than once. He recovered 26 fumbles and intercepted 5 passes during his career.
19. Ray Nitschke
1958-72, Green Bay Packers
Here's something odd: Ray Nitschke only made one Pro Bowl, by far the fewest on this list. No other LB listed here earned fewer than five. And yet, no one questions that Nitschke was an all-time great. He started for five championship-winning teams, made the 1960s All-Decade Team, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1978. He had all the qualities you want in a middle linebacker. He was tough, a ferocious hitter. He was quick to the ball, an instinctive tackler, and a superb pass defender. He was also a leader and a big-game player, the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The man even looked like a linebacker.
18. Nick Buoniconti
1962-76, Boston Patriots, Miami Dolphins
The greatest middle linebacker in AFL history, Buoniconti made six AFL All-Star Games, five all-AFL teams, and the AFL All-Time Team. After the NFL-AFL merger, Buoniconti played in two Pro Bowls and three Super Bowls. He is the only player from Miami's famous No-Name Defense enshrined in Canton, the unquestioned standout player on a great defensive unit. During Buoniconti's time in Miami, the Dolphins ranked in the top 10 in points allowed every year except his final season, when he was 36 and only a part-time player. Buoniconti was an undersized linebacker (220 lbs.) who was especially effective in pass defense, with 32 career interceptions, third-most of any LB.
17. Chuck Howley
1958-72, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have had several great linebackers over their 50-year history, including Lee Roy Jordan and DeMarcus Ware. For now, though, the best LB in franchise history is clearly Howley. He made six Pro Bowls and five consecutive all-pro teams. Twice, he had over 100 yards in interception returns, joining Willie Lanier as the only LBs ever to do so. Howley also joins Ray Lewis as the only LBs ever to win Super Bowl MVP.
16. Dave Wilcox
1964-74, San Francisco 49ers
Former Rams QB Roman Gabriel once said that Wilcox "plays outside linebacker like Dick Butkus plays middle linebacker." Wilcox's reputation is as the hardest LB in history to block. The man gave tight ends fits. In 1999, Dr. Z chose Wilcox as one of four OLBs for his all-century team. Wilcox played just 11 seasons, but he was elected to seven Pro Bowls and missed only one game during his career.
15. Zach Thomas
1996-2008, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys
For many years, it was a legitimate question whether Ray Lewis or Zach Thomas was a better linebacker. Following the 2006 season, both had been first-team all-pro five times, and Lewis had been to eight Pro Bowls, Thomas seven. Basically equal. Thomas was that rare player who never seemed to make mistakes. He was a sound tackler and an opportunistic defender, with 4 interception returns for touchdowns.
14. Chuck Bednarik
1949-62, Philadelphia Eagles
I know I said I wasn't including two-way players. I'm making an exception for Bednarik. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Bednarik was a devastatingly effective tackler, known for two of the most famous hits in NFL history. Both came in 1960, when a 35-year-old Bednarik was putting in a full day as a center on offense and a linebacker on defense. Near the end of a critical game against the Giants, Bednarik hit Frank Gifford so hard that teammates thought Bednarik had killed him. It was a clean hit, but Gifford missed the rest of the season and all of the next one. In the 1960 Championship Game, Bednarik made the game-saving tackle, stopping Hall of Famer Jim Taylor and securing a victory for the underdog Eagles.
13. Bill George
1952-66, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams
Sometimes credited with inventing the position of middle linebacker, George was all-pro as both a middle guard (the equivalent of a nose tackle on a five-man line) and an MLB. He made eight Pro Bowls, eight all-pro teams, and the 1950s All-Decade Team. In his final all-pro season, George, Fortunato, and Doug Atkins led one of the great defenses in league history. The 1963 Bears led the NFL in points allowed (by a huge margin of 4.4 per game), yards allowed (31.4 ypg better than Vince Lombardi's Packers), rushing yards allowed, yards per carry allowed, passing yards allowed, interceptions, and opponent's passer rating. They ultimately won the NFL Championship Game, intercepting Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle 5 times in a 14-10 victory.
12. Joe Schmidt
1953-65, Detroit Lions
Schmidt stood out in an era of great middle linebackers. Of the five LBs chosen to the 1950s All-Decade Team — the others were Bednarik, Fortunato, George, and Huff — Schmidt made the most Pro Bowls (nine) and the most all-pro teams (seven first-team, nine altogether). He played on two championship teams and had a particular knack for turnovers. Four times Schmidt had at least 4 turnovers in a season, including 8 fumble recoveries in 1955, a 12-game season record.
11. Willie Lanier
1967-77, Kansas City Chiefs
When professional football was re-integrated in the 1940s, it didn't take long to accept black running backs or DBs. Three positions took longer: quarterback, center, and middle linebacker. Lanier quickly showed that skin color didn't determine who could lead a defense. He was selected to eight straight all-star games, including the first six AFC/NFC Pro Bowls. Lanier is one of seven LBs in history with at least 400 interceptions return yards, and one of two inside linebackers on Dr. Z's All-Century Team.
It kills me not to have Schmidt and Lanier in the top 10. I swear there are 12 top-10 LBs.
10. Bobby Bell
1963-74 Kansas City Chiefs
Bell was a phenomenal athlete who probably could have played any position. He was an all-state quarterback in high school, an Outland Trophy-winning tackle in college, and a defensive end and long snapper with the Chiefs. In 1969, he returned an onside kick for a 53-yard touchdown. No one ever doubted the strength of this former lineman, but it was his speed that set Bell apart. He ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, which is still fast enough to play linebacker in today's game. In the '60s, it was fast enough to play wide receiver or defensive back. Bell ranks second all-time among LBs in interception return yards and tied for first in INT return TDs. He made nine Pro Bowls or AFL All-Star Games and was selected to both the AFL All-Time Team (1960s) and the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s. Bell leads all LBs in non-offensive TDs, with eight scores on INT or fumble returns.
9. Ted Hendricks
1969-83, Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
Ted Hendricks was an unusual guy. His odd appearance (6'7", 220 lbs) earned the nickname "The Mad Stork", and his personality was no less uncommon. He showed up for practice wearing a helmet carved from a pumpkin or riding a horse, relaxed by solving complex math problems. Hendricks was also unusual in his capacity for making big plays. He intercepted 26 passes and compiled over 300 yards in INT returns. He recorded 4 safeties and 25 blocked kicks, both records. He made eight Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Decade in both the '70s and the '80s. Hendricks played on four Super Bowl-winning teams and ended his career on a streak of 215 consecutive games.
8. Jack Lambert
1974-84 Pittsburgh Steelers
An early Ray Lewis, Lambert was first and foremost a playmaker. At just 220 lbs, he was undersized for a linebacker, but also unusually quick. With the exception of 1984, when he suffered a career-ending injury halfway through the season, Lambert had at least one interception every year of his career, retiring with 28, top-10 all-time among LBs. Teammate Jack Ham said that what set Lambert apart was his ability to play the pass, but it is for his take-no-prisoners attitude and ruthless hitting that Lambert is best remembered. Over his career, Lambert was 1974 Defensive Rookie of the Year, 1976 Defensive Player of the Year, 1983 Defensive Player of the Year (Newspaper Enterprise Association), a nine-time Pro Bowler, and a member of the All-Decade Teams for both the 1970s and the 1980s.
7. Junior Seau
1990-2009, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
A star who could play both inside and outside linebacker, Seau holds the record for most Pro Bowls (12) of any LB in history. A legendary conditioning freak, Seau this year became the oldest linebacker in NFL history, with the season ending just before his 41st birthday. Strength and athleticism were Seau's trademarks, and fans should remember the unstoppable Seau who was all over the field in the '90s, not the aging star who's merely good enough to play. Seau was first-team all-pro six times and a starter on the 1990s All-Decade Team.
6. Derrick Brooks
1995-2008, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I don't like rating recent players. There's a reason the Hall of Fame has a five-year waiting period, and a few years from now I might flip Brooks with Seau, Hendricks, and Bell. Here's what I do know: Brooks made 11 Pro Bowls and nine all-pro squads (five first-team). He was named to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s, and wouldn't have been a crazy choice for the '90s. His 2002 season is among the best ever: 5 interceptions for 218 yards — a record for linebackers — with 4 defensive touchdowns (also a record) and a team-leading 117 tackles (87 solo) for the Super Bowl champions. Brooks holds the career record for INT return yards by a linebacker, and is tied with Bobby Bell for INT TDs.
5. Jack Ham
1971-82 Pittsburgh Steelers
This list is full of smart players; I would venture to say there's not a stupid one among them. Picking out the smartest, though, I would immediately suggest Ham. His ability to diagnose plays was unparalleled, and he was probably the greatest pass defender of any LB in history. Ham secured his spot in Pittsburgh's starting lineup with three picks in the last preseason game of his rookie year. During his career, Ham accounted for an amazing 53 turnovers (32 INT, 21 FR), the most of any LB in history. Ham won four Super Bowl rings, was first-team all-pro for six straight seasons, and was chosen to eight Pro Bowls and the 1970s All-Decade Team.
4. Mike Singletary
1981-92 Chicago Bears
Few players at any position compiled more honors than Mike Singletary. He made 10 Pro Bowls and eight all-pro squads (seven first-team). He was a two-time DPOY (1985 and 1988) and the starting MLB for the 1980s All-Decade Team. Singletary was consistently among the leading tacklers in the league, and in 1985 he led arguably the greatest defense in history, earning the league's top defensive honor and contributing two fumble recoveries in Chicago's blowout Super Bowl XX victory.
3. Ray Lewis
1996-present, Baltimore Ravens
There is nothing Ray Lewis doesn't do well. He's a solid tackler, a threatening blitzer, quick sideline-to-sideline, and a wizard in coverage. More than anything it is Lewis' instincts as a pass defender that set him apart from peers like Zach Thomas and James Farrior. Lewis has a knack for being where the ball is; his ability to read offenses, combined with an instinctive sense for where the play is going and his remarkable quickness, make him the greatest playmaker at ILB at least since Lambert, maybe since Dick Butkus. Lewis is one of only four players since 1982 with at least 25 sacks and 25 interceptions. He ranks third all-time in INT return yards by a linebacker. Over his career, Lewis has racked up an obscene number of honors: 11 Pro Bowls, nine all-pro selections (seven first-team), two DPOY Awards (2000 and 2003), an all-decade selection, and the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.
2. Dick Butkus
1965-73 Chicago Bears
Some people will think it's sacrilege not to have Butkus at the top. He was probably the most feared player in history, a one-man wrecking crew who had unprecedented impact even without good teammates to protect him. Butkus suffered a knee injury in 1970 and was out of football after only nine seasons. In those nine years, though, he qualified for eight Pro Bowls and two All-Decade Teams. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons before the knee injury. Butkus is remembered primarily for his devastating hits on opponents, but he was also a wizard in pass coverage, with a relentless drive for the ball. As a rookie, he created 11 turnovers (5 INT, 6 FR), retiring with a total of 47, then a record for LBs.
1. Lawrence Taylor
1981-93 New York Giants
No linebacker in history has had so much impact. In his first season, Taylor was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowler, first-team all-pro, and Defensive Player of the Year. He was chosen to 10 Pro Bowls and 10 all-pro teams, including a record eight first-team selections. He is the only player to win Defensive Player of the Year three times, he is one of only two defensive players to be named NFL MVP, and he was the only defensive player unanimously chosen to the 1980s All-Decade Team. Taylor was the first of his kind, maybe the only of his kind, a uniquely disruptive force on defense. He effectively created a new position — rush linebacker — and dictated formation and strategy to opponents. Because he was so devastating a pass rusher, Taylor was almost never used in pass coverage, but he was such an incredible athlete and playmaker that he still pulled in 9 career interceptions, including one that he returned 97 yards for a touchdown in 1982. Taylor holds the LB record with 7 consecutive seasons of double-digit sacks. He was the most devastating, the best linebacker ever to play.
* * *
It's horrible making a list like this and having to leave off so many great players. I couldn't do it. My top 100 modern-era LBs, in alphabetical order:
Jessie Armstead, Maxie Baughan, Chuck Bednarik, Bobby Bell, Cornelius Bennett, Bill Bergey, Matt Blair, Robert Brazile, Lance Briggs, Keith Brooking, Derrick Brooks, Chad Brown, Hardy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Keith Bulluck, Nick Buoniconti, Dick Butkus, Fred Carr, Harry Carson, Monte Coleman, Dan Conners, Bryan Cox, Mike Curtis, Chuck Drazenovich, Donnie Edwards, James Farrior, London Fletcher, Bill Forester, Joe Fortunato, Bill George, Jason Gildon, Randy Gradishar, Larry Grantham, Kevin Greene, Jack Ham, Chris Hanburger, Ted Hendricks, Jim Houston, Chuck Howley, Sam Huff, Rickey Jackson, Tom Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Lee Roy Jordan, Seth Joyner, Levon Kirkland, Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, Mo Lewis, Ray Lewis, Greg Lloyd, Wilber Marshall, Rod Martin, Clay Matthews, Willie McGinest, Karl Mecklenburg, Mike Merriweather, Walt Michaels, Sam Mills, Steve Nelson, Hardy Nickerson, Ray Nitschke, Tommy Nobis, Ken Norton, John Offerdahl, Jack Pardee, Julian Peterson, Joey Porter, Jack Reynolds, Les Richter, Isiah Robertson, Dave Robinson, Andy Russell, Joe Schmidt, Junior Seau, Jeff Siemon, Mike Singletary, Chris Spielman, Takeo Spikes, Mike Stratton, Pat Swilling, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, William Thomas, Zach Thomas, Andre Tippett, Lavern Torgeson, Jessie Tuggle, Brian Urlacher, Brad Van Pelt, Phil Villapiano, Mike Vrabel, Wayne Walker, DeMarcus Ware, George Webster, Stan White, Dave Wilcox, Reggie Williams, Al Wilson, Roger Zatkoff
There are only eight outside linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. OLBs make up 9% of a starting lineup, and about 3% of all HOFers.