Top 20 Linebackers in NFL History
Top 20 Linebackers in NFL History
The linebacker position presents a couple of conflicting elements when deciding whether to value current players more than those of yesteryear. With the quarterback position, I like to lean towards more current players in "Best of All Time" lists because of the evolution of the passing game and the increased weight placed on quarterbacks this millenium. The linebacker positions presents a far different range of issues, however.
On the one hand, you have the "mean SOB" factor that translates to any era of the game. Making receivers and running backs fear going into the heart of the defense is a skill valued equally in any NFL era. Chuck Bednarik and Ray Lewis know what I'm talking about.
Then there's the increased sack numbers we see first with LT in the eighties, and then the more recent burst of edge rushers over the past decade. The proliferation of the 3-4 defense, along with increase of dominant edge-rushing 4-3 outside linebackers, also creates an interesting situation in the process of ranking in players amongst others in history: How much do we value 20 sacks from the linebacker position in today's game against an All-Pro selection back in 1955?
My goal here is to rank the top 20 running backs in NFL history based on how high their sustained ceiling reached, even if that is a couple of years — though playing at an elite level for longer certainly helps. Click on to see who made the cut and where.
20) Sam Huff
Huff gets the nod with a huge aid from his place in history. Back in the 1950s, the young linebacker helped define what the middle linebacker role would become, while playing the position as well as anyone.
19) Von Miller
Before you get too furious, I'll just point out that Miller is the least-seasoned player to make this list. Miller does make it because he's not only on pace to threaten the career sacks record, but remains one of the league's best run defenders.
18) Clay Matthews
The Matthews-Miller call was a tough one as both are absolute terrors against both pass and run, but I gave the nod to Matthews for having a couple more years of excellence under his belt. The Lombardi Trophy helps.
17) Willie Lanier
Lanier makes this list on the back of eight consecutive All-Pro selections in his time between the AFL and NFL. The extra push up this list came from a stellar performance in victory during Super Bowl IV.
16) Ray Nitschke
Nitschke is emblematic of the physicality and grit displayed by the perennial champion Vince Lombardi-coached teams during the 1960s. One of the most terrifying defensive presences of the NFL's formative years.
15) Terrell Suggs
It's difficult to argue against Suggs performing more in the role of a defensive end at times. I think he's played enough backer to make this list and his penchant for sacks at just the right times played a big factor — as did his incredible 2011 campaign that saw him dominate in every facet of the game.
14) Dick Butkus
The first surly Chicago Bears linebacker to make this list. This Hall of Famer set the tone for how intimidating an MLB could be.
13) Jack Ham
The "Steel Curtain" dynasty of the 1970s shines plenty of light on the dominance of Jack Lambert, but the other Jack in this all-time great linebacking core provided invaluable range and versatility at the OLB spot.
12) Ted Hendricks
Hendricks did more than be at the right place at the right time during his four Super Bowl wins between multiple teams. His four All-Pro selections and Hall of Fame induction show how critical of a role he played.
11) James Harrison
Unfortunately, it took a while until an NFL team — of course it ends up being the Pittsburgh Steelers — saw the value of this great 3-4 outside linebacker. His ability in coverage, rushing and run defense during his six years of prime starting experience hold up to almost anyone.
10) DeMarcus Ware
Ware deserves a top-10 spot for being the premier pass rusher of the past eight years. Don't look now, but the right-edge rusher has already slipped into the top 20 of the career sacks list.
9) Derrick Brooks
Brooks makes this lost not only on the back of a 2000s All-Decade selection, but also playing an integral role as outside backer in one of the greatest defenses ever assembled.
8) Jack Lambert
Lambert, in my mind, is the MVP of the "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s. It's hard to argue against any defense that was as dominant for an entire decade.
7) Chuck Bednarik
Even with some of his time spent on the offensive line, Bednarik maintained the energy to become a 10-time All-Pro from the linebacker spot in the 1950s and 1960s. A fearsome linebacker, even by today's standards.
6) Junior Seau
It's a shame and a tragedy that Seau was afflicted with brain complications following his career that led to his demise. However, his career will always remain a marvel with the the speed and motor he displayed in tracking down swift running backs and tight ends alike.
5) Mike Singletary
His head coaching tenure ended poorly and his resurgence as a defensive assistant is ongoing, but Singletary to me remains first and foremost the heart of Chicago's dominant 46 defense of the 1980s. Multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards and lynch-pinning an all-time great unit land him top-five.
4) Patrick Willis
Willis has been graded among the top two inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus in each of the past five years. And he's only 28.
3) Derrick Thomas
It's an absolute shame that we lost Thomas so young at age 33. His time in the NFL showed us how great an edge-rushing presence could be from the linebacker spot, with his 20-sack 1999 campaign proving an indelible memory in his legacy's path to the Hall of Fame.
2) Ray Lewis
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens actually rode Lewis' spirit juice to a Super Bowl championship. He was terrible last year, but the leadership he brought to this team over the past three decades and the unavoidable force he brought on the field in his younger years lands him at No. 2.
1) Lawrence Taylor
LT changed the way quarterbacks, offensive coordinators, play-callers and everyone associated with an offensive player on the field felt about what an outside linebacker could do to them. The 132.5 sacks and constant quarterback pressure Taylor brought from the linebacker spot — before it was cool — give him the edge over the field.
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