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Monday, June 15, 2009

Top 10 NFL Linebackers of All Time

This top ten Tuesday we will look at the 10 best linebackers in NFL history. Linebackers are typically the heart of most defensive schemes. The kind of linebacker a player is typically depends on their position. A linebacker can be outside or inside, weak side or strong side, middle or even dropped back into zone coverage. No other defensive player can be as versatile as the linebacker. The players on this list represent the best of this dominant position on the field. So let's honor the role of the linebacker by acknowledging the best to ever play the position.

10) Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears)

At age 31, Brian Urlacher still has a lot of football left in him. So, it could be a tough sell to put him on the top 10 linebackers of all-time list. But, as only the 5th player in NFL history to win both Defensive Rookie of the Year (2000) and Defensive Player of the Year (2005) honors, Urlacher has proved that he will consistently be one of the best defenders in today's NFL.

As linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Urlacher had a lot to live up to from the start. Chicago's football tradition is rich on defense and the linebacker is often the heart of their entire team. Urlacher is not only a fan favorite, he is the lockeroom leader and the face of the organization. He also has the statistics to back up the hype. With 931 tackles and 37.5 sacks, Brian Urlacher is a force on the football field and one of the premier linebackers in the league. He's already made it to the Pro Bowl 6 times and has one Super Bowl appearance (29-17 loss to the Colts). As time moves on, Urlacher has the opportunity to move up this list; especially if he becomes a Super Bowl Champion.

9) Derrick Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs)

The late, great Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs was also known as "D. T.". He was also known for sacking the quarterback consistently throughout his career. Drafted 4th overall, Thomas' impact on the field with the Chiefs was immediate. He made the Pro Bowl his first season and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He would remain in Kansas City for 11 seasons, making the Pro Bowl 9 times.

In 2009, Thomas was officially inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. His career ended with 126.5 sacks and 642 tackles. He still holds the record for most sacks in a regular season game (7). His 45 forced fumbles in his career is also an NFL record.

8) Junior Seau (San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots)

Junior Seau is a linebacker to the bone. His speed, agility, and ability to find the ball is down right silly. Even his name, pronounced "say ow", puts fear in the heart of opposing quarterbacks. Spending the bulk of his career in San Diego, Seau went to 12 Pro Bowls, played in a Super Bowl, was voted Defensive Player of the Year for the 1992 season.

Anyone who has watched Junior in action knows that he has an innate desire to play defensive football at its highest level. He has logged 1,826 tackles over the course of his career, along with 56.5 sacks on the quarterback. He is also as tough as they come. In his first 7 years of professional football, Seau only missed 2 games.

In 2006, Junior Seau retired from football only to make his return to the game 4 days later. He signed with the New England Patriots and helped them become the first undefeated team in a 16 game season in 2007. He made his second Super Bowl appearance that year when the team lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, widely named the best Super Bowl of all-time.

7) Sam Huff (New York Giants, Washington Redskins)

Sam Huff was one of the first middle linebackers in NFL history. The "mike" linebacker as it is also called was designed in the 4-3 defense which was originally implemented by Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry, who went on to legendary status as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry thought Huff would be perfect in the formation. Once the starter, Huff would help the Giants win 5 games straight and earn a berth in the 1956 NFL Championship game. Huff was the first rookie middle linebacker to start in an NFL Championship game, which New York won 47-7 over the Chicago Bears.

Sam Huff went on to play in 5 more Championship games with the Giants, including the 1958 NFL title game which is widely called "the greatest game ever played". In 1959, Huff was the first NFL player featured on the cover of Time Magazine. And, in 1960, Huff was the subject of a CBS documentary entitled "The Violent World of Sam Huff" in which he was wired for sound during a practice session.

He was traded in 1964 to the Washington Redskins and helped to embarrass his former team by beating them 72-41; the highest scoring game in league history. He finished his career with 5 Pro Bowl appearances and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1982.

6) Ray Nitschke (Green Bay Packers)

As the middle linebacker for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, Ray Nitschke became a dominant force in a highly disciplined defense. That defense went on to win 5 NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.

In the 1962 NFL Championship game, Nitschke was the the MVP; recording 2 fumble recoveries and a deflected pass. In the first two Super Bowls, Nitschke shined. In Super Bowl I, he made 6 tackles and a sack. In Super Bowl II, Nitschke led the defense with 9 tackles. Nitschke was voted to a Pro Bowl and was voted 1st team All-Pro 3 times. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1978.

5) Jack Lambert (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Jack Lambert loved to remove his partial dentures during football games. That move earned him the moniker "Dracula in Cleats". He also loved to tackle and sack the quarterback. Those moves earned him a seat in the NFL Hall of Fame. As the leader of the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lambert became one of the best defenders of all time. And, he perfected the linebacker position before he was done.

Jack Lambert and the Steel Curtain defense won 4 Super Bowls. Today they are regarded as one of the best defenses of all time. Lambert recorded 1,479 tackles over his career; 1,045 of them were solo tackles. He not only sacked quarterbacks 23.5 times, he also intercepted them on 28 occasions. Known for his intensity, intimidation tactics, and hard hitting, Jack Lambert was voted to 9 Pro Bowls during his time with the Steelers. He was also voted Defensive Player of the Year twice (1974 &1976).

Because sacks were not officially recorded until 1982, Lambert's career sack total is actually much higher than noted. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1990. He will always be regarded as one of the best defensive players in NFL history.

4) Mike Singletary (Chicago Bears)

Mike Singletary or "Samurai" Mike as he was called, played linebacker for the dominant Chicago Bears defense of the 1980's known as the "Monsters of the Midway". Also known as "The Heart of The Defense", Singletary's intensity on the field was matched by no other player. In each of his 11 years with the Bears, Singletary finished either 1st or 2nd in tackles. He recorded 1,488 tackles over the course of his career and of those tackles 885 were done solo.

Singletary was also known for his durability as a player. He only missed 2 games during his playing career. In 1985, Mike Singletary was a part of the dominating 15-1 team that won Super Bowl XX. Samurai Mike notched 109 solo tackles in that season alone; along with 3 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries. Selected to the Pro Bowl an astonishing 10 times, Mike Singletary was voted the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice (1985, 1988).

Singletary was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1998. He is currently the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

3) Dick Butkus (Chicago Bears)

Also a part of the "Monsters of the Midway" was another linebacker named Dick Butkus. Named #1 on my all-time scariest NFL players list, Butkus was easily one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. He was an impact player from the moment he joined the team. During his rookie year, Butkus led the team in tackles, interceptions, and fumble recoveries. He was also a vital part of the Bears' 15-1 season that led to winning Super Bowl XX.

Butkus went to 8 Pro Bowls from 1965-1972. He was also named defensive player of the year twice; once in 1969 and again in 1970. It was in 1970 that Butkus graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the tagline reading "The Most Feared Man In The Game". That year he recorded 132 tackles, 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries.

Dick Butkus' Chicago Bears jersey was retired and there was also an award named after him to honor the best linebackers in high school, college and pro levels. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1979.

2) Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens)

Ray Lewis may be a bit high on this list for some of you. But his dominance at his position, statistical relevance, and his overall presence in the game of football compelled me to place him at the #2 spot on my list. The intimidating inside linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens is and will continue to be, a force to be reckoned with. With 1,636 tackles and counting, Ray Lewis has left his mark on the NFL and now appears to be solidifying his legacy.

Ray Lewis has made the Pro Bowl 10 times and he is only 34 years-old. In 2000, Lewis was the leader of one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history. The Ravens defense set the record for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a 16-game regular season. Lewis led the team all the way to Super Bowl XXXV in which they beat the New York Giants 34-7. Ray Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP and was also named the Defensive Player of the Year.

Lewis has 33.5 sacks and 28 interceptions to his credit thus far and he continues to lead the Ravens defense today. Just last season, Ray Lewis and the Ravens made it all the way to the AFC Championship game before losing to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers. He continues to dominate at the linebacker position and stands as the model for successful inside linebackers in today's NFL.

1) Lawrence Taylor (New York Giants)

Lawrence Taylor, also known as L. T., was drafted 2nd overall in the 1981 NFL draft. By training camp of that year, word began to spread around the league about the rookie outside linebacker drafted by the New York Giants. In his first NFL preseason game, L. T. notched 2 sacks and his reputation as a hard hitting NFL linebacker was born. In that first season, Taylor was named both Defensive Rookie of the Year, as well as the league Defensive Player of the year.

L.T.'s career was one of sacks and tackles. He sacked the quarterback 132 times in his career and amassed 1,088 tackles. His 1986 season was one of the best seasons ever by a defensive player in NFL history. With 20.5 sacks in one season, Taylor became only the 2nd defensive player to be named league MVP. Again, he was named the Defensive Player of the Year. But this time, Taylor and the Giants set eyes on a Super Bowl championship as well. During their playoff run that year, the Giants beat their first two opponents by a combined score of 66-3. They won Super Bowl XXI beating the Denver Broncos 39-20.

Lawrence Taylor is widely regarded as the best defensive player in league history. I won't make that argument here, but I will name him the best linebacker to ever play the game. L.T. was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times and won a second championship in 1991. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1999. His career not only changed the way the position of linebacker was played, it also changed defensive football as a whole.

Well, that wraps up my top 10 linebackers of all-time. Several other names were considered for this list. Jack Hamm, Kevin Greene, Nick Buoniconti, Willie Lanier, and Derrick Brooks; just to name a few. As always, I tried to look at players that not only made a huge impact during the regular season, but also left their mark in the Super Bowl and NFL Championship games. Once again, I welcome your comments and debates.


Lionluver said...

Nice list, Q. I'd put Junior up a little higher, though, and I'll take Chris Speilman over Brian Urlacher any day. Not that Chris should be in the top 10. Any love for Harry Carson? I know he played with LT but I like him.

"Q" the fan said...

Hey Jute!

Always glad to hear your comments :). Speilman definitely has the sack stats. But Urlacher has more Pro Bowls and he was the main reason the Chicago made it to that recent Super Bowl. Harry Carson, on the other hand, has the Pro Bowls, stats, SB ring, and is in the Hall of Fame. He would make a good argument to replace Urlacher here.


Pete said...

Good list Q! No arguing with LT. You did fail to highlight Ray Nitschke's role in "The Longest Yard" (the good one, not the crappy remake), which is truly his ultimate achievement.

"Q" the fan said...

Hey Pete,

Nice factoid on Nitschke. I did fail to mention his film credit. Although, I also skipped the tidbit regarding L.T.'s stint on Dancing with the Stars as well. Of course, they're very different credits :).

I must say, I think the NFL Championships and Super Bowl wins credited to Nitschke out weighs the film credit. Just sayin' :).

Lionluver said...

You need to do a top ten NFL player movie appearances at some point. There are lots of them and it would be funny. It's a long summer, just sayin'.

"Q" the fan said...

Good idea, Jute :). As you said, it is a long summer. I'm sure I'll have time to do that one!


Anonymous said...

Urlacher?? The guy's hurt all the time. Singletary any day over him. Ray Lewis played with a broken wrist!! Love the inclusion of Sam Huff!