25 Greatest Middle Linebackers in NFL History

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Ray Lewis has two Super Bowls and two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But is he the best ever?

<p> 25 Greatest Middle Linebackers in NFL History, including Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke, Bill George, Junior Seau, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Chuck Bednarik, Nick Buoniconti, Joe Schmidt, Willie Lanier, Harry Carson, Lee Roy Jordan, Ken Norton Jr. and Tedy Bruschi.</p>

Middle linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense, the nerve center of a stop-unit. Many of the game’s greatest players have been the man in the middle who called the shots in the huddle before turning into tackling machines and splash-playmakers from sideline-to-sideline once the ball was snapped. Keeping all aspects of the job in mind, we rank the top 25 greatest middle linebackers in NFL history.
 

1. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens (1996-2012)
2000 Defensive Player of the Year
2003 Defensive Player of the Year
7-time first-team All-Pro
13-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXV MVP
Super Bowl XXXV champion
Super Bowl XLVII champion


It’s hard to argue with No. 52 — whose off-the-charts football IQ, spiritual leadership and on-field accomplishments are unmatched. Along with his overflowing trophy case, Lewis posted 41.5 sacks, 31 INTs returned for 503 yards and three TDs, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries and one safety in the regular season; and six forced fumbles, two INTs returned for 54 yards and one TD, and two sacks in the playoffs. And that dance. Don’t forget Ray’s dance.


2. Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-84)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1990
1976 Defensive Player of the Year
1974 Defensive Rookie of the Year
6-time first-team All-Pro
9-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl IX champion
Super Bowl X champion
Super Bowl XIII champion
Super Bowl XIV champion


The foreman of the “Steel Curtain” defense, Lambert expanded the job description of the middle backer — dropping into pass coverage as smooth as a safety while remaining the sledgehammer enforcer of an old-school middle man. Lambert hauled in 28 INTs and scooped up 17 fumble recoveries. But it was his leadership in four Super Bowl wins that moves Lambert ahead of Dick Butkus — as sacrilegious as that may seem.


3. Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears (1965-73)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1979
1969 Defensive Player of the Year
1970 Defensive Player of the Year
5-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler


The best high school, college and NFL linebackers are annually presented with the Butkus Award, named in honor of arguably the greatest linebacker — possibly the best defensive player — to ever put on a helmet. Butkus punished ball carriers and crushed spirits. But for all his individual success, he never made the playoffs.


4. Mike Singletary, Chicago Bears (1981-92)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1998
1985 Defensive Player of the Year
1988 Defensive Player of the Year
7-time first-team All-Pro
10-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XX champion


“Samurai Mike” had crazy eyes that struck fear into an opposing offense even before he laid the smack down. The on-field brains behind Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan’s famed 1985 Bears defense, Singletary is undeniably one of the greatest to ever play the position.


5. Ray Nitschke, Green Bay Packers (1958-72)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1978
2-time first-team All-Pro
1-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl I champion
Super Bowl II champion
5-time NFL Championship Game winner
NFL Championship Game MVP (1962)


Before becoming a pop culture reference in Brian’s Song and an actor in The Longest Yard and Head, Nitschke was one of the most feared men in football. Vince Lombardi’s leader on defense, Nitschke (No. 66) and Bart Starr (No. 15) are the only Lombardi players whose numbers were retired.


6. Bill George, Chicago Bears (1952-65), Los Angeles Rams (’66)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1974
8-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler


George is credited by many as being the first-ever true middle linebacker, creating a legacy that future Bears like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher would cement in history.


7. Junior Seau, San Diego Chargers (1990-2002), Miami Dolphins (’03-05), New England Patriots (’06-09)
1992 Defensive Player of the Year
1994 Walter Payton Man of the Year
6-time first-team All-Pro
12-time Pro Bowler


Arguably USC’s most notable No. 55, Seau went on to become a legend in San Diego. A notorious freelancer, Seau notched 56.5 sacks, 18 INTs returned for 238 yards, 11 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries and one TD while winning two AFC titles with the 1994 Chargers and 2007 Patriots.


8. Chuck Bednarik, Philadelphia Eagles (1949-62)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1967
5-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler
2-time NFL Championship Game winner


A two-way player who also played center on offense, Bednarik was in the middle of the action on both sides of the ball — ask Frank Gifford.


9. Nick Buoniconti, Boston Patriots (1962-68), Miami Dolphins (’69-76)
Hall of Fame, Class of 2001
5-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl VII champion
Super Bowl VIII champion


The most famous member of the “No Name Defense,” Buoniconti is alleged to be the ringleader of the 1972 Dolphins’ annual champagne toast when the last undefeated team loses each season.


10. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears (2000-12)
2005 Defensive Player of the Year
2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year
4-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler


The latest in an historic line of Hall of Fame caliber Bears middle linebackers, Urlacher has produced 41.5 sacks, 22 INTs returned for 324 yards and two TDs, 11 forced fumbles and 15 fumble recoveries returned for 177 yards and one TD during his career. Urlacher’s legacy was secure after leading Chicago to the NFC title in 2006


11. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers (2007-12)
2009 NFL Butkus Award winner
2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year
5-time first-team All-Pro
6-time Pro Bowler


12. Joe Schmidt, Detroit Lions (1953-65)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1973
8-time first-team All-Pro
10-time Pro Bowler
2-time NFL Championship Game winner


13. Willie Lanier, Kansas City Chiefs (1967-77)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1986
1972 NFL Man of the Year
3-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler


14. Sam Huff, New York Giants (1956-63), Washington Redskins (’64-69)
Hall of Fame, Class of 1982
2-time first-team All-Pro
5-time Pro Bowler


15. Harry Carson, New York Giants (1976-88)
Hall of Fame, Class of 2006
9-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXI champion


16. Lee Roy Jordan, Dallas Cowboys (1963-76)
1973 Defensive Player of the Year
1-time first-team All-Pro
5-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl VI champion


17. Zach Thomas, Miami Dolphins (1996-2007), Dallas Cowboys (’08)
5-time first-team All-Pro
7-time Pro Bowler


18. Randy Gradishar, Denver Broncos (1974-83)
1978 Defensive Player of the Year
2-time first-team All-Pro
7-time Pro Bowler


19. Les Richter, Los Angeles Rams (1954-62)
Hall of Fame, Class of 2011
1-time first-team All-Pro
8-time Pro Bowler


20. Karl Mecklenburg, Denver Broncos (1983-94)
3-time first-team All-Pro
6-time Pro Bowler


21. Ken Norton Jr., Dallas Cowboys (1988-93), San Francisco 49ers (1994-2000)
1-time first-team All-Pro
3-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXVII champion
Super Bowl XXVIII champion
Super Bowl XXIX champion


22. James Farrior, New York Jets (1997-2001), Pittsburgh Steelers (’02-11)
1-time first-team All-Pro
2-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XL champion
Super Bowl XLIII champion


23. Hardy Nickerson, Pittsburgh Steelers (1987-92), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (’93-99), Jacksonville Jaguars (2000-01), Green Bay Packers (’02)
2-time first-team All-Pro
5-time Pro Bowler


24. London Fletcher, St. Louis Rams (1998-2001), Buffalo Bills (’02-06), Washington Redskins (’07-12)
3-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXIV champion


25. Tedy Bruschi, New England Patriots (1996-2008)
2005 Comeback Player of the Year
1-time Pro Bowler
Super Bowl XXXVI champion
Super Bowl XXXVIII champion
Super Bowl XXXIX champion
 

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