25 Greatest Linebackers in NFL History

Lawrence Taylor is just one of two defensive players to ever be named NFL MVP

Ray Lewis

Linebacker is one of the most important and demanding positions in football. A truly great linebacker must be able to read the offense, set the defensive scheme, play the run with cat-like instincts and defend the pass with the utmost precision. All while being tasked with avoiding blocks and keeping tabs on the opposing quarterback. A tall order to say the least, and these 25 players did it better than anyone in the history of the NFL.

 

There are a number of factors that go into determining a linebacker’s place in NFL history. The various roles of a linebacker have changed tremendously over the years as the game has evolved, making it one of the most difficult positions to gauge. For the purpose of this exercise, the criteria included personal achievements, team accomplishments, statistics, overall impact on the game and the era in which each played.

 

Here are the 25 greatest linebackers in NFL history:

 

25. James Harrison

Pittsburgh 2002, ‘04-12, '14-17; Cincinnati 2013; New England 2017

4-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XL, XLIII champion (Steelers)

2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

 

Harrison is one of the most imposing linebackers to ever play the game. He played a vital role in helping the Steelers win two Super Bowls. His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII is the longest defensive play in the game’s 52-year history. He has compiled 84.5 career sacks and is the Steelers all-time sack leader. The soon-to-be 40-year-old linebacker continues to defy the test of time.

 

24. Sam Huff

New York Giants 1956-63; Washington 1964-69

6-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

1956 NFL champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1982

 

The hard-hitting linebacker and leader of the Giants defense played in six NFL title games. He was the first NFL player to grace the cover of Time magazine and even garnered his very own CBS television special in 1960 entitled “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”

 

23. Terrell Suggs

Baltimore 2003-Present

2-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLVII champion

2003 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

2011 Butkus Award winner (Professional)

 

The Ravens’ all-time sack leader (125.5 career sacks) is often overshadowed by former teammate Ray Lewis, but Suggs continues to pave a path of success that can be matched by only a few select linebackers in NFL history. He is one of just a handful of linebackers to reach the 100-sack mark. And he also is one of the few at the position to win a Super Bowl and be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

 

22. Patrick Willis

Patrick WillisSan Francisco 2007-14

6-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2009 Butkus Award winner (Professional)

 

While Willis’ NFL career was relatively short, he definitely left his mark on the game. He made the Pro Bowl in every season in which he played more than four games. He was a sure tackler and one of the most instinctual defenders ever.

 

21. Rickey Jackson

New Orleans 1981-93; San Francisco 1994-95

6-time All-Pro, 6-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXIX champion (49ers)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2010

 

Jackson is one of the most underrated linebackers in NFL history. The Hall of Famer is the Saints’ all-time sack leader and one of the greatest pass rushers in the history of the game. His 128 career sacks rank 15th all-time. Jackson also recorded 1,173 tackles during an exceptionally productive career.

 

20. Kevin Greene

Los Angeles Rams 1985-92; Pittsburgh 1999-95; Carolina 1996; San Francisco 1997; Carolina 1998-99

3-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

1996 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2016

 

Greene was a force to be reckoned with from his outside linebacker position. He has more sacks than any linebacker in NFL history (160) and currently ranks third overall. He also is the oldest player ever to lead the league in sacks (14.5 in 1996 at age 34). Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.

 

19. Harry Carson

New York Giants 1976-88

6-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXI champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2006

 

Along with Lawrence Taylor, Carson served as a disruptive force in the middle of the Giants defense and helped form one of the greatest linebacker tandems in NFL history. He is widely regarded by his peers as one of the best all-around linebackers to ever play in the NFL.

 

18. Joe Schmidt

Detroit 1953-65

9-time All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFL champion (1953, ’57)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1973


In 2007, Schmidt was named the 65th Greatest Football Player ever by The Sporting News. He was renowned for his toughness and led a career worthy of his status in the Hall of Fame.

 

17. DeMarcus Ware

Dallas 2005-13; Denver 2014-16

7-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl 50 champion (Broncos)

2008 NFC Defensive Player of the Year

Butkus Award winner (2008, ’11, Professional)

 

Ware's 138.5 sacks rank eighth all-time and only Kevin Greene has more sacks from the linebacker position. His body of work is truly worthy of first-ballot induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (eligible 2022).

 

16. Ray Nitschke

Green Bay 1958-92

7-time All-Pro, 1964 Pro Bowl selection

5-time NFL champion (1961-62, ’65-67)

Super Bowl I, II champion

1962 NFL Championship Game MVP

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1978

 

The Hall of Famer was the leader of a Green Bay defense that helped build a colossal dynasty under Vince Lombardi.

 

15. Bill George

Chicago 1952-65; Los Angeles Rams 1966

8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

1963 NFL champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1974

 

George helped revolutionize the linebacker position, as he is credited as the first to drop back into pass coverage. He also is regarded as the NFL’s first true middle linebacker, and by default, the originator of the 4-3 defense.

 

14. Brian Urlacher

Brian UrlacherChicago Bears 2000-12

5-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2018

 

Urlacher was one of the most complete middle linebackers to ever play the game. He recorded 1,353 tackles, 41.5 sacks and was responsible for creating 34 turnovers. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Urlacher was a first-ballot selection for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

13. Ted Hendricks

Baltimore Colts 1969-73; Green Bay 1974; Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1975-83

9-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl V (Colts), XI, XV, XVIII (Raiders) champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1990


A towering presence (6-7), “The Mad Stork” is the tallest linebacker to ever play the game. He also is one of the most decorated linebackers in NFL history.

 

12. Willie Lanier

Kansas City 1967-77

8-time All-Pro, 6-time Pro Bowler

2-time All-AFL, 2-time AFL All-Star

Super Bowl IV champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1986

 

Lanier earned the nickname “Contact” for a reason. He was a notorious head-hunter and a devastating hitter. He also excelled in pass coverage, which helped him to 27 career interceptions.

 

11. Derrick Brooks

Tampa Bay 1995-2008

9-time All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXVII champion

2002 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2014

 

Brooks is often regarded as one of the most instinctual and technically sound linebackers to ever play the game. He was a sure tackler and excelled in pass coverage. He recorded more than 1,700 tackles and was responsible for 49 turnovers during his Hall of Fame career.

 

10. Bobby Bell

Kansas City 1963-74

2-time All-Pro, 3-time Pro Bowler

6-time All-AFL, 6-time AFL All-Star

2-time AFL champion (1966, ’69)

Super Bowl IV champion

1969 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1983

 

Bell (6-4, 230) was one of the most imposing and physically gifted linebackers ever. He also was one of the fastest players of his era, regardless of position. The Hall of Famer recorded 26 interceptions from his outside linebacker position and is tied with Derrick Brooks for the most career interceptions returned for a touchdown (6). Bell scored nine touchdowns during his career.

 

9. Chuck Bednarik

Philadelphia 1949-62

10-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFL champion (1949, ’60)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1967


A true Iron Man, Bednarik never left the playing field during a game. In addition to his linebacker duties, he also served as the Eagles’ center on offense. Bednarik is unquestionably one of the all-time greats, and one of the most punishing tacklers in the history of the game. In addition to being a Hall of Fame football player, and the namesake for the award given to the most outstanding defensive player in college football, Bednarik also was a World War II veteran.

 

8. Junior Seau

Junior SeauSan Diego 1990-2002; Miami 2003-05; New England 2006-09

10-time All-Pro, 12-time Pro Bowler

1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

1994 AFC Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

 

Seau was one of most instinctual linebackers to ever play the game. He was a sure tackler and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, which is evident by his 1,849 career tackles. Seau tragically took his own life at the age of 43, three years prior to his 2015 induction into the Hall of Fame. His suicide is believed to be the result of CTE, a form of brain damage linked to multiple concussions.

 

7. Jack Ham

Pittsburgh 1971-82

8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, XIV champion

1975 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

 

Versatile and extremely fast, Ham was one of the most complete linebackers in NFL history. His 53 forced turnovers are the most all-time by a linebacker. He also helped lead the famed “Steel Curtain” defense to four Super Bowl victories.

 

6. Derrick Thomas

Kansas City 1989-99

6-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

1989 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2009

 

One of the greatest pass rushers in league history, Kansas City’s all-time sack leader had 126.5 sacks in just 157 NFL starts. Thomas also holds the NFL record for sacks in a single game with seven. If not for his untimely death at the age of 33, stemming from complications from injuries sustained in a car accident, Thomas may be even higher on this list.

 

5. Mike Singletary

Chicago 1981-92

9-time All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XX champion

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1985, ’88)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1989

 

When you think of Singletary, the first thing that comes to mind is intense focus. The only thing that could match his signature stare was the stellar play of “Samurai Mike” on the field. Singletary was one of the key leaders of the famous ’85 Bears defense, arguably the greatest defense in the history of the NFL. He also played a big role in one of the most dominant performances by a defense in Super Bowl history.

 

4. Jack Lambert

Pittsburgh 1974-84

8-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, XIV champion

1974 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1967, ’83)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

 

Lambert’s signature toothless snarl struck fear into the hearts of the opposition and lends credence to his legendary status as one of the toughest players all-time. He was the notorious leader of one of the greatest defenses to ever make its way onto a football field – Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain.” The versatile middle linebacker played a significant role in helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls in a span of six years in the 1970s.

 

3. Dick Butkus

Chicago 1965-73

8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1969, ’70)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1978

 

There is a reason the award given to the best linebacker in high school, college and the NFL each year is named after Butkus. He was the quintessential linebacker and easily the greatest of his era. Butkus’ nasty disposition and ability to blow up anyone standing in his path, made him one of the most feared players in the history of the game.

 

2. Ray Lewis

Baltimore Ravens 1996-2012

10-time All-Pro, 13-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXV, XLVII champion

Super Bowl XXXV MVP

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2000, ’03)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2018

 

A true enforcer in every sense of the word, Lewis’ intensity was unmatched by any player of his era. He led some of the greatest defenses in NFL history in both performance and spirit. He holds the NFL record for the most Pro Bowl selections by a middle linebacker (13). He also is the only linebacker to ever win a Super Bowl MVP and be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the same season (2000). Love him or hate him, Lewis has earned the title of greatest middle linebacker of all-time.

 

1. Lawrence Taylor

New York Giants 1981-93

10-time All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXI, XXV champion

1981 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

1986 NFL MVP

3-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1981-82, ’86)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1999

 

L.T. could hit like a freight train, but it was his finesse and high football IQ that helped him revolutionize the linebacker position. He is not only the greatest linebacker in NFL history, he is one of the game’s greatest players period. Taylor is one of only two defensive players (Alan Page, DT - 1971) in the history of the NFL to be named NFL MVP. He is the only linebacker to ever take the honor.

 

Here are 10 that barely missed the cut (in alphabetical order):

Robert Brazile
Nick Buoniconti
London Fletcher
Randy Gradishar
Von Miller
Hardy Nickerson
Joey Porter
Pat Swilling
Zach Thomas
Andre Tippett

 

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

 

(Top photo courtesy of NFL.com)

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