Rarely have players garnered the amount of respect for Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis. He was the heart, soul and face of the Baltimore Ravens for 17 seasons since he was drafted 26th overall in 1996 out of the University of Miami, a school noted for its constant ability to send high-caliber players to the NFL.
And today, after missing most of the season due to a triceps tear and set to return on Saturday in the Ravens' first playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, Lewis officially announced his retirement at the end of the season, which will officially begin after only three scenarios: The Ravens either lose in the playoffs, lose in the Super Bowl or win in the Super Bowl.
Nevertheless, all of Baltimore is reacting to the news of Lewis' retirement at the end of the season, and as he begins to take that next step in his life past his NFL career, we ask you this:
Where exactly would Ray Lewis rank among NFL linebackers? To help with this, we must take a look at what he has accomplished.
The first thing is his longevity playing this game. Lewis has played exclusively for the Baltimore Ravens for 17 straight seasons, and has shown amazing durability over that time, constantly performing at a high level even well into his 30s, an age where many NFL players begin to show some sort of decline. He holds the record for most games started at inside/middle linebacker with 227 games, as well as the most games played at the position over 17 seasons.
In those 17 seasons, Lewis has made the Pro-Bowl 13 times, only missing the Pro Bowl his rookie year in 1996, 2002, 2005 and 2011. He was named an AP First Team All-Pro seven times: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009. He was also named an AP Second Team All-Pro three times in 1997,1998 and 2010.
His 13 Pro Bowls and 10 AP All-Pro selections are all records for an inside/middle linebacker. He also ties former linebacker Lawrence Taylor for most All-Pro selections by a linebacker.
But it doesn't stop there. Lewis also reached the pinnacle of the NFL by guiding one of the top defenses in NFL history, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, to the top spot in six key defensive categories en route to Super Bowl XXXV, where he was named Super Bowl MVP. Lewis would be the emotional leader and centerpiece of that entire Ravens defense for the next 12 seasons. At the end of the decade, he was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
Lewis was also a two-time AP Defensive Player of the year in 2000 and 2003, a three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2000, 2001 and 2003, and a two-time NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year in 1999 and 2003.
Lewis' impact on on the field is evident by his 2,050 combined tackles, out of which 1,558 were solo and 492 were assisted tackles. He also amassed 41.5 sacks and 19 forced fumbles. But the unique aspect about Ray Lewis was his ability to cover the middle of the field. As a linebacker, he had 31 interceptions and 503 return yards off of those interceptions, which ranks first among interception return yards for an inside/middle linebacker.
He was subsequently named to the 20 sack-20 interception club, an honor he was the quickest player to reach at only 113 games. He would later earn the honor of being named to the 30 sack/30 interception club, which he also reached the fastest at only 204 games. Lewis is currently the lone member of the 40 sack/30 interception club.
Looking at his impressive resume over his illustrious 17-year career, Lewis is definitely bound for Canton as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and more honors are bound to come for him from Baltimore after his time as a Raven. He ranks among the Top 10 linebackers of all-time alongside names like Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Jack Ham, Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary.
But can we name Lewis the best linebacker of all time? He has certainly been deserving of that title, but that's up to you to decide.