Where Does Brian Urlacher Rank Amongst Greatest LBs in NFL History?
Urlacher, who turns 35 years old at the end of May, gracefully announced his retirement on Wednesday. He will leave behind a decorated career in Chicago that included eight Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections, a Defensive Player of the Year award (2005) and an inclusion on the NFL's All-Decade team of the 2000s.
He'll also walk away as the leading tackler in Bears franchise history.
A clear candidate to be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 2018, Urlacher finishes his NFL career as one of the best linebackers to ever play the position.
But where does he rank all-time? The following list will help place Urlacher among the NFL's historical greats at the linebacker position.
Note: All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Ted Hendricks (1969-1983)
Standing 6'7", the Mad Stork intercepted 26 passes and forced 16 fumbles during his 15-year NFL career. He also won four Super Bowls and was selected to eight Pro Bowls before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
Willie Lanier (1967-1977)
A big hitter with play-making ability, Lanier finished his career with 27 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. He was also named to six straight Pro Bowls and eight straight All-Pro teams, while winning Super Bowl IV. Lanier was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Chuck Bednarik (1949-1962)
A true two-way player as both a linebacker and fullback, Bednarik was named to 10 All-Pro teams and eight Pro Bowls. The Bednarik award is now presented annually to the best defensive player in college football. He won NFL titles in 1949 and 1960 before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
12. Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Stats: 169 games, 601 tackles, 126.5 sacks, 41 forced fumbles
Few outside linebackers in NFL history have been as disruptive as Thomas was over a 12-year stretch in Kansas City.
Only once—his final season in 1999—did Thomas tally less than eight sacks, and his 126.5 career sacks currently ranks him 12th in NFL history. For his consistent efforts, Thomas was named to nine straight Pro Bowls and six total All-Pro teams.
His tragic death before the 2000 season robbed Thomas of adding to his Hall of Fame legacy. He was inducted into the Hall in 2009.
11. Brian Urlacher (2000-2012)
Stats: 182 games, 1,052 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 15 fumble recoveries
A college safety drafted in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft, Urlacher quickly became one of the NFL's dominant forces at middle linebacker. A true hybrid at the position, Urlacher combined size and athleticism to become just the fourth NFL player to tally more than 40 sacks and 20 interceptions.
He also retires as the Bears' all-time leading tackler and remains one of just two players in Chicago history to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Mike Singletary).
Urlacher failed to win a Super Bowl ring but he was the catalyst of a decade's worth of top defenses in the Windy City. His ability to play the deep middle of the Cover 2 defense, while still terrorizing running backs and quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage, helped redefine the position.
10. Derrick Brooks (1995-2008)
Stats: 224 games, 1,301 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 25 interceptions, 24 forced fumbles
After the Buccaneers drafted Brooks in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft, the 235-pound linebacker went on to start 221 of his 224 career games, all in Tampa Bay. He never missed a game in his 14-year career.
Along the way few linebackers during his time were as productive.
An 11-time Pro Bowler and nine-time All-Pro selection, Brooks also won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2002. That same season the Buccaneers won their first ever Super Bowl title with Brooks and the Tampa Bay defense (first in scoring, yards) leading the way.
9. Ray Nitschke (1958-1972)
Stats: 190 games, 25 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries
Tackle stats were rare back in Nitschke's era, but there's little doubt he would have been one of the more productive middle linebackers in bringing down ball carriers had the stats been recorded.
An intimidating hitter with a mean streak, Nitschke helped anchor championship defenses in Green Bay over five different seasons during the 1960s. He was also a seven-time All-Pro and the MVP of the Packers' 1962 NFL championship win.
A member of the 1960's All-Decade team and with his No. 66 retired in Green Bay, Nitschke was named to the Hall of Fame in 1978.
8. Junior Seau (1990-2009)
Stats: 268 games, 1,524 tackles, 56.5 sacks, 18 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries
Good luck finding a more complete or decorated linebacker than Seau—regardless of era.
A 20-year veteran of three NFL teams, Seau was named to 12 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams. He finished his career with the Chargers as San Diego's all-time leading tackler and was selected as a member of the 1990's All-Decade team.
Seau would play in just two Super Bowls—in 1994 and 2007—and came out on the losing side of each. Even without a championship ring, few linebackers from his generation can match Seau's combination of stats and recognition.
7. Jack Ham (1971-1982)
Stats: 162 games, 32 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries
If titles and turnovers are your thing, Jack Ham is the linebacker for you.
A winner of four Super Bowls and the cause behind more turnovers (53) than any non-defensive back in NFL history, Ham quickly established himself as one of the top play-makers for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s.
A member of the All-Decade team, Ham was also named to eight-straight Pro Bowls and six-straight first-team All-Pro teams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.
6. Mike Singletary (1981-1992)
Stats: 179 games, 19 sacks, seven interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries
After Butkus and before Urlacher, the Chicago Bears depended on Mike Singletary to man the middle of an elite defense.
The heart and soul of the Monsters of the Midway during the 1980s, Singletary won two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Super Bowl title during a stretch from 1985-88. He was also named to 10 Pro Bowls and nine All-Pro teams.
A member of the 1980s All-Decade team, Singletary was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
5. Bobby Bell (1963-1974)
Stats: 168 games, 26 interceptions, eight defensive TDs, nine forced fumbles
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell remains one of the most underrated players ever at his position.
An athletic specimen at 6'4" and 230 pounds, Bell has a case for being the one of the most complete outside linebackers in NFL history.
Equally capable of dropping into coverage, playing the run and rushing the passer, Bell was named to nine all-star games (including the AFL All-Star game) and seven first-team All-Pro teams. He also helped anchor one of the best linebacking trios in NFL history with the Chiefs during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
By the time his 12-year career was over, Bell had won two AFL titles and a Super Bowl. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
4. Jack Lambert (1974-1984)
Stats: 146 games, 28 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles
A member of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1974 draft class that produced five Hall of Famers, Lambert was arguably the best of the bunch.
A big hitter with surprising agility and quickness, Lambert was the man in the middle of the Steelers' Steel-Curtain defense during the 1970s. In 1976, he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.
By the time his 11-year career was finished, Lambert had tallied nine Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro seasons and four Super Bowl wins. He was named to both the 1970 and 1980 All-Decade teams.
Lambert was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
3. Dick Butkus (1965-1973)
Stats: 119 games, 22 interceptions, 27 fumble recoveries
Even 40 years after he last strapped on a helmet, Butkus remains the most feared and intimidating middle linebacker to ever play the game of football.
The NFL has simply never seen a hitter of Butkus' quality.
As fellow Hall of Famer Deacon Jones said in the attached video, "Every time he hit you he'd tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital."
An eight-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, Butkus was named to the All-Decade team in both the 1960s and 1970s. He played just nine years but made the most of his time destroying NFL offenses.
Had his career spanned a longer time frame or the Bears been more successful during his run, Butkus would be higher on this list.
2. Ray Lewis (1996-2012)
Stats: 228 games, 1,573 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries
The resume of Lewis stands alone at the linebacker position.
Over 17 NFL seasons Lewis was named to 13 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams—both records for a linebacker. He also won two Super Bowls (including the Super Bowl MVP in 2001) and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Lewis remains the only linebacker in NFL history to record 40 sacks and 30 or more interceptions.
The iconic defensive player of the last two decades, Lewis left football on its grandest stage—as a Super Bowl champion this past February.
In five years time, Lewis will be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
1. Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)
Stats: 184 games, 132.5 sacks, nine interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries
Rare is the player who redefines an entire sport the way Taylor did during the 1980s and early 1990s. Arguably the most destructive defensive player in NFL history, Taylor forced offenses to completely re-adapt to his pass-rushing skills as an outside linebacker.
During a stretch from 1984 to 1990 Taylor cracked 10 or more sacks in each season, including a career-high 20.5 in 1986. He was named NFL MVP and Defensive Player of the Year (Taylor also won two other DPOY awards, 1981-82) during that season.
Over his 13 NFL seasons, Taylor was named to 10 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams, tied for the most for a linebacker. He also won two Super Bowls and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981.
Taylor, the greatest linebacker in NFL history, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
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