Today's Best Linebackers and Their Throwback Comparisons
Now that we’ve gotten the offense out of the way, it’s time to get to the guys who make the difference between winning and losing.
Whoever came up with the adage that “defense wins championships” knew exactly what they were talking about.
Even in today’s NFL where points aren’t hard to come by, you have to find a way to stop the opposition if you’re going to win.
So as we reach the eighth part of this 12-part throwback series, it’s time to deal with the defenders. We’ll start with linebackers, both inside and outside.
The criteria are multifaceted and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because, after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever. But other factors will be taken into account when making comparisons.
One reminder: This is not a ranking of the 10 best linebackers in the NFL. It’s some of the best players at their position and who they remind us of from the distant or not-too-distant past.
OLB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
Similar To: Kevin Greene
Injuries have started to pile up in the last couple of seasons for Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews. But when available, the five-year veteran remains a major factor. The Green Bay defense has had its issues the past three seasons, and Matthews’ availability is just a small piece of the puzzle.
Matthews has missed nine games during the regular season the past two years combined and still managed 20.5 sacks, including 7.5 sacks in 11 games in 2013. His career totals in terms of sacks remain impressive. In 69 contests, the four-time Pro Bowler has totaled exactly 50 sacks.
Speaking of sacks, as all NFL fans know, the league did not make the sack an official statistic until 1982, at which point the league started to recognize individual sack totals.
Fortunately for Kevin Greene, he didn’t begin his professional career until 1985, when the Los Angeles Rams made him a fifth-round selection. The well-traveled five-time Pro Bowler totaled 160 career sacks, 10 or more sacks in a season 10 times, and until recently he coached he coached Matthews and his fellow linebackers in Green Bay .
Greene’s combination of agility and power made him a difficult assignment for a number of offensive linemen.
MLB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Similar To: Jack Lambert
It was a banner year for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and the Carolina Panthers in 2013.
Too bad the banner wasn’t up a little longer.
The second-year pro led the NFL’s second-ranked defense this past season. Carolina also gave up the second-fewest points in the league and Kuechly and his teammates also led the way with 60 sacks.
However, it’s tackles that are the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year’s forte, and he totaled 156 of them in 2013. Kuechly added two sacks, four interceptions and knocked down seven passes for the NFC South champions this past season.
Middle linebacker Jack Lambert was part of arguably the greatest draft class in league history. The Steelers took him in the second round after making wide receiver Lynn Swann a first-round selection. In rounds four and five, Pittsburgh selected wideout John Stallworth and center Mike Webster, respectively.
All four have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While it’s certainly not the case, perhaps Lambert’s bust may be somewhat more appropriate sans a few teeth. Dubbed “Count Dracula in cleats” many years ago, you could count on the nine-time Pro Bowler to rack up plenty of tackles and menace a few opponents in the process.
It’s safe to say that not too many Panther opponents are smiling knowing Kuechly is on the other side of the field.
ILB NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
Similar To: Harry Carson
After an eight-year absence from the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers have been postseason participants each of the last three seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
While there have been different faces at quarterback, it’s one of the most reliable defensive units in the league that has paved the way for the team's recent success.
Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman led the Niners in tackles for the third straight season in 2013, and in each of those campaigns the very consistent two-time Pro Bowler totaled at least 140 stops.
Speaking of steady, Harry Carson was a nine-time Pro Bowler in his 13 seasons with the New York Giants. The Hall of Fame defender eventually became part of a great Giants linebacking corps that included fellow Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor as well as Carl Banks and Gary Reasons.
Carson would lead those teams in tackles five times and totaled 25 career takeaways, including 11 interceptions.
OLB Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
Similar To: OLB/DE Andre Tippett
A third-round draft choice in 2011 from the University of Georgia, Kansas City outside linebacker Justin Houston has wasted little time making an impression on the league.
Unfortunately, that impression was limited to only 11 games in 2013 due to injury. Still, Houston had no problem getting to the quarterback when available, tying for the team lead with 11 sacks and earning a second consecutive Pro Bowl invitation.
After totaling just 5.5 sacks during his rookie campaign, the former Bulldog has been just that, reaching double-digit sack totals in each of his last two seasons.
While a lot of the football world was marveling at future Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, and rightfully so, outside linebacker Andre Tippett was doing his thing with the New England Patriots. In 11 seasons with the club, he totaled exactly 100 sacks.
Like Taylor, Tippett also found his way to Canton, Ohio.
ILB London Fletcher, Washington Redskins
Similar To: Chuck Bednarik
This past season, linebacker London Fletcher did not lead the Washington Redskins in tackles for the first time since he arrived in D.C. in 2007.
It appears that he won’t do that in 2014 as well. The veteran defender seems headed for retirement after a solid career.
An undrafted free agent from John Carroll University, 2013 marked the first time in 15 seasons that Fletcher didn’t lead his team in tackles. Dating back to his rookie season in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, the sure-tackler has led his teams (which also includes the Buffalo Bills) in stops for 14 straight years.
“Concrete Charlie” was the nickname given to Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and center Chuck Bednarik. He was the league’s last 60-minute man, an eight-time Pro Bowler and a two-time NFL champion.
Yes, we know Fletcher never played center during his 15-year NFL career.
But I’ll bet he would have if they asked him to.
OLB Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts
Similar To: Bobby Bell
It took Indianapolis Colts veteran Robert Mathis one season to get the hang of this outside linebacker thing.
Now it’s safe to say he’s figured it out. Unfortunately for his opponents, they failed to figure him out in 2013.
Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and totaled eight forced fumbles this past season. It followed a year in which he totaled only eight sacks, his first at outside linebacker after nine seasons at defensive end.
Of course, the five-time Pro Bowler was no slouch at his original position, totaling 83.5 sacks in those first nine years.
Hall of Famer Bobby Bell was part of one of the greatest linebacking corps in history with the Kansas City Chiefs, paired with outside linebacker Jim Lynch and Hall of Fame middle man Willie Lanier. The 6’4”, 228-pound defender excelled at defensive end as well and while there were no official sack numbers at the time, you could just ask his opponents.
What other teams found out quickly is that you had to know where Bell was at all times. He rung up opposing passers for 26 interceptions, returning six of those thefts for touchdowns.
ILB Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
Similar To: Willie Lanier
They ought to change the pat in “standing pat” to Patrick.
That’s because when it comes to productivity, San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis can always be counted on to do his part and more.
Willis has missed just six games in seven NFL seasons. But he’s never missed being named to the Pro Bowl, starting with his rookie season in 2007. The former first-round pick has totaled 100-plus tackles in six of his seven seasons and just missed that total (97 tackles) in 2011.
The one-time Ole Miss star has also amassed 20.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He picked off a pass by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the Niners’ 23-10 win in the 2013 NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Willie Lanier roamed the field for the Kansas City Chiefs for 11 seasons, eight of them resulting in Pro Bowl invitations.
The rangy and heady defender was the anchor of a Kansas City defense that featured five Hall of Famers and dominated in the team’s 23-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. The game is more known for Chiefs head coach Hank Stram and his sideline “performance,” but it was Lanier and company who stole the show that afternoon in New Orleans.
OLB Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Similar To: Greg Lloyd
It proved to be a terrific bounce-back season for Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker in 2013. Too bad his team wasn’t as successful this time around.
The defending Super Bowl champions fell to 8-8 this past season. But the intense Suggs shook off last season’s injury-shortened campaign by totaling 10 sacks in 16 games this year. In 2012, the six-time Pro Bowler missed half of the regular season but came back during the year and helped his team win Super Bowl XLVII.
In 11 NFL seasons, Suggs has totaled 94.5 sacks, forced 25 fumbles and picked off seven passes. In 2011, he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Speaking of sacks and forced fumbles, there have been few players in the last 30 years or so who can match the intensity and fury of outside linebacker Greg Lloyd. The one-time Pittsburgh Steeler defensive force was named to five Pro Bowls and totaled 54.5 sacks and 35 forced fumbles in his career.
Despite the fact that they would be bitter rivals today, you get the sense that Lloyd and Suggs speak the same language.
OLB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Similar To: Derrick Thomas
After two seasons of memorable moments, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller had a forgettable 2013.
The young defender served a six-game suspension at the start of the season, and in Week 16 versus the Houston Texans, he was lost for the remainder of the year with a knee injury. In nine games this season, Miller totaled 34 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles.
Despite the shortened season and the injury, Miller's future remains extremely promising. The second overall pick in the 2011 draft has totaled 35 sacks and a dozen forced fumbles in 40 regular-season contests. Miller was also named to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons in the league.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas was the fourth overall selection in 1989 by the Kansas City Chiefs, and as any opposing quarterback found out, knew how to quickly turn the corner. In 11 seasons, the first nine resulting in Pro Bowl invitations, he totaled 126.5 sacks and forced 41 fumbles. Thomas never totaled fewer than seven sacks in any of those 11 campaigns.
Let’s see if Miller can get back on track and stay on the field in 2014.
OLB Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
Similar To: OLB/DE Rickey Jackson
Injuries hampered Kansas City outside linebacker Tamba Hali a bit in 2013. However, there was no limit to the havoc he caused while he was on the field.
The former first-round pick still played in 15 games and tied for the team lead with 11 sacks with fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston. In eight NFL seasons, the former Nittany Lions’ standout has amassed 73.5 sacks and totaled 27 forced fumbles.
Kansas City went from two wins in 2012 to 11 victories this past season. But postseason success continues to elude a franchise that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1969.
Outside linebacker/defensive end Rickey Jackson wound up earning a Super Bowl ring with the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. But he made his bones for 13 seasons with the New Orleans Saints from 1981-93.
During his 15-year NFL career, he totaled 128 sacks (which excludes his rookie season of ’81 when sacks were not an official stat). Jackson also forced 40 fumbles and totaled eight interceptions while earning six Pro Bowl invitations.