Who Is the Greatest Middle Linebacker in NFL History?

Bryan DietzlerSenior Analyst IJune 7, 2010

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 10:  Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens looks on from the sideline against the New England Patriots during the 2010 AFC wild-card playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 10, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

This is a question that has been asked and debated by many over the last few years.  People can sit and argue for hours as to whether or not a guy like former Chicago Bear Dick Butkus is better than Ray Lewis, or if Mike Singletary is the best of all. 

The race for the best linebacker in NFL history can be narrowed down to five people: the aforementioned Butkus, Lewis, and Singletary, along with Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier. 


Dick Butkus

No one can deny that Butkus was a great player at the middle linebacker position and that he really made an impact on the game.  Opposing players feared Butkus because he played with relentless passion, the kind of passion that you don’t see in today’s game, and he played hard 100 percent of the time.

Butkus hit the ball carrier with ferocity and never let up once during his career.  People might say that his problem was not being able to hold up for too long (Butkus played a total of nine seasons for the Bears), compared to other players.  Butkus succumbed to knee injuries towards the end of his career and he retired much earlier than many would have liked to have seen. 


Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis is the only active player on this list as his long and storied career in the NFL continues.  Much like the other guys on this list, Lewis has played for the same franchise during his entire career in the NFL (he is currently entering his 15th season in the NFL), meaning that he has had an undeniable value to the Ravens. 

Lewis is not only known for his solid play on the field, but also for his leadership ability and his knowledge of the Ravens defense.  There has been no better player at the middle linebacker position in the 1990s or 2000s than Lewis.  But is he the best ever?


Mike Singletary

Singletary, along with Butkus, played for the Chicago Bears and represents a style that has not been seen in the NFL since he retired.  Singletary, forever remembered for the camera shots of his eyes scanning the field right before the quarterback snapped the ball, was one of the toughest and most skilled players at the middle linebacker position.  His impact on each game, at times, was game-changing and he was inspiring to his teammates on both offense and defense. 


Jack Lambert

Lambert will forever be remembered as the “guy with no teeth” who played middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 11 seasons. Lambert earned several awards and honors while playing for the Steelers, ultimately ending up as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Lambert helped to define the middle linebacker position and many middle linebackers after he played are measured against his abilities.


So who is the best middle linebacker in NFL history?  Looking at these five players, you first have to rule out Lewis, because he hasn’t made it to the Hall of Fame yet (although he will) and hasn’t earned many of the post-career accolades that the other guys have had. 

When making this decision, I went back to a question that I asked at the beginning of this story: Who is the greatest middle linebacker in NFL history?  Who is the first person that popped into my mind?


Dick Butkus

Just the name makes me think of hard-hitting football played in all kinds of conditions by guys that didn’t care how cold it was, how muddy it was, or whether or not they were winning or losing. He played hard all of the time.  When I think of Butkus, I think of hard hits, the picture of the bloody hands he had, and the leadership he displayed.  He was everything that a middle linebacker should be.


These are five great guys who have helped define what a middle linebacker should be and how he should play.  Any player playing that position in the NFL, college, high school, or any of the many semi-pro leagues should take a look at Butkus and try to build themselves after him.  These guys are the greatest ever to play the position and, quite possibly, five of the best football players ever to play the game.