The Top 10 NFL Linebackers of All Time

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2018

The Top 10 NFL Linebackers of All Time

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    Associated Press

    No feared defense is complete without an aggressive, hard-hitting, smart linebacker. And NFL history sure is loaded with elite talent in the front seven.

    If you're a fan of NFL history, it's no surprise the all-time list is littered with Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers. But the diversity of the group's skill sets is also fascinating.

    Some could track down any ball-carrier, some were elite in coverage or at creating turnovers, and others were pass-rushing nightmares.

    There is no perfect formula of what makes a legendary linebacker, but these standouts have become the prototypes. Individual production, achievements and longevity all factored into the order.

Honorable Mentions

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    Chuck Bednarik: A Hall of Famer at both the collegiate and professional levels, Bednarik played center and linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1950s. In 14 seasons, he made eight Pro Bowls and won two championships.

    Bobby Bell: The pass-rushing terror won championships in both the AFL and NFL, helping the Kansas City Chiefs thrive during the merger. Bell earned six first-team All-Pro nods and had 26 career interceptions.

    Willie Lanier: For eight seasons, Bell played alongside Billy Lanier in one of the NFL's most legendary linebacking corps. Lanier collected three All-Pro mentions and eight spots in a Pro Bowl, and the hard hitter also accounted for 45 takeaways.

    Ray Nitschke: In college at Illinois, Ray Nitschke lost four teeth during a game. That became a part of his legendary image, one that primarily featured violent hits and exceptional toughness. Nitschke intercepted 25 passes and recovered 23 fumbles, too.

    Brian Urlacher: During a 13-year career, Brian Urlacher recorded 100-plus tackles nine times and maxed out at 151 combined tackles (115 solo). The 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year also won Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, making eight Pro Bowls as the face of the Bears.

10. Derrick Brooks

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    Derrick Brooks was a tackling machine and historic playmaker during the prime of his career.

    A member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 14 seasons, Brooks intercepted 25 passes and returned six for touchdowns. That's tied with Bobby Bell and Karlos Dansby for the most among linebackers. It was fitting Brooks had a pick-six to seal Super Bowl XXXVII.

    In addition to 11 Pro Bowl berths, the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee won the 2002 Defensive Player of the Year award.

9. Jack Ham

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    When the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty reached its peak in the 1970s, Jack Ham played a key role. Although he didn't appear in Super Bowl XIV because of an injury, the linebacker was a starter on all four championship squads.

    "The fact is that Jack Ham, circa 1972-1979, was a Mona Lisa," Pittsburgh columnist Phil Musick once wrote, per Cooper Rollow of the Chicago Tribune.

    Ham racked up 53 takeaways during the regular season and eight more in the playoffs, including two in the 1974 AFC Championship Game. He made eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams.

8. Ted Hendricks

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    An imposing figure in the middle at 6'7", Ted Hendricks was an unmistakable presencebut for more than his height.

    The University of Miami product achieved All-Pro recognition as a member of the Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers and Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. He represented each of those teams in the Pro Bowl.

    Hendricks, whose stature helped him become a kick-blocking weapon, collected 26 interceptions and recovered 16 fumbles. He won four Super Bowls, three with the Raiders.

7. Derrick Thomas

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    The No. 4 overall pick of the 1989 draft, Derrick Thomas quickly asserted himself as a dominant pass-rusher.

    En route to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, he posted 75 tackles with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. The next season, Thomas became the fifth player in NFL history to hit the 20-sack marklargely thanks to his single-game record of seven.

    Thomas continued that excellence throughout his career, tallying double-digit takedowns of the quarterback seven times. His 126.5 sacks rank 17th in league history, and he forced 41 fumbles.

    Although the Chiefs never reached the Super Bowl while he starred, Thomas had two first-team All-Pro selections and nine Pro Bowl seasons.

6. Junior Seau

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    Junior Seau played 20 NFL seasons and enjoyed the greatest years of his NFL career with the San Diego Chargers. From 1990-2002, he racked up 1,478 tackles with 47 sacks and 31 takeaways.

    The linebacker spent his final seven campaigns on the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Seau gathered 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions during New England's undefeated 2007 regular season, ultimately ending his career with 1,846 tackles.

    While the on-field successes established his legacy, Seau's suicide in May 2012 brought discussions about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) to the forefront. In 2015, he was elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

5. Dick Butkus

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    This resume is staggering. And we're only talking about the nicknames bestowed upon Dick Butkus. The Animal. The Enforcer. The Maestro of Mayhem. The Robot of Destruction.

    Legendary.

    But his NFL career was nothing short of sensational. An eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro, Butkus won Defensive Player of the Year in both 1969 and 1970. He jumped on 27 fumbles and picked off 22 passes.

    The first-ballot Hall of Famer headed to Canton in 1979.

4. Jack Lambert

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    Jack Lambert hardly knew anything but success.

    He won Defensive Rookie of the Year and celebrated a Super Bowl victory in 1974. Alongside Ham, Lambert helped the Steelers hoist the Lombardi Trophy four times.

    The 1976 Defensive Player of the Year put together six first-team All-Pro and nine Pro Bowl campaigns. Beyond his impact as a tackler, Lambert snatched 28 interceptions and pounced on 17 fumbles. His eight recoveries in 1976 are the most ever by a linebacker.

3. Mike Singletary

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    The '85 Bears are almost a mythical team at this point, given that every elite defense is compared to that Mike Singletary-led unit.

    But that season was simply one stage in a Hall of Fame career. Singletary won Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988, grabbed seven first-team All-Pro honors and made 10 Pro Bowls.

    Singletary totaled 1,488 tackles along with his 12 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions. Considering his attitude toward ball-carriers, that's no surprise.

    "I had such a negative thought process toward what a running back was that I didn’t want anything to do with anyone carrying a football," he said, according to John Werner of the Waco Tribune. "If you touched a football, I wanted to hit them. It was like the good guy against the bad guy."

2. Ray Lewis

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    Ray Lewis would squirrel-dance into the stadium and quickly ruin the opposing offense's game plan.

    "That's my signature right there," Lewis said of the entrance, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "All the other linebacker poses, that could be anybody. But that one...they'll know who that is."

    On the field, the high-energy linebacker served as the centerpiece of the Baltimore Ravens defense for 17 years. During his second season, Lewis amassed 184 tackles. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and repeated the feat in 2003.

    The Super Bowl XXXV MVP won a second championship in 2012 and danced into retirement with 2,055 career tackles, 41.5 sacks and 51 total takeaways.

1. Lawrence Taylor

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    Until J.J. Watt came around, Lawrence Taylor was the only player to ever secure three Defensive Player of the Year honors.

    The No. 2 selection of the 1981 draft won both Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year that season. He garnered DPOY recognition in 1982 and 1986, winning NFL MVP in the latter season. Taylor racked up a career-best 20.5 sacks en route to the MVP.

    Overall, L.T. tallied 132.5 sacks, 10 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro nods as well as helped the Giants win two Super Bowls.

    Although off-field troubles have dimmed the shine on his NFL days, Taylor finished his career as the most dominant linebacker ever.