With rule changes being what they have been, I decided to rank the linebackers that have played since 1970. That is the reason you will not find Butkus, Huff, Nitschke etc… in these rankings. I have combined outside and inside linebackers on the list and factored in the player’s ability to stop the run, drop into coverage and leadership.
30) John Offerdahl
Although he only played three full seasons, he made five Pro Bowls. He even made the Pro Bowl in a year that he only started eight games and also a year in which he only started nine games. He was blue collar player who was a great leader on defense and could do everything well on a football field.
29) Bryce Paup
Bryce Paup was an outstanding pass rusher in the 1990’s. His best season was his first year with the Bills where he had 17.5 sacks, 70 tackles, two INTs, and three forced fumbles. Paup was a complete linebacker, who was especially great at rushing the passer. He started his career out with the Packers, if they would have used him correctly he would have been higher on this list.
28) Zach Thomas
Thomas did everything you asked out of a linebacker. He was always around the ball. He finished his career with 1,106 tackles and 627 assisted tackles as well. He also finished his career with 17 INT’s. Thomas was one of the most instinctive linebackers of all-time. It seemed like he knew where the ball was going at all times.
27) Harry Carson
Overlooked because he played alongside Lawrence Taylor, Carson did most of the dirty work in that linebacking core. He took up blockers and threw his body around a lot. He had an outstanding attitude and would do anything to get his team a win.
26) Hardy Nickerson
In 1993 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers middle linebacker, Nickerson piled up an astounding 214 tackles. That is just unheard of. Nickerson wasn’t just a one hit wonder though. Over his career, he totaled 1,271 tackles, 12 INT’s, and 19 forced fumbles.
25) Reggie Williams
Williams was the heart and soul of two Super Bowl defenses. Williams recorded 16 interceptions and 23 fumble recoveries (a franchise record). During his career Williams amassed 62.5 sacks, which is the second most in Bengals history. In his final two seasons with the Bengals, Williams was appointed to an open seat on the Cincinnati City Council in 1988 and was elected for a second term in 1989 on the Charter Party ticket.
Williams has received numerous honors, including selection to the NFL All-Rookie Team (1976), the Byron “Whizzer” White Award for Humanitarian Service (1985), the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award (1986), and Sports Illustrated’s Co-Sportsman of the Year (1987).
Earl Campbell called Williams the toughest linebacker he ever played against.
24) Matt Blair
Blair was outstanding in coverage, along with being a great tackler. He also played two different positions, playing ILB and OLB for the Vikings in his career. Blair was also one of the greatest special teams players of all-time!
23) Pat Swilling
Pat Swilling was an outstanding pass rusher in his career, totaling up 107 sacks in his career and 101.5 sacks in a 10 year period throwing out his rookie year and last season of his career. That’s over 10 sacks per season, which is outstanding. Swilling was the best pass rusher of the Dome Patrol, but he also forced 36 fumbles to go along with all the sacks.
22) Tom Jackson
Jackson was the vocal leader of the orange crush defense. He was also the fastest linebacker of the bunch and excelled in pass coverage. In 1976, Jackson had seven INTs. That’s right, seven. The next year, he followed it up with four more interceptions. Jackson was not just a coverage linebacker, he was also a good pass rusher and a very hard worker off the field. He always tried to better himself and did it effectively.
21) Wilber Marshall
Wilber Marshall was one of the greatest pass coverage linebackers of the modern era. He had five INT’s in a season twice in his career. Marshall wasn’t just a pass coverage linebacker though, he also racked up 1,020 tackles during his 11 year NFL career, along with 24 forced fumbles.
20) Isaiah Robertson
Robertson is one of the most underrated players in NFL history. I think that’s largely due to the NFL not keeping sacks and tackles numbers during his career. Isiah Robertson, nicknamed “The Playmaker”, was known for coming up with the big plays in the biggest games. He played in 10 playoff games and had two INTs and three fumble recoveries in them.
19) Chris Spielman
Chris Spielman was a tackle machine during his 10 years in the NFL. He racked up a staggering 1,181 tackles, and 1,131 of them in his first nine seasons. Spielman had seven straight 100 tackle seasons, and did it eight out of nine years. That’s amazing consistency. Spielman was a great leader and intense player who always gave everything he had.
18) Sam Mills
Mills racked up 1,142 tackles in his career. But Mills did much more than that. He was also a good pass rusher, and a good coverage man as well. Undersized height wise, but an overabundance of heart made him more than a handful to deal with.
17) Kevin Greene
Greene was one of the best pass rushers of all time, recording 160 sacks in his career. He had ten seasons with 10+ sacks. He was close to averaging a sack per game, which is an amazing number. As a pass rusher, Greene would be top 5 at least, his ability to be an every-down linebacker hurts him overall, he was not great against the run.
16) Levon Kirkland
I know, how can I rate Kirkland over Greene? Kirkland was an all-around better linebacker, he was a 300lb linebacker whose coverage skills were vastly underrated. Kirkland had great speed and agility for a big man. He became a starter at inside linebacker for the Steelers in his second season, 1993, replacing Pro Bowler David Little. By 1995, he was recognized as one of the top inside linebackers in the league and had a stellar performance in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the season. In that game, the Steelers defense held the Cowboys to just 15 first downs and Emmitt Smith and the Cowboys powerful running attack to just 56 yards, despite losing 27-17 in large part due to two key interceptions thrown by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Kirkland had 10 tackles and a key sack of Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman.
That game and his outstanding 1996 season earned Kirkland his first trip to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors after the 1996 season. The Steelers had lost their emotional leader, outside linebacker Greg Lloyd, at the start of the season to a knee injury, but Kirkland took over the mantle of leadership. He also took over Lloyd’s role in pass coverage as the only linebacker in the Steelers nickel defense. Opponents thought Kirkland would not be as adept in pass coverage as the fast Lloyd, but they quickly found out that Kirkland was just as fast and quick. He had four interceptions that season, a high number for an inside linebacker, to go along with four sacks and 114 tackles.
15) Brian Urlacher
In 2006, he had an amazing season and won defensive MVP, which is a very high honor that most players on this list never achieved. Urlacher was the leader of those great Bears defenses of the 2000s, including when they got to the Super Bowl only to lose to Peyton Manning and the Colts. Urlacher was an all-around great linebacker who flew around the field with reckless abandon.
14) Cornelius Bennett
He had over 1,000 tackles, over 70 sacks, and over 30 forced fumbles in his career. Those would be accomplishments by themselves, let alone all together. He was just a great all-around player who could do it all.
13) Karl Mecklenburg
A late 12th round pick Mecklenburg finished his career with 79 sacks, which is great for an ILB, and also ranks 2nd all-time in Broncos history. He also had at least 99 tackles in seven years of his 12-year career, which is outstanding.
Mecklenburg was never a cocky player, but just a guy who would show up on Sundays. Even now, you can tell what kind of person he is by his charity work with the REACH Foundation that he started. Any coach would be lucky to have a player like Karl Mecklenburg on their roster. He should be in the Hall of Fame.
12) Mike Singletary
Singletary was a leader, not only vocally, but by example. He had 885 career solo tackles, which is impressive on a defense filled with swarming the ball, shown by his 1,488 career tackles. Mike Singletary had the whole package. He did anything the Bears asked of him, especially stuffing the run. Mike Singletary is one of three players on this list to win Defensive Player of the Year twice in his career. He did it once in 1985 and again in 1988.
11) Randy Gradishar
Randy Gradishar played along with Tom Jackson in the Denver Broncos “Orange Crush” defense. Gradishar was the silent assassin of the team. He wasn’t very vocal, but his play did all the talking for him. Over his nine-year career, he had 2,049 tackles, although this number is solo and assisted because he played before solo tackles were an official stat. Still, it’s an amazing number. He also had 20 INT’s, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
10) Andre Tippett
In 1984 and 1985, Tippett put up two of the best back-to-back seasons recording 18.5 and 16.5 sacks in them. He was a dominating force in the NFL during that stretch of time. Tippett finished his career with 100 sacks. He had less than seven sacks in a season only once.
9) Derrick Brooks
Derrick Brooks may be the most accomplished linebacker on this list. Eleven Pro Bowls. Nine All-Pro’s. Defensive MVP in 2002. Super Bowl winner. There’s not much Brooks doesn’t have. Brooks is most known for his coverage ability in the Bucs cover-two scheme. In his time in the NFL, he intercepted 25 passes and returned six of them for touchdowns with three of those in 2002 alone. Brooks wasn’t just a pass coverage linebacker, but he also played the run well. He had 1,301 tackles and 25 forced fumbles in his career.
8) Junior Seau
Seau was the definition of consistency. He was never the most athletic player on the field, but he was always the hardest working. He would always be found around the ball, and around the play. Junior Seau finished his career with 1,524 tackles, the highest total on this list.
7) Rickey Jackson
Jackson tallied up 128 sacks in his career, but even that’s not his most impressive number. Jackson had 40 forced fumbles, just one short of the NFL record. He also had 1,173 tackles in his career. Rickey Jackson was one of the fastest linebackers in the game, but he was also one of the hardest hitters. He was unstoppable in goal-line situations especially.
6) Robert Brazile
Brazile was drafted out of Jackson State and revolutionized linebacker play in the NFL. He was Lawrence Taylor before Taylor was. Sacks and tackles weren’t recorded until late in his career, but he was a great pass rusher and all-around linebacker. He could do it all. He wasn’t great at just one aspect he was equally great at everything he did. If you don’t believe me, watch the film, as they say, the film doesn’t lie!
5) Derrick Thomas
Derrick Thomas was on pace to absolutely shatter NFL records before his tragic death in 2000. In only 11 seasons, Thomas had 126.5 sacks, and an NFL record of 41 forced fumbles. Thomas never had less than seven sacks in a season in his entire career, and only had less than eight sacks in one season. Thomas is also third all-time in safeties and fumble returns for touchdowns. He knew how to make big plays.
4) Jack Lambert
Lambert’s best season was in 1976, where he won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Lambert won four Super Bowls with the Steelers in the 1970s playing in the “Steel Curtain”. Lambert wasn’t just great on the inside, he was an outstanding coverage linebacker. He totaled 28 INTs in his career while he also racked up 1,045 tackles.
3) Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis came into the league and dominated right away. He has been one of the most intimidating players in the NFL his entire career. Lewis was the leader of the 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens team. This team was widely regarded as having one of the best defenses of all time. The defense was ranked right up there along with the 1985 Bears, and Steelers teams of the 1970s.
Ray Lewis is another one of the three players on the list to win Defensive Player of the Year twice in his career. He did it in 2000 and again in 2003. Lewis’ stats at this point of his career are 1,349 tackles, 36.5 sacks, and 28 INT’s. Those are remarkable numbers, especially when he is still going strong.
2) Jack Ham
Jack Ham might be the best coverage linebacker of all time. His 32 career INTs lead the way for linebackers. Ham is the only linebacker other than Tom Jackson to have seven INTs in a single season. Ham had outstanding speed. He was said to have the fastest 10-yard burst of any player on the team, and that included receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, and running back Franco Harris.
1) Lawrence Taylor
Taylor changed the way football is played today. Not only did he change the way defenses are run, but he changed the way offensive schemes are run as well. He was also the first player to have a TE or RB used for chip blocking on him, and overall changed the way offensive lineman block.
LT finished his career with 142 sacks, averaging nearly 11 sacks per season. If you take away his last three seasons, where he was slowing down, he averaged 12.4 sacks per season, which is just remarkable.