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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 10 Linebackers in NFL History: Who was the Greatest: LT, Ray Lewis, or Dick Butkus?

Top 10 Linebackers in NFL History: Who was the Greatest: LT, Ray Lewis, or Dick Butkus?

Publish Date: 03/07/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Linebacker has always been one of the most glamorous positions on a football team. Today, we will examine the greatest linebackers in NFL history. All ten of these guys were and are true legends of the game. The order is tough to figure out, but I think there is little doubt that all ten players deserve a spot on this list.

Criteria

Domination of the game is the key to being a legendary linebacker, and everyone on this list is a legend. The statistics are great, and winning is fantastic, but this list measures the impact that each one of these linebackers has had on the game. Stats are hard to quantify because stats like sacks were really not officially counted until the late 1970s.

10) Derrick Thomas

Thomas broke numerous NFL records before his tragic death in 2000. In just 11 seasons, he amassed 126.5 sacks, setting an NFL record with 41 forced fumbles. He never had less than seven or eight sacks per season for his entire career. Furthermore, he ranks third all-time in safeties and fumble returns for touchdowns, making huge plays!

He was the epitome of a game-changing linebacker, he was one of if not the greatest Pass Rushing Linebacker in NFL history and he changed games with big plays, seemingly every weekend.

Video: Derrick Thomas Highlights

Derrick Thomas Highlights

9) Derrick Brooks

Brooks is one of the most accomplished linebackers ever. He earned 11 Pro Bowl selections, 9 All-Pro selections, Defensive MVP honors in 2002 and won Super Bowl 50 as an All-Pro linebacker with the Tampa Bay Bucs cover two scheme.

Brooks made headlines for intercepting 25 passes—three returned for touchdowns—during his NFL career and had 1,301 tackles and 25 forced fumbles during that same time frame! Not to be outshone by other linebackers or pass coverage linebackers, Brooks was equally adept against run vs. cover two schemes, with 1,301 tackles and 25 forced fumbles, all of which contributed to his being named All-Pro Defensive MVP that year as well.

Video: Derrick Brooks ULTIMATE HIGHLIGHT REEL | 55 Days til' Bucs Kickoff

Derrick Brooks ULTIMATE HIGHLIGHT REEL | 55 Days til’ Bucs Kickoff

8) Jack Lambert- Steelers

Lambert had his finest year in 1976 when he won the Defensive Player of the Year Award with the Steelers, winning four Super Bowls along the “Steel Curtain”. Not only was Lambert an excellent defensive linebacker but he was also an excellent coverage linebacker, totaling 28 interceptions while amassing 1,045 tackles over his career.

Lambert was the rock that the Steel Curtain was built around and helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in six seasons. not bad for an undersized linebacker that was never expected to be that good. Some of the linebackers on this list are some of the most hated players of all-time!

Video: Jack Lambert Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Jack Lambert Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

7) Junior Seau- Chargers, Patriots

Seau was an example of consistency on the field. While not the fastest player, he always worked tirelessly and could always be found around the ball or involved in plays. Junior finished his career with 1,524 tackles — more than any other player on this list!

Seau helped lead the underdog Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX. They came up short, but the impact he had on that team was incredible. Late in his career he moved on to New England and helped the Patriots get to the Super Bowl. Seau was a team leader and had tremendous instincts for finding the ball.

Video: In Their Own Words - Junior Seau HD

In Their Own Words – Junior Seau HD

6) Mike Singletary-Bears

In 1985 and 1988, Mike Singletary won Defensive Player of the Year honors. As part of their 46-10 Super Bowl victory, Singletary recovered two fumbles during that game; Mike Singletary displayed all of the instincts, leadership, and toughness seen from Ray Lewis and Junior Seau.

The 1985 Chicago Bears defense was led by Singletary, and they will go down as one of the most excellent defenses in NFL history. Singletary was so good that people tend to forget players like Otis Wilson and Wilbur Marshall. Singletary was the unquestioned leader of that great defense.

Video: Mike Singletary Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Mike Singletary Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

5) Ted Hendricks- Colts, Packers, Raiders

He made his inaugural Pro Bowl at 24 in 1971 and his final one at 36 in 1983 with Green Bay. In 1974, with Green Bay, he finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting after intercepting five passes, blocking seven kicks, and scoring a safety.

In 1980 and 1982, he came in second place for DPOY with the Raiders.

Hendricks appeared in 215 consecutive regular-season games, seven AFC Championship Games, and four Super Bowls (V with the Colts, XI, XV, and XVIII with the Raiders).

Hendricks didn’t just play in four Super Bowls; his teams won them all by an aggregate score of 113-46! Additionally, Hendricks appeared in 21 playoff games and finished 17-4 for each.

Video: Ted Hendricks Highlights

Ted Hendricks Highlights

4) Ray Lewis- Ravens

Ray Lewis emerged as one of the NFL’s premier players almost immediately and continued to be one of its most formidable threats during his entire career. Lewis led his 2000 Super Bowl-winning Ravens squad – widely considered one of the finest defenses ever assembled (rivaling those seen on teams like the 1985 Bears and ’70s Steelers squads).

Lewis is one of three players on our list who has twice won Defensive Player of the Year, in 2000 and again in 2003. Lewis boasts 1,349 tackles, 36.5 sacks, and 28 interceptions – astounding numbers for anyone playing the linebacker position!

Video: Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis Last Dance On Home Turf

Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Ray Lewis Last Dance On Home Turf

3) Jack Ham-Steelers

Jack Ham is considered the greatest coverage linebacker of all time. With 32 career INTs leading all linebackers and seven in one season (equaling only Tom Jackson), Ham is a true great of coverage linebacking. Ham had exceptional speed: except for John Stallworth and Lynn Swann were the only players on the Steelers with faster 10-yard burst times.

He ranks this highly because, athletically, he was one of the two greatest linebackers ever, and he was also ranked highly for his intelligence. People tend to remember Jack Lambert more, but Ham was the better all-around linebacker. Ham is an all-time Penn State Nittany Lion.

Video: Jack Ham Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Jack Ham Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

2) Dick Butkus- Bears

Butkus was named sixth in MVP voting after the Bears finished the year at 1-13, finishing as high as seventh and eighth for each year since 1967 (7-6-1), 1968 (7-7) and 1970 (6-8).

Medical advances were his downfall; after suffering an unfortunate knee injury at 28 in 1970, which ultimately ended his career, had he been born a decade or two later, perhaps he would rank even higher on this list.

Video: Butkus Monster of the Midway

Butkus Monster of the Midway

1) Lawrence Taylor-Giants

Lawrence Taylor revolutionized how football is played today. Not only did he revolutionize defenses, but he was revolutionized offense as teams started using extra lineman and tight ends just to defend him. He was the biggest difference maker in Defensive history. When he got to the Giants they were terrible, by the end of his rookie season the Giants were a playoff team.

LT finished his career with 142 sacks, an average of nearly 11 per season. If we exclude his last three seasons, where his production decreased considerably, then his average was an incredible 12.4 per season! Simply astounding.

Video: Lawrence Taylor Highlights

Lawrence Taylor Highlights

Honorable Mentions

Robert Brazile

Brazile was drafted out of Jackson State and revolutionized linebacker play in the NFL. He was Lawrence Taylor before Taylor. Sacks and tackles weren’t recorded until later in his career, yet he was an exceptional pass rusher and all-around linebacker who could do everything well; not great at just one aspect but great in all things. If you don’t believe me, just watch his film because the evidence speaks for itself!

Brazile was a part of the Luv ya Blue Oilers team that made three straight playoff appearances, and two of those seasons climaxed in the AFC Championship game. Brazile was named a Pro Bowler in each of his first seven seasons. Brazile is one of the reasons that Bum Philips should be in the Hall of Fame.

Chuck Bednarik

World War II veteran Bednarik played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949 to 1962. Sports fans should recognize and admire Shohei Ohtani’s accomplishments in baseball just as much as they should respect Bednarik.

He was the final full-time two-way player in NFL history as center and linebacker, earning himself the moniker “The Sixty-Minute Man.” Like Ohtani today, he was truly unique.

 Andre Tippett

In 1984 and 1985, Tippett enjoyed two outstanding back-to-back seasons recording 18.5 and 16.5 sacks respectively and dominating the NFL during those times. Tippett finished his career with 100 sacks, having not had less than seven in any single year of his career.

Tippett was an underrated player, at least now he is, but in the mid-80s, he was nearly on a par with Lawerence Taylor. For his career, he was a consistent, dominant linebacker. Tippett was a big part of the first-ever Patriots Super Bowl team in 1985.

Rickey Jackson

Jackson amassed 128 sacks during his career, but that wasn’t his most impressive statistic. Instead, Jackson achieved 40 forced fumbles – only one shy of breaking the NFL record. Additionally, Jackson amassed 1,173 tackles. Jackson was considered to be one of the fastest linebackers and hardest-hitting players on defence – unstoppable, especially during goal-line situations.

Jackson, Sam Mills, and Vaughn Johnson were part of a legendary Linebacker corps, one of the greatest in NFL history. The trio helped lead the Saints to their first playoff appearances and are still beloved to this day in New Orleans.

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