Who would make your list of the “Top 15 Greatest NFL Linebackers of All Time in The History of NFL”? Whoever your choices are it cannot be argued that the job of the linebacker is one of the hardest on the field. Not to mention that it has evolved much more than the other positions throughout the history of the game.
A linebacker is the leader of the defense and is tasked with the responsibility of calling defensive plays while providing cover for the defensive backfield, blocking passes, and reading the movement of the opposing offense with extraordinarily sharp instincts among other things.
Based on these responsibilities, there are a number of criteria that are considered for choosing the cream of the crop from the slew of linebackers that have dotted the game since the NFL’s history. These include their personal and team achievements, their career stats, and degree of influence on the game all evaluated through the lens of the era in which they each played.
So here are our top 15 picks for the greatest NFL Linebackers of all time.
Top 15 Greatest NFL Linebackers of All Time in The History of NFL
1. Lawrence Taylor
It is impossible to start this list with any other name. Lawrence Taylor is by an extreme margin the top name among the greatest NFL Linebackers of all time and one of the best football players period. An alumnus of the University of North Carolina, Taylor captained his school team in 1980 and earned himself unanimous All-American honors and an ACC Player of the Year Award in the same year.
He was drafted by the New York Giants in the 1981 NFL Draft and went on to play his entire career with the team, retiring after the 1993 season. He is a 2-time Super Bowl Champion, a 10-time Pro Bowl player, and an 8-time First-team All-Pro. Lawrence’s finesse in the game and his uniquely high footballing IQ saw him the become the only defensive linebacker ever to clinch the title of the NFL MVP (1986). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
2. Ray Lewis
If we niche down on specific linebacker positions, then Ray Lewis is by far the greatest middle linebacker to ever come onto the pitch. His influence on the gridiron was legendary and his energy in the game was unrivaled.
A two-time All-American honors player for the University of Miami, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1996 where he played the entire 17 seasons of his career and retired in 2012. His 13 Pro Bowl selections make him the most selected middle linebacker in NFL history. In 2000, Ray Lewis was named the Super Bowl MVP and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No other linebacker has ever achieved both honors in a single season.
Whatever your feelings about this 10-time All-Pro and Pro Football Hall of Famer, he is undoubtedly the best middle linebacker ever and one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time.
3. Dick Butkus
Richard Marvin Butkus is currently a sports commentator and actor now, but back in the day, he was the most feared and admired linebacker of his era. Butkus could hit like a freight train; he was the model linebacker in more ways than we can count.
A consensus All-American, Rose Bowl Champion and Big Ten Conference MVP with the University of Illinois, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears during the first round of the 1965 NFL Draft. He spent his entire career with the Bears and was invited to eight Pro Bowls, and is an 8-time All-Pro and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Dick joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and was recognized as the most feared tackler in the NFL’s history by the NFL Network in 2009.
4. Mike Singletary
Dubbed “Samurai Mike” for his signature stare, the player had much more than his intimidation tactics to deserve a place as one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time. He was an integral part of the legendary defense of the Chicago Bears in the 1980s.
Singletary had a stellar career with Baylor University and went on to spend his entire 11-year career (1981-1992) with the Bears. In his time there, he won the Super Bowl XX (1985) and was invited to the Pro Bowl ten times. Mike became a Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1989.
5. Jack Lambert
The next logical addition to this list, Lambert spent his entire career as a middle linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1984. During his time, he was the formidable frontman for the “Steel Curtain” – the most terrific defense in the NFL at the time, effectively entrenching his place as one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time.
The Kent State University alumnus is a four-time Super Bowl champion, a feat that was achieved by the Steelers in a span of six consecutive years. For his efforts, Lambert was invited to 9 Pro Bowls and made it into the list for 8 All-Pro squads. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.
6. Jack Ham
If ever there was a checklist exhaustively detailing all the abilities required of a linebacker, Jack Raphael Ham would tick all those boxes. A thoroughly complete linebacker, Ham’s contribution as an outside linebacker was exemplary on the pitch as he, alongside teammate Jack Lambert formed part of the famed “Steel Curtains” that bagged four Super Bowl championships.
He is an 8-time Pro Bowler, and 8-time All-Pro and holds the record for most forced turnovers (53) by a linebacker in NFL history. He retired in 1982 after spending his whole career with the Steelers and is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Class of 1988.
7. Derrick Thomas
Tragedy would not let us experience all that Thomas would have been as a player. However, what he did give us is enough to recognize him as one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time.
Derrick played for the Kansas Chiefs from 1989 until his death in 2000. For his career contributions, he remains the franchise’s all-time sack leader (126.5 sacks) and is the NFL’s record holder for most sacks (7) in a single game. Thomas who is a 6-time All-Pro and 9-time Pro Bowler passed away at 33 from complications from injuries he sustained in an accident on January 23, 2000. He was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and his No.58 jersey was also retired by the Chiefs in the same year.
8. Junior Seau
The second posthumous addition to our list, Junior Seau was a king of the tackling game. His reading of the game and positioning was reflected in his unusually high number of professional career tackles (1,849). As a player, he turned out for the San Diego Chargers (1990-2002), Miami Dolphins (2003-2005), and the New England Patriots (2006-2009).
Sean was an alumnus of the University of Southern California and a 12-time Pro Bowler and 10-time All-Pro. His San Diego Chargers No.55 jersey was retired following the end of his career in 2009. Seau suffered CTE from multiple head concussions during his career and this resulted in him taking his own life in 2012. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
9. Brian Urlacher
One of the most recent entrants into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2018) on this list, Brian was extremely instrumental to his team’s play in the 2005 season. His contribution saw him awarded the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He played his entire career for the Chicago Bears from 2000 to 2012, garnering 8 invitations to the Pro Bowl and becoming a 5-time All-Pro.
The 2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Season ended his career with 1,353 tackles, 41.5 sacks, and created 34 turnovers. He holds the third highest number of appearances (182) by any player in the team’s history.
10. Ray Nitschke
A legendary middle linebacker who played his the entirety of his 15-year career (1958-1972) with the Green Bay Packers is most remembered as being an integral part of the legendary Packers defense of his time under the then head coach Vince Lombardi.
The Class of 1978 Pro Football Hall of Famer helped his team to five NFL Championship victories during his day, memorably including the first two installments of the Super Bowl era in 1967 and 1968. He was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1964 and is a 7-time All-Pro.
With his remarkable 5 NFL Championships, it is hard to argue that he belongs to any list of the greatest linebackers of all time.
11. Derrick Brooks
The linebacker’s 14 seasons as a pro footballer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers produced some of the best play on show in the franchise’s history. As a linebacker, his technique and instinct were spot-on as evidenced by his superb pass coverage and sure-footed tackling, both of which produced 1,700 professional career tackles and forced 49 turnovers.
Derrick won the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2002 and garnered 11 Pro Bowl invitations, 9 All-Pro recognitions, and an MVP Award in the 2005 Pro Bowl game. He played from 1995 to 2008 and is a Class of 2014 Pro Football Hall of Famer. He played a whopping 224 games for the Buccaneers and his No. 55 shirt was also retired after his retirement in 2010.
12. Harry Carson
Although Lawrence Taylor stands arguably as the greatest NFL linebacker of all time, he had help in achieving what he did – namely Harry Carson. Harry, among others, was an integral part of the New York Giants linebacker core of the early 1980s that were collectively known as “The Crunch Bunch”, as well as the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense of the rest of the 1980s.
He played his entire career with the Giants (1976-1988) and was the team captain for ten of those seasons. Harry is a Super Bowl (1986) winner, a 9-time Pro Bowler, and a 6-time All-Pro. He gained his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
13. Kevin Greene
There is probably significant merit to the assertion that Kevin Greene only retired because he had to. The formidable linebacker was still setting records well into the tail end of his career and is part of the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.
Kevin’s career spanned 15 years across five different teams. He started his career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1985 and left the franchise in 1992. He then played for Pittsburgh Steelers (1993-1995), San Francisco 49ers (1997) and had two spells with the Carolina Panthers (1996; 1998-1999). He currently sits third overall on the NFL’s list of all-time sacks (160) and is the highest linebacker on the list. In 1996, at the age of 34, he also became the oldest player ever to lead the league in sacks (14.5). The latter record won him the NFL Defensive Player of the Year that season.
Greene has 5 Pro Bowl invitations and 3 First-team All-Pro awards to show for his career. He joined the fellow legends of the sports as a Hall of Famer in 2016, effectively cementing his status as one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time.
14. Sam Huff
Huff played for the New York Giants (1956-1963) and the Washington Redskins (1964-1967; 1969). During his time with the Giants, he was part of a formidable and unrelenting linebacker setup that terrified offenses. The MVP of the 1961 Pro Bowl turned out for the Giants in six NFL championship games.
The hard-hitting linebacker is a 5-time Pro Bowler, a 6-time All-Pro, a Class of 1982 Hall of Famer, and part of the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.
15. Patrick Willis
Willis rounds up our list of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time. He had the shortest career (8 years) of all the players on his list, thanks to a niggling toe injury that ended his 2014 season and forced him into early retirement.
A 2007 NFL Draft Pick, the linebacker played his entire career for the San Francisco 49ers. In his time there, he was heralded for his tackling prowess and garnered 950 tackles in his short career. He is also a recipient of two Butkus Awards (collegiate and professional), a 7-time Pro Bowler and 7-time All-Pro.
He is the youngest player on this list and is the only one not yet a Hall of Famer, but with his achievements in the space of time he had, one we would right to assume that honor is not far away.