Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Top 3-4 Rushbackers of All-Time

OPINION
By John Turney

In this case, "All-Time" really starts in the early 1980s. That is when the 3-4 was exploding and teams were drafting players who could rush the passer from a two-point stance almost all the time. The early adopters of the 3-4 did dog the linebackers, but it wasn't always a full-time thing. In 1974 the Oilers Ted Washington had 11 sacks but never approached it again.

Nineteen eighty-one was the watershed season. That is when Lawrence Taylor and Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson entered the NFL and two of those three became the prototype rushbackers. Yes, in 1980, Joel Williams was the first linebacker ever to average a sack per game (16) in 1980 he misses this list due to injuries and because he changed to move of a coverage backer early in his career. But the fact remains his 1980 season was one of the best-ever by any rushbacker.

So, even though this position is primarily a pass rush position and sacks are a huge part of it, we also gave consideration to coverage abilities (when needed) and to run stopping skills. However, please note that some of the great 3-4 OLBers were not what we considered 'rushbackers' or de facto defensive ends. This would include players like Robert Brazile, Greg Lloyd, Rod Martin, Ted Hendricks, and others. So if you don't see a name, ask yourself if he's a complete 'backer or more of an edge rusher and if he's the former, then you will see his name in a future post.

So, here is who we think are the top 3-4 rushing linebackers ever:

1.  Lawrence Taylor
Who else did you'd think would be #1? Taylor played 10 seasons, was All-Pro nine times (eight consensus) and a 10-time Pro Bowler, a 10-time All-NFC pick, a 3-time NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year (1981, 82, and 86), was a NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1983 and 1984 and 1986, was a 5-time NFC Linebacker of the Year, a 3-time NFL Linebacker of the Year, a First-ballot Hall of Famer, and was on the NFL's 75th Anniversary team and the 1980s All-Decade team.

He ended his career with 996 tackles and 142 sacks (including 9½ in 1981 when sacks were not yet official) for an average of 12.3 sacks per 16 games. Also not official he forced 53 fumbles (we are aware there are other lower totals out there but film study shows more than the 33 the Giants give him credit for).

Aside from the post-season honors and stats and even the 2 ring, Taylor personified the position, he was 6-3, 242 pounds and ran a 4.6 forty, though it looked faster. He was a good tackler, a hitter, an intimidating force. He defines this position. Said guru Joel Buchsbaum, "Has the strength of a down lineman as the speed of a defensive back. Can dominate a game like no other 3-4 OLBer ever has before".

Yes, he had flaws, he wasn't great in coverage, but he was okay, especially early, but there is no doubt that Taylor is the G.O.A.T at this spot.

2. Von Miller
Too soon you say? Allow us to retort. As of this posting Miller has played 113 games and has 92.5 sacks—an average of 13.1 per 16 games. What outside linebacker had more than that? None.

Miller played, for years, the strong side OLBer and now is usually on the weak side, but is usually the LDE in nickel. He has proven himself worthy of being second on this list because he gets to the quarterback more often than anyone, and when he was playing for Wade Phillips was adept at coverage and is a good run defender. When he gets to the QB he gets him to fumble (averages 4 forced fumbles a season).

Miller is a five-time First-team All-Pro and one-time Second-team selection, he's a six-time Pro Bowler.

What sets Miller ahead of other great ones, we think is his speed (legit 4.5) and hand usage on the pass rush. He was not the only great technician, but he's one of the best, and he also has tremendous bend to get 'under' a tackle. Throw in the great hustle and you have someone who, if he can stay healthy, will end his career with 150 or so sacks.

3.  Derrick Thomas
Thomas had weaknesses, in coverage and in stopping the run. He was not asked to cover much, so we will ignore that. However, to counter the run stopping issue Thomas got moved to several positions in the base defense in the middle of his career. He was a 'Sam', a 'Falcon' a 'Stack' backer. But on passing downs, he was a right defensive end and a dominant one and that's why he's third on the list.

He had legit 4.5 speed and could explode off the line. He had good hand usage and was great at forcing fumbles. He played 11 seasons before a car accident tragically took his life and amassed 126.5 sacks in that time for an average per 16 games of 12.0. he led the NFL in sacks in 1990 with 20.0.

He was a three-time First-team All-Pro and was a Second-team pick three other seasons and was voted to nine Pro Bowls. He was a two-time NFL Linebacker of the Year and a three-time AFC Linebacker of the Year.

Often underrated but not here. Greene's 160 sacks are the most ever by any rushbacker, he averaged 11.2 sacks per 16 games was a three-time First-team All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler, was the 1996 NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time Conference Player of the Year (1994 and 1996) was the NFLPA Linebacker of the year three times.

he began his career as a rusher on third downs but earned a starting spot in 1988. He thrived in the Rams 3-4 that had plenty of Fritz Shurmur's Eagle/Hawk scheme mixed in. Under those conditions, Greene totaled 46 sacks from 1988-90, more than anyone in the NFL. In 1991 the scheme changed to a 4-3 and while he still led the Rams in sacks in 1991 and 1992, he felt like a fish out of water.'

In 1993 he signed with the Steelers and became part of the Dom Capers "Blitzburgh" defense. He followed Capers to the expansion Panthers and in 1996 he led the NFL in sacks for the second time (1994 was the first time) and this is when he won the NEA Defensive Player of the Year award, the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year, the NFLPA and NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year awards and was consensus All-Pro and a Pro Bowler, all the while helping get the Panthers a game away from the Super Bowl.

Greene was a speed and speed-to-power rusher, who showed relentless effort. He didn't have the long arms of some of the others, but he could use his strength to break free from blocks and get to the quarterback. He spent his career on the left side and had to deal with tight ends chipping him more than most on the list. 

Tippett didn't have the career totals in sacks and forced fumbles like some of the others on this list, but he was a great rusher who played left defensive end in passing downs and was a superior run stopper to all of them and he was among the better pass coverage players here as well. He was asked to do more than just rush the passer.

Tippett was a two-time First-team All-Pro and a two-time Second-team All-Pro pick went to five Pro Bowls and was a Second-team pick on the 1980s All-decade team. He was also a three-time NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year winner and was a co-winner of the 1985 NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Like Greene, Tippett played the strong side and had to deal with tight ends quite often. He was a black belt in martial arts and used those skills on the field, which didn't hurt the 'intimidation factor'. Said Buchsbaum, "He runs by the power tackles, manhandles smaller blockers and looks like a rocket when he accelerates to the quarterback". 

Tippett finished with 100 sacks and averaged 10.6 per 16 games, but also remember he missed 1989 with injury and in 1990 he came back but was still not 100%, but gutted it out anyway. His final three years he was back to his former self and averaged 8 sacks a year for that trio of seasons/

Ware is not eligible for the Hall of Fame yet, but he will get in, likely right away.  He was a five-time First-team All-Pro and a one-time Second-teamer and went to nine Pro Bowls (though the couple in Denver might be a bit on reputation).

He averaged 12.4 sacks per 16 games and totaled 138.5 sacks in his 12 years and forced 35 fumbles. He led the NFL in sacks twice and even earned a Super Bowl ring in 2015 with the Broncos.

He did play a couple of seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but in recent years you will see that many of these players did (Kevin Greene did in 1991, Derrick Thomas did for a time) that is just par for the course. New coaches come in, switch the scheme, say they will use their star players in a way that will maximize their skills. Sometimes that works, usually, it doesn't. In Ware's case, it was in the middle. 

Jackson was a four-time First-team All-Pro (though none consensus) and was a second-team All-Pro twice and went to six Pro Bowls. He played 15 years and has 136 sacks (averaging 9.6 per 16 games). He got a ring with the 49ers in 1994 playing the "Whip" in their Elephant defense. 

Jackson played the strong side, like Greene and Tippett, and like Tippett had coverage responsibilities.  He was credited with 77 passes defensed in his career, and also with 88 stuffs (tackles for loss on run or pass plays) showing his all-around abilities. 

He forced 42 fumbles, which is very high for a left-side player, and that total is right up there with some of the blind-side rushbackers. He made 1190 tackles, picked of right passes and recovered 29 fumbles.

If one were (as coaches do) to give 'points' for tackles (2 points), assists (1 point), sacks (5 points), fumbles forced and recovered (five points each), passes deflected (2 points), etc. and then total those amounts for all the rushbackers, Jackson might be the all-time leader  among outside linebackers in 'defensive points"—even more than L.T., Greene, etc. When you looked at his box scores there were usually numbers in all the columns.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010.

Still active and playing well, Suggs is already an all-time great. Suggs has averaged 9.4 sacks per 16 games and has 131.0 sacks currently. He has 842 tackles and has forced 33 fumbles and 91.5 of his tackles were for losses, aside from the sacks. Those 91.5 stuffs are among the highest figures you will see on this list as Suggs was a major part of the Ravens run defense which was one of the two best in most categories during his career.

He was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and was First-team All-Pro that year. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2008 and has been voted to the Pro Bowl seven times. 

Suggs is a true edge rusher, someone who splits time between left and right end and backer in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. He just does what he does—sizzle. And he's done it for 16 seasons.

In 1991 Swilling was the consensus Defensive Player of the Year, All-Pro, led the NFL in sacks, forced six fumbles and was the "new L.T." Well, not quite, but he sure was good,

He was the ROLBer, opposite Rickey Jackson. On passing downs, they were the defensive ends in the Saints sub packages and they could get it done. Swilling ended his career with 107.5 sacks (9.4 sacks per 16 games) and 36 forced fumbles. From 1987 (his first as a starter) through 1992 Swilling led the NFL in sacks with 72.5

In 1995 we went to Oakland and was converted to defensive end full-time by Floyd Peters and responded with 13 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, nice totals after a couple of injury-plagued seasons in Detroit.

Swilling was First-team All-Pro in 1991 and 1992 and was Second-team All-Pro in 1989 and 1990. He was also All-NFC five times and a Second-team All-AFC pick once and played in five Pro Bowls.

Has been dinged in recent years, but from 2012-15 he was a Pro Bowler and a First-team All-Pro in 2014 and 2015 (2014 consensus). He led the NFL in sacks in 2014. He hasn't forced a lot of fumbles but gets his hands up and blocks quite a lot of passes (31 so far in his career).

His average of 12.2 sacks per 16 games is one of the highest out there. If he can regain his health and return to his former self he can move up this list quickly.

11. Aldon Smith
Smith is here based on his peak. How high was it? Per 16 games he averaged 12.9 sacks in his troubled career. He was a physical freak and could have been one of the all-time greats if he could have avoided the off-the-field issues he had.

He had excellent speed, very long arms, and natural strength that made him a nightmare for left tackles. He'd get his arms up and block passes and could separate the ball from the quarterback. Simply put, he was a mismatch for even the best left tackles in the league.

As it stands he played 5 years and was an All-Pro/Pro Bowler once and had 47.5 sacks with a career-high of 19.5 in 2014. What could have been?

Maybe it's not fair to have him as #11 on this list, but the eye test would put him even higher, but most football people would say he had Jadeveon Clowney-type athleticism. Just a shame.

12. Khalil Mack
Mack has played five seasons and has been to three Pro Bowls and was a consensus First-team All-Pro twice and was the AP Defensive Player of the Years. In his five seasons (4½ actually, as of this posting) he has 45.5 sacks (10.4 per 16 games) and 13 forced fumbles. He has a knack for making his big plays in late in games when his team needs it most.

Now in his new Chicago digs, we will see if he keeps up the pace and if he can crack the top 10 on this list. The trade from Oakland should work out well for Mack. The Raiders were moving to a 4-3 Tampa-2 style defense and Mack would have been a defensive end in that scheme. Now, he could do it, but the Bears 3-4 will allow more freedom and will allow Mack to do more than line up at one spot. Time will tell but there is no doubt, in less than five years in the NFL he's made an impression—emough to make him the highest paid defensive player ever.

13. James Harrison
Harrison was a two-time consensus First-team All-Pro and a Second-team pick once. He was also the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and voted to five Pro Bowls.

he ended his career with just 84.5 sacks, an average of 7 per 16 games, but he had a slow start and then spent his last few seasons as a designated rusher, playing only on passing downs. But in his prime, he was a supreme pass rusher with great strength and great leverage.

he was a self-made player, lacking in the "measurables" that coaches look for, the "triangle numbers" of size, speed, and strength. Harrison had the strength but lacked the height and length of some of the great rushbackers and though had quickness he wasn't going to outrun a Von Miller of Derrick Thomas anytime but in his Pro Bowl-stretch, in those five years, he averaged 12 sacks and 6 forced fumbles a season.

14. Clay Matthews
A few years ago, taking one for the team, Matthews played inside linebacker in the Packer base defense and rushed from the edge on passing downs. It cut some of his opportunities to sack the quarterback but he did it because the coaches thought he could help to defend the run if he were inside more.

Matthews was an All-Pro in 2010 and a Second-team pick in 2012 and has been to six Pro Bowls. Currently, he has 82.5 sacks (good for a 9.8 average per 16 games) and has 41 passes defensed, 14 forced fumbles and has scored three defensive touchdowns.

15. Joey Porter
Porter had some off-field troubles in his career, but he also played excellent football on it. He was a two-time First-team All-Pro and also had Second-team selections in two other seasons to match his four Pro Bowls. He was also a Second-team pick for the 2000s All-Decade team.

He finished his career with 98.0 sacks (with a career-high of 17.5 in 2008) and averaged 8.3 sacks per 16 games. He knocked down a lot of passes (49) and forced 25 fumbles.

16. Ryan Kerrigan
Currently, Kerrigan has 77 sacks in his 7½ seasons (average: 9.6 per 16 games) and 23 forced fumbles. He's been to three Pro Bowls but has yet to be named All-Pro. He's a left side outside linebacker but often rushes from the weak side, depending on the situation. He plays the same side as Kevin Greene, wears the same number so that may influence it, but he does remind us of Greene, though Kerrigan is a bit more fluid of an athlete.

A lot of folks may not remember Tim Harris, but he was a fine player, though he seemed to hold out a lot. He was the 1989 NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year and totaled 19.5 sacks that year. he was a consensus All-Pro in 1989 and was a First-team All-Pro in 1988. he went to just one Pro Bowl, but likely deserved a few more.

He was a tall, lanky rusher, who had very good hand usage. Said Buchsbaum, "He's 6-5, has long, strong arms and has a feel for rushing the passer. He may be a showboat be he has something to showboat about".

The 49ers picked him up after some acrimony in Green Bay and in 1992 he played their "Whip" position in the Elephant defense and had 17 sacks (he replaced Charles Haley who'd been shipped to Dallas).

Harris finished with 81 sacks (10.6 per 16 games).

Fletcher has a good case to be the best player ever to never be All-Pro of to be named to the Pro Bowl. He played in an era where the 3-4 defense was king and the competition for those Pro Bowl and All-Pro slots was fierce.

Still, Fletcher put up Pro Bowl-type numbers year after year. He ended his career with 97.5 sacks (9.1 per 16 games). From 1988 through 1993, his prime, he averaged 12.5 sacks a season and average three forced fumbles a season.

Another of the active players on this list Orakpo has been to four Pro Bowls and 65.5 sacks in his career (8.3 average per 16 games) he seems to be slowing down (1 sack so far this year). We shall see. But his overall game was excellent, he was asked to cover more than some of the others and was a good tackler. But his coverage duties caused him to have slightly lower sack totals than some others—he was a poor man's Von Miller in a way, but one who suffered some serious injuries along the way.

Willie played some 4-3 defensive end and was also a 3-4 OLBer, but in the hybrid Bill Belichick defenses he was an edge player, regardless of scheme. He was named to two Pro Bowls and finished with 86 sacks, good for a 6.5 sacks per 16 game average but he's more than numbers. He was solid versus the run, could cover a running back or could drop to a zone and make a play on the ball.

In addition to the 86 sacks McGinest amassed 89.0 stuffs (tackles for loss) and like Jackson and Suggs, that number puts him at the top of this group in that stat.

He was part of the really good Patriot defenses that won three Super Bowls in the early 2000s and he was doubly effective in the playoffs.

Hali won't ever make the Hall of Fame but he should be remembered as a good rusher, who put pressure on quarterbacks for almost a dozen years. He played in five Pro Bowls and was a Second-team All-Pro twice. He began his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but the Chiefs switched to a 3-4 and he thrived in that scheme. He had 89.5 sacks in his career, countless hurries and average 8.1 sacks per 16 games and forced 33 fumbles.

Paup was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and led the NFL in sacks that year with 17.5, He was All-Pro that year and went to four Pro Bowls. He was also All-Conference twice and Second-team All-Conference once.

He'd rush from lots of spots, inside linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, outside linebacker. He was not a super athlete but was good using his hands and his smarts in getting to quarterbacks.

Boulware is unique on this list in that in his prime he was a 4-3 OLBer (strong side) who'd play left defensive end in passing situations. He was part of the great Ravens defenses of the late-1990s and early-2000s. Later in his career, the Ravens switched to the 3-4 defense and he played the usual OLBer spot the rest of the players on this list players, but he made his bones as a 40 LBer and 40 nickel left end.

He was Second-team All-Pro and First-team All-AFC in 1999 and went to four Pro Bowls, he finished his career with 70 sacks (good for an 8.9 per 16-game average). 

Boulware was dogged by bad knees and that ended his career early but it was a worthy career, one worth remembering. 

Harvey, like Boulware, played 4-3 OLBer in a 4-3 defense though not for as long. He split between a 40 OLBer and 30 OLBer in base defense, but in passing situations, he was an edge rusher. He finished with 89 sacks (8.7/16 gms) and was named to four Pro Bowls and was a Second-team All-Pro twice.

25. LaMarr Woodley
In 2009 Woodley was a Second-team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl. Woodley's career lasted eight years and he had 58.0 sacks, good for an average of 8.4 sacks per 16 games. He was the left side rusher when James Harrison had his best years.

26. Tony Bennett

Bennet was hard to place. We left him out of the defensive end post even though he played about half his career as a defense even, maybe a hair more than half. But his best football was as a rushbacker with the Packers. He was never All-Pro and never made a Pro Bowl, he ended his career with 64.5 sacks in 8 yards for a 9.6 sacks per 16 game average. He's a classic "edge" guy, an outside rusher, whether a 4-3 end or 3-4 OLBer.

Ingram is now the Chargers "Leo" which is a hybrid 3-4/4-3 player, or edge rusher. He's currently averaging 7.4 sacks per 16 games and seems to get better every year. He made the Pro Bowl last year and is likely the first of several he will eventually make, given good health.

"Lights Out" Merriman was almost a flash in the pan. He exploded with 39.5 sacks three Pro Bowl selections, a First-team and a Second-team All-Pro selection in his first three years. Then, the wheels came off. His last five years were marred by injury as he averaged just 3 sacks per 16 games over that span. He ended with 45.5 sacks for a career average of 9.7 sacks per 16 games.

Cofer was twice a Second-team All-Pro and went to one Pro Bowl. His career totals were 62.5 sacks and a 16-game average of 8.1 sacks. 

30. Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney was a 2016 All-Pro and has been to the last two Pro Bowls. He's listed as a "Jack" backer, and he plays outside linebacker, also stands up a lot and rushes over a guard or center or lines up at defensive end, opposite J.J. Watt and gets edge pressure. He makes a lot of stops on running plays in the backfield.

If he plays the next couple of years like the last few, he will jump into the top 15 of this list quickly. The only reason he's at 31 now is his battle with injuries that hampered his performance in his first two seasons. He came into the NFL the same year as Khalil Mack and Mack as won a Defensive Player of the Year Award and has been to three Pro Bowls, So, give Clowney time, talent-wise he's a top 5 kind of player. If he has the kind of career he's capable of he'll be up there with the top names of the rushbackers, or Leos, Whips, Elephants, or Jack backers, whatever you want to call them.

Stat-wise he has 25.5 career sacks and has averaged 7.4 per 16 games, numbers that should go up quickly.

———————

We are stopping this list at 30 even though there are a handful of names that we might add if the list were extended, but we will name Jason Gildon and Shaun Phillips as honorable mentions. Both averaged 7.7 and 7.8 sacks per 16 games respectively and ended their careers with 80.0 and 81.5 sacks respectively. Both went to one Pro Bowl and Jason Gildon was a consensus All-Pro in 2001.

Agree or disagree? Let us know.

4 comments:

  1. These are really terrific John. Big kudos to you for this work.

    Was LT's run stopping ability behind a guy like Tippets run stopping?

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    1. In a way, LT's run stopping was like Deacon Jones's, he made a ton of plays chasing down from backside. But if you put a tackle on him you could move him and run to his side. He was nowhere near what Carl Banks could do versus the run.

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    1. don't consider him a rushbacker. He was a more complete player. Early in his career he was, but moved inside then was even a 4-3 OLBer...he will be with the OLBer group, though he was a rushbacker for first maybe 1/3-1/2 of his career.

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