Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Top Outside Linebackers of All-Time

By John Turney
In this installation of ranking the great players, we tackle the outside linebackers who we don't consider to be rushbackers or 'edge rushers' though plenty of these did rush the edge and were good at it, but they also did plenty of coverage as well. There are some who are right there in the middle but we made a judgment call and here they are. If you want to see the All-time rushbacker list click HERE.

We like to see the best backers have a balance between sacks and interceptions, as it reflects skills in both dogging and coverage. In the era of the 4-3 getting 5 sacks for an outside linebacker was considered excellent, but in the era of the 3-4 rushbacker, 5 sacks is a poor season. But what impresses us most is when a player can get 5 sacks and maybe 4-5 interceptions, be credited with 10 or so passes defensed and so on. Registering in all defensive statistical categories. Not that it proves anything but when you see the great players play, they stand out on film, they 'flash' and then, when you review their stats, you can see patterns and see those 'flash' plays are the stuffs, sacks, picks, forced fumbles, etc.

Also, note that there is not much difference between #21 and #31. Or from #32 and 45. We do think there is a difference between say, #9 and #29, though. That is just something to keep in mind when reading this list, or any list for that matter. That way, no one should feel too slighted about the rank of their team's top outside 'backer.

Also note that "All-Time" begins, for our intents and purposes, in the early 1950s. The 5-2 defense was in vogue and the NFL was beginning to transition to the 4-3 by the mid-50s.

1. Bobby Bell
Hank Stram used to say Bobby Bell could play any position on a football field except quarterback. Well, then, yes, now? Maybe not. But he could fill most of them. He began as a defensive end and was All-AFL at that spot, but moved to left linebacker. And if you watch a lot of film, as we try to do, Bell is one of those guys who jump off. You just cannot miss him.

As a strongside linebacker, he could do it all. He blitzed well and he covered well. He was 6-4, 228 pounds and ran a legit 4.5 forty-yard dash. He ended with 40 sacks and 26 interceptions and scored eight defensive touchdowns.

He had an amazing quick twitch build and to this day, seriously, he can snatch a quarter out of your hand before you can close it, a trick he does to impress friends.

If he played today he'd likely be an edge rusher, like a Von Miller or Khalil Mack and he'd get double digits in sacks every year. But he was very key in pass coverage as well as evidenced by his pick total, which is among the highest you will see on this list.

2.  Jack Ham
Ham was a left linebacker for perhaps the greatest sustained (eight years or more) defense ever. He was not a great physical specimen like most of the others on this list, he was a smaller over-achiever-type at 6-1, 225 pounds. He ran a 4.6-4.7 or so forty which is good, but plenty could run better.

He excelled at coverage but could blitz as well. He had 32 picks and 25½ sacks in his career. He was also credited with 91 passes defensed, among the highest you will find on this list and you can throw in 21 fumbles recovered.

He was a six-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler and was among the leading vote-getters on the 1970s All-Decade team and was on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He was part of the cover 2 defense that Bud Carson perfected and brought to the NFL. Ar first, it was Cover-2 "Latch" where Ham would cover the tight end man to man and that was backed up by four short and 2 deep defenders. Later, when the Steelers got Jack Lambert it was more like what is now called "Tampa-2", Carson called it Cover-22, where Lambert would take the tight end in the hole, or actually any receiver in that 'short zone".

3. Junior Seau
Wait, you say, wasn't Seau a middle linebacker? No. Most of his career, he was a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense that was usually in an undershift, which positioned him in a stacked position. The Chargers defense, in Seau's heyday, looked a little like a 5-2 defense because the SAM backer was always over the tight end on the line of scrimmage. The Chargers PR department listed him as an ILBer, for some reason, and that is where he got most of his All-Pro selections. Bill Arnsparger, in 1994 or so, explained this to us and we've always noted that.

Early in his career, before Arnspager arrived in San Diego he was someone who would line up in various spots on likely passing downs—edge, defensive interior (with his hand in the dirt) but would play off-the-ball 'backer in the 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense. But it looked a little more like a 4-3 than a 3-4 with Leslie O'Neal often in a two-point stance in base, even though he was listed as an OLBer.

Regardless, Seau was a multi-talented type of player who could find the football.

Speaking of All-Pro selections, Seau was First-team All-Pro eight times and Second-team twice and was voted to a dozen Pro Bowls. He was the NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 and was All-Decade for the 1990s.

Seau, like no other player, had a knack for making tackles in the backfield recording 170.0 in his career, not counting his 56.5 sacks. Running plays, passing plays, he'd slice through the blocking and stuff the runner or receiver. He intercepted 18 passes and defensed 98 and recovered 18 fumbles. The only oddity is he scored just one defensive touchdown and forced just 12 fumbles. But, that's nitpicking.

4. Derrick Brooks
Brooks was a seven-time First-team All-Pro, twice a Second-team All-Pro, and 11-time Pro Bowler and was the AP Defensive Player of the Year (2002). He also has a Super Bowl ring (also 2002) and was on the 2000s All-Decade Team.

He was a cover linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme which didn't ask linebackers to blitz, they expected the front four to rush the passer. Brooks averaged 122 tackles a year, picked off 25 passes and scored seven defensive touchdowns. He recovered (oddly) just four fumbles but took one of them to the house. He did force 24 fumbles, though, and defended 84 passes. He was a machine for 14 seasons for the Bucs.

5. Ted Hendricks
Hendricks, with the Colts, began as a defensive end in 1969, but moved to outside linebacker and was part of a couple of great defenses in 1970 and 1971. He was traded to the Packers in 1974 where he was probably the best defensive player in the NFC that season.

He went to the Raiders in 1975 and they were still playing a 4-3 defense and Hendricks played in passing situations but was not a starter because they had two starters and they needed to find a role for Hendricks. Due to injuries, the Raiders moved to a 3-4 defense and it was there that Hendricks played the rest of his career.

Hendricks was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a four-time First-team All-Pro and a four-time Second-team All-Pro. He finished his career with 64 sacks (most coming in the 3-4 schemes from 1976 through the end of his career) and 27 interceptions and 97 passes defended. He was also All-Decade in the 1970s and 1980s  (though the 1980s selection is a bit dubious) and a member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was also one of the top handful of kick blockers in NFL history and owns four Super Bowl rings as well.

6. Robert Brazile
This past year Brazile got his just due by being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brazile was a five-time First-team All-Pro and in two other seasons he was a Second-team pick and went to seven Pro Bowls.

Brazile was a fine rusher, he had 48 sacks and had 13 picks and 76 passes defended. He was more than a rushbacker, he had lots of coverage responsibilities. The Oilers scheme had both the outside linebackers blitz, so neither had sole responsibilities to rush in passing situations.

Dr. Doom, as he was called, was a fierce hitter and had fine (4.6 speed) and size (6-4, 245 pounds) and like Bobby Bell would likely be a star in today's NFL.

7. Chuck Bednarik
Concrete Charlie is tough to classify position-wise. In addition to playing center, he played all three linebacker positions in his career, but mostly he was outside. In the early 1960s, he played in the middle and in the 1950s he was usually, but not always, outside. He also played in a pre-4-3 era and was one of the two linebackers in the famed "Eagle" defense that was the forerunner of the 46 defense. In that he lined up over a tackle, rather than a center or guard, making him less than a middle linebacker in that scheme as well.

After the 4-3 took over, Bednarik played both weak side and strong side. Regardless, he was effective at all three, according to TJ Troup author of The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense, "He is the ONLY linebacker that played that long and played all three positions well. He was at his best though on the weak side in the early to mid-1950s."

8. Dave Wilcox
Wilcox played 11 seasons for the 49ers and some of his best football was played from 1970-73, even though he was excellent before that. As a pure strong-side linebacker, he may be the best ever in terms of skill sets to play the position. He was a big man for his era, 6-3, 242 pounds and Gil Brandt reported that Wilcox ran a 4.62 forty coming out of Oregon.

But the main thing was his natural strength that stemmed from a huge upper body and massive triceps that long him to extend his long arms and neutralize any tight end's attempts to block him. And a back trying to block him? Forget it.

Big Dave was a First-team All-Pro four times and was also a four-time Second-team All-Pro and played in nine Pro Bowls. He registered 38½ sacks and 14 picks and returned one interception and one fumble for a touchdown on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Colts center Dick Szymanski evaluated Wilcox this way, "He's very active. He reacts well. He's a strong kid and has enough speed to cover tight ends down the field . . . believe me he can punish you when he rushes."

At his induction 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was sitting next to Wilcox's position coach and during the highlights saw that when Wilcox hit a man, he didn't go forward and mentioned that to the coach. The coach replied, "That's Dave. When he hit you, you went down."

9. Dave Robinson
Robinson is a 1960s All-Decade pick and a Hall of Famer and was part of the last three Lombardi championships. He was, like Wilcox, a big linebacker for his era measuring 6-3, 245 pounds, and ran very well, a 4.6-4.7 forty guy.

Robinson picked off 27 passes and had 22 sacks in his career and was excellent at stringing out runs to his side. He spent his last two seasons with the Redskins and in 1973 had what was, in reality, an All-Pro season though he didn't get the honor.

10. Chuck Howley
How does a five-time First-team All-Pro  (and one Second-team pick) not make the Hall of Fame? Throw in a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP. Add to that being called by Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman one of the two best cover linebackers he ever saw. Throw in 25 picks, a goodly number for an outside 'backer. He also had 26½ sacks and recovered 18 fumbles.

Began with the Bears and after a knee injury, sat out a year, then moved on to the Cowboys. He began as a strongside linebacker (Sara in Dallas terminology) but in 1969 Tom Landry moved him to Wanda (weakside or 'Will' as it is now called) and he played even better. He reported to camp in 1971, the year after his Super Bowl MVP, and at age 35 and ran a 4.9 forty. Good speed for that age, imagine what he ran at 23?

11. Chris Hanburger
It was always cool to read about linebackers in the 1970s and read the names Ham and Hanburger. Made a good lunch but it was Hanburger who ate a lot of quarterback sandwiches. He had 46 sacks in his career, reflecting his skill as a blindside dogger. He also picked off 19 passes and recovered 17 fumbles. He was the 1972 NFC Defensive Player of the Year and scored five defensive touchdowns in his career.

Hanburger played in nine Pro Bowls and was a First-team All-Pro five times and a Second-team All-Pro one additional year. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.

12. George Connor
Conner played several positions for the Bears, offensive line, a bit of offensive end, defensive line and linebacker. He was a four-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler and twice was a Second-team All-Pro. He made the 1940s All-Decade team which we think is dubious, playing only two seasons in that decade. A 1945-55 All-Decade team would make sense or even the 1950s team would make sense.

But he was a Hall of Famer and even splitting positions in his eight seasons he picked off 7 passes and recovered 10 fumbles.

13. Maxie Baughan
Baughan was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a Four-time First-team All-Pro and a three-time Second-team All-Pro and has been considered for the Hall of Fame. He was part of the 1960 Eagles championship and part of the Redskins 'Over-the-Hill Gang' in the early 1970s, as a coach, but in 1974, three years after he last suited up, due to injuries donned a uniform and was a backup linebacker for the Redskins playoff run.

In between he played backer behind the Fearsome Foursome and was the signal caller for that defense, not something a lot of outside linebackers did in that era, usually, the MLB did that.

Baughan picked off 18 passes and had 24.5 sacks in his career. His career is roughly similar to many of the others ahead of him on this list like Wilcox, Howley, Robinson, and Hanburger. A player who was counted on to make stops in the run game, cover backs and/or tight ends and also to be an effective dogger.

14.  Cornelius Bennett
Like Ted Hendricks, Biscuit Bennett is a hybrid, part outside linebacker and all that entails and part rushbacker, though Hendricks went from outside backer to more of a rushbacker and Bennett began as more of a rushbacker and ended as an outside backer, with some inside linebacker in the middle.

Bennett was a two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time First-team All-Pro, and was a Second-team All-1990s selection.

Bennett could rush with his hand down, could cover backs and run sideline to sideline (legit 4.5 speed) and stuff the run. He ended with 71.5 sacks, and twice approached double digits (similar to Hendricks) and picked off seven passes and forced 33 fumbles and average about 87 tackles per season in his career. He could do it all.

15. Wilber Marshall
After being a backup as a rookie in 1984, Marshall stepped into holdout Al Harris's outside linebacker spot and never gave it up. He went to just three Pro Bowls and was a First-team All-Pro twice (Second-team one more time) but if it had not been a "rushbacker era" where those players took the All-Pro slots, Marshall would have garnered more honors.

Marshall was the complete 4-3 linebacker. In 1985, as part of the Bears championship season, he had 78 tackles, 6 sacks, and 4 picks. In 1986 he had 5.5 sacks and 5 picks and in 1991 he had 5.5 sacks and 5 interceptions.

Those numbers are not eye-popping but in doing research over the years we can say that having 5 or more sacks and 4 or more picks in the same season by a linebacker is rare. So rare, in fact, that since 1982, this feat has been accomplished 9 times by outside linebackers and three of those were the three seasons we just outlined by Marshall.

Now there were years like that prior to 1982 (Ted Hendricks did it in 1971 for example) but again, it was rare.

Marshall signed with the Redskins and the Bears received two #1 picks as compensation and Marshall helped the skins to a title in 1991 and was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1992. He then signed with the Oilers where Buddy Ryan was the defensive coordinator and was part of a great defense there in 1993 and again followed Ryan to help him install the 46 defense in Arizona in 1994. He tried one more go with the Jets in 1995, but the knees just couldn't do it. And he hung them up after that season.

Marshall ended his career with 45 sacks, 23 picks, 24 forced fumbles, 16 fumbles recovered and 3 defensive touchdowns. had he played in the 1970s or from 1995 to now, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame, he'd be a Derrick Brooks or Junior Seau type of player.

Probably underrated, he was a prototype 1970s linebacker with height and athleticism. Like Ted Hendricks, he's one of the top handful of kick blockers in the history of the game but was also a dynamite linebacker. 

Blair had 24 sacks, 16 picks, 19 fumbles recovered and 20 forced fumbles and over 20 blocked kicks. he went to six Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro once but was clearly worthy several other seasons. He was highly rated by Proscout, Inc., and going by their charts they would agree that he was better than his All-Pro seasons would reflect.

17. Greg Lloyd
Lloyd is a borderline rusherbacker, we can still see, in our mind's eye, the NFL Films piece where a wired Bill Cowher was exhorting Lloyd (with his hands on Lloyd's shoulders) "rush the quarterback." And he did that, but he did more.

Often in dime defenses, he was the only linebacker, with coverage responsibilities while Kevin Greene or others were essentially the defensive ends.

Lloyd was a three-time All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. He ended his career with 54.5 sacks (from 1989 through 1995 he averaged 7 per season), 35 forced fumbles, and 11 picks and 16 fumbles recovered. 

Like Wilber Marshall, the knees gave out and his last few seasons were not very productive.

A Dr. Z favorite, Joyner was an excellent all-around backer. In some ways he was like Wilber Marshall, ending his career with 52 sacks, 24 picks, and 26 forced fumbles. He was also a three-time Pro Bowlers and was a First-team All-Pro twice (Second-team one more time)—the same as Marshall.

Joyner could dog, cover, and was often in the backfield stuffing a running back for a loss. In addition to his 24 interceptions he had 88 passes defended and due to injuries, he filled in at safety while an Arizona Cardinal.

Briggs played the same spot as Derrick Brooks in the Chicago version of the Tampa-2 defense. While not at the level of Brooks, Briggs, in his own right, was excellent. He was a two-time All-Pro and went to seven Pro Bowls.

He averaged 109 tackles a season and had 15 sacks, 16 interceptions, and 7 fumbles recovered and he forced 16 fumbles. he was Brian Urlacher's running mate in the Bears nickel defense as the two would stand side by side looking like the two of them cover the short zones all by themselves.

Clay Matthews, like Hendricks and Bennett, was a hybrid-type backer. Later in his career, he moved to more of a rushbacker, nickel rusher role. Prior to that, he was a really good all-around linebacker.

He played 19 seasons, played 278 games with 248 starts. He was an All-Pro in 1984 and went to four Pro Bowls. His sack total was 69.5 and he swiped 16 passes, forced 28 fumbles and recovered 14 and defended 78 passes. His peak may not have been as high as some others ahead of him, but then length of his career as a starter (all but his first and final season) is remarkable.

Butch Robertson was a player who had highs and lows. He'd play the wrong coverage and end up picking off Sonny Jurgenson and taking it to the house—stuff like that.

He was a six-time First- or Second-team All-Pro (three First-team) and a six-time Pro Bowler. he could dog, cover, and also lay a hit on a runner. He had 25½ sacks, 25 picks, 24 forced fumbles, and 15 recovered fumbles as well as 79 passes defensed while averaging 84 tackles a season and scoring four defensive touchdowns.

He felt he was underpaid in Los Angeles and the Rams management grew tired of his antics and traded him to Buffalo where he had a few very good seasons there as the Bills grew to a very good playoff team.

22. Rod Martin
Another near-rushbacker, but anyone who picks off three passes in a Super Bowl (should have been the MVP in our view) belongs with the complete linebackers group.

He did have 56 sacks, and 14 regular season picks and was a three-time All-Pro (plus one Second-team selection) and two Pro Bowls and was the 1983 UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year. He was a big part of two Super Bowl wins by the Raiders.

He also scored six defensive touchdowns and one safety.

23. (tie) Joe Fortunato
Fortunato and Forester are too hard to separate, so we tied them at 23. They played in the same era and accomplished similar things and left similar statistical records.

Fortunato was a left linebacker but was a smaller one at 6-1, 225 pounds. He was one of the first 'corner linebackers' as they were called then to break through to make All-Pro teams. Back then, it was not uncommon for middle linebackers to take all three All-Pro slots. So for Fortunato and Forester and others, it took a great season to break that 'leather ceiling'.

The Bears brought a title to the Windy City in 1963 and Fortunato was part of that, he ended his career with three First-team All-Pro selections, three Second-team picks and five Pro Bowl selections. He totaled 27 sacks, 16 picks, and 22 recovered fumbles.

23. (tie)  Bill Forester
Forester was a right linebacker for the Lombardi Packers and was a large player for his era at 6-3, 237 pounds. He was a four-time First-team All-Pro and a one-time Second-teamer and a four-time Pro Bowler.

He was part of two world titles, picked off 21 passes, had 24 sacks, and fell on 15 free balls. 

25. Lavonte David
One of the more overlooked stars in the NFL in recent memory, all David does is played good coverage and stuff running backs. In fact, since he entered the NFL no one, not even J.J. Watt has made more run or pass stops behind the line of scrimmage. David has 85.0 and Watt has 81.0. To be fair, Watt has missed a lot of time and when you add in sacks, Watt is far ahead. But run/pass stuffs are an important stat. A tackle for loss of one yard on a running back on first down puts the opponent at 2nd and 11 and they are "behind the down and distance schedule" as Jon Gruden might say.

David had only garnered post-season honors in 2013, 2015-16 despite being one of the top 3-5 linebackers in the game (our view, anyway). In 2013, when asked to rush, David was effective with 7.0 sacks and he picked off five passes and in six and a half seasons David has 18.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles and 12 fumbles recovered and 10 picks. He's kind of a throwback to the Jack Hams, Derrick Brookses and Chuck Howleys of the world which is rare in today's NFL.

26. Carl Banks
Banks, like David, was underrated, though well known. It is hard to believe that Banks went to one Pro Bowl and was All-Pro just once. He was part of two championships and was an amazing run stuffer for 12 seasons. He could blitz effectively, too, with 39.5 career sacks.

His 'All-Pro' year was 1987, but in 1986 and 1989 he was just as good, if not better.

27. George Webster

Webster came into pro football like a meteor and then a knee injury in his fourth season hampered him the rest of his career. He was All-AFL three times in his first three seasons and gutted it out in his last six seasons when he left the Oilers to go to the Steelers and then the Patriots.

He was known for his athleticism and hitting ability. He was tall (6-4) and lean (220) and could really cover ground. With the Patriots he helped them convert to the 3-4 making them the first full-time 3-4 defense in modern history.

When Peter King organized an All-time draft with some former players and GMs last year, Ernie Accorsi picked Webster early, showing his respect for Webster's talent.

28. Darryl Talley
Talley was the bookend to Cornelius Bennett, playing opposite him and in the hip pocket of Bruce Smith. He was a cover backer who could get to the quarterback when asked (38.5 sacks) and he has 12 picks.

He didn't get a lot of post-season honors because he was not a big sack guy and also there were so many excellent Bills that someone had to not make the Pro Bowl or All-Pro. Still, he was a two-time First-team All-Pro and a two-time Pro Bowler but like other complete 'backers of the era, he had other seasons that were Pro Bowl-worthy.

29. Larry Grantham
Like the Howleys, Robinsons, and Hanburgers, Grantham was solid in all areas. He amassed 33 sacks and picked off 24 passes. He was a five-time All-AFL pick and was a five-time AFL-All-star (AFL's version of the Pro Bowl). And he was a leader of a fine Jets defense from 1968-70 and that shut down the Colts in Super Bowl III.

30. Mike Stratton
Another player in the Grantham-Howley-Robinson category. He had similar 'big play' numbers to Grantham and those others with 31½ sacks and 21 picks. He was part of two AFL Championships and was known for the "Hit Heard 'Round the World" in the 1964 AFL Championship game on Keith Lincoln.

31. Phil Villapiano
Mostly a SAM 'backer, but he did play some on the weak side, he was a fine player in the 1970s but with Ham, Hendricks, Robertson, and Brazile it was hard to get post-season honors. He did go to four Pro Bowls and was a First-team All-Pro once and a Second-team All-Pro once. And he was First- or Second-team All-AFC five times.

He had 15 sacks, 11 picks, and 18 fumbles recovered, all fine for his position, but not as high as some of the others in the 4-3 era. But he could bust a tight end or cover him and was stout versus strong side runs.

32. Andy Russell
Russell is often mentioned by Steeler partisans as Hall of Fame worthy. While he was excellent, we don't see Hall of Fame in his "resume". He was an All-Pro once and a Second-team All-Pro three times and was a seven-time Pro Bowler.

He was a cog in the Steel Curtain defense that won two Super Bowls while he was the starting right linebacker. He picked off 18 passes, recovered 10 fumbles and recorded 30½ sacks.

33. Julian Peterson
Peterson was excellent in his career and would be a star today, we think. He had 51.5 sacks and 8 picks, forced 21 fumbles and recovered 11 and averaged 81 tackles per full season.  He was a First-team All-Pro once, a Second-team All-Pro once and was voted to five Pro Bowls.

34. Chad Brown
Another near-rushbacker. He started his career as an inside linebacker in base defense and a right defensive end in nickel with the Blitzburgh defense. He signed as a free agent with the Seahawks and he was a player there who was similar to Julian Peterson. In fact, after Brown left Seattle they signed Peterson a year later to fill his role. Brown was a two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler.

He totaled 79.5 sacks (the most of any 'backer on our list) 6 picks, 17 forced fumbles and 15 recovered fumbles and averaged 93 tackles per season.

35. Brad Van Pelt
A five-time Pro Bowler and a Second-team All-Pro once, Van Pelt also lost some All-Pro years due to stiff competition for the slots with Ham, Brazile and others in the league at the same time.

He was a strongside linebacker who could blitz and cover with 24 sacks and 20 interceptions.

36.  Ken Norton
Like Junior Seau, Norton got some All-Pro honors as a middle linebacker, though he was usually (he did play MIKE one season) a stacked outside linebacker. Extremely stout versus the run (91.0 career stuffs). He was All-Pro once, second-team All-Pro once and went to three Pro Bowls.

Norton was part of three Super Bowl wins (two with Dallas and once with the 49ers) and had 12.5 sacks, five picks and 12 forced fumbles. But really, he should be judged on his stuffs, which is an extremely high number and his 95-tackle average in tackles.

37. Thomas Davis
A fine current player who gets kudos for playing injured in a Super Bowl and coming back from back-to-back knee injuries. He was All-Pro once and went to two Pro Bowls and has played at that level since 2005.

38. Tom Jackson
Another of Dr. Z's personal favorites, Tom Jackson was a very active linebacker and one of the first 3-4 outside linebackers, with Denver adopting a 3-4 full-time in 1976, but they mixed in 3-4 looks prior to that.

Jackson was a strong side linebacker when the Broncos were a 4-3 team and moved to the weak side when they went to the 3-4 (He also played inside linebacker when the Broncos used the 3-4 in 1974-75). Excellent in coverage, and an effective blitzer but he was limited in height (5-11).

Jackson was All-Pro in 1977 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1978-79 and went to the Pro Bowl all three years. He averaged 87 tackles a season, finished his career with 40 sacks and 20 interceptions, 55.5 stuffs, and defensed 94 passes.

39. Jack Pardee

Pardee played for the Rams from 1957 to 1970 but missed the 1965 season to treat malignant melanoma. He was talked out of retirement by George Allen and spent 1966-70 backing up the Fearsome Foursome. In 1971, Pardee joined the "Ramskins" with Allen and helped them to the Super Bowl after the 1972 season, which was his final year.

Pardee ended his career with 24½ sacks, 22 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries and scored six defensive touchdowns. He was All-NFL in 1963 and All-NFC in 1971 but had several other seasons that could have easily been All-Pro, namely 1967 and 1968.

40. Stan White

Stan White was nearly shut out of post-season honors, only making the 1977 Second-team All-AFC team but he was a skilled linebacker who, like so many others on this list, was asked to do a lot of things. He ended his career with 34 picks, 15 fumbles recovered and 27½ sacks.

In 1977 White had 8 sacks and 7 INTs, a very rare feat to have so many of both on one season by an OLBer, in fact he's the only one ever with seven or more sacks and seven or more sacks in the same season. In 1975 he had 6½ sacks and 8 picks giving him two seasons that meet the 6 picks, 6 sack threshold reflecting his all-around ability.

White was a smaller (6-1, 225) player, who got by on smarts and savvy. He ended his career with the USFL.

41. Mo Lewis
Lewis was a larger (6-3, 258) 'backer who likely could have been an excellent rushbacker in a 3-4 defense though he only played in it a couple of seasons. As it was he was a very good 4-3 linebacker. He was All-Pro once, Second-team All-Pro once and went to three Pro Bowls.

Lewis scored five defensive touchdowns in his career and had 52.5 sacks, picked off 14 passes, recovered 13 fumbles and forced 26 fumbles.

42. Adalius Thomas
A truly unique athlete who, once in a while, lined up as a cornerback (not often of course). He began as a defensive end but played a quasi-rushbacker, linebacker in the Ravens multiple-front schemes, and then was signed by the Patriots where he did similar things.

Probably the only knock on his career is it didn't last a long time. He was an All-Pro in 2006, scored 6 defensive touchdowns and a safety had 53 sacks, 7 picks, 15 forced fumbles, and 6 recoveries.

43. Takeo Spikes
Spikes began and ended his career as an inside linebacker but he played his best football in between that as an outside linebacker, which was stacked a lot, not unlike Seau or Norton.

He was All-Pro once and went to two Pro Bowls. He averaged 104 tackles, pick off 19 passes, 16 forced fumbles, 18 recovered and 29 sacks and defensed 70 passes, a stat line similar to the great linebackers of the 1960s and 1970s. He also scored four defensive touchdowns

44. Bill Romanowski
Romanowski was a two-time Pro Bowler and had a reputation for crossing the line in terms of late hits and being nasty. But he also was a fine strongside linebacker who played 16 seasons and played in 243 games and collected four Super Bowl rings.

His career stat line is 39.5 sacks, 18 picks, 16 forced fumbles, 18 recoveries, and defensed 76 passes. Per full season he averaged 73 tackles and 78.5 of those were stuffs (tackles for loss).

45. Wayne Walker
Walker was one of the fine weakside blitzers in the 1960s, recording 39.5 sacks in his career and he was recognized as All-Pro three times and Second-team All-Pro twice and was a three-time Pro Bowler. The Lions defense in the 1960s was tops in stopping the run and among the top at getting to the quarterback and Walker was a big part of that.

46. Larry Morris
Larry Morris was a second-team All-Pro in 1963 and was a big part of the good Bears defenses of the early 1960s. He began as a fullback for the Rams and quickly moved to left linebacker where he played well. He injured a knee and missed the 1958 season and was traded to the Bears in 1959.

He was on the 1960s All-Decade team, though we think that is dubious, there were others who were more qualified. However, that said, Morris was a fine linebacker who, like Wayne Walker was a fine blindside dogger, recording 31 sacks from 1956-65 with a high of 7½.

47. Jessie Armstead
Perhaps underrated, Jesse was a five-time Pro Bowler and a First-team All-Pro once and a Second-teamer twice. He made 962 tackles in his career (75 were for losses), 40 sacks, 12 picks (two for scores), 15 forced fumbles and 54 passes defensed and during his Pro Bowl run from 1997 through 2001 he averaged 109 tackles a year and average 11 stuffs (tackles for loss) which was among the league's best during that span.

48. William Thomas
Another underrated all-around 'backer. He was a Pro Bowler just twice but put up All-Pro numbers. He picked off 27 passes (very high for a LBer in his era) and had 37 sacks and scored four defensive touchdowns. His forte was coverage but could get to the passer as well. Always on the field in nickel and dime situations as well as in base defenses. 

49. John Anderson
Anderson was voted Second-team All-Decade for the 1980s, he got one vote and we think we know who gave it to him (Green Bay's voter, perhaps?). Needless to say, we think that honor is dubious, however, that does not mean he wasn't an excellent player. Mostly a SAM backer all of his career except his rookie season, he was solid in all phases.

He picked off 25 passes has 22.5 sacks and recovered 15 fumbles. He did it in an era when having a career total of over 20 sacks and over 20 picks was not recognized as great, yet it's similar, stat-wise to the Howleys, Robinsons, etc that populate the top of this list.

50t. Roman Phifer
Yet one more underrated, long-serving linebacker. He never got any honors (though he was a Pro Bowl alternate a few times) he was a fine player. He likely should have been All-Pro in 1995 but with the state of the Ram then and in the 1990s, post-season honors were not in the Cards.

A three-down backer, and even when Rams went to the dime defense to face all the run and shoot teams of the 1990s, Phifer was the lone linebacker on the field. In the early-to-mid 1990s when the Rams used the 46-style scheme, which they did fairly often, he would play Mike Singletary's spot. In the late-1990s, in that same scheme, he'd play essentially Richard Dent's spot, from a two-point stance due to the gain in size and strength from his workout programs.

He played for the Jets and then was picked up by the Patriots where his versatility and smarts made him a starter on two championship teams and a key role player on a third. He averaged 84 tackles per full season, recorded 29 sacks and 11 picks had 62.5 stuffs and defensed 66 passes.

50t. Matt Hazeltine

Hazeltine was one of the pioneers of the outside linebacker position along with a few others and was a solid player for 15 NFL seasons. He ended with  51½ sacks, 13 picks, 18 fumbles recovered, and three defensive touchdowns. He was Second-team All-Pro and twice voted to Pro Bowls (which are really All-Conference teams) in 1962 and 1964. He was also a Sporting New All-Conference selection in 1959 and 1961, making him "above the line" four times.

In 1964 he should have been First-team All-Pro with his 11½ sack total however it was still an era when the "corner linebackers" (what OLBers were often called) didn't get much notice, some, but not like the MLBers of the day.

He sat out the 1969 season and then signed with the Giants in 1970 and was a tremendous help to Fred Dryer, helping the young stud rusher improve his game and overall understanding of NFL football. Dryer was a Pro Bowl alternate that year and he credited Hazeltine's influence for it.

We have a long, long list of honorable mentions, and they could be looked at in groups. The names at the top of the honorables could very well be in the top 50 somewhere. And the names near the bottom could be in the 70s or so. All we can really say is the top 15 to maybe 20 are Hall of Famer level players and they are better than the players in the 30s and 40s on the list.

We will just give a couple of data points on each of the names, rather than a paragraph.

Reggie Williams—63½ sacks, 16 INTs, 23 FR, 16 FF, 2 Def TDs, 14-year starter.
Ed McDaniel—Big-time run stuffer, played some MLB. Had 18.5 run stuffs one season.
Chad Greenway—Quality all around, a throwback to the 1960s-70s style of OLBer
Mike Merriweather—1 All-Pro, 3 Pro Bowls, 41 sacks, 18 INTs, 5 Def. TDs. Had two Pro Bowl-level years with Vikings but didn't win the actual honors.
Sean Lee—Cannot stay healthy if he could he would leap on this list.
E.J. Holub—Tough guy, moved from LB to center, 2-time All-AFL
Telvin Smith—In the mold of Lavonte David and Derrick Brooks, lots of run stuffs—48.5 so far.
Bob Swenson—Terrific SAM 'backer in 3-4. Also health issues. Could pound the good TEs
Otis Wilson—Again, injury issues. 1 All-Pro/Pro Bowl, 36.0 sacks.
Anthony Barr—Slumping in 2018, but a fine SAM and can play in space.
Kevin Hardy—Similar to Barr, 36 sacks, 1 All-Pro
Mike Douglass—A Dr. Z favorite, had him as an All-Pro thrice. 38.5 sacks, 17 FR.
Jim Houston—A poor man's Wayne Walker or Matt Hazeltine. 18.5 sacks, 18 picks, 1 ring
Billy Ray Smith—Super 1986 season with 15 stuffs and 11 sacks. Played some inside LBer, top
Mike Vrabel—Almost a rush backer, but played in coverage too much and even some inside.
Hugh Green—Injuries left career wanting, was super rusher in NCAA, too small in NFL to sustain played more coverage in NFL, solid vs run.
Keith Bulluck—A classic three-down LBer like the ones near the top of this list, 5 def TDs.
Thomas Henderson—A SAM (Sara in Dallas verbiage) could run and hit and take on TEs. Great special teams player early in his career.
Lee Woodall—Two Pro Bowls, part of very good 49er defenses in the mid-1990s.
Lee Roy Caffey—1 All-Pro/Pro Bowl, part of the Lombardi dynasty
Dan Currie—see Caffey (above)
Fred Carr—Great kick blocker, great athlete, a poor man's Matt Blair
K.J. Wright—Very solid and unsung SAM in the great Seahawk defenses im the 2010s.
Doug Buffone—Longstanding tough guy. Never made a ton of big plays, though. 
Ahmad Brooks—Another near-rushbacker, 1 Pro Bowl, 55 sacks.
Michael Brooks—Pretty good sideline-to-sideline 'backer, played some inside.
Dexter Coakley—Good coverage, 3 Pro Bowls,
Bill Pellington—a good MLB (3 years), mostly an OLBer (9 years), tough guy
Hardy Brown—Not a great athlete, huge hitter, got enough honors to merit mention here.
Jamie Collins—Plays some inside, some outside, got notice in NE, not so much in CLE
Jamir Miller—Injury ended his career just as he was peaking, was becoming a rushbacker
Jim Youngblood—Could run well, hard hitter, 4 defensive touchdowns, All-NFC/Pro Bowl twice
Jim Lynch—Played opposite Bobby Bell, solid, not spectacular
Paul Naumoff—Like Jim Lynch, but on the strong side.
Larry Stallings—Classic SAM backer for his era, 1 Pro Bowl.
Bob Brudzinski—Superb versus the run, and could blitz. 
Kim Bokamper—A SAM 'backer in a 3-4, would play LDE on pass downs, then moved to DE full time.
Greg Brezina—The leading Gritz Blitzer.
Duane Bickett—Played DE in nickel, but was a very good LBer as well.
Dave Washington—Tall, rangy, played well for Bills, Broncos and 49ers.
Walt Michaels—A stalwart for the 1950s Browns. 5 Pro Bowls.
LaVern Torgeson—1 All-Pro, 3 Pro Bowls in the 1950s
Tom Addison—1 All-AFL, 4 AFL All-Star selections.
Mark Fields—2 Pro Bowls, 34.5 sacks.
Mike Wilcher—38.5 sacks, played as line LBer in dime, highly rated by PSI in 1988-90.
Wayne Robinson—Fine player on the 1950s Eagles "Suicide Squad".
Roger Zatkoff—a All-Pro, 3 Pro Bowls for Lions and Packers in the 1950s.
Tony Adamle—Played running back, too. Was a right and left linebacker for the great Browns teams
Deion Jones—Moving up, only in his third year, but we like his game.
Dave Lewis—Was a star for the Bucs, but career tailed off. Should have been All-Pro in 1979 and was a Pro Bowler in 1980.
Gus Otto—Had 8½ sacks in 1967 and played in one AFL All-Star game.
Keena Turner—Three-down linebacker for the 1980s 49ers, 1 Pro Bowl, 4 rings.
Kiko Alonso—Better at coverage than anything, but in today's game, that means a lot.
Pete Barnes—22.5 sacks, 15 picks, Second-team All-AFL in 1969.
DeAndre Levy—Short career, very effective for Lions especially in 2013-14.
Woodrow Lowe—11 years, 21 picks, 25½ sacks.
Tom MacLeod—A good SAM backer, played opposite Stan White, 1975 All-AFC.
Don Shinnick—37 career interceptions, most-ever by an outside linebacker.
Gerald Irons—solid, not spectacular.
Mel Owens—Like Irons
Skip Vanderbundt—Same as Owens.
Al Beauchamp—Same as Vanderbundt.
Charlie Hall—Same as Beauchamp.
Rich Milot—Same as Hall.
Larry Gordon—Same as Milot.
Andre Collins—Same as Gordon.
D.D. Lewis—Same as Collins.
Willie Harper—Same as Lewis.
Lance Mehl—Same as Harper. Played some inside linebacker as well.
John Bramlett—Same as Mehl. Was a good blitzer.
Frank Buncom—Same as Bramlett.
Greg Buttle—Same as Buncom.
Galen Fiss—Same as Buttle.
John Reger—Same as Fiss.
Bill Koman—Same as Reger.
Emil Karas—Same as Koman.
Marv Matuszak—Same as Karas.
Brad Dusek—Same as Matuszak.
Keith Mitchell—Same as Dusek.
John Tracey—Same as Mitchell.
Bill Svoboda—Same as Tracey, played defensive back early in his career.
Rod Breedlove—Same as Svoboda.

Okay, there are even a handful of more names, but we're done.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. How confident are people with Bobby Bells 40 sack number? There are a handful of games on youtube, both regular season and playoffs and he had a sack in every one. Of course the 40 doesn't count post season but I wonder if he may have gotten more. Thanks again for these lists, always keeping an eye out for them.

    1. very. Used the gamebooks and it's possible he had a few more, bust most all of the Chiefs sacks are accounted for.

  2. John, do you think Jack Ham would be just as great if he were playing in todays game?

    On Tom Jackson, Dr. Z said that he was deserving of the Hall of Fame and not Gradishar. Why are you guys at PFJ seemingly much lower on Jackson?

    1. Hard to say about Ham, any player with enough size and speed and smarts should be okay, assuming current workout methods, so yeah. Ham, at 6-1 would weight 235 and be faster, so that's big enough.

      My opinion differs from Dr Z on that. Jackson was in similar group of the Robertsons, Villapianos, etc...Zim didn't like Gradishar for some reason. He and TJ differed, too. Zim felt like the Broncos were puffing Gradishars tackle stats.

  3. Glad to see some of the great AFL guys getting some love … nice work, John T!

  4. Would it be crazy to say that no outside backer played better than Ted Hendricks at his peak? Some of his reps were just dominant. The way he could string out wide sweeps play off the block and reach out at the last second to bring the ball carrier down was special.

    1. What season/games do you consider his peak? I've only watched about 6 Hendricks games across 5 different seasons (1 Colts, 1 Packers, 4 Raiders) and in none of them did he stand out like Ham or Bell. This is just as fan of football but with no exceptional claims to evaluating players.

    2. Hendricks was excellent though 1982, and was good as early as 1970...maybe as consistent as you will ever find. best year? Maybe 1980, 1974, 1971, 1970, 1982

    3. 80 is Hendricks best season for me. Just all over the field. He would be number one outside backer all time.

  5. On Chuck Howley, did you guys get a chance to see all 22 film of Howley's play? What did you guys see from this vantage?

    What do you think about Seau's detractors saying that he free-lanced so much and caused problems for his teammates?

    1. Well, if it hurt the team it didn't show in stats. From 1990-02 the Chargers allowed 3.54 yards per rush, best in NFL over than span. If anything, his stuffs (tackles for loss) were a benefit.

  6. John, does TJ Troup agree with George Connor ranked that high? I read his book and in my opinion, while he was complimentary towards a lot of players, he seemed lukewarm on Connor. Thanks.

    1. I will ask him, he may not...I've asked him about Conner and while not effusive he thought he was very good...but TJ usually doesn't criticize much, he's too classy, so if he does disagree he'd kept it to himself

  7. Was this just your opinion or did you guys take a vote and then this is the final outcome?

    Either way, interesting to see that Ham is not #1. Also, I'd probably but Wilcox slightly higher. Good stuff though.

    1. reasonable people can disagree, the rankings are mine alone.

  8. Love the information you provide in these articles.
    They have helped me immensely in my own research.
    Is there a way for me to get copies of the gamebooks for all the NFL teams?
    Who would I contact to acquire copies?
    Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

    1. becoming a member of the PFRA is the best way, they have a backlog of hundreds of gamebooks..

  9. John your work. Just a note....the seasons in which a LB had at least 5 sacks and 4 interceptions since 1982 is at least 10.

    Rod Martin (1); Wilber Marshall (3); Seth Joyner (1); Mo Lewis (1); Brian Urlacher (1); Lavonte David (1); Karlos Dansby (1); and Thomas Davis (1).

    1. Urlacher doesn't count, he's a middle linebacker... "since 1982, this feat has been accomplished 9 times by outside linebackers and three of those were the three seasons we just outlined by Marshall.

  10. apologies. I stand corrected. Thank you for taking the time to respond. In that case Lavonte David and Urlacher are ommitted. OLB Joey Porter was missed by me as well.

  11. Good list, but Ham was the best. Van Pelt should have been ranked ahead of Villapiano, ditto for Andy Russell.

  12. Stop SHOUTING. And look with the rush backers.

  13. cool list I guess

  14. John, I love your research (especially on pre-1982 sack numbers) and wanted to ask a clarifying question: Here you have Matt Hazeltine listed with 38 sacks, but in this article: the image shows Hazeltine with 51.5 sacks...which number is correct?

    1. 51½ is right, thanks, we corrected it....just didn't notice the error, plugged in wrong number

    2. Thanks! Also, how many of those sacks did he have with San Francisco?