Thursday, December 27, 2018

Top MLB/ILBers of All-Time

By John Turney
In this installment of looking at the great players ever, we tackle the middle/inside linebackers. We will rely heavily on the views of our own T.J. Troup the author of The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons That Changed the NFL as well as others.
We will look at statistics, honors but also the skill sets of these players and give our view of who did their job the best and most consistently. We look at longevity but more so the 'peak' performance.

Here we go:

1. Dick Butkus
Six-time All-Pro, twice Second-team All-Pro and eight Pro Bowls, two-times All-Decade (though we think the 1970s selection was dubious because he only played three years in that decade), twice the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the NFL All-Century team and 75th Anniversary Team and a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also the NFLPA NFL/NFC Linebacker of the Year five times, from 1968-72.

Here are Coach TJ's thoughts, "Instincts—the elite just KNEW where the ball was going. Dr. Z when talking, and writing about Butkus, he got to the hole in a foul mood. His impressive size and quickness are traits discussed, but there have been others, so that is minor.

His angles or scrapes to the ball in the running lane were/are unparalleled—no one will ever be better. though no doubt he made some tackles with his helmet, he was the most concussive shoulder tackler EVER. Watch film of him and his shoulder angle in hitting the ball carrier.

The next aspect is the takeaway—whether he caused fumbles, recovered fumbles, and his ability to play pass defense, and not be running to an area, but playing the ball in flight and taking the proper angle to intercept. He was tested as a rookie, and watching film of his interceptions were made to look easy—he read his keys and took the correct angle, and on top of that, he had excellent hands."

Raymond Berry talked about him forcing fumbles, and recovering—which he did over and over. finally, if applicable, the pass rush. his blitz against Norm Snead in '70 to finish off the Eagles shows it all.

He is the best ever combining all the above traits, and the fact that he played so hard for 7 years, and then hung on for his final two. Though hurting in 1972  he had one of his greatest games when he and the Bears defense shut out Leroy Kelly and the Browns in Cleveland in '72.  Not sure about the tackle total, but possibly "near 20 lead & assists" according to newspaper accounts.

Butkus picked off 22 passes in his career and recovered 25 opponent's fumbles and he had a lot of QB hurries, but not a lot of sacks (five in his career). He averaged 141 tackles (including assists) per 16 games in his career according to Bears coaches tallies.

The only negative we came across was that Bud Grant felt that Butkus, because of his aggressiveness, could be misdirected, and they could have success flowing a play one way and countering it behind his read and creating a crease that way. 

It was probably the only way to get anything on the guy who wanted to be known as THE middle linebacker. Teams were not going to get it taking him straight on. 

Even so, his peak is the best-ever, even after all these years.

2. Ray Lewis
Lewis was a seven-time All-Pro (and twice more a Second-teamer) and 13-time Pro Bowler. Like Butkus he was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a First-team All-Decade selection—all among the best-ever in those categories. In 2000-01 and 2003 he was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year. In 1997-99 he was the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year and in 1999 and 2003 he was the NFL Alumni NFL Linebacker of the Year. And like Butkus, he was a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Statistically, he was also among the best ever, if not the best among MLBers. He totaled 2,055 tackles, 117 of which were behind the line of scrimmage, he had 41.5 sacks and 32 interceptions. The interceptions figure is impressive given that when he played the overall league interception percentage was 3.1% whereas during the Butkus era it was 5.4% making interceptions, statistically, anyway, almost twice as hard to get. He forced 19 fumbles and recovered 20 and scored three defensive touchdowns and one safety.

Says Coach Troup, "R. Lewis, was protected better than Butkus by his massive defensive tackles, yet his quickness negated blocking angles. His impressive speed and his ability to gear down and stay in proper tackling position was his greatest trait, runners could not outrun him, or cut back on him.

He was a concussive helmet hitter as a tackler, and the sound was undeniable. His height and angles on pass defense were excellent, and of course, that was showcased in the Super Bowl in 2000. He filled the hole and again the best open-field tackling MLB ever. When the champion Ravens were in the "nickel"  he split the field underneath with Rod Woodson and thus opponents had ample opportunity to complete passes to backs and tight ends, but those two men covered so much ground and tackled so well—they became the greatest defense simply because you did not gain yardage by avoiding the tackler.

3. Joe Schmidt
Said Troup, "Since there was no one for him to watch on film play the position he is simply the FORERUNNER of MLBers. His lack of height was not an issue due to his impressive strength in his shoulders and chest, and watching film—his body is in position to tackle and deliver a blow. One of the reasons the 4-3 became the defense was his sideline to sideline pursuit, if he does it, then maybe we need to find a guy to do it. The problem was, finding someone with his instincts, quickness, and the proper angles, and tackling ability. some teams tried the 4-3 and had to shift back to the 5-2 since they did not have a Joe S. he did blitz, and though effective since Detroit blitzed so often, he was not a difference maker here, but you had to account for him.

It is the takeaway department where he is the BEST. Teams did not pass as much in those days, and look at his interception totals (film of his 3 int. day against the Rams shows his outstanding ability to drop into coverage exactly where he should, and he had excellent hands). In a 12-game season and 8 fumble recoveries so is there any doubt he was around the ball? And he did this the first year he played in a 4-3 (1955).

Schmidt was a middle linebacker that did not miss tackles, recovered 8 fumbles one year to set the league record, and three years later intercepts 6, with 3 in one game. His one-handed interception for a touchdown against Philly in '60 demonstrates his athleticism and hand/eye coordination. Though injuries limited him during 63-65, he hung in there, and was solid, but just not like he was from 56-62. Keep in mind that the Lions in 58 & 59 stunk, but once again when he had help, the Lions were the best defense in football. his play against the Colts in '62 is still the greatest play of his career."

Schmidt was a First-team All-Pro ten straight seasons and was a Pro Bowler each of those seasons as well (1954-63) and he was named the top lineman/Defensive Player of the Year three times, in 1957, 1960 and 1963. The latter two were from an NFLPA poll of players and in 1957 it was AP Lineman of the Year Award. He also won two NFL champions rings with the Lions in 1953 and 1957. He is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Schmidt finished his career with 24 picks, 17 fumble recoveries, and three defensive touchdowns. We feel, and Coach TJ agrees Schmidt should have been one of the MLBers on the NFL 50th and 70th Anniversary Teams, rather than Ray Nitschke. We also think Schmidt will likely be overlooked when the 100th Anniversary Team as well since Schmidt doesn't get the notice that some other MLBers get. But if they voters went by who had the better career, who played the position more efficiently Schmidt would get the nod over his contemporaries.

4. Jack Lambert
Lambert was a starter on four Super Bowl-winning teams, was All-Decade twice (though he would have been a better choice for a mythical 1975-85 team) in that his 1980s selection was a bit dubious because he played so few years in the 1980s. Lambert was a nine-time Pro Bowler, eight times All-AFC (plus one Second-team All-AFC) and a First-team All-Pro eight times (seven consensus), and was a first-ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Additionally, he was voted to the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year twice.

He ended his career with 1,427 tackles, 23 sacks, 28 interceptions, and 16 fumble recoveries.

Here are Coach Troup's comments, "Count Dracula in Cleats—though some would talk about his weight, it was a non-issue since his leverage and strength was impressive and almost always the runner or receiver went backward when he tackled. He was protected by the 'stunt 4-3' since it allowed him to use his sideline to sideline pursuit skills to the maximum.

Though he had great help from the two OLB's early in his career, he ALWAYS brought his A-game. he never looked fast, yet always got where he needed to go, and did not overrun plays, so he was under control. not sure about him on the blitz. Lambert was a master at 'banjo' coverage, and later what is now known as Tampa-2, which should be renamed "Jack in the Hole" as he was able to get deeper than any other MLB ever. He played the ball well, and other than Joe Schmidt he was the best pass defender of MLB's ever, and yes that includes Brian Urlacher.

5. Randy Gradishar
According to Troup, "Gradishar had pass defense responsibilities no other MLB/inside linebacker ever. He was asked to cover the tight end on his side in the flat, he was asked to go to the so-called Tampa-2 hole from the opposite side, though the coverage was not called that at the time. He was a strong tackler, just not a helmet splitter."

Talent evaluator Joel Buchsbaum wrote the following over the course of Gradishar's career— "Randy Gradishar may be the smartest and most underrated (linebacker) ever. Had rare instincts, was faster than Lambert and very effective in short-yardage and goal line situations . . . isn't the flashiest player in the league but I have seen enough film of him to know he's the best" . . . Superior diagnostician with exceptional strength, balance, tackling form and very good lateral mobility . . . “Randy Gradishar is the most valuable defender in football. As good as Dick Butkus ever was, but not as brutal . . . Although not as brutal as Butkus or Bergy, he's strong at the point of attack, does a superb job of playing off blocks and getting to the ball, gets good depth on his pass drops and is consistently excellent . . . Perhaps the most instinctive linebacker in football, he has great anticipation and feel”

Said Mike Giddings of Proscout, Inc, "He and Lewis best all-time of neutralize and pursuit", meaning that it's difficult to find a player who can take on blocks and shed well and also have sideline-to-sideline ability.

Gradishar made 1,337 tackles in 10 seasons and had 19.5 sacks and 20 picks and 13 fumble recoveries. He was a Five-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 and received votes for that award in three other seasons, showing remarkable consistency.

6. Willie Lanier
Lanier was the first African-American MLBer that was a star, and one of the first two or three who were entrusted as a starter. At that time there was prejudice against black players at certain positions, quarterback and middle linebacker among the most prevalent. Lanier was the player who pioneered the position and made it possible for others to excel later, much like Marlin Briscoe and James Harris did for quarterbacks, although Lanier was a far better player than those quarterbacks.

He led the 1969 Chiefs defense which was pro football's best and a Super Bowl winner. Lanier was an 8-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro/AFL First-team pick six times and a Second-team pick twice. However, only once was he a consensus All-Pro (making the majority of teams). He played in an era that included Dick Butkus, so that is the major reason why. Additionally, he was voted the NFLPA AFC Linebacker of the Year five times, from 1970-74 and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In his career Lanier picked off 27 passes and recovered 18 fumbles but only had a few sacks, he was just not asked to blitz very often, his forte was coverage. He scored two defensive touchdowns and one safety.

7. Bill George
George was an eight-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. He picked off 18 passes and recovered 16 fumbles recovered and had 38 sacks and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He spent a lot of time with his hand in the dirt well into the 1960s, giving the Bears a 5-2 look using the same personnel as their base 4-3. As such, he rushed the passer a lot. he would also move around some in some of Clark Shaughnessy's unique defenses. We've seen him as a stand-up defense end as late as 1960 and getting good pressure from there. He's what John Gruden would today call a "defensive joker".

Said Coach Troup, Finally, "The General" was the key to the Shaughnessy defense. George was brilliant at game plans and adjustments. He was an adequate pass defender.  His wrestling background served him well-shedding blocks.

"Few, if any, MLBs history can surpass the following criteria: at least 16 opponent fumble recoveries (he had one as a guard), 18 interceptions, so he was around the ball, and at least 40 sacks, as no MLB in history had his knuckles in the dirt as often. 1960 when Bears go to nickel, he replaces a d-tackle. and rushes Johnny Hightops over and over again. When Bears beat Cleveland in '61, he aligns in guard/center gap and shoots through, sack, forced fumble, and a Bear victory. Neck injury limited him from 1962-64. From 1955 through 1961 was just a cut below Joe Schmidt though they played so different

8. Mike Singletary
Singletary was a seven-time All-Pro (six consensus) plus a one-time Second-team All-Pro. He also was selected to ten Pro Bowls. He had 1,200 tackles according to NFL gamebooks and had 19 sacks and 7 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, and 12 fumble recoveries. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, being elected on the first ballot. Also, he was the NFL Alumni and NFLPA Linebacker of the year in 1985 and 1988 and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year those seasons as well.

Troup, "Mike Singletary was, early on, overweight, and an abundance of early mistakes suck as overrunning plays.  He was a concussive hitter stepping into the hole, and though not speedy, strong in pursuit due to angles and determination. It helped that the "46" was designed to protect him. with experience became a very savvy MLB even when he lost his speed. He was average on pass defense, but more than made up for it, on the times he blitzed.

9. Patrick Willis
Troup, "Patrick Willis is the best MLB in the last 20 years". Willis was a top coverage backer and could fill and scrape."

He was a five-time First-team All-Pro and once was a Second-team pick to go with his seven Pro Bowls. He ended with 950 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 8 picks, and 16 forced fumbles. In Willis was voted the NFL Alumni NFL Linebacker of the Year in 2007 and 2009 and 2010.

Willis was a sure tackler and a team leader whose career was cut short due to injuries.

10. Luke Kuechly
Kuechly is ending his seventh season, one in which he will likely be selected First-team All-Pro for the sixth time and he's been named to his sixth Pro Bowl. He was also the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.

This season, 2018, he's leading the NFL in run/pass stuffs with 22.0, taking his career total to 76.0. He currently had 977 career tackles and 16 interceptions and remember in his era interceptions are about half as common as they were in the 1960s, making his total of 16 even more impressive. Statistically, it would translate to about 30 or so back in the day, in just seven seasons.

11. Ray Nitschke
Said Coach TJ, "His physical attributes and hitting ability stand out, and Bengston made him into a Hall of Fame player, but THREE YEARS to become the full-time starter, and most folks do not know this. Bettis started the NFL Title game in 1961. Once he got into the line-up in 1962 though, boy oh boy did he stand out.

Once in a while a struggle in adjusting to scheme and blocking (Dallas title game in 1966, where he got his ass kicked).

Nitschke is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a three-time First-team All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro selection in three other seasons. He was a member of the NFL's 50th Anniversary team and a member of five NFL Championship teams.

12. Sam Huff
Troup, "Huff, excellent range, and pass defender, and a strong tackler.  He did sometimes "pile on" because he was average at best at the "scrape".  Drazenovich was the first MLB to actually standout at this technique. Watching film of Huff as a Redskin, he was a motivated leader, yet average at best, and very poor at shedding blocks, as he did not have to do this often in NYG."

Huff recorded 30 interceptions and recovered 17 fumbles and had at least 32½ sacks in his career. He was a First-team All-Pro three times and a Second-teamer in three other seasons and in nine seasons he was a Pro Bowler and/or an All-Conference selection.

13. Bobby Wagner
A very good athlete, with speed and a sure tackle. He will likely be a First-team All-Pro in 2018, his fourth selection in seven seasons (and five Pro Bowls in seven seasons).  He was a key player in the Seahawk's "Legion of Boom" although the secondary got most of the glory.

Wagner has 968 tackles, 42.5 are stuffs, 16.5 sacks, 4 defensive touchdowns, 16.5 sacks, and 9 picks. In time he will move up this list if he stays are his current level of play.

14. Brian Urlacher
Urlacher was a four-time First-team All-Pro and a one-time time Second-team All-Pro along with being an eight-time Pro Bowler. In 2005 he was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In 2001 and 2005 he was the NFLPA Linebacker of the Year, and in 2005 and 2006 he was voted the NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

He finished his career with 1354 tackles, 104.5 of which were stuffs, 22 interceptions, 41.5 sacks and four defensive touchdowns.

Said Troup, "Urlacher is least instinctive MLB on the list, he was an oversized safety that made big plays. Enjoyed watching him play, yet cringed on short-yardage running plays. Once upon a time Dr. Z and I listed Ray Lewis & Levon Kirkland as 1, and 1a as MLB's in the league in short-yardage with Urlacher near the bottom. Z also shared that more than one of the great Giant linebackers gathered on the field before a game for a special event, told him that they thought Urlacher was soft".

But the upside for Urlacher in his era was excellent because he was good in coverage and big-play machine. He could run with tight ends in the hole and his height was a great advantage for him, along with his speed. So, while he may not have been the best at getting off blocks, he was a MLBer who could do so many things well that it more than made up for any shortcomings.

15. Nick Buoniconti
Buoniconti was a Five-time All-Pro/AFL and eight-time ProBowl/AFL All-Star in his career. He was also an All-AFL Decade Team member. He intercepted 32 passes and sack the quarterback 18 times, most of them coming in his Patriot days and their dogging defensive scheme.

Says Troup, "Outstanding overachiever since day one with Boston. He was instinctive, quick, and a very sound tackler. His lack of height was not an issue on pass defense as he handled zone coverages with aplomb. His trade to Miami was the key for Don Shula since he never had to worry about his performance.  Buoniconti had a quick mind and his leadership stood out. The downside was simple—he did not handle o-lineman that had the angle on him. The Super Bowl loss to Dallas, and games against Raiders. did not shed blocks well. Overall; consistent, and fine tackler."

16. Zach Thomas
Thomas was a fine MLBer who made 1,727 tackles (93.0 for losses), plus 20.5 sacks and 18 picks, four of which he returned for scores.

He was a Five-time All-Pro and twice was a Second-team All-Pro although there is a bit of an asterisk with that. From the mid-1980s through the mid-2010s the AP All-Pro team selected two middle linebackers, not one. And in all those cases, Thomas was the 'Second' All-Pro, not the leading vote-getter. The idea for the AP was that since many teams in that era were 3-4 teams that it was appropriate to choose two inside linebackers, one for a 4-3 defense the other for the 3-4. But by the time Thomas began his career the league had shifted back to a predominate 4-3 league and there were few 3-4 inside linebackers, so the AP voters simply picked two MLBers most of the time. So, Thomas ended up behind the likes of Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, or others.

Thomas was smart and active and was a three-down MLber who had good speed. His lack of height was not a detriment in that he was able to cover a back or get to his zone and play good pass defense.

17. Harry Carson
Carson was an excellent inside linebacker versus the run and could dog effectively as well. In the early 1980s, though, he became a two-down linebacker, usually getting replaced in nickle/dime situations. He was a hard hitter and great run defender, though his pass coverage lacked, which is one reason he was replaced in nickel/dime.

Still, he was respected enough to be voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Carson was All-Pro in 1981 and 1984 and was Second-team All-Pro in 1978, 1982, 1985, and 1986 and was voted to nine Pro Bowls. He was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year twice, in 1978 and 1979

Carson ended his career with 1,541 tackles according to gamebooks and had 17 sacks, 11 interceptions, and recovered 14 fumbles. He was a key player in the 1986 Giants defense that ended the season with a Super Bowl ring.

18. Bill Bergey
Bergey was a four-time All-Pro with one additional season as a Second-team All-Pro. He was voted as a Pro Bowler or All-Conference selection eight times in his career and was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year in 1976.

Bergey has 18½ sacks, 27 interceptions, and 21 fumble recoveries. He had Butkus-type size, but didn't have quite have the instincts (who did?).

19. Tommy Nobis
Nobis ended his career with 1,203 tackles, 8 sacks, 12 picks, and 13 fumbles recoveries. He was a mainstay of the Falcons defense of the late-1960s through the mid-1970s. He was a two-time First-team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. There has been a lot of Hall of Fame talk for Nobis over the years but the question is being a two-time All-Pro enough?

20. Steve Nelson
The first modern 3-4 ILBer since the Patriots converted to that scheme in Nelson's rookie year (along with Sam Hunt). He was underrated and didn't get a lot of post-season honors, having to compete with Jack Lambert, Randy Gradishar, and Mike Singeltary for those mentions.

However, he was First-team All-AFC in 1980 and 1984 and a Second-teamer in 1978, 79 and 85 and was a Pro Bowler in 1980, and 1984-85. He was a First-team All-Pro in 1980 and a Second-teamer in 1984.

His 1,440 tackle total with 57 for losses is impressive as are his 19 sacks, 21 forced fumbles, 16 fumbles recovered, and 17 interceptions especially since late in his career he was a two-down linebacker.

21. Sam Mills
Mills totaled 1,265 tackles in the NFL with nearly another 600 in the USFL. He had 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, 22 forced fumbles, 23 recoveries, and four defensive touchdowns.

All heady numbers for a guy who was cut by the Cleveland Browns in 1981 and the Toronto Argonauts in 1982.  The USFL came along and he got his shot to prove that a small man can play linebacker in pro football.

He was a three-time First-team All-Pro and was a Second-team All-Pro in 1991 and a five-time All-Pro. His best season may have been 1995 when he was a Second-team All-NFC pick, not All-Pro.

"Mouse" was a smart leader and like Mike Singletary or Jack Reynolds, was a computer on the field. Says coach Troup, "Deserving of consideration for the HoF. Instinctive, exceptional tackler he filled the hole and of course got under the run in a squared position. He was more than adequate on zone coverage and also strong in leadership."

22. John Offerdahl

Offerdahl was a one-time All-Pro and twice a Second-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. Injuries cut his career short, but he was a very highly regarded inside linebacker in his time in the NFL. Says Coach Troup, "Offerdahl had it all—instincts, pursuit, striking/hitting ability, and of course tackling, while adequate at pass defense. Who knows how great he would have been if not injured."

23. Chris Spielman
Spielman totaled 1,362 tackles, 63.0 of which were stuffs, 10.5 sacks, 6 picks, 19 fumble recoveries and 13 forced fumbles. He was All-Pro twice and Second-team All-Pro once and named to four Pro Bowls.

Troup, "Sentimental choice for me. An overachiever and though lacked speed, he was strong in pursuit due to angles taken. He shed blocks as well as any 3-4 linebacker ever. He was an excellent tackler/and hitter. He was not asked to do much on pass defense, yet was at least adequate."

24. Les Richter
Richter was First-team All-Pro in 1955 and 1956 and Second-team All-Pro from 1957-60 and went to eight Pro Bowls in nine years. However, it seems some of his Pro Bowls may have been because he was a versatile player, one who could kick and snap. And since the Pro Bowl is a flesh-and-blood game, not on paper, coaches made sure they had guys who could fill all positions.

He did pick off 16 passes and recovered 12 fumbles but many don't think he was quite as good as the elite MLBers of his era even though he was voted to the Hall of Fame. However, it should be noted that he played both ways, sometimes he'd play the first half of a game at center than the second half as a middle linebacker. Chuck Bednarik is more celebrated for that, but Richter did it, too. 

Troup on Richter: "One of the few overrated Hall of Famers ever.  I have studied a ton of Ram film and he sure had some strengths:  1) he played consistently hard all the time even on some poor Ram defenses. 2) outstanding open-field tackler, due to superb speed for a big man, and with that speed—rock-solid on pass defense. His drawbacks: for a big man did not fill the hole quick enough (lacked instincts) and was not near the hitter that others were. He was very poor on scrape, and at times "piled on" even more than Huff did. At the very end of his career, he was moved to center almost exclusively, and he actually played well there—maybe should have been his position all along."

25. Chuck Drazenovich

Drazenovich was the NFL's first middle linebacker. The Redskins committed to that scheme earlier than the other teams of that era. He began his career as a fullback and was decent there, though not a star. He moved to linebacker and excelled.

Troup's comments, "Drazenovich was most instinctive besides Joe Schmidt in the 1950s. He was superb at scrape, and a savage tackler hitter. He was strong on zone coverage and was selected to four straight Pro Bowls in the beginning era of the 4-3 MLB. He was a three-time Second-team All-Pro but that is mitigated by the fact he was competing for post-season honors with players like Schmidt, Huff, George, and Richter (all Hall of Famers)."

26. Hardy Nickerson
Nickerson was a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time First-team All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro once. He ended his career with 1,525 tackles, 21 sacks, 12 picks, 19 forced fumbles, and 14 fumbles recovered.  He was a Second-team 1990s All-Decade selection. In 1993 he was voted the NFLPA NFC Linebacker of the Year.

27. Lee Roy Jordan
A key to Tom Landry's 4-3 Flex defense, Jordan was not a big man but was smart and quick. He was good in coverage and always in the right place in the run game. Twice he was First-team All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowler. Jordan had 19.5 sacks and picked off 32 passes in his career, among the highest ever for middle 'backers. He also recovered 18 fumbles and averaged well over 100 tackles a season in his career.

28. London Fletcher

Fletcher will be an interesting case when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame. He was never voted to a Pro Bowl, though he was an 11-time alternate and since so many players get hurt or beg out of the game, Fletcher played in four Pro Bowls as a replacement. Twice he was a Second-team All-Pro (2011-12) and he did get some minor honors in his career. Here are a couple of examples—in 1999 Peter King chose Fletcher as his All-Pro MLBer and in 2006 ESPN's named him to their All-Pro team.

Fletcher played 16 seasons and totaled 2,031 tackles, 80 of which were stuffs. He had 39 sacks and 23 interceptions to go with 20 forced fumbles and 12 recoveries. He scored two safeties and 2 defensive touchdowns.

So, his stats or 'numbers' seem to meet Hall of Fame standards as does his Super Bowl ring, but he does lack the type of honors that most Hall of Famer LBer have on their 'resume'.

29. Mike Curtis
Curtis began as a fullback, then moved to outside linebacker where he was All-Pro once then in the middle of 1969 moved to MLBer where he was All-Pro. He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1970 and was a Pro Bowler in 1970, 71, and 74. He finished with 19.5 sacks, 25 interceptions, 9 recoveries, and three defensive touchdowns.

30. Levon Kirkland
Kirkland was All-Pro in 1997 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1996. He was voted to Pro Bowls after those two seasons. His career tackle total was 1,023 and he had 19.5 sacks, 11 picks, 16 forced fumbles and 11 fumbles recovered.

He was one of best-ever at short-yardage and goal line and could fill a hole as well as anyone. Not as good at coverage, though he did pick off 4 passes in 1996, pretty good for a 6-1 270-pound linebacker.

31. Karl Mecklenburg
Mecklenburg was a unique three-down linebacker. He was an inside linebacker in the base 3-4 defense and in nickel he was a defensive end (sometimes a defensive tackle). He averaged 69 tackles a season, a low average for a player on this list, but averaged 7 sacks, the most on this list (Bryan Cox is the closest with an average of five sacks a season). He just wasn't a player who could play coverage very well.

He was a four-time All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler, so his unique combination gained plenty of notice from the media. He finished with 776 tackles, 79 sacks, 5 picks, 17 forced fumbles and 14 fumbles recoveries (2 went for touchdowns).

32. Jack Reynolds
Hacksaw was a two-down linebacker, for the most part, and was a good one. Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf named him as one of the best 10 MLBers ever in a Sporting News article in the late-1990s. Reynolds solidified a 49er defense that won two Super Bowl rings in 1981 and 1984, but he made his bones as the Rams MLBer for most of the 1970s where he was a Pro Bowler in 1975 and 1980 (and All-NFC in 1979) along with his Second-team All-NFC selection with the 49ers in 1981.

Reynolds was like a computer on the field for the Rams defense that was first in the NFL from 1970-80 in allowing the fewest rushing yards, fewest total yards, fewest points allowed and sacked the quarterback the most times.

He totaled 1,191 tackles and recovered 14 fumbles. As someone who was not on the field much on third down he had just 6 picks and 4½ sacks on his career, but his forte was run-stopping and at that he was among the best.

33. Derrick Johnson
One of our favorites, Johnson was a fine three-down linebacker from 2005-17, starting as an outside linebacker then moving inside a few years into his career. He ended with 1,168, 27.5 sacks, 14 picks (four went for touchdowns) to go with his 22 forced fumbles, He didn't receive many post-season honors—one-time First-team All-Pro and once a second-teamer, and four Pro Bowls.

34. Donnie Edwards
Edwards played a lot of outside linebacker, but was also a MLBer in the majority of his years and was always an inside linebacker in the nickel. He was similar to Derrick Johnson in that he did everything very well. He was A second-team All-Pro twice and deserved more post-season honors in our view.  From 1998 through 2001 he was certainly Pro Bowl worthy but was never higher than a Pro Bowl alternate in those years.

He totaled 1,490 tackles (75.5 were stuffs), 23.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 28 interceptions (a very high number for his era) and scored six defensive touchdowns.

Again, he is a linebacker who is hard to peg because he was good both inside and outside. His most natural position would likely be will, but team needs caused him to play a lot inside.

35. Jessie Tuggle
Tuggle was voted to five Pro Bowls and was a Second-team All-Pro in 1998. He ended his fine career with 1,371 tackles, 21 sacks, 6 picks, and 10 fumble recoveries. You will see higher tackle totals for him but our totals come from the gamebooks rather than the coaches on our site to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.

As with any list, things get redundant after a while and also the separation between players becomes less and less. For example, the difference between number 5 and 25 on this list may have some separation in the greatness of their careers, numbers 35 and 65 might not be all that far apart. As such, we will write less for each player (if any) from number 36 to the bottom. But we will link the Pro Football Reference on each of the names and if readers will follow those links they can get an idea of a player's career from that.

But another shorthand might be the top of the list are "blue" players, the top. Then as you go down players might be "red" with some "blue" traits. Then further down to the "red players". The bottom of the list might be players who have a "red trait" or two but are not quite on the second level (blue being first level, red being the second level). Then, after that are players whose names we might recognize has having a decent career with some longevity, or short careers who may have had one or two excellent seasons.

Again, we're not going to pretend as though our list is the be-all, end-all. All we claim is through research, film watching and some historical perspective, we gave this list some thought and peppered with stats you cannot find anywhere else. And we hope you enjoy it.

Here are numbers 36 through 135:

36. James Farrior
Farrior was a fine 3-4 ILber on some fine teams and some not-so-fine teams. Had a knack for big plays. He finished with 1,412 tackles, 35 sacks, and 11 picks and was named to two Pro Bowls. 

37. Jeff Siemon
A solid player, a good 1970s MLBer who lacked speed, but was smart and could tackle well. He was replaced by Scott Studwell who was a bit better athlete but didn't have Siemon's instincts. Siemon was a four-time Pro Bowler.

38. Bob Breunig
Similar to Siemon, a solid, but unspectacular MLBer who took over for Lee Roy Jordan in the Dallas flex defense. He was a three-time Pro Bowler.

39. Bryan Cox

Started out as an outside linebacker because of his rush ability, but moved to the middle and like Urlacher (did it one year) and Karl Mecklenburg he was usually a defensive end in nickel. He averaged 5 sacks a year, very high more of a middle backer.

40. Keith Brooking
Very good player, but only verged on being great. But finished with 1,435 and 22 sacks and went to five Pro Bowls. He played some outside linebacker but was usually in the middle in a 4-3 or on the inside in a 3-4 defense.

41. Tedy Bruschi
Likely underrated but he was a big play machine who helped the Patriots to those early 2000s rings. Also overcame a stroke, which is a big plus in our eyes because toughness does count. Bruschi finished with 1,063 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 12 picks (four of which were pick-sixes) and was a Second-team All-Pro twice. Some may think we have him too high here, maybe so. But top players make top plays and Tedy did that.

42. Pepper Johnson
A two-down-type 3-4 ILber. Good tackler, smart (coached by Bill Belichick) and could get some good pressure when he dogged.

43. Matt Millen
A converted college defensive tackle who was a two-down ILBer in the NFL. Was a starter on four Super Bowl-winning teams, twice with the Raiders, once with the 49ers and once for the Redskins.

44. Myron Pottios
Lacked speed, was kind of a poor man's Bill George. Was solid with the Steelers then George Allen used him in George's role with the Rams, with his hand in the dirt as a middle guard on occasion. Poor in pass coverage was often replaced by a quicker linebacker or nickel back in passing situations as Allen was among the first to regularly implement nickel defenses.

45. Karlos Dansby
Very solid, made a lot of tackles for losses in his career.

46. NaVorro Bowman
Not the player that Patrick Willis was, but very solid, very active in his on right.

47. Joe Federspiel
Underrated, played for poor teams. But he was one who had some "blue traits". Good tackler, though not fast, he took good angles. On a good team, he was capable of leading a Super Bowl-winning defense, but he never got that chance. Finished with 1,220 tackles in his 10-year career.

48. Jim Collins
A neck injury slowed and eventually ended Collins' career but from 1983-85 he was more than solid, he was an excellent three-down linebacker. Good in coverage, could dog fairly well, and was good hitter and great instincts, a poor man's Randy Gradishar in the 3-4.

49. Al Wilson
A quality MLB in the Broncos defense that won Super Bowls.

50. Vincent Brown
A hitter, played on some poor teams, might have been All-Pro if he had played for say, the Giants or Steelers, teams that featured and promoted linebackers.

51. Shane Conlan
Smart, tough leader of the early 1990s Bills defenses. However, more of a two-down linebacker than one who'd do really well in coverage.

52. Ted Johnson
Similar to Shane Conlan.

53. Jim Haslett
Silimar to Conlan and Ted Johnson.

54. Vaughan Johnson 

Two All-Pros, one Second-team All-pro four Pro Bowls. Nine years in NFL plus two in USFL. Hard-hitter who was effective at blitzing. 

55. Jeremiah Trotter

56. Lawrence Timmons

57. Al Smith

58. Dont'a Hightower

59. Jerod Mayo

60. Jon Beason

61. Dale Dodrill

62. Archie Matsos

63. Lofa Tatupu

64. Jerry Robinson

65. Jonathan Vilma

66. David Harris

67. Bart Scott

68. Byron Evans

A two-time second-team All-pro on a great Eagles defense. he defensed quite a lot of passes for a guy who was not always on the field in nickel defenses. 

69. Mike Lucci
Was a solid MLBer for his era who earned some post-season honors. Maybe a bit like a Jeff Sieman or Bob Breunig.

70. Jim LeClair
Again, similar to Lucci.

71. Dick Ambrose
Similar to LeClair.

72. Scott Studwell
An athletic upgrade to Jeff Sieman, but really never was a star, either. A solid player who'd occasionally get some post-season honors.

73. Dale Meinert
Solid pro for some decent defenses on the 1960s Cardinals.

74. Don Paul
Was one of the two LBers in Rams 5-2 defense, his career ended before the Rams went to a 4-3 full time. He was known as a dirty player in the 1950s (who wasn't?) and got some post-season honors and a ring with the Rams.

75. Gregg Bingham
Had a solid career with the Oilers. Was likely the second-full time 3-4 LBer in modern NFL history as the Oilers committed to the 3-4 at mid-season in 1974, though they had toyed with it in 1973 and the first-half of 1974.

76. Sherrill Headrick
One of the better players in the AFL in its early years.

77. Micheal Barrow

78. Al Atkinson

79. Harry Jacobs

80. Mike Johnson
81.. Jeff Herrod

82. Antonio Pierce

83. Dan Morgan
84. Stephen Boyd

85. Cecil Johnson
Johnson split his time between ILB and OLBer in a 3-4 scheme, but had most success inside, though he had fine outside cover skills, he just wasn't the kind of pass rusher coaches wanted on the outside so when Hugh Green arrived in Tampa Johnson moved inside.

86. D'Qwell Jackson

87. E.J. Henderson

88. Frank LeMaster

89. Jack Del Rio
Another player who began outside but moved inside and had his most productive years as a MIKE.

90. Eugene Lockhart

91. Fred Strickland
Played for several teams, most of them as a traditional middle linebacker who had a good combination of size and speed. With the Rams, from 1988-92 he was a "joker" type defensive player. He was a moving piece in Fritz Shurmur's defenses playing inside linebacker in base defense and nose tackle in the Eagle defense and defensive tackle in nickel. Later, in 1991, with Jeff Fisher's defense, he'd play some base defensive end, some outside linebacker—a poor man's Karl Mecklenburg.

92. Randall Godfrey

93. DeMeco Ryans

94. Dan Conners

95. Dat Nguyen

96. Winfred Tubbs

97. Jerry Tubbs

98. Kendrell Bell
Bell was one of the handful of inside linebackers who'd play on the edge on passing downs due to special pass rush skills.

99. Carl Ekern
Ekern began his career with the Rams in specialty roles, short yardage and some nickel defenses. Became the starter in 1981 and fought through some injuries. As a replacement for Jack Reynolds he was good, but never to the level of Reynolds, even though he had more height and speed—similar to what happened with Scott Studwell and Jeff Sieman in Minnesota. Sometimes the more talented player in terms of size or speed is not the better player.

100. Marlin McKeever
101. Sam Cowart
Short career for Cowart, spent some time on outside, but was a very active player who went to one Pro Bowl.

102. Nick Barnett

Barnett, solid, was Second-team All-Pro once, 1,041 tackles 20.5 sacks, 12 picks (two went for touchdowns).

103. Daryl Washington
Washington was building a fine career with a unique skill set until he kind of self-destructed off the field with an indefinite suspension stemming from drugs and domestic violence. 

104. Fredd Young
Young was another of the 1980s ILBers who would play defensive end quite often in nickel. He was a great special teams player but was undersized for both the base and nickel positions he played. His speed and toughness could get him by, but he wasn't in the NFL long, largely because it was difficult to always be physically outmatched.

105. Stephen Tulloch
Solid but unspectacular type who had some 'red traits".

106. James Laurinaitis
Laurinaitis was an okay tackler, not great, but was another of the "computer on the field"-type MLBers. He played on some sorry teams but was always on the field, even in dime, he was the lone linebacker. He knew the defenses inside and out and he had to play under two styles with the Rams. He was better in coverage than most, which is why he could be on the field in dime, he could dog okay, but in some ways was like Urlacher and didn't get off blocks well, even though he had good size and strength.

107. Paul Posluszny

Similar in many ways to Laurinaitis but a bit lighter.
108. Marvin Jones
109. Greg Biekert
110. Ken Fantetti
111. Jim Carter
112. Richard Wood
113. Gary Plummer
114. Dino Hackett
115. Shane Nelson
116. Kyle Clifton
117. Neal Olkewicz
118. Barry Krauss
119. Gary Spani
120. A.J. Duhe
Duhe converted from defensive end to inside linebacker and had a few really good years, then tailed off. Made his only Pro Bowl in 1984 when he really didn't deserve it as he had been benched during an injury-plagued season. However, from 1981-83 he was quite a good playmaker.
122. Earl Holmes
123. Eugene Marve
Along with Steve Nelson the first 3-4 linebackers in league history.
124. Eddie Johnson
125. Kwon Alexander
126. Vince Costello
127. Jim Cheyunski
128. John Ebersole
129. Chuck Allen
130. Bob Babich
131. Frank Nunley
132. Garland Boyette
134. Sam Hunt
Actually started at MLB in 1962, making him the first African-American to play the position, but he was not really full-time starter until 1967.
135. John Grimsley
136. Ray Bentley
137. Allen Aldridge
138. Carlton Bailey
139. Dennis Gaubatz


  1. Great write up as usual John. A few things I noticed:

    1. Butkus had just 5 sacks his entire career?
    2. The league interception rate when Lewis' played vs when Butkus played.
    3. The write up about Urlacher in short yardage was spot on. I would probably place him in the 20s due to this weakness and stil have no idea how he was a 1st ballot choice.

    1. I’m 1967, Dick Butkus has 18 sacks.
      According to ESPN sports century,,, the Los Angeles Times, and countless other sources.
      Sacks, interceptions, forced and recovered fumbles, tackles... there was not a single area he didn’t excel in.

  2. I concur with Johnny, you guys did a great job again. I love this series.

  3. Would you guys say that Jessie Tuggle is the cut off line for blue players? Or was Tuggle more of a red player?

    1. I would say blue cutoff is in high-teens early 20s.

  4. Thanks again for these great lists and the accompanying writeups. I feel like I am learning more about football from this site and this series of lists.

  5. Would Butkus be just as great in todays football or do you think he would have to be pulled on passing downs?

    1. Butkus' pass coverage was very solid, underrated, he didn't just pick off lots of passes he defensed many as well and had a good sense of positioning in the passing game .

    2. From what I've seen (admittedly not a ton outside of highlights) and read, I am certain Butkus would have done well in any era. He would have to tone down some of his more vicious hits but he was quick and instinctive enough to succeed in 2018. His cover skills were good enough that he would not be seen as some run plugging, 2-down linebacker.

      Just my opinion. I could be terribly mistaken.

  6. On my game charts I usually graded Ray Lewis, Lambert, and Lee Roy Jordan highest. I give plus marks for tackles 3 yards or less, deflections/picks/good tackles minimal gains in coverage, sacks gotten and created, and good penetrations that ruin plays.

    Gradishar had a huge year in 78 I noticed. I wanted to grade Mills higher on charts but I just wasn't seeing much production. Might have to watch more films.

  7. I ask this does Chris Spielman rank ahead of Hardy Nickerson? And no way does John Offerdahl outrank Pepper Johnson.

    1. Pepper Johnson not great at pass coverage. Spielman a technical machine, always at right place, right time. A computer in cleats

  8. Thought Lanier and Butkus were the best I ever saw, but thought Nickerson, Fletcher, Curtis and others were better against the run than Urlacher. I thought Singletary was overrated as well, but still a great player like Reynolds and Jordan. Al Atkinson was underrated and why is Gradishar still not in the Hall ? Did Rizzo and Svenson have more tackles than they were credited for ?
    Didn't see Pellington on this list, maybe more of an outside linebacker, but he was mean, and would smile while he killed you...

  9. Singletary wasn't that great in 85 to me. He was good but not Dpoy worthy. Just not that many marks for run stops and I saw 17 out of their 19 games on YouTube. Singletary was great in 83 and 84 to my eyes. I wonder if there are linebackers in today's football that couldn't do gradishar pass coverage responsibilities.

    1. Singletary was great in 1985; but I always thought DPOY should have gone to Richard Dent that year.

  10. Offerdahl wasn't a better player than Pepper Johnson. And neither was Chris Spielman. In his rookie year Johnson had more defensive snaps than Gary Reasons.

  11. Did I miss Junior Seau on your list?

  12. The article stated that Dick Butkus only had 4 sacks? He had 18 sacks in 1967 alone, according to the Bears, According to ESPN sports century,,, the Los Angeles Times, and countless other sources.
    Sacks, interceptions, forced and recovered fumbles, tackles... there was not a single area he didn’t excel in.

  13. The 5 sacks attributed to Butkus is way off. In this video alone there are 7 clear sacks by Butkus on Roman Gabriel, Billy Kilmer, Bart Starr, John Brodie, #17 on the Steelers and Norm Snead twice, once and home and once on the road.

    1. Bears records are notoriously bad---and they are one of the teams we are trying to get more film on----we've always beleive he had more, but in terms of play by plays we can only document 5 or so. However, we do know that the 18 in 1967 is totally false. So, we are working ob Bears lik Atkins, Butkus, OBradivoci in the just takes time.

      But in reviewing this film we have most of those, the one in 1971 vs Kilmer he was credited with 1/2 sack, and it seems he maybe should get full credit. The one from 1969 SHiner from Pitt is new...

      So in the univrse of missing sacks--he;s still going to have at most 8-9 or so

    2. Thanks.

      Here he is sacking Bill Nelson in week 5 of 1972.

    3. we have that one in 1972---it's in the play by play

  14. Where's Bill Romanowski? He's one of the few LBs that could win you games based on intimidation alone! He owns 4 Superbowl rings, and almost got his 5th if not for the Riaders losing the Superbowl in their '02 season. I understand he's controversial but he was an excellent middle linebacker. Better than at least a few in your top 10.

  15. Randy Gradishar not being in the Hall of Fame is beyond me.

  16. No Lavonte David on this list.... WOW. Just wow. Watch football much?

    1. He's on the outside linebacker list. He's been a WILL most of his career.

      We picked him All-Pro in 2012


      2nd team 2014


      2nd team 2017

      2nd teams 2018


      and all NFC all those years plus more --- no one in semi-media is a bigger fan of Lavonte David. Might be a good idea to gather the facts before you comment.