Putting together a list of the best linebackers of all time has never been harder.
The best NFL defenses always have great linebackers and the number of elite linebackers in the league only seems to be growing. With linebackers playing a bigger role in rushing the passer, some of the greatest linebackers ever are players from the 21st century.
Best linebackers of all time
It’s also impossible to deny that some of the best defenders in NFL history are linebackers, as a few obvious names surely come to mind.
You also won’t find many top-notch linebackers among the worst NFL contracts ever, as the greats always deliver. But who are the best linebackers of all time and who deserves to be separated from the pack? Let’s take a look at our ranking of the 20 greatest linebackers ever.
20. DeMarcus Ware
DeMarcus Ware was the perfect combination of fast and physical, making him an excellent pass-rusher in an era when outside linebackers were excelling at just that. He averaged 11.5 sacks per season during his 12 years in the league, leading the NFL in sacks twice and going to the Pro Bowl nine times.
Ware also had a season in which his 19.5 sacks weren’t enough to lead the league. Even when he slowed down late in his career, Ware helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 while collecting 21.5 sacks over three seasons during his golden years in the league.
19. Chuck Howley
There may not have been a Doomsday Defense in Dallas in the 1960s and 70s without Chuck Howley. Despite a sluggish start to his career, Howley hit his stride with the Cowboys and became a catalyst for the Cowboys becoming a dominant defensive team during that era.
Between 1966 and 1970, Howley was a First-Team All-Pro in five consecutive seasons. He also has the unique distinction of winning MVP in Super Bowl V despite his team losing. Of course, the next season, Howley had an interception and recovered a fumble while leading the Cowboys to a win in Super Bowl VI, helping cement his legacy as one of the best linebackers of his generation.
18. Bill George
Those who remember the NFL during the 1950s and early 60s consider Bill George to be the best linebacker of that era and arguably the best of all time. Naturally, he played for the Bears, serving as a predecessor to several other linebackers on our list.
On the field, he was an absolute menace for opposing teams. Opposing quarterbacks always had to be aware of George, who would make life difficult for them by lining up in different places to trick them. His career included eight straight Pro Bowl selections from 1954 to 1961, as well as eight seasons as a First-Team All-Pro.
17. Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher is one in a long line of Bears linebackers who are all-time legends. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2000 and proceeded to be selected to eight Pro Bowls during his 13-year career.
Urlacher was the heartbeat of Chicago’s defense for over a decade, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and earning a spot on the 2000s All-Decade Team. Even when injuries slowed him up late in his career, Urlacher continued to be the kind of middle linebacker who was always around the ball and could make plays all over the field.
16. Kevin Greene
The late Kevin Greene was among the outside linebackers who helped to turn that position into a spot for elite pass-rushers. During his 15-year career, he led the league in sacks twice and was selected to five Pro Bowls.
With 160 career sacks, Greene averaged over 10 sacks per season over those 15 seasons, helping to get him to the Hall of Fame and putting him on a list among the best linebackers of all time.
15. Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt was born and raised in Pittsburgh and played his entire NFL career in Detroit, so you know that toughness wasn’t an issue for him. But Schmidt was also an intelligent player who could diagnose plays and put himself in the right position.
He spent his entire pro career as one of the most physical and intimidating linebackers in the league. Schmidt earned a Pro Bowl selection in his second pro season in what would be the first of 10 straight trips to the Pro Bowl.
That coincided with 10 consecutive All-Pro selections, including eight years as a First-Team All-Pro. During his Hall of Fame career, Schmidt also helped the Lions win two NFL championships, serving as an integral part of those two championship teams.
14. Ted Hendricks
Straight out of Guatemala by way of South Florida, Ted Hendricks is one of the more remarkable NFL stories.
At 6’7’’ and 220 pounds, he was one of the most intimidating linebackers of the 1970s and 80s. “The Stork,” as he was affectionally known, was far taller than the average linebacker but could move just as swiftly as the best at his position. While he collected just 61 sacks during his Hall of Fame career, Hendricks contributed in other ways. He also played on four teams that won the Super Bowl, once with the Ravens and thrice with the Raiders.
13. Willie Lanier
As one of the fastest and most physical players of his era, Willie Lanier received a lot of attention for his tackling technique, as he never shied away from contact. For what it’s worth, his tendency to lead with his helmet would not fly in today’s game.
Even in his day, it was such a problem that extra padding was put on the outside of Lanier’s helmet to help protect the players he was tackling. That says everything you need to know about how hard Lanier would hit opposing players. During his 11 seasons with the Chiefs, Lanier was an All-AFL player twice and then a Pro Bowler for six straight seasons, earning All-Pro honors in eight consecutive years. Lanier was also one of the first African American players to emerge as a starter at middle linebacker, so his impact on the NFL extends beyond the field.
12. Ray Nitschke
Even many years ago, it wasn’t easy playing 16 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker. But that’s exactly what Ray Nitschke did, which is why he deserves to be mentioned among the best linebackers of all time.
He played all 16 of those seasons with the Packers, helping them to five championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Nitschke was as tough as they get, as a spike was once driven through his helmet without Nitschke so much as flinching. He was also among the strongest players in the NFL during his era while also collecting 25 interceptions during his Hall of Fame career.
11. Jack Ham
During his 12 seasons in the NFL, it was tough to find a more consistent linebacker than Jack Ham. Today, he would have been considered a linebacker-safety hybrid because he had incredible speed, keeping up with running backs and wide receivers better than the average linebacker.
Many also considered Ham to be one of the smartest defensive players of his era. During his prime years, Ham went to the Pro Bowl in eight straight seasons and was a First-Team All-Pro selection in six consecutive years. While the Steelers of the 1970s were stacked with defensive talent, there’s no discounting the role Ham played in Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl wins during his career.
10. Bobby Bell
Bobby Bell was great at getting to the quarterback despite playing in an era before linebackers were the elite pass-rushers. He had the combination of size and athleticism that’s common nowadays but few linebackers of his day possessed.
It made Bell best utilized as a blitzing linebacker. However, Bell was so athletic that longtime coach Hank Stram said that he could have succeeded at all 22 positions. In 12 seasons, Bell was an AFL All-Star six times and a Pro Bowler three times, earning one of the other in nine straight seasons right around the time of the merger, making him one of the best players of his era and one of the best linebackers of all time.
9. Chuck Bednarik
Most fans don’t know that Chuck Bednarik was a center in addition to being a linebacker, as he played in an era when players still went both ways. But since he’s considered one of the hardest hitters in league history, most fans recognize Bednarik as one of the best linebackers of all time.
His contributions as a linebacker are the biggest reason why he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a 10-time First-Team All-Pro. One could argue that Bednarik hit other players too hard, occasionally hurting them in the process. Of course, that just means he knew how to deliver big hits during his 14-year career.
8. Derrick Brooks
Derrick Brooks was one of those linebackers who brought his best game after game and year after year. He played all 14 of his NFL seasons with the Buccaneers, going to 11 Pro Bowls and winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2002, which was the same season he led a historically stingy Tampa defense to a Super Bowl win.
While not much of a pass rusher, Brooks averaged over 116 solo tackles per season during his career while also amassing 25 interceptions, 112 defended passes, and even six touchdowns. In other words, the guy made plays all over the field.
7. Jack Lambert
Modern fans may not recognize his name, but Jack Lambert is undoubtedly one of the best linebackers of all time. During the late 1970s and early 80s, he was the best linebacker the NFL had. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974 and Defensive Player of the Year two years later.
Lambert was a Pro Bowler in all but his rookie season and his final pro season, totaling nine selections. More importantly, he was a key member of some of the great Pittsburgh defenses of that era, helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls while earning a spot on both the NFL’s 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams.
6. Dick Butkus
Ask anyone who saw him play and they’ll tell you that Dick Butkus was the meanest, fiercest, and most intimidating linebacker to ever play the game. For decades, he was the player that other great middle linebackers were compared to.
Despite only playing nine seasons, Butkus made the NFL’s 1960s and 1970s All-Decade Teams. He was also a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in every season but his final season, on his way to the Hall of Fame. There’s a short list of players in NFL history who were tougher or hit harder than Butkus, which is what makes him one of the best linebackers of all time.
5. Derrick Thomas
The late Derrick Thomas was truly something special during his playing days, undoubtedly making him one of the best linebackers of all time. He played 11 seasons in the NFL and was still going strong when he passed away in early 2000 from complications following a car crash.
In those 11 seasons, Thomas was a Pro Bowler nine times in addition to leading the NFL in sacks once and forced fumbles twice. Starting with his rookie season, he had at least 10 sacks seven times in those 11 seasons, including a career-high 20 in his second pro season. To date, Thomas still holds the single-game NFL record with seven sacks, leaving behind an incredible legacy.
4. Junior Seau
Despite a tragic ending to his life, Junior Seau must be considered among the greatest linebackers ever.
It’d be difficult to find someone who played the game with more passion, fire, and intensity snap after snap. Seau only knew how to play at full speed and always delivered bone-crunching hits.
Starting with his second year in the league, Seau went to the Pro Bowl in 12 consecutive seasons. Even when that streak ended and he was no longer in his prime, Seau played eight more seasons, spending more than two decades in the NFL. Unfortunately, having that kind of longevity took a toll on his body and likely contributed to his premature passing. But it’s impossible not to admire what he accomplished or the kind of player he was.
3. Mike Singletary
When the Bears were called the Monsters of the Midway and dominating on defense the way few teams could ever dream of doing, Mike Singletary was the man in the middle of it all. He was the middle linebacker on those Chicago teams and arguably the best linebacker in the NFL during the 1980s, not to mention one of the best linebackers of all time.
He went to the Pro Bowl every year from 1983 to 1992 and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988. While his career as a head coach was underwhelming, there’s no denying Singletary’s brilliance as a player.
2. Ray Lewis
During his era, there was nobody better at playing middle linebacker than Ray Lewis, and it wasn’t even close.
He could patrol the middle of the field and collect tackles like no other. Lewis was a force of nature and an emotional leader on a series of Baltimore teams that were defined by their outstanding defense.
Lewis was a 13-time Pro Bowler and twice won Defensive Player of the year honors. He also helped the Ravens to two Super Bowl victories, winning Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl XXXV. Lewis currently holds the all-time NFL records for solo tackles, combined tackles, and solo tackles in a single season, all of which are records that could be his for a long time.
1. Lawrence Taylor
There should be no doubt that LT is the greatest linebacker in NFL history. More importantly, he set the bar so high that it’ll be almost impossible for anyone to ever match or exceed what he did.
Lawrence Taylor was just on another level physically than the rest of the league. He revolutionized the outside linebacker position and forced opposing offenses to game plan around him, which isn’t the kind of treatment many defensive players receive.
His off-field controversies aside, Taylor was an absolute menace on the field, collecting at least 10 sacks in seven consecutive seasons while making the Pro Bowl in 10 consecutive seasons during his prime. Taylor was also Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions and remains one of just two defensive players to win MVP honors. That alone says a lot about Taylor, but not nearly as much as merely watching him play, which is what makes it obvious that he’s the best of all time.