Top 10 Linebackers in NFL history

A linebacker is a defensive leader, and among other things, is responsible for calling defensive plays, providing defensive field coverage, blocking passes, and reading the opponent's offense movement with exceptional instincts.

Based on these responsibilities, many criteria are used to select the best linebacker from the long line of linebackers who have graced the game since its inception. These include individual and team accomplishments, career statistics, and the degree of impact on the game, all of which are weighed against the goal of the era in which each player competed.

1. Lawrence Taylor

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There is no way to begin this list with a different name. Lawrence Taylor is without a doubt the greatest NFL linebacker of all time, as well as one of the greatest periods in football history. Taylor, a 1980 graduate of the University of North Carolina, captained his team and received unanimous all-American honors as well as the ACC Player of the Year Award in the same year.

He was selected in the first round of the 1981 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, and he spent his entire career with the team, retiring after the 1993 season. He's a two-time Super Bowl champion, a 10-time Pro Bowler, and an eight-time first-team All-Pro.

Lawrence's finesse in the game and his extraordinarily high football IQ saw him become the only defensive defender ever to clinch the NFL MVP title (1986). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

2. Ray Lewis

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If we overshadow a specific linebacker position, then Ray Lewis is by far the greatest average linebacker to ever come onto the pitch. His influence on the grid was legendary and his energy in the game was unrivaled.

A two-time all-American honors player for the University of Miami, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, where he played for all 17 seasons of his career and retired in 2012. His 13 Pro Bowl selections make him the line. In 2000, Ray Lewis was named Super Bowl MVP and NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No other linebacker has ever achieved both honors in a single season.

Lawrence's dexterity in the game and exceptional football IQ made him the only defensive defender to ever win the NFL MVP award (1986). In 1999, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

3. Dick Butkus

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Richard Marvin Butkus is now a sports commentator and actor, but he was once the most feared and admired linebacker in the league. Butkus could strike like a freight train, and he was the prototypical linebacker in more ways than one.

The Chicago Bears selected him in the first round of the 1965 NFL Draft as an all-American consensus, Rose Bowl Champion, and Big Ten Conference MVP with the University of Illinois. He was an eight-time All-Pro and twice defensive player of the year who spent his entire career with the Bears and was invited to eight Pro Bowls.

Dick was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and the NFL Network named him the most feared tackler in NFL history in 2009.

4. Mike Singletary

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Dubbed "Samurai Mike" for his distinctive look, the player had more than just his intimidation tactics to deserve a spot as one of the greatest NFL defenders of all time. He was an integral part of the legendary Chicago Bears defense in the 1980s.

Singletary had a stellar career with Baylor University and went on to spend his entire 11-year career (1981-1992) with the Bears. During his time there, he won Super Bowl XX (1985) and was invited to the Pro Bowl ten times. Mike became a Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1989.

5. Jack Lambert

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Lambert spent his entire career as a centerline broker with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1984, making him the logical next addition to this roster. He was the formidable frontman for the "Steel Curtain" - the world's largest defense - during his time. He is currently the best linebacker in the NFL, effectively cementing his place as one of the greatest linebackers of all time.

The Kent State University alumnus is a four-time Super Bowl champion, a feat the Steelers accomplished over six years. Lambert was named to nine Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams as a result of his efforts. In 1990, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted the two-time NFL Defender of the Year.

6. Jack Ham

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If there was ever a comprehensive checklist of all the qualities required of a defender, Jack Raphael Ham checked all the boxes. Ham's contribution as an outside linebacker was exemplary on the field, as he was a member of the legendary "Steel Curtains" who won four Super Bowl championships with teammate Jack Lambert.

He's an eight-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, and he holds the NFL record for most forced turnovers (53) by a linebacker. He is a Pro Football Hall of Famer who was born in 1988 and retired in 1982 after spending his entire career with the Steelers.

7. Derrick Thomas

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From 1989 to 2000, Derrick was a member of the Kansas Chiefs. He is the franchise's all-time sack leader (126.5 sacks) and holds the NFL record for the most sacks (7) in a single batch. Thomas, a six-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler, died on January 23, 2000, at the age of 33, from complications related to injuries sustained in an accident. 

In 2009, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame posthumously, and his number 58 was retired by the leaders in the same year.

8. Junior Seau

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Junior Seau, the second posthumous addition to our roster, was a tackle king. His unusually high number of professional tackles reflects his reading of the game and positioning (1,849). He played for the San Diego Chargers (1990-2002), Miami Dolphins (2003-2005), and New England Patriots as a player (2006-2009).

Sean was a University of South California alumnus who was named to the Pro Bowl 12 times and was named to the All-Pro team 10 times. After his career ended in 2009, his # 55 San Diego Chargers jersey was retired. 

Seau developed CTE as a result of multiple concussions during his career, and he committed suicide in 2012. In 2015, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

9. Brian Urlacher

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Brian was a key member of his team's performance in the 2005 season and is one of the most recent Pro Football Hall of Fame (2018) inductees on this list. 

In 2005, he was named NFL Defender of the Year for his contributions. From 2000 to 2012, he spent his entire career with the Chicago Bears, earning eight Pro Bowl invitations and five All-Pro selections.

He finished his career with 1,353 tackles, 41.5 sacks, and 34 turnovers as a defensive rookie in the NFL in 2000. He has made the third most appearances (182) of any player in the team's history.

10. Ray Nitschke

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A legendary Green Bay Packers center linebacker who spent his entire 15-year career (1958-1972) with the team, he is best known for being a key member of the legendary Packers defense led by then-head coach Vince Lombardi.

During his time as a member of the 1978 Pro Football Hall of Famer class, he helped his team win five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968. In 1964, he was invited to the Pro Bowl, and he has been named to the All-Pro team seven times.

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