With Ray Lewis’ announcement that this season will be his last, it truly is the end of an era. Unquestionably the heart and soul of Baltimore’s defensive institution, Lewis’ legacy as an inspirational leader, tireless worker and supreme competitor cements his place among the best of all-time.
Looking back at his career accomplishments, he is among the best ever to play the linebacker position. Considering impact on the game, pedigree and contributions to their teams, here are the greatest linebackers in NFL history:
Not only is he an all-time great, Butkus is the blueprint for the linebacker position. He was flat-out nasty, with the size and power to compete in any era. Butkus played the game with an intimidating, physical presence, using his power and tenacity to attack opposing offenses. He crushed more than tackled, smashed more than he hit.
Former Packers running back MacArthur Lane once said of facing Butkus, “If I had a choice, I’d sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear.”
Born in Chicago, Butkus played his college ball at the University of Illinois and then 9 seasons for the Bears. He was named to eight Pro Bowls, was an eight-time All-Pro and won the Defensive Player of Year twice (1969 and ’70). He was also name to the All-Decade team of the 60’s and 70’s. To further measure Butkus’ greatness at his position, each year the most outstanding linebacker in high school, college and pros is given the Dick Butkus Award.
The most feared, famous defense of all-time, required a leader, and Jack Lambert was the backbone of the Steel Curtain. Lambert anchored Chuck Knoll’s punishing defense, propelling the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles in six years. As a rookie in 1974, Lambert replaced Henry Davis at middle linebacker and the Pittsburgh would capture its first Lombardi trophy in franchise history.
A quarterback in high school, Lambert brought leadership and toughness to Bud Carson’s “Double-Rotating Zone” defensive scheme. Patrolling the middle, Lambert’s skills allowed him to both pressure the quarterback and drop back into coverage.
In 11 seasons (all with the Steelers), Lambert was the 1974 Defensive Rookie of the Year, the 1976 Defensive Player of the Year, an eight-time All-Pro, a nine-time Pro Bowler, and All-Decade for the 70’s and 80’s. Known as a punishing, imposing figure, but Lambert is best identified by his most significant feature…his smile.
No one created more chaos on (and off) the football field than LT. A combination of speed, power and intensity, Taylor literally changed opponents’ strategy. To counter Taylor’s aggressiveness, teams would add an additional blocker, usually a guard instead of blocking back, to challenge LT. The challenge wouldn’t matter.
Taylor was the second overall pick by the New York Giants and immediately took the NFL by force. He was the 1981 Defensive Rookie AND Player of the Year. He would also be named a first team All-Pro in his rookie season (ten times total in his career), and to the Pro Bowl, also for ten straight seasons.
Few players brought such reckless abandon to the football field like LT. Giants coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick made Taylor the lynchpin of their vaunted linebacker corps. Taylor’s 1986 season was his best one. Turning in 20.5 sacks as the Giants won their first Super Bowl title in franchise history and he was named league MVP (the second defensive player to receive the honor). LT would win two Super Bowls with the Giants, was the Defensive Player of the Year three times (1981, ’82 and ’86) and was named to the 80’s All-Decade team, changing the game along the way.
Every game was a battle, every play was combat and for 17 seasons, Ray Lewis was up to the task. In the modern era of the NFL, Lewis relied on superior conditioning, endless preparation and an unmatched drive.
In their first draft, the Ravens selected Lewis with their second pick in 1996. Four years later he would lead them to their first Lombardi trophy franchise history, earning MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXV.
A day’s work for Lewis could be a season for most players. His trademark introduction dance would set the tone, followed by his inspirational words in the pregame huddle. Watching a Ravens game, Lewis’ presence was felt by teammates and opponents. A remarkable read-and-react player, Lewis knew what you were going to run, stop it and let you know it. A playmaker, a motivator and a game changer, as Lewis went, so did the Ravens.
Twice Lewis was named Defensive Player of the Year (2000 and ’03), along with 13 Pro Bowls, and ten All-Pro teams. His will and ability to endure will serve as his legacy. Few players captured your attention and displayed as much sheer passion for the game, and even fewer played linebacker like Ray Lewis.