Top 10 NFL linebackers of all time

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

July 21st, 2021

Ranking the top linebackers to ever suit up in the National Football League is far from easy. Putting outside, inside, and middle linebackers in one group gets tricky, and the position (like all positions in the game) has changed considerably over the years. However, we’re here to give this the good old college try, so let’s dive in!

10. Kevin Greene

Teams: L.A. Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers
Years active: 1985-1999
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 5x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 1x Defensive Player of the Year

We start the list on a sad note, as Greene passed away in late 2020. The Auburn graduate made five Pro Bowls and retired with 160 sacks, good for third on the all-time list. Greene was a freakish athlete, so much so that he made several appearances for World Championship Wrestling in the mid-1990’s and outshined many of the full-time grapplers on the roster.

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San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

9. Junior Seau

Teams: San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots
Years active: 1990-2009
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, 1x Defensive Player of the Year

Things don’t get much happier with Seau, who committed suicide at age 43. One of the most beloved players in the league during his career, Seau made 12 Pro Bowls, earned the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year trophy, and finished with 1,849 tackles. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall in 2015.

8. Ray Nitschke

Team: Green Bay Packers
Years active: 1958-1972
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 1x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 5x NFL champion, 2x Super Bowl champion

A model of consistency, Nitschke was a vital part of the Vince Lombardi-led Packer dynasty during the 1960s. He was a First-Team All-Pro selection multiple times, and in addition to being excellent against the run, he also shined in pass coverage. Despite playing in an era that relied on heavily on rushing, Nitschke retired with 25 interceptions.

7. Chuck Bednarik

Team: Philadelphia Eagles
Years active: 1949-1962
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, 2x NFL champion

Bednarik is my nod to a bygone era where players would not leave the field. The Eagles legend was also one of the game’s better centers, and he helped lead the squad to titles in 1949 and 1960. Perhaps he’s best known, though, for a legendary photo where he’s standing atop New York Giants running back Frank Gifford, who he had just laid out to end a contest between the two longtime rivals.

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Derrick Thomas (58) of the Kansas City Chiefs and Deion Sanders (21) of the Dallas Cowboys get together after the Thanksgiving Day game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas Cowboys. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

6. Derrick Thomas

Team: Kansas City Chiefs
Years active: 1989-1999
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 9x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro

Thomas’s untimely death due to a car accident robbed the game of one of its best pass-rushers, one who tallied 126.5 sacks in 157 games played. He once got to Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg seven times in one game during the 1990 campaign, which ended with Thomas having recorded a career-high 20 sacks.

5. Jack Lambert

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Years active: 1974-1984
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 9x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, 4x Super Bowl champion, 2x Defensive Player of the Year

Lambert led Pittsburgh’s "Steel Curtain" during the height of the franchise’s glory years in the 1970s. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1974, and made nine Pro Bowls while emerging as one of the toughest players during one of the league’s toughest eras. He got the call from Canton in 1990.

4. Mike Singletary

Team: Chicago Bears
Years active: 1981-1992
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 1x Super Bowl champion

When the Bears formed one of the best teams in NFL history, Mike Singletary led its vaunted "46" defense. Lining up against Singletary was tough enough given everything he was capable of from sideline to sideline. Add in Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, and Otis Wilson, among others, and you have a situation that left offenses quaking in their cleats.

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Linebacker (52) Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

3. Ray Lewis

Teams: Baltimore Ravens
Years active: 1996-2012
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 13x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro, 2x Super Bowl champion, 2x Defensive Player of the Year

Love him or hate him (and there are plenty of reasons to feel both ways), there’s no denying the impact Lewis made during his long career with the Ravens. He made the Pro Bowl 13 times, and was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV, when the Ravens crushed the New York Giants.

2. Dick Butkus

Team: Chicago Bears
Years active: 1965-1973
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 8x Pro Bowl, 5x All-Pro, 2x Defensive Player of the Year

Butkus was one of the top players in the game from the moment he entered the league. He was one of the hardest-hitting, meanest players around, and he played the game with tremendous ferocity that probably contributed to career-ending knee problems. To this day, he’s renowned as one of the most fearsome defensive players to wear pads and a helmet.

1. Lawrence Taylor

Team: New York Giants
Years active: 1981-1993
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro, 2x Super Bowl champion, 3x Defensive Player of the Year, 1x MVP

Statistically, there are arguments to be made about other players topping this list. However, LT changed the game in ways very few defensive players ever have. He was a vital part of Bill Parcells’ two title-winning teams in New York, and he presented matchup nightmares for opposing offenses every single time he took the field.