• TopX: Greatest Middle Linebackers of All Time

    Butkus and his bloody knuckles preying on a running back. Old-man Nitschke picking up a fumble and hobbling into the end zone. Lambert staring down the QB with his toothless snarl just prior to the snap. Thanks in large part to NFL Films, no position in history represents the romanticized version of the NFL more than middle linebacker.

    In 1954, Bill George of the Chicago Bears is credited with being the first player to move off the defensive line, shifting the look of the traditional 5-2 defense. George grew frustrated at being taken out of plays by the opposing center, and liked how effective this move allowed him to be in defending the passing game. Soon thereafter, Joe Schmidt followed suit in Detroit, and in New York, Tom Landry is credited as the first to officially use the 4-3 as his base defense, a defense built around the unique skills of an MLB.

    After 13 truly great seasons in Chicago, Brian Urlacher called it a career on Wednesday. This announcement came just a few months after Ray Lewis, another legendary middle linebacker, ended his career with a Super Bowl championship in Baltimore. As defenses continue to evolve by feature fewer down linemen, and spending most of their efforts in finding ways to get to the Quarterback, the conventional middle linebacker is slowly being phased out of the game.

    What follows is a list of the greatest middle linebackers to ever play the game. The criteria that I used to determine my list is as follows…

    -The term “middle linebacker” is an important distinction to make. I will be ranking only those players that have actually played the “mike” position at some point in their career.
    -Longevity/Peak Performance- at what point does peak performance overcome longevity, and vice versa.
    -Postseason awards/folklore. How was a player viewed by his contemporaries at the time of his performance? Separating subjectivity from performance (Nitschke and Butkus are much more historically revered than Joe Schmidt, but does that necessarily make either a better football player?)
    -Championships, but only to an extent. MLB is the only position other than QB where I feel championships won has some form of significance.
    -Leadership/Team Performance. MLBs are historically the QBs of the defense. The truly great MLBs made everyone around them better.
    -Due to the unreliability and subjectivity of tackling statistics, as well the lack of statistical information for the older players, statistics played a very small role in my rankings. However, stats that have been easily kept track of throughout the years, such as turnovers, do play a role in my rankings.

    Without further ado, I present my list of the greatest Middle Linebackers of All Time.

    11. Nick Buoniconti- Boston Patriots 1962-68; Miami Dolphins 1969-76

    Despite a successful career at Notre Dame, Buoniconti went undrafted in the 1962 NFL draft due to a perception that he was not big enough to succeed as a middle linebacker. Buoniconti instead went to the Boston Patriots of the AFL, where he played 7 highly successful seasons prior to being traded to the Miami Dolphins in 1969. While Buoniconti was a better player during his time in Boston, he’s mostly remembered today as the leader of the Dolphins “No Name” Defense. From 1971-73, the Dolphins allowed fewer than 12.5 points per game in each season, representing the AFC in the Super Bowl all 3 years, winning 2, including finishing the 1972 season with a perfect 17-0 record. Buoniconti finished his career with 32 INTs, 5 1st Team All Pro selections, 2 Super Bowl rings, and was inducted into the HOF in 2001.

    10. Sam Huff- New York Giants 1956-63; Washington Redskins 1964-67, 1969

    In some ways, Sam Huff is a product of being in the right place at the right time. Drafted in the 3rd round of the 1956 draft by the New York Giants, Huff was an undersized lineman coming out of West Virginia. Frustrated at the Giants inability to find a position for him, Huff left camp, but shortly thereafter, was convinced to return by Giants’ assistant Vince Lombardi. The always innovative Tom Landry then found a position for Huff, creating the 4-3 base defense designed around Huff’s unique talents. Thanks in large part to the performance of their defense, with Huff leading the way, the Giants went to 6 championship games, winning once, in Huff’s 8 seasons in New York. Huff quickly became the face of the Giants, and was able to parlay that success into becoming the first NFL player to be featured on a Time Magazine cover in 1959. In 1960, CBS aired a special called “The Violent World of Sam Huff”. Huff spent his final 5 seasons in Washington as a solid contributor, and following his retirement in 1968, returned for one final season to serve as player/coach under Vince Lombardi. Huff finished his career with 30 INTs, 1 championship, is a member of the 1950s all-decade team, and was inducted into the HOF in 1982.

    9. Willie Lanier- Kansas City Chiefs 1967-77

    Lanier was a true pioneer, becoming the first African-American middle linebacker in professional football history. Drafted following the Chiefs 35-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl, Lanier led a defense that helped the Chiefs return, and win the Super Bowl just 3 years later. At 6’1” 245 lbs, Lanier was athletic and big, earning the nickname “Contact” due to his powerful hits on the opposition. Lanier was also versatile in the passing game, intercepting 27 passes in his Hall of Fame career. Lanier is a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, won the NFL Man of the Year award in 1972, and was named 1st or 2nd team All-Pro every year from 1967-1975. Lanier was inducted into the HOF in 1986.

    8. Ray Nitschke- Green Bay Packers 1958-72

    A pro’s pro, Nitschke was the heart and soul of the great Vince Lombardi Packer defenses. Known for being a “thoughtful caring person” off the field, Nitschke was one of the most ferocious hitters on it. But as good as his ability was as a football player, according to his peers, he was “without a peer as a leader”. Nitschke’s leadership skills were so legendary that following his enshrinement into the HOF, Nitschke became the unofficial leader of the HOF fraternity, speaking annually at the luncheon, and being the one to officially welcome the incoming enshrines as members of the “greatest team of them all.” Nitschke was voted as the all-time top LB when the NFL unveiled its 50th Anniversary team in 1969, and is also a member of the 75th Anniversary Team. In 1978, Nitschke became the first of Lombardi’s Packers to be inducted into the Pro Football HOF.

    7. Brian Urlacher- Chicago Bears 2000-12

    Ahead of Nitschke? Yup. At 6’4” and 258 lbs, Brian Urlacher was (it’s really strange to use that word with him) one of the biggest MLBs in NFL history. After running a sub 4.6 40 yard dash at the combine, he was also one of the fastest. Urlacher has both a Defensive Rookie of the Year award (2000) and Defensive Player of the Year award (2005) in his mantle. He is also one of only 4 players in NFL history with 40+ sacks and 20+ INTs. In 2006, during the “Denny Green Game” that saw the Bears overcome a 20 point 2nd half deficit, Urlacher was the true star, accumulating 25 tackles, and forcing a fumble that was returned for a TD. In total, Urlacher made 8 Pro Bowls, was named 1st Team All-Pro 4 times, and is a member of the 2000s All-Decade Team. Urlacher is also the Bears all-time career and single-season leader in tackles. He was a great leader, and at his peak, was the most gifted MLB in history. Moreover, unlike most players on this list, there was never a moment in his career that Urlacher stepped on the field as anything less than a great player. Barring a comeback, in 5 years, it’s a slam dunk that Bears fans will be making the trek to Canton to honor one of the greatest players in their team’s history. I’m just mad I can’t justify moving him higher on this list.

    6. Bill George- Chicago Bears 1952-65; Los Angeles Rams 1966
    5. Joe Schmidt- Detroit Lions 1953-65

    I have George and Schmidt rated in a veritable tie. Both played during the same era, both started out as a middle guard in a 5-2 defense, and both were forerunners in the creation of the MLB position. Bill George is credited as the first to move a couple of steps off of the center, in an effort to better succeed against the passing game, while Schmidt’s finesse style made him the first true “defensive QB”. Each were named 1st Team All-Pro 8 times, sharing the honor together from 1955-1959, and again in 1961. Schmidt was named 2nd Team All-Pro an additional 2 times. George helped to lead the best defense of the group in 1963, but overall, Schmidt’s defense in Detroit consistently out-performed George’s Bears defense. I have Schmidt rated just a smidge higher than George for the fact that his Lions teams won 2 championships compared with 1 for George, and Schmidt was also the first defensive player to ever win the MVP award, sharing it with Norm Van Brocklin in 1960. Both are now forever linked in Canton, with Schmidt's induction coming in 1973, and George inducted one year later.

    4. Dick Butkus- Chicago Bears 1965-73

    Dick Butkus is the hardest player on this list for me to objectively rate. We’ve all seen the NFL Films highlights, and we’ve all heard the accounts. His name is synonymous with toughness. But other than through testimonials, it’s tough to find an objective measure that definitively states that Dick Butkus was the greatest middle linebacker of all time. Team success? Not only did Butkus not win a championship, his teams never made the playoffs, and only had 2 winning seasons in 9 years. And while the offense certainly wasn’t great during his 9 seasons in Chicago, neither was the defense. In 5 seasons prior to the merger, out of 14 teams, the Bears had an average rank defensively of 6.4 against the run, and 7 against the pass. In 4 seasons following the merger, out of 26 teams, the Bears average finish was just over 15.25 against the run, and 16.5 against the pass. A great middle linebacker makes his teammates better. And maybe his team’s mediocre performance defensively presented a huge upgrade over what they would have been if a league average player was manning the MLB post. But considering the successes of others on this list, it’s tough to justify moving Butkus any higher than this spot. Don’t get me wrong, Butkus was great. He was a pro bowler in each of his first 8 seasons, and 1st team All-Pro in 5 of those seasons. And as ferocious as he was against the run, Butkus was also great against the pass. He had the instincts and agility to excel in coverage against even the best RBs and TEs in the league. He was also a playmaker, with 49 turnovers (22 INTs, 29 Fumble Rec) in his 9 year career. Butkus is a legit all-timer, a member of both the 1960s and 1970s all-decade teams, the 75th Anniversary All-Time team, and was inducted into the Pro Football HOF in 1979, his first season of eligibility. But the lack of longevity, along with the lack of team success, whether fair or unfair, keeps him from moving further up this list.

    3. Ray Lewis- Baltimore Ravens 1996-2012

    There is not much more to say about Ray Lewis than has already been said time and time again over the years. Lewis, much like Butkus, Lambert, and Nitschke will always be associated as the face of a franchise steeped in defensive tradition. Following an excellent start to his career, in 2000, Lewis put up arguably the greatest performance by a MLB in NFL history, winning Defensive POY, and leading a Ravens defense that is recognized as one of the best of all time. The Ravens allowed just over 10 points per game that season, and capped it with a Super Bowl championship. In that game, Ray Lewis was all over the place, and became the first MLB to win Super Bowl MVP. Following a lost 2002 due to a shoulder injury, Lewis won another Defensive POY award in 2003. After a stretch in the mid-2000s where it appeared Lewis’ career was starting to wind down, Lewis experienced a career renaissance from 2008-2010, being named 1st Team All-Pro twice, and 2nd Team once. In total, Lewis won 2 championships, 2 DPOYs, and was named AP 1st or 2nd Team All-Pro on 10 different occasions. He’s also one of only 2 players (Rodney Harrison) to record 30+ sacks and 30+ INTs in his career. Ultimately, a few injuries, and some uneven seasons have served to keep Lewis outside of the top 2. But Raven fans should already be planning their trip to Canton in the summer of 2018.

    2. Jack Lambert- Pittsburgh Steelers 1974-84

    At 6’4” 220 lbs, Jack Lambert more resembled a big WR in stature than one of the most ferocious LBs to ever play the game. Drafted in 1974, Lambert immediately manned the middle for the Steel Curtain, and proved to be the missing link that allowed the already great defense to become legendary. Lambert won Defensive Rookie of the Year in that first season, as the Steelers went on to win the first of their 4 Vince Lombardi trophies during the 1970s. In 1976, Lambert was the best player on one of the best single-season defenses in NFL history, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. Lambert accounted for 10 of the team’s 46 Turnovers that season, and following a 1-4 start to the season that saw Terry Bradshaw go down with neck and wrist injuries, Lambert led a defense that allowed only 2 total TDs in winning their final 9 games . During the Steelers’ 4th and final Super Bowl of that era, with the score 24-19, it was Lambert who sealed the game against the Rams by intercepting a Vince Ferragamo pass late in the 4th quarter. That interception was fitting, considering Lambert is one of the great pass-coverage LBs of all-time, twice intercepting 6 passes in a season, and was an absolute perfect fit in Bud Carson’s designed Cover 2 scheme. Lambert made 9 Pro Bowls in his 11 year career, and was named 1st or 2nd team All-Pro 8 times. He was also a member of both the 1970s and 1980s All-Decade teams, and is a member of the 75th Anniversary All-Time NFL team. He was inducted into the Pro Football HOF in 1990.

    1. Mike Singletary- Chicago Bears 1981-92

    The lineage of great Chicago Bears middle linebackers is clear, with 4 players making this list. Mike Singletary was the best of the bunch. With Singletary, all it took was one look into his eyes to understand why. They spoke of intensity, determination, and an undying will. To his teammates, his eyes stood for leadership. Singletary was in my opinion the greatest defensive leader in the history of the game. While Singletary was one of the best run-stuffers to ever play the game, he actually struggled in pass coverage to start his career. Buddy Ryan turned Singletary into a 2 down player, which irritated Singletary, and motivated him into working to become great in pass coverage as well. It was Singletary’s skill in pass coverage, holding down the middle of the field, that allowed Buddy Ryan to create the vaunted 46 defense, which was the most dominant defense of all time. For 5 straight seasons, the Bears finished in the top 2 in yards allowed, and their performance from 1984-1986 was the most dominant 3 year stretch in NFL history. Singletary won the Defensive Player of the Year in both 1985 and 1988, and was also named the NFL Man of the Year in 1990. In an 8 season stretch from 1984-1991, Singletary was named 1st Team All-Pro 7 times, and 2nd Team All-Pro once. He is a member of the 1980s All-Decade Team, and was enshrined in the Pro Football HOF in 1998.

    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Rich Gapinski's Avatar
      Thanks for this, an enjoyable read.
    1. Pruitt's Avatar
      Hard to argue with this list. I never saw him play, but grew up on stories of Chuck Bednarik.
    1. iwatt's Avatar
      Wow, love the article.

      Butkus, like Gale Sayers, benefit a lot from the lore and shine of the Chicago Bears, and the respect they gained from their peers. Like you, I'm not one to equate rings with greatness, but when dealing with GOAT lists, it is a necessary ingredient. But apparently nobody has ever been feared more than Dick Butkus. And that mustache!

      With time maybe Ray Lewis rises, or falls. What is interesting is that your top 3 guys all played with great other players beside them.

      Urlacher was a freak (you are correct, it's weird using that word). He was a punt returner, for pete's sake.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Thanks for the comments, guys.

      For clarity, the players listed all played a majority of their career as a MLB. For most of his defensive career, Bednarik played RLB in a 5-2 defense. He's listed on PFR as having played MLB in 1950, but this is prior to the use of a 4-3 defense in the league, and I can't find any reference that states he was a MLB forerunner. He was again listed as an MLB for his final season, but never in between, so I never seriously considered him for this list.

      Harry Carson is another great player who would have been under consideration, but played MLB for only a few years, prior to playing many years as an ILB in a 3-4.

      My rankings "tiers" are as follows.

      -I considered 4 players for the 10th and final slot. Having a bit of a difficult time distinguishing, I decided to make it an 11 player list, and make my life just a little easier. Huff and Buoniconti made the list, Lee Roy Jordan and Zach Thomas just missed. But I consider them all to be of similar historical stature. I'd like to see Jordan get some run as a Sr. Candidate for the Hall at some point, and Zach Thomas deserves to get in at some point as well.

      -Lanier is sometimes forgotten historically, but I think he's every bit as good as Nitschke. Nitschke was a legit great player, but the subjective analysis by his peers, due to respect for his leadership and reverence for his style of play, have overrated him historically just a bit. Not that being ranked 8th on this list is a slap in the face or anything, but it's not quite the top 3 or 4 level that many believe. This is also the tier in which Urlacher resides. I hope others realize exactly how good Urlacher was- just an eyelash better, in my mind, than both Lanier and Nitschke.

      -Schmidt and George share their own tier. It appears that their contemporaries had a tough time distinguishing which was better, so who am I to give a definitive statement? As I said in the article, Schmidt gets the slight edge due to 1 more championship, and his team's slightly better, and more consistent defensive performance over the course of their congruent careers.

      -From the outset of creating the list, I had a good idea that Lewis and Butkus would be my 3/4 in some order. Initially I had them reversed, but couldn't justify keeping Lewis below Butkus. Lewis played for nearly twice as long, and had a higher career peak. In fact, I may be underrating him a bit. But Lewis also had some unevenness in his career, due to a few relatively major injuries. I feel that he had 6 seasons at a sub-elite level, which is more sub-elite seasons than Singletary, Lambert, Butkus, and Schmidt had combined.

      -As for Butkus, he's another that has had his career enhanced by subjectivity. Yes he was ferocious, yes he was mean, yes he was a one-man show, and yes he was great. But he had a major knee injury in 1970 that never fully healed and ultimately cut his career short. He was still very good in 1971-72, but his 9 seasons are the fewest on this list by at least 2 years. An example of his being overrated is shown in the voting for the 1970s all-decade team. Butkus was named 1st team over Jack Lambert. To compare their 1970s performance...

      Butkus- 4 seasons, 3 pro bowls 2 All-Pros. He was a severely diminished player in 1973, playing only 9 games, then retiring.

      Lambert- 6 seasons, 5 pro bowls, 3 All-Pros, 1 DROY, 1 DPOY. Lambert also forced 29 TOs (17 INTs, 12 FR) in those 6 seasons. He was also a 4 time champion, captaining 2 of those teams.

      While Lambert was winning his 4th SB, Butkus was out of the game long enough to be enshrined in Canton. Yet Butkus took home the 1st team All-Decade honor.

      Butkus was Paul Bunyan. He was rightly revered, and is a great player. But there is nothing that I can find objectively that states he was a better player than any of the 3 I have rated above him. If anything, I was closer to moving him down the list than up. I won't go to the extreme of calling him the 50th best LB ever, like the Pro Football Historical Abstract did a few years ago, but they were right in trying to use more than just subjective analysis to analyze his career. I feel like placing him 4th is about as fair and objective as I can be.
    1. Hoser's Avatar
      Hard to argue with this list but I am surprised to not see Mike MadDog Curtis on it.
      Never saw him play live but it seems like he always gets included in historic/feared LB conversations.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Hoser View Post
      Hard to argue with this list but I am surprised to not see Mike MadDog Curtis on it.
      Never saw him play live but it seems like he always gets included in historic/feared LB conversations.
      Mike Curtis is a good one. He played about half of his career as a MLB, and the other half on the outside. He played enough games at MLB for me to consider, but in my opinion, wasn't quite to the level of those on the list, or even Lee Roy Jordan and Zach Thomas, who I named as my first 2 off the list.

      Personally, I'd put Curtis on a similar level as Tommy Nobis, Dan Connors, or Hardy Nickerson. Solid players, but not quite at this level.
    1. Rich Gapinski's Avatar
      Trumpet, clear out your PMs.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Rich Gapinski View Post
      Trumpet, clear out your PMs.
      Sorry, didn't realize it had built up. Done.