As an NFL team that wants a solid defense, especially when it comes playoff time and you need dudes who can stop the league’s best running and passing games, it’s going to take all 11 guys working in tandem to get the job done. From the free safety to the guys up front to the corners, the strong safety to…the linebackers.
Whether that’s blitzing, reading the play to tackle the running back after a handoff, spying on a mobile quarterback to make sure he doesn’t get yards past the line of scrimmage to guarding the team’s tight end, the linebacker has a lot of different responsibilities, is usually the leader of the defense calling the plays, and needs a special blend of football acumen and athleticism to be not just a good linebacker but one of the best to ever do it at the position. And that brings us to this list:
25 of the Best Linebackers of All Time
For this specific list, it will be straight Hall of Famers. While there’s a lot of good linebackers in today’s game who have skillsets specifically adapted to the speed and passing of today’s game, this list will be based solely on who’s in the Hall of Fame (thanks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame who has lists of players based on their position, which was a good reference for this). Don’t worry, your favorite linebacker has the potential to be on a list like this after he gets his name called to Canton.
For most of these players, we will be highlighting a quote from their enshrinement speech (excerpts from the speech below are according to transcriptions from the Pro Football Hall of Fame on its website page of each player). Being a Hall of Famer doesn’t happen overnight. It can take lots of hard work, determination, motivation, focus, a supporting cast surrounding and encouraging you to go get your dreams…whatever the case, you’ll see a part of their story below.
So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado…line up and let’s see some of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
25 – Nick Buoniconti
Starting out this list: Nick Buoniconti. Reading about Buoniconti makes you want to root for the guy. From being counted out to undervalued, he set out to continue to do his thing on the football field and eventually made his way to the Hall of Fame.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was “(a)n undersized player, he defied all the numbers by which pro scouts judge potential. He wasn’t even drafted by a National Football League team, and lasted until the thirteenth round of the 1962 American Football League Draft, before being tapped by the Boston Patriots. Even his coach at Notre Dame advised AFL and NFL scouts that he was too small to play in the pros. However, as several coaches later noted, Buoniconti “played bigger than his size.”
In his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, he thanked a lot of people, including his family, fans, and the guys on that Miami Dolphins defense:
“To you guys, I say, that when you go in the Hall of Fame, and when you look at my bust, you’re not looking at the bust of Nick Buoniconti, you are looking at the bust of the ‘No-Name Defense…’,” Buiniconti said in his speech per the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “You are looking at the bust of guys who are some of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game. And I’ll tell you what; I am just so honored to have been part of that group.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame states that “During his seven seasons with the Pats, the hard-hitting, freelancing linebacker recorded 24 interceptions which still ranks as seventh in team history…The driving force of the Dolphins’ famed ‘No Name Defense,’ Nick inspired his teammates with his outstanding play and fiery leadership. During his years with the Dolphins the team advanced to three straight Super Bowl appearances, winning two, with one coming after their incredible undefeated season in 1972.”
After his playing career, he advocated for awareness of the dangers of the sport, including concussions.
According to Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price in 2017, “Buoniconti has estimated that he absorbed 520,000 hits to the head. ‘My last game, I got on my hands and knees and kissed the ground and thanked God that I’d never gotten seriously hurt.'”
“If someone asked if their child should play organized contact football, I could not in good conscience recommend it,” Marc (Buoniconti’s son) said per Price. “I don’t think it’s safe. It’s pretty evident that something significant is happening to the brain as far as disrupted development over time. I cannot recommend football for, really, anybody. I was 50-50 on this already but, then, watching my dad—that sealed it for me.”
According to Price, “a helmet-first tackle in 1985 made a quadriplegic of Buoniconti’s son Marc”.
“I would trade this ring in and all my individual accomplishments if one thing could happen in my lifetime,” Buoniconti said in his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech per Pro Football Hall of Fame (Price also included this in his story). “My son Marc dreams that he walks. And as a father, I would like nothing more than to walk by his side.”
24 – Bobby Bell
Not only was Bobby Bell a linebacker. Bell was also a defensive end! That takes a unique, special blend of talent to play two positions on defense on the sport’s biggest stage.
“…some of my folks are here with me today and I would like to thank them for coming,” Bell said. “Now may I introduce some people I owe so much: my family, would you please stand while I call your name and remain standing? From Kansas City, my daughter, Tracy; my grandson, Freddie; my son, Bobby; and my friend Gale Kaughman; my sister from Shelby, Mrs. Mattie Roberts; my mother and father. Thanks for being with me.”
23 – Sam Huff
“Now here is something I would like to share with you about a football player,” Huff said. “You can criticize him, but you can’t discourage him. You can defeat his team, but you can’t make him quit. You can get him out of the game, but you can’t get him out of football. He’s your personal representative on the field… Your symbol of Fair and hard play. He may not be in all American, but he is an example of the American way. He is judged not for his race, nor for his social standing, or not for his finances, but by the Democratic yardstick of how well he blocks, tackles and sacrifices individual glory for the overall success of his team.”
22 – Willie Lanier
“I just would like to say that there is no way that I ca(n) adequately state to everyone who is involved here, the Hall of Fame, the previous players who have been inducted, those I am being inducted with today and I would like to say to those that are coming forward that this is worthy, this is great, this is something that should be strived for,” Lanier said. “And I think it is important for all young people that try to make decisions that would affect their lives in the future that they recognize that these kind of events are possible for all of you out there regardless of background, circumstances or maybe if you have to call your coaches to ask what college you should attend.”
21 – Ray Nitschke
“I do want to say how important the game of football played in my life,” Nitschke said. “When I was a child, I lost my father when I was three years old and my brother Bob became my guardian and he more or less adopted me and gave me direction and he put me on in the right direction of sports. And I played sports and I played football and football game me a chance to express myself to get recognition and to do something well and I was committed to the game of football and I will never forget the great game that it is and that it gave Ray Nitschke a chance for an education to better himself to be a better human being.”
20 – Chuck Bednarik
Otherwise known as ‘Concrete Charlie’, Bednarik played on both sides of the ball as a linebacker and a center. Go ahead and name any other player who played both those positions in the league. Your list probably won’t be that long.
“I want to thank the Almighty God for having my parents migrate to this country from Czechoslovakia and having me raised up as a good American boy and I’m just happy that I’m an American,” Bednarik said. “Thank you very much.”
19 – Ed Sprinkle
“He’s the greatest pass-rusher I’ve ever seen,” George Halas once said about Sprinkle per the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Ed Sprinkle signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent out of Navy in 1944…Sprinkle…originally played both offense and defensive end for the Bears. He caught 32 passes for 451 yards and seven touchdowns during his career. He helped lead Chicago to an NFL Western Division title in 1946 with an 8-2-1 record. The Bears would go on to defeat the New York Giants 24-14 in NFL Championship Game. However, his ability to rush and tackle the opponents’ passers soon made him a defensive specialist.”
18 – Dave Wilcox
“I want to thank Chico, our equipment man for making sure all the rookies made sure what their place were when they came in,” Wilcox said. “Chico also made sure a few of us were well stocked with refreshments on those long five-hour plane trips home. Thanks Chico. I thank Dr. Milburn, the great doctor, and a genuine fine person. And I want to thank the fans over the many years that I played, from Vale, Boise, Eugene and San Francisco…My wife Merle, the announcement came on our 28th anniversary on January the 29th. I want to introduce our son Josh…and Justin…Football has given me a chance to meet people from all parts of the world. Traveled to all parts and had lots of memories. I did not have championship rings, but I have memories”.
17 – Chris Hanburger
“I don’t consider myself a true Hall of Famer,” Hanburger said. “I say that because, to me, I’m an Army brat. I spent two years in the Army right out of high school before I went to college. To me, the real Hall of Fame people are all the men and women of our armed forces, all the men and women in law enforcement, and all the firefighters, men and women. These people, to me, go over and beyond making a tackle or a blitz or doing anything, completing a pass. They’re wonderful people. I just ask you when you get a chance, just thank them. Two words: Thank you. That means the world to them.”
16 – Chris Doleman
“I’ve learned over this journey, none of this would have happened without my Heavenly Father, and I would like to give thanks to him right now,” Doleman said.
“…a friend once asked me what made me smile throughout my career, and that’s pretty easy. That’s pretty easy. We all play the game for different reasons, but playing the game for the people that you love and care about, your mother and father, John and Mary Lee Doleman, who were there for me and for all of us boys. There were five of us, including myself. Week in, week out, they made many sacrifices. They took us to practice every day. All of us didn’t play football. Some of us played basketball and baseball, but they were always there to take us and make sure that not only to drop us off, they sat there and watched practice while we were doing it. And that was before cell phones, so they weren’t sitting there on the phone. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, because I do appreciate the sacrifice and what it takes to get it done. My dad had one rule, if he signed you up for something, you had to finish. He didn’t like wasting money, you know? So right there alone taught me the commitment of what it means to make a commitment. I love you both. Thank you for teaching me the importance of finishing what you started. And if it’s any indication today, I finished the game I signed up for…”Chris Doleman, expert from his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech per the Pro Football Hall of Fame
15 – Kevin Greene
“…I must be honest, I am standing on the shoulders of many, many players, many coaches, many people,” Greene said. “The good Lord has smiled upon me my entire life, a reoccurring theme is that he has surrounded me with people of high character and great integrity, and they have all left an indelible mark on the very fabric of my life. It really started with my dad. My dad retired, full colonel, Vietnam veteran, airborne ranger, 101st Airborne Division. My dad was a true soldier, and he was a man of honor. My dad was a full-time dad, and he was actively involved in my life, never letting me stray too far from the straight and narrow, although I’m sure that I tested his patience a little bit every now and then…He passed on to us Army values: Be men of honor, have integrity, be respectful, have an attitude of selfless service.”
14 – Jack Ham
“…a person just pure and simple has been the best thing that happened to me in my life and that is my wife, Joanne,” Ham said. “…People, fans, visiting team hated to come into Pittsburgh and play. They knew that not only did we have great players, but probably the greatest fans as well and it was almost impossible for them to win…I hope all of you remember this road to Canton because all of us will be traveling this road in future years and I guarantee you it will be an annual event to help honor some of my teammates who were part of the greatest football team in the history of the NFL.”
13 – Les Richter
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Los Angeles had to wait two years while Richter served in the military. When he returned he signed with the Rams and embarked on a nine-season career that earned him the reputation as one of the best linebackers of his era…Richter was selected to eight straight Pro Bowls.”
12 – Harry Carson
“I took it upon myself to be the best player I can be and to represent. And I realized that by having that opportunity to play in the National Football League, it wasn’t just about dollars, it wasn’t about cars or anything like that, it was much greater. For me, it was about having the opportunity. …there were individuals who were much better than me much better than me. But for whatever reason, I think God chose me. I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person. God chose me to do something that was very special. I think that was to represent. You hear Donald talk about it. When I stand here before you today, this ain’t about me, this is not about me, this is about my family, this is about Gladys Carson, who took my name and put it on the altar every Sunday. It wasn’t about me being a football player, it was about me being a man and staying out of trouble. It was about Florence, South Carolina. It was about my friends who I played with. It was about South Carolina State.”Harry Carson, excerpt from Hall of Fame enshrinement speech per Pro Football Hall of Fame
Along with being a Hall of Famer, Carson and another guy on the list have actually wanted people to be aware of the dangers of the sport, as well, which can include concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Tim Rohan, “About two weeks before the (2018) Super Bowl, the Concussion Legacy Foundation, along with a group of doctors and retired football players, held a…press conference in a banquet room in a hotel in midtown Manhattan…Among the speakers that day were Nick Buoniconti, the retired Miami Dolphin who’s been diagnosed with CTE; and Dr. Lee Goldstein, the author of a new study that examined whether people could develop CTE from even just minor hits to the head…Harry Carson, the former Giants linebacker, told the room that, given the opportunity, knowing what he know now, he wouldn’t have played football.”
You can read more from Carson on concussions and why he’s so passionate about advocating for it, including not wanting his grandson to play football, here in Rohan’s story.
11 – Joe Schmidt
“First off, I would like to thank the good Lord for giving me the athletic ability to play football,” Schmidt said. “I think he reached down and smiled on Raymond, Jim and myself with football instincts and that is why we are here today. If it wouldn’t have been for that we certainly wouldn’t be here. You have to have the instincts for this great game. I have a mother who showed me a lot of love and affection and gave me much encouragement throughout my years…(thanks to) (t)he Detroit Lions and Mr. Ford for the opportunity to play football with the Detroit Lions. I’ve been in Detroit for 20 years. I’ve been with the organization for 20 years. 13 years as a player and 7 as a coach and they have all been enjoyable.”
“One thing that I’m concerned about this great sport is that there are some people who are putting a dollar sign on football–professional football. I don’t think you can do that. I don’t think you can put a dollar sign on any sport. I think you might start to destroy this great game. I hope it doesn’t happen. The game has been good to many many people and you have to contribute something when you take something away from it.”Joe Schmidt, excerpt from Hall of Fame enshrinement speech per Pro Football Hall of Fame
10 – Jack Lambert
“To my family, to my friends, to all my teammates from Crestwood and Kent State, to all of you fans out there who will never be in any Hall of Fame, at the risk of sounding a bit pretentious I give this day to you,” Lambert said. “This is your day and ·this is your Hall of fame. I would like my wife Lisa and my daughters Lauren and Elizabeth to stand. There ladies and gentlemen is my Hall of Fame. Thank you, God Bless.”
9 – Derrick Brooks
“First of all, I give honor to God for having us here on this grandest of grandest stages. I stand here so humble to be amongst all of this greatness,” Brooks said. “…And tonight I guess for the first time in my life I get a chance to sit back and enjoy some of the successes of my individual career in the ultimate team game…Now to talk about who I am, the man Derrick Brooks that stands before you as a servant leader. As I said before, as a servant leader I just want to do the best I can to make something better than it is when I come in touch with it. And I’m going to work to do that…So working to do that as a servant leader, I try to practice a few principles starting with patience…I try to be patient in my journey knowing that God has blessed the mission that I’m upon as a servant leader I want to exhibit kindness. I want to be kind and treat people how I want to be treated.”
8 – Rickey Jackson
Rickey Jackson. Not only a linebacker but a defensive end, as well! Per the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he had eight interceptions, six Pro Bowl selections, four All-Pro selections, and 128 career sacks.
Jackson also had wise words to share with everyone during his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.
“I give honor to the spirit of Christ who is the head of my life,” Jackson said. “…My last couple words I want to say is me getting back home, I lost my mother, I went back home, spent a lot of time with her. Found me a good church. I got into the church. It steered me in the right direction. Man, I can say to all y’all in here, find you a church home and make sure you get Christ in your life. You hear what I’m saying? I see T.D. Jake out there. I get up every morning with him on my TV station. My bishop, Robert Banks. I got two guys in my life that keep me going the right way…A lot of this stuff these young boys doing, the trouble they’re getting in, you need to point them towards Christ, point them towards Jesus, and their lives will get straight, the way mine going. Love you.”
7 – Junior Seau
“I think my father would be completely overwhelmed and honored to be inducted into a class with the most elite athletes and professionals,” Sydney Seau, Junior’s daughter, said in honor of her father during his Hall of Fame induction enshrinement ceremony per the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “First and foremost, he would thank the seven buddies out on stage with him tonight. I know this isn’t my speech to give. This is his. He spent 20 years with them in the league, and he deserves this moment. All I can do is humbly attempt the people within his life and career that made this induction possible.”
“And I hope this induction can exemplify the fact that you are more than just Junior Seau, number 55 and a buddy. You are a light, and I want nothing more than to see you come on stage, give the speech you were meant to give, give me a hug and tell me you love me one last time; but that isn’t our reality. And I know that his athleticism and talent made him extraordinary enough to make it into the Hall, but it is his passion and heart that make him truly legendary and deserving of this tremendous honor, and I would just like to thank my family and everyone else for all their support through this process. Dad, I love you, and I miss you, congratulations. You made it.”Sydney Seau, excerpt of what she said in honor of her father during his Hall of Fame induction enshrinement ceremony per the Pro Football Hall of Fame
6 – Brian Urlacher
“My wife, Jennipher,” Urlacher said. “She is my rock, my voice of reason when I need some reason or a lot of help finding some reason. We started dating in 2009. I told her on our second date that I was going to marry her. She looked at me like I was crazy. She has been by my side for two of the worst things that happened in my life. Five months after we started dating, the first game of the season, dislocated my wrist against Green Bay and I missed the entire season. The most horrific event, my mother’s passing in 2011. Both times were incredibly hard for me, and she was there for me, no questions asked. She was definitely a member of Team Urlacher and really just one of the guys. She doesn’t look like it, but she is one of the guys. She has helped me become a much better man and parent to our three children. She’s a wonderful stepmother to our children as well. I’m not sure I could have put up with someone’s stupidity as long as she’s put up with mine. She is so patient and understanding with me, even when I don’t deserve it.”
5 – George Connor
When you were not only a linebacker but a defensive tackle. And offensive tackle! You come in at number-five on this list of the best linebackers of all time!
“I would just like to say that I thank God for my God given athletic talent, I think my friends and my coaches and my teammates all along the line for the encouragement and the support they have given me,” Connor said. “A particular thanks to my mother for nursing me as an incubator baby. Some people say they left me in too long and that is what happened to my LG feed. But mother gave me my inspiration. Except with high honors in the name of the Connor family and in the name of my coaches, friends and teammates particularly I only wish that my late father, Dr. Charles Conner and my late brother, Chuck, could be here today and accept this high award in their name.”
4 – Dick Butkus
You may have heard the name because not only was he one of the best linebackers to play the game, there’s a special award named after Butkus in college football.
“When a player receives the Butkus Award he will know two things. First, he is recognized as the best of the best linebackers in America. Second, and in the long run most important, he will understand that this recognition brings a responsibility to serve others by giving back.”Dick Butkus per The Butkus Award
“I consider being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the top of my dream,” Butkus said. “For only on the top can I see the whole view. And I can now see what I have done and what I can do from now on. I have a new vision and a new goal now and that is simply to be a better husband and a better father and a better person. Along with the other enshrines I will always try to be a proud representative of this the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
3 – Lawrence Taylor
You may have also heard the name or simply by ‘LT’ (per the NFL) because, well, he’s also one of the best linebackers to ever suit up in the NFL and, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “(h)is ability to dominate a game with his attack style changed the outside linebacker position from a read-and-react posture to an aggressive mode.”
“…you know people ask me all the time, well the Hall of Fame, you’re in the Hall of Fame,” Taylor said. “What do you want to lead to other people? What do you want other people to remember? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? And I thought about that. And it’s indeed a great honor to be here. But the thing I want to leave all the people is that, you guys, life, like anything else, can knock you down. It can turn you out. You’ll have problems everyday in you life. But sometimes, like Ozzie Newsome said, sometimes you just got to go play. You just got to go play. And no matter how many times it knocks you down. No matter how many times you think you can’t go forward. No matter how many times things just don’t go right. You know, anybody can quit. Anybody can do that. A Hall of Famer never quits. A Hall of Famer realizes that, a Hall of Famer realizes that the crime is not being knocked down, the crime is not getting up again.”
2 – Mike Singletary
An eight-time All-Pro selection with ten consecutive Pro Bowls, 51 passes defended, and 855 solo tackles (stats per the Pro Football Hall of Fame), ladies and gentlemen you better recognize one of the best linebackers in the game: Mike Singletary.
” I would like to say, before I even say another word, that I want to give praise to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for all that he has done for me and my family,” Singletary said. “…I know that people will ask me, ‘Michael, where will this rank, Hall of Fame, top of the world son, where does that rank?’ And I just want you to know that I am so extremely proud. I am so extremely proud to be sharing this honor with you gentleman here and those gentlemen there (in tent adjacent to stage) and those gentlemen here behind me. But the most important thing, the most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ. And I thank him for what he did to me. I thank him for what he did in my life. And I thank you for cheering me on. And I’m thankful for Mom and Dad, my sisters and brothers. I’m thankful for my lovely wife who has always stuck with me through thick and thin and was at every game with me – not in the locker room but out there outside, twenty below. I’m thankful for my children.”
1 – Ray Lewis
And coming in at the top spot on this list: Ray Lewis.
“In 2000, Lewis led a staunch Ravens defense which established a 16-game single-season record for the fewest points allowed (165), the fewest rushing yards allowed (970) and recorded four shutouts. The season was capped with a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV where Lewis’ three tackles, two assists and four passes defensed earned him Most Valuable Player honors. Lewis’…career ended in storybook fashion after the 2012 season when he recovered from a torn triceps muscle in midseason to participate in the team’s postseason run. In his final game, he had three tackles, two assists and four passes defensed to help Baltimore defeat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII.”Pro Football Hall of Fame ‘Bio’ of Ray Lewis
“Oh, listen to me carefully,” Lewis said. When God tells you something, believe Him. Listen to me. No matter the journey, oh, there’s too many ups and downs, but, boy, when you believe Him. 5/15/75. Remember 5 and remember 7 because they’re going to have a recurring attitude in my message. 5/15/75 my mother had me, ironically, when she was 15 years old. We had no other route out. I’m gonna say it first now so I get it out the way father, even though you’re not here, I love you anyway. I love you anyway, Daddy, wherever you’re at. Because that woman right there, 5/15/75, you hear me? Yeah. Remember what they told you when I was little? We ain’t gonna make it. Ain’t no way we gonna make it. Well, guess what, Mama? We made it.”
Lewis continued to say in his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech: “Crazy, right? Tell you about numbers. 5/15/75, right, I played 17 years. I go to the University of Miami, right, and I get signed to one of the last scholarships ever given. Right? I didn’t even have a scholarship. I wasn’t even in the media guide. And the coach asked me, Randy Shannon asked me, ‘What was the number you wanted?’ He said, ‘The last numbers we got is these numbers.’ And I looked, and those numbers was 5 and 2. And I said, ‘Give me that 52.’ He said, ‘Why you like 52?’ I said, ‘Because that’s God’s number. That’s completion.’ I played 17 years. I lead 17 years. I go play in Super Bowl 47. I get inducted to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Super Bowl 52. Man, God’s something else. Man, God’s something else. Man, God’s something else.”
You can read the full transcripts from each player’s enshrinement on the Hall of Fame site under each player’s page. Hopefully, you were able to get some encouragement from these Hall of Fame linebackers as you line up your day to tackle the day and to go get your dreams. Have yourself a Hall of Fame-type day!
- 1 25 of the Best Linebackers of All Time
- 2 25 – Nick Buoniconti
- 3 24 – Bobby Bell
- 4 23 – Sam Huff
- 5 22 – Willie Lanier
- 6 21 – Ray Nitschke
- 7 20 – Chuck Bednarik
- 8 19 – Ed Sprinkle
- 9 18 – Dave Wilcox
- 10 17 – Chris Hanburger
- 11 16 – Chris Doleman
- 12 15 – Kevin Greene
- 13 14 – Jack Ham
- 14 13 – Les Richter
- 15 12 – Harry Carson
- 16 11 – Joe Schmidt
- 17 10 – Jack Lambert
- 18 9 – Derrick Brooks
- 19 8 – Rickey Jackson
- 20 7 – Junior Seau
- 21 6 – Brian Urlacher
- 22 5 – George Connor
- 23 4 – Dick Butkus
- 24 3 – Lawrence Taylor
- 25 2 – Mike Singletary
- 26 1 – Ray Lewis
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