Best NFL Linebackers Of All Time: Top 5 Defensive Legends, According To Fans

Linebacker is one of the most important positions on the football field for the defense. For example, the middle linebacker calls the plays in the huddle, makes adjustments to the defense before the snap, and is responsible for covering tight ends or running backs out of the backfield on passing plays. Linebackers need to be fast, smart, tough, and great at tackling ball carriers or sacking quarterbacks. There have been some amazing linebackers over the years, but which players deserve to be called the best NFL linebackers of all time? 

Before we dive into the list of the best linebackers in NFL history, let’s take a look at the passion of sports fans. A recent study found that sports fans are actually willing to end friendships over sports. A survey of 2,000 American football fans found that a staggering 52 percent of respondents are willing to call it quits with a friend because that person cheers for a rival football team. Furthermore, the survey sought to discover where fans prefer to watch their favorite team play. Just over 35 percent of fans say they prefer to watch in person at the stadium while 30 percent of respondents prefer to watch their team play from the comfort of their own home. 

One thing is for sure, Americans love NFL football. Whether it’s on TV or in person at the stadium, we just can’t get enough of the NFL. However, a recent study suggests that simply getting out to watch a live sports event – whether it’s professional or amateur sports – is beneficial for your mental health. Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University say that attending live sporting events actually helps increase overall mental well-being and reduces feelings of loneliness. A survey of 7,000 adults found that those respondents who attended live sporting events scored better in terms of life satisfaction than those who had not recently attended events. That’s definitely a great reason to get out to the nearest stadium to watch your favorite linebackers squash opposing NFL offenses in the fall. 

So, which linebackers are considered the to be among the greatest? StudyFinds did some digging, consulting 10 football and sports websites in an effort to bring you a list of the best NFL linebackers of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed linebackers from across these sites. Think your all-time favorite linebacker was left out? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below! 

brown Wilson American football
A football (Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash)

The List: Best NFL Linebackers, According to Experts

1. Lawrence Taylor

Easily topping the list of the best linebackers in NFL history is “LT,” Lawrence Taylor. The legendary New York Giants linebacker is undoubtedly one of the best defensive players in NFL history and one of the most beloved Giants players of all time. Taylor is an NFL MVP as well as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl champion

“Until J.J. Watt came around, Lawrence Taylor was the only player to ever secure three Defensive Player of the Year honors. The No. 2 selection of the 1981 draft won both Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year that season. He garnered DPOY recognition in 1982 and 1986, winning NFL MVP in the latter season. Taylor racked up a career-best 20.5 sacks en route to the MVP. Overall, L.T. tallied 132.5 sacks, 10 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro nods as well as helped the Giants win two Super Bowls. Although off-field troubles have dimmed the shine on his NFL days, Taylor finished his career as the most dominant linebacker ever,” writes Bleacher Report

Lawrence Taylor’s NFL career was nothing short of amazing, and he has the hardware to prove it. LT’s official sack total is 132.5, but that doesn’t include the 9.5 sacks he had in 1981, the year before sacks were considered an “official” stat in the NFL. 

“L.T. could hit like a freight train, but it was his finesse and high football IQ that helped him revolutionize the linebacker position. He is not only the greatest linebacker in NFL history, he’s one of the game’s greatest players period. Taylor is one of only two defensive players (DT Alan Page, 1971) in the history of the NFL to be named NFL MVP. He is the only linebacker to ever take the honor,” explains Athlon Sports

Lawrence Taylor might have deserved another MVP, but the NFL doesn’t typically reward defensive players with the coveted MVP Award. Words can’t really describe what is was like to watch Lawrence Taylor play defense. LT was out of this world, and there will likely never be another player like him in the NFL. 

“There should be no doubt that LT is the greatest linebacker in NFL history. More importantly, he set the bar so high that it’ll be almost impossible for anyone to ever match or exceed what he did. Lawrence Taylor was just on another level physically than the rest of the league. He revolutionized the outside linebacker position and forced opposing offenses to game plan around him, which isn’t the kind of treatment many defensive players receive. His off-field controversies aside, Taylor was an absolute menace on the field, collecting at least 10 sacks in seven consecutive seasons while making the Pro Bowl in 10 consecutive seasons during his prime… That alone says a lot about Taylor, but not nearly as much as merely watching him play, which is what makes it obvious that he’s the best of all time,” explains Franchise Sports

2. Ray Lewis

Dancing his way into the second spot on the list of the best linebackers in NFL history is none other than Ray Lewis. The unquestioned leader of one of the NFL’s best all-time defenses, Ray Lewis had one of the best careers of any linebacker on this list. Ray Lewis played middle linebacker with more passion and heart than anyone. 

Ray Lewis in his Ravens uniform
“Ray-Lewis-2008-Steelers-regseason-game” by Andy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cropped by User:Blueag9. on Openverse licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“His pre-game dance is second to none. But beyond the theatrics, Lewis has achieved milestones that no other linebacker did. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is also the first in league history with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions. The former Miami Hurricane was also the heart and soul of the 2000 defensive unit that allowed only 165 points and 970 rushing yards in 16 games,” explains RotoBaller

The 2000 Ravens defense was statistically better than the 1985 Chicago Bears defense, and there’s no real debate about that. However, both units were equally dominant and Ray Lewis is the reason his 2000 Ravens were so unbeatable“Ray Lewis is probably one of the most polarizing players in the history of the NFL. The Ravens’ enforcer was a true legend of the game which led some of the best defensive teams in the league’s history. He was voted to 13 Pro Bowls, most by a middle linebacker, and he is also the only linebacker ever to be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl MVP in the same season,” furthers Sportsfan Betting

Ray Lewis won a Super Bowl in 2000 and then he won another title in 2012 when his Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in a back-and-forth game. In the years between those two championship victories, Ray Lewis had his Ravens in contention countless times, facing off against all-time legends such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady along the way. There’s no question that Ray Lewis is the best middle linebacker to ever play in the NFL. “A true enforcer in every sense of the word, Lewis’ intensity was unmatched by any player of his era. He led some of the greatest defenses in NFL history in both performance and spirit. He holds the NFL record for the most Pro Bowl selections by a middle linebacker (13). He also is the only linebacker to ever win a Super Bowl MVP and be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the same season (2000). Love him or hate him, Lewis has earned the title of greatest middle linebacker of all time,” adds Athlon Sports

3. Dick Butkus

Roaring into the third spot on the list of the best NFL linebackers is none other than the legendary middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears – Dick Butkus. Butkus played in Chicago for only nine seasons, but his impact on the game and the city is still being felt to this day. Butkus was an enormous linebacker with surprising speed, strength, and a nose for the football. 

“This resume is staggering. And we’re only talking about the nicknames bestowed upon Dick Butkus. The Animal. The Enforcer. The Maestro of Mayhem. The Robot of Destruction. Legendary. But his NFL career was nothing short of sensational. An eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro, Butkus won Defensive Player of the Year in both 1969 and 1970. He jumped on 27 fumbles and picked off 22 passes. The first-ballot Hall of Famer headed to Canton in 1979,” writes Bleacher Report

Butkus intercepted 22 passes over the course of his career, and this came during an era when NFL offenses did not throw as much as they do today. Butkus didn’t have as many opportunities as his contemporaries and still managed to snag a whopping 22 passes. However, Butkus was known more for his tenacity than his ability to make plays on passes downfield. 

“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,” adds The Twinspires Edge.

Dick Butkus was truly an intimidating force on the football field, and opposing offenses knew they had their hands full when they played Butkus’s Bears. The best part for Chicago Bears fans is that Butkus is a homegrown player who played his college football career at the University of Illinois. 

“Butkus would remain the measuring stick for great linebackers even if he played his last NFL game five decades ago. His mobility around the field allowed him to shut down plays alone. He could have played more than nine seasons without a knee injury. The middle linebacker is highly revered in Chicago because he was born and raised in The Windy City,” adds RotoBaller

4. Mike Singletary

Next up on the list of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL is another Chicago Bears legendary linebacker – “Samurai” Mike Singletary. He was the unquestioned leader of the 1985 Bears defense that many consider to be the best defense of all time, although the 2000 Ravens might have something to say about that. Regardless, “Samurai” Mike is one of the most beloved defensive players in the history of football

Mike Singletary attends the Bart Starr Awards, 2017
Mike Singletary attends the Bart Starr Awards, 2017 (Photo by Jamie Lamor Thompson on Shutterstock)

“When the Bears were called the Monsters of the Midway and dominating on defense the way few teams could ever dream of doing, Mike Singletary was the man in the middle of it all. He was the middle linebacker on those Chicago teams and arguably the best linebacker in the NFL during the 1980s, not to mention one of the best linebackers of all time. He went to the Pro Bowl every year from 1983 to 1992 and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988. While his career as a head coach was underwhelming, there’s no denying Singletary’s brilliance as a player,” writes Franchise Sports

Mike Singletary is infamous for having some of the most intense eyes in the history of football. Singletary’s intensity and passion on the football field earned him the nickname “Samurai” Mike, and he’s easily one of the best Bears players of all time as well as one of the top middle linebackers to ever play in the NFL. 

“The ’85 Bears are almost a mythical team at this point, given that every elite defense is compared to that Mike Singletary-led unit. But that season was simply one stage in a Hall of Fame career. Singletary won Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988, grabbed seven first-team All-Pro honors and made 10 Pro Bowls. Singletary totaled 1,488 tackles along with his 12 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions. Considering his attitude toward ball-carriers, that’s no surprise,” adds Bleacher Report

Mike Singletary went after ballcarriers with a hostility that can’t be described. Singletary’s effort was apparent on every play, and the legendary linebacker never missed games. Singletary only missed two games over the course of his entire NFL career. In a career filled with outstanding highlights, and lots of big hits, that might be Singletary’s most impressive stat. 

“His intense focus and sideline-to-sideling capabilities helped the Bears’ defense become a staple for all future NFL defenses. Samurai Mike also played a key role in playing a big role in what is considered one of the greatest defensive performances in the Super Bowl ever. During his career, he collected 1,488 tackles along with 12 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions,” furthers Sportsfan Betting

5. Jack Lambert 

Rounding out the list of the best NFL linebackers of all time is Pittsburgh Steelers legendary linebacker, Jack Lambert. Lambert was beyond intimidating on the football field, and for a decade, the Hall of Fame Steeler led one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen. “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,” explains The Twinspires Edge

Lambert lost his front teeth and chose not to replace them because it made him look meaner. He was right. Lambert’s signature toothless look became synonymous with the Steelers’ defense and its level of sheer toughness. 

“Jack Lambert hardly knew anything but success. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year and celebrated a Super Bowl victory in 1974. Alongside Ham, Lambert helped the Steelers hoist the Lombardi Trophy four times. The 1976 Defensive Player of the Year put together six first-team All-Pro and nine Pro Bowl campaigns. Beyond his impact as a tackler, Lambert snatched 28 interceptions and pounced on 17 fumbles. His eight recoveries in 1976 are the most ever by a linebacker,” adds Bleacher Report

Lambert was intimidating to opposing NFL offenses. Not only was he missing his front teeth, similar to a crazed NHL enforcer, but he stood a staggering 6’ 4” and weighed over 220 lbs. His size coupled with his demeanor helped Lambert dominate the competition before the teams even took the field to play the game. Still, Lambert could back it all up on the football field, and he’s easily one of the best linebackers in NFL history. 

“He was the notorious leader of one of the greatest defenses to ever make its way onto a football field – Pittsburgh’s famed ‘Steel Curtain.’ The versatile middle linebacker played a significant role in helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls in a span of six years in the 1970s. Lambert’s signature toothless snarl struck fear into the hearts of the opposition and lends credence to his legendary status as one of the toughest players all-time,” furthers Athlon Sports

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