Middle linebackers are the nerve point of defense in the NFL. For such a role, one certainly needs to be great at defense. Imagine how talented and hardworking one needs to be the best in this position.
Middle linebackers are often called the quarterback of the defense. They play multiple roles in the game. He maintains the communication in the defense, takes the call from the sideline, as well as handling the job of tackling as well.
A good middle linebacker, or “Mike,” needs to have multiple skill sets that include vision, tackling, and leadership. Keeping these criteria in mind, we made the ten best middle linebackers of all time. You may have already heard the names of these players.
Best Middle Linebackers of All Time
Fans have witnessed many great players, but some of them were better than the greats and became the best middle linebackers of all time. While making a list, we compared players’ individual performance, achievements, and contributions to the team’s achievement.
|Ray Lewis||1996 – 2012|
|Mike Singletary||1981 – 1992|
|Dick Butkus||1965 – 1973|
|Jack Lambert||1974 – 1984|
|Ray Nitschke||1958 – 1972|
|Junior Seau||1990 – 2002|
|Bill George||1952 – 1965|
|Nick Buoniconti||1969 – 1976|
|Chuck Bednarik||1949 – 1962|
|Brian Urlacher||2000 – 2012|
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1. Ray Lewis
|Full Name||Raymond Anthony Lewis Jr.|
|Date of Birth||May 15, 1975|
|Place of Birth||Bartow, Florida, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 1 in|
|NFL Draft||1996 (Baltimore Raven, Round 1, Pick 26)|
|Hall of Fame||2018|
Super Bowl champion: 2 times (XXXV, XLVII)
Super Bowl MVP: 1 time (XXXV)
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: 2 times (2000, 2003)
First-team All-Pro: 7 times (1999–2001, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009)
Pro Bowl: 13 times (1997–2001, 2003, 2004, 2006–2011)
NFL tackles leader: 3 times (1997, 1999, 2001)
The no.1 spot is the easiest pick on this list, as no other middle linebacker comes close to the personal achievement of Ray Lewis. After debuting in 1996, he spent his seventeen-year career with the Baltimore Ravens.
He was a master in tackling and recording sacks, as well as a great leader on the field. He recorded a total of 2059 tackles, most by any middle linebacker. He also set the record for solo tackles with 1568.
In 1997, he set the record for most solo tackles in a season with 156. He was a nightmare for the offense. Lewis, along with Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor, was the scariest linebacker in the history of the NFL.
Lewis helped the Ravens win two Super Bowl championships. He was also the MVP in Super Bowl XXXV. Lewis was named the NFL defensive player of the year twice and had first-pro appearances seven times.
The thirteen times pro-bowler was also a three times tackles leader in 1997, 1999, and 2001. His career is filled with records and achievements. With so many awards and trophies in his accolades, he surely deserves to be among the top of the NFL’s best middle linebackers of all time.
Career stats of Ray Lewis:
2. Mike Singletary
|Full Name||Michael Singletary|
|Date of Birth||October 9, 1958|
|Place of Birth||Houston, Texas, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 0 in|
|NFL Draft||1981 (Chicago Bears Round 2, Pick 38)|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1998|
Super Bowl champion: 1time (XX)
NFL Man of the Year: 1 time (1990)
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: 2 times (1985, 1988)
First-team All-Pro: 7 times (1984–1989, 1991)
Pro Bowl: 10 times (1983–1992)
Mike had a menacing presence on the field for the opposing offense. His ability to smack down the opponent was unparalleled. The ten times pro bowler had a crazy eye that would make the offense nervous.
The six ft. Texan had his debut in the NFL in 1981 with the Chicago Bears and remained with the Bears till retirement. He contributed largely to the Bears winning the XX Super Bowl championship. From his 179 games, he recorded 19 sacks and 1,488 tackles.
Singletary was at its peak from 1985 to 1990. During this time, he was named the defensive player of the year twice. But he had his best season in 1990 when he won the most valuable player award for his outstanding performance.
The seven-time first-team all-pro ensured communication among the defense and had a high IQ to make necessary changes depending on the approach of the offense. He retired in 1992 at 42 and was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Career stats of Mike Singletary:
3. Dick Butkus
|Full Name||Richard Marvin Butkus|
|Date of Birth||December 9, 1942|
|Place of Birth||Chicago, Illinois, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1965 (Chicago Bears, Round 1, Pick 3)|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1979|
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: 2 times (1969, 1970)
First-team All-Pro: 5 times (1965, 1968–1970, 1972)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1965–1972)
Good players win awards, but great players like Dick Butkus become awards themselves. The best linebackers in School, College, and in the NFL are awarded the Butkus award as a recognition for their efforts.
No other linebacker was as great as Butkus. He would punish the ball carriers and destroy their spirits. Though there are no Super Bowl wins and no player of the year award, that does not dampen the magnificent career he had.
Butkus was drafted into the NFL in 1965. He was the overall third pick in the draft. He played nine seasons with the Bears and then retired. Due to injury, his career was cut short. But within a very short time, he became one of the best middle linebackers of all time with more than a thousand tackles.
Butkus has announced the defensive player of the year twice in a row. He was inducted into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Career stats of Dick Butkus:
4. Jack Lambert
|Full Name||John Harold “Jack” Lambert|
|Date of Birth||July 8, 1952|
|Place of Birth||Mantua, Ohio, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 4 in|
|NFL Draft||1974 (Pittsburgh Steelers, Round 2, Pick 46)|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1990|
Super Bowl champion: 4 times (IX, X, XIII, XIV)
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: 1 time (1976)
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: 1 time (1974)
First-team All-Pro: 6 times (1976, 1979–1983)
Pro Bowl: 9 times (1975–1983)
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defining theme of the 70s. They won the Super Bowl four times in a span of eleven seasons from 1974 to 1984. During this time, they had an unbreakable defense, and Jack Lambert was leading it as the middle linebacker.
Lambert would redefine the role of a middle linebacker. He would cover passes like a safety and then tackle like a linebacker. He would take more responsibility than the team expected, and that made him special.
There was not much buzz around his debut in the NFL. He was the pick number 46 in the second round. But he quickly became a star player in the league and was named the Defensive Rookie of the year. Soon, he was awarded the defensive player of the award too.
Lambert played eleven seasons in the league and won four Super Bowls, becoming a one-time defensive player of the year. He was named six times in the first-team all-pro list and received the pro bowl nine times. He kept winning awards and honors in his career.
Lambert announced his retirement in 1984 and was elected a Hall of Famer in 1990.
Career stats of Jack Lambert:
5. Ray Nitschke
|Full Name||Raymond Ernest Nitschke|
|Date of Birth||December 29, 1936|
|Place of Birth||Venice, Florida, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1958 (Green Bay Packers Round 3, Pick 36)|
|Teams||Green Bay Packers|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1978|
|Death||March 8, 1998|
Super Bowl champion: 2 times (I, II)
NFL Champion: 5 times (1961, 1962, 1965–1967)
First-team All-Pro: 2 times (1964, 1966)
Pro Bowl: 1 time (1964)
Some players have great college careers that the NFL franchises have high hopes for. On the other hand, some have decent careers in high school and college, which proved them potential decent players. Teams may not have such high hope for them. But sometimes, they achieve more than was expected.
A prime example is Ray Nitschke. He was drafted to the NFL by the Green Bay Packers in 1958. He was picked in the third round as pick number 36. Nonetheless, his determination and dedication helped him morph into a better version of himself every season, and he was included in the 60s all-decade team.
In the 60s, Nitschke helped the Packers win five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. Nitschke was a team player and would contribute greatly to help them reach their full potential.
Nitschke retired in 1972 and received the Hall of Fame honor in 1978.
Career stats of Ray Nitschke:
6. Junior Seau
|Full Name||Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau Jr.|
|Date of Birth||January 19, 1969|
|Place of Birth||Oceanside, California, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1990 (San Diego Chargers, Round 1, Pick: 5)|
|Teams||San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, and Miami Dolphins|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||2015|
Pro Bowl: 12 times (1991–2002)
First-team All-Pro: 6 times ((1992–1994, 96, 98, 2000)
NFL Man of the Year: 1 time (1994)
Seau was a multi-talented player who would do great at whatever position you put him on. He was equally good and is regarded as one of the best outside linebackers of all time and a middle linebacker.
Junior Seau had played in several positions in his career, including middle backer, undershirt, and linebacker. He had a long career in the NFL and played 268 games. He came into the limelight immediately after his debut with the San Diego Chargers.
Seau is a twelve-time pro bowler from 1991-2002, never missing a year in the middle. He is also six times all-pro. He was awarded the NFL man of the year award in 1994. Seau was good at everything from tackles to sacks and interceptions. With so many skills, he deserves to be on the list.
Upon his retirement in 2009, he was honored with Hall of Fame induction in 2015.
Career stats of Junior Seau:
7. Bill George
|Full Name||William J. George|
|Date of Birth||October 27, 1929|
|Place of Birth||Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 2 in|
|NFL Draft||1951 (Chicago Bears, Round 2, Pick 23)|
|Teams||Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1974|
|Death||September 30, 1982|
NFL champion: 1 time (1963)
First-team All-Pro: 8 times (1955–1961, 1963)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1954–1961)
Bill George is considered the first-ever complete middle linebacker who would set milestones for the upcoming players like others. He was drafted into the NFL in 1951. Before that, middle linebackers were considered important, but he was the first star player in the position.
The role of middle linebacker has always been crucial, but George made it more important with his contribution to the victory of the team. He recorded 28.5 sacks and eighteen interceptions from his 173 games.
The eight-time pro bowler finally became the NFL champion in 1963. During the 50s and 60s, the Bears made a reputation for themselves as a strong defense, and George was the initial pillar of that.
Before retiring in 1966, he showed great dominance in the field that inspired many next-generation linebackers and inspired them to be greater.
Career stats of Bill George:
8. Nick Buoniconti
|Full Name||Nicholas Anthony Buoniconti|
|Date of Birth||December 15, 1940|
|Place of Birth||Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.|
|Height||5 ft 11 in|
|NFL Draft||1962 (Boston Patriots Round 13, Pick 102)|
|Teams||Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||2001|
|Death||July 30, 2019|
Super Bowl champion: 2 times (VII, VIII)
First-team All-Pro: 7 times
Pro Bowl: 2 times (1972, 1973)
Nick Buoniconti, a seven-time first-team all-pro and two-time Super Bowl-winning squad member, is often not credited enough. During the 1962 draft, he was picked in the 13th round, not an impressive feat to boast about. But that could not stop him from being the best middle linebacker of all time.
Considering that he had a stale college career, it’s a wonder how he became so good in such a short time! He had a fourteen-season-long career in the NFL, starting with the Boston Patriots. Buoniconti immediately made an impression and helped the Patriots win the 1963 AFL Eastern Division title.
During Buoniconti’s tenure, the Dolphins reached the Super Bowl three times and won on two occasions. He turned the Dolphin’s weak defense into one of the best of its contemporaries.
Career stats of Nick Buoniconti:
9. Chuck Bednarik
|Full Name||Charles Philip Bednarik|
|Date of Birth||May 1, 1925|
|Place of Birth||Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1949 (Philadelphia Eagles, Round 1, Pick: 1)|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||1967|
|Death||March 21, 2015|
NFL Champion: 2 times (1949, 1960)
First-team All-Pro: 10 times (1950–1957, 1960, 61)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1950–1954, 56, 57, 1960)
Chuck Bednarik was part of the NFL’s 50th, 75th, and 100th-anniversary team. In other words, more than fifty years have passed, and he is still among the best middle linebackers of all time. That makes sense, though, as being as good as Bednarik is quite difficult.
The 6ft 3 inches tall Pennysylvanian was destined to go down in history as one of the all-time greats. He was the overall first pick in the 1949 draft. The Philadelphia Eagles had high expectations from him, and Bednarik certainly lived up to them.
Bednarik led the defense of the Eagles for more than a decade and led his team to two NFL Championship victories. He was a ten-time first-team all-pro and an eight-time pro bowler. Bednarik recorded an impressive twenty interceptions from 169 game appearances.
Bednarik was often referred to as a two-way player, as he also played as a center of the offense. His noteworthy career came to an end in 1962. To celebrate his successful career, he was introduced to the Hall of Fame in 1967.
Career stats of Chuck Bednarik:
10. Brian Urlacher
|Full Name||Brian Urlacher|
|Date of Birth||born May 25, 1978|
|Place of Birth||Pasco, Washington, U.S|
|Height||6 ft 4 in|
|NFL Draft||2000 (Chicago Bears, Round 1, Pick 9)|
|Pro Football Hall of Fame||2018|
NFL Defensive Player of the Year: 1 time (2005)
NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2000)
First-team All-Pro: 4 times (2001, 2002, 2005, 2006)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (2000–2003, 2005, 2006, 2010, 2011)
The Chicago Bears have made a name for themselves as the home of the great middle linebackers, and Urlacher was the first of the new century.
The eight-time pro bowler Brian Urlacher is so far the best middle backer of the twenty-first century. He was picked by the Chicago Bears in the 2000s NFL draft and came into the limelight in his first season by winning the Rookie of the year award.
That was just the beginning, and he would continue to perform consistently and impress the fans and the team management. Soon he became the NFL defensive player of the year in 2005. He made it to the first-team all-pro four times.
In his 182 games, Urlacher recorded 1361 tackles, 41.5 sacks, and 2 touchdowns. With such statistics, he makes the best middle linebackers of all time.
Career stats of Brian Urlacher:
Being a good player is much easier than becoming a good leader and the best performer to lead by example. Ray Lewis to Brian Urlacher did this and became inspirations for all the next-generation players. Because of their hard work, achievement, contribution, and dedication to the game, they are considered the best middle linebackers of all time.