Tuesday February 28th, 2012

Ray Lewis has been one of the most intimidating players in the NFL for over a decade. (Getty Images)

As part of our offseason coverage, we're taking a look back at some of the best first-round draft picks since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. We'll work our way up the draft board, starting with the best selection made with the No. 32 pick and ending with the top No. 1 pick. Track all the choices here.

The No. 26 Pick: Ray Lewis, 1996, Baltimore Ravens

His Credentials: 13-time Pro Bowl selection; 10-time All-Pro; Super Bowl XXXV champion and MVP; Has made 2,016 regular-season tackles and 40.5 sacks; Two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year winner (2000, 2003); Ranked No. 2 in games started among active players (221)

Others in Consideration: Clay Matthews (2009, Green Bay); Alan Faneca (1998, Pittsburgh); Dana Stubblefield (1993, San Francisco); Joe DeLamielleure (1973, Buffalo)

Unlike with Dan Marino at No. 27, Ray Lewis actually had some competition for the top of the heap at the No. 26 pick. That spot in the draft's first round has produced some terrific talent, including Matthews, who could close the gap on Lewis over the next few seasons.

It's actually the offensive linemen that give Lewis the best run for his money. Faneca recently called it quits after a spectacular 13-year career that included nine Pro Bowl trips and six All-Pro honors. He has a terrific shot at a Hall of Fame nod, too, once he becomes eligible in 2016. DeLamielleure, meanwhile, already has a spot in Canton, the only player out of the 41 selected at No. 26 in the first round to thus far land in the Hall.

But Lewis will be there someday, though he has to retire first. He hinted during the 2011 season that he might call it quits if the Ravens won the Super Bowl, then quickly announced he'd be back in 2012 when they did not.

Why wouldn't he keep playing? Sure, Lewis may have lost a step or two from his prime -- he had 161 tackles in 2001, then matched that number in 2003 -- but he remains one of the NFL's fiercest inside linebackers. Despite missing four games to injury this past season, Lewis still racked up 95 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.

The 2011 campaign was the first time Lewis failed to reach triple digits in tackles since 2005, when he missed 10 games to injury. When he has been on the field, Lewis has long been one of the NFL's best and most-feared defenders.

"In my opinion he’s the greatest middle linebacker in the history of the game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on the NFL Network last week. "He’s still playing as well as any middle linebacker in football today. That’s an incredible thing after 15 years in the National Football League."

It's impossible to look back over Lewis' career without mentioning the off-field incident that occurred in 2000 -- an incident that wound up with two men being stabbed to death and Lewis being charged with obstruction of justice. Despite that, Lewis developed into one of the league's more marketable players, appearing on a "Madden" cover (prior to his injury-plagued '05 season, for what it's worth), helping to push Under Armour onto the national stage and joining Old Spice in recent years.

And there is no diminishing what he has done on the field, and what he continues to do, despite approaching the limelight of his career. "It’s kind of hard to think about Father Time," Lewis told the New York Post prior to this season's AFC championship game. "I don’t have time to think about when it’s time to do this or when it’s time to do that. When it’s over, it’s over. Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end. Those are the stories that you’ll always remember."

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