1. Dick Butkus (BEARS, 1965-73) Never had the luxury of two big
tackles to keep offensive linemen off him. He was the best at
shedding blockers and gathering himself quickly to deliver a
thundering hit on the ballcarrier. He was oversized for his era
(6'3", 245 pounds), and his pass coverage skills, based on
intelligence and a feel for angles, have always been underrated.
2. Ray Lewis (RAVENS, 1996-present) No other middle linebacker
has been as valuable in controlling the short passing game in
shallow zones. He closes with remarkable speed and accuracy
against the pass or the run, covering a sizable area.
3. Joe Schmidt (LIONS, 1953-65) Never a punishing tackler, he
brought ballcarriers down with technical precision. He possessed
the most highly developed instincts of any middle linebacker.
4. Willie Lanier (CHIEFS, 1967-77) A roly-poly look disguised his
speed, coverage ability and tremendous power. One of the game's
October 29, 2001
5. Ray Nitschke (PACKERS, 1958-72) He would work himself into
rages, roaming from sideline to sideline like some ancient god of
vengeance. His emotion would inspire the entire defense.
6. Jack Lambert (STEELERS, 1974-84) The first to patrol the deep
downfield zones, where his speed and instincts made him a
valuable part of the coverage scheme.
7. Mike Singletary (BEARS, 1981-92) You never knew what he was
going to do in Buddy Ryan's defense--drop into deep coverage or
fire through on a blitz, on which he was always a disruptive
8. Lee Roy Jordan (COWBOYS, 1963-76) For years the leader of Tom
Landry's cerebral unit. He had not only intelligence but also
finely developed instincts.
9. Sam Mills (SAINTS, 1986-94; Panthers, 1995-97) A genius on
the field, a precise and jolting tackler, undersized (5'9", 225
pounds) and underrated.
10. Bill Bergey (BENGALS, 1969-73; Eagles, 1974-80) His
trademarks were emotion, tremendous hitting power and the
ability to shed blockers quickly.