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This is a continuation from NFL History 101: Top Running Backs.
Before anyone gets angry about breach of protocol, i.e. not stealing someone else’s idea, Crackajg and I are collaborating on the whole Football History 101 project. Since the running backs debate was so spirited and popular we bring you the second installment in the series. This time we’ll be highlighting the best linebacker corps of all time. As a qualifier, we narrowed down the list to groups that played together for at least three seasons.
Here are the best corps of all time, in no certain order.
New Orleans Saints-Ricky Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills Vaughn Johnson 1987-1991…The lone bright spot for an otherwise forgettable team, this group features three LB’s who were named to multiple Pro Bowls. You could make a legitimate argument that all three of the famed “Dome Patrol” should be in the Pro Football Hall of fame. Pound for pound Sam Mills was one of the best middle linebackers ever having had his #51 retired by both the Saints and Carolina Panthers, he played in five Pro Bowls; Pat Swilling was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1991, had 105 career sacks, five Pro Bowls, and six All Pro nods; Ricky Jackson finished his career with 136 sacks, six Pro Bowls, 29 fumble recoveries. They may have been the best LB unit ever.
Pittsburgh Steelers-Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell 1974-76…The lynch pins of one of the best defenses the NFL ever saw, Ham, Lambert, and Russell were arguably the greatest linebacker group of all time. Ham & Lambert are enshrined in Canton and Andy Russell was named to seven Pro Bowls and was a seven time All Pro. The group won two Super Bowls together and remain maybe the most iconic linebacking unit in NFL history.
Denver Broncos-Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Bob Swenson, Joe Rizzo 1976-78…This cabal had one borderline HOFer Gradishar, another perennial Pro Bowl player in Jackson, and two other backers who were fearsome run stoppers. During their run only the Steelers vaunted group were as dominant. Of Gradishar, HOF running backs Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett both said Gradishar was the best hitter they ever played against, he was also a seven time Pro Bowl player, eight times All Pro, NFL Defensive POY in 1978, and has been a finalist for HOF induction twice. Jackson was in the Pro Bowl three times from 1977-79.
New York Giants-Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Pepper Johnson 1985-87…Perhaps no unit in NFL history was as disruptive or as feared. This group has two HOFers in Taylor and Carson, and two others in Banks and Johnson, who made multiple Pro Bowls. They may be the deepest such unit in NFL history.
Kansas City Chiefs-Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Jim Lynch 1968-71…Everyone knows Lanier and Bell are in the Hall of Fame. What you may not know is Lynch was highly regarded as well. Lynch was a fine all around LB who was overshadowed by his more celebrated teammates. Speaking of which…Lanier is regarded as one of the best ever at his position, was named to the NFL’s 75 th Anniversary Team, and was an eight time All Pro & Pro Bowl. Bell was a nine time All Pro and Pro Bowl participant.
Chicago Bears-Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall 1985-87…As part of maybe the best defensive unit ever assembled this group will live forever in NFL lore. Singletary is considered one of the best MLBs ever and actually made Bears’ fans temporarily forget about one Dick Butkus. Singletary was a nine time All Pro, ten time Pro Bowl, a HOFer, and three time Defensive POY. Wilbur Marshall was a dominant player, making the Pro Bowl three times and winning 1992 Defensive POY honors. Otis Wilson was the Bears’ most feared blitzer and was a ferocious hitter.
Buffalo Bills-Cornelius Bennett, Daryl Talley, Carlton Baily, Shane Conlan 1990-92…The second level of an otherwise underrated defense, Bennett, Conlan, Talley, and Baily were unbelievably athletic and mobile. Bennett was the most highly decorated of the bunch, having been named AFC defensive POY twice and NFL 1990’s All Decade Team. This was an extremely gifted and cohesive unit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Hardy Nickerson, Derrick Brooks, Lonnie Marts 1995-96…Brooks was a rookie in 95 but got to play along side Nickerson in his prime. Nickerson was named to the 90’s All Decade Team. Brooks may eventually see enshrinement in Canton, and deservedly so. Brooks has been a 10x Pro Bowl player, 9x All Pro, and was 2002 Defensive POY. Marts was solid.
Baltimore Ravens-Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper 1997-2001…Part of arguably the best defense in league history, Lewis & Co. were intimidating and wildly dominant. They were impossible to run against and were great in coverage. When all is said and done Lewis may enter the pantheon of all time great MLBs with Singletary, Butkus, and Lambert. Boulware made multiple Pro Bowls and Sharper was great.
Green Bay Packers-Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Lee Roy Caffey 1964-69…Nitcshke was maybe the most maniacal LB ever and was backed up by fellow All 60’s team member Robinson and fellow Packers great Caffey. Together they were a dominant force and a big reason why the Pack won three straight championships from 1965-67.
Pittsburgh Steelers-Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland 1993-95…This group was not quite the dominant force the Steel Curtain group was but they were no less feared. Both Steve Young & Jim Harbaugh said Lloyd was the one player they feared and Dan Rooney said of Lloyd, “He was one of the Best, not just one of the Steelers' best but one of the best in the league. Greg could play in any era. He has the makeup, whether it's in 1998 or 1938. He's just a football player.” Kevin Greene finished his career with 150 sacks, five Pro Bowls, and HOF resume. Brown was solid if not spectacular while Kirkland was named to the All 90’s Team.
Philadelphia Eagles-Seth Joyner, Byron Evans, Jesse Small 1990-92...Although the Dline in front of them was easily one of the best ever this trio was just as important to a dominant defense. Joyner was the catalyst and the best of the bunch but Evans and small, and later William Thomas, were also solid.
Los Angeles Rams-Jim Youngblood, Jack Reynolds, Isiah Robertson 1976-78...I've heard some old school football fans, reporters, and observers that know the 60' & 70's version of the NFL far better than most say the late 70's Rams linebackers were maybe the most underrated unit in league history. Robertson was a Pro Bowl regular, Youngblood was quietly dominant, and Reynolds was a rock up the middle.
Let the debate begin!
P.S. Crackajg and I are compiling a list of the 100 Greatest Football Players that we'll roll in four installments, starting with 100-76 next week. Expect more Football History 101 coming soon.