Even among contemporaries, outside linebackers are difficult to compare with one another. Those who excel in coverage tend to be overlooked for postseason honors in favor of pass rushers, and both (perhaps rightfully) overshadow the pure run pluggers. This problem is exacerbated when trying to assess the relative accomplishments of outside linebackers across different eras. How do you evaluate Dave Wilcox, a run stopping maven from the 1960s, against Seth Joyner, a hypertalented cover backer from the 1980s? And how do you measure either against Von Miller, a destructive pass rusher still in his prime?1 We pooled our collective knowledge to make the most informed decisions possible and came up with eight players for the GridFe Hall of Fame’s inaugural group of outside linebackers.2
Hall of Fame Outside Linebackers
Bobby Bell (1963-1974)
Kansas City Chiefs
8 First Team All Pros (6 AFL/2 NFL); 9 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/3 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award (AFL); 1 GridFe Godzilla Award (AFL); 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards (3 AFL/1 NFL)
Bell is one of the greatest athletes ever to play in the NFL. His rare blend of strength, speed, agility, and ability allowed him to do whatever he wanted on the field. Bell was a star high school quarterback, a rare college interior lineman to become a Heisman finalist, and a versatile weapon in Hank Stram’s defense. He could rush the passer, and had solid sack numbers despite playing on the side of the line generally not reserved for pass rushing. His ability to set the edge against the run all but ruled out attacking his side of the line. Bell also excelled in coverage and still maintains a linebacker record six interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Ted Hendricks (1969-1983)
Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers
3 First Team All Pros; 6 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Cerebral and eccentric, the Mad Stork possessed spectacular intelligence, spatial awareness, and on-field recall. Legendary teammate Howie Long recalled Hendricks sniffing out a play and then telling the offense he knew it was coming because it was the same play they used three years prior. Kick-’em-in-the-Head-Ted didn’t have the build of a typical NFL linebacker. Standing 6’7″ and weighing around 220 pounds, he was lanky and had to pay careful attention to technique to avoid giving up leverage against blockers (and to save his knees). He used his height and instincts to block a record 25 kicks during his career, and he put his big play ability on display with his NFL record four safeties.
Jack Ham (1971-1982)
6 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Affectionately called Dobre Shunka, or Good Ham, the Steelers legend is among the brightest players ever to grace the linebacker position. He diagnosed plays seemingly with ease and had the athletic capacity to follow up on the diagnoses. Linebackers in Bud Carson’s defense had significant coverage responsibilities, and Ham’s ability to eliminate receivers – especially tight ends – was a vital component of the Steel Curtain dynasty. It isn’t unrealistic to call him the greatest coverage linebacker of all time.
Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)
New York Giants
1 MVP; 9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 10 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Automatic Award; 2 GridFe World Awards; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 6 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Few men can honestly say they were ever the most feared player in the league. Some defenders win with skill or power, and some use intimidation to rattle opponents, but rare is the defenseman who can do both with regularity. Taylor is one of those men. He was fast – too fast to be a linebacker. His speed and acceleration didn’t make sense, and they baffled blockers. He was powerful. Despite being the same size as any other linebacker, he seemed to possess the strength of a defensive tackle. He had an uncanny ability to generate force to deliver devastating hits, even in tight spaces. LT was ferocious and terrifying. He seemed to gain strength from pain – his own or his enemy’s. Taylor is a rare defender to earn an MVP award, and he may be the greatest defensive player ever to stride the field.
Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Kansas City Chiefs
3 First Team All Pros; 3 Seconds Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Dobre Shunka Award
Kansas City icon Derrick Thomas was a tremendous pass rusher with one of the greatest first steps the game has ever seen. Although his career was abbreviated by his tragic early death, he nonetheless was able to amass 126.5 in 169 regular season games. Thomas holds the official NFL record with seven sacks in one game, and he is tied for second with six sacks in another game. That these games were eight years apart speaks to his sustained dominance as a pass rusher. Exhibiting adequate run defense, and almost nonexistent coverage ability, he has been described as a one dimensional player. However, when that dimension is the most important thing a player at his position can do, and a player is among the best the game has ever seen at that dimension, that player goes into the Hall of Fame.
Junior Seau (1990-2009)
San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins
8 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Enforcer Awards; 1 GridFe Dobre Shunka Award
Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, 22 out of 25 linebackers with multiple AP All-Pro berths either played inside or rushed the passer. Derrick Brooks was one notable exception. Junior Seau was the other, one of the league’s greatest run-stoppers whose career coincided with the last great heyday of the running game, (for now at least). Seau was in many ways a contradiction. He played forever at a position not known for its longevity; his 20 seasons played leads all linebackers, and he’s one of two linebackers to log a snap after his 40th birthday, (joining Clay Matthews). He made twelve Pro Bowls and was named first-team All Pro in eight different seasons despite playing mostly on mediocre teams and lacking highlight-reel appeal. He retired only to sign and play four more one-year contracts. A charismatic presence who played with joy only to fall prey to depression in retirement.3
Derrick Brooks (1995-2008)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
In the official sack era, about 25 players have been named a first-team All-Pro at linebacker multiple times by the Associated Press (the count is complicated by tweeners who switched between DE and LB). Of those 25 players, 10 were middle or inside linebackers and 12 were full-time edge rushers. Another was Wilber Marshall, an outside linebacker for those ’80s Bears defense where everyone was a part-time pass-rusher at a minimum. And then there’s Derrick Brooks, whose 5 All Pro nods are the 5th-most in that sample despite Brooks playing on the outside and never tallying more than three sacks in a season. Brooks was famous for his coverage abilities at a position celebrated for tackling running backs and quarterbacks. He was the consensus best player on a defense with four potential Hall of Famers. He is one of the rare once-in-a-generation players who managed to be exceptional even among the cohort of the exceptional.4
DeMarcus Ware (2005-2016)
Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 GridFe Dobre Shunka Awards
Ware was an elite pass rusher who twice led the league in sacks. He spent much of his career toiling on mismanaged teams before a second act with the Broncos saw him win the league title that for so long eluded him. The 33 year old wasn’t just along for the ride; he recorded 3.5 sacks during Denver’s Super Bowl run, in which he had at least half a sack in each game and picked up two in the big game. Although he was best-known for terrorizing quarterbacks, as his 138.5 career sacks illustrates, Ware was also a capable coverage defender when called upon. He also didn’t ignore his run game responsibilities as the expense of chasing sacks. Ware was the complete package in an era of increased specialization.
- This is an oversimplification to make a point. Wilcox was fine in coverage. Joyner was unreal against the run. Miller is excellent against the run and can hold his own in coverage. ↩
- Others receiving votes: Chuck Howley, Kevin Greene*, Von Miller ↩
- Thank you to Adam Harstad for this blurb on Seau and the following one on Brooks. ↩
- Brooks holds the records for interception return yards (530) and touchdowns (6) among outside linebackers. ↩