Today we continue our “Stars and Legends” series with a look at the best linebackers of the past and present in the NFL. Once again, we can’t include everyone on these lists, and this one is not meant to be the final word on the greatest to play this position. However, these are, at the very least, names every self-respecting football fan should know. I’ve split this post into two parts: today, we look at the Stars.
Patrick Willis (San Francisco 49ers, 2007 to present): Willis attended the University of Mississippi and was drafted 11th overall by the 49ers in 2007. The Associated Press named Willis NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year that year. In two of his first three seasons, Willis led the league in tackles. After four seasons, he has compiled 595 tackles and 15 sacks. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons in the NFL and has been selected to the Associated Press All-Pro* team three times (in 2008 he was named a “second team” All-Pro).
DeMarcus Ware (Dallas Cowboys, 2005 to present): Ware attended Troy University and was drafted 11th overall by the Cowboys in 2005. Through the 2010 season, Ware has recorded 424 tackles and 82 sacks, leading the league in sacks in 2008 and 2010. In the Cowboys record books, he owns four of the top five season totals in sacks. Ware is also an extremely durable player in such a physical position on the field; he has started in 83 out of 84 games in his young career. He has already earned five trips to the Pro Bowl and has been named an All-Pro three times (making the second team twice).
James Harrison (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2002 to present): Harrison attended Kent State and was signed by the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in 2002. Aside from drawing attention for making inflammatory statements about NFL Commission Roger Goodell and teammate Ben Roethlisberger this past offseason, Harrison has compiled fantastic statistics during his career in Pittsburgh. Through the 2010 season, he had 488 tackles and 49 sacks. He won NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the 2008 season, the first undrafted player to win that award. Harrison has won two Super Bowls (XL and XLIII), been selected to four Pro Bowls and named an All-Pro four times. He also owns the longest play in Super Bowl history: a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens, 1996 to present): Ray Lewis attended the University of Miami and since he was drafted 26th overall by the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, he has helped build the Ravens defense into a league-dominating powerhouse. He has a reputation for being a powerful leader and an intimidating opponent. Lewis was on the Super Bowl XXXV championship team and earned the prestigious title of Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl an incredible 12 times, an NFL record for an inside or middle linebacker. He also holds middle linebacker records for most games started, seasons played and interceptions return yards. Lewis is also the quickest player to reach 30 sacks and 30 interceptions, accomplishing that feat in 204 games.
*Remember that the “All-Pro” selection means that the player is considered the best in his position that year by sports writers.