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Top LB in NFL History

by Pete M.D.
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Jack Ham (Pittsburgh Steelers)

Jack Ham was a consensus All-America at Penn State and the 34th player taken in the 1971 National Football League Draft. His sensational rookie training camp earned him a starting left linebacker spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first regular season game. The clincher was a three-interception performance against the New York Giants in the preseason finale.

Ham started all 14 games as a rookie and he continued to hold a regular job until his retirement after the 1982 season. Durable, he missed only four games his first 10 seasons in the NFL. Ham, who was born December 23, 1948, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, quickly earned the reputation as a big-play defender and one of the finest outside linebackers in the game.

He wound up his career with 25 sacks, 21 opponents’ fumbles recovered and 32 interceptions. Blessed with speed, quickness, intelligence and exceptional mobility, Ham had the uncanny ability to diagnose plays and to be in the right defensive position at all times.

Along with defensive tackle Joe Greene and defensive end L. C. Greenwood, Ham was a key element in an exceptionally strong left side of the Pittsburgh defense during the team’s Super Bowl years.

Jack Ham played in Super Bowls IX, X and XIII but was forced to sit out Super Bowl XIV because of injuries.

He played in five AFC championship games and it was his 19-yard interception return to the Oakland 9-yard-line that set up the Steelers’ go-ahead touchdown in their first-ever championship victory.

Ham was named to the All-AFC team for the first time in 1973 and then was a universal All-Pro choice the next six seasons through the 1979 campaign. In 1975, the Football News named him the Defensive Player of the Year. He was named to eight straight Pro Bowls.

Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Linebacker Derrick Brooks, a four-year letterman and three-time All-American choice at Florida State, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 28th overall pick of the 1995 NFL Draft.

Brooks never missed a game during his 14-season career in which he established himself as the cornerstone for what was considered one of the NFL’s best defenses for a decade.

Brooks earned a starting position in the training camp of his rookie year and started all but three games that season. The three non-starts came when the Bucs opened with extra defensive backs against run-and-shoot teams. He never missed a start for the remainder of his 224-game NFL career. Brooks earned All-Rookie honors after he finished second on the team with 80 tackles.

In 1997, Brooks led the Buccaneers to their first postseason appearance since 1981. He topped the team with 182 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and 10 passes defended to earn the first of his 11 Pro Bowl selections.

With Brooks entrenched as the defensive anchor, the Bucs led the NFL in total defense twice (2002 and 2005) and topped the NFC five times (1998, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2007) during the linebacker’s career.

Brooks was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 when he again led Tampa Bay with 173 tackles, registered a career-high five interceptions (three of which were returned for TDs), 15 passes defensed, one fumble recovery, and one sack. He was a major contributor in the Bucs’ victory in Super Bowl XXXVII where he had three tackles, one pass defensed, and one interception returned 44 yards for a TD against the Oakland Raiders.

Brooks was a six-time All-Pro choice, named All-NFC eight times, and selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

Sam Huff (N.Y. Giants)

Because his early NFL tenure was spent with a winning team in the multi-media maze of New York, Sam Huff became one of the most publicized of all pro gridders.

He was only 24 years old when he appeared on a Time Magazine cover. He was the subject of a television special, ‘”The Violent World of Sam Huff.” Almost overnight, he became the symbol of the new glamour era for defensive football.

Sam was flooded with honors. He was named All-NFL three times, picked as the NFL’s top linebacker in 1959 and selected for five Pro Bowls, four of them while he was with the Giants. The relatively new middle linebacker’s job called for someone big enough to handle the power runners, fast enough to overhaul swift halfbacks and agile enough to protect against the passer.

To these attributes, Huff added a true love for the game and a unique ability to diagnose and disrupt the opponents’ plays. Sam was best known for his hand-to-hand combat near the scrimmage line and for his duels with the likes of Jim Brown and Jim Taylor but he was also adept at pass defense. His 30 pass steals attest to that facet of his game.

In spite of his abundant talents, fate had to intervene several times to keep him out of the West Virginia coal mines. When Sam was a junior at Farmington High School, the West Virginia University coach came to town to look at a hot prospect but wound up recruiting Sam instead.

At the end of Huff’s college career, Giants scout Al DeRogatis came to look at an All-America guard named Bruce Bosley. “Bosley is great,” DeRogatis wired back, “but there’s another guard here who will be even greater. His name is Sam Huff.” Huff was a third-round draft pick in 1956 but, once in camp, things turned sour.

Coach Jim Lee Howell agreed that Sam was a quality athlete but admitted he didn’t know where to play him. Discouraged, Sam left camp and headed for the airport. There he was intercepted by assistant coach Vince Lombardi who lectured him on the merits of guts and determination and coaxed him back to camp.

Shortly after Sam’s return, fate stepped in a final time. Ray Beck, the regular middle linebacker, was injured and Huff, in the emergency, got a chance to fill in. He did the job so well that Beck retired and Sam never had to worry about a regular football job again.

Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens)

The University of Miami linebacker Ray Lewis entered the NFL as the Baltimore Ravens first-round pick, 26th overall, in the 1996 NFL Draft. Lewis, the franchise’s second-ever draft choice (Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden was the first), played his entire 17-year career with the team (1996-2012).

Lewis immediately became a leader on defense and led the team in tackles as a rookie. That marked the first of 14 times in his 17 seasons that he led the team in that category. At the time of his retirement in 2012, Lewis held three records with the Ravens most seasons played (17), most career games (228), and most career opponent fumbles recovered (20). He posted a franchise record 2,643 career tackles, including a single-season team-best 225 stops in 2003.

In 2000, Lewis led a staunch Ravens defense which established a 16-game single-season record for the fewest points allowed (165), the fewest rushing yards allowed (970) and recorded four shutouts. The season was capped with a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV where Lewis’ three tackles, two assists and four passes defensed earned him Most Valuable Player honors.

Lewis’s career ended in Hollywood fashion after the 2012 season when he recovered from a torn triceps muscle in midseason to participate in the team’s postseason run. In his final game, he had three tackles, two assists, and four passes defended to help Baltimore defeat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII.

A 12-time Pro Bowl selection, Lewis received first-team All-Pro honors eight times during his career. He was recognized as the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003, and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

Lewis is the only player in the NFL history with at least 40 career sacks and 30 career interceptions (41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions). He is second only to Hall of Famer Jack Ham (53) in takeaways by a LB since the 1970 merger with 50 – 31 interceptions and 19 opponents Fumbles recoveries

Lawrence Taylor (N.Y. Giants)

Lawrence Taylor, an All-America at North Carolina, was the first-round draft pick of the New York Giants and the second player selected overall in the 1981 NFL Draft. The 6-3, 237-pound linebacker set the tone for his pro career with an outstanding rookie season during which he recorded a career-high 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 8 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception.

A dominant force on defense, Taylor was named first-team All-Pro in each of his first nine seasons. His ability to dominate a game with his attack style changed the outside linebacker position from a read-and-react posture to an aggressive mode.

An intense player, he had the speed to run past offensive linemen and the strength to out-muscle them. Starting in Taylor’s first season, the Giants began a 10-season streak in which they made the playoffs six times and won two Super Bowls.

Although Taylor’s accomplishments are many, he recorded his finest statistical season in 1986 when he was named the NFL’s MVP, becoming the first defensive player to do so since 1971. That season, Taylor recorded a career high 20.5 sacks, 105 total tackles, five passes defensed, and two forced fumbles.

In a 1988 game against the New Orleans Saints, suffering with a torn pectoral muscle in his shoulder, Taylor demonstrated his remarkable strength and determination. Wearing a harness to keep his shoulder in place, he managed to record seven tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. The Giants won 13-12.

Taylor recorded 132.5 quarterback sacks (not including 9.5 sacks he recorded in 1981, since the sack didn’t become an official NFL statistic until 1982), 1,088 tackles, 33 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, and nine interceptions during his career. He was selected to play in 10 Pro Bowls and in 1994 was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

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