This post is NOT a look at the greatest linebacker groups ever. Instead, this post seeks to identify teams that had a bunch of great linebackers playing together while those players were in their primes.
The first thing we need to do is rate the linebackers. I used PFR’s Approximate Value system, which assigns a value to measure the approximate contribution of each player in each season since 1950. I then analyzed each player’s single-season AV score to come up with a base rating for each linebacker.1 It’s always difficult figuring out how to grade a player’s career, as you need to balance career length with peak production. I decided to average the best five years (they need not be consecutive) for every linebacker since 1950 to come up with a “peak AV rating” for each linebacker. Then I adjusted each linebacker’s peak AV rating for each season of his career depending solely on his age. That age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each linebacker for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.2
How do you adjust for age? I selected the top 100 linebackers in NFL history (according to peak AV) and measured what percentage of their peak AV they produced at each age. After smoothing out the numbers a bit, you get the following age adjustments. For example, a linebacker peaks at age 27, and produces at 81% of his peak level at age 24.
Lewis has the highest five-year peak of any linebacker with a peak AV of 20.2. Urlacher isn’t far behind at 17.6. Here is how many “estimated” points of AV they are assigned in each year of their career in this system:
Obviously these numbers are nothing more than rough estimates. But overall, I think they work just fine for these purposes. Now that we have the age-adjusted peak AV score for each linebacker, we can create a list of the best linebacker groups playing together by simply averaging the age-adjusted peak AV scores for the starting linebackers on each team.
The table below shows the 200 highest rated sets of 4-3 linebackers since 1960. It is sorted simply by the average of the three age-adjusted peak AV scores of each of the starting linebackers. The top combination comes from the 2001 Ravens. Baltimore’s best linebacker was Lewis, who was 26 and has an “estimated AV” that year of 20.0. The second best linebacker was Peter Boulware, who was 27 and receives an age-adjusted AV of 10.4. Jamie Sharper, also 27, was the third best linebacker, and gets an “estimated AV” of 9.6.
One note: I decided not to re-list linebacker trios that would otherwise appear multiple times on the list. Any time a linebacker trio appeared more often than once, I only listed the best one (which would, of course, be based solely on the ages of the three players) in the table below. So that’s why the 2000 Ravens aren’t on there, because the 2001 version was a year older (and presumably closer to their peak). A similar fate sacked the ’85 Bears, replaced by the more physically mature ’86 version.
[table id=518 /]
The 1962 Packers had one of the greatest defenses of all time, and their slightly younger predecessor comes in at #2. Jack Ham and Jack Lambert are joined by a third linebacker at the 3rd, 9th, 10th, and 22nd spots on the list. In 1975, Ham, Lambert and Andy Russell all made the Pro Bowl, although that trio rates higher in ’76 as Lambert moved closer to his estimated peak.
Urlacher and Lance Briggs check in at #6, in between the Mike Singletary/Wilber Marshall/Otis Wilson Bears from the mid-’80s and the Bill George/Joe Fortunato/Larry Morris team that led Chicago to a title in 1963. Butkus’ Bears also show up in the top 20 when he was teamed with Lee Roy Caffey. But that’s not even the highest grade of Caffey’s career, as he teamed with two Hall of Fame linebackers on the ’67 Packers.
We can do the same with 3-4 linebackers. As always, both tables are fully searchable and sortable. And Lewis makes a couple of high showings on this list, too.
[table id=519 /]
Of course, the top of the list is reserved for the Dome Patrol, arguably the best quartet of linebackers in NFL history. In 1992, all four starters made the Pro Bowl while the offense set a modern record for slowest tempo. Mostly, this list is dominated by Steelers teams from the last two decades. The Orange Crush Broncos crack the top five, with Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Bob Swenson and Joe Rizzo — the same group that took the team to the Super Bowl in 1977 — peaking two years later. The ’76 Raiders that went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl also crack the top ten, and a couple of Dr. Doom groups make the list. The ’91 Bills defense may have been anchored by Bruce Smith, but the linebackers behind him also show up relatively high on the list.
What sticks out to you? Leave your thoughts in the comments.