NFL

Which NFL Teams Draft the Best LB’s?

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Identifying some of the best (and worst) teams in the history of the NFL that know how to deliver on draft day with successful prospects at the linebacker position felt energizing.

There have been so many productive scouting departments that have proven that drafting linebackers is an art form and they have mastered the stroke with their paint brushes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies those teams that for one reason or another can not put it all together on draft day and write down the correct name of a soon to be (successful) NFL linebacker.

Below is a list comprised of some of the best and worst teams in the league at drafting linebackers.

 

Who Drafts the Best LB’s?

 

Chicago Bears

Currently the “Monsters of the Midway” are absent of any monsters in Chicago. Acutely productive throughout the history of the organization, the Bears are void (currently) of the namesake superstar terrorizing opponents at linebacker.

Bronko Nagurski was the first to bring some name recognition to the position as a two-way star of the Bears way back in the 1930s. Famously known for his fierce style of play at running back, Nagurski played in an era where playing both sides of the football was en vogue. He is also the only player all-time to be named All-Pro at three different positions (non-kicking).

The Bears player with the most All-Pro tags next to his name is Bill George, the fabulous former Demon Deacons linebacker from Wake Forest. Drafted in the second-round of the 1951 NFL Draft, he was named an All-Pro a team leading seven times and for a stretch of six consecutive seasons (1955-61).

George’s final season in 1965 was shared with a rookie from Illinois.

The rookies name was Dick Butkus.

The third-overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft, Butkus brought a fierceness to the position that would likely bring instant banishment from the league in today’s modern era. Considered one of the best middle linebackers in the history of the game, some 20 years later the Bears uncovered another player at the same position to match his intensity.

Mike Singletary was the 38th overall pick (second-round) in the 1981 NFL Draft. He is the only legendary figure for the Bears at linebacker to win a Super Bowl in Chicago and earned 10 Pro Bowl invitations. He and Butkus are both enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Most teams covet the idea of having one player the caliber of Butkus or Singletary. The Bears have another awaiting his moment to give his speech to the fans at Mollenkoph Stadium (Canton, Ohio).

Brian Urlacher will soon be the next to wear the mustard colored jacket with the Hall of Fame logo stitched to it. His list of on the field accolades are eight Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pro nominations, 2000 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2005).

Urlacher was paired along side Lance Briggs, who on any other team would have had the spotlight all to himself and probably recognized (deservingly so) for being a much better football player than he is currently. Briggs was named to seven straight Pro Bowls (2005-11).

Briggs would have the key to the city in any other NFL town, but not in Chicago where the bar is set so high that anything not considered Hall of Fame worthy (sadly) is a little dismissed. George, Butkus and Singletary are already in the Hall of Fame and Urlacher will be next.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Prior to the 1970s, the Steelers did not have much success on the field which in turn could be attributed to the lack of success in the draft room.

Then came a man named Andy Russell, the 220th overall pick (16th round) in the 1963 NFL Draft.

He is the first in the long lineage of great Steelers linebackers. Russell played in seven Pro Bowls and played on both the 1974-75 Super Bowl winning teams in Pittsburgh.

In the midst of Pittsburgh building their dynasty, they added both Hall of Fame linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Russell played with both Ham and Lambert before retiring in 1976.

The importance of linebackers in the Steelers defensive scheme is second to none and if they’re not picking up sacks in bunches, the team suffers defensively. That is why the team has spent three consecutive picks (2013-15) in the first round of the NFL Draft on upgrading the position.

In the 1987 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected both Hardy Nickerson (fifth round) and Greg Lloyd (sixth round) to replenish the position with the retirements of Ham and Lambert a couple years prior.

Nickerson and Lloyd would combine for 10 trips to the Pro Bowl.

Nickerson produced tackles like the city of Pittsburgh used to produce steel, racking up over 1,500 tackles in his career. Lloyd’s forte was getting to the quarterback and he ended his career with 54.5 quarterback sacks and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.

Nickerson was named to the 1990s All-Decade Team.

The 1990s produced Jason Gildon, who leads this sack happy group of linebackers with 80 career quarterback sacks. Gildon was a third-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma State and played in one Super Bowl and in three Pro Bowls.

Pittsburgh has been consistently able to draft and develop linebackers.

The list of other quality linebackers includes Chad Brown, Mike Merriweather, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.

James Harrison went undrafted and originally was signed by the Ravens. Undoubtedly he is considered a Pittsburgh Steelers all-time great and shows the Steelers’ ability to help develop players at the position along with their eye for scouting the position for players who will not only work in their system but excel in it.

New York Giants

The Giants success in the 1980’s helps bolster their position amongst the top teams dissecting and positively identifying elite talent at the linebacker position.

It began in 1973 with the selection of Brad Van Pelt out of Michigan State in the second-round (40th overall). Van Pelt is in the 20/20 club after recording 24.5 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career. Named to five consecutive Pro Bowls (1976-80) as a Giant, the two-time All-American helped establish a strong tradition of linebacker play in New York.

The G-Men then struck gold when they selected future Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson in the fourth-round of the 1976 NFL Draft.  Carson nearly played in10 straight Pro Bowls from 1978-87, missing the honor in 1980.

“I was waiting so long that I had to go out and hang out with some friends,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson about his draft experience. “I found out by listening to television after hanging out with friends. It’s a completely different world now as opposed to ESPN and no draft coverage.”

The 1981 NFL Draft has produced six Hall of Fame players and the Giants have one of them. The list includes Mike Singletary, Ronnie Lott, Russ Grimm, Howie Long, Ricky Jackson and none other than the Giants own Lawrence Taylor. The power-packed defensive class holds claim to one of the most electrifying game changing players (Taylor) in the history of league.

Taylor was the quintessential prototype outside pass rusher. He is remembered for being a player who changed the way the position was played due to his brilliant athleticism with a few drops of crazy mixed in the with his talent. Taylor was head coach Bill Parcells’ prized possession during the team’s two Super Bowl victories in 1986 and 1990. Taylor was both a 10-time All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl 10 straight years (1981-90) and won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year three times.

Both Taylor and Carson are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Taylor’s final season was in 1993, the same year they drafted Jessie Armstead.

Taylor was the second overall pick in 1981, while Armstead was the 207th selection in the eighth round. Drafted out of Miami (FL), Armstead was selected to five Pro Bowls and named All-Pro four times in his career. He was the veteran leader of the Giants linebacker unit during their run at a Super Bowl that ended up in defeat against the Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens.

Amongst the four players named for the Giants, plenty of others have had solid, productive NFL careers including Carl Banks and Antonio Pierce. Since Van Pelt’s first Pro Bowl season in 1976, the four players (Van Pelt, Carson, Taylor and Armstead) have combined for 29 Pro Bowl appearances between 1976-01.

Proof that for almost three decades the Giants stood atop the mountain of the teams able to pull the trigger and hit the target on top notch linebacker prospects in the NFL Draft.

 

 


About Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte is an NFL writer for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade. His background includes being staff for the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star game as a talent evaluator for player personnel along with an internship scouting with the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the Canadian Football League. Bo’s draft background includes working for the NFL Draft Bible and currently owns and operates College2Pro.com. He has done radio spots on NBC, Fox Sports and ESPN and their affiliates in different markets around the country. Bo covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Panthers along with other colleges in the northeast.