Brian Urlacher’s Place Among the All-Time Great Linebackers

I wrote a post-mortem on Brian Urlacher’s career with the Bears after both sides parted ways in March, so this post won’t have anything to do with my personal thoughts on watching him play now that he’s announced his retirement. Instead, I’m going to try to get a sense of where his historical standing should be among the NFL linebackers that went before him and whether he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer or even a Hall-of-Famer at all.

The consensus that has seemed to emerge since Urlacher tweeted last week that his playing career was done was that Urlacher is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer but not as great as Ray Lewis was. There’s no shame in that, by the way – you can make a strong argument that Ray Lewis is the greatest linebacker, inside or outside, of all time. Currently (as of about 11:45 on Tuesday morning), ESPN’s SportsNation poll has Urlacher sixth out of a group of 15 retired linebackers – behind only Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor, Lewis, Mike Singletary and Jack Lambert and ahead of Hall-of-Famers Jack Ham, Derrick Thomas, Ray Nitschke and Chuck Bednarik as well as future Hall-of-Famers Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks.

Obviously there’s going to be some recency bias with a poll that comes out right after a player retires, but I think it’s pretty clear that placing Urlacher in a group of the top-ten linebackers of all-time is foolhardy. Currently, he ranks in a tie for 13th all time in Pro Bowl selections, a tie for 17th in 1st-team All-Pro selections, and 12th in Pro Football Reference’s career Approximate Value statistic among all linebackers. All the players who rank above Urlacher in Pro Bowl selections and Approximate Value have either been elected to the Hall of Fame or will be once their five-year waiting period is over. Two linebackers have accrued more 1st-team All-Pro selections than Urlacher and have been eligible to be voted into the Hall of Fame but have failed thus far: Larry Grantham (whose five All-Pro selections came in the first five years of the AFL’s existence) and Chuck Howley (who was voted 1st-team All-Pro five times as a Cowboys middle linebacker in the late ’60s and early ’70s and seems to have fallen through the cracks of NFL history).

There’s one more linebacker who has more All-Pro selections that Urlacher whose name will come up for induction next year but who likely doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in: Zach Thomas. The long-time Dolphins middle linebacker is Urlacher’s statistical doppelganger in a lot of ways: he had 7 Pro Bowl selections (compared to Urlacher’s 8), 5 1st-Team All-Pro selections (compared to Urlacher’s 4) and a career Approximate Value of 149 (compared to Urlacher’s 153). Both players played thirteen seasons. Both spent either their entire career with one team or virtually their entire career with one team (anybody remember Thomas’s last season with the Cowboys? Neither do I). For all intents and purposes, they’re the same linebacker. Urlacher’s notoriety as being the face of one of the most high-profile franchises in the league, however, will almost certainly push him into the Hall of Fame in his first couple years of eligibility while Thomas seems likely to wait a long time to get in, if he gets in at all.

So what rank should Urlacher slide in at among all the players who ever played middle/inside linebacker? To start out, I think it’s fairly clear that the following players were all better than him:

  • Ray Lewis
  • Dick Butkus
  • Mike Singletary
  • Joe Schmidt
  • Jack Lambert
  • Bill George

Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff and Nick Buoniconti all have fairly similar resumes to Urlacher, but all three were highly regarded members of championship-winning teams, so they probably deserve the benefit of the doubt in any ranking scenario. And while he’s still only halfway through his career at most, Patrick Willis already has four 1st-team All-Pro selections in his first six seasons, so I think it’s likely he’ll be regarded as one of the best of all-time when his career comes to a close. That would put Urlacher in a group with the likes of Thomas, Willie Lanier, Harry Carson, Karl Mecklenburg and Les Richter for the 11-16 spots all-time. Not one of the truly best of all-time, but certainly a Hall-of-Fame level.