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Great Linebackers Playing Together

Posted by Chase Stuart on May 18, 2009

This post is not a look at the greatest linebacking corps ever. We might attempt to do that one day, but today I've got another thought on my mind today. What teams have seen 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. You could use Pro Bowl nominations, or games started, or some combination of sacks, turnovers and tackles. Here at PFR, Doug developed the Approximate Value system -- it assigns an approximate value to measure the approximate contribution of each player in each season since 1950. While none of us claim that the Approximate Value system is a perfect measure of player performance, we believe it's a big improvement on things like games started or other objective criteria one might use to create a set of inter-positional rankings.

You could simply look at a list of the top linebacker by AV per team for each season. For various reasons, I chose a different approach. I looked at the peak three years of every linebacker ever, and assigned that as a rating for each linebacker. Then I gave him an age adjusted score for each season. That age adjusted score is the rating I'm giving each linebacker for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.

How do you adjust for age? I looked at the top 100 or so linebackers in NFL history and studied their dropoff rate, as measured by AV. After smoothing out the numbers a bit, you get something that looks like this:

age	weight
21	0.24
22	0.43
23	0.58
24	0.72
25	0.82
26	0.91
27	0.96
28	0.99
29	1.00
30	0.98
31	0.94
32	0.87
33	0.77
34	0.65
35	0.51
36	0.40

Ray Lewis has a peak AV -- the average score of his three best seasons -- of 20. Keith Brooking has a peak AV of 11; here's how we would then project how good each player would have been for each season of his career:

age	weight	Lewis	Brooking
21	0.24	 4.9	 2.7
22	0.43	 8.5	 4.7
23	0.58	11.7	 6.4
24	0.72	14.3	 7.9
25	0.82	16.5	 9.1
26	0.91	18.1	10.0
27	0.96	19.3	10.6
28	0.99	19.9	10.9
29	1.00	20.0	11.0
30	0.98	19.6	10.8
31	0.94	18.7	10.3
32	0.87	17.3	 9.5
33	0.77	15.4	 8.5
34	0.65	13.0	 7.2
35	0.51	10.1	 5.6
36	0.40	 8.0	 4.4

Obviously these numbers are far from perfect; the goal is simply to get, roughly, the quality of the production we would find in each season from, approximately, the best linebackers ever. I think the results below pass the sniff test; what do you think?

These represent the 25 best set of 4-3 linebackers playing together at their peaks. The top combination is a recent trio of Ravens; from left to right the line says: The best linebacker was Ray Lewis, who was 31 and had a peak of 20. The second best linebacker was Adalius Thomas, who was 29 and had a peak of 15.6. Bart Scott was the third best linebacker, and he was 26 and eventually would have a peak of 13.

One note: For obvious reasons I decided not to re-list LB trios that appeared more often than once. Any time a LB trio appeared multiple times, I only listed the best one (which would be based solely on the ages of the three players). So the 2000 Ravens aren't on there, when Ray Lewis was 25 and Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper were 26; that's because the 2001 Ravens are on there when Lewis was 26 and Boulware and Sharper were 27. A similar fate sacked the '85 Bears, replaced by the more physically mature '87 Bears.

BAL-2006	Ray Lewis (31): 20	     Adalius Thomas (29): 15.6	 Bart Scott (26): 13
GNB-1963	Ray Nitschke (27): 15.6	     Bill Forester (31): 16	 Dan Currie (28): 14.3
CHI-1987	Mike Singletary (29): 17.6   Wilber Marshall (25): 18.3	 Otis Wilson (30): 11
KAN-1972	Willie Lanier (27): 17.3     Bobby Bell (32): 16         Jim Lynch (27): 13.3
CHI-1959	Bill George (30): 18	     Joe Fortunato (29): 15.3	 Larry Morris (26): 10.3
PIT-1978	Jack Ham (30): 17	     Jack Lambert (26): 18	 Loren Toews (27): 8.66
CHI-2007	Brian Urlacher (29): 19.3    Lance Briggs (27): 15.6	 Hunter Hillenmeyer (27): 7
CHI-1955	Bill George (26): 18	     Joe Fortunato (25): 15.3	 George Connor (30): 12.3
PIT-1980	Jack Lambert (28): 18	     Jack Ham (32): 17	         Robin Cole (25): 9.66
RAM-1976	Isiah Robertson (27): 17.6   Jack Reynolds (29): 12.6	 Jim Youngblood (26): 11.3
GNB-1968	Dave Robinson (27): 14.3     Ray Nitschke (32): 15.6	 Lee Roy Caffey (27): 13
PHI-1954	Chuck Bednarik (29): 20.6    Bucko Kilroy (33): 14	 Wayne Robinson (24): 11.3
PIT-1979	Jack Lambert (27): 18	     Jack Ham (31): 17	         Dirt Winston (24): 8.66
BAL-2001	Ray Lewis (26): 20	     Peter Boulware (27): 11.3	 Jamie Sharper (27): 10.3
RAM-1975	Isiah Robertson (26): 17.6   Jack Reynolds (28): 12.6 	 Ken Geddes (29): 10.3
RAM-1967	Maxie Baughan (29): 15.6     Myron Pottios (28): 12 	 Jack Pardee (31): 11.6
BAL-1972	Mike Curtis (29): 16	     Ted Hendricks (25): 17	 Ray May (27): 8.66
BAL-1973	Mike Curtis (30): 16	     Ted Hendricks (26): 17	 Stan White (24): 10
CHI-1970	Dick Butkus (28): 15.6	     Lee Roy Caffey (29): 13	 Doug Buffone (26): 9.33
ARI-1994	Wilber Marshall (32): 18.3   Seth Joyner (30): 13.6	 Eric Hill (28): 7.66
PIT-1976	Jack Ham (28): 17	     Jack Lambert (24): 18	 Andy Russell (35): 13.6
TAM-1999	Derrick Brooks (26): 19	     Shelton Quarles (28): 10	 Hardy Nickerson (34): 14.6
GNB-1974	Ted Hendricks (27): 17	     Fred Carr (28): 12	         Jim Carter (26): 9
DAL-1967	Chuck Howley (31): 16.3	     Lee Roy Jordan (26): 13	 Dave Edwards (28): 9.33
CLE-1952	Bill Willis (31): 18.3	     Tommy W. Thompson (25): 14	 Walt Michaels (23): 13

We can do the same thing for teams that played 3-4 defenses. Not surprisingly, the Dome Patrol tops the list, but of course we're only going to list them once. A couple of Lawrence Taylor-led Giants make the list, although not the '86 version where Reasons and Banks were both just 24 years old. The Orange Crush and a bunch of Steelers teams are well represented:

NOR-1990  Pat Swilling (26): 19	      Sam Mills (31): 17	 Rickey Jackson (32): 14.6   Vaughan Johnson (28): 11.6
PIT-1995  Greg Lloyd (30): 17.3	      Kevin Greene (33): 16.6	 Chad Brown (25): 14.3       Levon Kirkland (26): 13
BAL-2003  Ray Lewis (28): 20	      Adalius Thomas (26): 15.6  Peter Boulware (29): 11.3   Ed Hartwell (25): 8.66
PIT-2003  James Farrior (28): 14.6    Jason Gildon (31): 14.6	 Joey Porter (26): 14	     Kendrell Bell (25): 10.3
BAL-2004  Ray Lewis (29): 20	      Adalius Thomas (27): 15.6  Ed Hartwell (26): 8.66      Terrell Suggs (22): 13.3
DEN-1979  Randy Gradishar (27): 16    Tom Jackson (28): 13.6	 Bob Swenson (26): 11.6      Joe Rizzo (29): 9
DEN-1981  Randy Gradishar (29): 16    Tom Jackson (30): 13.6	 Bob Swenson (28): 11.6      Larry Evans (28): 7
OAK-1979  Ted Hendricks (32): 17      Phil Villapiano (30): 13.6 Rod Martin (25): 13	     Monte Johnson (28): 8.66
PIT-1997  Greg Lloyd (32): 17.3	      Levon Kirkland (28): 13	 Jason Gildon (25): 14.6     Earl Holmes (24): 9.66
NYG-1991  Lawrence Taylor (32): 18    Pepper Johnson (27): 13.3  Carl Banks (29): 11	     Gary Reasons (29): 7
PIT-1982  Jack Lambert (30): 18	      Jack Ham (34): 17	         Robin Cole (27): 9.66       Loren Toews (31): 8.66
BAL-2007  Ray Lewis (32): 20	      Bart Scott (27): 13	 Terrell Suggs (25): 13.3    Jarret Johnson (26): 5.66
OAK-1978  Ted Hendricks (31): 17      Phil Villapiano (29): 13.6 Monte Johnson (27): 8.66    Willie Hall (29): 7.33
PIT-1991  Greg Lloyd (26): 17.3	      Hardy Nickerson (26): 14.6 David Little (32): 9.66     Bryan Hinkle (32): 9
DET-1993  Pat Swilling (29): 19	      Chris Spielman (28): 12    George Jamison (31): 7.66   Dennis Gibson (29): 6.66
NYG-1988  Lawrence Taylor (29): 18    Carl Banks (26): 11	 Pepper Johnson (24): 13.3   Harry Carson (35): 13.3
PIT-2000  Jason Gildon (28): 14.6     Levon Kirkland (31): 13	 Earl Holmes (27): 9.66      Joey Porter (23): 14
NYG-1990  Lawrence Taylor (31): 18    Pepper Johnson (26): 13.3  Carl Banks (28): 11	     Steve DeOssie (28): 4
PIT-1999  Jason Gildon (27): 14.6     Levon Kirkland (30): 13	 Earl Holmes (26): 9.66      Carlos Emmons (26): 9
PIT-2006  Joey Porter (29): 14	      James Farrior (31): 14.6   Larry Foote (26): 9	     Clark Haggans (29): 7.66
DEN-1980  Randy Gradishar (28): 16    Tom Jackson (29): 13.6	 Larry Evans (27): 7	     Rob Nairne (26): 7.33
PIT-1992  Greg Lloyd (27): 17.3	      Hardy Nickerson (27): 14.6 David Little (33): 9.66     Jerrol Williams (25): 5.33
NYG-1983  Harry Carson (30): 13.3     Lawrence Taylor (24): 18   Brad Van Pelt (32): 9.66    Brian Kelley (32): 9
DEN-1982  Randy Gradishar (30): 16    Tom Jackson (31): 13.6	 Larry Evans (29): 7	     Jim Ryan (25): 8
DEN-1989  Karl Mecklenburg (29): 15.6 Simon Fletcher (27): 10	 Michael Brooks (25): 10.6   Rick Dennison (31): 8.33

Finally, here's a list of the top 50 grades (simply averaging the age-adjusted AV score of the starting linebackers) for all 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, including duplicates:

4-3 Linebackers:

tm	yr	av
BAL	2006	46.2
GNB	1963	44.3
GNB	1962	43.7
CHI	1987	43.6
KAN	1972	43.4
KAN	1973	42.8
KAN	1971	42.8
CHI	1959	42.4
GNB	1961	41.9
CHI	1960	41.8
CHI	1986	41.7
PIT	1978	41.3
CHI	2007	41.2
KAN	1974	41.1
CHI	1955	41.0
KAN	1970	41.0
PIT	1980	40.6
CHI	1961	40.2
RAM	1976	39.9
GNB	1968	39.9
PIT	1981	39.9
CHI	2006	39.7
PIT	1977	39.7
PHI	1954	39.6
PIT	1979	39.5
GNB	1967	39.4
PHI	1953	39.3
GNB	1969	39.3
BAL	2001	39.0
GNB	1960	38.9
RAM	1975	38.9
CHI	1985	38.7
RAM	1967	38.5
BAL	1972	38.4
BAL	1973	38.3
KAN	1969	38.0
GNB	1966	37.9
PHI	1952	37.8
CHI	1962	37.5
RAM	1968	37.5
CHI	2005	37.3
CHI	1970	37.0
RAM	1974	37.0
ARI	1994	36.9
PIT	1976	36.7
TAM	1999	36.7
GNB	1974	36.4
DAL	1967	36.3
CLE	1952	36.3
DET	1962	36.3

3-4 Linebackers:

tm	yr	av
NOR	1990	57.4
NOR	1989	57.3
NOR	1991	56.0
NOR	1988	55.6
PIT	1995	53.5
NOR	1992	53.0
PIT	1994	52.8
BAL	2003	52.5
NOR	1987	52.3
PIT	1993	50.5
PIT	2003	49.5
BAL	2004	48.6
DEN	1979	48.6
DEN	1981	48.0
OAK	1979	47.5
PIT	2002	47.4
PIT	1997	47.0
NYG	1991	46.4
DEN	1978	46.2
PIT	1982	46.2
BAL	2007	46.0
BAL	2008	45.9
OAK	1978	45.3
PIT	1991	45.2
DET	1993	44.8
OAK	1976	44.4
NYG	1988	44.3
PIT	2000	44.2
PIT	1990	43.9
NYG	1990	43.8
PIT	1999	43.8
PIT	2006	43.6
NYG	1987	43.4
PIT	2005	43.3
DEN	1980	43.0
PIT	1992	42.7
DEN	1977	42.6
NYG	1983	42.2
DEN	1982	42.1
PIT	2004	42.0
DEN	1989	41.9
NYG	1992	41.9
NYJ	1999	41.7
PIT	1998	41.7
NWE	2007	41.5
NYG	1982	41.3
PIT	1989	41.3
NYG	1989	41.2
CLE	1950	41.2
CLE	1951	41.2

This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 7:51 am and is filed under Approximate Value, Best/Worst Ever. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.