When the NFL came out with their list of the Top 100 Players For 2011, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis came in at number four overall. He was the top defensive player on the list that included right behind him, fellow Raven Ed Reed, as well as Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Chicago Bears DE Julius Peppers. Many people say that Lewis really didn't deserve that honor, as it was more for his past performance as well as his contributions off the field than it was for his play on it.
However, I totally disagree and while he is not the same linebacker he was in his Defensive Player of the Year season, he is still the most significant defensive player in the game today. No other player, perhaps arguably other than Reed or Polamalu, get more pre-snap attention from opposing quarterbacks than Ray does. The Ravens defensive front knows that their job is as much to keep the opposing offense off of Ray so he can make the tackles as it is for making the plays themselves.
However, my argument for the best player ever in the history of the NFL is based not on the aforementioned list, but for the incredibly high level of play over the course of his entire career. Even if Ray does not deserve to the at the top of defensive players on this list, no one would argue him being near the top, even if he was only ranked, say 20th overall.
Ray will be entering his 16th NFL season and even if on thinks he is not the best in the league, they'd have to admit he is still among the league's elite. What other player in the entire history of the league played such a physically demanding position as inside linebacker at the level that Lewis has since 1996? Looking back at the better linebackers in NFL annuls, I found no one, repeat no one, who came close to Ray's consistency.
Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus played only nine seasons, almost half of what Ray is approaching. Pittsburgh Steelers LB Jack Lambert (11 seasons), and current Bears LB Brian Urlacher (12 seasons) just do not come close. Only Green Bay Packers legendary LB Ray Nitschke (15 seasons) comes close and while statistics for tackles were not available from that era, Nitschke only played a total of 20 game in his last two years combined, while Ray has not missed a single game in the past three seasons and only has missed four games over the past five years.
That single model of consistency is virtually unmatched in the history of the NFL. Current NFL players may be close to him in certain positions, but still lag behind him in both the number of seasons as well as playing positions that entail a lot less physical requirements on each and every play. Fellow Ravens Derrick Mason (15 seasons) and Ed Reed (10 seasons) are impressive, but they pale in comparison to Lewis. Same goes for Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez (15 seasons), Chicago Bears DE Julius Peppers (10 seasons) and even Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (9 seasons), as they just cannot hold a candle to what Ray has accomplished over the course of his amazing career.
The only potential arguments for performance and longevity could be some of the greatest offensive lineman that played for around a dozen seasons or more, such as the Ravens Jonathan Ogden (12 seasons). However, it would be hard to ever say that an offensive lineman was the best player in the history of the league. Regardless of whether you agree that Ray Lewis is the best player ever to lace up his cleats in the NFL, you'd have to put him in the argument. I just chose to differ a bit, putting him on top of the list as the greatest player in NFL history.