When discussing the greatest linebacker to ever play the game, the name of Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert are usually mentioned. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is now in this discussion, but the debate should be who is the next greatest after him.
All of these guys were the best of their generations, but none of them came close to the length of career that Lewis has. Key to this point is that although Ray's physical skills have obviously diminished over the years, his preparation, knowledge of the opposition and on-field leadership, has allowed him to remain among the games best even in his 17th season.
Butkus (9 seasons), Taylor (13 seasons), Singletary (12 seasons), Lambert (11 seasons) and Nitschke (15 seasons) didn't play nearly as long or at such a high level later in their careers as Ray did and currently is. Injuries took their toll on these players and Lewis as well, as he has missed ten games this season.
The inside linebacker position is perhaps the toughest of all on the field. There is the combination of physical contact and running around on every play unlike any other on the field. Other positions have that one-step contact (in the trenches) or a lot of running (secondary, receivers, etc.) but for full-speed contact, nothing matches the linebacker position and specifically the middle or inside linebacker.
There are other players at other positions that are in the discussion of the best of all-time. People talk of Cleveland Browns RB Jim Brown, San Francisco 49ers WR Jerry Rice, QB's Joe Montana, John Elway and even Johnny Unitas as among the best ever, but how often to they touch the ball and get hit each game?
The debate will always be just that as the opinions are obviously extremely subjective and perhaps, admittedly so, based partly on fan loyalty. However, for my money and what he brings to the entire team and even around the NFL, there is no other player in NFL history who has carried a team for so long at such a high level, much less affected the careers of the players around him on his own team, and be sought out more than any other by players on every team around the whole league.
Ray Lewis, in my humble opinion, is the greatest player to ever play in the NFL.
There, I said it.
Deal with it.