Tuck: Is Ray Lewis The Best Defensive Player Ever?

Is Ray Lewis the best middle linebacker ever?  Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, and Junior Seau would be the others considered in the conversation.  All of them dominated from the middle.  All-Pro honors, Pro Bowl selections, defensive player of the year awards, and Super Bowl wins decorate most.  Seau and Butkus never won Super Bowls.  Not having seen the first three play, I must rely on others opinions, and it would seem only Nitschke could really be viewed as the better player based on talent and credentials.

If we took the plunge and assumed Ray Lewis the best MLB, then the next question to ask is if he is the best defensive player ever?

Let’s start with the secondary.  Ronnie Lott is generally regarded as the gold standard at safety, although I think Lewis’ teammate Ed Reed could be in the conversation because he may be the greatest ball-hawk we’ve ever seen.  Troy Polumalu also could be looked at if injuries don’t override all his good works.  Rod Woodson played both safety and corner at an All-Pro level and should be brought up as well.  At corner, Deion Sanders is commonly viewed as the best cover man ever, which is difficult to dispute.  Darrell Revis was entering the conversation before his ACL tear this season.

Along the line, there are some big names that jump out like Deacon Jones, Joe Greene, Bruce Smith, and Reggie White.  We can debate who is the best from that group, but those are clearly the nominees I believe.

And of course there would be outside linebackers to consider, but we probably don’t need to talk about it very long.  Lawrence Taylor appears to be the standard from which all future OLB’s will be measured.

In fact, he has so separated himself from that pack at his position, he is most often the answer to the question that began this piece.

I believe that Ray Lewis, and the other middle linebackers brought up are often short-changed in this discussion because of the feeling from scouts that they play one of the most replaceable positions.  Safety and middle linebacker are generally thought of as turnstile positions, shuffling guys in and out.  The highly valued positions are thought to be pass-rushing outside linebackers and defensive ends, along with corners.

Ray Lewis’ best argument to be the best ever probably has nothing to do with tackles, Pro Bowls, or rings.  It probably has much more to do with leadership and intangibles.  If those are the tie-breaking measurables then Ray Lewis probably stands alone at the top.  Football may have never seen a more charismatic, motivational leader of men than Ray Lewis.

He was never the biggest, fastest, or strongest.  In that respect, he was/is a lot like Jerry Rice.  Neither can be graded out on individual skill sets, but much more by their complete bodies of work.  Perhaps they played replaceable positions, but they got more done from that spot than anyone we’ve ever seen.

The other strong argument Lewis would have is that he was the leader, both by performance and spirit, of arguably the best defense we’ve ever seen.  The Ravens Super Bowl winning season saw them give up less points and less yards rushing than any team ever.  Lewis was the MVP of that team, and that Super Bowl.  Lewis did not win the regular season MVP that year, but only two defensive players (Alan Page and LT) ever have in league history.

Choosing the best basketball player or baseball player ever is a much easier discussion.  Football, whether offense or defense, represent two very opposite goals of players and completely different jobs and skill sets based on the position you play on the field.  Choosing a best ever is completely subjective with no right or wrong answers.  And I say that before even factoring in the different generations part of the discussion.

I am not sure if Ray Lewis is the best talent, but if you told me to win a game and choose sides, it would be tough to not take someone like Ray Lewis to lead my team.  He definitely has that edge over LT and Primetime.