The Patriots may have the best defense in the league this year. While some would say their secondary is their biggest strength, I would say it’s the linebackers. Hightower, Collins, Roberts, and Van Noy dominate the field for the present day Patriots, captaining the best defense in the league. Yet with all of Patriots history considered, they don’t yet even compare to the top five greatest linebackers on this list.
5. Nick Buoniconti
Buoniconti may be the most talented player on the list. He would be higher, if not for the fact that he spent only half of his career with the Patriots. In college, Nick was the captain for Notre Dame. Due to scouts thinking he was too small, he fell to the 13th round in the draft to the Boston Patriots. He made the switch from tackle, becoming one of the teams best linebackers in a dominant his first season. Nick displayed his greatest skill in year one, the ability to intercept the ball as he snagged two interceptions. He followed that up with an even better campaign, with three interceptions and a 13 approximate value. He also made his first out of eight Pro Bowls.
His peak came in his third year, where he had five interceptions and a 14 AV. Throughout the rest of his Pats career, Nick displayed his leadership abilities up until the day he was traded to the Dolphins. He finished with 24 interceptions with the Pats, tied eighth all time, and fifth among linebackers in approximate value. He was not as good with the Dolphins, yet he won a pair of championships with them. Buoniconti was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2001, cementing his legacy as a true great.
4. Steve Nelson
A longtime Patriot, Nelson has played the 11th most games in Patriots franchise history. He was drafted by the Patriots in the second round of the 1974 draft. As what was unfortunately usual with the earlier Patriots teams, Nelson didn’t experience any real success team success. But as an individual, Nelson was one of the best linebackers in the game. His longevity was key, as his last Pro Bowl was at the age of 34. Nelson had nine seasons of over 100 tackles, in a time when there was only 14 games a season. One season in 1984 he had an absurd 207 tackles! He finished his career with 1,776 tackles, an average of over 10 tackles a game.
His career was legendary, which easily earned him a spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1993. He is even one of just seven Patriots players with their number retired. To this day he still tries to be apart of football, as he appears on tv and radio to share his takes.
3. Andre Tippett
Similar to Buoniconti and Nelson, Tippett could be considered the best on the list. The only drawback is, like Nelson, that he played in an era which elevated his success. Tippett was spectacular in college at the University of Iowa. He was an All-American defensive end with two-time All-Big Ten selections in 1980 and 1981. In 1981 he captained the Hawkeyes to their first winning season, their first Big Ten title, and first Rose Bowl in two decades. To this day he still holds the Iowa record for tackles for lost yardage in 1980. He was voted a DE on Iowa’s all-time football team in 1989 and on the University of Iowa’s Varsity Hall of Fame.
A second round pick by the Patriots in 1982, Tippett struggled in his first season as he started only one game. But he made everyone forget about his rookie struggles in his sophomore season. Andre exploded for 8.5 sacks in 13 games started for the Pats in 1983. He followed that up with a 18.5 sack season the next year, earning a Pro Bowl selection. Despite declining production by two sacks, his impact was greater and earned himself an All-Pro selection in addition to another Pro Bowl in his third season.
While he would never reach these heights again in his career, he would be dominant until the day he retired. Even in his last season before retiring he put up 8.5 sacks, which is tied for fifth best in his career. His 100 career sacks is the most in Patriots history, and 33rd in NFL history. As one of the best players in Patriots history, Tippett is in the Patriots Hall of Fame. He also was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2008, which was long past due.
2. Willie McGinest
While he played a portion of his career on the line, most of his career was with the linebackers unit. While he is not the best player on this list, McGinest was truly a special player. McGinest, like Tippett, was spectacular in college ball. McGinest earned All-Conference honors three years in a row, and also All-American acclaim with the USC Trojans. His best season was in his senior year, when he was a Lombardi Award finalist while also earning All-American and All-Pac-10 conference honors. McGinest left college with 193 tackles, 29 sacks, 48 tackles for loss, and 26 passes batted away. The Patriots took notice, and in the ensuing draft he was taken fourth overall by New England.
McGinest came into the league guns ablaze. In his first season he put up a modest 4.5 sacks in 16 games (seven started) en route to making the All-Rookie Team. He followed that up with an 11 sack, 88 tackle campaign, which shockingly didn’t result in a Pro Bowl. This impact continued for his whole career, even though the stats didn’t always show it. Willie was also instrumental in all three Super Bowl runs, and the playoffs in general, as he averaged almost a sack per game in the postseason.
Unfortunately he didn’t spend his whole career with the Pats, as he got released in 2006 and went to the Browns for three years. Luckily, he ended up signing a one day contract as he was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2015. Also, like the number one player on this list, he is a candidate for the NFL Hall of Fame.
1. Tedy Bruschi
Bruschi attended the University of Arizona, where he played football from 1991 to 1995. He compiled 185 total tackles, 74 tackles for losses, six fumbles, and tied the NCAA Division I-A sack record with 52 sacks. He was recognized as a first-team All-American his last two years, and won the Morris Trophy as the Conference’s best defensive lineman. In 1994, he was even one of four finalists for the Lombardi Award. To put the cherry on top his illustrious career, Bruschi was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
After the Patriots stole him in the third round of the 1996 draft, Bruschi made an immediate presence off the bench sacking the opposing QB four times. He kept up this play off the bench for the next three years, before finally getting the starting job. He repaid that trust with a 107 tackle two sack season, and a 106 tackl, one sack season. Like Willie, Tedy was instrumental in the Patriots playoff runs,accumulating over 100 tackles in his postseason career. Even a stroke couldn’t stop his career, as the next season he won Comeback Player of the Year with 112 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
He was always one of the best at his position, even though he only was selected to one Pro Bowl. Bruschi was elected to the Patriots Hall of Fame as well in 2013. And while he is not in the NFL hall yet, he is one of the many candidates vying for a spot in the upcoming class. He is top ten in Patriots games played and sacks, as well as second in tackles. While his stats and accolades may not show it, Tedy Bruschi is the best out of all of the linebackers.