As grand a career as Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher manufactured in 13 seasons before retiring Wednesday, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year acknowledged his accomplishments were trumped by legendary Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who won two Super Bowls before retiring this offseason, Lewis is regarded by many as the top middle linebacker in league history over Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Jack Lambert, Chuck Bednarik, Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff, Willie Lanier and Urlacher.
Now, Urlacher and Lewis could conceivably both be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in five years when they're both eligible for balloting.
"If I am lucky enough to go in with Ray, I will say this: I think I am pretty good, but Ray is the best of all time," Urlacher told NFL Network. "His numbers, to the guys that played with him, he did it the right way. He played hard.
"He is the best middle linebacker of all time. If I get a chance to go into the Hall of Fame with him, that would be awesome. I am up there I think, but not quite. The longevity he had was crazy, 17 years.”
Urlacher was named to eight Pro Bowls and recorded a franchise-record 1,779 tackles, 41 1/2 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 2000, and twice won the Brian Piccolo Award.
As for Lewis, he was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection who won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
He's the second player in NFL history after Dallas Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin (1977) to win both the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award during the Ravens' record-setting 2000 season.
A member of the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2000s, Lewis is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 career sacks and 30 career interceptions. He led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons, registering at least 150 tackles 11 times.
Lewis finished his stellar career with 2,643 career tackles, 41 1/2 sacks, 31 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries and 120 pass deflections.
Lewis recently celebrated his 38th birthday and is now a football analyst for ESPN.
"The game is built around linebackers, and Ray Lewis is one of the best," Huff, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker, said when Lewis announced his retirement. "His attitude was like mine, he loved to hit people, and he wouldn't come out of the game. Like me, he set the standard for middle linebackers, but he played longer than most. He was special."
Some of the notable mementos from Lewis' career are already in the Hall's collection of memorabilia, waiting for him to join them. That includes Lewis' Super Bowl XXXV Most Valuable Player jersey, a signed game ball from that victory over the New York Giants and the cleats and gloves he wore on Oct. 16, 2011, when he became the first NFL player to register 40 career sacks and 30 interceptions.
"Ray Lewis became not only the face of the Ravens organization, but, with Ray as their centerpiece, he created an identity for the franchise as a defensive team," Hall of Fame vice president Joe Horrigan said. "Like Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Joe Schmidt, Ray was the quarterback of the defense. He earned his teammates' respect and confidence. They believed in him because of his leadership skills and abilities.
"It's always difficult to compare players from different eras, but he was certainly a dominant player. Was he as dominant at his position as Lawrence Taylor? He's certainly right up there. It's hard to imagine him not being in the Hall as soon as he can be, but that's up to the voters."