Lewis injury could end great career but is he the greatest MLB?

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Lewis injury could end great career but is he the greatest MLB?

The right-triceps tear that ended Ray Lewis season could also mark the end of a career that will place him in the highest level of inside linebackers, of players, period, in the history of football.

But how highest?

CSNChicago.com operatives have seen linebackers play since the very early 1960s and evaluated available film of others before that. From that a top-five list of the greats, with Lewis finishing, well, check out the list. And yes, two of the top three middle linebackers of all time played in Chicago.

A qualifier: Understand that the middle linebacker position really didn't come into true existence until Bill George stood up from his nose-guard position and started looking around. So the sample size for MLBs in particular is necessarily smaller than the overall pool of linebackers.

The runners-up: Chuck Bednariik (saw him play in my first-ever live football game; thanks, Dad), Bill George, Sam Huff, Ray Nitscke, Chuck Schmidt, Mike Singletary

5. Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh

No way to argue with the rings. A lot of hype but when you watched closely and often, this was the ignition key behind Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White. Singletarys eyes were a force but the edge goes to Lamberts teeth. Or lack of same.

4. Willie Lanier, Kansas City Chiefs

Lanier was a centerpiece in one of the great defenses of all time, a member of Chiefs team won the fourth Super Bowl. Lanier had the benefit of playing behind tackles Buck Buchanan and Curly Culp but he also intercepted 27 passes in a 10-year career.

He played at 6-1, 245 pounds, about the same size as Lewis. He was nothing less than one of the best football players on a championship team.

Lanier had the misfortune of playing in the time of Jack Lambert, who was piling up rings and getting more acclaim. He shouldnt have. Lanier was better.

3. Brian Urlacher

Urlacher stands as one of the more polarizing parts of any discussion of great linebackers. One national media outlet pegged him as the most overrated player in the NFL; others rated him the best in the game, evidenced by his selection as Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and fourth-place in 2006.

Consider this: In the defensive schemes of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, based on front-four mastodons keeping offensive linemen controlled, Urlacher piled up 116 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions in 2001.

When Ted Washington was hurt most of 2002, Urlacher was exposed: 151 tackles, four-and-a-half sacks, seven passes broken up.

Along comes Lovie Smith and a scheme based on small, fast defensive linemen no bigger than Tommie Harris 290 for the most part. In 2005, Urlacher is Player of the Year with 121 tackles, six sacks, five passes broken up.

Where Urlacher loses style points is that he has never played with the Neanderthal gene. A lasting image of Urlacher is the laughing inside the helmet; he had some fun.

Urlacher in 2001 was running down Michael Vick (short distance). He was fast enough to spy Vick and Daunte Culpepper.

And as one longtime NFL personnel executive said in support of the ranking: If youre drafting, do you take Lanier or Urlacher? 54 was a freak.

He is also the third-greatest linebacker ever to play the game.

2 Dick Butkus
1. Ray Lewis

An incredibly close call between 51 and 52. I initially placed Butkus above Lewis, a tipping point being Butkus abilities in coverage. He played at close to Lewis 245 pounds but had a couple of inches on Lewis at 6-3.

Both defined not just the ferocity of their eras; anyone can scream and be nasty. They epitomized excellence at the game.

Its difficult to put Butkus in some sort of understandable context. In 1967 he had 18 sacks, according to one study of film from before sacks were an official stat. He had five interceptions his 1965 rookie year and had 22 for his career, tied for 11th all-time in franchise history.

But Lewis willed the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win with quarterback Trent Dilfer in the role of Bill Wade as caretaker. And Lewis has 31 career interceptions plus more than 40 career sacks.

And heres the thing: Lewis was in his 17th NFL season this year. Butkus had considerably less in front of him than Lewis (no Haloti Ngata, no Tony Siragusa, to name a couple) but he also was only able to get through nine seasons before the knee injuries finished him. Lewis didnt have to contend with the crack-back blocks of Butkus era but to be as good as Lewis iswas for all these years

Ray Lewis is simply the best linebacker the NFL has ever seen.

Rule 5 pick Dylan Covey takes advantage of showcase as White Sox down Indians

Rule 5 pick Dylan Covey takes advantage of showcase as White Sox down Indians

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — If Carlos Rodon starts on the disabled list as expected, the White Sox won't turn to any of their vaunted top prospects in the interim.

The news on Rodon has been encouraging so far as no structural damage has been discovered. Still, the White Sox won't clear Rodon until after he receives a second opinion on Monday. While the length of Rodon's absence won't be determined for several days, the White Sox are certain of one route they won't take — they don't want to disrupt the development of their young starting pitchers. Were a DL trip for Rodon necessary, the White Sox would likely select either Saturday's starter, Dylan Covey, or minor leaguer David Holmberg over their top prospects. Covey made a strong impression on Saturday afternoon with 3 2/3 scoreless innings pitched and the White Sox rallied for a 10-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Goodyear Ballpark.

"When you have an opportunity to stabilize action or movement for players it serves them better," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "They get a little more comfortable where they're at. They get comfortable with the staffs they're working with and the information they're gathering, being in a routine. It is a little disruptive going from team to team to team. It happens, but it's not the most conducive (to learning)."

The White Sox are all about development this season. Therefore, they have no plans to call upon Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer or Michael Kopech unless they're A) ready and B) throwing every fifth day in Chicago. Renteria's comments Saturday reiterated Rick Hahn's earlier message, saying the club doesn't want to disrupt the development path.

That puts Covey, a Rule 5 draft pick in December, with a decent opportunity to make the club out of camp. Covey commanded the strike zone on Saturday only hours after Renteria said he hoped to see the young right-hander replicate an Arizona Fall League performance that initially warmed the White Sox up to him.

Aside from a two-out walk in his final inning, Covey was sharp the whole way. He allowed three hits and struck out three.

"My last couple of outings I was definitely feeling the stress," Covey said. "I was kind of pitching a little passive, pitching to not make a mistake instead of just going right after guys. So today and yesterday I just thought I'm just going to throw every pitch with conviction and see what happens. I got a lot of weak contact today and some swings and misses, so I felt good."

Covey threw 44 pitches, 27 for strikes. He potentially could stay in Arizona on Thursday and make an additional minor league start to build arm strength, which would get him to roughly 60 pitches before the regular seasons started.

The White Sox don't officially need a fifth starter until April 9 and they're off the following day. That break could allow the White Sox to start Covey as part of a bullpen day. Covey said he recently changed his mindset after lackluster results in relief this spring. The right-hander has a 6.94 ERA this spring in 11 2/3 innings.

"Obviously my last two outings out of the pen I wasn't getting crushed, but I just wasn't commanding the ball or commanding the count as much as I would like to be," Covey said. "The mistakes get hit a little harder when you're falling behind in the count. Today I wanted to have the mindset of attacking hitters, throwing everything down in the zone and going right after them, and it worked out."

The White Sox blasted six home runs in the contest, including a majestic, go-ahead grand slam by first baseman Danny Hayes in the top of the ninth inning. Hayes is hitting .351/.400/.595 with two homers and is tied for the team lead with 13 RBIs this spring. Jose Abreu, Nick Delmonico, Cody Asche, Everth Cabrera and Jacob May also homered for the White Sox. 

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."