The 20 best linebackers in the history of the San Francisco 49ers

From Hall of Famers like Dave Wilcox, Patrick Willis and Charles Haley, to current stars like Fred Warner, the 49ers have been graced with some excellent linebacker play over the years.
San Francisco 49ers linebackers NaVorro Bowman (L) and Patrick Willis (R)
San Francisco 49ers linebackers NaVorro Bowman (L) and Patrick Willis (R) / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

The 49ers have had some of the greatest linebackers, both on the inside and outside, in NFL history.

The NFL's evolution over the years has impacted plenty of positions, but few have seen the radical changes that have beset linebackers.

For decades, linebackers were the second line of defense, responsible for providing support against the run or merely rushing the passer from the outside, and occasionally doubling in coverage against opponents' tight ends and running backs when they'd infrequently be called upon in the passing game.

In recent years, however, a pass-happy NFL has required linebackers to become much more of a hybrid type: a pass-rushing and run-stopping force who possesses the coverage skills of a safety.

Yet there are still different types of linebackers. On the inside, the aforementioned descriptions still carry a lot of weight, while outside backers can still be responsible for coverage but often are much more specialized to rush the passer.

Fortunately for the San Francisco 49ers, they've had plenty of greats in both categories.

Since their inception in 1946, the Niners have watched plenty of iconic linebackers don the red and gold. From Hall of Famers to current greats, there are plenty who deserve recognition.

But, using a combination of statistics, individual awards and overall impact, these are the 20 best in San Francisco's storied history.

49ers' 20 best linebackers in franchise history

Admittingly, it's tough leaving edge rusher Aldon Smith off this list, particularly after he burst onto the scene in 2011 with 14 sacks his rookie year and finished second in voting for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award before nearly breaking the single-season sack record a year later with 19.5.

Unfortunately for Smith, his tenure with the 49ers declined quickly after that, particularly due to off-field reasons, yet he still deserves an honorable mention.

So does Tim Harris, who had two two-year stints with the Niners but nevertheless had 26 sacks during the first half of the 1990s.

No. 20: Jeff Ulbrich (2000-2009)

Jeff Ulbrich was an underappreciated player who mostly spent his time playing on some bad San Francisco teams during the mid 2000s, but he was nevertheless one of a few bright spots amid years most fans would like to forget.

Over his entire 49ers tenure, which lasted form 2000 until he called it quits in 2009, Ulbrich amassed 501 tackles and 13 passes broken up while playing alongside a few other names on this list.

One of them, Patrick Willis, eventually pushed Ulbrich out of a starting job for good in 2007, but Ulbrich took the news with class and still managed to contribute in other ways for three more seasons.

No. 19: Riki Ellison (1983-1989)

When thinking of those all-time great Niners teams of the 1990s, Riki Ellison typically isn't a name that comes to mind.

But the five-year starter who emerged as the first New Zealander to both play in the NFL and win a Super Bowl, doing so a total of three times with San Francisco.

As a fifth-round pick of the 1983 NFL Draft, Ellison was a first-year starter and played a total of 80 games for the 49ers, starting 77 of them before suffering a broken arm in the 1989 preseason that all but ended his Niners tenure.

Ellison would then finish his pro career with the Los Angeles Raiders.

No. 18: Bill Romanowski (1988-1993)

Bill Romanowski didn't truly become an NFL star until after he left San Francisco in 1994, eventually becoming a household name of two Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos teams.

Yet Romanowski still left an indelible mark on the 49ers after they selected him in Round 3 of the 1988 draft out of Boston College.

Part of two other Super Bowl Niners teams, Romanowski was a part-time starter for his first two years before fully assuming the No. 1 spot on the depth chart in 1990. Then, in 1993, he set a career best with 104 tackles.

His 445 solo tackles currently rank ninth on the franchise's all-time list.

No. 17: Willie Harper (1973-1983)

Not unlike Ulbrich, Willie Harper spent the bulk of his career playing on some notably bad San Francisco teams but finally was rewarded with a Super Bowl ring when the franchise won its first championship at the end of the 1981 season.

Harper, who was still starting at that point despite being on the wrong side of 30 years old, was phased out after 1983 but still continued to play in the USFL.

Starting 100 games out of a possible 134 during his NFL tenure, Harper helped bridge the gap into the 49ers' dynasty years and deserves recognition for it.

No. 16: Mike Walter (1984-1993)

In 1984, Harper was out, and Mike Walter was coming in, albeit in a unique way.

The year prior, Walter had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in Round 2 but was ultimately waived a year later after struggling in pass coverage. Not long thereafter, the Niners signed him to help fill the void left by Harper.

Granted, Walter didn't make much of an impact during that special 1984 season in which San Francisco secured its second Super Bowl. But he'd eventually turn into a full-time starter for some of the greatest 49ers teams in franchise history, securing two more Super Bowl wins in the process.

From 1987 through 1989, Walter would lead the Niners in tackles before eventually giving way to another star on this list, Ken Norton Jr., in 1994.

No. 15: Derek Smith (2001-2007)

Ulbrich might have been a decent linebacker, but his partner in crime, Derek Smith, was by far the superior player.

Coming over from the Washington Redskins where he already established himself as a quality starter, Smith, too, would be overshadowed by playing on some bad San Francisco teams during the mid-2000s.

Perhaps that negated any chance he had at securing Pro Bowl votes, but from 2001 through 2005, Smith was easily above 100 tackles per season while also mixing things up in both pass coverage and in the pass-rush department.

If there are any doubts about Smith's placement here, his 521 solo tackles (fifth most in 49ers history) should erase them.

No. 14: Dre Greenlaw (2019-current)

They might not be the best one-two linebacker combo in Niners history, but the tandem of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw is assuredly close to the top.

Yes, Greenlaw is overshadowed by his perennial All-Pro teammate, but that doesn't remove the fact the former has been a vital part of a resurgent Niners defense since joining their ranks as a fifth-round draftee back in 2019.

Injuries have cut into Greenlaw's young career multiple times, including a torn Achilles suffered in Super Bowl LVIII. And he also missed all but three games back in 2021, too.

However, after recording more than 120 tackles between 2022 and 2023 while also serving as one of the NFL's best coverage backers, it's anyone's guess why Greenlaw has yet to receive a Pro Bowl nomination.

Perhaps that changes soon.

No. 13: Skip Vanderbundt (1969-1977)

In some ways, Skip Vanderbundt was a foreshadowing of the kind of linebackers who'd grace NFL ranks in future decades.

For much of the 1970s, Vanderbundt patrolled the second level of San Francisco's defense, not only serving as a willing tackler but also in pass coverage, recording an impressive 14 interceptions during his nine-year 49ers career.

The Northern California native, who played his college ball at Oregon State, ended up starting right after the Niners selected him in Round 3 of the 1969 NFL Draft, and he would start 100 of the 119 regular-season games he appeared in for San Francisco.

No. 12: Ahmad Brooks (2009-2016)

Overshadowed by many of the other stud defenders the 49ers had on their roster during the early 2010s, Ahmad Brooks nevertheless played a critical role for a side of the ball that many fans see as the best Niners defense of the current century.

Playing on the outside in the 3-4 base defense San Francisco deployed at the time, Brooks found his groove in 2011 and was efficient as both a pass-rusher, run stopper and occasional coverage option.

2012 and 2013 were Brooks' best years with the franchise, being named a second-team All-Pro both seasons and earning Pro Bowl honors during that second year after notching career highs in both tackles (60), passes defended (seven) and sacks (8.5).

Unlike many of the 49ers' other stars, Brooks did not join the en masse departure of players that plagued the team in 2015 and stayed with the Niners one more year.

His 51.5 sacks with San Francisco rank eighth in franchise history.

No. 11: Lee Woodall (1994-1999)

While the 1984 and 1989 squads are often viewed as the greatest 49ers teams in history, a number of stout fans believe the 1994 team was the best.

Norton coming aboard was a big reason why, but he was joined by then-rookie Lee Woodall, whom the Niners grabbed in Round 6 in that year's draft. After emerging as a starter in year one, Woodall would be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year, finishing sixth in voting.

Woodall would be overshadowed by Norton, yes. But the former nevertheless carved out a solid six-year career in the Bay Area, earning Pro Bowls in 1995 and 1997 while registering 360 tackles and six forced fumbles during that span.

In 1996, he scooped up a fumble against the Buffalo Bills and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown, one of the many highlights he had during his San Francisco career.

No. 10: Frank Nunley (1967-1976)

Vanderbundt was one of the 49ers' best linebackers during the 1970s, but Frank Nunley was the superior player.

A third-round pick in 1967 out of Michigan, Nunley became a starter in 1969 and then helped the Niners reach three playoff berths in the early 1970s while notching at least one interception every year from 1969 through 1976, something of a rarity for linebackers of that era.

In 1974, Nunley recorded an impressive four picks, which was a career best.

No. 9: Keena Turner (1980-1990)

Those 1980 San Francisco teams boast plenty of legends, and while Keena Turner's name is almost never the first one mentioned when referring to the dynasty years, no fan who witnessed those great 49ers teams would ever discount his efforts on the field.

Particularly in 1984 when Turner earned his first and only Pro Bowl nod on what many consider to be the best defense in Niners history.

That year, Turner earned a career-high four interceptions while anchoring the middle of San Francisco's defense, helping the team win its second Super Bowl.

Overall, Turner spent his entire 11-year career with the 49ers and subsequently joined the franchise in the front office once his playing days were over.

No. 8: Julian Peterson (2000-2005)

Smith and Ulbrich were good linebackers, but no one questioned the fact that Julian Peterson was the star.

Selected at No. 16 overall in the 2000 NFL Draft, Peterson emerged as a starter his second season and became the linchpin of the Niners defense by 2002, securing his first of two Pro Bowls with the franchise and a second-team All-Pro nod. Then, in 2003, he was viewed as the best of the best, earning a first-team All-Pro accolade after notching 95 tackles, seven sacks, two interceptions and 12 passes broken up.

Injuries derailed much of Peterson's 2004 campaign, unfortunately, and then turbulent years for the franchise led to San Francisco facing some serious salary cap trouble, meaning retaining Peterson after 2005 would be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible.

He subsequently left for the Seattle Seahawks and earned three more Pro Bowls there but not after recording 299 solo tackles, 17th most in 49ers history.

No. 7: Matt Hazeltine (1955-1970)

With little question, Matt Hazeltine was the first truly great linebacker in Niners history.

The fourth-round draft pick out of Cal had a storied 14-year career in which he started 171 out of a possible 176 games played. Had defensive stats been logged like they are now, it's likely Hazeltine would either be at or very near the top of the franchise list in tackles, assists, forced fumbles and sacks.

Hazeltine had 38 sacks for San Francisco, unofficially, and those put him in a tie for 14th most in 49ers history.

On top of that, Hazeltine was twice a second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler (1962 and 1964), and he was also a team captain for five years during his lengthy stay.

Sadly, Hazeltine passed away in 1987 due to ALS.

No. 6: Ken Norton Jr. (1994-2000)

The Niners were sick of losing to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game seemingly every year in the early 1990s, so one of their strategies was to stockpile as much talent as possible to finally turn the page on this perennial outcome.

That included plucking Norton from Dallas in free agency entering 1994.

Norton was good with the Cowboys prior to his Bay Area arrival, but he truly became a star with San Francisco, spending seven years with the team and earning a Pro Bowl twice while securing a first-team All-Pro nod once in 1995, a year in which he was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

He finished his 49ers career with at least 100 tackles three times, and his 549 solo tackles currently sit at No. 3 in team history.

No. 5: Fred Warner (2018-current)

There's a good chance Warner finishes his career as the Niners' best all-time linebacker ever, even though he has some legendary names to surpass.

That said, Warner's trajectory has been nothing short of outstanding.

"All-Pro Fred" is already working his way up San Francisco's all-time lists, and his current 493 tackles (as of the end of 2023) rank seventh in team history. It's possible he sets the franchise record here within two seasons, which is amazing.

As far as individual accolades go, the team captain emerged as a year-one starter after being drafted in Round 3 back in 2018 and has three Pro Bowl nods and three first-team All-Pro selections to his name while regularly being viewed as the NFL's best overall linebacker by multiple outlets.

It's possible, perhaps likely we're viewing a Hall of Famer in the making.

No. 4: NaVorro Bowman (2010-2017)

For a brief time, there was a legitimate argument that NaVorro Bowman, not Willis, was San Francisco's best linebacker. And it made sense, given that Willis was approaching the twilight of his career while dealing with injuries.

Bowman, meanwhile, was on the ascent.

In a classic case of "what could have been?", fans can only wonder if Bowman would have been on a Pro Football Hall of Fame trajectory had it not been for the devastating knee injury suffered in a heartbreaking NFC Championship game loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January of 2014. An Achilles tear in 2016 further derailed Bowman's impact.

Still, Bowman managed to earn four first-team All-Pro selections and three Pro Bowl nods while leading the NFL in tackles in 2015 with 154.

His 527 combined tackles are the fourth most in 49ers history, and many view the tandem of Bowman and Willis as the greatest one-two defensive punch the franchise has ever had.

No. 3: Charles Haley (1986-1991, 1998-1999)

Semantics aside, Hall of Famer Charles Haley could have also doubled on the list of all-time great defensive linemen in Niners history. It would be fair to list him at both positions, but for the sake of clarity, he's one of the franchise's three best linebackers and easily the best pure edge rusher San Francisco has ever had.

Haley was a small-school prospect, taken in Round 4 of the 1986 NFL Draft, but quickly made his impact known by logging 12 sacks his rookie season. Five more excellent campaigns followed in which he recorded double-digit sacks three more times, including a career-best mark of 16.5 in 1990 that helped him secure a first-team All-Pro honor while finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Despite the on-field performance, Haley was controversial within the locker room and reportedly upset the 49ers' biggest star, wide receiver Jerry Rice, which influenced the Niners' decision to trade him to Dallas in 1992.

That move backfired, though, as Haley and the Cowboys tormented San Francisco in the postseason the next two years.

Haley eventually returned to the 49ers in 1998 to close out his NFL career, and his 66.5 sacks with the team rank fourth best in franchise history.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

No. 2: Dave Wilcox (1964-1974)

While the Niners had plenty of good linebackers in the 1960s and 1970s, none came close to matching the overall impact Dave Wilcox had during that timeframe.

Nicknamed "The Intimidator," Wilcox was a Round 3 draft pick in 1964 and became a full-time starter a year later.

Hating to be blocked, Wilcox was a wrecking ball of a player who became a true superstar by 1966, earning the first of an impressive seven Pro Bowls to his name. In 1971 and 1972, during a run when San Francisco was a perennial playoff team, Wilcox secured two first-team All-Pro honors and was even in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.

Known for his durability on the field, Wilcox would spend all 11 of his NFL years with the 49ers and would be enshrined in Canton in 2000 before passing away in 2023.

No. 1: Patrick Willis (2007-2014)

Wilcox is a legend. But even he can't overshadow the greatness that was Willis.

The 11th overall pick of the 2007 draft was an easy choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year that season after leading the NFL in tackles (174), which helped him secure the first in a long line of Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.

Willis was a Pro Bowler every year between 2007 and 2013, and he also took home a whopping five first-team All-Pro accolades during his career. Again in 2009, he led the NFL with 152 tackles and delivered some of the hardest hits any fan ever witnessed on the field.

For much of that stretch, Willis was frequently viewed as the No. 1 linebacker in all of football. After joining forces with Bowman in 2010, many felt the Niners owned the best linebacking duo in NFL history.

It certainly stands as the best one-two punch in franchise lore.

Injuries began to cut into Willis' later years, relegating him to just six games played in 2014 and a premature retirement the following offseason, which shocked fans to the core.

That said, Willis currently stands atop San Francisco's list of all-time tacklers, holding the franchise record with 733 solo tackles.

Rightfully so, the No. 1 linebacker in 49ers history was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2024.

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