Ray Lewis: Greatest defensive player ever

January, 2, 2013
1/02/13
2:37
PM ET

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced that he will retire at the end of the season, will leave this game with a lot of titles.

Twelve-time Pro Bowl player. Seven-time All-Pro. Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Super Bowl MVP.

Here's another one that should be added to the list: greatest defensive player in NFL history.

Some will argue for Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Reggie White or Ronnie Lott. What makes Lewis stand above all of them is how he dominated in every facet. While Taylor changed the game in the 1980s, Lewis did the same in this generation with his range, strength, speed and intelligence.

“Everything that starts has an end. It’s just life," Lewis told reporters Wednesday. "And for me, today I told my team that this will be my last ride. I told them I just felt so much peace at where I am with my decision because of everything I’ve done in this league. I’ve done it, man.”

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When it came to the running game, Lewis was fast enough to chase down running backs and physical enough to make them pay when he did. In Lewis' first 16 seasons, Baltimore never allowed more than 3.9 yards per carry.

When it came to the passing game, he was explosive enough to rush the passer and athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends. He's the only player in NFL history to amass 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.

Lewis isn't simply the best defensive player because of his play. What made Lewis special was how he elevated those around him and consistently made the Ravens the most feared defense. Since 1999, in the 11 seasons in which Lewis has played at least 12 games, the Ravens' defense ranked in the top 10 every year, including eight times in the top three. Teams have signed Lewis' teammates to big contracts (Duane Starks, Ed Hartwell, Sam Adams, Bart Scott) in trying to build their defenses, but few have ever played as they did beside him.

It's more than stats that make Lewis the best ever. It's the jaw-dropping memories.

In 1999, Lewis ran down San Diego slot receiver Eric Metcalf from behind from the far side of the field after Metcalf caught a 20-yard pass over the middle in full stride. In the 2000 playoffs, Lewis grabbed a bobbled pass to Eddie George, ripped his leg away from the Titans running back and ran in the interception for the score. In 2008, Lewis ran to the hole and hit Rashard Mendenhall so hard that he fractured the shoulder of the Steelers running back. In 2009, Lewis closed out a win in San Diego with a spectacular fourth-down tackle in which he ran through the line and hit Darren Sproles as soon as he took the handoff.

Lewis beat teams because he was stronger than them. He beat teams because he was faster. And, by the time he reached 30, he beat them by using his head, studying film to the point where he called out the offense's play before the ball was snapped.

Lewis' impact on the game stretches beyond the field. He's been the main reason that four of his defensive coordinators went on to become head coaches: Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
AP Photo/Tom HauckPlays like this hit on Darren Sproles helped define Ray Lewis' career.
What makes Lewis' career reach an epic level is its duration. Mike Singletary retired after 12 seasons with the Bears, before his play declined. The Steelers' Jack Lambert walked away after 11 years because of a severe toe injury. The Bears' Butkus stopped after nine seasons because of knee injuries.

Lewis has been shedding blocks from 300-pound linemen and chasing down 20-something running backs for 17 seasons and 228 games. He's made more tackles (2,050) than many have played snaps for a career. Sure, Lewis wasn't the same linebacker this year that he was five or 10 years ago. But the Ravens wouldn't want anyone else manning the middle of their defense.

"I can't picture Baltimore without him,” running back Ray Rice said. “Baltimore is Ray Lewis."

The Ravens should just put Lewis in the Ring of Honor on Sunday, which is likely his final game in Baltimore. They need to make his No. 52 the first one the franchise will retire. They need to build a statue of Lewis right next to Johnny Unitas' statue outside M&T Bank Stadium.

Lewis' influence goes beyond the Baltimore Inner Harbor. For nearly two decades, defense in the NFL has been synonymous with Lewis. Relentless in the NFL has also been defined by Lewis.

He is coming back 11 weeks removed from a torn triceps, an injury that many believed would end his season. Lewis, though, is coming back for the playoffs and going out on his own terms.

Lewis came into the league as the 26th overall pick in 1996, sliding down the first round because he was considered undersized. Seventeen years later, he leaves the game with a legacy that is larger than life.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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