Saints By Position: Top 5 linebackers in franchise history

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Rickey Jackson

When discussing the best linebackers in New Orleans Saints history and you have just five at the top of the list, you have to start with the greatest linebacker corps in NFL history. That part is easy.

Of course, there have been many good to very good linebackers in the history of the franchise. Some were block-eaters. Some were tackling machines. Some were good in pass coverage. Some were outstanding pass rushers.

Then, there were the few who could do it all and this list encompasses much of that.

Here are my Top 5 linebackers in New Orleans Saints history:

1) Rickey Jackson
2) Sam Mills
3) Pat Swilling
4) Vaughan Johnson
5) Jonathan Vilma

Rickey Jackson was simply one of the very best linebackers in NFL history.

Jackson could do it all.

He was physical against the run. He was outstanding rushing the passer. He was solid in pass coverage.

Jackson played 13 seasons for the New Orleans Saints (1981-93).

Jackson was virtually indestructible.

Even in 1989, when he was in a serious automobile accident which required plastic surgery, Jackson only missed two games and returned with a special helmet and face mask.

Jackson started all 16 games in 10 of his 13 seasons with the Saints.

Jackson was a turnover machine, forcing 38 fumbles, recovering 27 and intercepting seven passes. He led the NFL in forced fumbles in four different seasons and led the league in fumble recoveries with seven in 1990. He added a safety as well.

Jackson started all 195 games he played in, second in franchise history. He is the all-time leader in franchise history in sacks with 115 and he actually had seven more in his rookie season of 1981, when sacks were not an official NFL statistic. Jackson is also the all-time leader in Saints history in tackles with 1,104.

Jackson played in four playoff games with a fumble recovery. He was named first team All-Pro by different entities in 1986, 1987, 1992 and 1993. Jackson made the Pro Bowl in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1992 and 1993.

Jackson was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1997. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Jackson was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 as well.

Sam Mills
Sam Mills

Sam Mills played nine seasons for the Saints (1986-94). He was special, the captain of the defense.

Mills overcame his height (5-9), playing in 133 games and starting 125 for New Orleans. Mills was a tackling machine with 934 tackles, regularly leading the team in that department. Mills added 10.5 sacks. Mills recorded four interceptions with 16 forced fumbles and 17 fumble recoveries.

Mills played in all 16 games seven times. Mills played in four playoff games for the Saints. Mills made four Pro Bowls (1987, 1988, 1991, 1992). Mills made a pair of first team All-Pro teams in both 1991 and 1992.

Mills was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1998. He was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. He was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

Pat Swilling played seven years (1986-92) with the Saints. He played in 107 games, starting 89 and Swilling rose to the very top of his profession in what he did best.

Simply put, Swilling became the most devastating pass rusher off the edge in the NFL in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The proof was evident.

Swilling was a significant piece to the first winning season ever in 1987 and was part of four playoff teams with the Saints.

After playing in all 16 games as a rookie in 1986, Swilling became a full-time starter and blossomed in 1987, recording 10.5 sacks. Over the next six years, Swilling recorded 72.5 sacks.

Swilling was first-team All-Pro in 1991 and 1992. He went to four straight Pro Bowls with the Saints from 1989-92.

In 1989, Swilling had 16.5 sacks, fourth in the league.

In all, Swilling finished with 354 tackles, including 76.5 sacks. Swilling forced 24 fumbles and recovered seven. He added two interceptions, including one for a touchdown in 1991. Swilling played in four playoff games, recording a sack.

In 1991, Swilling led the NFL in sacks with 17, to go along with 60 tackles. He was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year.

Swilling was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2000. He was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Vaughan Johnson played eight seasons for the Saints (1986-93). He was the most physical player at the point of attack on the Saints defense and one of the most physical players in the NFL. When Johnson hit you, it was contact you would not forget and contact you would love to avoid again.

Johnson racked up 664 tackles, including 12 sacks. He forced 11 fumbles and recovered five fumbles. Johnson added four interceptions. Johnson played in 120 games, starting 98.

Johnson played in four playoff games for the Saints and had a fumble recovery. He earned first team All-Pro honors from the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1989 and reached four Pro Bowls, all in consecutive years from 1989-92.

Johnson was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2000. He was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.

Jonathan Vilma played six seasons with New Orleans (2008-13).

He was the leader of a good defense and captained a defense which won Super Bowl XLIV.

Vilma played in 70 games, starting 68. He played in all 16 games in five different seasons. Vilma was in on 439 tackles, including eight sacks. Vilma forced six fumbles and recovered eight fumbles. He intercepted six passes, returning two for touchdowns. He added 21 passes defended. He was fourth in the NFL with four fumble recoveries in 2011.

Vilma played in six playoff games for the Saints and was in on 23 tackles. He forced a fumble, had two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Vilma made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010.

Vilma was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2017.

Joe Federspiel played in 141 games, starting 135 in his 10 seasons with the Saints (1972-81). A hard hitter, Federspiel was the proto-typical inside linebacker. Federspiel had 10 fumble recoveries and five interceptions. Federspiel played in every game in seven different seasons.

Federspiel was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1993.

Honorable mention:

Joe Federspiel
Mark Fields
Scott Fujita
Scott Shanle
Demario Davis

UP next, we will take a look at the best corners in franchise history.

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Ken Trahan

Chief Executive Officer

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…

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