The linebacker position is one of the most iconic in the history of the NFL. The Buffalo Bills, though not associated with some of the all-time greats at the position, have sported a number of excellent linebackers over the years. Some of these players have played from the outside, and others have played from the inside. This latest ‘Top Five’ will encompass the standouts from each that have worn a Bills uniform. Five isn’t a lot and there have been a solid number of worthwhile candidates for this list over the years; however, in the eyes of this writer, the list follows as such.
5. Shane Conlan
Shane Conlan was an inside linebacker for the Bills from the late-‘80s to the early-‘90s. Despite playing just 12 games in the 15-game strike-shortened season of 1987, Conlan was impressive enough to take home the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and be named second-team All-Pro. That season, he put together 114 combined tackles and a forced fumble. In 1991, he posted the highest number of combined tackles in his career with 122.
Conlan was highly sought after coming out of college. He had a remarkable career at Penn State University. So much so that he was the first-round pick of the Bills in the 1987 NFL Draft. His career with the Bills was enough to earn him a spot on the Buffalo Bills 50th Anniversary Team as selected in 2009.
4. Takeo Spikes
Takeo Spikes was an excellent talent. A remarkable athlete to boot, Spikes nonetheless comes in at #4 on this list on account of his having played just 47 games with the Bills. His tenure with Cincinnati was 32-games longer, but the outside linebacker’s best years were in Buffalo. In his Bills career, 2004 stands out. This was the season he led the NFL in interceptions returned for touchdowns. He also had five interceptions overall that season.
Spikes was known throughout his career as a leader of a team. He was a team captain in 13 of his 15 seasons. This includes his four seasons in Buffalo. His tenure featured back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances (’03 and ’04) and a first-team All-Pro selection in ’04. He’ll be remembered as one of the better linebackers of his era.
3. Jim Haslett
Jim Haslett played eight seasons in the NFL, seven of those with the Bills. Haslett was the 1979 Defensive Rookie of the Year, during which he recorded two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and a sack. He’s also an interesting figure in the history of the NFL because of his visibility in the issue of steroid use among players of his era. Unlike many players who tried to avoid the subject, he was open and honest about his use of steroids during his playing days.
Despite this, it’s difficult to question Haslett’s place among linebackers in Bills history. The inside linebacker is certainly among the best in the history of the franchise. These days, he’s known for his coaching. Recently, he was the Inside Linebacker Coach for Tennessee. In 2023, he’s set to become the head coach of Seattle’s XFL team.
2. Cornelius Bennett
The top two on this list are not only the greatest linebackers in the history of the Buffalo Bills franchise, they’re rightly considered among the greatest Bills overall. Cornelius Bennett was an incredible outside linebacker who was a member of the four-time Super Bowl teams. Bennett was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro selection in 1988. During his nine seasons in Buffalo, he recorded 793 combined tackles, 52.5 sacks, 19 fumble recoveries, and 22 forced fumbles.
Bennett was selected to the Buffalo Bills 50th Anniversary Team in 2009 to no one’s surprise. In recent years, he’s sat in on a study of brain injuries in professional football, hoping to help current and future players who deal with football-related cognitive issues. He was also accused of sexual assault in an incident that reportedly occurred in 1992.
1. Mike Stratton
Mike Stratton is the clear number one on this list. Stratton was a member of the back-to-back AFL champion Bills teams of the mid-‘60s. During his tenure in Buffalo—11 of his 12 seasons—he was an All-AFL selection in four consecutive seasons. He also put together 31.5 sacks in those 11 seasons, 21 interceptions, and a safety. Likewise, he was another selection to the Buffalo Bills 50th Anniversary Team.
A 13th-round selection in the 1962 AFL Draft, few imagined that Stratton would become the player he indeed was. These days, he posthumously owns a reputation as one of the greatest Buffalo Bills of all time, a hero of the AFL champion teams, and one of the most underrated linebackers in pro football history.