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Pro Frogs: The Top 3 NFL Linebackers Produced by TCU

TCU’s linebackers were some of the more disruptive defenders during their time in the NFL

Chicago Bears vs New York Jets - December 14, 1985
 Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (34) runs by New York Jets linebacker Kyle Clifton and through the rest of the defense during a 19-6 Bears victory on December 14, 1985, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Photo by Ali A. Jorge/Getty Images

This year won’t soon be forgotten for a variety of reasons, and that rings true for TCU Football. Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs saw two players selected in the first round for only the second time in program history and the first time since 1939.Wide receiver Jalen Reagor was picked 21st overall by the Eagles and cornerback Jeff Gladney picked 31st overall by the Vikings. In 1939, TCU’s head coach was the legendary Dutch Meyer, a two-time national champion who is known today in Fort Worth for being the namesake of an excellent burger joint on South University Drive.

Rounds two and three made more history. TCU had two more players come off the board: defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, picked 40th overall by the Houston Texans and offensive tackle Lucas Niang was picked 96th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs. The 2020 Draft became the first time TCU saw four players drafted in the top three rounds.

Given that history, it only makes sense to look back at the best NFL players the Horned Frogs have produced to this point at each position.

After taking a look at Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Running Backs and Offensive Tackles, the focus turns to linebackers. The Horned Frogs linebacker position includes one of the New York Jets’ finest, one of the Oilers’ ringleaders during their “House of Pain” era, and one of the more disruptive defenders of the early 2010’s. Not bad for a small school in Fort Worth, Texas.

1. Kyle Clifton

Chicago Bears vs New York Jets - December 14, 1985
Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (34) runs by New York Jets linebacker Kyle Clifton and through the rest of the defense during a 19-6 Bears victory on December 14, 1985, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Photo by Ali A. Jorge/Getty Images

Resume:

- Led NFL in tackles 3 times (1985-1986 & 1988)

- Drafted 64th overall in the 3rd round by the Jets in the 1984 NFL Draft

- Played 13 seasons with the Jets (1984-1996)

Career Numbers:

- Played in 204 games and started in 149 of them

- 1,468 tackles (Most in Jets history)

- 15 fumbles recovered and 13 fumbles forced

- 12 interceptions and 5.5 sacks

Kyle Clifton was teammates with defensive lineman Greg Townsend, the second-best NFL defensive lineman to come out of TCU in two of first three seasons playing for the Horned Frogs, but that strong front seven combination had little effect on the overall success in Fort Worth. TCU went 6-23-4 in Clifton’s three collegiate seasons, causing him to last until the second pick of the third round by the New York Jets. Gang Green started off strong, winning six of the first eight games of Clifton’s career before fading in the second half of the season, winning just one of their final eight games.

However, once Clifton became a regular starter in Years 2 and 3, the Jets took flight. New York had the third-best scoring defense in the NFL in 1985 (16.5 points per game allowed) while ranking in the top ten in takeaways (T-7th in NFL with 42 takeaways while Clifton led the NFL with 160 tackles. An 11-5 record that year led them to a WIld Card showdown with their rival Patriots where Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien couldn’t keep up with the Patriots offensive attack led by quarterback Tony Eason as the Jets’ 1985 season was grounded in the first round with a 26-14 defeat.

Despite Clifton recording a career-high 174 tackles in 1986, which led the NFL once again, the defense as a whole took a step back, averaging 7.6 more points per game (24.1, 22nd in NFL) with the NFL’s worst pass defense (274.3 pass yards per game allowed) as the main culprit for the slide. Having the sixth-best run defense (103.8 rush yards per game allowed) while still creating takeaways (38 takeaways, T-10th in NFL) added up to just one fewer win as they went 10-6. With quarterback Pat Ryan piloting the Jets offense, New York pummeled the Chiefs 35-15 for their only playoff win of Clifton’s career.

After losing a heartbreaker the next week, a 23-20 divisional round playoff defeat in overtime against the Browns, the Jets would make the playoffs one more time in 1991, but they did not advance past the opening weekend. Clifton’s longevity (NFL starting linebacker for 10 of his 13 seasons) and productivity in being a key piece of Jets’ defenses that led the team to multiple playoff appearances make him the best NFL linebacker TCU has produced.

2. Robert Lyles

Oilers V Bills
Oilers linebacker Robert Lyles hits Bills quarterback Jim Kelly as he looks downfield.
Getty Images

Resume:

- Drafted 114th overall in the 4th round by the Oilers in the 1984 NFL Draft

- Played 8 seasons with the Oilers (1984-1990) and Falcons (1990-1991)

Career Numbers:

- Started 100 of 109 career games

- 10 interceptions, 8 fumble recoveries, and 10.0 sacks

From 1987 to 1993, the Houston Oilers went 43-12 (.792 win percentage) at home in the Astrodome, making them the second-best home team in the NFL behind the Buffalo Bills who were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. A key source of that success was their punishing defense that forced 261 takeaways in that span (fifth-most in the NFL), 298 sacks (7th in the NFL), and allowed just 100.3 rushing yards per game (4th-fewest in the NFL).

TCU alum and Oilers linebacker Robert Lyles came up with the phrase “Welcome to the House of Pain,” at the coin toss of a 1987 game against the according to the Los Angeles Times. Lyles was one of the Oilers’ primary starters at linebacker during five of his seven seasons in Houston, helping establish the hard-hitting, intimidating culture that powered the team in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Having a Hall of Fame quarterback like Warren Moon certainly helped, but his best seasons (1991 and 1992) occurred when Lyles was a member of the Atlanta Falcons (1991) or retired (1992-present). Even though the Oilers couldn’t quite breakthrough and reach a conference championship game, the Oilers were one of the most memorable teams of the 80’s, and Lyles was a big reason why.

3. Daryl Washington

Arizona Cardinals v Jacksonville Jaguars
JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 17: Maurice Jones-Drew #32 of the Jacksonville Jaguars is tackled by Daryl Washington #58 of the Arizona Cardinals at EverBank Field on November 17, 2013 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Resume:

- 2012 Pro Bowl Selection

- Drafted 47th overall in the 2nd round by the Cardinals in the 2010 NFL Draft

- Played in 4 seasons with the Cardinals (2010-2013)

Career Numbers:

- Started 53 of 59 career games

- 390 tackles, 18.0 sacks, 33 QB hits, 47 TFL, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recoveries

- 6 interceptions and 24 passes defensed

Daryl Washington’s career was brilliant yet brief due to off-field incidents. TCU Head Football Coach Gary Patterson likely uses Washington’s career as a cautionary tale for current players, despite his on-field production. Washington was an All-American his final season at TCU in 2009, a significant part of a Horned Frogs defense that allowed just 12.8 points per game, the sixth-fewest in the entire country. That defense and their top-five offense (38.3 points per game) led by quarterback Andy Dalton went undefeated in the regular season before losing 17-10 in the Fiesta against Boise State who had the highest-scoring offense in the country (42.2 points per game) led by quarterback Kellen Moore, Dalton’s current boss as the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cardinals traded two draft picks (their second and third round picks) to the Patriots in order to climb 11 spots in the second round to draft Washington. He quickly became a key contributor to the Cardinals defense, starting 11 games his rookie year, but his next two seasons got him paid. Washington totaled 31 tackles for loss (sixth-most in the NFL) from 2011 to 2012, and the only players who had more than him were a who’s who of the NFL’s best defensive players at the time with some of them still around today: J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Jared Allen, Jason Pierre-Paul, and DeMarcus Ware. Arizona rewarded Washington’s only Pro Bowl season (2012) with a six-year contract extension with two years remaining on his rookie deal, but once he got paid, he was never the same.

Washington was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse in April of 2013, he was arrested on assault charges after an argument with an ex-girlfriend in May of 2013, and he pled guilty to aggravated assault (given one year of supervised probation) in April of 2014. Washington was indefinitely suspended by the NFL for another violation of their substance abuse policy in addition to the legal issues until 2017 when he was reinstated. The Cardinals quickly released him, and he hasn’t played in the NFL since. The only Pro Bowl selection on this list couldn’t keep his life together off the field, which harmed his tantalizing potential on the field.