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Top 10 Defensive Players in NFL History

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

photo by Mr. Schultz, 2007, CC 3.0

While quarterbacks and receivers stole headlines in 2019, defensive players were relegated to the back page. This lesser visibility is no indication of their impact, though. Super Bowl 53 was a prime example, as a meeting of two high-powered offenses turned into a defensive struggle, with the New England Patriots defeating the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. This game showed that defense deserves equal billing with offense, and that it often makes the difference between a championship team and a contender. This has been the case for the first 100 years of the NFL, and it will continue for the next 100. Here is a list of the top ten defensive players in NFL history.

1) Reggie White, DE, 1985-98, 2000

While White is known by many for his prowess as a pass rusher, the Eagles and Packers great was equally effective against both the run and pass. Despite being double and triple teamed by opponents, the “Minister of Defense” amassed 198 sacks and over 1,100 tackles in his Hall of Fame career. The 13-time Pro Bowler was also a force in the postseason with 12 sacks, including a Super Bowl-record three in the Packers 35-21 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl 31. White was also an 8-time All-Pro, and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 with the Eagles and 1998 with the Packers, the only player to win the award with two different teams.

2) Lawrence Taylor, OLB, 1981-93

Taylor was a disruptive force from the start, winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year his first two seasons (1981-82). His combination of speed, strength, athleticism and a non-stop motor changed the way offenses blocked linebackers. In 1986, Taylor won his third Defensive Player of the Year award, leading the league with 20.5 sacks and leading the Giants to the first of two Super Bowl wins during his Hall of Fame career. L.T. finished his career with 132.5 sacks, 10 Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro selections.

3) Ronnie Lott, CB/S, 1981-94

Lott is arguably the greatest safety in NFL history, but many forget that he was also a Pro Bowl cornerback his first four seasons. His coverage ability, ball skills and fierceness as a tackler made the Hall of Famer one of the most versatile and gifted defensive players ever. The 10-time Pro Bowler and 6-time All-Pro finished his career with 63 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries and over 1,100 tackles. Lott’s NFL-record nine postseason interceptions helped lead the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins in the 1980s.

4) Joe Greene, DT, 1969-81

“Mean” Joe Greene was the cornerstone of Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” defense in the 1970s. His domination on the field and his leadership in the locker room put the Steelers at the top of the defensive rankings throughout the decade, and more importantly, helped them win four Super Bowls. As if his size, strength and athleticism were not enough, Greene developed the new tactic of lining up at a sharp angle between guard and center, making it even more difficult for opposing teams to handle the Steelers defense. The Hall of Famer was a 10-time Pro Bowler, and the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 74.

5) Deacon Jones, DE, 1961-74

Even though the quarterback sack didn’t become an official statistic until 1982, Jones was responsible for coining the term in the 1960s. He was also responsible for revolutionizing the pass rush. The Hall of Famer not only used his speed and agility to routinely beat offensive linemen, he was also the first to utilize the head slap and swim move successfully. Unofficial estimates have the 8-time Pro Bowler with 173.5 sacks in 191 career games. This includes 20 or more in three seasons, which would be an NFL record.

6) Ray Lewis, MLB, 1996-2012

Lewis was one of the most prolific defenders in NFL history. The Hall of Famer is the only player to record more than 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career, with 41.5 and 31 respectively. The 13-time Pro Bowler and 7-time All-Pro also recorded over 2,000 tackles and 20 fumble recoveries in his 17 seasons. In addition to being a gifted athlete, Lewis’s unparalleled intensity and leadership skills were instrumental in the Ravens’ 2000 and 2012 Super Bowl championships. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003, and Super Bowl MVP in 2000.

7) Dick “Night Train” Lane, DB, 1952-65

As a cornerback, Lane was a unicorn. He had blazing speed, outstanding ball skills, and was one of the most vicious tacklers the game has ever seen. The Hall of Famer set an NFL record that still stands today with 14 interceptions in his first year. The 7-time Pro Bowler wound up with 68 interceptions for his career, the fourth most all-time. He also brought about several rule changes due to his brutal tackling style, banning the clothesline and prohibiting players from using the facemask to bring down a player. It’s safe to say the NFL will never see a corner like Night Train again.

8) Gino Marchetti, DE, 1952-66

Marchetti was the NFL’s first great pass rushing defensive end. The Hall of Famer terrorized passers throughout the 1950s and 60s with both quickness and technique, the latter developed from his earlier experience as an offensive lineman. Marchetti was an 11-time Pro Bowler and 7-time All-Pro during his 15-year career. He also led the Colts to back to back NFL championships in 1958-59.

9) Bruce Smith, DE, 1985-2003

Smith is the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200, and the leader in most double-digit sack seasons with 13. In the postseason, the Hall of Famer and Bills great had 14.5 sacks, second all-time. But Smith was more than just a pass rusher. He was also known as an elite run-stopper. He had over 1,200 tackles and 43 forced fumbles in his 19-year career. Smith’s accomplishments include 11 Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro selections and two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1990, 96).

10) Dick Butkus, MLB, 1965-73

Butkus was one of the most intense competitors in NFL history. He possessed speed, athleticism and toughness, but it was his intensity and drive that made him arguably the greatest middle linebacker of all-time. Despite being on some bad and mediocre Bears teams, the 8-time Pro Bowler and 5-time All-Pro had an illustrious career, with 22 interceptions, 27 fumble recoveries and 1,020 unofficial tackles. Perhaps most appropriately, Butkus was named the most feared tackler of all-time by the NFL Network in 2009.

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