Want to see more articles like this one? Check out our article on the top 50 NFL players of all time to see more rankings like this one. As much as statistics do matter to player rankings, there are a few players that do not get credited with the defensive stats that were not recorded before the 1980s. Here, I look for some of the best defensive athletes and minds the NFL has ever seen that transcended the game for players to come.
1. Lawrence Taylor
I could probably write a whole book about Lawrence Taylor, the man who inspired the position of outside linebacker in his 13 seasons with the New York Giants. In his career LT had 1,088 tackles, 33 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, and nine interceptions. Lawrence Taylor also has three defensive player of the year awards, two super bowl rings, and is one of two defensive players ever to win the league MVP. In 1986, he had his best season with 20.5 sacks, which is 1.5 off the NFL season sack record, 105 tackles, and two forced fumbles. His highlights will make you awe at his versatility as an outside linebacker. He could rush off the edge, make interceptions, force fumbles, and make tackles from across the field. My favorite trait of his had a simple mindset to the game of football. In one interview, he said, “When in doubt, I just rush the quarterback.” Lawrence Taylor truly was a phenom of defensive football by making the outside linebacker position one of the most important in the NFL. He changed the game of football by using his brute and raw power and speed to become one of the best NFL players and defenders to ever play the game.
2. Reggie White
Reggie White played 15 seasons in the NFL where he had 198 career sacks (second all-time), 33 forced fumbles, three interceptions, and two touchdowns. Known as the “Minister of Defense,” both because of his dedication to the baptist church and for his godly talent to play defensive end, Reggie White is one of the best defensive players of all time. Quarterbacks were afraid to play against him because of his ability to hit hard and barrel through offensive lines. Teams in the NFL during his time constantly changed their offensive plans due to his presence on the field. Reggie White is one of the most skilled defensive linemen to ever play in the NFL because of his patience, vision, and IQ. In 1987, White recorded 21 sacks that season, which is just one off of the NFL record today. While with the Philadelphia Eagles, he averaged over a sack a game by using his intelligence and physical strength. After his career with the Eagles, he won a super bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1997. Reggie White is one of the most renowned players to ever play in the NFL and one of the best defensive players to ever play.
3. Joe Greene
While Joe Greene had an off the field reputation for being a sweet teddy bear personality, especially after his trademark CocaCola commercial, do not let that fool you. “Mean” Joe Greene was one of the toughest and meanest players on the field. Known for having some of the hardest hits and constantly hitting guys after the whistle, Joe Greene wanted to hurt people on the field. Without having many recorded personal statistics in the 1970s, Joe Greene lead one of the best NFL defenses to four super bowl wins. Behind the infamous “Steel Curtain” defensive lines, and greatest cornerback to ever play Rod Woodson, the Pittsburgh Steelers let it be known they had an aggressive and intimidating defense. Joe Greene was a strong and forceful defensive lineman that would look like a bear by jumping on players and bulldozing through others to get to the quarterback. But, he was also one of the most effective players to use the spin move on the defensive line. Joe Greene is certainly one of the great defensive archetypes of the NFL’s history.
4. Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders is not only one of the best NFL defensive players to play the game, but arguably one of the best athletes in the NFL. “Primetime” Deion Sanders was one of the best defenders in the league recording 53 career interceptions, 513 tackles, #4 all-time 1,331 interception yards, and 22 career touchdowns. There are two iconic statistics here about Deion Sanders: career interception yards and career touchdowns. Deion Sanders and the Falcons were notorious for intercepting the ball with their great secondary and lateraling the ball back to Deion Sanders to run the ball back. Most teams would take the interception and knee the ball down to let their offense take the field, but not Deion Sanders’ Atlanta Falcons. The best quality about Deion Sanders also has to be his versatile athleticism. His 22 career touchdowns came from interceptions, fumble recoveries, punt returns, kick returns, and receiving. Deion is one of the only NFL athletes that could truly play both sides of the ball with success. Not to mention, he had a solid career in the MLB, also making him the only player to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series. His confidence to celebrate while running to the end zone for a pick-six made him one of the most iconic and memorable players to play in the NFL. Deion changed the game of football by demonstrating his true ability to be a threat anywhere on the field. He is one of the most remarkable players to ever play in the NFL.
5. Ronnie Lott
In 14 seasons in the NFL, Ronnie Lott had 1,146 tackles, 63 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries, and five touchdowns. Ronnie Lott does not have the best statistics, but his skill and athleticism make him one of the best defensive players to play in the NFL. He is one of the smartest and most physical defensive backs to ever play in the NFL. Moreover, the biggest trait was his toughness and dedication to play football. In 1986, Ronnie Lott had his pinky finger amputated so that he could eliminate the extensive time needed to reconstruct his finger with surgery. His toughness and love for the game of football are extremely inspiring along with his IQ and athletic ability at any defensive back position.
6. Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis played a franchise-record 17 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and recorded over 2,000 career tackles (including assisted), an NFL record 1,568 solo career tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, and 19 forced fumbles. While he has the most career tackles ever recorded in the NFL, he is also second all-time in single-season tackles with 131. Not only was Ray Lewis one of the most physical and athletic defensive players to ever play, but he was also one of the best leaders in NFL history. Known for his pregame motivational speeches and positivity, Ray Lewis lead the Ravens’ defense to two super bowl wins and got himself a super bowl MVP and two defensive player of the year awards. He was arguably the most well rounded middle linebacker, with his ability to read the offensive plays of his opponents and perfectly time tackles and sacks. Ray Lewis will forever be remembered as one of the best defensive players in the NFL because of his physical and mental strength.
7. Rod Woodson
It would be a shame for me not to mention Rod Woodson as one of the best NFL defenders based on his career rankings alone. He is first in career defensive touchdowns, first in career interceptions for touchdowns, second in interception yards, and third in career interceptions. Rod Woodson was another all-star athlete playing successfully at cornerback, free safety, and strong safety from 1987-2003. With the Pittsburgh Steelers behind the steel curtain defensive line, he racked up 38 interceptions in 10 seasons with the Steelers to get him a defensive player of the year award in 1993. Woodson’s chaotic and fearless mentality made him an iconic defender in the NFL with the ability to intercept the ball, blitz the quarterback, and make hard-hitting tackles. At one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL, Rod Woodson made it look easy against his opponents. He changed the game at the defensive back position and inspired athletes to be fearless and confident defenders in the NFL.
8. Dick Butkus
Known for one of the best franchise defenses in the NFL, Dick Butkus created the nasty and aggressive defensive playing styles for the Chicago Bears. Even as a biased Chicago Bears fan, I would be remiss not to include him in the top ten best defensive players to ever play in the NFL. The legend of Chicago was ironically one of the most determined and passionate athletes to play in the NFL considering he had only been a part of two winning teams in his career. In 1969, Butkus won defensive player of the year after his team had only won one game that season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was one of the meanest and most intimidating players to ever play in the NFL. Trademarked as the “Monster of the Midway,” he truly inspired the defensive culture of the Chicago Bears for years to come with players like Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. His play style and attitude towards the game of football is inspiring to all athletes because he showed his ability to care and play hard no matter the circumstance, making him one of the best defensive players of all time.
9. Bruce Smith
In his 19 year career in the NFL, Bruce Smith recorded an NFL career record 200 sacks, two interceptions, and 46 forced fumbles. Bruce Smith was a two time defensive player of the year in the NFL in 1990 and 1996. He played on the memorable 1990s Buffalo Bills team that made it to the super bowl for four straight years, never having actually won one. However, the dominance of that team and its defense, lead by Bruce Smith, will not go unforgotten. Bruce was one of the best one-on-one defensive ends to ever play in the NFL. His 360 spin move made him a problem for any opposing team’s run game. Bruce was one of the quickest defensive ends and was able to make tackles across the field and bring down his opponents for loss of yardage many times. His fun-loving attitude towards football and sheer athleticism made him a joy to watch play on the field and one of the best defensive players to ever play.
10. Ed Reed
As close as this argument may be, Ed Reed deserves to be on the top ten list for his impressive highlights and statistics at the safety position. Ed Reed played 12 seasons in the NFL, 11 of them with the Baltimore Ravens. In his career, he had 643 tackles, 139 defended passes, 64 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, and 9 defensive touchdowns. He holds the NFL record for most interception yards with 1,590 yards, and the longest interception return of 107 yards. His speed and agility made him one of the best to ever play the safety position in the NFL. He was a defensive player of the year in 2004 and helped the Ravens win a super bowl in 2012 alongside Ray Lewis. While Ed Reed played in the shadows of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, he is truly one of the best defensive players to play in the NFL by creating a legendary career at the safety position.
- Who has the most career interceptions? Season?
- Who has the most career tackles? Season?
- Who has the most career sacks? Season?
- What defensive player has the most defensive player of the year awards?
- What defensive player has won the most super bowls?
Paul Krause of the Minnesota Vikings has the most career interceptions with an impressive 80. The most in a season were Night Train Lane in his rookie season in 1952 with 14 interceptions. Both statistics while impressive, their careers do not hold up to be selected into the top ten ever in the NFL
Ray Lewis has the most career tackles with 1,568 during his time with the Baltimore Ravens. The most tackles in a single season were by Patrick Lewis with 136. Trailing right behind him was Ray Lewis with 130 tackles.
The most career sacks recorded in the NFL was by Bruce Smith with an astounding 200 with the Buffalo Bills. The most ever recorded in a single season was by Michael Strahan with 22 sacks with the New York Giants.
Lawrence Taylor and J.J Watt have both won the defensive player of the year award three times in their career. Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Aaron Donald, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis are the only players to win it twice. Lawrence Taylor is the only player to have won it as a rookie.
Charles Haley has won five super bowls in his career as a linebacker. He won two with the San Francisco 49ers in his first time there, and three with Dallas Cowboys.