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Top 10 Best NFL DBs of All Time: Ranking the Best Defensive Backs in the History of the NFL

Publish Date: 05/17/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Today, we will break down the greatest defensive backs in NFL history. We are combining Safeties and Cornerbacks in one list. That does make it harder to judge, but in the broader view, it gives you more of an authentic look at who the best defensive backs were in NFL history.

Criteria

The main thing I am looking at is what that player brought to the game. Were they game-changers that made the offense try to gameplan around them? How big an impact did they have on the games they played? Were they big game players, or did they shrink under the spotlight? Were they consistent throughout their careers, and could they move around and play more than one position if needed? If you notice, many of these defensive backs were coached by some of the greatest defensive coaches in NFL history.

10) Paul Krause, Vikings

Krause played with the Vikings through 1979. He was among only 11 players to participate in all four Viking Super Bowl appearances (IV, VIII, IX and XI). Krause recorded an interception in Super Bowl IV and recovered a fumble in IX.

Krause was frequently known as the Vikings’ “center fielder” due to his success as an interscholastic baseball player and his ability to collect interceptions.

He currently holds the all-time interception record in the NFL with 81 interceptions returned for 1,185 yards and three touchdowns, setting it against the Los Angeles Rams during an overtime 27-21 loss, setting his 81st interception during the fourth quarter.

  • All-Time Interception Leader 81
  • 8 Time Pro Bowler
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 1998
Video: Paul Krause

Paul Krause

9) Champ Bailey, Broncos

No player has dominated the corner position like Bailey since the turn of the century. The only thing his career is missing is a Super Bowl ring. Bailey was excellent in coverage and was a sure tackler.

In the 2006 and 2009 seasons, Bailey allowed zero touchdown passes caught on him while playing on 98 per cent of all snaps. The competition in this category is tough when Champ Bailey barely cracks the top ten. Bailey was as good as any cover corner that ever lived.

  • 12 Time Pro-Bowler
  • 52 Interceptions
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2019
Video: Champ Bailey Best Season In The NFL

Champ Bailey Best Season In The NFL

8) Mike Haynes, Patriots, Raiders

Haynes formed one of the great cornerback pairings in NFL history alongside Hall-of-Famer Lester Hayes, leading the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl win in 1983.

Haynes took off-the-charts success during his rookie year on defense in New England – picking off eight passes and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after being an unorthodox wide receiver entering college!

Haynes won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1984 after returning six interceptions for 220 yards return. In all, he amassed 46 interceptions during his career – he became one of only six players honored with having their number retired by the Patriots.

  • 9 Time Pro Bowler
  • Super Bowl Champion
  • 46 Interceptions
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 1997
Video: Mike Haynes Highlights

Mike Haynes Highlights

7) Darrell Green, Redskins

Green was the oldest player ever to play as a defensive back, playing 20 years and 295 games before retiring at 42. His 19 straight seasons with at least one interception set an NFL record that will likely stand the test of time; no other player ever managed this feat during their 40s!

Green overcame his smaller frame by excelling in speed and toughness, leading Washington to two Super Bowl championships during the 1980s and earning him recognition as NFL Man of the Year in 1996. Green was also a great punt returner and displayed this to the dismay of the Chicago Bears in the 1987 NFC Divisional playoff game, leading the Redskins to the upset victory.

  • 7 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time Super Bowl Champion
  • 54 Interceptions
  • 20 Straight Years with at least one interception
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2008
Video: Darrell Green Highlights

Darrell Green Highlights

6) Deion Sanders, Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins, Ravens

“Neon Deion,” an incredible speed freak who played both in the NFL and MLB for seven years of his NFL career – first with the Cowboys, then the 49ers – won Super Bowls consecutively!

“Prime Time” Sanders was not only an outstanding cornerback but was also one of two players in NFL history to score touchdowns from six different positions during his career – including nine interceptions returned for touchdowns, six punt returns for touchdowns, three kickoff returns and an interception return; three reception touchdowns, as well as one rushing score, scored while on offense.

His interceptions returned for touchdowns rank among the league’s Top 10, and he ranks fourth for interception return yardage.

  • 8 Time Pro Bowler
  • 2 Time Super Bowl Champion
  • 53 Interceptions
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2011
Video: Deion Sanders GREATEST GAME!!!!

Deion Sanders GREATEST GAME!!!!

5) Ed Reed, Ravens

Reed was known for being one of the hardest-hitting defensive players; as a punter, you knew exactly where he was located. Thanks to his freakish athleticism and strength, Reed could easily block punts.

Reed holds NFL records by blocking four punts and returning three for touchdowns during his career, both feats being accomplished during one season.

Reed ranks in the top ten for defensive touchdowns and interceptions and holds NFL records with his 1,590 interception return yards and nine playoff interceptions – both impressive feats.

Reed led the NFL three times in interceptions and is considered its finest coverage safety ever.

  • 9 Time Pro Bowler
  • Super Bowl Champion
  • 64 Interceptions, 13 Defensive Touchdowns and 11 Forced Fumbles
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2019
Video: Ed Reed ||

Ed Reed || “Lord Knows” || Ravens Career Highlights

4) Dick “Night Train” Lane, Cardinals, Lions

Lane was one of the pioneers of modern cornerback play. His bait-and-switch style would confuse quarterbacks into thinking an open receiver existed when, instead, Lane would be ready for their pass the instant it was released. His combination of coverage skills and hard-hitting was rare in his position and remains unparalleled today.

Nobody may ever top his 14 interceptions as a rookie record, accomplished in just 12 games. With 68 interception picks, he ranks fourth overall and top-10 in interception return yardage; all this happened after going undrafted! Lane was the perfect football player, and yes, he could have played today too.

  • 7 Time Pro Bowler
  • 68 Interceptions
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 1974
Video: Dick

Dick “Night Train” Lane Highlights

3) Mel Blount, Steelers

Blount was a physical force, capable of running with nearly every wide receiver in the NFL. His dominating bump-and-run style forced the league to institute a rule change prohibiting contact five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, an action which Blount saw as personal insult.

His 57 interceptions during 14 years as an NFL player were only eclipsed by a few other players; at least one interception was registered each year of play.

He earned 1975 Defensive Player of the Year honors after intercepting 11 passes without allowing a receiving touchdown. Blount was one of the mainstays on the greatest defense in NFL history!

With Pittsburgh, he won four Super Bowls – and his interception in Super Bowl XIII led directly to their game-winning drive. Blount is the greatest Cornerback ever to play the game.

  • 6 Time Pro Bowler
  • 4 Time Super Bowl Champion
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 1989
Video: Mel Blount Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Mel Blount Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

2) Rod Woodson, Steelers, 49ers, Ravens, and Raiders

Woodson was known for his incredible speed in both roles he held at the NFL, not only as a defensive back but also as a punt returner and kick returner.

His size and strength made him an unstoppable cornerback, and later, when he switched to safety, he could even more effectively ball hawk. With 71 interceptions to his credit – third most in NFL history! – In two seasons, he led all league interception leaders.

Woodson holds an NFL record with 12 interceptions returned for touchdowns – only one other player ever came close. Additionally, he has the league record with 32 fumble recoveries and won one Super Bowl as part of the 1999 Baltimore Ravens, considered by some as being among the most dominant defensive units ever assembled in league history.

Rod Woodson was Deion Sanders before Deion Sanders; the only difference is that Rod Woodson would hit you!

  • 11 Time Pro Bowler
  • 1 Super Bowl Championship
  • 71 Interceptions and 13.5 Sacks
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2009
Video: Rod Woodson – Career Highlights (pt. 1)

Rod Woodson – Career Highlights (pt. 1)

1) Ronnie Lott, 49ers, Raiders, Jets, Chiefs

Lott was an exceptional athlete who could react quickly and close on plays quickly, thanks to his high football IQ, which enabled him to process plays more rapidly and instil fear in opposing receivers when going over the middle against one of Lott’s teams.

Having No. 42 would drastically alter games and help make that legendary 49ers dynasty difficult for opponents to prepare against. Lott is considered one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history!

Lott was an All-Pro Cornerback his rookie season, and a few years later, he transitioned to Safety and was named all-pro at that position. Lott could cover and hit, and his impact on the NFL was felt from day one when he arrived in San Fransisco. Lott was the most outstanding defensive back who ever lived.

  • 10 Time Pro Bowler
  • 4 Time Super Bowl Champion
  • 63 Career Interceptions, 16 Forced Fumbles
  • NFL 75th Anniversary Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame 2000
Video: Ronnie Lott Highlights

Ronnie Lott Highlights

Honorable Mentions

Ken Houston, Oilers, Redskins

Houston’s transformation into an aggressive ball-hawk surprised many, considering he played offensive lineman and linebacker at college. Yet he amassed 49 interceptions during his NFL career and 21 recovered fumbles.

Houston ranks fifth all-time among NFL interceptions returned for touchdowns and has three fumble returns scored on. His five defensive touchdowns in one season is also a league record, as are his twelve Pro Bowl selections as a defensive back.

Herb Adderley, Packers and Cowboys

Adderley was an imposing corner who utilized his size and physicality to dominate receivers back when rules allowed defenders more latitude when engaging players in coverage. He was part of six world championship teams for the Packers and Cowboys.

Charles Woodson, Raiders and Packers

Woodson is the only cornerback in history to retire with 60 interceptions and 20 sacks. He was one of the three best Corners of this century, with Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis.

Darrelle Revis, Jets

Revis’ combination of speed and physicality when defending receivers was unmatched during his prime years. No other corner could match him when it came to getting open against them — possibly ever! He has taken his place among Canton Hall of Famers.

Emlen Tunnell, Packers and Giants

Tunnell is one of the most underrated players in NFL history. His 79 interceptions are astonishing when considering how often players made mistakes during his time. Tunnell’s record stood until Paul Krause broke it in 1979.

Steve Atwater, Broncos

Atwater may be considered the person who handed Troy Polamalu the physical, do-everything safety torch; Atwater took no prisoners when it came to hitting anyone, and Denver’s defenses were always championship-calibre during his tenure.

Troy Polamalu, Steelers

Polamalu was like having 12 or 13 players on the field at once. He was one of the premier safeties in the league and an elite defensive back who often made vital plays to give his team an edge during close games.

Mel Renfro, Cowboys

Renfro was an island long before Revis Island. His ability to hold off opposing receivers allowed his Cowboy teammates more freedom on defense, making Renfro one of the greatest defensive players ever seen in franchise history.

Ken Riley, Bengals

Riley never got the respect he deserved on the field. He amassed over 60 interceptions and was never selected as a first-team All-pro. To make matters worse, he was not selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame until this past year.

Sean Taylor, Redskins

Sean Taylor, if not for his life ending at a young age because of a stray bullet, would probably sit at worst in this Top Ten. He was exceptional, and he was just that good. He could cover, and boy he would hit you!

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