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The Top-20 Defensive Players in NFL History

History's greatest defenders
Publish Date: 03/21/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

No active players are eligible to be on this list!

10) Merlin Olsen, Los Angeles Rams

Merlin Olsen played in the NFL for 15 years, from 1962 – 1976.  Olsen was a Pro Bowl selection 14 times and was a ten-time All-Pro. Olsen was also named league MVP in 1974, as he won the Bert Bell Award for the NFL’s best player.


9) Mel Blount, Pittsburgh Steelers

Blount had 57 career interceptions, which ranked 11th all-time in league history.  He was a five-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro selection.  Blount also helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships. Mel Blount was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. In my opinion, Mel Blount was the greatest corner in NFL history, he was so good they changed the rules because of him.


8) Gino Marchetti, Baltimore Colts

In 1969, Gino Marchetti was selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the greatest defensive end in pro football history.  He played in the NFL for 15 outstanding seasons, spanning 1952-1966. Gino was selected to the Pro Bowl eleven times and was an All-Pro ten times. Marchetti helped lead the Colts to two NFL titles.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.


7) Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears

Butkus was one of the most feared players in NFL history. Butkus was also an eight-time All-Pro selection. Injuries cut his career short, after nine incredible years.

6) Mean Joe Green, Pittsburgh Steelers

Greene was selected to ten Pro Bowls and received All-Pro honors eight times.  He was also named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974. Green was quite simply the greatest defensive tackle in NFL history.


5) Ronnie Lott, 49ers/Raiders/Jets/Chiefs

Lott early in his career as an outstanding Cornerback and later on made the switch to safety and became if not the greatest safety of all-time at the very worst he is in the top 3.


4) Reggie White, Eagles/Packers/Panthers

Reggie White was credited with 198.5 sacks, second all-time to Bruce Smith.  White also was twice named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Known for his tenacious pass rush from the defensive end position, Reggie White earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 13 out of his 15 NFL seasons. If the Packers had not signed White you could make a very strong case that QB Brett Favre never wins a Super Bowl.

3) Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

Lewis was the leader of the Ravens defense for over 15 years and during that time led the Ravens to two Super Bowl championships.


2) Deacon Jones, Los Angeles Rams/Chargers

Deacon Jones was one of the first defensive ends to perfect the art of rushing and sacking a quarterback.  Jones used his excellent speed and powerful first step to victimize opposing tackles.  He collected 179.5 sacks over his career, which was third all time. Of course, sack record was not an “official” stat at the time Jones played, so those stats were taken from unofficial counts by the teams he played for. An eight-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, I would categorize Deacon Jones as the NFL’s first great pass rushing defensive end, and the best that ever rushed the passer.  Jones was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1967 and 1968.


1) Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants

Taylor revolutionized the position of outside linebacker in the NFL. He was drafted by the Giants in 1981 and he immediately had an impact, leading the Giants to the playoffs in his rookie season.

Honorable Mentions

Darrell Green, Washington Redskins

Green played cornerback in the NFL for an amazing 20 years! Most Corners make a switch to safety when they slow down. It seemed that Green never really slowed down. Green was also a clutch kick returner who made some huge plays in the playoffs as a return man. Green had 54 interceptions in his illustrious career.  He had an interception in a record 19 consecutive seasons. Darrell Green was a seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro selection.  he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008. Check out the best bookmakers for betting on Football!


19) Buck Buchanon, Kansas City Chiefs

Buck Buchanan was also incredibly durable, as he missed only one game in his 13-year career.  He was a six-time All AFL selection and two-time Pro Bowler after the AFL and NFL merged. Buck’s size, speed, and strength were unheard of when he began his pro football career in 1963. Buck Buchanan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.


18) Chuck Bednarik, Philadelphia Eagles

“Concrete” Charlie Bednarik was the last regular two-way player, starring as a linebacker and center.  He would often play virtually every minute of a game. Known for his hard-hitting and sure tackling, Bednarik was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and ten-time All-Pro. He led the Eagles to their last NFL Championship in 1960.


17) Emlen Tunnell, Giants/Packers

When Tunnell ended his career, he was the career leader in interceptions with 79.  Paul Krause later passed him with 81. Tunnell was a nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro award winner.  He was the first African-American elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.


16) Willie Lanier, Kansas City Chiefs

Lanier was one of the greatest middle linebackers to ever play the game. Lanier was a tough, intense and durable player.  He missed only five games in his career. lanier was known as a big-hitter and was a very smart player. Willie Lanier was an eight-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.


15) Bruce Smith, Bills/Redskins

Bruce Smith was a dynamic edge pass rusher from the defensive end position.  He is the NFL’s career leader in sacks with 200. Durability was another Smith characteristic as he played in 279 games.  He was a dominant pass rusher, as his three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards confirm. Bruce Smith was an 11 time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.


14) Jack Ham, Pittsburgh Steelers

Ham was overshadowed by teammate Jack Lambert, but Ham was one of the greatest outside linebackers in NFL history. Was very good against the run, but he may have been the best cover linebacker the NFL has ever seen.


13) Dick “Night Train” Lane

Lane was one of the first defensive backs that struck fear into opposing receivers with his aggressive style of play.  He was an intimidating force and known for his devastating hits. Lane was more than just a big hitter, however.  He utilized his excellent speed and coverage skills to account for 68 career interceptions.


12) Alan Page, Vikings/Bears

In 1971, Page was the first defensive player to be named MVP.  He was also the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1971 and 1973. In his fifteen-year career, Page accounted for 148.5 sacks and 22 fumble recoveries.  Page’s reliability and consistently high level of play were something his teammates and coaches could always count on.


11) Bob Lilly, Dallas Cowboys

Durability was a trademark of Bob Lilly, as he played in 196 consecutive games.  His strength in the middle of the Cowboy’s defense forced the opposition to utilize more than one blocker to slow him down.  The extra attention an offense paid to Lilly also made things much easier for his teammates. Lilly went to the Pro Bowl eleven times and was a nine-time All-Pro.  His greatest honors include being affectionately known as “Mr. Cowboy” and the fact that he was the first Cowboy player to be inducted into the Dallas Cowboy Ring of Honor.


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