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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 11 Defensive Players in NFL History

Top 11 Defensive Players in NFL History

Publish Date: 06/02/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Greatest Defensive players

It is hard to quantify the greatest defensive players of all time. I used longevity, impact on a team and the players ability to take over a game. Most of the guys on this list changed the way the game was played. That is maybe the most critical element in determining this top 11!

11) Gino Marchetti

Marchetti was a mainstay along the defensive front for the Baltimore Colts for 14 of those 15 years.  He also started his career and played one season with the Dallas Texans.

Marchetti was a tough, hard-nosed competitor who 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.

Video: Gino Marchetti Highlight

Gino Marchetti Highlight

10) Deacon Jones

Jones was best known for his eleven years spent playing for the Rams from 1961-1971, as well as two with San Diego Chargers.

Deacon Jones was among the earliest defensive ends to master rushing and sacking quarterbacks. Utilizing his incredible speed and decisive first step, Jones used them against opposing tackles for quick sacks, ultimately amassing 179.5 of them in his career–third all-time.

Deacon Jones earned eight Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections and was recognized as an NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice: 1967 and 1968. He would go on to set an outstanding example as one of football’s first great pass-rushing defensive ends.

Video: Deacon Jones Highlights

Deacon Jones Highlights

9) Ronnie Lott

Ronnie Lott was one of the greatest defensive backs in professional football history, known for his relentless intensity and determination on defense. His devastating hits would strike fear into opposing wide receivers’ hearts.

Lott began his career as a cornerback but later switched to safety where he could roam more freely and deliver hard hits more regularly. So intense was Lott that he once cut off a broken finger so as not to lose time on the field due to rehabbing his injury.

Ronnie Lott spent 15 years playing for four NFL teams – the 49ers, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs – during his 15-year NFL career. He was best known during his ten-year stint in San Francisco where he led their defense to four Super Bowl wins.

Video: The West Coast Reaper - Ronnie Lott Career Highlights

The West Coast Reaper – Ronnie Lott Career Highlights

8) Bob Lilly

Bob Lilly held down defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys from 1961-1974 and led the Cowboys defense, known for its relentless in-line linemen known as The Doomsday Defense.

Bob Lilly made a mark as one of the Cowboys’ most durable players, appearing in 196 consecutive games without missing one. Opposing teams often utilized more than one blocker against him – this extra focus provided a defensive team with an easier path towards their targets than otherwise would be available.

Lilly made 11 Pro Bowl appearances and nine All-Pro appearances over his career. One of his proudest achievements was being known affectionately as “Mr. Cowboy” and being honored with becoming the inaugural member of the Dallas Cowboy Ring of Honor.

Video: Bob Lilly “Mr Cowboy” highlights

Bob Lilly “Mr Cowboy” highlights

7) Alan Page

Alan Page was an outstanding defensive tackle for both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears during his 15-year playing career from 1967-1981, leading a group known as The Purple People Eaters during his time with them.

Page was a vital force on the Vikings’ defensive line for 218 consecutive games and was honored nine times with Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition during his time there.

Page was the first defensive player ever honored with the MVP award and twice recognized by the NFL as Defensive Player of the Year.

Page was an extremely reliable player for his 15-year career and consistently provided high-level play that his teammates and coaches could rely on. He amassed 148.5 sacks while recovering 22 fumbles. His teammates and coaches could rely on him.

Video: Alan Page Highlights - MVP

Alan Page Highlights – MVP

6) Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith had an extraordinary 19-year NFL career. For 15 of them, he represented the Buffalo Bills before finishing out with Washington Redskins.

Bruce Smith was an incredible edge pass rusher from his defensive end position and accounted for over 200 career sacks, which makes him the NFL career sack leader.

Durability was another hallmark of Smith, as he participated in 279 games over his career. His three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards demonstrate his dominance at pass rushing.

Bruce Smith earned 11 Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections during his illustrious career.

Video: Bruce Smith Highlights

Bruce Smith Highlights

5) Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis earned two NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors: in 2000 and 2003. Following their Super Bowl XXXV win in 2000, Lewis led an invincible defense that overpowered opponents – earning him MVP status for this spectacular tournament win.

Video: Ray Lewis Highlights á´´á´° | Here Comes The Boom

Ray Lewis Highlights á´´á´° | Here Comes The Boom

4) Reggie White

Reggie White was known as “The Minister of Defense”, creating havoc in opposing backfields with each team he played for over his 15-year NFL career.

Reggie White holds the second-highest career sack count behind Bruce Smith. Additionally, White was twice recognized with NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Reggie White earned Pro Bowl, and All-Pro honors 13 out of 15 NFL seasons due to his aggressive pass rush from defensive end position.

Video: Reggie White Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Reggie White Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

3) Dick Butkus

Dick Butkus embodied everything an aggressive, tough middle linebacker should be: aggressiveness, toughness and hard-nosed play. He earned eight Pro Bowl selections in his nine seasons with the Chicago Bears from 1965-1973.

Butkus was widely recognized as one of the premier defensive players in the NFL, earning eight All-Pro selections during his nine-year career before injuries ended it prematurely. If no injuries existed and Buthus pl;ayed a few more years he may rank even higher on this list.

Everyone knew when facing off against the Chicago Bears; they should keep an eye out for Dick Butkus, as he was known as one of the premier defensive players at that time.

Video: Butkus Monster of the Midway

Butkus Monster of the Midway

2) “Mean” Joe Green

Mean Joe Greene was the greatest defensive tackles in NFL history. As head of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense known as the “Steel Curtain”, Mean Joe led them into dominating victory on defense.

Joe Greene led his team to four world championships during the 1970s. This formidable wall seemed impregnable against opposing offenses.

Mean Joe Greene played for 13 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969-1981. As his nickname implies, Mean Joe displayed intense and aggressive play that put fear into his opponents hearts.

Greene was honored to be selected to ten Pro Bowls and earn All-Pro status eight times, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors twice (in 1972 and 1974).

Video: Mean Joe Greene Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

Mean Joe Greene Ultimate NFL Career Highlights

1) Lawrence Taylor

No single player had more of an impactful effect on football defense than Lawrence Taylor. A striking physical specimen who combined speed with power, Lawrence was an outside linebacker for the New York Giants that became known for his pass-rushing abilities.

Taylor earned ten Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections due to his incredible pass-rushing ability, dominating gameplay and changing pass-blocking schemes forever.

Taylor led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories and was honored as an NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times – an unprecedented accomplishment.

Lawrence Taylor made history when 1986, he amassed 20.5 sacks to earn the Bert Bell Award as NFL Player of the Year.

Video: Lawrence Taylor Highlights

Lawrence Taylor Highlights

Honorable Mention

Jack Ham

Jack Lambert

Mel Blount

Deion Sanders

Darrell Green

Rod Woodson

Mike Singletary

Dick Night Train Lane

Junior Seau

Merlin Olson

Chuck Bednarik

Derrick Thomas

Eillie Lanier


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