Aaron Donald

15 greatest defensive linemen in NFL history

Home » NFL » Best Defensive Linemen of All Time: Greatest D-Linemen in NFL History

NFL fans don’t always give enough credit to the players in the trenches, which is why we thought it was important to make special mention of the best defensive linemen of all time. Some of the best defensive players in NFL history have played at the line of scrimmage.

Yet, we sometimes overlook the best d-line men to ever suit up and play in the trenches of the NFL.

Best defensive linemen of all time

But who deserves to be considered among the greatest defensive linemen ever?

In the long history of the league, countless players have made their mark at that position, regardless of whether they got the credit they deserved or not. But we wanted to pick out the best of the best, which is why we’ve come up with a list of the 15 best defensive linemen in NFL history.

15. Michael Strahan

It was always going to be tough to leave Michael Strahan off a list of the best defensive linemen of all time.


After all, he’s still tied with T.J. Watt for the most sacks in a season with 22.5. During that magical 2001 season, Strahan led the league in sacks and was Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged over nine sacks per season in a career that spanned 15 years. He spent many years among the elite pass-rushers in the league, as Strahan was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times and was a First-Team All-Pro four times, which was more than enough to get him to the Hall of Fame.

14. Warren Sapp

As any fan who saw him play knows, Warren Sapp had a big personality and a lot of bravado. But he was always able to back it up with his play on the field.

Sapp is on a shortlist of players to win both Defensive Player of the Year honors and a Super Bowl, as he was a key piece on some of Tampa’s great defensive teams, including the unit that won Super Bowl XXXVII. His 96.5 career sacks are a lot for an interior lineman, not to mention his 19 career forced fumbles and four interceptions. In his third season, Sapp kicked off a run of seven straight Pro Bowl selections, and by the end of that run, he had solidified himself as an elite defensive tackle.

13. Buck Buchanan

Before linemen were regularly tipping the scales at over 300 pounds, Buck Buchanan was about as big and intimidating as they got. He was 6’7’’ and 370 pounds, making him an intimidating figure who could dominate in the trenches.

Before the merger, he was a six-time AFL All-Star with the Chiefs and then made the Pro Bowl twice while still in his prime. Buchanan would eventually be selected to the Hall of Fame and also helped the Chiefs win Super Bowl IV during his 13-year career.


12. John Randle

John Randle went undrafted in 1990 because he was a little undersized, but he ended up being one of the best defensive linemen in NFL history.

Despite being an interior lineman, Randle racked up 137.5 sacks during his 14-year career, nearly averaging 10 per season. He even led the NFL in sacks in 1997 and went to seven Pro Bowls during his Hall of Fame career. For a player who was always overlooked, Randle surpassed expectations perhaps more than any other player in NFL history.

11. Julius Peppers

Julius Peppers came into the NFL with a lot of hype as the second-overall pick. But he won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and then continued to meet expectations.

Peppers managed to hang around for 17 seasons, collecting at least seven sacks in all but two of those seasons and amassing 10 seasons of 10 sacks or more. He was an elite talent who also showed plenty of longevity while going to nine Pro Bowls during his standout career.

10. Jack Youngblood

After being drafted by the Rams in 1971, it didn’t take Jack Youngblood long to establish himself as one of the top defensive linemen in the league. By his third pro season, he was a Pro Bowler, and then Youngblood led the league in sacks in his fourth season.

He would eventually lead the league in sacks again in 1979, which was also the year he made his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl. His 14-year Hall of Fame career wrapped up with 151.5 career sacks, averaging over 10 sacks per season, putting him in rare company.

9. Gino Marchetti

While he was a lineman on both sides of the ball, Gino Marchetti is best remembered for his exploits on the defensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, he played in an era before sacks were an official stat, but everyone who saw him play knows that he was the NFL’s best pass rusher during that time.

At the time of his retirement, many considered him the best defensive end in NFL history, which is why he surely qualifies as one of the best defensive linemen of all time. His career included 11 straight Pro Bowl selections and nine First-Team All-Pro selections. On his way to the Hall of Fame, Marchetti also helped the Colts win two NFL championships.

8. Bob Lilly

Bob Lilly played in the 1960s and 70s, so he’s sometimes lost in the shuffle among great defensive linemen. But his 14-year career saw Lilly play in 196 games and get selected to the Pro Bowl 11 times.

He started his career as a defensive end, so when he moved to defensive tackle, Lilly had the agility that few interior linemen in that era possessed.

He became impossible to block and needed to be double-teamed, if not triple-teamed on almost every play. For six straight seasons in the 1960s, Lilly was a First-Team All-Pro, as he was one of the most disruptive players in NFL history.

7. Merlin Olsen

It’s indisputable that Merlin Olsen is among the greatest defensive linemen ever because he went to more Pro Bowls than any other defensive lineman in history. In fact, only four other players at any position have been selected to the Pro Bowl more times than Olsen, who went in every season of his career with the Rams except for his final season.

His 208 career games in the NFL trenches are almost hard to fathom. On top of just playing every game year after year, Olsen was an influential player at defensive tackle, staying strong against the run but also putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He took pride in spending every game in the trenches and was a 10-time All-Pro selection during his incredible career.

6. Joe Greene

Most football fans know the name Mean Joe Greene, but they don’t fully understand why he got that name.

Greene could be fiery and passionate at times, but more so he was the most physically intimidating player of his generation. At 6’4’’ and 275 pounds, anyone playing against him didn’t want to go anywhere near him. Greene was a big part of the Pittsburgh defenses in the 1970s that dominated everyone. He won Rookie of the Year in 1969 and only got better from there.

His rookie season was also the first of 10 seasons he was named to the Pro Bowl. Greene would eventually win Defensive Player of the Year honors twice and help the Steelers win four Super Bowls while racking up 77.5 sacks in 181 career games.

5. Aaron Donald

Even though his career isn’t over yet, we know that Aaron Donald will go down as one of the best defensive linemen of all time.

Anyone who thought he was a little undersized coming out of college has been proven wrong time and time again. Since coming into the league in 2014, Donald has been the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL. He’s been a Pro Bowler in every season and a First-Team All-Pro in every year but his rookie season when he fittingly won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Donald has proven himself impossible to block and has already won three Defensive Player of the Year awards with the possibility of more on the way.

4. Alan Page

Alan Page was a part of arguably the greatest defensive line ever during his time with the Vikings. Naturally, he was the biggest reason why those Minnesota defenses were so special. To date, he remains one of two defensive players to earn MVP honors in NFL history.

That includes one of the two seasons he won Defensive Player of the Year.

During his Hall of Fame career, Page was selected to the Pro Bowl nine times, all in consecutive years. He was also an All-Pro in each of those nine seasons. Year after year, Page was a dominant force and one of the premier defensive linemen in the league, making him one of the greatest defensive linemen ever.

3. Deacon Jones

Even fans who never saw him play know what a legendary player Deacon Jones was. The term sack was created largely because of him. In the 1960s, he could get to the quarterback like no other player had before.

Unofficially, he led the NFL in sacks five times, even though he did so before sacks were an official stat. But even if those records aren’t official, Jones was still an eight-time All-Pro, an eight-time Pro Bowler, and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

In his prime, Jones was unblockable and unstoppable. If sacks had been an official stat during his career, Jones would have had six straight seasons with at least 15 of them, blowing away the accomplishments of just about every other defensive lineman in NFL history.

2. Bruce Smith

As the NFL’s all-time sacks leader, Bruce Smith has to be listed among the best defensive linemen of all time. He was a huge part of Buffalo’s success during the late 1980s and early 90s, going to the Pro Bowl 11 times in a 12-year span.

Smith was also named Defensive Player of the Year twice and twice led the NFL in forced fumbles. Remarkably, he played 19 seasons and had at least five sacks in each of them outside of the 1991 season when he played just five games.

In total, Smith had 13 seasons with at least 10 sacks, showcasing the kind of consistency and longevity that allowed him to become the league’s all-time sack leader. 

1. Reggie White

Nicknamed the Minister of Defense, Reggie White is the best there ever was at sacking the quarterback. He had a long career, never letting up.

White totaled 198 sacks and 33 forced fumbles during his career and had nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks, which remains the NFL record. White is also on the shortlist of players who have led the NFL in sacks twice and is on both the NFL’s 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams.

After playing two years in the USFL, White joined the Eagles in 1985, and in 1986, he made his first of 13 consecutive Pro Bowls. Naturally, he was also a 13-time All-Pro and was named Defensive Player of the Year twice, more than a decade apart. Not only was there nobody better in his prime but nobody was better longer among defensive linemen than him.

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