25 greatest defensive players in NFL history

J.J. Watt
"JJ Watt" flickr photo by The Brit_2 https://flickr.com/photos/26686573@N00/10280669654 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

It’s no secret that NFL fans gush more for offensive players, but the best defensive players in NFL history also deserve a little credit.

After all, these are the players who are tasked with stopping the great offensive players in the game. Plus, there is the whole mantra of defense wins championships, which is why the greatest NFL defenders are just as important as the league’s top offensive playmakers.

Best defensive players in NFL history

Of course, ranking the best NFL defenders from any generation is no easy task. There are always several players who stand out, not to mention different positions on defense have to be judged in different ways.

However, we were eager to come up with a list of the top NFL defenders of all time. Everyone included is certainly worthy of inclusion among the greatest NFL defenders in league history. But we also wanted to make special mention of the best of the best, so here is our ranking of the top-25 best defensive players in NFL history.

25. Jack Ham

In addition to having one of the best names in NFL history, Jack Ham was one of the best defensive players ever. He was integral to the Steelers winning four Super Bowls during his career as a member of “The Steel Curtain” defense.

While somewhat undersized for a linebacker, Ham made the Pro Bowl in eight straight seasons and was a First-Team All-Pro in six straight years during the prime of his Hall of Fame career. 

24. Leo Nomellini

Most fans won’t recognize the name, but Leo Nomellini’s resume surely puts him among the greatest defensive players ever. The defensive lineman was also a wrestling champ in college and spent his offseasons working as a pro wrestler, so it’s not a surprise that he dominated the trenches during the 1950s.

Nomellini played his entire career for the 49ers, going to 10 Pro Bowls and being named a First-Team All-Pro six times. He’s a Hall of Famer who was an exceptional athlete, which is why he deserves to be mentioned among the greatest NFL defenders ever.


23. Mel Blount

It’d be debatable whether Mel Blount would excel in today’s game because of his physical nature. But during the days of “The Steel Curtain” in Pittsburgh, he was the best cornerback the Steelers had.

Blount was part of four teams that won the Super Bowl and was a five-time Pro Bowler. He had a Hall of Fame career and is still considered one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game, even winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1975, the same season the Steelers won their second of four Super Bowls in the 70s.

22. Derrick Thomas

Derrick Thomas has a tragic story, as both his life and career came to a sudden end following a car accident when he was still an active player. But the 11 seasons he spent in the NFL were more than enough for him to be considered one of the best of all time.

He won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and went to nine straight Pro Bowls starting with his rookie year. Thomas also led the league in forced fumbles twice and still holds the NFL record for seven sacks in a single game. He rarely missed a game during his 11 seasons and had at least seven sacks in each season, clearly making him one of the 25 best defensive players ever.

21. Chuck Bednarik

The award for the best defensive player in college football is the Chuck Bednarik Award for a reason. After a great college career at Penn, the Pennsylvania native played 14 seasons for the Eagles and became one of the best linebackers in NFL history.

While he was only a Pro Bowler eight times, Bednarik was a First-Team All-Pro 10 times. He also played center, but Bednarik is best known as one of the most hard-nosed tacklers to ever play the game. He was tough, physical, and everything you would want from a defensive player.

20. Mike Singletary

Just the name Mike Singletary has been long associated with great defense. He was one of the elite linebackers during the 1980s and the heart of the great Chicago defenses of that era. Over his 12 seasons in the league, Singletary was a Pro Bowler in all but his first two seasons.

He was named a First-Team All-Pro seven times and won Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. Singletary could do everything you could want in a middle linebacker and more, truly standing out, even among the best of all time.

19. Bob Lilly

During the 1960s, there weren’t many defensive tackles like Bob Lilly. He was a dominant player at the line of scrimmage and a huge part of the great Dallas defenses of that era. But Lilly wasn’t the typical behemoth who played at the line of scrimmage.

He was strong but still had impressive speed and agility, allowing him to run from sideline to sideline and make plays. It’s that skill set that made him stand out and make 11 Pro Bowls during his 14-year career. Needless to say, Lilly didn’t slow down much late in his career, as his longevity is also what makes him stand out as one of the top defensive linemen in NFL history.

18. J.J. Watt

Long before his career was over, we knew J.J. Watt was going to end up being one of the best defensive players ever. That’s what happens when you win Defensive Player of the Year three times in a four-year span, all within the first five years of his career.

Injuries may have slowed him down at times, but he’s led the league in sacks twice and had two seasons with over 20 sacks. There aren’t many players who can claim to have reached those feats or been more disruptive at the line of scrimmage, putting Watt in rare company.

17. Ed Reed

The term “ball hawk” was created specifically for players like Ed Reed. In terms of patrolling the secondary and luring quarterbacks into throwing interceptions to him, nobody was better than Reed. He led the NFL in interceptions three times, something only one other player has done.

Reed still has a share of the all-time record for postseason interceptions, not to mention the most interception return yards in NFL history. His combination of skill and instincts not only made Reed a nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro but also a Hall of Famer. He’s also one of the few safeties who is involved in the conversation when talking about the best defensive players in NFL history.

16. Darrell Green

Being a little undersized never stopped Darrell Green from becoming one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game. While he didn’t have the size to match up with bigger receivers, Green has the fastest 40-time in league history, which meant that he could keep up with anyone.

Even late in his career, Green could still run like the wind, which explains why he was able to play 20 seasons in the NFL. In those 20 years, he made the Pro Bowl seven times and picked off 54 passes, returning them for six touchdowns. Green also owns a record that may never be broken with 19 consecutive games with an interception.

15. Rod Woodson

Among defensive backs, Rod Woodson is undoubtedly among the best to ever play the game. No defensive player in NFL history has recovered more fumbles or returned more interceptions for touchdowns. Woodson always found a way to be in the right place at the right time to be a part of all of those turnovers, leading the league in interceptions twice.

Early in his career, he was an elite safety and then made a smooth transition to safety late in his career. That is what allowed him to play 17 seasons, making the Pro Bowl in 11 of those seasons and winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983. Those accomplishments made him a no-doubt Hall of Famer and one of the best defensive backs to ever play the game.

14. Gino Marchetti

Modern fans may not know Gino Marchetti, but just because he played in a different era doesn’t mean he’s not among the best defensive players in NFL history.

Before defensive ends were thought of exclusively as pass rushers, Marchetti excelled at playing against both the run and the pass. He was selected to 11 straight Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro in nine straight seasons. While he comes from another era, Marchetti was undoubtedly the best defensive player of that era.

13. Junior Seau

Sadly, Junior Seau had a tragic end after his playing career was over. But if we look at what he did on the field, he was one of the best defensive players in NFL history.

There are few players who brought the same power and passion to the linebacker position that he did. During his 13 seasons with the Chargers, Seau was a Pro Bowler in all but his rookie year, earning All-Pro honors nine times in his career.

Even after he left the Chargers, Seau played seven more seasons, totaling 20 seasons in the NFL. Between his longevity, work ethic, and talent, Seau was one of the best players of his era and also one of the most respected, so he deserves to be listed among the all-time greats.

12. Aaron Donald

In the 21st century, there has been perhaps no player more dominant than Aaron Donald. Certainly, among defensive linemen, he’s been the gold standard over the last decade.

Donald was thought to be a little undersized coming out of college. But he won Rookie of the Year in 2014 and proceeded to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons (and counting). During the prime of his career, Donald won Defensive Player of the Year honors three times in four years. His career isn’t even over, but he should still be considered one of the best defensive players in NFL history.

11. Merlin Olsen

Anybody who can play 15 seasons in the NFL as a defensive tackle is something special. Not only did Merlin Olsen do that but he was also selected to the Pro Bowl in 14 of those seasons. Only Tom Brady has been selected to more Pro Bowls than that.

Olsen was an elite player from the first time he stepped on the field. He won Rookie of the Year honors and put together a Hall of Fame career that put him on two separate All-Decade Teams. There’s no question he deserves to be mentioned among the greatest NFL defenders of all time.

10. Alan Page

Alan Page is an important figure in NFL history as the first defensive player to win MVP honors. He was one of the leaders of the “Purple People Eaters” in Minnesota, helping the Vikings get to four Super Bowls despite falling short all four times.

Over his 16 seasons, he played in 218 straight games, staying healthy and productive for a long time. There are few defensive tackles in league history who excelled at getting to the quarterback as much as Page, making him a trailblazing figure for interior linemen.

Not only did he win MVP in 1971 and Defensive Player of the Year honors twice but Page was also a nine-time All-Pro and went to nine straight Pro Bowls during the prime of his career on his way to the Hall of Fame.

9. Ray Lewis

Among those who played most of their career in the 21st century, Ray Lewis is clearly one of the greatest NFL defenders. It’d be a challenge to find a better inside linebacker in league history. He was the leader of two Baltimore defenses that helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl and won Super Bowl MVP honors the first time.

Lewis made the Pro Bowl 13 times and All-Pro honors 10 times while also leading the NFL in tackles on three occasions.

His accolades go on and on, including Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. But seeing as how he’s the NFL’s all-time leading tackler and one of the fiercest linebackers to ever patrol the middle of the field, it’s obvious that he belongs on a list with some of the best defensive players in NFL history.

8. Bruce Smith

If you want to find the player with more sacks than anyone else in NFL history, look no further than Bruce Smith. Granted, he had 19 seasons to collect 200 career sacks, but that also means he averaged 10.5 sacks per season over nearly two decades.

For someone who plays in the trenches, that’s a long time, especially for someone who performed at such a high level.

Smith recorded at least 10 sacks in 13 of his 19 seasons. If he hadn’t been limited to just five games in 1991, Smith would have had at least 10 sacks in 12 consecutive seasons, which is almost mind-boggling to think about. His resume also includes 11 Pro Bowl and nine All-Pro Selections, as well as twice winning Defensive Player of the Year honors.

7. Deion Sanders

Forget just the NFL, Deion Sanders is one of the best athletes in pro sports history. He had careers in both MLB and the NFL, excelling in both sports and occasionally playing the two simultaneously.

There is also an argument to be made that he’s the best cornerback to ever play the game. He could stick to just about every wide receiver in the game and always had the attitude that he could stop anyone.

During the prime of Prime Time’s career, he was selected to eight Pro Bowls in nine years and was a First-Team All-Pro six times in seven years. He even helped two different teams win the Super Bowl in back-to-back years, which is not something that most players can say.

6. Dick Butkus

His name and his face alone portray Dick Butkus as one of the best defensive players in NFL history because he was a fierce, hard-nosed player. The effort he put into every play was relentless, and his desire to hit people as hard as possible on every play was second-to-none.

Decades later, he’s still considered one of the most feared tackles in NFL history. Butkus doesn’t have the longevity of some other players, playing just nine seasons. But that was long enough for him to make eight Pro Bowls and win Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. Even in just nine seasons, Butkus is on the NFL All-Decades Team in two decades, which says everything you need to know about his impact on the game.

5. Mean Joe Greene

Among the greatest NFL defenders in league history, good luck finding one with a better name than Mean Joe Greene.

He was undoubtedly the best player on the Pittsburgh defenses that earned the nickname of “The Steel Curtain” and dominated the NFL during the 1970s. The Steelers won four Super Bowls during Greene’s time in Pittsburgh, and he was a huge reason why each time.

Despite his nickname, Greene was a nice guy by all accounts. He simply played the game like a mean person, perhaps because he was stronger than everyone else, dominating offensive linemen in the trenches. In addition to being Defensive Player of the Year twice, Greene made the Pro Bowl in 10 of his first 11 seasons. 

4. Ronnie Lott

All of the greatest NFL defenders have a strong desire to compete and play, giving everything they have to the game. That is something people could never doubt in Ronnie Lott, who is arguably the best safety in league history.

We know because he played most of his career after having the tip of his pinky amputated. He would hit hard and sacrifice his body for the team, but Lott would also break up passes and grab interceptions. He led the league in interceptions twice, collecting as least five in seven of his 14 seasons. Lott was an elite defensive player for most of those 14 years, being named a First-Team All-Pro eight times and a Pro Bowler 10 times. He was also part of four teams with the 49ers that won the Super Bowl.

3. Reggie White

As a pass rusher, Reggie White was something special. How else do you make it on the NFL All-Decades Team in two different decades?

Known as the Minister of Defense, his best years were early in his career, collecting 70 sacks in his first four seasons in the league. In fact, he started his career with nine straight seasons with double-digit sacks.

White ended his career with at least 11 sacks in 12 of his 15 seasons, including 16 sacks in his penultimate season at the age of 36. Among pass rushers, they don’t get much better than him, explaining White’s 13 consecutive Pro Bowl inclusions and his two Defensive Player of the Year awards 11 years apart.

2. Deacon Jones

They don’t get much better than the guy who actually coined the term sack. Of course, since Deacon Jones coined the term, sacks weren’t an official stat during his career. Unofficially, he led the NFL in sacks five times during his 14 seasons. He recorded double-digit sacks in eight of those 14 seasons, amassing over 20 three times and collecting at least 15 sacks in six consecutive years from 1964 to 1969.

With so much emphasis on sacking the quarterback in today’s game, Jones was nothing short of a revolutionary defensive end who was ahead of his time with regard to his ability to get after the quarterback. That not only makes him one of the best defensive players in NFL history but also one of the most important and influential players of all time.

1. Lawrence Taylor

It’s likely that Lawrence Taylor will forever be the most dominating and physically imposing defensive player in NFL history. The controversial parts of his life and career aside, Taylor was a behemoth on the football field. He went to the Pro Bowl in the first 10 seasons of his career and easily won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1981.

That was followed by three Defensive Player of the Year awards and MVP honors in 1986. Keep in mind no defensive player has won MVP honors since Taylor did.

Oddly enough, he only led the league in sacks once, doing so in his MVP season when he racked up 20.5 sacks. In the seven years from 1984 to 1990, Taylor had double-digit sacks, averaging 14 sacks per season during that time. But more than anything else, he was undoubtedly the most feared defensive player in the NFL throughout the 1980s and the easy pick for the best of all time.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 237 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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