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The Top 10 Defensive Tackles in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJanuary 9, 2017

The Top 10 Defensive Tackles in NFL History

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    It's not one of the "glamour" positions in football and stats, and therefore, production is not always easy to measure. But defensive tackles are incredibly important in football.

    Sure, they can record a sack or tackle-for-loss, here and there, and every so often, they do make a surprising interception or even score a touchdown. But occupying multiple blockers and creating opportunities for teammates is usually the modus operandi of a defensive or nose tackle. 

    But not these 10 guys.

    Each of these players was or is a transcendent figure who dominated their position. Not only did they sacrifice themselves so the other 10 defenders could nab turnovers or make huge hits, they also created their share of big-time plays. 

No. 10: Casey Hampton

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    Career: 2001-present

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Achievements: two-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro

    Although the other Hampton—the Bears great, Dan—has a claim to this spot, Casey Hampton's dominance from the nose tackle position in Pittsburgh helps him earn the tenth spot. 

    Finding a great nose tackle to be the centerpiece of a defense is difficult to achieve, yet the Steelers found one in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft. 

    During the past 10 years, there have been far better pass rushers in Pittsburgh, including James Harrison, Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley and even Troy Polamalu or James Farrior.

    But the Steelers defense has been so dominant over the past decade, because they stop the run with consistency. And with Hampton taking up two or three blockers at a time, he is the chief reason why.  

    Maybe Hampton isn't a playmaker at the level of a Vince Wilfork or Haloti Ngata or the players ahead of him on this list. But because he's been the anchor of a Steelers defense that has dominated the NFL for a full decade, he deserves consideration. 

No. 9: Buck Buchanan

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    Career: 1963-75

    Teams: Kansas City Chiefs

    Achievements: one-time Super Bowl champion, six-time AFL All-Star, two-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-AFL

    The Chiefs built their team around this product of Grambling State, selecting him with their first overall choice in 1963, and he instantly paid off. 

    He used tremendous speed off the snap to get in a position where offensive lineman had no chance to slow down Buchanan and his enormous 6'7", 270-pound frame. 

    The Chiefs teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s are best remembered for a Hall of Fame quarterback in Len Dawson, a Hall of Fame coach in Hank Stram and outspoken players like Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. But Buchanan may very well have been the most critical piece of their championship puzzle. 

No. 8: Warren Sapp

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    Career: 1995-2007

    Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders

    Achievements: one-time Super Bowl champion, seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro

    Is it a coincidence that Hall of Fame middle linebackers often find themselves playing in front of Hall of Fame defensive tackles? Jack Lambert had "Mean Joe" Greene. Mike Singletary had Dan Hampton. Willie Lanier had Buck Buchanan. 

    The same is true for Derrick Brooks, who will eventually be enshrined in Canton. He had Warren Sapp in front of him all those years in Tampa Bay.

    Sapp was great at the traditional role of a defensive tackle. He could open up lanes for the linebackers and muddy up the middle of the offensive line so that pass rushers like Simeon Rice could get to the quarterback.

    But he was also an outstanding pass rusher in his own right, recording double-digit sacks four times. His 96.5 career total is the second most by an interior defensive lineman.

No. 7: Randy White

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    Career: 1975-88

    Teams: Dallas Cowboys

    Achievements: one-time Super Bowl champion, nine-time Pro Bowler, nine-time All-Pro

    Only one defensive tackle has ever been named a Super Bowl MVP, and it was Randy White.

    But as we all know a Super Bowl MVP does not necessarily make a great player—consider Larry Brown, Dexter Jackson or even Doug Williams. Nevertheless, White doesn't belong anywhere near that list.

    As the second overall selection out of Maryland in 1975, great things were expected from White. 

    After a somewhat lukewarm experiment at the linebacker position, White moved to defensive tackle, where he instantly became a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro lineman. That same season Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" lead the Cowboys to the Super Bowl and allowed the fewest yards in the NFL that season.

    White continued to be a dominant defensive tackle and perennial All-Pro for years to come, until the late 1980s when he retired.

    Given the fact White had to face the Redskins famous "Hogs" offensive line twice a year as well as the Cardinal's tough line of Dan Dierdorf, Bob Young and Tom Banks, those honors were well deserved. 

No. 6: Cortez Kennedy

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    Career: 1990-2000

    Teams: Seattle Seahawks

    Achievements: eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro

    Every one of the defensive tackles on this list so far were integral parts of a Super Bowl winning defense.

    But football is a team sport, and no matter how great one player is on the field, it won't guarantee a championship. That's the best way to describe the career of Cortez Kennedy.

    He was the most complete defensive tackle of his generation, yet his team never won a playoff game. They never even won ten games in a season. But it was hardly Kennedy's fault. 

    Despite playing in a packed division with the dominant Broncos running game, and Super Bowl contenders in San Diego and Kansas City, Kennedy excelled. 

    He was certainly a physically imposing player at 6'3" and 305 pounds, but it was his speed and agility that allowed him to overwhelm opposing lineman and be a Pro Bowler virtually every season of his career. 

No. 5: John Randle

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    Career: 1990-2003

    Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks

    Achievements: seven-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro

    Considering the sack totals he posted, it's almost inconceivable he was an interior defensive lineman.

    Think about it: all the true great sack artists—Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Bruce Smith and his teammate Chris Doleman—dominated from the outside. 

    Randle recorded 137 sacks mostly from the inside. 

    He recorded double-digit sacks for eight straight seasons, led the league in sacks in 1997 and never missed a game when he played for the Vikings.

    Not bad for a player who was undrafted and largely undersized for his position.  

No. 4: Bob Lilly

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    Career: 1961-1974

    Teams: Dallas Cowboys

    Achievements: one-time Super Bowl champion, 11-time Pro Bowler, seven-time All-Pro

    Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and the legendary Tom Landry never were nicknamed Mr. Cowboy. Bob Lilly was.

    That's how dominant and important he was to the Cowboys franchise.

    Lilly was just as disruptive in the running game as he was in the passing game, thanks to tremendous agility and balance. 

    Most importantly, he played his best in the big games. In Super Bowl V, virtually no one on the Baltimore Colts roster could block him. 

    He certainly set the bar high for his successor Randy White. 

No. 3: Merlin Olsen

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    Career: 1962-76

    Teams: Los Angeles Rams

    Achievements: 14-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro

    Believe it or not, before he became Ron Burgandy's friend or television's Father Murphy, Merlin Olsen was one of the greatest defenders in the game.

    Olsen certainly benefited from playing alongside a player like Deacon Jones, but his size, speed and intelligence were just as useful.

    A Pro Bowler every year of his career, except for his final season, Merlin penetrated backfields and punished ball carriers for more than a decade. 

    And while it's splitting hairs picking between two of the 1960s greatest players at any position, Olsen slightly tops Bob Lilly on this list for one reason. Playing in the Western Division, Olsen faced the powerhouse Packers and Colts twice a season during a long stretch of his career. 

No. 2: "Mean Joe" Greene

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    Career: 1969-1981

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Achievements: four-time Super Bowl champion, 10-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro

    As great as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount were, the most vital cog in arguably the greatest dynasty of modern NFL was their defensive tackle.

    Greene, the first selection made by Chuck Noll after he took command of the dormant franchise in 1969, instantly provided credibility to a team that sorely needed it. 

    He certainly lived up to his nickname—although "Mean" was just a nickname that came from playing for the North Texas Mean Green—by punishing defenders. Sometimes, even after the whistle had been blown.

    But he ruined opposing offenses game plans, especially when he lined up in the tilt position over the center. 

    Everyone on the Steel Curtain defense—Ham, Lambert, Blount, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes—and subsequently the entire Pittsburgh franchise benefited to the tune of four Lombardi Trophies. 

No. 1: Alan Page

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    Career: 1967-81

    Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears

    Achievements: nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro

    Page changed the game. It's that simple.

    As head coach Bud Grant later admitted, prior to the arrival of Page, the responsibility of a defensive tackle was fairly limited.

    But once it became clear the Notre Dame star was physically and in some cases mentally light-years ahead of his peers, Grant and his staff adjusted their approach. They let him do whatever he wanted, lineup wherever he wanted and the results were incredible. 

    By his fifth season in 1971, Page was so disruptive, so dominant and so impossible to block—the Associated Press had no choice but to name him the NFL's MVP—not Defensive Player of the Year. 

    No other lineman in history has won or even come close to that honor. Years later, NFL Films called it the greatest single season a defensive player ever had.

    And that incredible season was hardly a one-shot wonder.

    Never missing a game in his entire career, Page continued to power the Vikings' Purple People Eater defense, pushing them to the brink of a Super Bowl championship until he retired and took over his next challenge—the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

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