Where Does Ray Lewis Rank Among Greatest Defensive Players in NFL History?

Jesse ReedCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2013

Where Does Ray Lewis Rank Among Greatest Defensive Players in NFL History?

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    Ray Lewis has announced that he'll retire after the 2012 season, and he's undoubtedly one of the greatest defenders in NFL history.

    Per the Baltimore Ravens:

    Ray Lewis told the team today "this will be my last ride."

    — Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 2, 2013

     

    Lewis has been knocking NFL running backs, wide receivers and tight ends silly for 17 years now, during which time he's established himself as one of the most dominant defenders of his era. 

    But where does Lewis rank amongst the league's all-time greats?

    Follow along to find out, and please, feel free to debate our findings in the comments section below. 

20. Ed Reed

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    Ray Lewis may not be the only Baltimore Ravens defender to retire this season, as Ed Reed's been threatening to do so for a few years now.

    If Reed had managed to stay healthy throughout his career, he would undoubtedly be ranked higher on this list. He's the best safety of his era—no disrespect to Troy Polamalu—and is one of the greatest ball-hawking defensive backs the NFL has ever seen. 

    In Reed's 11 years as a pro, he's been selected to eight Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro teams, has tallied six sacks, 61 interceptions and has scored 13 career touchdowns.

    Additionally, Reed was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and is the only player in NFL history to score touchdowns by blocking a punt and returning a punt, an interception and a fumble (h/t AP). 

19. Mike Singletary

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    Mike Singletary was his generation's Ray Lewis and he was a key cog in one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history—the 1985 Chicago Bears.

    Singletary played the game with reckless abandon and his ferocious gaze put the fear of God into many an opposing running back. He finished his career with 19 sacks, seven interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries and was voted onto 10 Pro Bowl teams and seven first-team All-Pro teams.

    Singletary also won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award twice—in 1985 and 1988—and won a Super Bowl in 1985. 

18. Bob Lilly

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    Bob Lilly was a monster in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys defense in the 1960s and 70s. 

    He began his career as a defensive end, but head coach Tom Landry moved him inside to play defensive tackle in his third season (1963). The rest is history, as Lilly spearheaded the Cowboys' vaunted "Doomsday Defense" and went on to be voted onto 11 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro teams.

    Lilly played in an era when sacks and tackles weren't tallied, but his dominance can't be quantified by numbers alone anyhow. He was one of the greatest tackles in NFL history and he went on to win a Super Bowl with the Cowboys in 1971. 

17. Mel Blount

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    Mel Blount was one of the most feared defensive backs in NFL history. If he were playing today, you can bet Roger Goodell would have his number on speed dial. 

    Back when Blount was roaming around in the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary, the rules gave him liberty to bump, harass and dominate wide receivers all the way down the field—and he did so on a regular basis. 

    Blount was a cornerstone member of the dominant defenses the Steelers put on the field in the '70s, and his tenacious play helped Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls. 

    Additionally, Blount finished his career with 57 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, four defensive touchdowns and was selected to five Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro teams. 

16. Kevin Greene

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    Kevin Greene has never gotten the respect he deserves. 

    Never mind that his 160 career sacks ranks No. 3 in modern NFL history. 

    In addition to Greene's insane sack totals, he also tallied five career interceptions, forced 23 fumbles, recovered 26 fumbles and scored three touchdowns. 

    Greene was consistently productive throughout his 15-year career, logging 10-plus sacks 10 times. He earned five Pro Bowl appearances and was voted on to the first-team All-Pro team twice.

    From my perspective, it's hard to fathom how he wasn't honored more often for his efforts. 

15. Randy White

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    Believe it or not, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White began his career as a middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. 

    Then, in his third season as a pro (1977), White took over at right defensive tackle to occupy the spot Bob Lilly dominated for the better part of a decade. From there, he took off to become one of the most dominant interior linemen in NFL history. 

    White won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys in 1977 and was named the co-MVP in that game for his efforts, along with defensive end Harvey Martin. He finished his career with nine Pro Bowl appearances and was voted on to the first-team All-Pro team seven times. 

14. Deion Sanders

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    "Neon" Deion Sanders was one of the most electric players in NFL history, and if not for his allergy to tackling, he'd be ranked much higher on this list. 

    Sanders was a true lockdown cornerback who took pleasure in shutting down the top receivers on opposing teams.

    He finished his career with 57 interceptions (a number especially staggering considering how most quarterbacks hardly ever threw his way), 10 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries and 10 defensive touchdowns. 

    Sanders was voted to eight Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro teams, and he won two Super Bowls—one with the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 and one with the Dallas Cowboys in '95.

     

    Note: Sanders was also a prolific special teams player, having scored nine career touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. He finished his career with 22 total touchdowns.

13. Merlin Olsen

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    Merlin Olsen terrorized offensive linemen for 15 seasons in the NFL—all of which were played for one team, the Los Angeles Rams. He was a key member of the "Fearsome Foursome" that included Deacon Jones, who we'll get to later on. 

    Olsen was voted onto 14 Pro Bowl teams—an NFL record he shares with offensive lineman Bruce Matthews—and five first-team All-Pro teams. 

    The only season Olsen wasn't voted to a Pro Bowl was in 1976—his final season as a pro. One additional honor Olsen received came in 1974 when he won the NFL's Bert Bell Award (Player of the Year).

12. Rod Woodson

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    Rod Woodson is one of the most diverse defensive backs to have ever played in the NFL, and he was able to play the game at a high level for the entirety of his 16-year career. 

    Woodson started out his career as a cornerback, where he locked down many of the NFL's top receivers for 11 years. 

    Then, he joined Ray Lewis in Baltimore and became the Ravens' starting free safety for three seasons, winning a Super Bowl in 2000 as part of one of the league's most dominant defenses in history.

    Woodson finished his career with 71 interceptions (No. 3 all time), 13.5 sacks, 20 forced fumbles, 32 fumble recoveries and 13 defensive touchdowns and was voted to 11 Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro teams. 

11. Night Train Lane

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    Dick "Night Train" Lane is still considered to be one of the best cornerbacks to have ever played the game, almost 60 years after he last suited up in 1965. 

    Not only could Lane take away any opponents' top receiving threat, but he was a hard-hitting corner who never backed down from a challenge. 

    Lane finished his career with 68 interceptions (his 14 interceptions in 1952—his rookie season—is still the NFL's top single-season mark), 11 fumble recoveries and six defensive touchdowns. He was voted to seven Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro teams. 

10. "Mean" Joe Greene

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    "Mean" Joe Greene is considered to be the greatest run-stuffing defensive lineman in NFL history, according to one unofficial report by USA Today in 2008.

    He wasn't as dominant against the pass as other defensive tackles of his era, but the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't need him to be. He was a chief member of the "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s and helped Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls.

    Greene finished his career with 10 Pro Bowl appearances and was a first-team All-Pro five times.

9. Ronnie Lott

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    Ronnie Lott was a cornerback who was converted to a safety, who hit like a 500-pound linebacker. 

    He was also one of the most prolific ball hawks in NFL history and he spearheaded the San Francisco 49ers defense during their legendary run in the 1980s, winning four Super Bowls.

    Lott finished his career with 63 interceptions, 8.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 17 fumble recoveries and five defensive touchdowns and was voted to 10 Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro teams. 

    His passion for the game was so great that he once had the 49ers training staff cut off his pinkie finger, rather than leave the game to go to the hospital and have it fixed. 

    Legendary.

8. Dick Butkus

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    Dick Butkus is one of the NFL's most revered defenders, and the ferocity with which he played the game still echoes throughout time. 

    Not only was Butkus a devastating tackler in the trenches, but he was also a skilled player in space, logging 22 career interceptions and recovering 27 fumbles.

    He finished his career having been voted to eight Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro teams, and he is one of the few players that could have dominated in any era. 

7. Paul Krause

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    Paul Krause is a name most casual fans won't recognize.

    He played back in the 1960s and 70s for the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, setting the NFL's all-time record for most career interceptions with 81. In addition to his prolific ball-hawking skills, Krause recovered 19 fumbles and scored six career defensive touchdowns. 

    Krause's achievements on the field earned him eight Pro Bowl appearances, and he was three-time first-team All-Pro. He was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, but he should have been recognized for his work far sooner.

6. Alan Page

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    Alan Page was a force to be reckoned with during his playing days in the NFL. Come to think of it, he's still a force as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, but that's a topic for another day.

    Page couldn't be blocked as a defensive tackle for the Vikings and he was a key member of the "Purple People Eaters" that terrorized the league throughout the '70s.

    Although sacks weren't a stat that was tracked when he played, ProFootballHOF.com estimates that Page tallied 173 sacks in his career—a mark that would have made him one of the most prolific sack artists in NFL history

    Page was selected to nine Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro teams during his career. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1971 and 1973 and the NFL's MVP in 1971. 

5. Deacon Jones

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    Deacon Jones is the man who coined the phrase "sack" as it pertains to tackling a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. 

    He is also one of the greatest sackmasters the NFL has ever seen, and though sacks weren't an official stat until 1982, many unofficial estimates pin his total to be 173.5 (h/t Mark Craig of the Star Tribune). 

    Jones used to slap offensive linemen so hard across their helmets that they'd be stunned. He was a devastating player from an era long gone, but I have no doubt he'd excel in today's NFL as well.

    Jones finished his career with eight Pro Bowl appearances and was selected to five first-team All-Pro teams. 

4. Bruce Smith

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    Bruce Smith has more official sacks than any player in NFL history, and he's undoubtedly one of the league's all-time greats. 

    In his incredible 19-year career, Smith logged 10-plus sacks 13 times, finishing with an NFL record 200 sacks. He also forced 43 fumbles, recovered 15 fumbles, logged two safeties and scored one touchdown. 

    For his efforts, Smith was voted to 11 Pro Bowls, eight first-team All-Pro teams and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and '96. 

    Unfortunately, Smith never managed to win a championship, though he was a member of the Buffalo Bills team that went to and lost four straight Super Bowls. 

3. Reggie White

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    Reggie White finished his career only two sacks shy of Bruce Smith's all-time record, but he was a better overall defender who swallowed up runners just as adeptly as he sacked quarterbacks.

    White was so strong in the trenches that he could use one arm to knock 300-pound linemen backward. In his 15-year career, White failed to notch 10-plus sacks only three times, and he tallied 15-plus sacks four times, including a 21-sack effort in 1987.

    Additionally, White intercepted three passes, forced 33 fumbles, recovered 20 fumbles and scored two defensive touchdowns.

    He was voted to 13 Pro Bowls and eight first-team All-Pro teams, and he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998. 

2. Ray Lewis

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    Ray Lewis is the most dominant middle linebacker to have ever played in the NFL. 

    Lewis' blend of size, speed, athleticism and football IQ ushered in a new era of NFL linebackers. There's no question he's the greatest defender of his generation. 

    Throughout his career, Lewis notched some impressive statistical totals, including 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, one safety and three defensive touchdowns.

    Lewis was also named to 13 Pro Bowl teams and eight first-team All-Pro teams, won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2000 and 2003 and was the Super Bowl MVP in 2000. 

    He made a lasting impact on the NFL, but there is one player who tops him...

1. Lawrence Taylor

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    Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defender in NFL history.

    Not only did he revolutionize the outside linebacker position, but he is the only player in league history to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award three times—one of which he won as a rookie, in 1981.

    Taylor also won the NFL's MVP trophy in 1986, and he was a key member of the New York Giants' first two Super Bowl victories, in 1986 and 1990.

    He finished his 13-year career having been voted to 10 Pro Bowls and eight first-team All-Pro teams, and his 132.5 sacks ranks him No. 9 in NFL history.

     

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