Best Defensive Linemen Not In the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Our position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame now shifts from offense to defense, as we look at the best defensive linemen who have not yet earned a bust in Canton.
From Art Donovan, Deacon Jones and Ben Davidson to Bubba Smith, Mark Gastineau, and Michael Strahan, NFL history is filled with charismatic defensive linemen who were recognized not just for their talent, but also for their showmanship and flamboyance.
Defensive line units have also regularly been fan favorites with names such as “Doomsday”, “The Fearsome Foursome”, “The Purple Gang” and “The Steel Curtain.”
Defensive linemen have also been well respected by Hall of Fame voters, as the position is second only to the offensive line in the number of modern era players enshrined in the Hall.
However, much like offensive linemen, because statistics are inconsistent and tell only a part of the story, ensuring that the most deserving defensive linemen are inducted is a tough challenge.
Though some recognition was given to the sack as far back as the 1960s and sack leaders were printed on Topps football cards in the 1970s, the sack wasn’t recognized as an official statistic until 1982.
This provides a challenge for some of the best defensive linemen of the 1960s and 1970s who were known for their pass-rushing ability, but don’t have the same “numbers” to show for their prowess as players of the last three decades.
There are, of course, also great defensive linemen who were primarily run stuffers and didn’t have impressive stat totals, regardless of whether they played prior to or after the sack became a recognized stat.
In selecting the best defensive linemen not in the Hall of Fame, I looked at the individual statistics of post-1982 candidates, but also looked at overall team defensive prowess for players from all eras.
I also analyzed how each candidate compared to players of their own era in regard to Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.
Selecting the top 10, and even the best 25, was quite a challenge. There are many great defensive linemen who have yet to receive the call from Canton, but who were regular participants in the Pro Bowl or key performers on championship teams.
One player who ended up being ranked much lower on the list than one might expect is former Viking Jim Marshall.
At the time of his retirement, Marshall had played in more games than any other player in NFL history. On the famous "Purple Gang" that included Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page, Marshall was generally considered to be equal to those two greats.
However, when comparing his credentials with those of other similar defenders, Marshall surprisingly didn’t stack up. He participated in only two Pro Bowls and was never an All-Pro.
In addition, Marshall famously was man handled by a variety of offensive linemen in the four Super Bowl appearances for the Vikings.
Despite being eligible for the HOF for 25 years, Marshall has been a finalist only once, in 2004.
So, here is my list of the top 10 eligible defensive linemen not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I look forward to your comments, discussion, and disagreements.
Best of the Rest
To help frame the conversation and provide an understanding of which defensive linemen received significant consideration for this list of the top 10 eligible defensive linemen not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, here are the players who earned spots 11-25 on my list.
Though the defensive line is second only to the offensive line in the number of players already inducted into the Hall of Fame, there are still many quality defensive linemen that have yet to be honored by the HOF.
Among the players who were seriously considered for the top 25, but fell just short, were: Bill Stanfill, Houston Antwine, Bob Baumhower, Lyle Alzado, Earl Faison, Bob Gain, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, Rosey Grier, Charles Mann, Dave Butz, and Gerry Philbin.
Only players who are currently eligible for the Hall of Fame were considered.
11. Harvey Martin
12. Ray Childress
13. Joe Klecko
14. Curley Culp
15. Bud McFadin
16. Gene Brito
17. Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb
18. Rich Jackson
19. Jerry Mays
20. Jim Katcavage
21. Michael Dean Perry
22. Fred Smerlas
23. Jim Marshall
24. Mark Gastineau
25. Larry Brooks
10. Neil Smith – Kansas City Chiefs/Denver Broncos/San Diego Chargers – 1988-2000
As one of the premier defensive linemen of the 1990s, Neil Smith excelled both in stuffing the run and in rushing the passer.
Playing on the same unit as Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas, Smith often occupied multiple defenders to allow Thomas to find a clear path to the quarterback.
A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Smith earned All-Pro honors when he registered a career-high 15 sacks in 1993.
After nine seasons in Kansas City, Smith moved to Denver and helped the Broncos earn back-to-back Super Bowl championships.
He finished his career with 104.5 sacks and 19 fumble recoveries.
9. Alex Karras – Detroit Lions – 1962-1978
Before earning fame as an actor and broadcaster, Alex Karras spent 12 seasons clogging the middle as a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro, Karras was one of several defensive stars on a Detroit team that struggled throughout the 1960s.
Karras missed the 1963 season after being suspended by the league for gambling, but returned in 1964 and played for the Lions through the 1970 season.
Detroit twice led the NFL in rushing defensive with Karras anchoring the defensive front.
8. Charles Haley – San Francisco 49ers/Dallas Cowboys – 1986-1999
A versatile defensive player, Charles Haley could be considered either as a linebacker or defensive end, but for this list, I considered him a defensive lineman because of his prowess as a rush specialist for much of his career.
A dynamic game-changing pass rusher, Haley helped the San Francisco 49ers to a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1988 and 1989.
He proved to be the missing piece in the puzzle for the Dallas Cowboys, as his arrival in Dallas for the 1992 season coincided with the first of three Super Bowl championships for Dallas.
Despite being hampered by back problems, Haley was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and twice earned first-team All-Pro recognition.
He had six seasons of double digit sacks, including a career-high 16 in 1990. He finished with 100.5 career sacks.
Haley is the only player in NFL history to have played on five Super Bowl Champion teams.
7. Claude Humphrey – Atlanta Falcons/Philadelphia Eagles – 1968-1981
Two factors have combined to hamper the Hall of Fame chances for Claude Humphrey.
First off, Humphrey spent much of his career toiling away in relative obscurity for the Atlanta Falcons during their first decade as an NFL franchise.
Secondly, Humphrey’s career sack totals are very impressive, but because he played prior to 1982, they are not officially recognized.
Only 12 players since 1982 have registered more sacks than the 122 Humphrey posted in his career.
Humphrey was the Defensive Rookie of the Year when he registered 11.5 sacks in 1968. He went on to earn Pro Bowl honors six times and was twice a first team All-Pro selection.
After being traded to Philadelphia, Humphrey recorded 14.5 sacks during the 1980 season to help the Eagles advance to the Super Bowl.
Overlooked by the Hall of Fame voters for nearly 20 years, Humphrey was selected as a finalist for the first time in 2003 and has been a finalist for the Hall four times since without yet earning selection.
6. Roger Brown – Detroit Lions/Los Angeles Rams – 1960-1969
With Alex Karras and Roger Brown manning the tackle positions, the Detroit Lions had one of the toughest defensive front lines in the league during the 1960s.
While Karras often received more of the publicity, Brown earned a reputation as one of the best players in the league.
He was recognized as the top defensive lineman in the NFL in 1962, was selected to six Pro Bowls, and twice was a first team All-Pro.
After seven seasons in Detroit, Brown was traded to Los Angeles where he joined Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy to form the “Fearsome Foursome.”
He was selected to the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Rams and played with them for three seasons before retiring in 1969.
Surprisingly, Brown has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame.
5. Chris Doleman – Minnesota Vikings/Atlanta Falcons/San Francisco 49ers – 1985-1999
One of the top pass rushers of his era, Chris Doleman was a dominant defensive player for more than a decade.
In Minnesota, he teamed with Keith Millard to give the Vikings one of the top pass rushes in the league.
In 1989, Doleman led the league with 21 sacks while Millard added 18.
Doleman registered double-digit sack numbers eight times during his career and his 150.5 career sacks ranks fourth on the career list. He also had 44 forced fumbles and recovered 24 fumbles.
He earned eight Pro Bowl appearances and was a two-time first team All-Pro.
Though Doleman has been eligible for the Hall of Fame for the last five years, he has yet to be a selection finalist.
4. Richard Dent –Chicago Bears/San Francisco 49ers/Indianapolis Colts/Philadelphia Eagles – 1983-1997
Former Chicago Bears standout Richard Dent has been tantalizingly close to earning induction in the Hall of fame in recent years. He has been a finalist five of the last six years, including the last three, but has yet to make the cut.
One of the top pass rushers of the 1980s, Dent teamed with Hall of Famer Dan Hampton to provide the Bears with a dominating front line during their glory years of the mid-1980s.
In just his second season in the league, Dent led the NFC with 17.5 sacks in 1984. The following year he led the NFL with 17 sacks, as the Bears posted a 15-1 record and dominated the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
Dent was named MVP of the Super Bowl, registering two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.
During his career, Dent reached double digits in sacks eight times, and at the time of his retirement trailed only Hall of Famers Reggie White and Bruce Smith in career sacks with 137.5.
He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and earned first team All-NFL honors in 1985.
3. L.C. Greenwood – Pittsburgh Steelers– 1969-1981
While there may be members of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers who were questionable Hall of Fame selections, L.C. Greenwood is one member of the great Pittsburgh teams that should have a spot in Canton.
As the outside pass rusher from the left side, the 6'5" Greenwood made life miserable for quarterbacks across the NFL for more than a decade.
The Steel Curtain of the 1970s was one of the top defenses in NFL history. They led the NFL in points allowed and total defense twice, and were regularly among the top ranked units in the league.
Greenwood, who was famous for wearing his gold shoes, was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and twice earned first team All-Pro recognition.
Given that the Hall of Fame selection committee has displayed a penchant for selecting members of the 1970s Pittsburgh teams—nine players from the squad are in the Hall of Fame—it is surprising that Greenwood has yet to earn induction.
He has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame six times, most recently in 2006.
2. Cortez Kennedy – Seattle Seahawks – 1990-2000
It should be only a matter of time before Cortez Kennedy earns his well-deserved spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of the dominant defensive players of the 1990s, Kennedy earned Pro Bowl recognition eight times in 11 seasons and was a three-time first team All-Pro.
Kennedy was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 when he registered a career-high 14 tackles from his defensive tackle position.
Also known as a dominant run stuffer, Kennedy recorded 58 career sacks and more than 700 tackles.
He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2009, and will likely be among those selected within the next couple years.
1. John Randle – Minnesota Vikings/Seattle Seahawks – 1990-2003
One of the most explosive defensive tackles of his generation, it won’t take long before John Randle takes his rightful place among the NFL legends.
In 14 NFL seasons, Randle combined speed and power to develop into the premier defensive player in the league. He earned seven Pro Bowl selections and was a first team All-Pro six times.
Randle registered a career-high 15.5 sacks to lead the NFL in 1997 and recorded double digits in sacks nine times.
After establishing himself at the tackle position, he also spent three years playing defensive end.
Randle completed his career with 137.5 sacks and 29 forced fumbles.
He was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2009 and should be among those honored with induction in the very near future.