NFL Power Rankings: Top 50 Greatest Defensive Players In NFL History

Dan MoriCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2010

NFL Power Rankings: Top 50 Greatest Defensive Players In NFL History

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The National Football League was formed in the 1920's, some nine decades ago.  Over that period, there have been many stars on both sides of the football.

    I will rank my top 50 greatest NFL defensive players, in the history of the league.  What were the factors I used to pick these great players?

    First, any defensive player in the Hall of Fame is a strong candidate.  Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections are also great indicators of how well a man played in his era, against his peers.

    Outstanding players who are currently active or have just recently retired and are not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame are also highly considered.

    The other criteria I used was longevity and the dominance that player displayed during his career. Obviously, there is a difference in style of play and athleticism over the decades, but what I was really looking for was the dominance of that player during his tenure in the league.

Honorable Mention

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    Troy Polamalu Heads My Honorable Mention ListScott Boehm/Getty Images

    Several players were very close to making the Top 50 list.  For a myriad of reasons, such as longevity, lack of Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections and the fact I may not have seen them play, I may have selected one player over another.  That in no way diminishes their contribution to the game.

    For this reason, I have also structured this list of players who just missed my Top 50.  These are my very deserving Honorable Mention players.

    Defensive Line:  Richard Dent, Julius Peppers, Art Donovan, Jim Marshall, Jack Youngblood, Bubba Smith, Fred Dean, Warren Sapp, Dwight Freeney, Doug Atkins.

    Linebackers:  Mike Curtis, Sam Huff, Clay Matthews, Dave Wilcox, Nick Buoniconti, Patrick Willis, Randy Gradishar

    Defensive Backs: Troy Polamalu, Willie Wood, Mel Renfro, Herb Adderley, Mike Haynes, Dick LeBeau

# 50 Jimmy Johnson

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    Jimmy Johnson Excelled In The 49er Defensive BackfieldEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Jimmy Johnson was a tremendous athlete and utilized his speed, leaping ability and understanding of the game to excel at the cornerback position.  Johnson played for the San Francisco 49ers for sixteen years, from 1961-1976.

    Great athleticism ran in the Johnson family as his brother Rafer was an Olympic Gold Medalist in the Decathlon. 

    Jimmy Johnson was a tremendous cover man who was so good that opposing quarterbacks rarely threw in his direction.  Even so, Johnson snatched 47 interceptions in his career.

    Johnson was a five time Pro Bowl selection and four time All-Pro.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

# 49 Lem Barney

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    Lem Barney Is Honored By The Detroit LionsA. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Lem Barney was one of the smoothest defensive backs to ever play the game of football.  He starred for the Detroit Lions for eleven years, from 1967-1977.

    Barney was an extremely versatile, all around player.  He played some wide receiver early in his career and also excelled on special teams as a return man.  Barney even punted for a couple seasons. Defensively, he was a shut down corner before the term became in vogue.

    Barney had 56 career interceptions, seven of which he returned for touchdowns.  He also returned two punts, one kickoff and one missed field goal to account for his eleven touchdowns.

    Lem Barney was a seven time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

# 48 Larry Wilson

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    Larry Wilson Along With Roger Wehrli At The Hall of FameAl Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Larry Wilson was a team leader for the St. Louis Cardinals for 13 seasons, from 1960-1972.  He played safety and utilized his quickness and intelligence to excel for the Cardinals.

    Wilson was the first defensive back to really perfect the safety blitz.  He had an uncanny knack of getting to the quarterback for a sack or hurrying him to make an errant throw. 

    Larry Wilson was also very good in the secondary and had 52 career interceptions. 

    Wilson was an eight time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.

    Following his playing career, Wilson was also a top executive for the Cardinals for 30 years. 

# 47 Charles Haley

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    Charles Haley Made A Career Out Of Harassing QuarterbacksGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Charles Haley was, at times, an unstoppable pass rushing defensive end.  He played 13 seasons in the NFL, with the 49ers from 1986-1991, the Cowboys.from 1992-1996, then back again with the 49ers from 1998-1999, after sitting out a year.

    Haley was an extremely volatile player who's demeanor and attitude often got him in trouble with the league and the teams he played for.  However, when Charles Haley was focused on football, there were few better.  He was one of the most feared pass rushers of his time.

    Haley finished his career with 100.5 sacks.  A true testament to his value is the fact that he was a defensive standout on five Super Bowl championship teams.

    Haley was a five time Pro Bowler and he was selected first team All-Pro twice. 

     

     

# 46 Brian Urlacher

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    Chicago Bear Linebacker Brian Urlacher Looks To Hit SomebodyGeoff Burke/Getty Images

    Brian Urlacher carries on the great tradition of outstanding inside linebackers for the Chicago Bears.  Currently in his 11th season, Urlacher joined the league in 2000 and has been a force ever since.

    A leader of the Bear defense, Urlacher is known for his hard hitting and intense demeanor. 

    Brian Urlacher is a six time Pro Bowl and four time All-Pro selection.  He was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

    Urlacher still has some mileage left and is on track to become a Hall of Fame selection, when eligible.

     

# 45 Howie Long

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    Howie Long Starred For The Raiders Then As A TV PersonalityMike Powell/Getty Images

    Defensive end Howie Long was a solid force along the Raider defensive line.  He combined excellent pass rush skills with strong play against the run.  He had 91.5 sacks for his career.

    Long played for the Raiders for 13 years, from 1981-1993.  Following his retirement, Long pursued an acting career and also became a studio analyst for Fox Sports' football broadcasts.

    Howie Long was an eight time Pro Bowl selection and earned All-Pro honors five times.  He was also named NFL Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 1985.

    Howie Long was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

# 44 Emmitt Thomas

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    Emmitt Thomas Is Honored At The Hall of FameAl Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The Kansas City Chief defenses of the 1960's and 70's had several star players.  Emmitt Thomas fit right in, as he played at a high level for his entire 13 year career with the Chiefs.

    Thomas was an excellent cover man who used his speed and quickness to grab 58 career interceptions, tenth all time in the NFL.  Following his playing days, Thomas became an NFL assistant coach for 30 years and is still active in that capacity.

    Emmitt Thomas was a five time Pro Bowl pick and four time All-Pro.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

# 43 Ed Reed

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    Ed Reed Returns An Interception For The RavensJim Rogash/Getty Images

    Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is an outstanding all around defensive back.  He is a devastating hitter and sure tackler.  In addition, Reed is extremely strong in pass coverage.

    Reed broke into the NFL in 2002 and is currently in his ninth season with Baltimore.  He has teamed with Ray Lewis to give Baltimore one of the strongest defenses in the league over the past several years.

    Ed Reed led the league in interceptions in 2004 and 2008.  He had missed the entire 2010 season thus far, due to injury.  He finally played in the Raven's seventh game of the season this past Sunday against Buffalo.  Reed showed his worth with two interceptions in his first game back and he now has 48 picks for his career. 

    Reed has six Pro Bowl appearances and six All-Pro selections to his credit.  He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004.

# 42 Kevin Greene

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    Kevin Greene Was A Feared Pass RusherGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Kevin Greene built his reputation as one of the top pass rushing defensive ends in NFL history.  He played for the Rams, Steelers, Panthers, 49ers and again with the Panthers. Greene's career spanned from 1985-1999.

    Greene utilized his explosiveness off the ball to get around offensive tackles and attack opposing quarterbacks.  As a pass rushing specialist, he combined power with outstanding speed and is third all time in the NFL, with 160 sacks.

    Kevin Greene was a five time Pro Bowler and three time All-Pro.  In 1996, Greene was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

# 41 Willie Brown

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    Willie Brown Played And Later Coached For The Oakland RaidersGetty Images/Getty Images

    Willie Brown began his career with the Denver Broncos, 1963-1966, but is best remembered for his time with the Oakland Raiders, from 1967-1978.  His 16 played years as an NFL cornerback and was one of the most consistent, reliable defenders of his era.

    Brown had 54 interceptions in his career, which is tied for 19th in NFL history, with Darrell Green.  He was a five time AFL All Star and four time Pro Bowl selection.

    Brown was generally regarded as a true student of the game and utilized his understanding and instincts to be a top cornerback for the Raiders.  He also had good speed and was an aggressive tackler and cover man.

    Following his playing career, Brown also coached the defensive backfield in Oakland for 26 years.

    Willie Brown was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

     

# 40 Darrell Green

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    Darrell Green Played Cornerback For The RedskinsDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Darrell Green played cornerback for the Washington Redskins for a record twenty years, from 1983-2002.  He displayed great speed and outstanding coverage skills over his long career.  Green's speed was the stuff of legend, as he won the NFL's Fastest Man competition four years in a row & never lost.

    Green had 54 interceptions in his illustrious career.  He had an interception in a record 19 consecutive seasons. 

    Green's longevity and durability was especially incredible because the cornerback position he played requires speed and athleticism in order to be effective.  No cornerback in the history of the game played as long as Green.

    Darrell Green was a seven time Pro Bowler and four time All-Pro selection.  he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

# 39 Bobby Bell

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    Bobby Bell Played Linebacker For The Kansas City ChiefsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Bobby Bell had the ideal size, speed and athletic ability to be an excellent outside linebacker.  He did not disappoint.  Bell played his entire 12 year career, from 1963-1974, with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    In addition to his physical ability, Bobby Bell was also known for his versatility and willingness to do anything that was asked of him.  His versatility was apparent in his productivity, as Bell had 40 sacks, 26 career interceptions and 9 touchdowns. 

    Bell was a six time All-AFL selection, as well as three time Pro Bowler and two time All-Pro.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

# 38 John Randle

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    John Randle Celebrates Another SackElsa/Getty Images

    John Randle was one of the most devastating pass rushers in the NFL.  He played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1990-2000 and Seattle Seahawks from 2001-2003. 

    Randle, who played the majority of his career at defensive tackle, amassed 137.5 sacks over his 14 year career, which is currently ranked sixth in NFL history.  He utilized his pure strength in a powerful bull rush up the middle of opposing offenses. 

    Randle was a consistent producer and had double digit sack totals in eight different seasons.  No other defensive tackle in the history of the league has more sacks than Randle.

    Randle was a seven time Pro Bowl selection and six time All-Pro.  He joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.

# 37 Ray Nitschke

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    Ray Nitschke Played 15 Seasons In Green BayJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    When you think of defense in the 60's, on the frozen tundra of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the first name that comes to mind is Ray Nitschke.  This blue collar mid American town had their own blue collar middle linebacker, and that was Nitschke.

    Nitschke was the heart and soul of the staunch Packer defenses under Vince Lombardi.  He was a team leader and his intensity and competitiveness rubbed off on his teammates.

    He was especially known for his bruising style and strong tackling ability.  Not only a run stuffer, Nitschke also intercepted 25 passes from his linebacker spot.

    Ray Nitschke was a seven time All-Pro selection and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978.

     

# 36A Derrick Brooks

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    Derrick Brooks Was Dominant For The Tampa Bay BuccaneersDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    I have listed Derrick Brooks as 36A because I originally left him off the list.  After taking a much closer look at his productivity, I feel I must add him and did not want to drop another player off the ranking.

    Derrick Brooks was one of the most productive linebackers of his time.  He was a very fine all around linebacker in his 14 years in the NFL.  He played his entire career with Tampa Bay, from 1995-2008.

    Derrick Brooks made the Pro Bowl eleven times and was a nine time All-Pro selection.  Brooks was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2002.

    I believe that Brooks has everything required to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, when eligible.

# 36 Lee Roy Selmon

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    Lee Roy Selmon Is Honored In Tampa BayJ. Meric/Getty Images

    Lee Roy Selmon was the first ever draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  He played 13 years with the Buccaneers, from 1976-1984.  An expansion team, Tampa Bay had their share of growing pains, but the one constant reliable force was Lee Roy Selmon.

    Selmon was an outstanding all around defensive end for the Bucs, over his career.  He combined strong play against the run with an imposing pass rush.  These skills earned him six Pro Bowl selections and five All-Pro awards.

    Lee Roy Selmon was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1979.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

     

# 35 Buck Buchanan

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    Buck Buchanan Is Honored At The Pro Bowl In HawaiiGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Buck Buchanan played for the Kansas City Chiefs for 13 years, from 1963-1975.  When he joined the league, there were no players that had the combination of size and athletic ability, like Buchanan.

    Buchanan was an imposing 6' 7" tall and 287 pounds.  He utilized his tremendous size and strength with speed that was uncommon for a man that big.  In one season alone, he batted down 16 passes.  Buchanan was a true athletic marvel at the defensive tackle position. 

    Buck Buchanan was also incredibly durable, as he missed only one game in his 13 year career.  He was a six time All AFL selection and two time Pro Bowler, after the AFL and NFL merged.

    Buck Buchanan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

     

# 34 Mel Blount

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    Mel Blount Was A Tough Cornerback For PittsburghGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    There may have been some cornerbacks blessed with more speed than Mel Blount.  There also may have been cornerbacks that hit harder than Mel Blount.  However, very few combined both skills better than this great Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback.

    Mel Blount was a force in the Steeler defensive backfield. He combined speed, power, aggressiveness and intelligence to be one of the greatest corners in NFL history.  Blount has been described as the prototypical NFL cornerback.

    Blount had 57 career interceptions, which ranked 11th all time in league history.  He was a five time Pro Bowler and six time All-Pro selection.  Blount also helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships.

    Mel Blount was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989.

     

# 33 Chris Doleman

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    Chris Doleman Chases Down An Opposing QuarterbackJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Chris Doleman had a stellar career that took many turns.  In his 15 NFL seasons, he played for the Vikings, Falcons, 49ers and again with the Vikings.

    As a defensive end, Chris Doleman was the prototypical player that every team wanted.  He combined strength with speed and a great burst off the line of scrimmage to attack the quarterback.

    Chris Doleman collected 150.5 sacks, which ranks fourth in the NFL.  Doleman had eight Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections to his credit.

     

# 32 Harry Carson

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    Harry Carson With His Hall of Fame Bust In Canton OhioDoug Benc/Getty Images

    Harry Carson was not the most electrifying or dynamic defensive player on his own team.  However, he was one of the steadiest and reliable performers of his day.  Carson was known for being a sure tackler and was also effective on the blitz.

    Carson played inside linebacker for the New York Giants over his entire 13 year career, from 1976-1988. 

    He was an intense leader of the Giants defense and handled all of the defensive calls for his team.  He was captain of that defense for ten years, which shows the respect his teammates and the coaching staff had for his outstanding play and leadership ability.

    Carson was a nine time Pro Bowl selection and a six time All-Pro.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

      

     

# 31 Michael Strahan

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    Michael Strahan Helps The Giants Win Super Bowl XLIIStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Michael Strahan played his entire 15 year career with the New York Giants.  He was a dominant defensive end who was effective against the run and in pass rushing situations.

    Strahan was the leader of some of the strongest defensive lines in football, during the time he played.  He was a seven time Pro Bowler and six time All-Pro selection. 

    Strahan is fifth all time in career sacks with 141.5.  He also holds the NFL single season record with 22.5 sacks in the 2001 season.

    Michael Strahan was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2001.  He will be a Hall of Famer when eligible.

     

# 30 Willie Lanier

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    Willie Lanier Was A Mainstay For The Chiefs For 11 YearsBrian Bahr/Getty Images

    Willie Lanier was the middle linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs for eleven years.  He played from 1967-1977 and was a leader of the defense.

    Lanier was a smart player who was also a very sure tackler.  His nickname was "Contact" because of his hard hits on the opposition.  Lanier was also a tough, intense and durable player.  He missed only five games in his career.

    Willie Lanier was an eight time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

# 29 Paul Krause

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    Paul Krause Accepts The Cheers Of The Viking FansAl Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Paul Krause played for two teams, the Redskins and the Vikings, over his 16 year NFL career.  He is best known for his ball hawking style at the safety position over his dozen years with Minnesota.

    His nose for the ball served him well, as Krause leads the NFL with a record 81 career interceptions.  He was an eight time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.

    Paul Krause was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

# 28 Jack Lambert

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    Jack Lambert Accepts An Award At The Pro Bowl In HawaiiGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    During his playing days, middle linebacker Jack Lambert was one of the most gritty, hard nosed players in the NFL.  He was a vital cog of the great Steel Curtain defenses of the 70's. 

    Jack Lambert was a true blue collar linebacker who played his entire 11 year career in Pittsburgh, from 1974-1984.  Lambert was an impact defender in four Super Bowl championships for the Steelers.

    Lambert was an aggressive tackler, who was adept at either avoiding blockers or powering right through them to get to the ball carrier.  He was a nine time Pro Bowl selection and an eight time All-Pro.  Lambert was also the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1976.

    Jack Lambert was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

     

# 27 Dick Lane

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    Dick "Night Train" Lane Ended His Career With The Detroit LionsJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Dick "Night Train" Lane was a fierce competitor and a punishing tackler.  Lane was one of the first defensive backs that struck fear into opposing receivers with his aggressive style of play.  He was an intimidating force and known for his devastating hits.  

    Lane was more than just a big hitter, however.  He utilized his excellent speed and coverage skills to account for 68 career interceptions, which is fourth all time.

    Dick "Night Train" Lane played for the LA Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions, over his 14 year career.  He was a seven time Pro Bowl selection and ten time All-Pro. 

    Dick Lane was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974.

     

# 26 Joe Schmidt

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    Joe Schmidt Played Middle Linebacker For The Detroit LionsScott Boehm/Getty Images

    Joe Schmidt played for the Detroit Lions for 13 seasons, from 1953-1965.  He was a sure tackler and an outstanding field leader for his team. 

    Joe Schmidt's intelligence and savvy helped gain him recognition as one of the leading middle linebackers of his time.  In 1957, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Schmidt was a ten time Pro Bowler and nine time All-Pro selection.  Following his playing career, the loyal Lion became the head coach of the team from 1967-1972.

    Joe Schmidt was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

# 25 Jack Ham

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    Jack Ham Was A Star Outside Linebacker For PittsburghAl Bello/Getty Images

    Jack Ham was the model for an outside linebacker.  He possessed speed, power and smarts to excel over his 12 year career.  Ham played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1971-1982. 

    Jack Ham was known for his versatility, as he was equally adept against the run, on the pass rush or in pass coverage. Ham is credited with 32 interceptions, 25 sacks and 21 fumble recoveries.  His 32 interceptions rank him third among all NFL linebackers.

    An eight time Pro Bowl selection, Jack Ham was also named All-Pro in nine seasons.  Ham was an integral player on Pittsburgh's incredible Steel Curtain defenses.  He was also named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1975.

    Jack Ham was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

# 24 Ernie Stautner

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    Ernie Stautner Starred For The Pittburgh SteelersEliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Ernie Stautner was a defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He played his entire 14 year career with the Steelers, from 1950-1963.

    At 6' 1" and 230 pounds, Stautner was smaller than most NFL linemen at the time.  He displayed tremendous grit, toughness and determination, which made him an outstanding player.

    Stautner was a nine time Pro Bowler and ten time All-Pro selection.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.

     

# 23 Ted Hendricks

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    Ted Hendricks Was An Imposing Sight At 6' 7"Getty Images/Getty Images

    Ted Hendricks, "The Mad Stork", was a huge figure on the football field.  He stood 6' 7" tall and had an imposing wing span.

    Hendricks played for three teams, the Colts, Packers and Raiders, over his 15 NFL seasons. He was extremely durable, having played in 215 consecutive games.  His value as a player is exemplified by the fact that Hendricks was a key force on four Super Bowl winning teams.

    Ted Hendricks was a great all around linebacker, intercepting 26 passes, recovering 16 fumbles and collecting 60.5 sacks in his career.  He also utilized his height and reach to block an astonishing 25 kicks.

    Ted Hendricks played in eight Pro Bowls and was selected as an All-Pro nine times.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990.

# 22 Derrick Thomas

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    Derrick Thomas Was A Sack Master For The ChiefsElsa/Getty Images

    I can best describe Derrick Thomas' career like a super nova.  He shot onto the scene in 1989 and played eleven stellar seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.  Then, it was over.

    Thomas' life was tragically cut short at the age of 33, due to complications resulting from an automobile accident in 2000.  If not for his death, Thomas probably could have continued playing effectively for another three to four years, which would have further raised his career stats.

    Derrick Thomas played the pass rushing linebacker / defensive end position.  He utilized his speed and explosive burst off the line of scrimmage to get to opposing quarterbacks.  He still holds a league record with seven sacks in one game. 

    Thomas was a nine time Pro Bowl selection and garnered All-Pro honors six times.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

     

# 21 Chuck Bednarik

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    An Eagle Soars Over The American FlagDonald Miralle/Getty Images

    Chuck Bednarik played his entire 14 year NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles, from 1949-1962.  Bednarik was the last regular two way player, starring as a linebacker and center.  He would often play virtually every minute of a game.

    Known for his hard hitting and sure tackling, Bednarik was an eight time Pro Bowl selection and ten time All-Pro.  He was also extremely reliable, having missed only three games in his entire career.

    Chuck Bednarik was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

# 20 Andy Robustelli

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    Andy Robustelli Was A Star For The New York GiantsChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Andy Robustelli was one of the best defensive ends in the history of the NFL.  He was small for his position at only 6'0" tall and 230 pounds.  Even at this size, Robustelli was an outstanding pass rusher, as he combined speed, strength and intelligence to get the job done.

    Robustelli played for two teams in his 14 seasons, the Rams from 1951-1955 and the Giants from 1956-1964.  His durability was remarkable for a player of his size on the defensive line, as he missed only one game in his career.

    A seven time Pro Bowler, Robustelli also was a ten time All-Pro honoree.  Andy Robustelli was also named league MVP in 1962, as he won the Bert Bell Award.  He is only the third defensive player to ever win the award.  The others were Lawrence Taylor and Merlin Olsen.

    Andy Robustelli was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

# 19 Deion Sanders

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    "Neon" Deion Sanders Returns An InterceptionAl Bello/Getty Images

    Deion Sanders was one of the biggest self promoting stars to ever put on a football uniform.  Always the showman, Sanders was known as "Neon Deion" and "Prime Time" for his uncanny ability to shine in the big games.

    His self promotion would not have gone over well if Deion Sanders was not an outstanding player.  As a cornerback, Sanders was perhaps the greatest one on one cover man ever to play the game.  He had the ability to take a team's best receiver completely out of the game and basically shut down an entire side of the field for his defense.

    Sanders played for 14 years on five different teams, the Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins and Ravens.  Neon Deion earned eight Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.  In 1994, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Sanders also played pro baseball in addition to football.  Doing double duty proved too difficult with the overlapping seasons, so Sanders left the NFL for three years to play baseball.  A testament to his tremendous athletic ability is the fact that, in addition to starring in the NFL, he played in the Major Leagues with the Braves, Reds and Giants.

    "Prime Time" was one of the fastest players to ever play in the NFL.  He had 52 interceptions over his 14 year career.

    Deion Sanders was also extremely dangerous returning kicks and also played some wide receiver.  Sanders scored 22 touchdowns, nine on interception returns, six punt returns, three kickoff returns, three receiving and one fumble recovery.

    Deion Sanders is sure to be elected to the Hall of Fame, when eligible.

# 18 Mike Singletary

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    Chicago Bears Middle Linebacker Mike SingletaryJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Mike Singletary was considered undersized by the NFL scouts.  He was 6' tall and played at 230 lbs..  Coming out of Baylor, even though he was a two time All-American, Singletary was not even drafted in the first round, due to his relatively short stature.

    Mike Singletary played middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears, where he was known for his fiery temperament, intense competitiveness and outstanding leadership skills. 

    Singletary was a ten time Pro Bowler and nine time All-Pro selection in his 12 years with the Bears.  He was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988.

    Mike Singletary was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

    Currently the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Singletary is trying to bring the same level of intensity to the 49ers, as he displayed as a player with the Bears.

# 17 Emlen Tunnell

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    Emlen Tunnell Is Second In All Time Interceptions With 79.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Emlen Tunnell was a defensive back over the duration of his 14 year career, which spanned 1948-1961.  Tunnell played eleven of those years with the New York Giants, then rounded out his career with three seasons with the Packers.

    When Tunnell ended his career, he was the career leader in interceptions with 79.  Paul Krause later passed him with 81.  

    Emlen Tunnell was a nine time Pro Bowler and eight time All-Pro award winner.  He was the first African-American elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

     

# 16 Randy White

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    Randy White Was A Leader On Defense For The Dallas CowboysOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Randy White combined speed, strength and agility to become a star at the defensive tackle position for the Dallas Cowboys.  The athleticism he displayed was unheard of for a player at his position.

    White was the anchor of the Dallas defensive line, that also included stars Harvey Martin and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.  He played for the Cowboys over his entire 14 year career, which spanned 1975-1988. 

    Randy White was a nine time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. Durability was a trademark for White, as he played in 209 games, missing only one game in his career. 

    White was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

# 15 Leo Nomellini

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    Leo "The Lion" NomelliniGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Leo Nomellini played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1950-1963.  He was the 49ers first ever draft choice in 1950.  Over that fourteen year period, Nomellini never missed a game.

    Leo "The Lion" was a tough, nose to the grindstone type of player.  He played defensive tackle and also doubled as an offensive tackle over his career.  He was so proficient at each position that he won awards on both sides of the ball.

    Nomellini was a ten time Pro Bowl selection and nine time All-Pro.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.

# 14 Rod Woodson

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    Rod Woodson Is The Career Leader In Interception Return YardageGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Rod Woodson was a dynamic player and one of the most exciting athletes in the history of the NFL.  His 71 career interceptions rank third in the history of the league.  Woodson is the all time leader in interception return yardage.  His ten interceptions returned for touchdowns is also an NFL record.

    Rod Woodson played in the defensive backfield for 17 seasons, ten of which were with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Woodson also had stints with the 49ers, Ravens and Raiders.

    Woodson has an amazing 32 fumble recoveries, a record that still stands today.  He was also a prolific punt and kickoff return man having taken back four returns for scores.

    Rod Woodson was an 11 time Pro Bowl selection and 8 time All-Pro.  In 1993, Woodson was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

     

# 13 Junior Seau

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    Junior Seau Was An Outstanding Linebacker For 20 YearsTom Pidgeon/Getty Images

    Junior Seau gets my nod for this spot because he was a great player and due to his incredible longevity.  Seau played at an incredibly high level for three teams, the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots over his twenty year career.

    Seau is a twelve time Pro Bowler and also earned All-Pro honors nine times.  He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992.

    Known for his durability, toughness and leadership ability, Junior Seau will undoubtedly be a Hall of Fame selection, when eligible.

     

# 12 Merlin Olsen

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    Merlin Olsen Was A Mainstay Of The LA Rams' Defensive LineJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Merlin Olsen was solid as a rock in the middle of the defensive line for the LA Rams.  Olsen, along with Deacon Jones, led the Fearsome Foursome of the 60's and 70's.

    Merlin Olsen played in the NFL for 15 years, from 1962 - 1976.  Olsen was a Pro Bowl selection 14 times and was a ten time All-Pro. 

    Olsen was also named league MVP in 1974, as he won the Bert Bell Award for the NFL's best player.  Only two other defensive players in the history of the league have won the award, Lawrence Taylor  in 1986 and Andy Robustelli in 1962.

    Merlin Olsen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. 

    Following his playing career, Olsen also gained fame as a football broadcaster and an actor.

# 11 Deacon Jones

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    Deacon Jones Led The Fearsome Foursome of the LA RamsRick Stewart/Getty Images

    David "Deacon" Jones led the awesome defensive line of the Los Angeles Rams, known as "The Fearsome Foursome".  Jones was a defensive end and pass rusher extraordinaire, who played in the NFL for 14 years.

    Jones is best known for the eleven years he played for the Rams, from 1961-1971.  He moved on to play two seasons with the San Diego Chargers, before finishing out his career with the Redskins for one year.

    Deacon Jones was one of the first defensive ends to perfect the art of rushing and sacking a quarterback.  Jones used his excellent speed and powerful first step to victimize opposing tackles.  He collected 179.5 sacks over his career, which was third all time. 

    An eight time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, I would categorize Deacon Jones as the NFL's first great pass rushing defensive end.  Jones was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1967 and 1968.   

    Deacon Jones changed the game of football.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

     

# 10 Ronnie Lott

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    Ronnie Lott Helped Lead The 49ers To Four Super Bowl WinsGetty Images/Getty Images

    No defensive back in the history of professional football played with the intensity and determination of Ronnie Lott.  He would strike fear into the hearts of opposing wide receivers because of his devastating hits.

    Lott began his career as a cornerback & later switched to safety, where he was able to roam the field and deliver those bone jarring hits with much more regularity.  So intense was Lott that he once cut off the tip of his broken finger just so he could continue playing without missing any time on the field.

    Ronnie Lott played for four teams, the 49ers, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs, during his 15 year NFL career.  He is best known for the ten years he played in San Francisco, where he led the 49er defense to four Super Bowl victories.

    Not all of Ronnie Lott's success came solely from his big hits and intimidation of the opposing receivers.  Lott was also a good cover man and had 63 interceptions over his career.

    Ronnie Lott also provided his teams with tremendous intangibles, such as leadership and a keen understanding of the game.  Lott was like a coach out on the field and his knowledge, intensity and passion for the game rubbed off on his teammates.

    Lott was a ten time Pro Bowl selection and was named first team All-Pro eight times.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

# 9 Bruce Smith

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    Hall of Fame Defensive End Bruce SmithJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Bruce Smith played at the highest level for 19 years in the NFL.  His first 15 years were with the Buffalo Bills, then he finished out his career with the Washington Redskins.

    Bruce Smith was a dynamic edge pass rusher from the defensive end position.  He is the NFL's career leader in sacks with 200.

    Durability was another Smith characteristic as he played in 279 games.  He was a dominant pass rusher, as his three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards confirm.

    Bruce Smith was an 11 time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

     

# 8 Bob Lilly

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    Bob Lilly Was A Pillar of Strength For The Dallas DefenseStephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Bob Lilly played defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys from 1961-1974.  The defense was known as "The Doomsday Defense" and Bob Lilly was the driving force along the interior line.

    Durability was a trademark of Bob Lilly, as he played in 196 consecutive games.  His strength in the middle of the Cowboys defense forced the opposition to utilize more than one blocker to slow him down.  The extra attention an offense paid to Lilly also made things much easier for his teammates.

    Lilly went to the Pro Bowl eleven times and was a nine time All-Pro.  His greatest honors include being affectionately known as "Mr. Cowboy" and the fact that he was the first Cowboy player to be inducted into the Dallas Cowboy Ring of Honor.

    Bob Lilly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

# 7 Alan Page

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    Alan Page Led The Vikings DefenseAl Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Alan Page was a stellar defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears.  Page played for fifteen years, from 1967-1981.  In his first eleven years with the Vikings, Page led the defense known as The Purple People Eaters.

    Page was a fixture on the defensive line, having played in 218 consecutive games.  He was a nine time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, while with the Vikings.

    In 1971, Page was the first defensive player to be named MVP.  He was also the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1971 and 1973.

    In his fifteen year career, Page accounted for 148.5 sacks and 22 fumble recoveries.  Page's reliability and consistently high level of play were something his teammates and coaches could always count on.

    Alan Page was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

     

# 6 Gino Marchetti

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    Defensive End Gino Marchetti Starred For The ColtsJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    In 1969, Gino Marchetti was selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the greatest defensive end in pro football history.  He played in the NFL for 15 outstanding seasons, spanning 1952-1966. 

    Marchetti was a mainstay along the defensive front for the Baltimore Colts for 14 of those 15 years.  He also starting his career and played one season with the Dallas Texans.

    Marchetti was a tough, hard nosed competitor, who was selected to the Pro Bowl eleven times and was an All-Pro ten times.  Marchetti helped lead the Colts to two NFL titles.  He was inducted into the pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.

# 5 Reggie White

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    Reggie White, The Minister of DefenseOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In his 15 year NFL career, Reggie White played for three teams, the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers.  Known as "The Minister of Defense", White wreaked havoc in opposing backfields.

    Reggie White was credited with 198.5 sacks, second all time to Bruce Smith.  White also was twice named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Known for his tenacious pass rush from the defensive end position, Reggie White earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 13 out of his 15 NFL seasons. 

    Unfortunately, White's life was cut short, as he passed away at the age of 43, only four years after his retirement from the NFL.  White was an ordained minister at the time of his death and he will always be remembered as a feared and relentless player, but also as a caring, compassionate human being.

    Reggie White was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

# 4 Joe Greene

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    Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh SteelersKen Levine/Getty Images

    Mean Joe Greene is arguably the greatest defensive tackle in NFL history.  He led the defense for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was known as the Steel Curtain.

    The Steelers won four world championships in the 1970's.  Joe Greene anchored the defense that literally seemed like an impenetrable curtain of steel to opposing offenses.

    Joe Greene played 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, from 1969-1981.  True to his nickname, Mean Joe played like a possessed and very angry man.  He struck fear into the opposition.

    Greene was selected to ten Pro Bowls and received All-Pro honors eight times.  He was also named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974. 

    Joe Greene was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

     

# 3 Ray Lewis

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    Ray Lewis Is A Dominant Force For The Baltimore RavensAndrew Burton/Getty Images

    Ray Lewis is the undisputed leader of the Baltimore Ravens defense.  Lewis is a tough, physical linebacker who also makes his teammates better by the sheer will of his personality.

    Lewis is in his 15th NFL season, all with the Baltimore Ravens. He has been selected to eleven Pro Bowls and received All-Pro honors on nine separate occasions.

    Ray Lewis was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in both 2000 and 2003.  The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, following the 2000 season.  Lewis led a terrifying defense which simply pounded the opposition into submission.  Lewis was named MVP of the Super Bowl.

    When his playing career is over, Ray Lewis will be a certain Hall of Fame inductee.

# 2 Dick Butkus

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    Chicago Bear legend Dick ButkusGeorge Rose/Getty Images

    Dick Butkus was the epitome of the aggressive, tough, hard nosed middle linebacker.  In his nine seasons with the Chicago Bears, 1965-1973, Butkus was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times.

    Considered one of the most feared players in the league, Butkus was also an eight time All-Pro selection. Injuries cut his career short, after nine incredible years.

    Everyone knew that when you played the Chicago Bears, you had better watch out for Dick Butkus.  He was the best defensive player of his day.

    Dick Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

     

# 1 Lawrence Taylor

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    Lawrence Taylor of the New York GiantsKen Levine/Getty Images

    No one player changed the game of football on defense like Lawrence Taylor.  He was an imposing physical specimen who combined tremendous speed and raw power as a pass rushing outside linebacker for the New York Giants.

    Taylor was a ten time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.  His incredible pass rushing ability dominated the game and changed pass blocking schemes forever.

    Taylor gets my vote as number one, in a close call over Dick Butkus.  His thirteen seasons, compared to nine for Butkus was a key decision point.

    Taylor led the Giants defense in their two Super Bowl triumphs.  He was also named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year a record three times.

    In 1986, Lawrence Taylor garnered 20.5 sacks and was only the third defensive player ever to be named league MVP, as he won the Bert Bell Award for the NFL's top player.

    In my opinion, Lawrence Taylor is quite simply the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.