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The 10 Biggest Game-Changing Defensive Players in the History of the NFL

Bryn SwartzSenior Writer IIIJanuary 8, 2017

The 10 Biggest Game-Changing Defensive Players in the History of the NFL

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    Mike Powell/Getty Images

    There is virtually nothing more exciting than a game-changing player on defense.

    You know, the type of player who can intercept a pass and return it 83 yards for a touchdown. Or the player who can sack the quarterback, force a fumble, recover the fumble and rumble 25 yards to give his team excellent field position. Or even the linebacker who holds the other team's running back to 38 yards on 20 carries. 

    The best game-changing players are almost always the best defensive players. Remember a game changer isn't always a playmaker. For a modern example, take Nnamdi Asomugha of the Oakland Raiders. He's intercepted one pass in the past three seasons, yet he's one of the biggest game-changing defensive players in the game today. Why? Because he is so good that teams just don't throw his way. 

    The following list includes the 10 biggest game-changing defensive players in the history of the National Football League. With a list like 10, it's impossible to put every great player on the list. As great as players like Bob Lilly, Merlin Olsen, Rod Woodson and Mike Singletary were, they just didn't quite make this list.  

10. Deion Sanders, Cornerback

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    Sanders beats out Rod Woodson and Mel Blount for the final spot on this list. Neon Deion is one of the most exciting players in the history of the National Football League (even though he couldn't have tackled his own mother), and that's even if we don't count his abilities as a return man (or a baseball player). 

    He returned 53 interceptions for 1,331 yards and nine touchdowns during his 14-season career, and that includes five interceptions (one for a touchdown) as a 37 and 38-year old for the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and 2005.

    In 1994, Sanders joined the San Francisco 49ers and intercepted six passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, including a 93-yard interception touchdown in his return to Atlanta's Georgia Dome—the same stadium he spent the first five years of his career. He earned Defensive Player of the Year honors and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl title 

    Throughout his career, Sanders scored touchdowns in six different ways: interception return (nine), punt return (six), kick return (three), reception (three), fumble recovery (one), and rush (one).  

9. Ed Reed, Safety

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    Ed Reed is the biggest playmaking defensive player in the game today. He is a seven-time Pro Bowler, a five-time All-Pro and the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year. 

    In nine seasons, he has intercepted 54 passes, returning them for 1,438 yards (second in NFL history) and six touchdowns. He has seven more interceptions (and a touchdown) in nine postseason games. He holds the NFL record for the longest interception return (107 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008; he also has a 106-yard interception touchdown). And he has recovered 10 fumbles and returned two for touchdowns. 

    Reed's only weakness is fumbling, or to be specific, lateraling. For whatever reason, Reed feels the need to lateral, or look to lateral, every time he touches the ball. He's fumbled 11 times on 90 career touches (54 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries, 26 punt returns), most of which were ill-advised laterals.  

8. Ray Lewis, Linebacker

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    Ray Lewis is still one of the NFL's best linebackers at the age of 35. In his 15 seasons, he has earned 12 Pro Bowl selections and averaged almost 100 tackles per season. Twice he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2003). 

    Lewis is the second member of the 30/30 club, tallying 38.5 quarterback sacks and 30 interceptions. His 499 return yards are a record for a linebacker. 

    In 2000, Lewis anchored the greatest single-season defense in league history, as the Ravens allowed just 165 points in 16 games. They allowed just a single offensive touchdown in four postseason games, en route to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.  

7. Night Train Lane, Cornerback

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    Lane ranks with Ronnie Lott for his ability to intercept passes and deliver monster hits on opponents. In 14 seasons, Lane intercepted 68 passes for 1,207 yards and five touchdowns. His 14 interceptions as a rookie in 1952 is still the single-season record (and it was achieved in a 12-game season). 

    Lane earned seven Pro Bowl selections as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. He was arguably the most feared hitter in the game and liked to tackle opponents around the neck, which was a legal move in the 1950s and 1960s. 

    Lane was named the greatest cornerback in the NFL's first 50 years. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked him 19th on their list of the 100 Greatest Players, which was the highest ranking for a defensive back.

6. Reggie White, Defensive End

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    No defensive end in the last 30 seasons has been as dominant as Reggie White, who earned 13 Pro Bowl selections and broke virtually every sack record during his 15-year career 

    White piled up 198 quarterback sacks during his career, including 21 in just 12 games in 1987. He reached double-digit totals in 12 seasons. In Super Bowl XXXI, he set a Super Bowl record by sacking Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times. 

    White forced 33 fumbles, recovered 20 more, intercepted three passes, and passed the 1,000th-mark in career tackles. "The Minister of Defense" earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards (11 years apart) and ranks first among defensive players in Pro Football Reference's Career Approximate Value.  

5. Mean Joe Greene, Defensive Tackle

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    Mean Joe Greene was the most important defensive player on one of the best dynasties in league history. He helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six seasons. 

    Greene earned 10 Pro Bowl selections and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974. He also earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1969. In a must-win game against the Houston Oilers in 1972, Greene collected five sacks, forced and recovered a fumble and blocked a field goal. 

    Greene developed the tactic of lining up directly between the guard and center to disrupt the offensive line and take up two to three blockers. He was as intense and competitive as any player in history, playing in 181-of-190 possible regular season games throughout his career.

4. Dick Butkus, Linebacker

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    There is nobody in the history of the National Football League who was more feared than Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus. With 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries (an NFL record upon his retirement) in just nine seasons, he is one of only nine members of the NFL's 20/20 club. 

    But with Butkus, numbers don't even begin to tell the story. For starters, he played virtually his whole career on terrible knees, so terrible, in fact, that he sued the Bears in 1975 for keeping him on the field instead of letting him have surgery. 

    Butkus was one of the hardest tackles the game has ever seen and was a renowned run stopper. He was the master of the forced fumble and would probably be the all-time leader if statistics had been recorded when he played. 

    In 1998, The Sporting News named him the ninth greatest player and the second best defensive player, in NFL history. He was named by NFL Films as the toughest player in the history of the sport.  

3. Deacon Jones, Defensive End

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    When you hear the term sack, you should think of Deacon Jones. The former Rams defensive end coined the term and allegedly collected 194.5 sacks in his career, including an unofficial total of 26 in 1967 (and 24 more in 1968). 

    Jones revolutionized the position of defensive end. Besides inventing the sack, he was the first defensive end to use his speed to make tackles from sideline to sideline. Jones also utilized the head slap, which has since been banned. 

    Jones earned eight Pro Bowl selections and was the key member of the Los Angeles Rams' Fearsome Foursome, arguably the greatest defensive line in history.  

2. Ronnie Lott, Safety & Cornerback

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    Throughout his 14-season career, Lott earned Pro Bowl selections at cornerback, free safety and strong safety. He burst onto the scene as a cornerback with the 49ers, intercepting seven passes and returning three for touchdowns in 1981. 

    In 1986, he switched to free safety and topped the league in interceptions with 10. In 1991, he changed positions (and teams) again and again led the league in interceptions. His 63 career interceptions are the sixth most in league history. 

    Lott, who was named to 10 Pro Bowls, was even more feared as a hitter, earning a reputation as the best tackler in the game. In the 1985 postseason, he became a legend when he chose to amputate the tip of his pinky finger rather than miss the rest of the postseason. 

    Lott earned four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers and was arguably more important to the dynasty than any other player, including Joe Montana or Jerry Rice. With his ability to play any position in the secondary, he is unquestionably the greatest defensive back in league history.  

1. Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker

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    Taylor is the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL. No single player did more to disrupt offenses than Taylor. It was Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs who created the two-tight end offense and the position of h-back to slow down Taylor. Taylor is also responsible for introducing pass-rushing linebackers, as well as the sack fumble. 

    In 13 seasons, Taylor earned 10 Pro Bowl selections and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, including one as a rookie (the only rookie to ever win DPOY). He collected 132.5 sacks, including 10 or more for seven straight seasons. 

    His 1986 season is arguably the greatest season by a defensive player in NFL history. He recorded 20.5 sacks and was named the Most Valuable Player of the league. The Giants won 14 games and steamrolled their way to a Super Bowl title, the first of two LT would win in his incredible career.

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