NFL: The All-Defensive Team of the Past 25 Years
I love the idea of All-Time Teams. It's just fun.
In the last 25 years, the NFL has seen some of its greatest defensive players come and go. Players like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson and Junior Seau are names that will forever be synonymous with greatness.
But who was the best?
The list that follows is the greatest player at each defensive position in the last 25 years.
Defensive End: Reggie White
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Reggie White (aka The Minister of Defense) is my favorite defensive player of all time. I doubt any DE has put more fear into opposing offensive tackles than White. Both his bull rush and his hook-and-throw move (both featured here) are the stuff of legend.
He finished his Hall of Fame career with 198.5 sacks (second all-time), was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And he did it all with as much class and dignity as any player ever to play the game.
His life was tragically cut short in 2004, but the character with which he carried himself both on and off the field will live on forever.
Defensive End: Bruce Smith
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While never as famous as Reggie White, Bruce Smith is nonetheless the most prolific defensive end in NFL history.
He was a sack specialist for nearly two decades and during his long tenure with the Buffalo Bills was the most productive defensive end for most of the late '80s and '90s.
He finished his career as the NFL’s all-time sack leader at 200, was selected to 11 Pro Bowls and was twice the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
His rare combination of incredible athletic ability and longevity make him one of the greatest players in NFL history, and his sack record is one that may never be broken.
Defensive Tackle: Warren Sapp
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Growing up, I hated Warren Sapp.
Every time my Green Bay Packers played Tampa Bay, I knew Brett Favre was in for a long day. Not only was Sapp constantly in the opposing team’s backfield, but he could consistently get in the head of any quarterback (Favre included).
Looking back on his career, however, it’s difficult to think of him with anything but respect. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time All Pro selection and won the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
He was a ferocious pass rusher and run stopper and one of the great trash talkers in NFL history. You definitely did not want to be on Warren Sapp’s bad side.
Defensive Tackle: John Randle
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Warren Sapp might have been a great trash talker, but he had nothing on John Randle. Another player who loved to give the Packers (and Brett Favre) fits, Randle was perhaps the most unblockable DT in NFL history.
Playing on artificial turf at the Metrodome, Randle was impossible to stop; the goal was to simply slow him down. His motor (and his mouth) never seemed to stop, and by the end of the game the opposing offensive line usually looked like they needed anxiety meds and a nap.
Randle finished his career with 137.5 sacks (the most by a DT in NFL history) and made seven Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams.
Not bad (for a Viking).
Outside Linebacker: Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor is not only the greatest linebacker in NFL history, but he would be on my Mount Rushmore of greatest players in NFL history. No player has ever done more to change the way defense is played in the NFL than LT.
He was that good.
Taylor fundamentally changed the way the outside linebacker position is played, and his unparalleled combination of speed and strength made him the most feared player in the NFL during the 1980s (just ask Joe Theismann).
Taylor finished with 132.5 sacks, was a 10-time Pro Bowl Selection, won the 1986 NFL MVP award and was ranked the third greatest player in NFL history by NFL Films.
He has had his share of trouble off the field, but no one has ever more dominant on the defensive side of the ball than LT.
Outside Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware
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DeMarcus Ware might be relatively young to be on a list like this, but anyone who has watched him play wouldn’t argue with this selection.
Perhaps the most dynamic defensive player in the NFL right now, Ware has amassed 80 sacks in just six seasons. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five years and was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team.
The guy is scary strong and ridiculously quick and requires a double-team on nearly every snap. His simple presence on the field changes the way offenses operate.
The worst part? He might still be getting better.
Inside Linebacker: Junior Seau
Junior Seau was one of the best and most durable linebackers in NFL history. His career spanned 20 years, and he was remarkably productive throughout.
Seau played for the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots later in his career, but I will always remember his years playing for the San Diego Chargers.
Seau was a constant presence on the field and was equally capable of rushing the quarterback, stopping the run or dropping into pass coverage.
A notorious gym rat, Seau holds the NFL record for most Pro Bowls by a linebacker (12) and was the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Seau was the kind of player every team wished they had: a dynamic player on the field and a leader in the clubhouse.
There really was nothing Junior Seau couldn’t do.
Safety: Ronnie Lott
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Ronnie Lott was the first player I vividly remember watching as a boy. Whenever I saw him play, I usually asked some version of the following question.
“Why does he keep hitting the other players so hard? Is he trying to hurt them?”
The 10-year-old version of myself couldn’t understand how someone could tackle so well. To me, he just looked mean.
In hindsight, that wasn’t so far from the truth.
Ronnie Lott was so good that he really could have made this list as a safety or cornerback. In 14 NFL seasons, Lott had 63 interceptions, made 10 Pro Bowls, won four Super Bowls, made the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and was a 2000 Hall of Fame inductee.
Now that is a career.
Safety: Ed Reed
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This will probably be the most controversial pick for this article.
I can almost hear the Steelers fans sharpening their spears and readying their torches in order to attack me for not putting Troy Polamalu in this spot.
I will admit, it was a very hard call. But if you ask me who I would rather have on the field when a big play is needed, I pick Reed.
Ed Reed is the greatest ball-hawking safety in NFL history. Since 2002, Reed has 54 interceptions, seven of which were returned for touchdowns.
Want an even better stat? In nine playoff appearances, Reed has seven interceptions.
Reed is not only one of the greatest safeties in NFL history, but his star shines the brightest in big games.
That is the mark of a great player.
Polamalu might equal (or surpass) Reed before his career ends, but for now, Reed gets the nod.
Cornerback: Rod Woodson
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For my money, Rod Woodson is the greatest cornerback in NFL history. He was so good for so long (17 seasons to be exact) that his name for me growing up became synonymous with the position.
Woodson holds the record for interceptions returned for a touchdown (12), interception return yards (1,483) and Pro-Bowl appearances by a defensive back (11).
If that weren’t enough, Woodson also holds the record for games player by an NFL defensive back, was the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
No other defensive back’s resume can hold a candle to Woodson’s. It’s likely that on one’s ever will.
Cornerback: Deion Sanders
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Never has a nickname better suited a player.
When Deion Sanders was on the field, big things usually happened.
Sanders was one of the great shutdown cornerbacks of his generation, and during his 14-year career he intercepted 53 passes (and averaged a ridiculous 25 yards per INT return). His 19 defensive and return touchdowns are still an NFL record, and his end-zone dance is still the greatest in NFL history.
When talking about Deion Sanders, it’s easy to get absorbed by his cockiness on the field, but make no mistake, Deion Sanders was one the great athletes and cornerbacks in NFL history.