The other day I met an old friend I used to go to Giant games with and we chatted about—what else—football. Over drinks we began to list some of the great defensive players we have witnessed in person. We started going to games around 1967 as kids, so our list was about 130-players long. I have cut it down to a more manageable number.
The list started with Lawrence Taylor, who is hands down the greatest football player I ever witnessed. LT was unstoppable and teams spent most of their weeks trying to defend a defensive player, which was unheard of at the time. Needless to say, many teams failed in their quest. He revolutionized the OLB position and turned the Giants into champions after 30 years of futility.
The late Reggie White was the best defensive end in NFL history. He was big, strong, fast and could move in any direction on a dime. It was because of him the Eagles' defense under Buddy Ryan was a legendary one. Later in his career, when he went to Green Bay and won a championship, he also was a six-time Pro Bowl selection there.
Bruce Smith had more sacks, but White was the better player. That's not taking away anything from Smith, by the way.
Joe Klecko was an All-Pro at three different defensive line positions for the Jets. But for some odd reason football writers have not enshrined him in Canton. Klecko was the prototype DL of his day, but got little publicity because Mark Gastineau was racking up sacks and stealing the spotlight. Ask anyone who played against Klecko how great he was and they won't hesitate to tell you.
The best safety I ever saw play was Ronnie Lott. He gets lost because when you think about the 49ers, you often think offense. But they would only win the big one when their defense came through. The hard-hitting Lott was the spearhead of that defense - one that gets little recognition when talking about championship teams.
Mike Singletary, the head coach of the 49ers who has been lampooned recently by the press, is the same Mike Singletary that dismantled running backs in the 1980's as a MLB for the Chicago Bears. He was known for his intensity, but he was a cerebral player as well. A great player on the field and a gentleman off it.
Randy White was called manster, a combination of man and monster. I'm still not sure he's human. I'm 6'3", 275 and when I stood next to him, I felt like a child. The Dallas Cowboys of the 1970's were great because Randy White tossed offensive linemen around like rag dolls. White was known for his grip, once he got a hand on you the play was soon over, and your health was in danger.
Deacon Jones claims he had about 1,000 sacks in his career. Of course, he's exaggerating, but by all accounts we'll never know exactly how many he really had. The man who coined the term 'sack' was as good a defensive end as you'll ever see. He had tremendous drive and strength and was in your backfield so quickly he made QBs shiver. He was part of the Rams' Fearsome Foursome of the 60's and 70's which was considered of the game's greatest defensive lines.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970's had tons of stars and Hall-of-Famers. The most prominent defender was a defensive lineman named Joe Greene. "Mean Joe," they called him. It was a fitting name for him because he was big and mean and made what seemed like every tackle. They was no escaping him. He was one of the building blocks of the team that won four Super Bowls in six years.
Right behind Joe Greene was a nasty-looking creature with no front teeth named Jack Lambert. Lambert was not the signature MLB that you sought to anchor your defense. Like Ted Hendricks of Baltimore and Oakland, he was long and lean. Both of these players terrorized opponents not only with their savagery, but their wild appearance. Hendricks was called the Mad Stork because of his long neck. Lambert was called Dracula because he was pale and had protruding incisors.
Speaking of menacing, the Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus was perhaps the best MLB of them all. His career was short, but his style of play shortened many others' careers as well. Butkus was vicious on the field, a hard-hitter, but he had deceptive speed and finesse as well. I saw him play live only once, when his career was on the downside, but he gave everyone their money's worth.
In the 1970's, there were few middle backers who played in the Butkus style. Bill Bergey, who played for the Bengals and Eagles, was terrific. The Giants' Harry Carson was punishing and kept the Giants in many games with key stops. Ray Nitschke of Green Bay, Mike Curtis of Baltimore, Tommy Nobis of Atlanta, and Willie Lanier of Kansas City were more contemporaries of Butkus, but they were all game-changers.
Other linebackers we liked were Brad Van Pelt of the Giants, Chris Hanburger of Washington, Dave Wilcox of San Francisco, Andy Russell of Pittsburgh, the Patriots' Andre Tippett, Denver's Randy Gradishar and Houston's Robert Brazile.
There are others I don't want to leave out, like Minnesota's Carl Eller and Alan Page. The Rams' Jack Youngblood and Merlin Olsen. The Oilers' Ernie Ladd (who also played for San Diego) and Elvin Bethea. Howie Long of the Raiders. The Steelers' LC Greenwood and Jack Ham. The Dolphins' Nick Buonticonti, Manny Fernandez and Jake Scott and Buck Buchannan and Bobby Bell of Kansas City just to name a few.
To give some love to the defensive backfield guys, here's a few: Steve Atwater of Denver, Lester Hayes of Oakland, Charlie Waters of Dallas, Ken Houston of Houston, and Darrell Green of Washington, Larry Wilson of St. Louis, Mel Blount of Pittsburgh and Lem Barney of Detroit.
From the 1990's to the present, I would list my top 10 defensive players as follows:
Ray Lewis, Baltimore
Deion Sanders, Various
Michael Strahan, NY Giants
Derrick Thomas, Kansas City
Rod Woodson, Various
Junior Seau, Various
Ray Childress, Houston Oliers
John Randle, Minnesota
Warren Sapp, Various
Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay
Other notables: Brian Urlacher, Cortez Kennedy, Darren Woodson, Joey Browner, Ed Reed, Chris Doleman, Deron Cherry