It’s early July, so naturally we’re ever so close to the NFL Season but still so far away that news is sparse. To help fill the void, I decided to look at some all-time selections at six different positions—Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End, Defense and Coaching. Over the next six weeks, I’ll be giving my Top 10 at each, continuing today with front seven defenders.
Before we jump in, I thought I’d share a bit about this process. First, I was born in 1981 and have been watching football since the mid-to-late 1980s. The NFL has been around a lot longer, but in order to make sure bias doesn’t play too big a role in choices, I’ve limited this look back to the last 41 years, since 1980. Second, this is a subjective list. While I consider stats, performance and metrics, I’m the one doing the evaluation, so ultimately it’s my list. I encourage you to share your own thoughts and criticisms each week in the comments.
Now, on to the list. The group will appear in ascending order, beginning with one or two each week that just missed. On to this week’s list!
Just Missed: Derrick Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs, 1989 to 1999)
Stats: 126.5 sacks, 41 forced fumbles, 19 Fumble Recoveries, 5 passes defensed, 1 INT
About: Thomas was a force for the Kansas City Chiefs for a long time. He was a strong consideration for this list, but I didn’t know who I would bump off. As a Denver Broncos’ fan, I hated facing off against Thomas, who would probably have a high profile if the team was better during his time there. Still, 126.5 sacks are no joke—and that includes a 20-sack season in 1990. He’s in the Hall of Fame and is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection.
10. Brian Urlacher (Chicago Bears, 2000-2012)
Stats: 1,046 solo tackles, 41.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 90 passes defensed, 22 INTs
About: Urlacher was a force on the field for the Bears, playing 13 seasons in Chicago as one of the best linebackers to play the league and one of the best defenders of all time. He’s in the Hall of Fame, an eight-time Pro Bowl player and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He was a fun player to watch and a big part of the Bears’ success and legacy on defense.
9. J.J. Watt (Houston Texans, 2009-2020, Arizona Cardinals 2021-)
Stats: 409 solo tackles, 101 sacks, 25 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries, 61 passes defensed, two INTs
About: Watt has long been one of the best and most fierce defensive players in the game. He’s been a force at the position and on defense in general for years. He was the heart-and-soul of the Texans for a number of seasons, and now will continue in Arizona. He’s a five-time Pro Bowl selection, and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015. In addition, he has been a force for change off the field, becoming the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2017.
8. Von Miller (Denver Broncos, 2011-)
Stats: 380 solo tackles, 106 sacks, 26 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, 21 passes defensed, 2 INTs
About: This might be a bit of a homer pick, but I love Miller. I think by the time his career is over he’ll be among the sack leaders in the NFL. He’s a force on defense and was a big part of the reason why the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. He’s an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and was the MVP of Super Bowl 50, a rarity among defensive players. I love Von and watching him play, so he makes the list.
7. Junior Seau (San Diego Chargers, 1990-2002, Miami Dolphins 2003-2005, New England Patriots, 2006-2009)
Stats: 1,077 solo tackles, 56.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries, 43 passes defensed, 18 INTs
About: Seau was a beast on defense. I saw him frequently as he toiled for the Chargers in the AFC West for many years. He also played well for Miami and then the Patriots before it ended. On the field, he was a legend. His post-NFL life is a tragedy, but I will always remember the way he played on the field. Seau is a 12-time Pro Bowl selection, a member of the Hall of Fame and won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 1994.
6. Michael Strahan (New York Giants, 1993-2007)
Stats: 663 solo tackles, 141.5 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 23 passes defensed, 4 INTs
About: Strahan is one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. He led the league in 2001 with 22.5 sacks, including a record-setting one against Brett Favre. He’s been a great announcer in his post-NFL career, but that sometimes makes people forget what a force he was on the field. He finished with seven Pro Bowl selections, was Defensive Player of the Year in 2001 and is a part of the Hall of Fame. He also was part of the Giants’ Super Bowl winning squad in 2007.
5. Bruce Smith (Buffalo Bills, 1985-1999, Washington Football Team, 2000-2003)
Stats: 426 solo tackles, 200 sacks, 43 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 7 passes defensed, 2 INTs
About: Smith is one of the best defensive line players in history and was a driving force behind the Bills’ defense that went to four straight Super Bowls. His 200 sacks, including 171 during his time at Buffalo, is an incredible mark that shows the impact he had on the field. He never got that elusive Super Bowl title, but he was Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1996, made the Pro Bowl 11 times and is in the Hall of Fame.
4. Mike Singletary (Chicago Bears, 1981-1992)
Stats: 885 solo tackles, 19 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries, 7 INTs
About: When you think about the position of Middle Linebacker, it’s hard not to think about Mike Singletary. He was a fierce competitor and possibly the best to ever play the position. He was the anchor of the Bears’ defense for a number of years, including the 1985 team that won the Super Bowl and is regarded as one of the best defenses of all time. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988 and was the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1990. He made the Pro Bowl 10 times and is in the Hall of Fame. He was fun to watch as a player and memorable as a coach.
3. Reggie White (Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-1992; Green Bay Packers, 1993-1998; Carolina Panthers, 2000)
Stats: 1,111 Tackles, 198 sacks, 33 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 3 INTs
About: White was one of the best to ever play the game, and it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to be present when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. White was great with Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia, then with the Packers during their peak with Brett Favre, winning a Super Bowl with the team. He was a sack master and a great player on the field. He was a 13-time Pro Bowler, and Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998. He was one of my favorites to watch growing up.
2. Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens, 1996-2012)
Stats: 1,568 solo tackles, 41.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 96 passes defensed, 31 INTs
About: This one hurts, because for many years as a fan I intensely disliked Lewis and the Ravens. I’ll set aside the off-the-field stuff that at some points overshadowed his career, as a player he’s one of the best to ever play the game. His stats are amazing, but they only tell part of the story. Lewis was a fiery leader on the field as well, making plays ever game. That helped spur the Ravens on to two Super Bowl titles during his long career there. He is a 13-time Pro Bowler, Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003 and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
1. Lawrence Taylor (New York Giants, 1981-1993)
Stats: 142 sacks, 11 fumble recoveries, 9 INTs
About: When you think about imposing defensive players, Taylor is usually the first that comes to mind. He was a game wrecker and a game changer. He was part of some great Giants’ teams and made a huge impact on the field. He’s one of the best to ever play, and one of the biggest personalities in the game. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler, Defensive Player of the Year in 1981, 1982 and 1986, a two-time Super Bowl Champion and a member of the Hall of Fame. He’s the one that jumped to mind first when thinking about the top of this list, and that’s where he sits for me.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.