NFL games are often won with heart and grit even more than with skill. Wide receivers and quarterbacks get all of the highlights on sports television and social media, but defensive players deliver the stops that win championships. Even as the NFL has given more leeway to the offensive players, some of the best defenders of the 21st century carved out their place and also appear on this list of the 22 best defensive players in NFL history.
1. Lawrence Taylor – Linebacker
Lawrence Taylor brought defensive play to an entirely new level with the New York Giants in the 1980s. The last defender to win NFL MVP, Taylor physically overpowered entire offensive lines and quarterbacks. He’s one of the only non-quarterbacks in football lore one could argue is even more influential and devastating than his offensive counterparts.
2. Reggie White – Defensive End
Arguing for Reggie White or Lawrence Taylor as the best defensive player ever is often a discussion around peak versus longevity, but those who prefer the Minister of Defense say he had both. White displayed deadly defensive prowess for the Eagles and Packers across 14 seasons with the teams. His 1998 campaign with 16 sacks at 37 years old is one of the true oddities in sports.
3. D. Butkus – Linebacker
Butkus pioneered the type of domineering linebacker play that stars such as Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner aspired to in the 2010s. Butkus made sure that when he hit an opponent, they’d be feeling the aftereffects the next morning or two. The Bears have never possessed a player of Butkus’ caliber ever again.
4. Deion Sanders – Cornerback
Coach Prime gets plenty of headlines with the Colorado Buffaloes right now, bringing swag and substance to a poor college football program. In his playing days he flashed unreal athleticism and ball skills to shut down entire receiving corps and scare quarterbacks from ever throwing his way. Sanders is one of the only secondary defensive players to win Defensive Player of the Year.
5. Deacon Jones – Defensive End
Deacon Jones has been forgotten by casuals with the passing of time, but football purists will never let his memory fade. Jones transformed the purpose of a defensive end on the football field, attacking the quarterback with unrivaled speed. Jones famously laid claim to the term “sack” that now is the most important statistical measure for a defensive lineman.
6. Bruce Smith – Defensive End
Bruce Smith is football’s version of Tim Duncan. While never a league leader in sacks, Smith racked up 200 over his career to establish himself as the best tackler of quarterbacks ever. His tenacity laid the foundation for the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s, but he never won a Super Bowl.
7. Ray Lewis – Linebacker
Ray Lewis is often viewed as the last remnant of a lost era of physicality in football. He hounded the middle of the field and hit players with a vengeance in his eyes, leading the league in combined and solo tackles in three different seasons. Lewis's trouble off the field sometimes overshadows his greatness on the gridiron.
8. Joe Greene – Defensive Tackle
Joe Greene was the first defensive player marketed as a superstar for the masses to appreciate. Greene carried his responsibilities with the Pittsburgh Steelers with honor and heart, leading the team to four Super Bowls and making them the best team defensive unit ever, coined “The Steel Curtain.”
9. Rod Woodson – Cornerback and Safety
Rod Woodson turned over offensive players with impeccable ease. Historians who cite Woodson as the best corner ever will point out his record number of pick-sixes and fumble recoveries. Woodson’s versatility was displayed when he succeeded as a safety late in his career with the Baltimore Ravens.
10. Ed Reed – Safety
Ed Reed may be the smartest safety in NFL history. Peyton Manning famously tells of the times Reed’s intellect forced him into throws that he wouldn’t normally make. His combination of skills in the backfield helped Ray Lewis shine up front on the line and propelled the Baltimore Ravens to playoff success.
11. Ronnie Lott – Safety
The San Francisco 49ers are more known for their offensive legends such as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Ronnie Lott exhibited parallel prowess on the other end of the field, providing much-needed defense on a team that needed stops to back up their scoring drives. Lott won four Super Bowls with the Niners.
12. Aaron Donald – Defensive Tackle
Aaron Donald swallows up entire NFL offenses in an era that many fans say is soft. Donald maintains a physical and calculated approach to defense, and the Rams have been benefiting from it for a decade. Donald has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Super Bowl.
13. J.J. Watt – Defensive End
J.J. Watt’s prime was short in Houston, but he holds perhaps the best peak in NFL history. Watt had at least 17 sacks in three of four seasons from 2012 to 2015. Injuries prevented him from further high-level play in the back end of his career, but everyone knew what he was capable of.
14. Jack Lambert – Linebacker
Jack Lambert was just as important to the Pittsburgh Steelers as Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene during their four Super Bowls in the 1970s. His combination of skills and leadership made the Steelers the most formidable defensive team in the history of football across an entire decade.
15. Emlen Tunnell – Safety
Emlen Tunnell helped establish the backfield defensive positions as some of the most important in the game. Tunnell intercepted passes at a frightening rate and made it nearly impossible to pass the ball during an already run-heavy era.
16. Derrick Thomas – Linebacker and Defensive End
Derrick Thomas is one of the most underrated bright spots for the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that didn’t experience a lot of success before Patrick Mahomes was drafted. Thomas had seven seasons with at least 10 sacks. His career and life were tragically cut short due to the aftermath of a car accident he was a part of in 2000.
17. Charles Woodson – Cornerback and Safety
Charles Woodson was the most versatile cornerback and safety of the 2000s. He knew where the ball was going to be before anyone else, and his leadership had a dramatic impact on both the Packers and the Raiders.
18. Mike Singletary – Linebacker
Mike Singletary was the scariest part of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense that led the franchise to their only Super Bowl title. Singletary’s prominence in the middle of the field was instrumental in clogging up the opposing team’s offense and made the Bears absolutely unbeatable.
19. Bob Lilly – Defensive Tackle
Bob Lilly cemented himself as Mr. Cowboy after leading the Dallas defense for the entirety of the 1960s. Lilly introduced modern defensive techniques to his game that others wouldn’t adopt for another couple of decades. He won a Super Bowl in 1972.
20. Michael Strahan – Defensive End
Before he became the most prominent retired football player in media, Michael Strahan sacked the quarterback as well as anyone in NFL history. Strahan’s record sack total in 2001 still stands today, although T.J. Watt tied the 22.5 sacks Strahan recorded.
21. Paul Krause – Safety
Paul Krause was the first NFL safety to show the world how vital turnovers in the backfield can be to the players up front. When Krause intercepted passes for the Vikings, it helped the Purple People Eaters defensive lineman eat up the interior.
22. Bobby Wagner – Linebacker
Bobby Wagner was the best player on the Legion of Boom defense that kept Seattle at the top of the NFL for much of the mid-2010s. Wagner constantly leads the NFL in tackles and still mans the middle of the Seahawks' defense right now.