Thursday, June 30, 2022

Ranking the greatest defensive players in NFL history: Where does Aaron Donald fit in on the all-time list?

The NFL has been gifted with elite defensive players throughout its 102-year history, enough greatness to ignite the debate of the greatest defensive player of all time. With the variety of defensive talent at multiple positions, it’s seemingly impossible to name the greatest defensive players ever without a debate. 

Which brings us to Aaron Donald, who just received the highest average annual salary for a non-quarterback in NFL history. Donald is already a first ballot Hall of Famer and has established himself as one of the greatest defensive players ever. Where does Donald rank amongst the greats like Reggie White, Deion Sanders, and others?

Let’s rank the top defensive players of all-time — and see where Donald fits into the equation. 

10. Ronnie Lott

What Lott has able to accomplish in his 14-year career rivals any safety in NFL history. A member of the NFL’s 100th anniversary team, Lott finished his stellar career with 10 Pro Bowls, six first-team All-Pro selections and a spot on the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams (and he retired from the league in 1994). 

The leader of the 49ers defense in the 1980s, Lott won four Super Bowl championships in San Francisco. He finished with 1,146 tackles and 63 interceptions, leading the league in interceptions twice. In 20 playoff games (all starts), Lott had nine interceptions, 89 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and two touchdowns. Simply put, Lott redefined the safety position.

9. Rod Woodson

Not only was Woodson one of the best cornerbacks of his era, but he was one of the best safeties of his time when he transitioned to the position full time in 1999. Woodson earned 11 Pro Bowl appearances and six first-team All-Pro selections in his Hall of Fame career, the final one coming at age 37 when he had eight interceptions as a safety (which also led the league).

Woodson finished his career with 1,158 tackles 71 interceptions and 13.5 sacks in 17 seasons. He also led the league in interceptions twice and was the 1993 Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson holds the league record for interceptions returned for touchdowns (12) and fumble recoveries (32). He has the second-most interception return yards in NFL history (1,483) and is third all-time in interceptions. He was also a star on the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense, a unit that gave up the fewest points in a 16-game season in NFL history (and won the Super Bowl).

8. Bruce Smith

One of the greatest defensive linemen ever, Smith is still the only player with 200 sacks for a career — a number that may never be touched again. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Smith recorded double-digit sacks in 13 seasons (NFL record) despite playing in a 3-4 scheme over the majority of his career. Smith played multiple positions on the line, yet still was able to rack up the sack totals. 

An 11-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro eight times, Smith was selected to the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams and led the league in forced fumbles twice. Smith is one of the greatest pass rushers in league history. 

7. Dick Butkus 

A knee injury derailed one of the greatest careers for a linebacker in NFL history, yet Butkus remains an all-time great at his position. Butkus reinvented the position with his ability to pound his opponent into the ground with his sideline-to-sideline speed, thanks to a toughness that resembled the greats from the eras prior to him.

A member of the 1960s and 1970s All-Decade teams, Butkus earned five first-team All-Pro selections and made the Pro Bowl in eight of his nine seasons. He finished with 22 interceptions and 11.0 sacks, finishing in the top six of MVP voting three times.

Butkus has withstood the test of time and still remains one of the greatest linebackers ever.  

6. Deacon Jones

The league finally has numbers to back up how dominant Jones was in his era. Thanks to data collected by Pro Football Reference, the NFL has an unofficial number for the amount of sacks Jones had in his career. Jones did retire as the league’s all-time sack leader with 173.5, only to be surpassed by Reggie White (198) and Bruce Smith (200). Jones currently sits third on the all-time list, one of only three players with over 170 sacks in his career. 

Jones has the most 15-sack seasons all time (six) and 20-sack seasons (three) in NFL history. He is the only player to lead the league in sacks more than twice, and he was the season sack champion five times (1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969). Reggie White and Mark Gastineau are the only two players to join Jones in repeating as sack champions, and Jones is the only player in league history to lead the league in sacks for three consecutive seasons (1967-1969).

During Jones’ prime from 1964 to 1969, he tallied 115.5 sacks in six seasons — only 29 other players have more than 115.5 sacks in their career. He was selected to five first-team All-Pro honors and eight Pro Bowls in his 14-year career, earning a selection on the 1960s All-Decade Team. 

Jones had the most dominant stretch for a pass rusher in NFL history. He’s also one of the best pass rushers ever.

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5. Aaron Donald

Donald has only played eight seasons, yet it’s fair to rank him as one of the greatest defensive players ever. Donald already has three Defensive Player of the Year awards, tying him with J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor for the most in NFL history. He has made the Pro Bowl in all of his eight seasons, trailing Taylor and Derrick Thomas for the most consecutive Pro Bowls to start a career. 

Donald has 98 sacks in his career, the most for a defensive tackle after his first eight seasons in NFL history (and fourth-most by any player). His 150 tackles for loss and 226 quarterback hits in his first eight seasons are second-most by a player in NFL history (and most for a defensive tackle). He also has seven first-team All-Pro selections in eight seasons and is the only player in the NFL with 400 pressures over the last five years.

A top-five finisher in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting seven consecutive seasons, Donald also already has a Super Bowl championship — along with 6.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 10 postseason games. 

Donald is arguably the greatest defensive tackle in league history, transforming the position, and he still has time to become the greatest defensive player ever. 

4. Deion Sanders

One of the most electrifying players in NFL history, Sanders was a dominant cornerback in an era with numerous stars at wide receiver. A true game-changer, Sanders was a shutdown corner who finished his career with 53 interceptions and 1,331 interception return yards — the second-most for a player when he retired. 

Sanders was the first player to have two 90-yard interception returns for touchdowns in the same season (1994) and finished tied for second for most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a career (nine) and a season (three, 1994). He was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 while earning eight Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro selections.

Sanders was arguably the best player on two Super Bowl defenses and was a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team. Sanders gave new meaning to the term “shutdown corner.” 

3. Ray Lewis

Lewis has accolades that are unmatched for his position in NFL history. The face of the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis is the first — and only — player in NFL history with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career, while his 50 career takeaways (31 interceptions, 19 fumble recoveries) rank second among linebackers since the AFL-NFL merger. 

A two-time Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2003), Lewis was the leader of the 2000 Ravens defense — one of the greatest units in NFL history. The Ravens posted league records in a 16-game season for fewest rushing yards (970), shutouts (four), and points allowed (165). He captured Super Bowl XXXV MVP honors that season, the first of two Super Bowl titles he won in Baltimore (ended his career with a title in Super Bowl XLVII).

Lewis is the NFL’s all-time leader in combined tackles with 2,059 (tackles started being recorded in 1987) — leading the league three times — and is second in solo tackles with 1,568 (started being recorded in 1994). Lewis is one of just 15 players to be selected to at least 12 Pro Bowls. 

Lewis is just one of five linebackers to be selected as a first-team All-Pro seven times, and his 10 total All-Pro selections are a record for an inside linebacker. He’s arguably the greatest inside linebacker in NFL history. 

2. Lawrence Taylor

Taylor was such a dominant defensive player that coaches had to develop two tight end sets to stop him from getting to the quarterback. The 1986 NFL MVP, Taylor led the league with 20.5 sacks, becoming the first defensive player to win league MVP honors since 1971 — and the last player to accomplish the feat.

Taylor finished his career with 142 sacks (132.5 official by the NFL), the ninth-most by a player in NFL history and the most by a linebacker in league history at the time of his retirement. A two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, Taylor set the NFL record with the most Pro Bowls to start a career (10) and had eight first-team All-Pro selections — one of just 12 players to earn the honor. 

A three-time Defensive Player of the Year selection, Taylor is tied with Watt and Donald for the most in NFL history — winning the award three times in his first six seasons. Taylor notched 124 sacks in his first 10 seasons, showcasing his dominance of getting to the quarterback. 

Taylor is considered the greatest defensive player ever, and he’s arguably the greatest outside linebacker in NFL history.

1. Reggie White

The “Minister of Defense” was simply a force to be reckoned with on the edge, as White was arguably the most dominant defensive player in NFL history. White finished his career with 198 sacks, the most in NFL history when he retired in 2000. He finished with 12 double-digit sack seasons, including nine straight to start his career — which is an NFL record. 

White earned eight first-team All-Pro selections and made 13 Pro Bowls in his 15 seasons — all of which were in a row from 1986 to 1998. He earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards and led the NFL in sacks twice. White and T.J. Watt are the only two players in NFL history to have four consecutive seasons of 13-plus sacks. White is the only player to have 90 sacks after his first six seasons and has the most sacks ever for a player after his first 10 seasons (145). He also made the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams. 

White owns the NFL record with most sacks per game in NFL history (0.85) among players who have played at least 100 games, leading Taylor in that category (0.79). He averaged an astonishing 1.02 sacks per game in his career with the Philadelphia Eagles — 124 sacks in 121 games. 

There’s certainly some debate on who’s the greatest defensive player ever, but White was clearly the most dominant. Winning the Defensive Player of the Year award at 37 (1998 season) just showcased White’s greatness through two decades. 

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