The NFL is a league built on big hits delivered by big bodies. Not shockingly, the biggest bodies can be found in the trenches, also known as the neutral zone; where offensive and defensive lineman make their living. Many coaches believe that games are won or lost in the trenches. Other coaches like to declare that, “defense wins championship!.” If you believe both those statements, then the following list is for you!
Here is the greatest defensive lineman of all time. These players are so big, scary, and outright talented that we know they were major reasons for their team’s success!
You won’t believe how many sacks Michael Strahan recorded in one season!
Howie Long Is More Than Just His Father’s Son
Known more today as a broadcaster than a football player, most fans don’t remember the Hall of Fame career of Howie Long. Playing his entire career for the Raiders (in both Oakland and Los Angeles), all Long’s team did was win. Just look at the Raiders victory in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. The game ended with Los Angeles Raiders drubbing the Washington Redskins 38-9. That same year Long was named “Defensive Lineman of the Year,” an honor he would repeat in 1985. Before hanging up his cleats Long was named an all-pro five times, a pro-bowler eight times, and the “Defensive Player of the Year” once. He was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, and if you were to look up his highlight reel online you would understand why!
Jack Youngblood Plays With Broken Bones
Jack Youngblood played in the NFL from 1971 until 1984 and had to wait almost 20 years after to get into the Hall of Fame. That’s just criminal for someone who literally laid his body on the line. Playing for the Los Angeles Rams, Youngblood broke his leg in 1979 and continued to play, helping lead the team through the playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl. He even played in the Pro Bowl in 1980 with his shattered leg. Youngblood finished his career with 151.5 sacks, placing him fifth on the all-time sacks list. He was an all-pro eight timed and was named “Defensive Player of the Year” twice!
Ready for someone you may have heard of?
Jason Taylor Does It All
A 2017 Hall of Fame inductee, Jason Taylor spent his 15 year NFL career terrorizing opposing teams. He reached the peak of his profession in 2006, being named the “Defensive Player of the Year.” What’s interesting about Taylor is that, unlike a number of athletes on this list, he did more than just compile sacks. To go along with 139.5 of those (placing him seventh all-time), the linebacker-sized defensive end also forced 46 fumbles and intercepted eight passes. He played for three teams, the Dolphins, Redskins, and Jets. Still, he will forever be known for his stint with the Dolphins, where the accolade that escaped him was a Super Bowl ring.
Reggie White is the GOAT
Widely considered the greatest defensive lineman to ever play the game, Reggie White spent his career lovingly known as the “Minister of Defense.” Splitting the best years of his career between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, White is second on the all-time sacks list with 198. The next closest player, Kevin Greene, finished his career with 160 sacks. You’ll read about him later, we promise! Not happy settling for second, Reggie White holds a few records of his own. Most notably, no other defensive lineman has ever recorded three sacks in a Super Bowl! He also mastered both the “swim move” and the “bull rush,” making sure he had an action for every equal and opposite reaction during his storied career.
Kevin Greene Is A Duel Threat
Hey look, it’s Kevin Greene! The NFL’s third-leading sack artist of all-time gets a controversial spot on this list. During his 15 year career in the NFL, Greene actually split his time between defensive end and outside linebacker. He also played for four different teams; the Rams, Steelers, Panthers, and 49ers. At the end of the day, the reason he belongs here is simple. He was a five-time pro-bowler, three-time first-team all-pro, and two-time sack leader. He made the 1990’s all-decade team. In 1996 he was named NFL “Defensive Player of the Year.” Yeah, he’s earned his spot on this list. Any other questions?
Bruce Smith Rules Them All
Bruce Smith played in the NFL for nearly 20 seasons. From 1985 until 2003 he established himself as one of the greatest players of all time. He is the only player in NFL history with 200 sacks and has the most double-digit sack seasons ever (13). It goes without saying that Bruce Smith deserved his spot in the Hall of Fame in 2009. It’s hard to argue against a player who was named “Defensive Player of the Year” a whopping three times! Sadly, Smith was never able to win a Super Bowl, although he did go to four straight with the Buffalo Bills. We won’t bring those up though, we promise…
Michael Strahan did win a Super Bowl, among other things.
Michael Strahan Is A Force Of Nature
For fourteen NFL seasons, Michael Strahan owned offensive lines. He played his entire career with the New York Giants and is one of the few athletes who can say they beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. Don’t forget he also holds the single-season sack record, crushing quarterbacks 22.5 times in 2001. A few players have flirted with the record, but none have surpassed it. Since retiring Strahan has become a major television celebrity, co-hosting a morning show with Kelly Rippa and hosting a primetime gameshow of his own. One thing is for certain, if football had failed him at least his good looks wouldn’t have! We’re pretty happy with how his NFL career turned out!
Charles Haley Did It First
Before Tom Brady cemented his place in NFL history as the GOAT by winning five Super Bowls, there was Charles Haley. Splitting his 14-year career with the 49ers and Cowboys, Haley was the first player in NFL history to win five rings. Unfortunately, Haley was just as well known for his mood swings off the field as he was for his ferocity on it. Not always the most well-liked player, Haley was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2002, three years after retiring, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has become a huge advocate for those struggling with it.
Chris Doleman Loves The Number Five
No, Chris Doleman did not win five Super Bowls. He did play in the NFL for 15 seasons, but if you look at some of his career numbers, the number five does become a major theme. Let’s get started, shall we? Doleman finished his already stated 15-year NFL career with 150.5 sacks, placing him 5th on the all-time sacks list and was named to the Pro Bowl five times! He began his career in 1985 and was named to the Hall of Fame in 20…12! There goes the gimmick! Doleman also held the single-season sack record before Michael Strahan, racking up 21 game-changing hits in 1989.
Of course, before there was Doleman there was Atkins!
Doug Atkins Won Something Other Than A Super Bowl
Digging deep in the anals NFL history for this player, Doug Atkins played a fruitful 17-year NFL career. Starting his career with the Cleveland Browns, Atkins found instant success, leading the team to the Championship in 1954. Signing with the Chicago Bears shortly after, he then helped lead them to NFL Championship glory in 1963. Have you noticed we didn’t say Super Bowl? Atkins never won one, but let’s not hold that against him. After all, the first Super Bowl was played in 1967, two years before Atkins retired with New Orleans. Atkins was enshrined in Canton in 1982, but it’s easy to argue the 10-time all-pro should have made it much sooner!
Warren Sapp Likes To Live Dangerously
Warren Sapp was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. Two years later he was fired from his analyst job at the NFL Network for soliciting an escort. As controversial as Sapp’s life after football is, his life during might top that. One of the most hated players in NFL history, Warren Sapp finished his career with 573 tackles and 96.5 sacks. He was named “Defensive Player of the Year” in 1999 and helped newly crowned $100 million coach John Gruden win a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2003. However, with all the glory came even more fighting. In 2002 he got into a verbal altercation with Packers coach Mike Sherman after a blindside hit to a Packer after a play. Later that same season he was caught skipping on the field during Steelers warm-ups. Finally, in 2007, he was ejected for getting into a fight with officials!
John Randle Was Robbed!
The all-time sacks leader for defensive tackles, John Randle was an easy choice to be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010. The only problem was it was his second year of eligibility! For shame, NFL! Finishing his career with 137.5 sacks, Randle ranks in the top 10 all-time for any position. That should have made him a no-brainer first ballot Hall of Famer. He also made the 1990’s all-decade team, was the league sacks leader in 1997 and was a six-time all-pro. To top it all off, he recorded double-digit sacks for eight straight seasons from 1992 to 1999. We guess someone else was just more impressive in 2009.
Maybe that someone was Buck Buchanan?
Buck Buchanan Is An Iron Man
Buck Buchanan only missed one game during his 13-year career. He was an iron man in a sport full of fragile flowers. Not as decorated as other athletes on this list, Buchanan was only voted to the Pro-Bowl twice. However, starting his career before the AFL-NFL Merger, Buchanan can add six more all-star appearances to his resume. He is also one of the few NFL players to have won an AFL Championship and a Super Bowl. Using his long arms and 6’7″ frame, Buchanan didn’t leave his mark sacking quarterbacks. Instead, he had an annoying habit of batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, causing unquestionable mental pain to his opponents’ delicate egos.
Julius Peppers Isn’t Done Yet
A name familiar to many, Julius Peppers has been wreaking havoc in the NFL since being drafted by the Carolina Panthers with the second overall pick in 2002. Entering the league with a splash, he was named “Defensive Rookie of the Year” and never looked back! Since then he has been named an all-pro six times, a pro-bowler nine times, and has amassed 154.5 sacks. Still playing, Peppers is not eligible for the Hall of Fame quite yet. Still, it’s hard to deny he belongs there and should be a no question Hall of Famer. Of course, the same thing was said about John Randle once, and we all know how that turned out!
Maybe Pepper’s should be mean, like the next end on our list!
Joe Green Was Really Mean
Nicknamed “Mean” Joe Greene, the Pittsburgh Steelers all-time great defensive tackle, played 13 seasons in the NFL. During his time Green was the anchor of the “Steel Curtain,” the defensive unit that led the Steelers and quarterback Terry Bradshaw to four Super Bowl victories. Known for his viciousness on the field, Greene was a teddy bear off the field. Looking to combine both personalities late in his career, Green filmed a commercial where he memorably tossed a young fan his “terrible” towel. The commercial quickly earned its spot in whatever Hall of Fame commercials gets enshrined in. Oh, and of course “Mean” Joe Greene was rightfully elected to the Pro Football Hall of Hame in 1987.
Deacon Jones Coins Things
Deacon Jones played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1961 until 1971, averaging 20 sacks a year from 1964 to 1968. His signature move was a slap to the head of offensive lineman. Eventually, the move was outlawed for its effectiveness. And safety concerns, of course! Leaving his mark on the NFL, Jones is credited with creating the term “sacking the quarterback,” something he did with scary efficiency. Playing his career before stats were collected, Jones “unofficially” has 173.5 sacks, good enough for third all-time if the league would allow it. The two time NFL “Defensive Player of the Year” was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980, seven years after ending his career with Washington.
Cortez Kennedy Left His Mark On The World
One of two Seattle Seahawks to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with the team, Cortez Kennedy played his entire 11-year career in Seattle. Although brief, Kennedy made the most of his time in the league, being elected to eight Pro-Bowls and being named “Defensive Player of the Year” in 1992. He was inducted into the Seahawks “Ring of Honor” in 2006 and the NFL Hall of Fame in 2012. Sadly, in May 2017 Kennedy died at age the age of 48.Experiencing swollen legs and dizziness, Kennedy was hospitalized with symptoms of possible heart failure. Taken from the world far too soon, Kennedy’s legacy left behind will never be forgotten.
Jared Allen Should Have Been A Cowboy
Spending a majority of his career as a Minnesota Viking, it would be fair to say the Dallas Cowboys would have been a better fit for Jared Allen. The country music loving and cowboy hat wearing offensive line terrorizer made the most of his time as a purple people eater. A four-time all-pro, Allen lead the league in sacks twice and won the Buck Buchanan award in 2003. Did we forget to mention he ended his career with an NFL record four safeties? It’s “safe” to say that Jared Allen will end up with a bust in Canton one day, probably in his first year of eligibility, but then again… John Randle.
The same can be said for Dwight Freeney!
Dwight Freeney Never Stops
At a still young 38-years-old, Dwight Freeney refuses to retire from the NFL, despite being a lock for the Hall of Fame. Looking to add more sacks to his already hefty total of 126, it’s impossible to deny the resume Freeney has built over his 16-year career. The NFL sacks leader in 2004 and seven-time pro-bowler, Freeney reached the pinnacle of his career in 2007, winning a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts. He reached the Super Bowl again in 2017 playing for the Falcons but lost to the Patriots after Atlanta suffered the worst Super Bowl meltdown in history. Perhaps looking for redemption, Freeney split time the next season with Detroit and Seattle and plans to keep proving himself in 2018.
DeMarcus Ware Has Plenty Of Gas Left In The Tank
DeMarcus Ware has 138.5 career sacks. Recently signing a one day contract to retire a Cowboy in 2018 after spending the last three years of his career in Denver, Ware’s place in NFL history is without question. During his incredible career, Ware actually split time as both a linebacker and defensive end, but like other hybrid athletes here, his list of accomplishments speaks for itself. A member of the 2000’s all-decade team, Ware was also a two-time league sack leader and nine-time pro-bowler. Oh yeah, he also won Super Bowl 50 with Peyton Manning. No big deal or anything. Basically, DeMarcus Ware is the rare player who was able to retire on his own terms with nothing left to prove. He was unquestionably great, just like every defensive lineman on this list!
Don’t Mess With J.J
J.J. Watt is the most fearsome force on the defensive side of the football field. If you see him coming at you full speed, you had better hope someone is ready to block for you. Playing for the Houston Texans, he is their knight in shining armor. Throughout the years, he has made spectacular plays and he deserves to be one of the highest paid players in the NFL. His career high in sacks is 20.5. He did that in 2012 and that was also the same year he won defensive player of the year.
The Purple People Eaters
When someone is one of the “purple people eaters” then you know they are nothing to be messed with. You had better come to the game prepared that day when you go up against someone with a nickname like that. For Carl Eller, there was no preparation. You just had to hope he had a bad game.
“It takes a lot of preparation and dedication to play in the NFL, and you are really proud of what you do,” Eller said. “But you are never quite sure if people appreciate what you put into it. … To hear that just really chills me.”
Yet again we have a player with an intimidating nickname. Richard Dent probably had the most straightforward yet terrifying nickname to opposing quarterbacks. They called him the Sackman. That means he was coming for the quarterback at all times. If you didn’t double team him then chances are he was going to fulfill his alternate name. No one was safe with him on the field.
“The Sackman’s comin’, I’m your man Dent. If the quarterback’s slow, he’s gonna get bent.” — Richard Dent’s introduction in “Super Bowl Shuffle” video by 1985 Chicago Bears.
Davis Still Works Hard
Henry Barr Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images
A player that was fortunate enough to be successful in the NFL and after he retired. His talent speaks for himself as he was able to dominate the opposition with what seemed like divine power and speed. There was little you could do to stop him from rushing the quarterback. Even a double was hard to contain him.
“I am proud of my achievements,” Davis said, “but I am even more proud of the work I have done to earn them.” When you work hard for something, that is your result, a rewarding career.
The Broncos Heart
If it weren’t for Von Miller then the Panthers would have had a super bowl ring. Von Miller put together one amazing performance in Super Bowl 50. This defensive juggernaut is not one to be taken lightly.
“In all honesty, we came into the game wanting to play our defense,” Miller said. “We knew if we were to be consistent and play [our] style of defense that we’d be able to come out on top.” That was after the Super Bowl. He earned MVP honors and would later go on to credit his other teammates as well.
Art Donovan, nicknamed “The Bulldog” was an American defensive tackle that played for three National Football League teams. The most notable of the three was the Baltimore Colts. After attending Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, he received a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame in 1942 but left to join the Marine Corps. He even became the first football player ever to earn a place in the U.S. Marine Corps Hall of Fame. he later went on to become a professional football player where he started in his rookie season with the Colts. He later went to play with the New York Yanks and the Dallas Texans. He won back to back championships in 1958 and 1959 and was selected as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
Mark Gastineau played as the defensive end for the New York Jets from 1979 to 1988. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and made 107 ½ quarterback sacks in his first 100 starts gave him the reputation of being a fearsome defensive end. Soon after achieving this level of success, he also became one of the most feared pass rushers of his generation. By the end of his career, Mark Gastineau was ranked the 8th greatest pass rusher in NFL History on NFL Network’s Top 10 Pass Rushers. In 1984, he was also voted player of the year and was named MVP of that season’s Pro Bowl.
Dan Hampton, also known as “Danimal” is a retired Hall of Fame American football defensive tackle. He played a whopping twelve seasons for the Chicago bears from 1979 to 1990 in the National Football league. He was also elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002 and now currently hosts the Bears Postgame show on WGN Radio in Chicago. After his retirement in the 90s, he was the recipient of the George S. Halas Courage Award by the Pro Football Writers Association for overcoming the variety of horrific injuries that he received throughout his time playing professionally.
Dexter Manley, nicknamed proudly as the “Secretary of Defense “ was born in 1959. He played for the National Football League for the Washington Redskins, Phoenix Cardinals, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an eleven-year career that lasted from 981 to 1991. Aside from playing in the NFL, he also played in the Canadian Football League for the Ottawa Rough Riders and Shreveport Pirates. During his NFL careers, he won two Super Bowl titles and was a Pro Bowler in 1986. Unfortunately, after failing numerous drug tests, he retired after a successful professional career.
Roger Lee Brown was born in 1937 and retired from professional football in the 1969 NFL season. He was drafted in the 4th round out of Maryland State College by the Detroit Lions. He played in in the All-star game in Chicago against the Baltimore Colts and played with the original fearsome foursome made up of Alex Karras, Sam Williams, and Darris McCord. In 1962, he was named as Outstand Defensive Lineman in the league and tied for the NFL record for safeties scored in a single season. After being traded to the Los Angeles Rams, he was known for his performance in the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” game against the Green Bay Packers in 1962.
Leslie O’Neal had a 13-year-long career with the NFL, the majority of which was spent with the San Diego Chargers, who picked him up in the first round of the 1986 NFL draft. O’Neal recorded 12.5 sacks in his first NFL season, but a knee injury ended it prematurely. Throughout the first half of the ‘90s, O’Neal led the Chargers in sacks every season, finishing his career with San Diego as the Chargers’ all-time leader in sacks with a total of 105.5. He subsequently spent a season each with the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring. Leslie O’Neal ranks 10th of all time in NFL history in sacks.
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesDrafted as the #6 overall pick by the New England Patriots in 2001, Seymour was considered one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL throughout the duration of his career in which he tallied 496 tackles and 57.5 sacks. One of the most notable moments of his career was when he was fined $7,500 by the NFL in 2006 for stepping on Tarik Glenn of the Indianapolis Colts after getting angry at Glenn for targeting his knees. Still, Seymour’s dominance as a defensive lineman has gotten him into seven Pro Bowls and won three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots.
Mike Powell /Allsport
After being drafted in 1993 by the San Francisco 49ers, Dana Stubblefield was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year when he managed to lead the 49ers with 10.5 sacks in his first year and 8.5 the following year. By 1997, Stubblefield one-upped himself by recording 15 sacks and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. After the 1997 season, Stubblefield became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Washington Redskins, then the Oakland Raiders, and finally the New England Patriots, though he could never match the brilliance he displayed during his initial years in San Francisco.
Bill Willis is considered one of the best defensive lineman of the 1940s and early ‘50s, but due to segregation within football at the time, Willis’s career started in the All-America Football Conference with the Cleveland Browns, who he helped win each of the league’s four championship games. By the time the AAFC folded and the Browns were absorbed by the NFL, where he continued to dominate despite the racial tensions on the field. There were some games that Willis and other black teammates didn’t even go due to threats from the cities that hosted them. After a successful career in the NFL and two Pro Bowls, Willis retired in 1953.
Elvin Bethea was drafted to the NFL in 1968 by the Houston Oilers, who later became the Tennessee Titans. Bethea led the team in sacks six times, his career high being in 1973 with 16 sacks — the best in Oilers/Titans history. Bethea remained pretty consistent throughout his entire NFL career, recording more than ten sacks every season throughout the ‘70s and finishing his career with an unofficial 105 sacks and 691 tackles. Getting himself into seven Pro Bowls, it’s no wonder that the Tennessee Titans retired his number, No. 65.
The former Polish-American defensive lineman Joe Klecko made his mark as a member of the New York Jets’ famed New York Sack Exchange. He was drafted by the Jets during the 1974 draft but despite eight sacks by Klecko, the team only went 3-11 during his first season. That all changed when Clecko and Abdul Salaam were joined by Marty Lyons and Mark Gastineau. Together, the four players formed one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. In total, they combined for 66 sacks, 20.5 of which were Klecko’s.
Ray Childress began his NFL career with the Houston Oilers, playing from 1985 through 1995 before joining the Dallas Cowboys for a single year. He spent five seasons as the Oiler’s defensive end before moving to defensive tackle in 1990. By this time, Childress has already earned multiple Pro Bowl honors and proved he was a jack-of-all-trades on the field, sometimes filling in as nose guard. An effective player both against the pass and against the run, Childress rounded out his career with the Oilers ranked second all-time in QB sacks.
Former American football nose tackle, Vince Wilfork, played 13 seasons in the NFL before retiring in 2016. He was drafted in 2004 and spent the next decade playing defense with the New England Patriots. He showed off his skills on the field during his rookie season with two sacks, 42 tackles, and three deflected passes. This earned him a starting position when the Patriots faced off against the Eagles later that season. Wilfork went on to be named in both the Pro Bowl and All-Prop teams in 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Curley Culp started his NFL career in 1968 when he was drafted for the Denver Broncos and would go on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers, and Detroit Lions. Prior to his NFL career, Culp was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and his large stature made him an admirable defensive tackle. During his best season, he notched 11.5 sacks, something few others had been able to do. This won him All-Pro honors and earned him the title of NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Former NFL player Steve McMichael was drafted by the New England Patriots in 1980 before being acquired by the Chicago Bears as a free agent in 1981. He quickly became one of best defensive tackles in the league and he helped lead the team to a Super Bowl win in 1985. With 11.5 sacks in 1988, he led the Bears to a successful season and was named to the NFC’s Pro Bowl team two consecutive years. He eventually retired in 1994, after which he started appearing ringside in the WWF.