By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Since 1961 the Associated Press has given out the NFL MVP Award.
In that time frame only two defensive players have won the prestigious honor. The second winner came in 1986, I’ll mention him a little bit later in this Best Sellers’ List.
The first defensive player to win the league’s MVP was Alan Page of the Minnesota Vikings in 1971. My point by mentioning this is that defenders get very little love when it comes to recognition. But the game of the gridiron is built on defense.
So coaches, fans of the game and those who had to run for their lives on Sundays appreciate the contributions of the best defensive ends, defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. Defense wins champions and the men I am about to list as the best defensive players in NFL racked up a lot titles. In my top 10, only three players didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy. And one of those guys played in four straight Super Bowls.
Before we get to the 10 best in NFL history to line up on the defensive side of the ball, here are the best of the rest: Ray Lewis, Alan Page, Jack Lambert, Bob Lilly, Dick “Night Train’ Lane, Gino Marchetti, Rod Woodson, Mel Blount, Ray Nitschke, Mike Singletary, Jim Thorpe, Merlin Olsen, Junior Seau, Charles Woodson, JJ Watt, Jack Ham, Ted Hendricks, Von Miller, Randy White, Michael Strahan, Willie Lanier, Derrick Thomas, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Donald, Lee Roy Selmon, Herb Adderley, Darrell Green, Mike Haynes, Khalil Mack, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch, Paul Krasue, Emlen Tunnell, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Willie Brown.
- Chuck Bednarik
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles
The last 60-minute man in the NFL retired in 1962. Mr. Chuck Bednarik went out as a two-time champion with his Philadelphia Eagles. The outspoken ambassador of the NFL won his first championship as a rookie and picked up another crown in 1960 while playing center and linebacker.
It was his work at linebacker that made him a legend and help earn him six First Team All-Pro and eight Pro Bowl selections. And let’s not forget the iconic photo of Bednarik laying out New York Giants Frank Gilford.
- Deacon Jones
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins
The man who invented the term sack passed away in 2013 still claiming he is the all-time leader in sacks. The league didn’t keep record of quarterback tackles behind the line of scrimmage as sacks until 1982. So David “Deacon” Jones had left his mark on the game forever. Other additional ways Jones left his legacy on the game eight Pro Bowls, being a five-time First Team All-Pro and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in back to back years in 1967-68.
The great Deacon was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1980. By the way, Jones said he recorded 194.5 sacks in his career.
- Bruce Smith
Teams: Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins
Now the official all-time leader in sacks is Bruce Smith. This two-time Defensive Player of the Year form 1990 and 1996 recorded 200 sacks before retiring in 2003. In 2009, Smith took his proper place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This defensive end specialist was the defensive leader of the Buffalo Bills who reached Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII.
In addition, Smith was named to eight First-Team All Pro selections and was a part of two Second-Team All Pro squads.
- Dick Butkus
Teams: Chicago Bears
One of the most iconic players in NFL history is Dick Butkus. His muddy face and ripped No. 51 jersey is still a part of the folklore of the Shield. Plus the name Butkus screams FOOTBALL. The Chicago Bear legend was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970. Butkus was a six-time First Team All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler. Sadly like Jones and Smith, he did not win a NFL championship or Super Bowl. Most of the time Butkus was the only reason his team had a chance of winning a game.
Butkus also had another thing in common with Jones and Smith, He intimidated the opposition into mythical stories of destruction.
- Joe Greene
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
The next man on the list was definitely a champion. Actually he helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years. That was a “mean” feat and the man known as “Mean Joe” Greene also picked up a pair of NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974.
It didn’t take Joe Greene much time to make his impact felt on the league by winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1969. He sustained that greatness with 10 Pro Bowl selections. Greene is one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game and anchored the “Steel Curtain” unit that terrorized the NFL throughout the 1970s. Greene was so good, his alma mater North Texas changed the school’s mascot to the Mean Green.
- Ed Reed
Teams: Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Houston Texans
The greatest safety in NFL history is Mr. Ed Reed. Ed Reed was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He was also a five-time First Team All-Pro and holds the record for most playoff interceptions with nine. Reed recently went into the Hall of Fame and won a Super Bowl championship in 2012. Let’s run down some more Reed achievements: longest interception return in NFL history of 107 yards; most career interception return yards with 1,590; first player in NFL history to return an interception, punt, blocked punt and fumble for a touchdown; holds the record for most multi-interception games in a career with 12; and is tied for most career blocked punts returned for a TD with three.
- Deion Sanders
Years: 1989-2000, 2004-05
Teams: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens
He’s no Chuck Bednarik but Deion Sanders did become famous for playing on both sides of the football. Sanders had some success at wide receiver and as a returner in the kicking game. But this two-time Super Bowl champion goes down as the greatest cornerback in NFL history. He made the position worthy and sexy. Sanders was named the AP’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 and even had talks of winning the overall MVP award. He was a six-time First Team All-Pro.
Sanders went into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
- Ronnie Lott
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets
Now it is time for the greatest defensive back of all time. Ronnie Lott is a four-time Super Bowl champion with the legendary 1980s San Francisco 49ers. He was the heart and soul of those defenses. Throughout the decade he moved all around the defensive backfield becoming the best at the position in the league. Lott was so good he earned six First Team All-Pro selections and 10-time Pro Bowl trips.
The man known for his toughness went into the Hall of Fame in 2000. And part of his display in the Hall is the story about him cutting off part of his pinky finger in a game to continue to play. Lott has since admitted that story is more legend than truth.
- Reggie White
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers
The Hump Move deserves it’s own portion in Canton. The creator of the legendary defensive move Reggie White was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 after his passing in 2004. The Minister of Defense spoke a heavenly word and played like hell on Sundays. He was such a fierce defensive end he racked up 221.5 professional sacks (if you count his time in the USFL with the Memphis Showboats). In 1996, White reached the pinnacle of the NFL helping the Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XXXI dominating the second half. The Hump Move destroyed the New England Patriots with three easy sacks.
White was a two-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a 13-time Pro Bowler
- Lawrence Taylor
Team: New York Giants
Some say the greatest NBA player ever came from North Carolina in Michael Jordan. I guess the Tar Heels can claim the best defensive player in NFL history as well in Lawrence Taylor. The force known as LT changed the game forever.
Taylor was a roaming linebacker that could line up on the end of the defensive line in a standing position. He used that running start to collect 132.5 sacks, 1,089 tackles and force 56 fumbles. That number 56 struck fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators, offensive linemen and especially quarterbacks.
Taylor was so good, offensive coordinators paid special attention at drafting quality and agile left tackles to protect the blindside. Taylor was the perfect combination of speed and power. The New York Giants won two Super Bowls with him. And Taylor was a nine-time First Team All-Pro selection. He was a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And oh yeah, he was the 1986 NFL MVP. IN 1999, Taylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.