One of the hallmarks of the greatest NFL defensive linemen to ever play in the NFL is their total ability to swing the balance of any game at any time, even if the explanation was simple: They could not be corralled with one-on-one blocking. Despite their brutish job description, these players made defensive football a thing of beauty by being equally adept at shutting down the running game and wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Sometimes operating on reputation alone, these all-time greats could alter offensive game plans and put opposing coordinators out of work.
Before each play, a defensive lineman in a three-point stance represents the calm before the storm. Immediately upon the snap of the football, the defender explodes upward, swivels his hips, and casts aside the opposing offensive linemen with a forearm shiver. From there, the greats all had a nose for the ball and the big play. With one fell karate-chop swoop, a game-changing lineman can force a fumble, recover the football, and head the other direction for six behind a convoy of like-minded goons. Here’s our list of the 10 greatest defensive linemen of all time. [Editor’s note: We’re waiting for J.J. Watt’s career to be over before we enshrine him next to his likely peers.]
10. Randy White
Randy White was a late bloomer. Beginning his career as a linebacker, White was somewhat of a lost prospect at first, until his third year, when he moved down to right defensive tackle, where he served as the focal point of a dominant 1970s defense in Big D. With a tireless work ethic and boundless durability, White only missed two games during his 14-year career. In the early ’80s, White was especially prolific, recording double-digit sacks between 1983 and 1985. At the apex of his career, White took home Super Bowl XII co-MVP honors alongside his defensive linemate Harvey Martin. During that game, White and Martin controlled the line of scrimmage and helped the Dallas Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos for a 27-10 shellacking in the Big Game.
9. Bob Lilly
Mr. Cowboy was the first draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys in 1961. Over the next 14 years, Lilly completely dominated the line of scrimmage at both defensive end and tackle. A fan favorite, Lilly built his game upon quickness and tenacity, scratching, clawing, and clubbing his way to an unabated run into the backfield. In addition to racking up tackles and sacks, Lilly was always on the hunt to force turnovers, borne out by his four career touchdowns and 109 return yards on 18 fumble recoveries. Lilly won two NFL Championships and one Super Bowl with his Dallas Cowboys.
8. Gino Marchetti
At defensive end, Gino Marchetti was simply relentless. As a member of the 1950s and ’60s Baltimore Colts, Marchetti has been acknowledged by many NFL football historians as the best defensive lineman of his era. To stop the run, Marchetti would bowl over blockers at the point of attack, get low, and make tackles. On passing downs, Marchetti was a terror who ate up double and triple teams en route to taking his shot at quarterback. A famed tough guy, Marchetti broke his leg on a key stop during the Colts versus New York Giants NFL Championship – the Greatest Game Ever Played. This bang-bang play and tackle was to sideline Marchetti from appearing in a then-record 11 consecutive Pro Bowl contests.
7. Lee Roy Selmon
Lee Roy Selmon’s career may be thought of as a historical casualty. Selmon was a force that combined speed and power to control the edge as a defensive end. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 256 pounds, Ol’ Lee Roy was the master of the bull rush, where he would power into a hapless tackle and drive his man into the backfield. From there, Selmon would toss aside this offensive brute as if he were a rag doll and set his sights upon the quarterback.
Between 1976 and 1984, Selmon toiled for the then-moribund Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise before his career was cut short by injury. Within those nine short years, Selmon was named to six Pro Bowls, claimed one 1979 Defensive Player of the Year trophy, and successfully polished off his Pro Football Hall of Fame résumé.
6. Carl Eller
Minnesota Purple People Eater Carl Eller starred alongside Jim Marshall and fellow Hall of Famer Alan Page to form the greatest defensive line unit of all time. As a 6-foot-6, 247-pound left defensive end Eller was relatively svelte for doing battle in the trenches. He therefore relied upon quickness and technique to get around offensive tackles in space and make plays. Because of his speed, Eller was especially dangerous in passing situations. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Eller recorded an unofficial 44 sacks in three seasons between 1975 and 1977. In 15 seasons, Carl Eller played in four Super Bowls and was named to six Pro Bowls.
5. Alan Page
One of the famed Purple People Eaters, Alan Page became known for the aggression he brought to the defensive side of the football. Upon every snap, Page went into seek-and-destroy mode, looking only to obliterate the ball carrier. As a collegiate defensive end, he brought unparalleled quickness to the table and ultimately shifted inside as a defensive tackle at the professional level. Page’s natural quickness, of course, was further enhanced by his instinctual ability to read and react to play calls.
Over his 15-year career, Page put together a staggering list of statistics, awards, and accolades at Minnesota and Chicago. As an iron man, Page performed in 238 straight games, made nine consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, and anchored the Viking defense during four Super Bowls. As a force, he blocked 28 kicks, recovered 23 fumbles, and compiled 173 sacks; he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
4. Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith was a specimen. At 6-foot-4 and 262 pounds, he was all over the place for the Buffalo Bills. Although Smith’s primary position was listed as right defensive end, he was versatile enough to line up both over the center at tackle and over at right end in the 34 scheme. Smith shifted positions so opposing offenses could not get a beat on him. At his regular right defensive end post, Smith was subject to triple teams, running back chip blocks, and outright dirty play to take him out of his game. Despite these tactics, No. 78 remained undeterred as a relentless power. Smith and his 200 sacks still top the all-time list.
Smith had all the moves. He would anticipate the snap count and jump the left tackle. Immediately, Smith would overpower some hapless sap with a bull rush before cutting inside with a spin move. After the spin, Smith would be on the move and turn on the jets to crush the quarterback from the blind side and force a fumble. And Ralph Willson Stadium began to rock: “Bruuuuuuuuce!”
3. Deacon Jones
For modern fans, the late Deacon Jones emerged as an affable grandpa who also doubled as somewhat of a camera hog. The Deacon, however, was a fierce man in his prime. Jones literally invented the meaning of the term “sack,” and would certainly rank near the top of the heap if sacks were tabulated as official statistics for old timers. In the 1960s, Jones, the Secretary of Defense, joined forces with fellow Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen alongside Lamar Lundy and Rosy Grier as the vaunted L.A. Rams’ Fearsome Foursome. Behind the help of this group, the Deacon revolutionized defensive line play with his ability to swivel his hips and chase down the action from sideline to sideline.
As a sack artist and run stopper, Jones got loose at the line of scrimmage with his patented head slap. Illegal today, Jones would explode off the ball and bludgeon yet another faceless offensive lineman upside the head with an open palm. Leaving his opponent dazed and confused, the Deacon would then run amok deep within the offensive backfield. With the strength of this move, Jones totaled eight Pro Bowl appearances, two Defensive MVP awards, one title belt as the greatest sack artist of all time, and one bronzed Hall of Fame bust.
2. Joe Greene
Mean Joe Greene starred as the anvil focal point that held down the Mighty Pittsburgh Steel Curtain. Equally tenacious against both the running and passing game, Greene dominated the league from Day 1. Greene’s technique had him wedge his body between the guard-center A gap to disrupt blocking assignments and roam free, traumatizing offensive fronts. A primetime performer, Greene was at his best during a ’70s dynasty run that included four Super Bowl trophies and countless playoff battles versus the hated Oakland Raiders. In Super Bowl IX versus the Minnesota Vikings, Greene was unblockable as he tallied one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
As a young buck, Mean Joe Greene despised losing and often let his temper get the best of him. Part of the Greene mystique has the man spitting in Dick Butkus’s face and challenging him to a fight right on the field. Beyond the legendary Butkus dust-up, Greene was good for stomping on felled opponents, snapping the football to his own defense, and running into the pile to throw potshots after the whistle.
This guy was just plain mean. Like all giants, however, Mean Joe Greene did have a gentler side. In a classic advertisement, Greene offered a young fan a Coke and a smile.
1. Reggie White
The late Reggie White was an unstoppable force. Known as the Minister of Defense, White mastered the hump move, where he would shrug his shoulders, deliver a forearm shiver to an overmatched right tackle, and then cut back to the inside. After the hump, White tracked a straight-line path into the backfield, where he would blast the quarterback into next week.
In Philadelphia, White teamed up with fellow big uglies Clyde Simmons, Ron Pitts, and Jerome Brown alongside total madman defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan to run roughshod all through the NFC East. In 1993, White was the first Grand Prize of the newfangled “free agent sweepstakes” era, when he took his talents to Green Bay and the Frozen Tundra.
As a Packer, he continued to dominate with 68.5 sacks and one Lombardi Trophy over the course of six seasons. In 2008, White was to hang up his cleats after having compiled 15 years of service, 1,048 tackles, 198 sacks, 13 consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, and two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards for his mantle.