NFL’s greatest gamers ever at each defensive place — Is Lawrence Taylor the GOAT edge rusher? Ronnie Lott or Ed Reed at security?

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7:00 AM ETESPN staffQuarterback Tom Brady was retired in the course of the 2022 NFL offseason for simply 40 days earlier than opting to return for a twenty third season that would (possibly?) be his final, tight finish Rob Gronkowski just lately determined to hold up his cleats and defensive deal with Aaron Donald inked an enormous contract extension this summer time to make him the sport’s highest-paid non-QB after contemplating retirement himself. All of it received us fascinated by the place these legends of the sport stack up all time at their respective positions.We requested 50 consultants, reporters and analysts to call the NFL’s biggest participant of all time at each place. The objective was to slim the sphere to only one GOAT at quarterback, broad receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and even kicker. We already named the most effective ever at each offensive place, and now we’re persevering with on with seven protection and special-teams positions.After we tallied the ballots and topped every defensive/special-teams place’s greatest participant of all time, our voters weighed in and defined their selections. Plus, Jeff Legwold broke down why every GOAT was chosen, and ESPN Stats & Info dove into the numbers to pick key stats to know. Let’s begin with edge rusher.Leap to:EDGE | DT | LB | CB | SK/P | KR/STSee: GOAT at each offensive positionJerry Wachter/Sports activities Illustrated by way of Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Taylor earned 40 of fifty votes (80%)Profession: New York Giants (1981-1993)Corridor of Fame: 1999Pro Bowl choices: 10Career stats: 184 video games, 142 sacks, 9 interceptionsWhy he is the GOAT edge rusher: Taylor introduced himself to the league as a rookie in 1981 with 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 8 move knockdowns, 2 compelled fumbles and an interception and gained the league’s Defensive Participant of the Yr award. There are lots of across the league who say Taylor modified the way in which individuals thought pass-rushers could possibly be utilized in a protection. Taylor’s greatest season got here in 1986, when he led the league in sacks (20.5), gained MVP and earned his third Defensive Participant of the Yr award. — Jeff LegwoldStat to know: Taylor had 132.5 official sacks in his profession — his 9.5 in 1981 have been unofficial — and greater than half of them (76.0) got here in a five-season span from 1985 to ’89. He had no less than 12.0 sacks in every of these 5 seasons, the longest streak by any participant since particular person sacks turned official in 1982.What our voters saidTaylor is the most effective soccer participant I’ve ever seen, no matter place. I’ve heard the Reggie White arguments, however they at all times strike me as parochial — Philadelphia followers who do not need to admit the man from New York was higher than their man — and I simply do not see the place White was higher outdoors of longevity. Even Patriots coach Invoice Belichick considers LT the most effective participant within the historical past of the sport, and who am I to argue with that? — Dan Graziano, NFL reporter2 RelatedHow might I not vote for LT? Two Tremendous Bowls, 10 straight All-Professional seasons and a league MVP greater than backs it up. On the sphere, he was a game-defining edge rusher who was feared by opposing offenses for his reckless play and impeccable timing. Plus, his nicknames included Godzilla and Superman. That is an auto vote. — Brooke Pryor, Steelers reporterIs it even debatable? LT as soon as led the league in sacks, was named Defensive Participant of the Yr and MVP and gained a Tremendous Bowl — all in the identical season. He is a no brainer right here. — Jordan Raanan, Giants reporterTaylor is arguably the most effective defensive participant in NFL historical past, and he redefined the skin linebacker place. His 1986 season will ceaselessly be some of the memorable seasons by a defensive participant. His aggression, relentless nature and talent to take over video games made him particular. — Jordan Reid, NFL draft analystThe runners-upReggie White (eight votes): Eagles reporter Tim McManus argues that White was the extra constantly dominant participant as a result of “he posted 12 double-digit-sack seasons over 15 years (seven over 13 years for Taylor).” He continues, “You’ll be able to argue that Taylor flashed the brightest, however White was a relentless, unstoppable pressure for the higher a part of twenty years.” Fantasy author Mike Clay factors merely to “198.0 sacks (second most all time), a pair of Defensive Participant of the Yr awards, 13 All-Professional appearances and a Tremendous Bowl ring.”Additionally receiving votes: Bruce Smith (one), J.J. Watt (one)Brian Rothmuller/Icon SportswireVoting outcomes: Donald earned 39 of fifty votes (78%)Profession: St. Louis/L.A. Rams (2014-2021)Professional Bowl choices: 8Career stats: 127 video games, 98.0 sacks, 440 tackles, 23 compelled fumblesWhy he is the GOAT defensive deal with: Donald will get even essentially the most remember-when individuals within the league to acknowledge his place in NFL historical past. He has gained three Defensive Participant of the Yr awards and been a first-team All-Professional choice in seven of his eight seasons. And despite the fact that he’s continually swarmed with blockers, Donald unravels offensive sport plans. His first Tremendous Bowl win earlier this 12 months solely provides to an already Canton-worthy résumé. — LegwoldStat to know: Donald has recorded no less than eight sacks in every of his eight seasons, and he’s the one defensive deal with in NFL historical past to file 20 sacks in a season (20.5 in 2018).What our voters saidIt might be onerous to select a present participant as the most effective at his place in NFL historical past, however Donald’s dominance permits for it. Regardless of enjoying totally on the inside of the defensive position and being double-teamed on the highest charge within the NFL, Donald has over 100 extra pass-rush wins than anybody else within the NFL over the previous 5 seasons, based on ESPN Stats & Info analysis. Donald would possibly end his profession as the most effective defensive participant in NFL historical past. — Sarah Barshop, Rams reporterI’m admittedly biased right here as a result of Deacon Jones — a runner-up for me right here — performed lengthy earlier than my time masking the NFL, and I’ve watched Donald’s complete profession with an up-close view of how he has made life a residing hell for NFC West rivals. Donald’s résumé makes a convincing sufficient case by itself, however he additionally simply makes blockers appear to be they are not even attempting. — Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporterDonald’s measurement was not a match for a handful of NFL groups when he was getting into the 2014 NFL draft out of Pittsburgh, however his tape was outrageous. I’ve by no means seen a participant — school or professional — with a extra explosive take-off, and his mixture of flexibility and power to advance his move rush whereas engaged with an offensive lineman is exclusive. A GM who was doing his due diligence on Donald informed me on the time that each coach and employees member within the Pitt program he had talked to stated they’d by no means been round a greater apply participant. It helps clarify how Donald has change into the most effective inside pass-rusher within the historical past of the sport. — Todd McShay, NFL draft analystDonald has not solely completed first in move rush win charge at defensive deal with in all 5 seasons of the metric’s existence, however his worst PRWR season in that span (24.2% in 2020) is greater than two share factors larger than the most effective season by some other defensive deal with (Grady Jarrett at 21.5% in 2019). It is a wild stage of sustained dominance. — Seth Walder, analytics writerThe runners-upJoe Greene (5 votes): “Greene might be credited with revolutionizing defensive position play along with his use of a tilted alignment that allowed the him to make use of his unmatched quickness to slice by means of gaps,” Colts reporter Stephen Holder stated. Fantasy author Eric Moody pointed to Imply Joe Greene’s integral function within the Steelers’ dynasty. “He gained two NFL Defensive Participant of the Yr awards, was named to 5 first-team All-Professional groups and performed in 10 Professional Bowls, and one offensive lineman could not block him — which made the Steelers’ linebackers more practical.”Deacon Jones (three votes): Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco stated, “Jones’ unofficial sack whole of 173.5 could be third all time in NFL historical past, and he had three seasons of no less than 20 sacks. The one different gamers with a number of 20-sack seasons are J.J. Watt and Mark Gastineau, and every had two.”Additionally receiving votes: Alan Web page (one), John Randle (one), Warren Sapp (one)Al Tielemans/Sports activities Illustrated by way of Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Lewis earned 23 of fifty votes (46%)Profession: Baltimore (1996-2012)Corridor of Fame: 2018Pro Bowl choices: 12Career stats: 228 video games, 2,050 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 compelled fumblesWhy he is the GOAT linebacker: Lewis led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons with the group, together with his rookie 12 months. He powered Baltimore’s record-setting protection in 2000, when Baltimore surrendered simply 165 factors in the course of the common season on the way in which to a Tremendous Bowl win. That protection nonetheless holds the 16-game file for fewest factors allowed in a season and fewest speeding yards allowed (970). Lewis’ closing sport was Baltimore’s win in Tremendous Bowl XLVII to shut out the 2012 season. — LegwoldStat to know: A two-time Defensive Participant of the Yr, Lewis is the one participant in NFL historical past to have 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in a profession.What our voters saidLewis modified the center linebacker place along with his vary, power and consciousness, shutting down the sport’s high working backs. And he’s the one center linebacker to win a number of Tremendous Bowls and a number of Defensive Participant of the Yr awards. — Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporterJeremy Fowler requested greater than 50 NFL execs, coaches, scouts and gamers to rank each place’s high 10 for 2022:• Protection: DE/OLB | DT | LB | CB | S• Offense: QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | G/C
I coated Lewis from the day he was drafted till the evening he walked away a winner in his second Tremendous Bowl. He was the hardest, smartest NFL participant I ever encountered. Lewis’ movie research habits allowed him to see issues on the sphere earlier than they occurred. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would each most likely let you know Lewis rented house of their minds pre- and post-snap. — Sal Paolantonio, host of NFL MatchupWhat separates the greats from each other just isn’t bodily ability. It is preparation, soccer intelligence, instincts and execution. Lewis made a few of the most spectacular particular person defensive performs we’ve ever seen as a result of he was the perfect at getting essentially the most out of every little thing he had mentally earlier than the ball was even snapped, permitting his bodily abilities to shine. That’s being a GOAT in my eyes. — Louis Riddick, NFL analystThe runners-upDick Butkus (13 votes): “Butkus outlined the Nineteen Sixties/Seventies defensive participant, when linebackers have been every-down gladiators,” Jets reporter Wealthy Cimini stated. “And he averaged extra interceptions per season (2.4) than Lewis (1.8).” Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss stated, “There could not have been a extra bodily or feared linebacker than Butkus. His sport might cross eras due to how onerous he hit and the way powerful he was.”Mike Singletary (4 votes): Browns reporter Jake Trotter pointed to Singletary’s “icy depth” right here and stated, “He anchored arguably the most effective protection in NFL historical past in 1985, as his Bears allowed simply 12 factors per sport on the way in which to a Tremendous Bowl.”Jack Lambert (three votes): “He was as feared a participant because the NFL has ever seen, along with his capability to impression the sport in numerous methods (28 interceptions, 23.5 sacks and practically 1,500 tackles),” Cowboys reporter Todd Archer stated. “He epitomized the toughness of the Metal Curtain protection within the Seventies.”Additionally receiving votes: Ted Hendricks (two), Chuck Bednarik (one), Derrick Brooks (one), Invoice George (one), Ray Nitschke (one), Junior Seau (one)Gin Ellis/Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Sanders earned 32 of fifty votes (64%)Profession: Atlanta (1989-1993); San Francisco (1994); Dallas (1995-1999); Washington (2000); Baltimore (2004-2005)Corridor of Fame: 2011Pro Bowl choices: 8Career stats: 188 video games, 53 interceptionsWhy he is the GOAT cornerback: Sanders’ mixture of bravado, expertise and want to win could possibly be seen each time he performed. He wasn’t constantly challenged by opposing quarterbacks however nonetheless completed his profession with 53 interceptions, together with two in his closing season at 38 years previous. And that whole was impacted by a three-year retirement (2001-2003). Sanders intercepted six passes in 1994 — his solely season with the 49ers — and returned three of them for touchdowns. And it is value declaring that he performed in 641 video games for 4 groups in his Main League Baseball profession and led the league in triples in 1992. — LegwoldStat to know: Sanders displayed his versatility on the gridiron by changing into considered one of two gamers in NFL historical past to attain a landing six alternative ways: interception (9), punt return (6), kick return (3), reception (3), fumble restoration (1) and speeding (1). The opposite is 1966 Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame inductee Invoice Dudley. And no cornerback racked up extra interception-return yards than Sanders, who collected 1,132 in his profession.What our voters saidIt’s straightforward to level to the awards — six first-team All-Professional recognitions, eight Professional Bowls and a Defensive Participant of the Yr honor. Nevertheless it’s largely concerning the eye check. Sanders dominated receivers not like anybody else, and I have never seen groups keep away from a defender greater than they did with Sanders in his prime. He allowed defensive coordinators to name a special sport simply because he was on the sphere. — John Keim, Commanders reporterBeyond the chatter and showboating, Sanders outlined what it meant to be a shutdown cornerback. Though quarterbacks averted him, he nonetheless had 53 interceptions. And he did it towards a few of the greatest receivers in NFL historical past. Jerry Rice himself stated Sanders and Darrell Inexperienced gave him the toughest time. That is ok for me. — David Newton, Panthers reporterIn his prime, Sanders shut down half the sphere — at any time when he wasn’t busy enjoying baseball as an alternative. And his legend relies on all of the passes that weren’t thrown in his route, not on gaudy interception or passes defensed totals. — Aaron Schatz, Soccer OutsidersA GOAT in any class has to have the talents and accolades to again it up. However did additionally they change the sport? Did they’ve the swagger? Affect? Charisma? Are they a family identify? Prime checks all the bins. He was the person. — Eric Woodyard, Lions reporterThe runners-upCharles Woodson (5 votes): “Nobody can match Sanders’ playmaking capability, however Woodson’s versatility as a tackler and a pass-rusher — along with his physicality in press conditions — allowed coaches to construct their defenses round him,” Vikings reporter Kevin Seifert stated. “And he did it on the highest stage for practically twenty years earlier than retiring at age 39.”Rod Woodson (5 votes): Fantasy author Stephania Bell leaned towards one other Woodson right here. “Versatility inside a place is an indication of greatness, and Woodson’s capability to make the powerful tackles, steal the ball and dash both route — when in protection or following a choose — definitely suits the invoice. He’s additionally the one participant previously 60 years to have 5 seasons with no less than six interceptions and a pick-six, and of his 1,483 return yards, 320 got here at age 35 or older.”Darrelle Revis (4 votes): “Revis was dominating the league throughout a time when passing statistics have been on the rise throughout the board,” NFL analyst Area Yates stated. “He was an eraser throughout a time when many NFL secondaries have been struggling for solutions.” Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine added, “In his prime, Revis was the most effective pure cowl nook within the sport.”Additionally receiving votes: Champ Bailey (one), Mel Blount (one), Mike Haynes (one), Evening Prepare Lane (one)Mickey Pfleger/Sports activities Illustrated by way of Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Lott earned 27 of fifty votes (54%)Profession: San Francisco (1981-1990); L.A. Raiders (1991-1992); N.Y. Jets (1993-1994)Corridor of Fame: 2000Pro Bowl choices: 10Career stats: 192 video games, 63 interceptions, 8.5 sacksWhy he is the GOAT security: He made this record as a security, however Lott truly began his profession as one of many hardest-hitting cornerbacks any league govt can keep in mind — he performed cornerback throughout his first 5 professional seasons earlier than shifting to security. Lott finally completed his profession with 4 Tremendous Bowl rings, and his 63 interceptions are tied for eighth most all time. He led the league in interceptions in 1986 (10) and had no less than 4 interceptions in a season 9 instances. And in 20 playoff video games, Lott had 9 interceptions and scored two touchdowns. — LegwoldStat to know: Lott was considered one of two defensive gamers (together with Joe Greene) with 4 Tremendous Bowl championships and 10 Professional Bowls. And he compiled 5 seasons of no less than 100 tackles.What our voters saidWhen an NFL participant defines the way in which a place must be performed and requires opponents to regulate their methods round him, he deserves to be the GOAT. Lott confirmed a mastery of defending the open area along with his distinctive instincts, making him an ever-present takeaway menace. And he was fearless, usually sacrificing his physique; his famously amputated pinky finger was the stuff of NFL legend. — Stephania Bell, fantasy author• All the pieces you missed this offseason »• Previewing each group’s coaching camp »• Grades: Free company » | Draft »• Teaching modifications: Monitoring strikes »• 2022 schedule » | Energy rankings »
Lott was the epitome of a well-rounded defensive again. He began his profession as a ball-hawk cornerback and reworked right into a fearsome hitter at free security, even main the NFL in interceptions as a powerful security at age 32. Lott might do all of it within the secondary and missed just one sport in his closing 4 seasons. — Paul Gutierrez, Raiders reporterLott was a uncommon tempo-setter by way of physicality. His hits would impression video games, change momentum and encourage his teammates. His toughness, tenacity and management stood out. — Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analystThe runners-upEd Reed (15 votes): NFL analyst Matt Bowen — a former NFL security himself — stated, “Reed was the last word game-changer with uncommon instincts and ball abilities, totaling 64 profession interceptions and 7 defensive touchdowns.” Stats & Info’s Michael Proia identified that Reed is “the one free security to ever win Defensive Participant of the Yr, is tied for many interceptions in postseason historical past (9), had 13 profession TDs and posted essentially the most interception return yards in NFL historical past.”Brian Dawkins (4 votes): Bears reporter Courtney Cronin voted with Dawkins and stated, “He’s the one security in NFL historical past to file no less than 25 sacks, interceptions and compelled fumbles. He took the normal function fulfilled by a security and revolutionized it.”Additionally receiving votes: Paul Krause (two), Troy Polamalu (two)Damian Strohmeyer/Sports activities Illustrated by way of Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Vinatieri earned 22 of fifty votes (44%)Profession: New England (1996-2005); Indianapolis (2006-2019)Professional Bowl choices: 3Career stats: 365 video games, 599-of-715 area targets (83.8%), 874-of-898 further factors (97.3%)Why he is the GOAT kicker: Vinatieri’s 397 video games (together with playoffs) are essentially the most by any participant, as are his area targets made (599), consecutive area targets made (44) and profession seasons with 100-plus factors (21). However he might need an excellent stronger case right here, given he kicked the sport winner in two Tremendous Bowls and made 56 area targets in playoff video games, together with going 5-of-7 from no less than 50 yards. — LegwoldStat to know: Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time chief in profession factors with 2,673.What our voters saidVinatieri’s unwavering capability to make kicks beneath unimaginable stress separates him from others. He transformed three of essentially the most iconic kicks in NFL historical past — on a snow-covered area in the course of the 2001 playoffs and in Tremendous Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII. That, mixed along with his unbelievable longevity and general excellence, makes him the best of all time. — Stephen Holder, Colts reporterIt comes all the way down to clutch kicks. Vinatieri is much and away the chief in that division, nailing 39 kicks within the closing two minutes of regulation or time beyond regulation to both tie or give his group the lead, based on Soccer Outsiders. When he stepped onto the sphere in an enormous second, it felt automated, like Mariano Rivera rising from the Yankees’ bullpen within the ninth. — Tim McManus, Eagles reporterVinatieri wasn’t nice on a regular basis, however he was nice when he wanted to be. In 1999, for example, he blew two fourth-quarter kicks in separate video games. New England went 8-8 as an alternative of 10-6, costing Pete Carroll his job. Two years later, when he hit a 45-yarder in a snow globe towards the Raiders within the playoffs — the best kick in NFL historical past in my view — he began a run of unprecedented reliance within the highest-leverage moments and launched a dynasty, altering the legacies of Invoice Belichick and Tom Brady. — Seth Wickersham, NFL writerThe runners-upJustin Tucker (21 votes): Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley contended that “Tucker is the most effective kicker within the sport due to his accuracy and talent to return by means of in essentially the most pressure-filled conditions, changing 91.1% of his area targets (greatest in NFL historical past). And he has linked on 58 straight area targets within the fourth quarter and time beyond regulation, together with a file 66-yarder final 12 months.” Bengals reporter Ben Child stated, “The five-time All-Professional is unquestionably some of the clutch kickers ever, however he is additionally some of the dependable.”Ray Man (six votes): Panthers reporter David Newton favored the punter place right here, saying, “Man’s hold time and top of kicks have been eye-popping. New Orleans Superdome officers have been compelled to boost the video board properly above its 90-foot top after considered one of his punts struck it. Sufficient stated.”Additionally receiving votes: Morten Anderson (one)Returner/special-teamer: Devin HesterAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesVoting outcomes: Hester earned 29 of fifty votes (58%)Profession: Chicago (2006-2013); Atlanta (2014-2015); Baltimore (2016); Seattle (2016)Professional Bowl choices: 4Career stats: 156 video games, 14 punt-return TDs, 5 kickoff-return TDs, 16 receiving TDs (255 receptions)Why he is the GOAT returner/special-teamer: Corridor of Fame coach Tony Dungy famously stated, “Sure, I am the man who determined to kick off to Devin Hester in a Tremendous Bowl,” acknowledging the error after a landing return to open Tremendous Bowl XLI. Hester led the league in punt-return common twice, led the league in punt-return touchdowns 3 times and no less than tied for the league lead in kickoff-return touchdowns twice. He had no less than one return TD in six of his seasons. And given the tendencies within the kicking sport, Hester’s capability to show touches into scores would possibly by no means be seen once more. — LegwoldStat to know: Hester is the NFL’s all-time chief in punt-return touchdowns with 14 and non-offensive touchdowns with 20.What our voters saidHester is the most effective returner in league historical past, which seems like an opinion however is nearer to truth. Granted, kickoff guidelines have modified in recent times, however take into account Hester’s impression at his peak: He had 11 return TDs in the course of the 2006-07 seasons, whereas your complete NFL mixed for 11 return TDs in 2021. — Mike Clay, NFL analystTake your shot at selecting win totals for all 32 groups for an opportunity to win as much as $10,000! Make Your Picks
Hester set a wide range of information for returners and was among the many most dynamic gamers with the ball in his arms. In his second NFL season (2007), he set the file for mixed kick returns for touchdowns in a 12 months (six), and he was named first-team All-Professional 3 times. — Alaina Getzenberg, Payments reporterTo assume anybody aside from Hester must be the most effective returner/special-teams participant of all time simply would not compute. He has a authentic case for the Corridor of Fame — which simply would not occur for returners — and altered the dynamics for a whole place. Cordarrelle Patterson, one other high-end kick returner, stated, “He will make the Corridor of Fame. … That is simply self-explanatory.” — Michael Rothstein, Falcons reporterThe runners-upDeion Sanders (six votes): NFL draft analyst Matt Miller picked Sanders right here, calling him “the unique hold-your-breath-when-he-touches-the-ball participant.”Gale Sayers (5 votes): Saints reporter Mike Triplett identified Sayers’ file 30.6 yards per kickoff return and stated the Kansas Comet was “1-of-1 in NFL historical past.” Niners reporter Nick Wagoner agreed, saying, “Sayers is without doubt one of the few exceptions to the necessity for longevity to find out greatness as a result of he was so dominant in an all-too-short profession.”Brian Mitchell (three votes): Commanders reporter John Keim stated, “Mitchell averaged greater than 11 yards per punt return eight instances and owns a variety of information, together with most mixed kickoff- and punt-return yardage, a testomony largely to his constant high-level efficiency.”Matthew Slater (three votes): “He has been named to 10 Professional Bowls as a particular groups participant,” stated Patriots reporter Mike Reiss. “And at his peak, groups needed to sport plan for a way disruptive Slater could possibly be as a protection participant.”Steve Tasker (three votes): NFL insider Chris Mortensen stated so far as pure special-teamers go, “Tasker was the mannequin, a feared gunner who was one of many first to draw and beat double-teams with quickness and creativity. He was so useful that Corridor of Fame coach Marv Levy did not need him uncovered a lot as a large receiver.”Additionally receiving votes: Desmond Howard (one)

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