NFL's best players ever at every defensive position: Is Lawrence Taylor the GOAT edge rusher? Ron...

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Quarterback Tom Brady was retired during the 2022 NFL offseason for just 40 days before opting to return for a 23rd season that could (maybe?) be his last, tight end Rob Gronkowski recently decided to hang up his cleats and defensive tackle Aaron Donald inked a massive contract extension this summer to make him the game's highest-paid non-QB after considering retirement himself. It all got us thinking about where these legends of the game stack up all time at their respective positions.

We asked 50 experts, reporters and analysts to name the NFL's greatest player of all time at every position. The goal was to narrow the field to just one GOAT at quarterback, wide receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and even kicker. We already named the best ever at every offensive position, and now we're continuing on with seven defense and special-teams positions.

After we tallied the ballots and crowned each defensive/special-teams position's best player of all time, our voters weighed in and explained their decisions. Plus, Jeff Legwold broke down why each GOAT was chosen, and ESPN Stats & Information dove into the numbers to pick out key stats to know. Let's start with edge rusher.

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See: GOAT at every offensive position

Edge rusher: Lawrence Taylor

Voting results: Taylor earned 40 of 50 votes (80%)

Career: New York Giants (1981-1993)

Hall of Fame: 1999

Pro Bowl selections: 10

Career stats: 184 games, 142 sacks, 9 interceptions

Why he's the GOAT edge rusher:Taylor announced himself to the league as a rookie in 1981 with 133 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 8 pass knockdowns, 2 forced fumbles and an interception and won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. There are many around the league who say Taylor changed the way people thought pass-rushers could be used in a defense. Taylor's best season came in 1986, when he led the league in sacks (20.5), won MVP and earned his third Defensive Player of the Year award. -- Jeff Legwold

Stat to know:Taylor had 132.5 official sacks in his career -- his 9.5 in 1981 were unofficial -- and more than half of them (76.0) came in a five-season span from 1985 to '89. He had at least 12.0 sacks in each of those five seasons, the longest streak by any player since individual sacks became official in 1982.

What our voters said

Taylor is the best football player I have ever seen, regardless of position. I've heard the Reggie White arguments, but they always strike me as parochial -- Philadelphia fans who don't want to admit the guy from New York was better than their guy -- and I just don't see where White was better outside of longevity. Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick considers LT the best player in the history of the game, and who am I to argue with that?-- Dan Graziano, NFL reporter

How could I not vote for LT? Two Super Bowls, 10 straight All-Pro seasons and a league MVP more than backs it up. On the field, 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's an auto vote.-- Brooke Pryor, Steelers reporter

Is it even debatable? LT once led the league in sacks, was named Defensive Player of the Year and MVP and won a Super Bowl -- all in the same season. He's a no-brainer here. -- Jordan Raanan, Giants reporter

Taylor is arguably the best defensive player in NFL history, and he redefined the outside linebacker position. His 1986 season will forever be one of the most memorable seasons by a defensive player. His aggression, relentless nature and ability to take over games made him special.-- Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst

The runners-up

  • Reggie White (eight votes):Eagles reporter Tim McManus argues that White was the more consistently dominant player because "he posted 12 double-digit-sack seasons over 15 years (seven over 13 years for Taylor)." He continues, "You can argue that Taylor flashed the brightest, but White was a relentless, unstoppable force for the better part of two decades." Fantasy writer Mike Clay points simply to "198.0 sacks (second most all time), a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards, 13 All-Pro appearances and a Super Bowl ring."
  • Also receiving votes: Bruce Smith (one), J.J. Watt (one)

Defensive tackle: Aaron Donald

Voting results: Donald earned 39 of 50 votes (78%)

Career: St. Louis/L.A. Rams (2014-2021)

Pro Bowl selections: 8

Career stats: 127 games, 98.0 sacks, 440 tackles, 23 forced fumbles

Why he's the GOAT defensive tackle: Donald gets even the most remember-when people in the league to acknowledge his place in NFL history. He has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and been a first-team All-Pro selection in seven of his eight seasons. And even though he is constantly swarmed with blockers, Donald unravels offensive game plans. His first Super Bowl win earlier this year only adds to an already Canton-worthy résumé. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Donald has recorded at least eight sacks in each of his eight seasons, and he is the only defensive tackle in NFL history to record 20 sacks in a season (20.5 in 2018).

What our voters said

It can be hard to pick a current player as the best at his position in NFL history, but Donald's dominance allows for it. Despite playing primarily on the interior of the defensive line and being double-teamed at the highest rate in the NFL, Donald has over 100 more pass-rush wins than anyone else in the NFL over the past five seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Donald might finish his career as the best defensive player in NFL history. -- Sarah Barshop, Rams reporter

I'm admittedly biased here because Deacon Jones -- a runner-up for me here -- played long before my time covering the NFL, and I've watched Donald's entire career with an up-close view of how he has made life a living hell for NFC West rivals. Donald's résumé makes a convincing enough case on its own, but he also just makes blockers look like they're not even trying. -- Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporter

Donald's size was not a fit for a handful of NFL teams when he was entering the 2014 NFL draft out of Pittsburgh, but his tape was outrageous. I've never seen a player -- college or pro -- with a more explosive take-off, and his combination of flexibility and strength to advance his pass rush while engaged with an offensive lineman is unique. A GM who was doing his due diligence on Donald told me at the time that every coach and staff member in the Pitt program he had talked to said they had never been around a better practice player. It helps explain how Donald has become the best interior pass-rusher in the history of the game. -- Todd McShay, NFL draft analyst

Donald has not only finished first in pass rush win rate at defensive tackle in all five seasons of the metric's existence, but his worst PRWR season in that span (24.2% in 2020) is more than two percentage points higher than the best season by any other defensive tackle (Grady Jarrettat 21.5% in 2019). It's a wild level of sustained dominance. -- Seth Walder, analytics writer

The runners-up

  • Joe Greene (five votes): "Greene can be credited with revolutionizing defensive line play with his use of a tilted alignment that allowed the him to use his unmatched quickness to slice through gaps," Colts reporter Stephen Holder said. Fantasy writer Eric Moody pointed to Mean Joe Greene's integral role in the Steelers' dynasty. "He won two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, was named to five first-team All-Pro teams and played in 10 Pro Bowls, and one offensive lineman couldn't block him -- which made the Steelers' linebackers more effective."
  • Deacon Jones (three votes):Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco said, "Jones' unofficial sack total of 173.5 would be third all time in NFL history, and he had three seasons of at least 20 sacks. The only other players with multiple 20-sack seasons are J.J. Watt and Mark Gastineau, and each had two."
  • Also receiving votes: Alan Page (one), John Randle (one), Warren Sapp (one)

Linebacker: Ray Lewis

Voting results:Lewis earned 23 of 50 votes (46%)

Career: Baltimore (1996-2012)

Hall of Fame: 2018

Pro Bowl selections: 12

Career stats: 228 games, 2,050 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles

Why he's the GOAT linebacker: Lewis led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons with the team, including his rookie year. He powered Baltimore's record-setting defense in 2000, when Baltimore surrendered just 165 points during the regular season on the way to a Super Bowl win. That defense still holds the 16-game record for fewest points allowed in a season and fewest rushing yards allowed (970). Lewis' final game was Baltimore's win in Super Bowl XLVII to close out the 2012 season. -- Legwold

Stat to know:A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis is the only player in NFL history to have 40 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career.

What our voters said

Lewis changed the middle linebacker position with his range, strength and awareness, shutting down the game's top running backs. And he is the only middle linebacker to win multiple Super Bowls and multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. -- Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter

I covered Lewis from the day he was drafted until the night he walked away a winner in his second Super Bowl. He was the toughest, smartest NFL player I ever encountered. Lewis' film study habits allowed him to see things on the field before they happened. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would both probably tell you Lewis rented space in their minds pre- and post-snap. -- Sal Paolantonio, host of NFL Matchup

What separates the greats from one another is not physical skill. It's preparation, football intelligence, instincts and execution. Lewis made some of the most spectacular individual defensive plays we have ever seen because he was the very best at getting the most out of everything he had mentally before the ball was even snapped, allowing his physical skills to shine. That is being a GOAT in my eyes. -- Louis Riddick, NFL analyst

The runners-up

  • Dick Butkus (13 votes):"Butkus defined the 1960s/1970s defensive player, when linebackers were every-down gladiators," Jets reporter Rich Cimini said. "And he averaged more interceptions per season (2.4) than Lewis (1.8)." Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss said, "There may not have been a more physical or feared linebacker than Butkus. His game could cross eras because of how hard he hit and how tough he was."
  • Mike Singletary (four votes): Browns reporter Jake Trotter pointed to Singletary's "icy intensity" here and said, "He anchored arguably the best defense in NFL history in 1985, as his Bears allowed just 12 points per game on the way to a Super Bowl."
  • Jack Lambert (three votes):"He was as feared a player as the NFL has ever seen, with his ability to impact the game in different ways (28 interceptions, 23.5 sacks and nearly 1,500 tackles)," Cowboys reporter Todd Archer said. "He epitomized the toughness of the Steel Curtain defense in the 1970s."
  • Also receiving votes: Ted Hendricks (two), Chuck Bednarik (one), Derrick Brooks (one), Bill George (one), Ray Nitschke (one), Junior Seau(one)

Cornerback: Deion Sanders

Voting results: Sanders earned 32 of 50 votes (64%)

Career: Atlanta (1989-1993); San Francisco (1994); Dallas (1995-1999); Washington (2000); Baltimore (2004-2005)

Hall of Fame: 2011

Pro Bowl selections: 8

Career stats: 188 games, 53 interceptions

Why he's the GOAT cornerback: Sanders' combination of bravado, talent and desire to win could be seen every time he played. He wasn't consistently challenged by opposing quarterbacks but still finished his career with 53 interceptions, including two in his final season at 38 years old. And that total was impacted by a three-year retirement (2001-2003). Sanders intercepted six passes in 1994 -- his only season with the 49ers -- and returned three of them for touchdowns. And it's worth pointing out that he played in 641 games for four teams in his Major League Baseball career and led the league in triples in 1992. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Sanders displayed his versatility on the gridiron by becoming one of two players in NFL history to score a touchdown six different ways: interception (9), punt return (6), kick return (3), reception (3), fumble recovery (1) and rushing (1). The other is 1966 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Bill Dudley. And no cornerback racked up more interception-return yards than Sanders, who collected 1,132 in his career.

What our voters said

It's easy to point to the awards -- six first-team All-Pro recognitions, eight Pro Bowls and a Defensive Player of the Year honor. But it's mostly about the eye test. Sanders dominated receivers unlike anyone else, and I haven't seen teams avoid a defender more than they did with Sanders in his prime. He allowed defensive coordinators to call a different game just because he was on the field. -- John Keim, Commanders reporter

Beyond the chatter and showboating, Sanders defined what it meant to be a shutdown cornerback. Although quarterbacks avoided him, he still had 53 interceptions. And he did it against some of the best receivers in NFL history. Jerry Rice himself said Sanders and Darrell Green gave him the hardest time. That's good enough for me. -- David Newton, Panthers reporter

In his prime, Sanders shut down half the field -- whenever he wasn't busy playing baseball instead. And his legend is based on all the passes that weren't thrown in his direction, not on gaudy interception or passes defensed totals. -- Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders

A GOAT in any category has to have the skills and accolades to back it up. But did they also change the game? Did they have the swagger? Influence? Charisma? Are they a household name? Prime checks all of the boxes. He was the man. -- Eric Woodyard, Lions reporter

The runners-up

  • Charles Woodson (five votes): "No one can match Sanders' playmaking ability, but Woodson's versatility as a tackler and a pass-rusher -- in addition to his physicality in press situations -- allowed coaches to build their defenses around him," Vikings reporter Kevin Seifert said. "And he did it at the highest level for nearly two decades before retiring at age 39."
  • Rod Woodson (five votes):Fantasy writer Stephania Bell leaned toward another Woodson here. "Versatility within a position is a sign of greatness, and Woodson's ability to make the tough tackles, steal the ball and sprint either direction -- when in coverage or following a pick -- certainly fits the bill. He is also the only player in the past 60 years to have five seasons with at least six interceptions and a pick-six, and of his 1,483 return yards, 320 came at age 35 or older."
  • Darrelle Revis (four votes):"Revis was dominating the league during a time when passing statistics were on the rise across the board," NFL analyst Field Yates said. "He was an eraser during a time when many NFL secondaries were struggling for answers." Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine added, "In his prime, Revis was the best pure cover corner in the game."
  • Also receiving votes: Champ Bailey (one), Mel Blount (one), Mike Haynes (one), Night Train Lane (one)

Safety: Ronnie Lott

Voting results: Lott earned 27 of 50 votes (54%)

Career: San Francisco (1981-1990); L.A. Raiders (1991-1992); N.Y. Jets (1993-1994)

Hall of Fame: 2000

Pro Bowl selections: 10

Career stats: 192 games, 63 interceptions, 8.5 sacks

Why he's the GOAT safety:He made this list as a safety, but Lott actually started his career as one of the hardest-hitting cornerbacks any league executive can remember -- he played cornerback during his first five pro seasons before moving to safety. Lott ultimately finished his career with four Super Bowl rings, and his 63 interceptions are tied for eighth most all time. He led the league in interceptions in 1986 (10) and had at least four interceptions in a season nine times. And in 20 playoff games, Lott had nine interceptions and scored two touchdowns. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Lott was one of two defensive players (along with Joe Greene) with four Super Bowl championships and 10 Pro Bowls. And he compiled five seasons of at least 100 tackles.

What our voters said

When an NFL player defines the way a position should be played and requires opponents to adjust their strategies around him, he deserves to be the GOAT. Lott showed a mastery of defending the open field with his exceptional instincts, making him an ever-present takeaway threat. And he was fearless, often sacrificing his body; his famouslyamputatedpinky fingerwas the stuff of NFL legend. -- Stephania Bell, fantasy writer

Lott was the epitome of a well-rounded defensive back. He started his career as a ball-hawk cornerback and transformed into a fearsome hitter at free safety, even leading the NFL in interceptions as a strong safety at age 32. Lott could do it all in the secondary and missed only one game in his final four seasons. -- Paul Gutierrez, Raiders reporter

Lott was a rare tempo-setter in terms of physicality. His hits would impact games, change momentum and inspire his teammates. His toughness, tenacity and leadership stood out. -- Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst

The runners-up

  • Ed Reed (15 votes):NFL analyst Matt Bowen -- a former NFL safety himself -- said, "Reed was the ultimate game-changer with rare instincts and ball skills, totaling 64 career interceptions and seven defensive touchdowns." Stats & Information's Michael Proia pointed out that Reed is "the only free safety to ever win Defensive Player of the Year, is tied for most interceptions in postseason history (nine), had 13 career TDs and posted the most interception return yards in NFL history."
  • Brian Dawkins (four votes):Bears reporter Courtney Cronin voted with Dawkins and said, "He is the only safety in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles. He took the traditional role fulfilled by a safety and revolutionized it."
  • Also receiving votes: Paul Krause (two), Troy Polamalu (two)

Kicker/punter: Adam Vinatieri

Voting results: Vinatieri earned 22 of 50 votes (44%)

Career: New England (1996-2005); Indianapolis (2006-2019)

Pro Bowl selections: 3

Career stats: 365 games, 599-of-715 field goals (83.8%), 874-of-898 extra points (97.3%)

Why he's the GOAT kicker:Vinatieri's 397 games (including playoffs) are the most by any player, as are his field goals made (599), consecutive field goals made (44) and career seasons with 100-plus points (21). But he might have an even stronger case here, given he kicked the game winner in two Super Bowls and made 56 field goals in playoff games, including going 5-of-7 from at least 50 yards. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Vinatieri is the NFL's all-time leader in career points with 2,673.

What our voters said

Vinatieri's unwavering ability to make kicks under unimaginable pressure separates him from others. He converted three of the most iconic kicks in NFL history -- on a snow-covered field during the 2001 playoffs and in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII. That, combined with his incredible longevity and overall excellence, makes him the greatest of all time. -- Stephen Holder, Colts reporter

It comes down to clutch kicks. Vinatieri is far and away the leader in that department, nailing 39 kicks in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime to either tie or give his team the lead, according to Football Outsiders. When he stepped onto the field in a big moment, it felt automatic, like Mariano Rivera emerging from the Yankees' bullpen in the ninth. -- Tim McManus, Eagles reporter

Vinatieri wasn't great all the time, but he was great when he needed to be. In 1999, for instance, he blew two fourth-quarter kicks in separate games. New England went 8-8 instead of 10-6, costing Pete Carroll his job. Two years later, when he hit a 45-yarder in a snow globe against the Raiders in the playoffs -- the greatest kick in NFL history in my opinion -- he started a run of unprecedented reliance in the highest-leverage moments and launched a dynasty, changing the legacies of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. -- Seth Wickersham, NFL writer

The runners-up

  • Justin Tucker (21 votes):Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley contended that "Tucker is the best kicker in the game because of his accuracy and ability to come through in the most pressure-filled situations, converting 91.1% of his field goals (best in NFL history). And he has connected on 58 straight field goals in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a record 66-yarder last year." Bengals reporter Ben Baby said, "The five-time All-Pro is definitely one of the most clutch kickers ever, but he's also one of the most reliable."
  • Ray Guy (six votes):Panthers reporter David Newton favored the punter position here, saying, "Guy's hang time and height of kicks were eye-popping. New Orleans Superdome officials were forced to raise the video board well above its 90-foot height after one of his punts struck it. Enough said."
  • Also receiving votes: Morten Anderson (one)

Returner/special-teamer: Devin Hester

Voting results: Hester earned 29 of 50 votes (58%)

Career: Chicago (2006-2013); Atlanta (2014-2015); Baltimore (2016); Seattle (2016)

Pro Bowl selections: 4

Career stats: 156 games, 14 punt-return TDs, 5 kickoff-return TDs, 16 receiving TDs (255 receptions)

Why he's the GOAT returner/special-teamer: Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy famously said, "Yes, I'm the guy who decided to kick off to Devin Hester in a Super Bowl,'' acknowledging the mistake after a touchdown return to open Super Bowl XLI. Hester led the league in punt-return average twice, led the league in punt-return touchdowns three times and at least tied for the league lead in kickoff-return touchdowns twice. He had at least one return TD in six of his seasons. And given the trends in the kicking game, Hester's ability to turn touches into scores might never be seen again. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Hester is the NFL's all-time leader in punt-return touchdowns with 14 and non-offensive touchdowns with 20.

What our voters said

Hester is the best returner in league history, which sounds like an opinion but is closer to fact. Granted, kickoff rules have changed in recent years, but consider Hester's impact at his peak: He had 11 return TDs during the 2006-07 seasons, whereas the entire NFL combined for 11 return TDs in 2021. -- Mike Clay, NFL analyst

Hester set a variety of records for returners and was among the most dynamic players with the ball in his hands. In his second NFL season (2007), he set the record for combined kick returns for touchdowns in a year (six), and he was named first-team All-Pro three times. -- Alaina Getzenberg, Bills reporter

To think anyone other than Hester should be the best returner/special-teams player of all time just doesn't compute. He has a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame -- which just doesn't happen for returners -- and changed the dynamics for an entire position. Cordarrelle Patterson, another high-end kick returner, said, "He's going to make the Hall of Fame. ... That's just self-explanatory." -- Michael Rothstein, Falcons reporter

The runners-up

  • Deion Sanders (six votes):NFL draft analyst Matt Miller picked Sanders here, calling him "the original hold-your-breath-when-he-touches-the-ball player."
  • Gale Sayers (five votes):Saints reporter Mike Triplett pointed out Sayers' record 30.6 yards per kickoff return and said the Kansas Comet was "1-of-1 in NFL history." Niners reporter Nick Wagoner agreed, saying, "Sayers is one of the few exceptions to the need for longevity to determine greatness because he was so dominant in an all-too-short career."
  • Brian Mitchell (three votes):Commanders reporter John Keim said, "Mitchell averaged more than 11 yards per punt return eight times and owns a number of records, including most combined kickoff- and punt-return yardage, a testament in large part to his consistent high-level performance."
  • Matthew Slater (three votes): "He has been named to 10 Pro Bowls as a special teams player," said Patriots reporter Mike Reiss. "And at his peak, teams had to game plan for how disruptive Slater could be as a coverage player."
  • Steve Tasker (three votes):NFL insider Chris Mortensen said as far as pure special-teamers go, "Tasker was the model, a feared gunner who was one of the first to attract and beat double-teams with quickness and creativity. He was so valuable that Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy didn't want him exposed much as a wide receiver."
  • Also receiving votes: Desmond Howard (one)

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