25 Greatest Defensive Backs in NFL History

Regardless of era, the gold standard for an NFL defensive back is Ronnie Lott

As the NFL continues to evolve, the league continues to be more and more pass-oriented. Teams build their offense around the skills of their quarterback. Subsequently, teams are building their defenses around the skills of the quarterbacks they face. It's an eternal chess match that has elevated the quality of play of defensive backs at every level of the game. The secondary is the last line of defense. As a result, those positions are filled with lethal combinations of smart football players and elite athletes.

 

25 Greatest Defensive Backs in NFL History

 

25. Rodney Harrison, Safety

San Diego 1994-2002; New England 2003-08

4-time first-team All-Pro, 2-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXVIII, XXXIX champion (Patriots)

Key stats: 1,205 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 34 INTs

 

Harrison was the enforcer on the Charger and Patriot teams he played for, adding an element of physicality to units that normally weren't thought in that vein.

 

24. Darren Sharper, Safety

Green Bay 1997-2004; Minnesota 2005-08, New Orleans 2009-10

2-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLIV champion (Saints)

Key stats: 942 tackles, 63 INTs, 11 INTs returned for TDs

 

The off-field activities that he is currently serving prison time for are inexcusable, but his achievements and impact on the field cannot be denied.

 

23. Dick LeBeau, Cornerback

Detroit 1959-72

3-time Pro Bowler

Key stats: 62 INTs, 9 fumble recoveries

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2010

 

LeBeau's stats don't tell the whole story. He was one of the premier defensive backs of his era, logging a high number of interceptions with considerable fewer opportunities than today's defensive backs. And his overall impact on the game goes beyond his contributions as a player with more than 40 years as a coach in some capacity. His Hall of Fame career includes two Super Bowl victories as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator.

 

22. Darren Woodson, Safety

Dallas 1992-2004

3-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXVII, XXVIII, XXX champion

Key stats: 1,350 tackles, 23 INTs, 11 sacks

 

Woodson was the leader of the elite Cowboy defense that complemented “The Triplets” in the early 1990s dynasty.

 

21. Lester Hayes, Cornerback

Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders 1977-86

First-team All-Pro (1980), 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XV, XVIII champion

Key stat: 39 INTs

 

Hayes was a lock-down corner that opposing quarterbacks avoided, and his stats were a reflection of that.

 

20. Richard Sherman, Cornerback

Seattle 2011-17, San Francisco 2018

3-time first-team All-Pro, 4-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLVIII champion (Seahawks)

Key stats: 414 tackles, 32 INTs, 5 forced fumbles

 

Sherman is the prototypical corner coaches look for to combat big receivers. He has the ability to frustrate opponents with his speed, size, ball skills — and often his mouth. You can't argue with the results.

 

19. Ty Law, Cornerback

New England 1995-2004; New York Jets 2005, ‘08; Kansas City 2006-07; Denver 2009

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

2-time All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX Champion (Patriots)

Key stats: 449 tackles, 53 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

 

Law was the shutdown corner that allowed Bill Belichick to get creative with his defenses in the early 2000s. No player in NFL history has intercepted Peyton Manning more than Law (9 total INTs). He'll be enshrined in Canton this summer alongside fellow DBs Ed Reed and Champ Bailey.

 

18. Mel Renfro, Cornerback

Dallas 1964-77

5-time All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl VI, XII champion

Key stat: 52 INTs

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1996

 

Renfro was a man on an island long before there was a Revis Island. His ability to shut down opposing receivers freed up the rest of his Cowboy teammates to make plays on the ball. He is arguably the greatest defensive player in franchise history.

 

17. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback

New York Jets 2007-12, ‘15-16; Tampa Bay 2013; New England 2014, Kansas City Chiefs 2017

4-time first-team All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLIX champion (Patriots)

Key stats: 411 tackles, 29 INTs

 

His combination of speed and physicality while defending receivers was unmatched in his prime. There wasn't a tougher corner to get open against — maybe ever.

 

16. Troy Polamalu, Safety

Pittsburgh 2003-14

4-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XL, XLIII champion

Key stats: 770 tackles, 12 sacks, 32 INTs, 14 forced fumbles

 

Having Polamalu was almost like having 12 or even 13 players on the field. He was probably as good a linebacker as there was in the league and yet he was an elite defensive back who always seemed to make that big play to give his team the edge in close games.

 

15. Steve Atwater, Safety

Denver 1989-98; New York Jets 1999

2-time first-team All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXII, XXXIII champion (Broncos)

Key stats: 1,180 tackles, 24 INTs

 

You might say that it was Atwater who passed the physical, do-everything safety torch to Troy Polamalu. Atwater was simply a hitter who didn't back down to anyone, and Denver defenses were always championship-caliber during his tenure.

 

14. Emlen Tunnell, Cornerback

New York Giants 1948-58; Green Bay 1959-61

8-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFL champion (’56, ‘61)

Key stat: 79 INTs

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1967

 

Tunnell is one of the most underrated players in NFL history. His 79 interceptions are mind-boggling, considering how the game was played for most of his career.

 

13. Mike Haynes, Cornerback

New England 1976-82; Los Angeles Raiders 1983-89

9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XVIII champion (Raiders)

Key stat: 46 INTs

NFL 75th Anniversary Team

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1997

 

Haynes teamed with Lester Hayes during the latter parts of their career to form one of the greatest cornerback duos in NFL history. He is a Raider legend, but also had his No. 40 jersey retired by the Patriots.

 

12. Charles Woodson, Cornerback/Safety

Oakland Raiders 1998-2005, ‘13-15; Green Bay 2006-12

4-time first-team All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLV champion (Packers)

Key stats: 1,003 tackles, 20 sacks, 65 INTs, 13 defensive TDs

 

The Raider and Packer legend retired after the 2015 season as the only player in NFL history with at least 60 INTs and 20 sacks.

 

11. Ed Reed, Safety

Baltimore Ravens 2002-12; Houston Texans 2013; New York Jets 2013

5-time first-team All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XLVII champion (Ravens)

Key stats: 643 tackles, 64 INTs, 13 defensive TDs, 11 forced fumbles
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

 

Reed played safety like a shutdown corner. He was great in run support, but his ball-hawking ability changed entire offensive schemes. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.

 

10. Paul Krause, Safety

Washington 1964-67; Minnesota 1968-79

8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

1969 NFL champion (Vikings)

Key stats: 81 INTs (No. 1 all-time)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1998

 

Krause would likely have been a Major League Baseball player had it not been for a shoulder injury in college. I think things worked out pretty well for him.

 

9. Herb Adderley, Cornerback

Green Bay 1961-69; Dallas 1970-72

4-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

3-time NFL champion (1961-62, ’65 w/ Packers)

Super Bowl I, II (Packers) and VI (Cowboys) champion

Key stats: 48 INTs, 7 defensive TDs

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1980

 

Adderley was a big, physical corner who imposed his will on opposing receivers back when the rules allowed defenders more freedom in terms of engaging players in coverage. He was a member of six world championship teams.

 

8. Jack Tatum, Safety

Oakland Raiders 1971-79; Houston Oilers 1980

3-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XI champion (Raiders)

 

Nicknamed “The Assassin", Tatum was arguably the hardest hitter to ever play the game. It's really that simple. Until probably the last decade, if you played safety, the goal was to be as fierce and intimidating as Tatum.

 

7. Darrell Green, Cornerback

Washington 1983-2002

4-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXII, XXVI champion (Redskins)

Key stat: 54 INTs

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2008

 

Things you could count on during from 1980-2000: death, taxes and Darrell Green playing corner for the Redskins. Green holds the NFL record for consecutive seasons with at least one interception (19). He also was regarded as the NFL's fastest man during most of his Hall of Fame career.

 

6. Champ Bailey, Cornerback

Washington 1999-2003; Denver 2004-13

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

3-time first-team All-Pro, 12-time Pro Bowler

Key stats: 909 tackles, 52 INTs
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2019

 

No player has dominated the corner position since the turn of the century like Bailey. The only thing his career is missing is a Super Bowl ring. He'll be enshrined in Canton this summer.

 

5. Mel Blount, Cornerback

Pittsburgh 1970-83

4-time first-team All-Pro, 5-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, XIV Champion

NFL 75th Anniversary Team

Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1989

 

Those legendary Steel Curtain defenses would not have been nearly as dominant as they were without Blount occupying the corner position for 14 seasons.

 

4. Dick "Night Train" Lane, Cornerback

Los Angeles Rams 1952-53; Chicago Cardinals 1954-59; Detroit 1960-65

6-time first-team All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

Key stat: 68 INTs

NFL 75th Anniversary Team

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1974

 

Lane's technique was the foundation for textbook cornerback play as we know it. His bait-and-switch style would fool quarterbacks into thinking they had an open receiver, only to see Lane ready for the pass the second it was released. His combination of coverage skills and hard-hitting ability were and are still rare at the position.

 

3. Deion Sanders, Cornerback

Deion SandersAtlanta 1989-93; San Francisco 1994; Dallas 1995-99; Washington 2000; Baltimore Ravens 2004-05

8-time All-Pro, 8-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXIX (49ers) and XXX (Cowboys) champion

Key stats: 513 tackles, 53 INTs

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

 

His interception total is incredibly impressive for how often opposing quarterbacks tried to avoid him. Sanders was widely considered the best shutdown corner in the game for most of his career.

 

2. Rod Woodson, Cornerback

Pittsburgh 1987-96; San Francisco 1997; Baltimore Ravens 1998-2001; Oakland 2002-03

6-time first-team All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXV champion (Ravens)

Key stats: 1,163 tackles, 71 INTs, 13.5 sacks

NFL 75th Anniversary Team member

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2009

 

Woodson was doing "Deion things" before Deion Sanders was in the NFL. The difference was, Woodson did it with less flash and subsequent fanfare. Additionally, Woodson was a superior tackler to Sanders and one of the better blitzers from the corner in NFL history.

 

1. Ronnie Lott, Safety/Cornerback

San Francisco 1981-90, ‘95; Los Angeles Raiders 1991-92; New York Jets 1993-94; Kansas City 1995

8-time first-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV champion (49ers)

Key stats: 1,146 tackles, 63 INTs, 16 forced fumbles

NFL 75th Anniversary Team

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2000

 

Lott was a freak athlete who could close on a play as fast as anyone. His high football IQ allowed him to digest and respond to plays quickly, giving him a leg up and instilling fear in the hearts of opposing receivers. When you went over the middle as a receiver against one of Lott's teams, you had to know No. 42 was going to be there waiting for you. His presence alone changed games and helped make that legendary 49er dynasty a nightmare to prepare for.

 

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! SBNation and Bleacher Report. He is a three-time FWAA writing contest award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.

Include in Acu Data Feed: 
Exclude from Acu-data Feed

More Stories: