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25 Greatest Defensive Linemen in NFL History

Where does three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald rank all time among his peers?
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25 Greatest Defensive Linemen in NFL History

25 Greatest Defensive Linemen in NFL History

In addition to their physical dominance in the trenches as the first line of defense against the run, great defensive linemen have long been revered for their ability to change the complexion of a game by taking down the opposing quarterback. That being said, it was not until 1982 that the quarterback sack actually became an official statistic in the NFL, finally giving defensive linemen their just due. Thanks to NFL historians and plenty of film, we also have very accurate sack numbers by which we can measure the old-timers as well, even if they are not “official.”

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While sacks are obviously a key component in measuring a great defensive lineman, there were a number of other very important factors weighed in order to determine the 25 greatest in NFL history. For the purpose of this exercise, personal achievements, statistics, team accomplishments and most importantly, legacy and overall impact on the game were all taken into consideration.

Before we get to the 25 greatest, here are 10 defensive linemen that narrowly missed the cut (in alphabetical order)

Jared Allen

Art Donovan

Dwight Freeney

Mark Gastineau

Bill Hewitt

Cortez Kennedy

Howie Long

Dexter Manley

Leslie O'Neal

Richard Seymour

25 Greatest Defensive Linemen in NFL History

25. Jason Taylor

Miami 1997-07, ’09, ‘11; Washington 2008; New York Jets 2010

4-time All-Pro, 6-time Pro Bowler

2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

2-time NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year (2005, ‘06)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2017

Taylor is the Dolphins’ all-time sack leader, and one of the all-time great pass rushers. His 139.5 career sacks rank seventh all-time in the NFL. The two-time Defensive Lineman of the Year also had 46 forced fumbles and eight interceptions in his stellar career. Taylor was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2017.

24. J.J. Watt

Houston 2011-20; Arizona 2021-present

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

3-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2012,'14,'15)

2014 NFL MVP runner-up

2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year

Few players in NFL history can match the intensity and ability of J.J. Watt. The standout defensive end already has Hall of Fame credentials. Most notably, Watt has earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors three times, tying the great Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald for the most all-time. He's a member of the prestigious 100-Sack Club. And if he can stay healthy and productive, he should continue to work his way up this list.

23. Chris Doleman

Minnesota 1985-93, ‘99; Atlanta 1994-95; San Francisco 1996-98

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2012

Doleman’s 150.5 career sacks rank fifth on the official all-time list, and the speedy pass rusher is behind only Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Julius Peppers among defensive linemen. He collected double-digit sacks eight times during his Hall of Fame career, including a career-best 21 with the Vikings in 1989.

22. Carl Eller

Minnesota 1964-78; Seattle 1979

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

1969 NFL champion

1971 NEA NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2004

Eller was the left defensive end for the famed “Purple People Eaters” unit that dominated the NFL in the early 1970s. His 133.5 career sacks would be good enough to rank 13th all-time if sacks had been counted as an official statistic during his era. The Hall of Famer was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1971 and appeared in four Super Bowls.

21. Doug Atkins

Cleveland 1953-54; Chicago 1955-66; New Orleans 1967-69

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

2-time NFL champion (1954, ‘63)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1982

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, Atkins was anything but a gentle giant. He used his immense size, nasty disposition, and agility as a champion high jumper to dominate opposing offensive linemen for 17 seasons. The NFL Network named Atkins the ninth-best pass rusher in NFL history. The two-time NFL champion was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

20. Charles Haley

San Francisco 1986-91, ’98-99; Dallas 1992-96

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

Super Bowl XXIII, XXIV (49ers), XXVII, XXVIII and XXX (Cowboys) champion

2-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1990, ‘94)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

Haley was a hybrid player, also spending time at outside linebacker, but he truly left his mark on the game as a disruptive edge pass rusher in the trenches. Haley and Tom Brady are the only two players in NFL history to win at least five Super Bowl rings. The Hall of Famer is a member of the prestigious 100-Sack Club as well.

19. Richard Dent

Chicago 1983-93, ‘95; San Francisco 1994; Indianapolis; 1996; Philadelphia 1997

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

Super Bowl XX (Bears), XXIX (49ers) champion

Super Bowl XX MVP

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

Dent is best remembered as a star defensive end for the famed 1985 Chicago Bears defense that is widely regarded as the best in the history of the NFL. Dent had 17 sacks during the ’85 season, which was tops in the NFL. He also took home MVP honors for his stellar performance in Super Bowl XX, which included 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He is one of just three defensive linemen to ever win a Super Bowl MVP. The Hall of Famer is tied for 10th with John Randle on the all-time sacks list with 137.5.

18. Willie Davis

Cleveland 1958-59; Green Bay 1960-69

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

5-time NFL Champion (1961, ‘62, ‘65, ‘66, ‘67)

Super Bowl I, II (Packers) champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1981

In terms of championships, Davis is one of the most decorated players in NFL history. He anchored a Packers defensive line that would achieve dynasty status under Vince Lombardi, winning five NFL championships and two Super Bowls from 1961-68. Additionally, Davis was an exceptional pass rusher. Research suggests that he had in excess of 120 sacks during his Hall of Fame career.

17. John Randle

Minnesota 1990-2000; Seattle 2001-03

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

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2010

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

There is not another defensive tackle on this list that could find his way into an opposing backfield with the ferocity and ease of Randle. His 137.5 career sacks officially rank 10th all-time and first among defensive tackles. He is the only true defensive tackle in the 100-Sack Club out of the 34 total members. The Hall of Famer had double-digit sacks in eight consecutive seasons from 1992-99.

16. Warren Sapp

Tampa Bay 1995-2003; Oakland 2004-07

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

Super Bowl XXXVII (Buccaneers) champion

1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2013

This controversial defensive tackle was one of the league’s all-time great trash talkers, and his on-field play backed up every bit of it. His freakish combination of speed, power and athleticism, especially for a player of his size, helped him to 100 career sacks (including the playoffs), officially the second most for a defensive tackle in NFL history. Sapp also was an exceptional run stuffer, compiling 573 career tackles during his Hall of Fame career.

15. Buck Buchanan

Kansas City 1963-75

6-time All-AFL, 6-time AFL-All Star

1971 All-Pro, 2-time Pro Bowler

2-time AFL Champion (1966, ’69)

Super Bowl IV champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Buchanan missed just one game in 13 seasons, making him one of the most durable players in NFL history. It was his immense size, speed and power that helped him become one of the greatest defensive tackles in the history of the game. His long frame (6-7) helped him bat down 16 passes in 1967. In 1999, The Sporting News voted Buchanan as the 67th greatest football player ever.

14. Julius Peppers

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Carolina 2002-2009, '17-18; Chicago 2010-13; Green Bay 2014-16

6-time All-Pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

2002 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2004 NFC Defensive Player of the Year

2004 NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year

The former college basketball star is considered one of the best defensive linemen to ever play in the NFL. Peppers' 159.5 career sacks rank fourth on the all-time list. In addition to his impressive sack totals, Peppers was responsible for 52 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions, six touchdowns, and countless batted balls during a career that will undoubtedly result in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

13. Jack Youngblood

Los Angeles Rams 1971-84

8-time All-Pro, 7-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1975, ‘76)

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1975 NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2001

In addition to being one of the NFL’s greatest pass rushers, Youngblood was one of the toughest players to ever play the game. He famously played throughout the playoffs, the Super Bowl and even the Pro Bowl with a broken leg. He unofficially compiled 151.5 sacks in 202 games during his Hall of Fame career. That total would place him fifth on the current all-time sacks list.

12. Lee Roy Selmon

Tampa Bay 1976-84

5-time All-Pro, 6-time Pro-Bowler

1979 NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year

1979 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1995

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Selmon had a relatively short NFL career due to injury, but no one can debate his status as one of the greatest defensive ends in the history of the game. He is the Buccaneers’ all-time sack leader (78.5), he had 380 quarterback pressures, forced 28.5 fumbles and compiled a remarkable 742 tackles in just 121 career games.

11. Michael Strahan

New York Giants 1993-2007

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

Super Bowl XLII champion

2-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year

2001 NFL Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2014

Strahan is the Giants' all-time sack leader and officially ranks sixth in NFL history with 141.5 career sacks. He also holds the official record for sacks in a single NFL season with 22.5, set in 2001. He is just as well-liked off of the football field as he was on it, parlaying his Hall of Fame credentials into a successful career as a TV personality.

10. Aaron Donald

St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams 2014-Present

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

3-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2017,'18,'20)

NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2014)

NFL 2010's All-Decade Team

Pound for pound, there may not be a more dominant defensive tackle in the history of the NFL than Donald. He is the quintessential defensive lineman of the modern era and his individual accomplishments are staggering for a player that has only been in the league for seven seasons. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is already considered a future Hall of Famer and will continue to move up this list at his current pace.

9. Randy White

Dallas 1975-88

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

Super Bowl XII champion

Super Bowl XII co-MVP

1978 NFC Defensive Player of the Year

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1994

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

White was famously moved from linebacker to defensive tackle early in his career, where he would thrive as one of the best interior linemen to ever play in the NFL. He also was extremely durable, missing just one game in 14 seasons. The Hall of Famer played in three Super Bowls, six NFC title games and is one of just three defensive linemen in NFL history to win a Super Bowl MVP. White (unofficially) had 1,104 career tackles and 111 career sacks.

8. Bob Lilly

Dallas 1961-74

9-time All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl VI champion

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1980

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Lilly was a true iron man, missing just one game during his 14 seasons. He is considered one of the most intelligent players in NFL history, and Lilly's volatile combination of speed and strength helped him become one of the all-time greats at the defensive tackle position. The Hall of Famer also is affectionately known as "Mr. Cowboy."

7. Gino Marchetti

Dallas Texans 1952; Baltimore Colts 1953-64, ‘66

10-time All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

2-time NFL champion (1958, ‘59)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1972

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Marchetti’s skills as an elite run-stopper and relentless pass rusher earned him 11 consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl. He was named the top defensive end of the NFL’s first 50 years. Marchetti also served as a machine gunner during World War II and fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge.

6. Merlin Olsen

Los Angeles Rams 1962-76

9-time All-Pro, 14-time Pro Bowler

1962 NFL Rookie of the Year

1974 Professional Football Player of the Year (Bert Bell Award)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1982

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Olsen is regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the history of the NFL. He was a member of the Rams’ famed "Fearsome Foursome" defensive front alongside Deacon Jones. Olsen was selected to play in the Pro Bowl 14 times (tied for an NFL record), missing the cut in only his final professional season.

5. Joe Greene

Pittsburgh 1969-81

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

Super Bowl IX, X, XIII, XIV champion

1969 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1972, ‘74)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1987

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

"Mean" Joe Greene served as the focal point and first line of defense for Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” defense, which won four Super Bowl titles. He earned his nickname thanks to a nasty mean streak that helped him dominate opposing offensive linemen. A temperament that often carried over, even after the whistle had blown. He was a disruptive force in the middle and proved to be extremely effective against both the run and the pass, in spite of constant double-teams throughout his career.

4. Deacon Jones

Los Angeles Rams 1961-71; San Diego 1972-73; Washington 1974

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

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1967, ‘68)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1980

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

The legendary Jones is credited with coining the term "sacking the quarterback." This makes sense considering he is one of the best ever at doing just that. Jones (unofficially) had 173.5 career sacks, which would be good enough for third all-time. "The Secretary of Defense" averaged over 20 sacks per season during a ridiculously productive five-year stretch (1964-68). Jones was renowned for his amazing sideline-to-sideline speed, as well as his notorious "head slap," which stunned opposing offensive linemen and was eventually outlawed by the league.

3. Alan Page

Minnesota 1967-78; Chicago 1978-81

9-time All-pro, 9-time Pro Bowler

1969 NFL champion

2-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1970, 1971)

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (AP 1971, NEA 1973)

1971 NFL MVP

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

A member of Minnesota’s feared "Purple People Eaters," Page is certainly in the conversation for the greatest defensive tackle of all-time. He is credited with 173 career sacks, which would rank far and away as the most ever by a defensive tackle if sacks were counted as an official stat during his era. That number also would place him third on the all-time list, behind only Bruce Smith and Reggie White. Page is just one of two defensive players to win an NFL MVP award, and the only defensive lineman to ever receive the honor. Page would go on to serve as an Associate Justice in Minnesota’s Supreme Court from 1993-2015.

2. Bruce Smith

Buffalo 1985-99; Washington 2000-03

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11-time All-Pro, 11-time Pro Bowler

3-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1990, ‘93, ‘96)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2009

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

Smith is one of the most dominant players in NFL history, regardless of position or era. He is the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200 and also holds the NFL record for most seasons with double-digit sacks (13). Those numbers become even more impressive when you consider that Smith spent most of his career playing in a 3-4 scheme, which is not traditionally geared to yield high sack numbers for the defensive end position.

1. Reggie White

Philadelphia 1985-92; Green Bay 1993-98; Carolina 2000

13-time All-Pro, 13-time Pro Bowler

Super Bowl XXXI champion (Packers)

Most sacks in a Super Bowl (3)

3-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year (1987, 1991, 1995)

2-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1987, ‘88)

Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2006

NFL 100 All-Time Team (2019)

The "Minister of Defense" is widely considered the greatest defensive lineman to ever play the game. No other player in the history of the game could explode through an offensive line quite like No. 92. He was a master of the “swim move,” the bull rush and the forearm shiver. These techniques helped White fight through constant double-teams, transforming him into an unstoppable force as a pass rusher. White took down opposing quarterbacks 198 times in 15 seasons, the second most in NFL history. He was equally impressive shutting down the run, amassing 1,112 tackles during his Hall of Fame career. In all honesty, his numbers do not even begin to do his career justice.

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

(Reggie White photo courtesy of Getty Images)