Analysis

Top three NFL defensive players of all time? Aaron Donald, Lawrence Taylor among answers

On Monday, the Los Angeles Rams made Aaron Donald the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history. Before that happened, Donald won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, made the Pro Bowl eight times, earned seven first-team All-Pro nods and was named Defensive Player of the Year an astonishing three times, tying the all-time record.

Donald has become one of the game's most dominant individuals, despite playing on the defensive line in an era defined by proficient passing offenses. His eye-popping payday calls to mind the names from the past that enjoyed similarly dazzling careers, leading us to this question:

Who are the top three defensive players of all time, as YOU see it?

Judy Battista
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Aaron Donald


This is a nearly impossible exercise (I had to leave off Joe Greene!) except for my No. 1: unquestionably Lawrence Taylor, who merely changed the outside linebacker position and, in the process, made offensive tackle a premier football position. Nobody had any idea how to block Taylor (he was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in each of his first two seasons), and all you need to know about his dominance is that he was the league's MVP in 1986, when he had 20.5 sacks in the Giants' first Super Bowl season -- the last defensive player to win the award. 

Willie McGinest
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Bruce Smith
  3. Aaron Donald


Ranking the best defensive players of all time gets real tough after L.T., but Smith and Donald narrowly edge out a list of deserving others. Smith was a monster and absolutely dominated with a combination of size (6-foot-4, 262 pounds), speed and strength. He whooped so many offensive tackles over his 19(!) NFL seasons. Being someone who played with my hand in the dirt and dropped in coverage, I studied and modeled my game after Taylor, Smith, Derrick Thomas, Charles Haley and Andre Tippett. 


What Donald has accomplished in just eight seasons is remarkable, and you could make the argument that he's the most dominant player at his position of any player in the league right now. Honestly, he should have a few more accolades to his name, including a Super Bowl LVI MVP award. But when it comes to the greatest ever, I have to consider longevity. L.T. and Bruce were great for much longer -- which is why Donald slots in at No. 3.

Jeffri Chadiha
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Deion Sanders


Taylor altered defensive schemes and turned left tackle into a marquee position. The league didn't even keep sacks as an official statistic until he became a dominant force. Edge rushers everywhere owe L.T. plenty. White was the most unstoppable defensive lineman ever. The man had nine straight seasons with at least 10 sacks. That record still stands today. Prime Time did for cornerbacks what L.T. did for pass rushers: He made them invaluable commodities. The term "shutdown corner" didn't exist before he exploded onto the scene. He changed the game with his speed, charisma and big-play ability.

Marc Ross
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Joe Greene


Taylor revolutionized pass rushing in the NFL and the way offenses had to scheme to stop him. Forget the stats, it was clear to see how exceptionally explosive L.T. was and it showed every time he took the field. Accolades aren't everything but they sure do help in a conversation like this. In 13 seasons, he was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time first-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion and the 1986 NFL MVP, making him only the second defensive player to win it (joining Alan Page). Once I started working for the New York Giants, I got to hear stories from people who witnessed the L.T. experience firsthand. The legend only grew in my eyes.


Being a Philly native and a teenage Eagles fan during The Minister of Defense's prime, I have an emotional investment in Reggie White. His unique blend of speed and power -- who could forget his signature hump move? -- easily made him one of the top two most dominant defensive players in history. 


To this day, I still remember meeting "Mean" Joe Greene as a first-year scout at the Senior Bowl. What an experience! The cornerstone of arguably the greatest teams and Steel Curtain defenses of all time -- teams that were loaded with Hall of Famers -- Greene became a cultural icon (SEE: Coca-Cola commercial), and his ferocity and physical gifts would project him to be dominant even in today's game. 

Brian Baldinger
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Bruce Smith


L.T. had the perfect combination of speed, power and toughness with an instinct that could take him to the ball faster than anyone else on the field. Every team had to adjust its entire protection scheme to try to corral him. L.T. constantly changed the game. When it comes to White, we will never see the combination of size (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) and speed like he had. His power to take 350-pound men and "hump" them out of the field of vision has never been duplicated. He knew exactly when the time was right to take over a big game. No one will ever exceed Smith's 200 career sacks. The cornerstone to four straight AFC championship teams, Smith played three positions (nose tackle, 3-technique, defensive end) on the Bills' vaunted defense. No defender could bend around a corner and stab with raw power like Smith could, and he did it at under 260 pounds for most of his career.

Chad Reuter
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Dick Butkus


The phrase "he changed the game" is thrown around too easily -- but not in the case of L.T. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield made teams change the way they protected their passers, and he also stopped the run and moved like a safety in coverage. The first true "edge defender," Taylor's going to be tough to knock off the top of this mountain.


The Minister of Defense dominated his opponent not only with his patented "hump move" but with football intelligence and quickness unexpected from a man his size. White led a strong Eagles defense in the first half of his NFL career and then was the most impactful defensive free-agent signing in NFL history, reviving a moribund Packers franchise in the mid-1990s. 


While his career was shortened due to a knee injury, Butkus' name is -- and will always be -- synonymous with toughness. He's known for destroying ball-carriers between the tackles, but he was a sideline-to-sideline defender who intercepted 22 passes during his career. Few players affected the mindset of opponents' offenses as much as the Monster of the Midway. 

DeAngelo Hall
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Ray Lewis


There's no denying what these three players mean to the history of the game. There are two important factors that must be taken into account when talking about the greatest of all time: A player must have the ability to dominate a game at any given moment and help the team win. Taylor, White and Lewis are the prototype at the standard for excellence as players, teammates and leaders. There are others deserving of being in this list but, to me, this is the cream of the crop.

Adam Rank
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Reggie White
  3. Bruce Smith


This is a pretty difficult list because there are so many different types of defensive players that it almost needs to be broken up by position. It's like trying to figure out who the best musician of all time is, but then having to figure out where drummers go compared to guitar players. And does that make Dave Grohl the greatest because he played drums for Nirvana and is the lead for the Foo Fighters (surprisingly fewer people realize this than you would think). But I'm going to give this a shot. No disrespect to guys who just miss like Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus and Deacon Jones.


I made the error of not including Smith in my players of the 1990s list. But in fairness to me, I picked the guy who finished just ahead of him on this list. But I do feel that Smith is often overlooked. White's Eagles career alone was amazing. But what he did for the Green Bay Packers is not talked about enough. Brett Favre never wins a Super Bowl without him. 

 

And Taylor ... well, he's in the conversation for greatest player in NFL history. He changed the game forever when he came into the league, and there still hasn't been another player like him since.

Maurice Jones-Drew
  1. Deion Sanders
  2. Aaron Donald
  3. Lawrence Taylor


The most difficult position on defense is cornerback, and no one played it better than Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, whose swag and big-play ability at the position is unrivaled. Having to play on an island and shut down an entire half of the field every Sunday, and doing it successfully, makes him the best defensive player in my opinion. His six first-team All-Pro and eight Pro Bowl nods and one Defensive Player of the Year honor only add to his greatness. Donald falls in line behind him after putting up gaudy numbers in every season of his career while facing double and triple teams. It's incredible watching that man work firsthand every Sunday. Taylor rounds out my top three as a guy who completely changed how offenses game-planned for pass rushers, introducing a new era in the process.

James Jones
  1. Lawrence Taylor
  2. Deion Sanders
  3. Reggie White


There's no disputing the best offensive player in NFL history (Tom Brady). If we're all being honest with ourselves, the best defensive player of all time is clear cut as well. It's Lawrence Taylor. It's unheard of for a non-quarterback to win the MVP award, let alone a defensive player. Well, he did it and was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He changed the game. Prime changed the game in his own right as perhaps the first true shutdown corner. He destroyed offensive game plans every Sunday and did it all with the most swagger and attitude. Lastly, I have to tip my cap to Packers legend Reggie White, who finished his career with 198 sacks. You don't get a nickname like The Minister of Defense for nothing.

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