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


Quarterback 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 (perhaps?) be his final, tight finish Rob Gronkowski just lately determined to hold up his cleats and defensive sort out Aaron Donald inked a large contract extension this summer season to make him the sport’s highest-paid non-QB after contemplating retirement himself. All of it bought 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 sector to only one GOAT at quarterback, extensive receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and even kicker. We already named the best ever at every offensive position, 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 finest participant of all time, our voters weighed in and defined their choices. Plus, Jeff Legwold broke down why every GOAT was chosen, and ESPN Stats & Data dove into the numbers to select key stats to know. Let’s begin with edge rusher.

Leap to:
EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S

See: GOAT at every offensive position

Voting outcomes: Taylor earned 40 of fifty votes (80%)

Profession: New York Giants (1981-1993)
Corridor of Fame: 1999
Professional Bowl picks: 10
Profession stats: 184 video games, 142 sacks, 9 interceptions

Why 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 pressured fumbles and an interception and received the league’s Defensive Participant of the Yr award. There are various across the league who say Taylor modified the way in which individuals thought pass-rushers may very well be utilized in a protection. Taylor’s finest season got here in 1986, when he led the league in sacks (20.5), received MVP and earned his third Defensive Participant of the Yr award. — Jeff Legwold

Stat 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 not 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 stated

Taylor 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 exterior 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 reporter

How may I not vote for LT? Two Tremendous Bowls, 10 straight All-Professional seasons and a league MVP greater than backs it up. On the sector, 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 reporter

Is it even debatable? LT as soon as led the league in sacks, was named Defensive Participant of the Yr and MVP and received a Tremendous Bowl — all in the identical season. He is a no brainer right here. — Jordan Raanan, Giants reporter

Taylor is arguably the most effective defensive participant in NFL historical past, and he redefined the surface linebacker place. His 1986 season will perpetually be one of the vital memorable seasons by a defensive participant. His aggression, relentless nature and skill to take over video games made him particular. — Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst

The runners-up

  • Reggie 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 possibly can argue that Taylor flashed the brightest, however White was a relentless, unstoppable pressure for the higher a part of 20 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)

Voting outcomes: Donald earned 39 of fifty votes (78%)

Profession: St. Louis/L.A. Rams (2014-2021)
Professional Bowl picks: 8
Profession stats: 127 video games, 98.0 sacks, 440 tackles, 23 pressured fumbles

Why he is the GOAT defensive sort out: Donald will get even probably the most remember-when individuals within the league to acknowledge his place in NFL historical past. He has received three Defensive Participant of the Yr awards and been a first-team All-Professional choice in seven of his eight seasons. And though he’s consistently swarmed with blockers, Donald unravels offensive sport plans. His first Tremendous Bowl win earlier this yr solely provides to an already Canton-worthy résumé. — Legwold

Stat to know: Donald has recorded not less than eight sacks in every of his eight seasons, and he’s the one defensive sort out in NFL historical past to file 20 sacks in a season (20.5 in 2018).

What our voters stated

It may be laborious to choose 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 price within the NFL, Donald has over 100 extra pass-rush wins than anybody else within the NFL over the previous 5 seasons, in keeping with ESPN Stats & Data analysis. Donald may end his profession as the most effective defensive participant in NFL historical past. — Sarah Barshop, Rams reporter

I am admittedly biased right here as a result of Deacon Jones — a runner-up for me right here — performed lengthy earlier than my time protecting the NFL, and I’ve watched Donald’s total 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 seem like they don’t seem to be even attempting. — Brady Henderson, Seahawks reporter

Donald’s dimension 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 — faculty or professional — with a extra explosive take-off, and his mixture of flexibility and energy 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 workers member within the Pitt program he had talked to stated they’d by no means been round a greater follow participant. It helps clarify how Donald has develop into the most effective inside pass-rusher within the historical past of the sport. — Todd McShay, NFL draft analyst

Donald has not solely completed first in move rush win price at defensive sort out 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 proportion factors greater than the finest season by another defensive sort out (Grady Jarrett at 21.5% in 2019). It is a wild degree of sustained dominance. — Seth Walder, analytics author

The runners-up

  • Joe Greene (5 votes): “Greene could 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 gaps,” Colts reporter Stephen Holder stated. Fantasy author Eric Moody pointed to Imply Joe Greene’s integral position within the Steelers’ dynasty. “He received 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 complete of 173.5 could be third all time in NFL historical past, and he had three seasons of not 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 Page (one), John Randle (one), Warren Sapp (one)

Voting outcomes: Lewis earned 23 of fifty votes (46%)

Profession: Baltimore (1996-2012)
Corridor of Fame: 2018
Professional Bowl picks: 12
Profession stats: 228 video games, 2,050 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 19 pressured fumbles

Why he is the GOAT linebacker: Lewis led the Ravens in tackles in 14 of his 17 seasons with the workforce, together with his rookie yr. 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 dashing yards allowed (970). Lewis’ closing sport was Baltimore’s win in Tremendous Bowl XLVII to shut out the 2012 season. — Legwold

Stat 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 stated

Lewis modified the center linebacker place along with his vary, energy and consciousness, shutting down the sport’s prime operating 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 reporter

I coated Lewis from the day he was drafted till the night time he walked away a winner in his second Tremendous Bowl. He was the hardest, smartest NFL participant I ever encountered. Lewis’ movie examine habits allowed him to see issues on the sector earlier than they occurred. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would each most likely inform you Lewis rented house of their minds pre- and post-snap. — Sal Paolantonio, host of NFL Matchup

What separates the greats from each other isn’t bodily talent. 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 easiest at getting probably the most out of the whole lot he had mentally earlier than the ball was even snapped, permitting his bodily expertise to shine. That’s being a GOAT in my eyes. — Louis Riddick, NFL analyst

The runners-up

  • Dick Butkus (13 votes): “Butkus outlined the Sixties/Nineteen 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 may cross eras due to how laborious he hit and the way robust 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 skill to impression the sport in several methods (28 interceptions, 23.5 sacks and almost 1,500 tackles),” Cowboys reporter Todd Archer stated. “He epitomized the toughness of the Metal Curtain protection within the Nineteen Seventies.”

  • Additionally receiving votes: Ted Hendricks (two), Chuck Bednarik (one), Derrick Brooks (one), Bill George (one), Ray Nitschke (one), Junior Seau (one)

Voting 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: 2011
Professional Bowl picks: 8
Profession stats: 188 video games, 53 interceptions

Why he is the GOAT cornerback: Sanders’ mixture of bravado, expertise and want to win may very well 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 complete 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 price stating that he performed in 641 video games for 4 groups in his Main League Baseball profession and led the league in triples in 1992. — Legwold

Stat to know: Sanders displayed his versatility on the gridiron by changing into one in every 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 dashing (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 stated

It is easy to level to the awards — six first-team All-Professional recognitions, eight Professional Bowls and a Defensive Participant of the Yr honor. However it’s principally in regards to the eye take a look at. Sanders dominated receivers in contrast to anybody else, and I have not seen groups keep away from a defender greater than they did with Sanders in his prime. He allowed defensive coordinators to name a unique sport simply because he was on the sector. — John Keim, Commanders reporter

Past 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 finest 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 reporter

In his prime, Sanders shut down half the sector — every time he wasn’t busy enjoying baseball as an alternative. And his legend relies on all of the passes that weren’t thrown in his course, not on gaudy interception or passes defensed totals. — Aaron Schatz, Soccer Outsiders

A GOAT in any class has to have the abilities and accolades to again it up. However did in addition they change the sport? Did they’ve the swagger? Affect? Charisma? Are they a family identify? Prime checks the entire packing containers. He was the person. — Eric Woodyard, Lions reporter

The runners-up

  • Charles Woodson (5 votes): “Nobody can match Sanders’ playmaking skill, 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 degree for almost 20 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 skill to make the robust tackles, steal the ball and dash both course — when in protection or following a choose — actually matches the invoice. He’s additionally the one participant up to now 60 years to have 5 seasons with not 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 Subject 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), Night Train Lane (one)

Voting 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: 2000
Professional Bowl picks: 10
Profession stats: 192 video games, 63 interceptions, 8.5 sacks

Why he is the GOAT security: He made this checklist as a security, however Lott really 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 not less than 4 interceptions in a season 9 occasions. And in 20 playoff video games, Lott had 9 interceptions and scored two touchdowns. — Legwold

Stat to know: Lott was one in every of two defensive gamers (together with Joe Greene) with 4 Tremendous Bowl championships and 10 Professional Bowls. And he compiled 5 seasons of not less than 100 tackles.

What our voters stated

When 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 subject 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

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 robust security at age 32. Lott may do all of it within the secondary and missed just one sport in his closing 4 seasons. — Paul Gutierrez, Raiders reporter

Lott 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 analyst

The runners-up

  • Ed Reed (15 votes): NFL analyst Matt Bowen — a former NFL security himself — stated, “Reed was the final word game-changer with uncommon instincts and ball expertise, totaling 64 profession interceptions and 7 defensive touchdowns.” Stats & Data’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 probably 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 not less than 25 sacks, interceptions and compelled fumbles. He took the normal position fulfilled by a security and revolutionized it.”

  • Additionally receiving votes: Paul Krause (two), Troy Polamalu (two)

Voting outcomes: Vinatieri earned 22 of fifty votes (44%)

Profession: New England (1996-2005); Indianapolis (2006-2019)
Professional Bowl picks: 3
Profession stats: 365 video games, 599-of-715 subject objectives (83.8%), 874-of-898 further factors (97.3%)

Why he is the GOAT kicker: Vinatieri’s 397 video games (together with playoffs) are probably the most by any participant, as are his subject objectives made (599), consecutive subject objectives made (44) and profession seasons with 100-plus factors (21). However he may need a good stronger case right here, given he kicked the sport winner in two Tremendous Bowls and made 56 subject objectives in playoff video games, together with going 5-of-7 from not less than 50 yards. — Legwold

Stat to know: Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time chief in profession factors with 2,673.

What our voters stated

Vinatieri’s unwavering skill to make kicks beneath unimaginable stress separates him from others. He transformed three of probably the most iconic kicks in NFL historical past — on a snow-covered subject in the course of the 2001 playoffs and in Tremendous Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII. That, mixed along with his unbelievable longevity and total excellence, makes him the best of all time. — Stephen Holder, Colts reporter

It 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 workforce the lead, in keeping with Soccer Outsiders. When he stepped onto the sector in an enormous second, it felt automated, like Mariano Rivera rising from the Yankees’ bullpen within the ninth. — Tim McManus, Eagles reporter

Vinatieri 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 for my part — 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 author

The runners-up

  • Justin Tucker (21 votes): Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley contended that “Tucker is the most effective kicker within the sport due to his accuracy and skill to return by in probably the most pressure-filled conditions, changing 91.1% of his subject objectives (finest in NFL historical past). And he has related on 58 straight subject objectives within the fourth quarter and time beyond regulation, together with a file 66-yarder final yr.” Bengals reporter Ben Child stated, “The five-time All-Professional is unquestionably one of the vital clutch kickers ever, however he is additionally one of the vital dependable.”

  • Ray Guy (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 pressured to lift the video board effectively above its 90-foot top after one in every of his punts struck it. Sufficient stated.”

  • Additionally receiving votes: Morten Anderson (one)

Returner/special-teamer: Devin Hester

Voting outcomes: Hester earned 29 of fifty votes (58%)

Profession: Chicago (2006-2013); Atlanta (2014-2015); Baltimore (2016); Seattle (2016)
Professional Bowl picks: 4
Profession 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 thrice and not less than tied for the league lead in kickoff-return touchdowns twice. He had not less than one return TD in six of his seasons. And given the developments within the kicking sport, Hester’s skill to show touches into scores may by no means be seen once more. — Legwold

Stat 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 stated

Hester is the most effective returner in league historical past, which appears like an opinion however is nearer to truth. Granted, kickoff guidelines have modified lately, however take into account Hester’s impression at his peak: He had 11 return TDs in the course of the 2006-07 seasons, whereas the whole NFL mixed for 11 return TDs in 2021. — Mike Clay, NFL analyst

Hester set quite a lot of information for returners and was among the many most dynamic gamers with the ball in his palms. In his second NFL season (2007), he set the file for mixed kick returns for touchdowns in a yr (six), and he was named first-team All-Professional thrice. — Alaina Getzenberg, Payments reporter

To suppose anybody apart from Hester must be the most effective returner/special-teams participant of all time simply does not compute. He has a authentic case for the Corridor of Fame — which simply does 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 reporter

The runners-up

  • Deion 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 likely 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 occasions and owns various 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 the way disruptive Slater may very well 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 precious 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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