Countdown to Canton: The top 10 edge rushers of all time


Photo courtesy of the New York Giants

The Pro Football Hall of Fame loves edge rushers. In fact, when Jason Taylor is inducted as a first-ballot choice on Aug. 5 he becomes the ninth edge rusher elected to Canton in the past 10 years.

With our Countdown to Canton continuing, we focus on Taylor’s position — edge rusher — and compile our list of the 10 best in league history. To get there, Ron Borges, Clark Judge and Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Network joined with league historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal, and what they found when they finished wasn’t all that surprising.

They all worshiped at the altar of Lawrence Taylor.

Taylor pulled first-place votes from all but Borges, who chose Deacon Jones as his best pass rusher. Nevertheless, the former Giants’ star had enough support to hold off second-place finisher Reggie White and Jones, who finished one vote behind.

But instead of explaining the results, why don’t we just give you the top-10 finishers … in descending order.

10. MICHAEL STRAHAN

Photo courtesy of the Talk of Fame Network

Before he was a co-host with Kelly Ripa … before he was a regular contributor to Good Morning America … before he was a Sunday analyst with Fox Sports … basically, before he was a media personality, Strahan was one helluva football player. He was named to seven Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams and the 2000s’ all-decade team and led the league twice in sacks — including 2001 when he set the single-season record of 22-1/2 and was named Defensive Player of the Year. A relentless pass rusher, Strahan was solid vs. the run, too, making him a complete defensive end. “He was undersized for the power side,” said Gosselin, “but he thrived as a strong-side end.” Strahan appeared in two Super Bowls, saving the best for last when he and the New York Giants stunned previously unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII, with Strahan having a sack of Tom Brady. “When we all played together,” he said later, “we knew we were better than anybody else.”

9. VON MILLER

Granted, he’s only been playing six seasons, but in those six years he has 73-1/2 sacks … or an average of 12.25 per year … and been named to five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. Oh, yeah, he’s also been a Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl MVP and the 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year. In short, Von Miller has made a significant impact in a short period of time. Miller’s strength is his speed off the edge (“”more pure speed than L.T.,” said Turney, “but not the power”), with multiple offensive linemen unable to handle him in the 2015 playoffs. Miller sacked Tom Brady 2-1/2 times and had an interception in the AFC conference championship game, then followed with 2-1/2 more sacks and two forced fumbles of league MVP Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50. One of those fumbles produced a Denver touchdown; the other led to a game-clinching score. “He’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” said former quarterback and Denver head coach Gary Kubiak. Miller didn’t win the sack title a year ago (Atlanta’s Vic Beasley did), but he was noticed nevertheless. He fell one vote short of winning Defensive Player of the Year.

8. DERRICK THOMAS

Derrick Thomas photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs

Thomas, who died from injuries sustained in a 2000 car crash, made such an impact on the Kansas City franchise that the Chiefs name their Player of the Year award after him. In 11 pro seasons, he was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro, the 1989 Defensive Rookie of the Year and the 1996 league leader in sacks. He was also named to the 1990s’ all-decade team. He had 126-1/2 sacks in his career, including a league-record seven in one game and six in another vs. Oakland. If there’s an indelible memory of Thomas … aside from collaring Seattle’s Dave Krieg again and again … it’s Taylor rounding the corner for a strip sack of another quarterback. Of his 45 career forced fumbles, 34 were of quarterbacks — with 20 recovered and four retuned for touchdowns. Thomas had blinding speed off the corner, with great balance and quickness, and he was so disruptive that, even though his career ended prematurely, he still holds franchise records for sacks, safeties, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. “This guy transcended the football field,” said former Chiefs’ president Carl Peterson. “In the time I’ve been in the game there have been three defensive people who could change the course of a game: Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Derrick.”

7 and 6. (tie) JACK YOUNGBLOOD

Photo courtesy of the L.A. Rams

The former Rams’ star was an eight-time All-Pro, two-time NFC Defensive Player of the Year and member of the 1970′ all-decade team. In 1972 he took over at left defensive end after the Rams traded Deacon Jones to San Diego and responded by leading the team in tackles. The following year he led it in sacks with 16-1/2 — the first of eight double-digit sack seasons and the first of nine years leading or co-leading the Rams in that category. But his productivity was second to his availability, with Youngblood appearing in a team-record 201 straight games, missing only one in his 14-year career due to a ruptured disc in his lower back. He still holds the record for most consecutive starts (184) by a strong-side defensive end. Moreover, he played the entire 1979 playoffs with a broken left fibula and appeared a week later in the 1980 Pro Bowl. The NFL Network Top 10 series chose Youngblood’s performance as the best in its “Gutsiest Performances” of all time.

GINO MARCHETTI

Hall-of-Famer Forrest Gregg once was asked to name the best defensive player he faced in his career, and Marchetti won the vote. “Marchetti was the best all-around player I ever played against,” he said. “Great pass rusher. Great against the run. And he never let you rest.” An 11-time Pro Bowler, 10-time All-Pro (including nine first-team choices) and member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and its 1950s’ all-decade squad, Marchetti was so determined in his pursuit of whoever had the ball … passer, running back, receiver, you name it … the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972 named him “the greatest defensive end in pro football history.” Over 25 years later, the Sporting News in 1999 ranked Marchetti as one of the top 15 players of all time, listing him as the second defensive end behind only Deacon Jones. “He would grab and throw tackles,” said Turney, “while keeping his feet moving.” Bottom line: Gino Marchetti was a great player on a great team, the 1958-59 Baltimore Colts that beat the New York Giants twice to win league championships.

5. KEVIN GREENE

Photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers

He ranks third in career sacks, yet it took him 12 years of eligibility before he reached the Hall of Fame. Greene’s hallmark was consistency and durability. He produced double-digit sacks in 11 of his 15 pro seasons, including his last with Carolina when, at the age of 37, he had 12 – and he did it from the left side. Excluding the 1987 strike year, he missed only five games in his career … and only three his last nine seasons. He twice led the league in sacks. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro. And he was the league’s 1996 Defensive Player of the Year when he led the league with 14-1/2 sacks. He’s also a member of the 1990s’ all-decade team. Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau, who coached Greene in Pittsburgh, called the outside linebacker “almost unblockable,” adding that he considered him “one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history.” Remember, it’s Greene, not Lawrence Taylor, who holds the league record for sacks by a linebacker. What’s more, he’s one of only four players to lead the league multiple seasons in sacks and is second in safeties and third in recovered fumbles.

4. BRUCE SMITH

Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins

The all-time leader in sacks (200) since they were recognized as an official statistic in 1982, Smith was an 11-time Pro Bowler, an 11-time All-Pro, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a member of two all-decade teams (1980s and ’90s) and a key figure in the Buffalo Bills’ run of four straight Super Bowls. He played 19 years in the NFL, producing double-digit sacks in 13 of them, and had an additional 14-1/2 in 20 playoff games. Smith sacked 76 different quarterbacks in his career, including five who are in the Hall of Fame, but it couldn’t have been as easy as he made it seem. Reason: Most of Smith’s time was spent playing in 3-4 defenses … not the optimal alignment for a defensive end to pressure the quarterback. While the Bills have 30 members in their Wall of Fame, Smith and quarterback Jim Kelly are the only two to have their numbers retired.

3. DEACON JONES

Photo courtesy of the L.A. Rams

There were no such things as “sacks” in the NFL  until Deacon coined the termed. Nicknamed “The Secretary of Defense,” Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, member of the 1960s’ all-decade team and member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. “He was,” said Hall-of-Fame coach George Allen, “the greatest defensive end of modern football.” What separated Jones from his contemporaries was his speed to the quarterback and his ability to chase down ballcarriers from sideline to sideline. But he wasn’t just quick off the ball. He was quick with the head slap, too, which gave him a split-second jump on his opponent to the quarterback. “He was quick, powerful and hostile,” said Borges. “He was also unblockable, which is how he had three 20-sack seasons.” Unofficial statistics have Jones producing 22 sacks in 1964, 21-1/2 in 1967 and another 22 the following year. What’s remarkable about those numbers is that, were sacks recognized as an official stat then, the 22 would’ve held up as a league record for nearly 40 years — or until Michael Strahan produced 22-1/2 in 2001. One big difference: Strahan did his in a 16-game season; Jones did it in 14.

2. REGGIE WHITE

Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles

“The Minister of Defense,” White is second to Smith among the all-time NFL leaders in sacks. Like Smith, he was named to two all-decade teams and, like Smith, was chosen to the NFL’s 75th anniversary squad. Unlike Smith, however, he spent his first two professional seasons in the USFL, where he accumulated 23-1/2 sacks. Of course, they don’t count toward NFL totals. But, if they did, he would have had a league-high 221-1/2 for his career. White was a 13-time Pro Bowler, a 13-time All-Pro (including 10 first teams), two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time leader in season sacks. He’s also one of the few players to have his number retired by two franchises (Philadelphia and Green Bay) and to have two streets (Reggie White Boulevard in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Reggie White Way in Green Bay) named after him. During the strike-shortened 1987 season, he set a league record with 21 sacks, and that was in 12 games. Surprising? Well, yes and no. Never in his eight years with the Eagles did he have fewer than 11 in a season. Four years later he set a league record for most passes defended by a defensive lineman (13), a record since broken by J.J. Watt.

  1. LAWRENCE TAYLOR
Photo courtesy of the N.Y. Giants

Not only is he considered one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history; some former coaches, players and GMs consider him the greatest defensive player in NFL history. “When the Giants drafted Taylor and put him at weak-side linebacker in their 3-4,” said Gosselin, “they invented the term ‘edge rusher.’ ” A dominant pass rusher from the start of his career with the Giants, Taylor forced opponents to change schemes, protections and formations. He had a run of seven consecutive seasons (1984-90) where he produced double-digit sacks, including a career-high 20-1/2 in 1986 when the Giants won the Super Bowl. Taylor was a two-time Super Bowl champion, a 10-time Pro Bowler, a 10-time first-team All-Pro, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and the 1986 NFL MVP. He’s also a member of the 1980s’ all-decade team and the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Taylor was so dominant so early that teammates started calling him “Superman” and suggested the Giants replace his locker with a phone booth. “On the pass rush,” said former teammate and quarterback Phil Simms, “he’s an animal. He’s either going to run around you or over you. With his quickness, he’s full speed after two steps.” It didn’t take opponents long to find out what Simms was talking about. Taylor was the 1981 Defensive Rookie of the Year AND Defensive Player of the Year, the only time in league history that has happened. “Lawrence Taylor, defensively, had as big an impact as any player I’ve seen,” said Hall-of-Famer John Madden. “He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebacker is played and the way offenses block linebackers.”

OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES: Jason Taylor, J.J. Watt, Chris Doleman, DeMarcus Ware, Len Ford.

 

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9 Comments

  1. Rasputin
    July 13, 2017
    Reply

    Ron Borges said something I agree with. Maybe that will happen again in 2 years. I’d give Deacon the edge as a pure pass rusher and Reggie the nod as the best overall DE, but it’s not like LT is a terrible choice.

    Way too soon to put Von Miller on this top 10 list. In his first 6 years DeMarcus Ware had 80 sacks, 35 forced fumbles, 11 takeaways, 20 pass defenses, and 2 sack titles. Miller has 73.5 sacks, 20 forced fumbles, 6 takeaways, 13 pass defenses, and 0 sack titles. Ware also had about 60 more tackles than Miller. He beats him across the board. Ware even played a big role in that Super Bowl they won, scoring 2 sacks and some key pressures and tackles himself. In fact I thought they should have been co-MVPs like Randy White and Harvey Martin. Just saying.

  2. Rasputin
    July 13, 2017
    Reply

    JJ Watt had 74.5 sacks in his first 5 seasons (14.9 sacks a season), 2 sack titles, two 20+ sack seasons, and a ridiculous 45 pass defenses. Does he not count as an edge rusher? He’s always mainly technically been a DE even when he played in a 3-4 like Bruce Smith was.

    • July 13, 2017
      Reply

      Watt should have been included on Others Receiving Votes. Was omitted and change was made. But his injury does present a problem. I’m not sure he’s not finished. I want to see what he has this season. He does have astounding numbers but his career may be over. Miller’s is not. In fact, he seems as good as ever, if not better. Just trying to explain how votes fell, though you would have to ask others, too.

      • Rasputin
        July 13, 2017
        Reply

        Why Miller over Ware?

    • July 13, 2017
      Reply

      Then there’s this: Some of the board did not perceive Watt as edge rusher. Outside in base, inside in nickel … though in 2015 played more outside. But perceived as a Howie Long or Justin Smith … not a pure edge rusher.

    • Rick Gosselin
      July 13, 2017
      Reply

      Do you have Mark Gastineau on your list? Over the same seven-year period as Watt to start his career, he had more sacks than Watt. Gastineau also had two 20-sack seasons.

      • Rasputin
        July 13, 2017
        Reply

        Honestly I probably wouldn’t have any still active players on my list because their legacies are still in flux, so it’d be apples and oranges ranking retired guys like Gastineau or Ware against Watt or Miller.

  3. Tom K
    July 13, 2017
    Reply

    I personally would of had Reggie White #. I think that Doug Atkins is a HUGE omission and needs to be included. I like the fact that Von is being talked about but he isn’t near the Pass Rusher Watt is. Even if Watt’s career might be over, we don’t know that yet and should just go by what Miller and Watt have accomplished up to this point. I think Kevin Greene is a bit too high and Marchetti a bit too low.

    Overall, solid list. Can’t wait to see the next Top 10

  4. bachslunch
    July 14, 2017
    Reply

    I could see the quibble regarding Ware vs. Miller and the omission of Atkins as fair questions. But overall this is a very reasonable and defensible list, far better than the awful Gil Brandt lists at nfl.com that have come out recently.

    Also, glad you’re including John Turney on your panel. Sharp guy who knows his stuff and does his homework, given what I’ve read.

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