Who was the greatest pass rusher of all time?

San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia Eagles at Candlestick Park Sunday, November 29, 1992. 49ers Beat Eagles 20-14. 49ers Beat Eagles 20-14. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Reggie White (92) talks to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young (8). (AP Photo/Al Golub)

Talk of Fame Network

The NFL has become a very simple game. It’s all about the quarterback. He’s the face of any franchise and the guy with the $100-million contract. He is expected to make plays that win games and championships.

Offenses have to protect him, and defenses have to attack him. So left tackles are at a premium — he’s the body guard, the guy who protects the quarterback’s blind side.  On the other side of the ball, the premium is on the pass rushers, whether they play end, tackle or linebacker. Those are the impact players, the game-breakers on defense. And that’s the subject of our Talk of Fame Network poll this week — who is the greatest pass rusher of all time?

We’re offering up six choices, including five Hall of Famers. So who’s your choice? Here’s your slate of candidates:

Deacon Jones. Sacks put a pass rusher into the Hall of Fame. It was Jones who coined the term “sack” for tackling the passer. And few did it better. The NFL didn’t officially start counting sacks until 1982, long after Jones had departed opposing backfields. But pro football historian John Turney has charted all the sacks by all players in the game’s history and credits Jones with 173 ½, which places him third all-time. He was named to both the NFL’s 75th and 50th anniversary teams and also to the 1960s NFL all-decade team. Jones was voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in both 1968, when he collected 21 ½ sacks in a 14-game schedule, and 1968, when he collected 22 sacks.


(Jones photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Rams)

Bruce Smith. The NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200. It took Smith 18 years to hit the 200 mark, and he went to the Pro Bowl in 11 of those seasons. Smith was an NFL all-decade selection for both the 1980s and 1990s and also was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1996. Smith had 13 seasons in double-digit sacks with a high of 19 in 1990, but he never won a single-season sack crown. He forced 45 fumbles in his career and has been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


(Smith photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)

Lawrence Taylor. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and also an all-decade selection for the 1980s. Taylor was in the first wave of edge rushers from a 3-4 front and is credited by the NFL with 132 ½ sacks. But that doesn’t include the 9 ½ he collected as a rookie in 1981 before the NFL started counting sacks. So push his career total to 142, which places him eighth on the all-time list.  Taylor is the last defensive player to win NFL MVP honors. That came in 1986 when he collected a career-best 20 ½ sacks to power the New York Giants to their first Super Bowl championship. Taylor went to 10 Pro Bowls in his 13 seasons.

New York Giant Lawrence Taylor (56) during a game from his 1991 season with the Giants. Lawrence Taylor played for 13 years, all with the Giants, was a 10-time Pro Bowler and inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. (David Durochik via AP)

(Taylor photos courtesy of the New York Giants)

Derrick Thomas. A member of the 1990s NFL all-decade team. Thomas collected 126 ½ sacks in nine NFL seasons before dying in a car crash in 1999 at the age of 32. He scaled heights few pass rushers have ever scaled in his career. He set the record for sacks in a single game with seven in 1990 against Seattle and remains one of only 10 players to collect 20 sacks in a single season in the NFL’s official counting of sacks. Those 20 came in 1990 when he led the league in sacks for the only time in his career. Thomas went to the Pro Bowl in nine of his 11 seasons and forced 41 fumbles.

Kansas City Chiefs Derrick Thomas (58) during a game from his 1995 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Derrick Thomas played for 11 years all with the Kansas City Chief, was a 9-time Pro Bowler and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.(David Durochik via AP)

(Thomas photos courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)

J.J. Watt. Watt has only played five full seasons but what a start to his career. He’s already the only pass rusher in NFL history with two 20-sack seasons. His 2016 season was shortened after just three games with a back injury, which leaves him at 76 career sacks in 83 career games. Watt led the NFL twice in sacks with 20 ½ in 2012 and 17 ½ in 2015. He also collected 20 ½ sacks in 2014 but finished second that season to Kansas City’s Justin Houston with 22. Watt has gone to four Pro Bowls in his five seasons, missing out only in his rookie year. He also is a four-time first-team All-Pro.


(Watt photo courtesy of the Houston Texans)

Reggie White. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and also a member of the NFL all-decade teams for the 1980s and 1990s. White ranks second all-time in sacks with 198. But that doesn’t include his first two professional seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in the mid-1980s when he collected 23 ½ sacks. That would push his unofficial count to 221 ½. White led the NFL in sacks in both 1987 (21) and 1988 (18) while with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and in 1988 while with the Green Bay Packers when he rang up 16 sacks at the age of 37. He also won a Super Bowl with the Packers in 1996 and went to 13 Pro Bowls, a record for pass rushers. White also was a 10-time first-team All-Pro.


(Reggie White photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles)

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  1. Eugene Dunn says:

    I gave it to LT, but this is a tough vote. On any given Sunday any one of these guys could be the best of all time!

  2. TheJJWattExperience says:

    It’s not Smith or Derrick Thomas. That’s easy. Even though he ended up with more sacks, Smith was usually a tiny, tiny notch below Reggie throughout his career. Thomas was a not quite as good of a clone of LT, so he’s out. Can’t comment on Deacen Jones because I never saw him play. That leaves us with Reggie, LT, and Watt.

    Watt needs to do it a little longer and he’s right there but by winning 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards – he’s already (or should be) a future Hall of Famer. The part that makes me want to put him up there already is the fact that I have never seen an offensive tackle get the best of him. Ever. I can’t say that about Reggie because I remember the games where Eric Williams would stop him stone cold when they would play the Cowboys (before his car accident). But Reggie played longer. LT was amazing, but he could be “neutralized” to a small degree with the tackle getting help from a good blocking TE.

    I can’t choose between the three. It’s that close.

    If I were older, however, I may vote for Jones or Alan Page.

  3. Bear fan Bob says:

    It’s a shame that film isn’t available. Ed Sprinkle is with the best of them. If not the best DE Chicago Bears otherwise Jones by far

  4. bachslunch says:

    Ed Sprinkle was better than Doug Atkins?

  5. Bear fan Bob says:

    Against the pass not the run

  6. bachslunch says:

    I was always under the impression that Doug Atkins was a top flight pass rusher. Found an article at NFL.com that’s an obituary of Atkins; in it, George Allen is quoted as saying Atkins was “the first great pass rusher” and reference is made to him “leapfrogging blockers to terrorize quarterbacks.” And there are several other articles online referring to Atkins’ pass rushing excellence.

  7. Rich Quodomine says:

    The phrasing of the question makes it incredibly interesting. All of these mean were fierce, dangerous, and darn well near unblockable when their game was on. All of them had relatively good defensive teammates – and there’s also an era issue. Prior to 1995, teams passed less and ran more. This means that I’d discount Watt’s numbers slightly. ALso, since the term is “greatest passrusher” is often synonymous with sacks rather than total disruptions (Sacks + QB Hits + Pressures), it tends to skew to outside players, DEs and OLBs. This would discount great interior passrushers, like Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp.

    Deacon Jones played with the Fearsome Foursome, arguably the greatest defensive line that ever played – in a way this works both for and against him. He got incredible statistics despite the other guys being pretty darned good and Merlin Olsen has an argument for the greatest Defensive tackle to play the game. On the other hand, which guy didn’t you double team??

    Reggie WHite’s DL was the same as Jones’, incredible. Smith had a slightly lesser quality line, though Fred Smerlas has an HoF argument, and Cornelius Bennett played opposite. Derrick Thomas played with Neil Smith, who has his own Hof argument.

    LT played on one of the greatest LB Corps ever assembled, and with a pretty good DL, too.

    Bottom line: there’s no clearcut winner here, and no vote would be wrong or out of line.

  8. bachslunch says:

    The question was whether Sprinkle was a better pass rusher than Atkins, if memory serves. Anecdotally at least, Atkins appears to have been excellent at it as noted above. Did George Allen know about Sprinkle’s level of pass rushing capability when he declared Atkins to be “the FIRST great pass rusher?” Good question. Regardless, the only real way to answer this is good quality film study like that done at Ken Crippen’s website.

  9. bachslunch says:

    And it should be noted that the Bears also won a title in 1963 with Atkins helping spearhead the defense.

  10. bachslunch says:

    The 1946 Bears (the only title team Sprinkle played on best I can tell) also had Sid Luckman and Ken Kavanaugh (who scored the only two offensive TDs in the title win) and Bulldog Turner. All but Sprinkle received 1st team all pro selections that season from at least one organization as did Ray Bray and Hugh Gallarneau. Re the 1963 champs, Atkins was named a 1st team all pro from that squad, as were Mike Ditka, Roosevelt Taylor, Joe Fortunato, Richie Petitbon, and Bill George. Atkins was also on the 1956 Bears title-winning team but wasn’t a starter.

  11. Tom K says:

    Hmm not sure about these candidates.

    Marchetti and Atkins have to be on here somewhere.

    My top 5 would be
    1. Reggie White
    2. Lawrence Taylor
    3. Doug Atkins (severely underrated player)
    4. Deacon Jones
    5. JJ Watt (he’ll go up)

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