Who is the best defensive player in NFL history?
John Clayton: Lawrence Taylor
Though this might be a disservice to some of the defensive greats prior to 1981, Lawrence Taylor is the best defender in the history of the league. Clearly, he is the best I've seen in 35 years of covering football. Taylor changed the game. He was a college defensive end who had the speed and explosion to rush from the linebacker position. His skills allowed the Giants to use a 3-4 scheme and showed coaches how a great pass-rusher can be used with his hands off the ground. Many players dominated the game from the defensive side of the ball, but few changed the game. Taylor ushered in a new era of defense to combat Bill Walsh's fast-paced West Coast offense.
Jeremy Green: Taylor
The best defensive player of all time was the original "LT," Lawrence Taylor. Not only is he the greatest defensive player, you could make a case for him being the best player ever on either side of the football. Taylor is the only player in NFL history to win three NFL defensive player of the year awards. He is also only one of a handful of defensive players to be named the league's most valuable player.
LT changed the way the game was played at the outside linebacker position. He was a phenomenal stand-up pass-rusher who could not be single-blocked. He showed excellent speed off the edge and an unmatched closing burst once he turned the corner. He had an excellent motor and showed a great desire to get to the quarterback.
There have been a lot of great defensive players over time, but LT is the best I have ever seen. I would be surprised to see anyone ever take that title away from him too, because they just don't make players like him anymore.
Merril Hoge: Mel Blount and Taylor
If I used the criteria of changing the game because of physical dominance then the pick would have to be former Steelers cornerback Mel Blount. Name one corner today who is 6-3 or 6-4 and 220 pounds. That was Blount, though. When he got his hands on receivers they were erased from the game. He was an amazing physical specimen who just dominated physically. If I use the criteria of which player caused the opposing team to be consumed with stopping him, then it's Taylor. He demanded everyone's attention on the opposing squad and he was still unstoppable. It didn't matter what type of game plan you drew up, it didn't work
Len Pasquarelli: Deacon Jones
Lawrence Taylor may be the player who elevated the public's consciousness on the importance of the sack, but it was the game's greatest defender, former Los Angeles Rams end Deacon Jones, who essentially invented it. He not only got after passers at a time when sacks weren't a recognized statistic -- the league didn't start counting them until the 1982 season -- but he actually coined the term sack. Jones claimed to have registered 180½ career sacks. Football historians have pretty much settled on 173½ as a more documented number. That includes 26 sacks in 1967 and 24 in 1968. An eight-time Pro Bowl performer and two-time defensive player of the year, Jones was such a dominant player that he forced the league to outlaw the "head slap," his favorite pass-rush move. And he owned the nickname "Minister of Defense" long before anyone attached it to Reggie White, another guy who belongs on the short list of greatest defender candidates. Jones' last NFL game was in 1974, so two generations of current fans never saw him play. Too bad, because he was a devastating, one-of-a-kind force.
Joe Theismann: Taylor
I don't want to sound like a homer for saying this, but Taylor has to be considered the greatest ever for three reasons. One, no defensive player has ever had an impact on the game the way he did. Teams simply didn't know how to stop him because he was too big and too fast for opposing blockers. Second, there aren't many other defensive players who inspired their teammates to be better the way LT did. His offensive teammates didn't want to come to the sideline after a three-and-out series because they knew they had let him down. The final reason is probably the biggest. Ever since LT stepped onto the field, every general manager in the NFL has tried to find a linebacker in the same league as him. While there have been some guys who have had amazing seasons or great runs for two or three seasons, none has sustained that level of greatness over the course of his career like LT.