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NFC's best defenders ever: Picking one player for each franchise

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The beauty of the "All-32" is that it provides something for every fan base, which is why I created the series. And why I love executing the NFL.com Power Rankings and Game Picks during the season. Following every team is hard work, but respecting every franchise's history is worthwhile. And, personally, I always enjoyed defense more than offense -- especially after getting to watch guys like Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary and Everson Walls as a kid.

So, if you like NFL history -- and the cool side of the ball, like me -- this is the "All-32" for you. And if you are an Odell Beckham Jr. devotee, here is a warning that he is not mentioned anywhere in this article. Neither is Tim Tebow. (Sorry.) If you disagree with the choice for your team's best all-time defensive player, hit me up: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

So, let's dive into some legacy!

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: Bob Lilly, defensive lineman.

Perhaps the greatest defensive tackle ever. Perhaps the greatest Dallas Cowboy ever. All these years later, Lilly still doesn't quite receive his due -- except for when we all see the grainy footage of his 29-yard-loss planting of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI. Lilly wasn't a sack master like Deacon Jones. Nor was he the fierce hitter that Ronnie Lott or Dick Butkus were. There aren't LT-style highlights of Lilly bouncing around YouTube, either. Lilly was simply a cat-quick technician who broke up plays as easily as Peyton Manning utters inorganic Budweiser mentions. When you see films of Lilly, you see a guy swimming through double-teams and disrupting plays before they even had a chance to develop. After spending his first few years as a defensive end -- earning Pro Bowl honors in 1962 -- Lilly moved to defensive tackle in 1964. He then made 10 straight Pro Bowls before hanging 'em up. No, he didn't tweet out a pair of hanging cleats like Beast Mode. Maybe he should have -- then 19-year-olds in their dorm rooms would know who he is.

New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor, outside linebacker.

Quite simply the NFL's greatest defensive player ever. And given that he only played for the Giants, LT makes fans forget about Emlen Tunnell, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, Harry Carson and even a celebrity who wears vests on TV (and whose show swap blew up Twitter for half a day). The real question with Taylor is where he falls on the list of the NFL's all-time greatest players. Is he behind only Jim Brown and Jerry Rice? What about Joe Montana? Or Tom Brady? Taylor won NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, a feat only J.J. Watt has matched. He also won league MVP in 1986, something no defensive player has accomplished since.

Philadelphia Eagles: Reggie White, defensive lineman.

If Lawrence Taylor is the premier defensive player ever, then Reggie White is No. 2. Despite the fact he played six high-profile seasons in Green Bay -- and even had a cup of coffee with the Panthers -- White's eight-year stint in Philadelphia is beyond reproach. "The Minister of Defense" was named first-team All-Pro six times during those eight seasons. He averaged -- averaged -- 15.5 sacks a year while in Philly. In 1987, despite taking part in just 12 games due to the player's strike, White sacked passers a staggering 21 times -- that's almost two per game! White could play outside. He could move inside and pummel the guard. And he was a team leader. His only real competition for this honor? Chuck Bednarik. That is called elite company.

Washington Redskins: Darrell Green, cornerback.

The man who ran around in a Redskins uni for 20 years -- very quickly, I might add -- deserves to be known as the top-flight defender for one of the NFL's most storied franchises. Green was a seven-time Pro Bowler, yet the underlying theme to the man's career in D.C. is his extended (quality) service. He started as a rookie, and even got the starting gig in a handful of games during his final season at age 42. Most guys are buying their first cord blazer and coloring in their middle-innings-reliever goatee at that age -- not chasing T.O. across the field. In between, Green played for three Super Bowl teams, two of which would hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The first title came in the 1987 season, with Green's punt-return TD proving to be THE play in a playoff win over the favored Bears. The second came in the '91 campaign, a season in which Green picked off five passes and was named first-team All-Pro.

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: Dick Butkus, middle linebacker.

There are so many great defenders in the Bears' near-century of existence: Richard Dent, Bill George, Doug Atkins, "Danimal" Hampton, Steve "Mongo" McMichael, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher ... We could easily list a bunch more names. OK, so we will: Mike Singletary, Richie Petitbon, Rosey Taylor, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall ... Tired of this yet? The correct answer for the query posed in this article, however, is Dick Butkus, who was considered a legend in his own time. Perhaps the hardest hitter this side of Ronnie Lott, Butkus made the Pro Bowl every year of his career until his last, when his Namath-esque knees finally gave out on him. He was a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

Detroit Lions: Joe Schmidt, linebacker.

If you think Bob Lilly is not famous enough, take a gander at this name and see if it rings a bell: Joe Schmidt. The guy retired more than 50 years ago, but he shouldn't be forgotten. Speaking of, forget his 10 Pro Bowls and his eight -- eight! -- first-team All-Pro nods. Instead, try to wrap your brain around the idea that the Lions once won three league championships in a six-year span, and that Schmidt was the defensive leader on two of those clubs. He was enshrined in Canton back in 1973.

Green Bay Packers: Willie Wood, safety.

Tough choice here. Do you go with Ray Nitschke, who competed his ass off for 15 seasons in Green Bay as the Mike linebacker? How about Reggie White, whose signing in 1993 did as much for the Packers as the trade for one Brett Favre? Or Herb Adderley? Clay Matthews III -- he of two positions -- is going to have to start getting some consideration, as well. After doing much research on the subject, and changing my mind 107 times, Willie Wood is the choice. He played all 12 years of his career with the Packers and was named first-team All-Pro five times. His third-quarter interception of Len Dawson altered the course of Super Bowl I (and possibly, NFL history). Wood was a top-flight roaming safety who could've played in today's game. Enough of that "Guys from the 1960s couldn't play today" B.S.

Minnesota Vikings: Alan Page, defensive tackle.

Many Vikings to discuss ... John Randle was an interior rusher from the gates of small-college hell. Jim Marshall enjoyed a sterling 20-year NFL career, with all but one season coming in Minnesota. Page also edges out Kevin Williams, Chris Doleman and Matt Blair, largely due to his unique style of play. Page was an undersized DT, even in his day. But his football IQ, natural instincts and speed enabled him to win MVP of the league in 1971. Read that line again, babe. He was the first defensive player to ever do that, with only LT matching the feat since. Not bad company, huh? #respect

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: Deion Sanders, cornerback.

Debated long and hard about this pick. In years past, believe I would have taken Claude Humphrey, who played a decade in Atlanta and was part of the 1977 defense that gave up only 129 points in 14 games. But here's the thing: Sanders not only changed the position -- he made the Falcons good television. He also lifted the squad to the playoffs in 1991 for the first time in almost a decade, making the Pro Bowl while taking a kick and a pick to the house -- something neither Humphrey nor Tommy Nobis could ever do. This is the rare instance where I take a guy who spent a relatively short time with the team (five seasons for Deion in Atlanta) over a longtime franchise stalwart. Although I could be convinced otherwise. How do fans, in this case Falcons fans, feel about short-term brilliance versus steady longevity? I could see some Atlanta folks going with 14-year Falcon Jessie Tuggle.

Carolina Panthers: Julius Peppers, defensive end.

It's hard to pass over Luke Kuechly (literally and figuratively -- just ask Carson Palmer), or even Thomas Davis, who has spent over a decade in a Panthers uniform. But I am going with Peppers. He spent eight productive years as a defensive end in Carolina, making five Pro Bowls while posting double-digit sacks in six seasons. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2002, then tallied first-team All-Pro nods in '04 and '06. Kuechly also has a DROY on his résumé, as well as the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award -- which is, like, the only time in recent vintage J.J. Watt hasn't won the thing. Yet, Kuechly has only logged four NFL seasons. #toosoon.

New Orleans Saints: Rickey Jackson, outside linebacker.

With the Saints, it all comes down to their linebackers. Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling comprised the "Dome Patrol," perhaps the top group of linebackers in NFL history. Seriously. They were freaking awesome for about seven years. In regards to this list, picking the best New Orleans defensive player boils down to Jackson vs. Mills. The former gets the nod, based on tenure and the prolific standard he set in the Big Easy. Jackson tore off the edge for New Orleans' D for 13 years, tallying 115 sacks in the process. Oh, and by the way, he is the only true Saints defender with a bronze likeness in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He wears interesting hats, too. Like Canton's version of Bruce Arians. Great player.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Brooks, linebacker.

The cool thing about Tampa Bay is that it is one of the few franchises where a quarterback -- or some other chichi offensive player -- doesn't spring to mind when thinking about the team's legendary performers. In fact, when I did the top five players in Bucs history, all five were defenders. Brooks deserves to be considered the best of the bunch, over Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber and Lee Roy Selmon. Brooks was a standout weak-side linebacker who possessed the rare talent sandwich as a guy who could play the run and drop into coverage equally well. Brooks mastered reading angles, be it corralling Adrian Peterson or disrupting passing lanes. He picked off 25 passes and forced 24 fumbles en route to 11 Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl win and gold jacket.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals: Larry Wilson, safety.

Easy choice here, as Wilson was a first-ballot Hall of Famer after an incredible 13-year career with the Cardinals (when they were still in St. Louis). The dude was hell on wheels on the safety blitz -- a relatively new addition to pro football in the 1960s. In fact, Wilson's taste (and talent) for wreaking havoc caused Packers legend Jerry Kramer to remark in his book, "Instant Replay," that Wilson was the best player in all of football. (A safety.) Wilson led the league with 10 interceptions in 1966 and was named first-team All-Pro five straight years. He won a game against the Steelers in 1965 by picking off a pass -- despite having casts on both hands.

Los Angeles Rams: Merlin Olsen, defensive tackle.

Merlin Olsen over Deacon Jones!? Yep. Look, maaaaan -- as Jones would say -- Olsen was a helluva football player. He shares the record for most Pro Bowls in a career (14) with Peyton Manning, Bruce Matthews and Tony Gonzalez. (Olsen only missed the all-star game in his final NFL season.) The nice man's D-lineman beat the opposition with a perfect blend of technique, strength and quickness in a confined space. OK, but wasn't Jones as dominant? Absolutely. But Deacon played four less years in a Rams uniform, spending his final three pro seasons in San Diego and Washington. Olsen was a career Ram. It's a shame that both are no longer with us.

San Francisco 49ers: Ronnie Lott, cornerback/safety.

Lott is generally known as the hardest hitter in NFL history. What's unique about that distinction is that his reputation as a dude who could decleat receivers initially spawned while he was playing corner. When is the last time you saw Darrelle Revis hammer a running back? Or Richard Sherman take on a guard? Lott made four straight Pro Bowls as a corner right out of college, winning two Super Bowls in the process. Not a bad start, eh? Then Bill Walsh needed him to move to safety, which he did full time during his sixth season. That change began a six-year run as a Pro Bowler. Lott earned four Super Bowl rings in 10 years with San Francisco and is still considered the best all-around DB ever. In other words, next team ...

Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas, safety.

Earl Thomas narrowly edges Kenny Easley and Richard Sherman as the Seahawks' leading man on defense (despite playing in the back end). Still just 27, Thomas has already matched Easley with five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro nods. It should be noted that Easley earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1984. Cortez Kennedy also nabbed a DPOY (in 1992), and like Easley, was a primary consideration for this list. But the trump card here is Thomas' contributions to two Super Bowl teams, a height Easley's and Kennedy's teams could never reach. What also makes a difference here is that Thomas is and has been the leader on a defense that has led the NFL in points allowed four consecutive years, a record in the modern era. By the way, Thomas' postseason résumé: 82 tackles, two picks and a ring. Pretty stout.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE GREATEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER FOR EACH AFC TEAM.

Elliot Harrison is an analyst on NFL Network's "NFL HQ" and can also be seen regularly on NFL Now. Follow him on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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