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Published: July 13, 2016 at 12:21 p.m.
Updated: July 13, 2016 at 12:34 p.m.

Reggie White, J.J. Watt among best defenders I've ever seen

Last week, I listed the best offensive players I've seen in five-plus decades of watching pro football. This week, I've turned my attention to the defensive standouts. As was true of the offensive list, this list gives added weight to the impressions left upon me by what I've seen these players do with my own eyes, live. It is not intended to be a comprehensive "best of all time" list; rather, it is designed to reflect my subjective experiences and observations from a lifetime in the NFL. That's not to say these aren't all studs -- between them, the 10 players listed have accounted for 99 Pro Bowl nods and 65 first-team All-Pro honors, with all but the three thus-far-ineligible players having been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Here, presented in reverse order, is the list:

10 Photos Total

  • <i>Baltimore Ravens, 1996-2012.</i><br />
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Lewis was not very big coming out, and Baltimore might have stayed away if not for current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was a defensive assistant for the Ravens when Lewis was drafted. At the Playboy All-American weekend, Schwartz noticed how, when Lewis sat down, about 15 other guys would come sit around him -- players gravitated toward him. What you see in an off-field setting can carry a lot of weight in your evaluation, and Schwartz stumped for Lewis. In Year 2, Lewis led the NFL in tackles  (156) and was named to the first of 13 Pro Bowls. And, of course, he went on to become the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, heading a defense that allowed 165 points that season and just 23 points in four playoff games. Lewis had the quickness and ability to get off blocks and recognize what the offense was trying to do. He could play in space, collecting an exceptional 31 career interceptions. He also had great leadership qualities. 10

    Four Seam Images

    10) Ray Lewis, linebacker

    Baltimore Ravens, 1996-2012.

    Lewis was not very big coming out, and Baltimore might have stayed away if not for current Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was a defensive assistant for the Ravens when Lewis was drafted. At the Playboy All-American weekend, Schwartz noticed how, when Lewis sat down, about 15 other guys would come sit around him -- players gravitated toward him. What you see in an off-field setting can carry a lot of weight in your evaluation, and Schwartz stumped for Lewis. In Year 2, Lewis led the NFL in tackles (156) and was named to the first of 13 Pro Bowls. And, of course, he went on to become the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, heading a defense that allowed 165 points that season and just 23 points in four playoff games. Lewis had the quickness and ability to get off blocks and recognize what the offense was trying to do. He could play in space, collecting an exceptional 31 career interceptions. He also had great leadership qualities.

  • <i>Baltimore Ravens, 2002-2012; Houston Texans, 2013; New York Jets, 2013.</i><br />
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The key to Reed's success was his outstanding ball skills, which -- along with his film-study habits -- helped him collect 64 picks for an NFL-record 1,590 return yards. A great example of this was in <a href="http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2009010400/2008/POST18/ravens@dolphins">a 2008 wild-card playoff game</a> against Miami. Recognizing a formation that the Dolphins had run only twice before that season, Reed left the defense that was called, freelancing, and came up with a key interception -- one of two in that game. Looking back, his hands really stood out; they were even better than most people thought. Defensive backs are often converted receivers who couldn't catch, but Reed had the hands of a wideout. He wasn't the fastest or most talented, but he made himself into a great performer. 9

    Scott Boehm/Associated Press

    9) Ed Reed, safety

    Baltimore Ravens, 2002-2012; Houston Texans, 2013; New York Jets, 2013.

    The key to Reed's success was his outstanding ball skills, which -- along with his film-study habits -- helped him collect 64 picks for an NFL-record 1,590 return yards. A great example of this was in a 2008 wild-card playoff game against Miami. Recognizing a formation that the Dolphins had run only twice before that season, Reed left the defense that was called, freelancing, and came up with a key interception -- one of two in that game. Looking back, his hands really stood out; they were even better than most people thought. Defensive backs are often converted receivers who couldn't catch, but Reed had the hands of a wideout. He wasn't the fastest or most talented, but he made himself into a great performer.

  • <i>Dallas Cowboys, 1975-1988.</i><br />
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We debated until just before the 1975 NFL Draft about whether to select White or Walter Payton second overall. It came down to two things: 1) At that point, not many running backs had had long-term success, and 2) Tom Landry thought White could play the Sam Huff role as a converted linebacker in Dallas' 4-3 flex defense. But White just didn't have the instincts for that and was quickly back at his natural position on the line -- where he wreaked havoc for more than a decade. "The Manster" -- half-man, half-monster -- was a great athlete, strong and quick; as Landry said, he could outmatch anyone in terms of intensity from game to game. The co-MVP of Super Bowl XII (with fellow lineman Harvey Martin) excelled both at rushing the passer and stopping the run, with the latter aspect of his game being somewhat under-appreciated by outside observers. He was a great leader off the field, while he and Martin were impossible to stop. 8

    NFL Photos

    8) Randy White, defensive lineman

    Dallas Cowboys, 1975-1988.

    We debated until just before the 1975 NFL Draft about whether to select White or Walter Payton second overall. It came down to two things: 1) At that point, not many running backs had had long-term success, and 2) Tom Landry thought White could play the Sam Huff role as a converted linebacker in Dallas' 4-3 flex defense. But White just didn't have the instincts for that and was quickly back at his natural position on the line -- where he wreaked havoc for more than a decade. "The Manster" -- half-man, half-monster -- was a great athlete, strong and quick; as Landry said, he could outmatch anyone in terms of intensity from game to game. The co-MVP of Super Bowl XII (with fellow lineman Harvey Martin) excelled both at rushing the passer and stopping the run, with the latter aspect of his game being somewhat under-appreciated by outside observers. He was a great leader off the field, while he and Martin were impossible to stop.

  • <i>Buffalo Bills, 1985-1999; Washington Redskins, 2000-03.</i><br />
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Watching Smith in his prime, you knew you were watching a generational pass-rushing talent. He had long arms, quickness and a knack for getting to the quarterback, plus the agility to keep his man from making him miss. His pass-rush skills were really off the charts. I remember watching him destroy future Chiefs offensive lineman Brian Jozwiak -- a first-round pick in 1986 -- in a matchup in October 1983, between Smith's Virginia Tech Hokies and Jozwiak's Mountaineers in Morgantown, West Virginia. Smith didn't play well as a rookie, but, of course, that wound up being just a speed bump in a special career. After all, he remains the all-time leader in sacks with 200.0 despite spending most of his NFL tenure in a 3-4 defense, which is not great for a pass rusher. 7

    Kevin Higley/Associated Press

    7) Bruce Smith, defensive end

    Buffalo Bills, 1985-1999; Washington Redskins, 2000-03.

    Watching Smith in his prime, you knew you were watching a generational pass-rushing talent. He had long arms, quickness and a knack for getting to the quarterback, plus the agility to keep his man from making him miss. His pass-rush skills were really off the charts. I remember watching him destroy future Chiefs offensive lineman Brian Jozwiak -- a first-round pick in 1986 -- in a matchup in October 1983, between Smith's Virginia Tech Hokies and Jozwiak's Mountaineers in Morgantown, West Virginia. Smith didn't play well as a rookie, but, of course, that wound up being just a speed bump in a special career. After all, he remains the all-time leader in sacks with 200.0 despite spending most of his NFL tenure in a 3-4 defense, which is not great for a pass rusher.

  • <i>Dallas Cowboys, 1961-1974.</i><br />
<br />
The first player ever drafted by the Cowboys was second to none in quickness and agility; it looked like he was offsides half the time. People didn't realize what a good athlete he was. He was very good both against the run and rushing the passer. Tom Landry called him a once-in-a-lifetime player, and I'd agree. He never lifted weights, but he was <i>strong.</i> The signature Bob Lilly play, of course, was when he chased Bob Griese for <a href="http://www.dallascowboys.com/video/2012/07/17/greatest-25-super-sack-1972" target="_blank">a 29-yard loss</a> in an epic sack that played a big role in the Cowboys' win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. I remember standing on the sideline and wondering how much longer that play could go on for; Griese was a pretty good athlete, reversing field a couple of times, but Lilly just kept on chasing him. I think that play really ignited our team. He's also one of the greatest people of all time. 6

    NFL Photos

    6) Bob Lilly, defensive lineman

    Dallas Cowboys, 1961-1974.

    The first player ever drafted by the Cowboys was second to none in quickness and agility; it looked like he was offsides half the time. People didn't realize what a good athlete he was. He was very good both against the run and rushing the passer. Tom Landry called him a once-in-a-lifetime player, and I'd agree. He never lifted weights, but he was strong. The signature Bob Lilly play, of course, was when he chased Bob Griese for a 29-yard loss in an epic sack that played a big role in the Cowboys' win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. I remember standing on the sideline and wondering how much longer that play could go on for; Griese was a pretty good athlete, reversing field a couple of times, but Lilly just kept on chasing him. I think that play really ignited our team. He's also one of the greatest people of all time.

  • <i>Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987-1996; San Francisco 49ers, 1997; Baltimore Ravens, 1998-2001; Oakland Raiders, 2002-03.</i><br />
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In Woodson's final game at Purdue, he played both ways, in an attempt to get the Heisman -- and he finished with 160 yards rushing and receiving <i>and</i> recorded 10 tackles and a forced fumble. I was at that game. The Cowboys had the 12th overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, and we wanted him, but our efforts to trade up failed and he went to the Steelers at No. 10. Woodson started his career at corner, where he displayed excellent cover skills and ball skills, then moved to safety, where he showed off great tackling ability. He was also smart and played with outstanding mental alertness. Woodson holds the record for fumbles recovered by a defensive player with 32 -- that's a <i>lot.</i> He was a good player and remains a good guy and a good friend of mine. 5

    Al Messerschmidt Archive

    5) Rod Woodson, defensive back

    Pittsburgh Steelers, 1987-1996; San Francisco 49ers, 1997; Baltimore Ravens, 1998-2001; Oakland Raiders, 2002-03.

    In Woodson's final game at Purdue, he played both ways, in an attempt to get the Heisman -- and he finished with 160 yards rushing and receiving and recorded 10 tackles and a forced fumble. I was at that game. The Cowboys had the 12th overall pick in the 1987 NFL Draft, and we wanted him, but our efforts to trade up failed and he went to the Steelers at No. 10. Woodson started his career at corner, where he displayed excellent cover skills and ball skills, then moved to safety, where he showed off great tackling ability. He was also smart and played with outstanding mental alertness. Woodson holds the record for fumbles recovered by a defensive player with 32 -- that's a lot. He was a good player and remains a good guy and a good friend of mine.

  • <i>Houston Texans, 2011-present.</i><br />
<br />
I remember watching Watt play against Ohio State on a Saturday night in 2010, and his two-sack showing for Wisconsin was one of the best individual performances I've ever seen. It's hard to believe Watt had to spend a season at Central Michigan playing tight end before walking on for the Badgers. I don't think any NFL player has reached the levels Watt has this early in his career; in his first five seasons, Watt has earned three Defensive Player of the Year awards. In 80 NFL games, he has 74.5 sacks -- second-most in a player's first five seasons -- and 15 forced fumbles, serving as a dominating force on the Texans' defense despite constant double- and triple-teams. His athletic ability is even more impressive in person than on film. He can bend, he can reverse field, he can drop into coverage -- he can do it all. 4

    Aaron M. Sprecher/NFL

    4) J.J. Watt, defensive lineman

    Houston Texans, 2011-present.

    I remember watching Watt play against Ohio State on a Saturday night in 2010, and his two-sack showing for Wisconsin was one of the best individual performances I've ever seen. It's hard to believe Watt had to spend a season at Central Michigan playing tight end before walking on for the Badgers. I don't think any NFL player has reached the levels Watt has this early in his career; in his first five seasons, Watt has earned three Defensive Player of the Year awards. In 80 NFL games, he has 74.5 sacks -- second-most in a player's first five seasons -- and 15 forced fumbles, serving as a dominating force on the Texans' defense despite constant double- and triple-teams. His athletic ability is even more impressive in person than on film. He can bend, he can reverse field, he can drop into coverage -- he can do it all.

  • <i>Chicago Bears, 1965-1973.</i><br />
<br />
What stood out most about Butkus was his competitiveness. He played for some Bears teams that weren't very good -- in nine years in Chicago, Butkus played for just two teams with winning records, which is to say, he was on the losing side more often than not. But it didn't make any difference to Butkus; whether Chicago was down by 12 or 21, Butkus always played with the same intense passion and competitive spirit. He probably played faster than he could run, and he had the athleticism to make plays in space. The game is much more open now than it was during Butkus' heyday, but he would have the same effect on the game today that he had then. 3

    Tony Tomsic/Associated Press

    3) Dick Butkus, linebacker

    Chicago Bears, 1965-1973.

    What stood out most about Butkus was his competitiveness. He played for some Bears teams that weren't very good -- in nine years in Chicago, Butkus played for just two teams with winning records, which is to say, he was on the losing side more often than not. But it didn't make any difference to Butkus; whether Chicago was down by 12 or 21, Butkus always played with the same intense passion and competitive spirit. He probably played faster than he could run, and he had the athleticism to make plays in space. The game is much more open now than it was during Butkus' heyday, but he would have the same effect on the game today that he had then.

  • <i>New York Giants, 1981-1993.</i><br />
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I watched Taylor make plays all over the field for North Carolina in a game against Clemson during his senior year, and George Young, then-general manager of the Giants, also happened to be there. We both flew back to New York on the same Eastern Airlines flight, since the Cowboys were playing the Giants the next day -- but we never spoke about Taylor's play. In the 1981 NFL Draft, we tried to trade up for the first overall spot so we could grab Taylor, but it was not to be. I will always remember watching Taylor, with the Cowboys up 7-0 and about to score again, steal the football on a tackle. He was an unbelievable athlete who could have easily played running back, tight end or receiver. He had outstanding speed and never quit on plays. 2

    Paul Spinelli/Associated Press

    2) Lawrence Taylor, linebacker

    New York Giants, 1981-1993.

    I watched Taylor make plays all over the field for North Carolina in a game against Clemson during his senior year, and George Young, then-general manager of the Giants, also happened to be there. We both flew back to New York on the same Eastern Airlines flight, since the Cowboys were playing the Giants the next day -- but we never spoke about Taylor's play. In the 1981 NFL Draft, we tried to trade up for the first overall spot so we could grab Taylor, but it was not to be. I will always remember watching Taylor, with the Cowboys up 7-0 and about to score again, steal the football on a tackle. He was an unbelievable athlete who could have easily played running back, tight end or receiver. He had outstanding speed and never quit on plays.

  • <i>Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-1992; Green Bay Packers, 1993-98; Carolina Panthers, 2000.</i><br />
<br />
White used his famous hump move to get off blockers and sack quarterbacks. Like Bob Lilly, he was just a naturally strong guy. He had great quickness off the ball, and his speed helped him make many plays on quarterbacks trying to escape. He never slowed down in his play. When I was with the Cowboys, we played his Eagles teams six times -- and lost all six. (I don't think we blocked him very well.) I remember meeting with him at a hotel in Los Angeles and attempting to convince him -- in vain -- not to sign with the USFL coming out of college, but he spent two years with the Memphis Showboats. Despite losing years to the USFL, White <i>still</i> finished with 198.0 career sacks. And, of course, he famously boosted the Packers' defense as a free agent in 1993, somehow elevating his play even higher in the postseason. 1

    Al Golub

    1) Reggie White, defensive lineman

    Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-1992; Green Bay Packers, 1993-98; Carolina Panthers, 2000.

    White used his famous hump move to get off blockers and sack quarterbacks. Like Bob Lilly, he was just a naturally strong guy. He had great quickness off the ball, and his speed helped him make many plays on quarterbacks trying to escape. He never slowed down in his play. When I was with the Cowboys, we played his Eagles teams six times -- and lost all six. (I don't think we blocked him very well.) I remember meeting with him at a hotel in Los Angeles and attempting to convince him -- in vain -- not to sign with the USFL coming out of college, but he spent two years with the Memphis Showboats. Despite losing years to the USFL, White still finished with 198.0 career sacks. And, of course, he famously boosted the Packers' defense as a free agent in 1993, somehow elevating his play even higher in the postseason.