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

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 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!


Buffalo Bills: Bruce Smith, defensive end.

I second-guessed myself for not ranking Bruce Smith among the 10 greatest defenders of all time a few months ago. Already had a couple defensive ends on the list -- Reggie White and Deacon Jones -- and fair or not fair, three felt like too many. That said, you can make an argument for Smith being top five -- and not solely because he is the all-time sacks leader with 200. The man who wore the Bills uni for 15 years was named first-team All-Pro a staggering eight times because he also could play the run and routinely caused disruptive, game-changing plays. Smith forced 43 fumbles to go along with two interceptions and a pair of safeties -- and that's not including the sack of Jeff Hostetler for another safety in Super Bowl XXV. Smith is the top overall player in Buffalo's history -- period.

Miami Dolphins: Jason Taylor, defensive end/outside linebacker.

Man, what a tough choice to make here. Taylor, the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year, who racked up 131 sacks over 13 seasons with the Dolphins, deserves the title. Yet, picking between him and teammate Zach Thomas is like picking between Clayton and Duper or Crockett and Tubbs. And that's not even diving into some old-school Dolphins (most notably, Manny Fernandez, Nick Buoniconti and the criminally underrated Dick Anderson, a safety from another world who made play after play). Taylor's DPOY award has much to do with this honor, as well as his longevity and nine touchdown returns of picks/fumbles. A guy who played almost his whole career at DE shouldn't have eight interceptions. It is weird. And awesome.

New England Patriots: Andre Tippett, outside linebacker.

The AFC's answer to Lawrence Taylor. That was the most apt description of the Patriots stud. The man was a relentless pass rusher from his outside linebacker spot, racking up 100 career sacks, including 35 over the 1984 and '85 seasons. Without Tippett, New England would've gotten tarred and feathered before the 46-10 loss to the Bears in Super Bowl XX. He was one of the first true 3-4 OLB pass rushers, as that front really came in vogue in the 1980s.

New York Jets: Darrelle Revis, cornerback.

Stiff competition for top billing on the Jets' defensive marquee, but Darrelle Revis can stash this prize with all his money. Mark Gastineau set the NFL record for sacks in a season with 22 in 1984 (since surpassed by Brett Favre ... er ... Michael Strahan). Joe Klecko made the Pro Bowl at DE, DT and NT -- a rare trifecta. Gerry Philbin, Verlon Biggs and Larry Grantham were standouts on the Super Bowl III team. And even Mo Lewis gets love for more than just knocking Drew Bledsoe's career off-kilter (a play which, unfortunately for Gang Green, cleared the way for some Brady guy). That said, Revis has been the best corner in the league for most of his career, which includes seven years in New York. Literally, THE best. No other Jet can claim that at his position.


Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis, inside linebacker.

The decision comes down to two players: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Truth be told, Reed might have been an even better safety than Lewis was a linebacker. That's why I included Reed -- not Lewis -- in my ranking of the top 10 defensive players ever. Yet, here we are talking about franchise history. Lewis played six more years in Baltimore than Reed, and was both Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP on the Ravens' 2000 title team, which featured perhaps the most feared defensive unit of the modern era. Lewis also earned DPOY honors in 2003, while unquestionably being the leader on the field. Wondering which guy Baltimore fans would take ... (@HarrisonNFL)

Cincinnati Bengals: Ken Riley, cornerback.

Perhaps it's unusual to select a player who never even made a Pro Bowl. Yep, in 15 NFL seasons, Riley was completely overlooked. Annnd it's ridiculous. How ridiculous? Well, in his final year -- when Riley tied for the AFC lead with eight interceptions and was named first-team All-Pro -- he still wasn't invited to Honolulu! Such was life playing for the Bengals, and not getting burned enough for announcers to mention your name. Never mind that Riley's 65 interceptions rank fifth all time. Tim Brown is fifth all time in the opposite category -- receptions -- and how sorry did people feel for him that he had to wait to get into the Hall of Fame, much less the Pro Bowl?! Cris Collinsworth has given Riley some attention, explaining how the corner taught him so much about playing wide receiver. But with Riley, it was never about calling attention to himself.

Cleveland Browns: Clay Matthews, linebacker.

Seriously thought about Bill Willis, who helped integrate pro football in 1946 as a member of the Browns in the old All-America Football Conference. Yet, despite Willis already being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, felt Clay Matthews was a stronger choice. The current Packers star's dad played a staggering 16 seasons in Cleveland, twice as many as Willis, posting 1,430 tackles during that time. It seemed like he was always around the football -- like in a big Sunday night game in Houston when he intercepted a Warren Moon pass in front of the goal line to save the day for the Browns. Matthews participated in four Pro Bowls and started three AFC Championship Games. A few other nominees considered: Joe Haden, Frank Minnifield, Hanford Dixon, Jerry Sherk and Clarence Scott.

Pittsburgh Steelers: "Mean Joe" Greene, defensive tackle.

The Steelers boast serious legacy when it comes to defense, with three of their four Super Bowl-winning teams from the 1970s defined by that side of the ball. Speaking of, their 1976 team -- a group that didn't make the Super Bowl -- allowed less than 10 points per game. "Mean Joe" Greene was the centerpiece of those clubs, especially in his first seven years, before a neck injury made him only one of the best, not the best. As a rookie, Greene was a first-team All-Pro for a 1-13 Pittsburgh group that no one in the media cared about, which should tell you how disruptive he was. Greene was quick, strong and could split-double teams on a regular basis. Not to mention, he was considered the lead dog on a loaded team that won four Super Bowls in six years. Greene is right in the argument for best DT ever.


Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, defensive end.

You're as shocked to see J.J. Watt's name here as you are to find out Hollywood is making another superhero movie. Houston's defense remains one of the top units in the league, which should be obvious, considering the Texans just made the playoffs with a motley crew at quarterback (Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden all started). Watt is the obvious centerpiece of this unit, having just joined Lawrence Taylor as the only players to win Defensive Player of the Year three times. He also has racked up 69 sacks over the past four seasons. Reggie White is the lone dude who can beat that figure, with 70 from 1985 through '88. LT and "The Minister of Defense" -- that's Watt's company.

Indianapolis Colts: Gino Marchetti, defensive end.

No Colts defender has been more impactful that Gino Marchetti. The former defensive end was a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, based on a sterling 13-year run with the franchise that saw him destroy the confidence of just about every right tackle in the league. Marchetti was special -- an original Colt who joined a group of players formed from the ashes of the defunct Dallas Texans in 1953. He wouldn't finish playing in Baltimore until 1966, after winning two championships, being named first-team All-Pro seven times and solidifying a Hall of Fame career. Also, for the better part of his career, Marchetti wore No. 89, which is a rad number for a DE.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Rashean Mathis, cornerback.

Before you make any snide remarks, bear in mind that the Jaguars have only been in existence since 1995. People were listening to "Lightning Crashes" and driving Ford Probes back then. Eight years later, Rashean Mathis started a solid NFL career, with a decade in Jacksonville that featured 30 interceptions and a first-team All-Pro nod in 2006. Mathis was a key cover guy on the Jags' 2005 and '07 playoff teams. He edges out Kevin Hardy, Donovin Darius, Daryl Smith, John Henderson and Marcus Stroud for this honor.

Tennessee Titans: Elvin Bethea, defensive end.

If we were talking offense, then several Titans players would merit consideration -- from Bruce Matthews (who was with the franchise when it transitioned from Oilers to Titans) to Steve McNair to Eddie George. Defensively, the Tennessee era of this organization just doesn't have the history yet to put forth anyone with Elvin Bethea's credentials. The former Oilers defensive end played 16 seasons for the franchise, making eight Pro Bowls in the process. Bethea put in 210 games worth of regular-season tape with the team, a record broken by Matthews (who was a rookie during Bethea's 16th season). Bethea played into the mid-'80s, but also carries the distinction of having participated in the AFL postseason (back in 1969). Jurrell Casey, who's only in Year 6, could vault himself near the top of this list if he continues to perform at such a high level. Either way, it's OK for Titans fans to learn more about Oilers lore -- it's a unique history, to say the least. (Sweetest unis the league has ever seen, too.)


Denver Broncos: Steve Atwater, safety.

Trying to choose between Steve Atwater, Champ Bailey and Randy Gradishar was darn near impossible. All of them played exactly 10 seasons for the Broncos, with the requisite number of All-Pro nods and Pro Bowl appearances to be up for consideration. Went Atwater here for the multiple facets of his game -- and the fact that his teams enjoyed the most success. Atwater played on three Super Bowl teams, two of which lifted the Lombardi. That's not to disparage Bailey or Gradishar. Yet, Atwater was such a key contributor to those Super Bowl teams, both in pass defense and playing the run. In fact, Atwater posted at least 100 tackles in six of his first seven seasons. And man, could he hit ...

Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Thomas, outside linebacker.

The Chiefs possess quite a historical collection of premier defenders, with Derrick Thomas being atop a long list of deserving players. Willie Lanier was the best middle linebacker in the AFC in the 1970s. Bobby Bell redefined the athleticism of linebackers in the 1960s, eventually getting enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame three years before Lanier. Art Still was a stud defensive end who struggled with injuries but was every bit the player Neil Smith was. Don't even get me started on Albert Lewis, Emmitt Thomas or Johnny Robinson. Doesn't this honor have to go to Thomas, though? Dude's insane body lean on his pass rush helped him account for well over 100 career sacks. There were games -- like an important 1994 contest versus the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers -- where the guy refused to be blocked. Also, Thomas posted 20 sacks in just his second pro season.

Oakland Raiders: Howie Long, defensive end.

As storied as this franchise is, deciding on one guy is somewhat unfair. Do we go old school, tabbing a corner like Willie Brown, who could play man-to-man as well as anyone in his era? Or how about someone from the more recent vintage, say Nnamdi Asomugha? Lester Hayes was phenomenal, picking off 13 passes in 1980. Then there is the old AFL hit man himself, Ben Davidson, who was famous for his handlebar mustache and the crowbarring of Joe Namath a few times. Howie Long, however, is the correct choice. In his 13-year career with the Raiders, he was a Super Bowl champ, a two-time first-team All-Pro and, in 1985, the best defensive end in football. Those three traits vault him to the top. Long possessed an uncanny motor. He also only played for the Raiders.

San Diego Chargers: Junior Seau, linebacker.

Could this be any easier? No player in Chargers history -- not even Dan Fouts or LaDainian Tomlinson -- had the postseason accolades Seau did. The San Diego native played 13 seasons for the Chargers, missing the Pro Bowl in only his first. He was named first-team All-Pro and Walter Payton Man of the Year in San Diego's lone Super Bowl season of 1994. He was an absolute terror on defense, averaging over 100 tackles per season during his long tenure in SoCal, while also picking up 47 sacks -- not bad for a guy who often dropped in coverage, as opposed to rushing the passer. He met the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage SO often. The late Seau was the headliner of the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.

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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