I know I pretty much say this every week, but 'this' is the toughest of these lists I have compiled so far because this is not being broken down into positions. These are my top five defenders in NFL history, regardless of position. And there are simply not enough spots to go around. That's what makes this so difficult because there are no places for the likes of Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, Steel Curtain defense members in 'Mean' Joe Greene and Mel Blount; and a true modern-day superstar in Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Here goes with this final top five of the series…
1. LAWRENCE TAYLOR
A force of nature who played with the aggression and nastiness of a junkyard dog, LT came racing out of the blocks as a rookie in 1981 as he won the first of three Defensive Player of the Year awards. The leader of New York's 'Big Blue Wrecking Crew' was the most relentless hunter of quarterbacks in league history and a two-time Super Bowl champion. Taylor could make plays all over the field but he simply refused to be blocked when rushing the passer. LT retired with 132 ½ sacks to his name and every plaudit a player could wish for, being named to the NFL's 100th Anniversary team and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. REGGIE WHITE
The 'Minister of Defense' would decimate quarterback after quarterback on Sundays but then help his opposition to their feet and issue them with a blessing. White was one of the NFL's good guys, but I doubt he was ever loved by offensive linemen around the league. The Hall of Famer could throw 300-pound giants around like rag dolls on his way to 198 career sacks. White, who was a 13-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, was also a history maker off the field as his move away from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Green Bay Packers in 1993 paved the way for the free agency enjoyed by players across the league today. White won a Super Bowl with the Packers and two Defensive Player of the Year awards. He tragically died in his sleep at the age of 43 in 2004.
3. RAY LEWIS
There were many skills in Ray Lewis' NFL locker, but he once told me the secret to his success as a two-time Super Bowl champion and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Lewis said that his success was all about hard work and "want to"… he always wanted to be the first defender to the ball-carrier and when he got there, he could hit like a train and intimidate the toughest of opponents. The ferocious Lewis played his entire 17-year career with the Baltimore Ravens and he was a tireless worker and inspirational leader. I worked with Lewis ahead of his final 2012 season in the league and he was working out four times per day… at the age of 37. His incredible passion for the game was infectious and, fittingly, he returned from a knee injury that threatened his final season and went out as a Super Bowl champ. Lewis ended his NFL career with more than 2,000 tackles to his name.
4. DEACON JONES
Your place in NFL history is secure when you are the player who coined the term 'the sack.' Jones dominated for the Los Angeles Rams from 1961 to 1971 before rounding out his Hall of Fame career with San Diego and Washington. Jones came from humble beginnings. His family grew up in a house without running water on the current site of Disney World in Florida. Jones played outside without shoes as a youngster and he was very much an NFL long shot being taken in the 14th round of the Draft. Jones was the fore-runner for the pass-rushing defensive ends we see in the NFL today. He played in an era when sacks were not an official statistic and reportedly secured 26 sacks in 14 games in 1967. The 'actual' NFL single-season record is 22 ½ set by Michael Strahan, of the New York Giants. Jones may not be a household name among younger fans, but he is a true legend of the sport.
5. RONNIE LOTT
Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott dominated wide receivers and tight ends for 14 years from 1981 to 1994 and he was the defensive lynchpin of a San Francisco 49ers team that won three Super Bowls in the 1980s. Lott was so dedicated to the cause that he once had part of an injured little finger chopped off during the 1986 offseason. Lott was much more than an enforcer at the safety position – he could also slide outside and play cornerback and retired with 63 career interceptions to his name. Lott was the complete defender and a perfect blend of old-school toughness and athleticism. He rightly resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as a proud member of the NFL's 100th Anniversary Team.