Top 20 Defensive Backs in NFL History
Top 20 Defensive Backs in NFL History
Assembling the top defensive backs of all time is a daunting task when considering how rapidly the game has changed just in the past decade. The rule changes in 2004 made covering wide receivers substantially more difficult for defensive backs relying on physicality. Well, tougher for any defensive back regardless.
The 2004 draft didn't make matters easier with Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers all flying off the board and bolstering the league's elite just behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Soon, creative aerial attacks led by the likes of Aaron Rodgers were putting the league's cornerbacks and safeties on their heels like never before.
The increasingly difficult job of an NFL defensive back then hit another level in the past couple years with the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and their deceptive offensive schemes forcing cornerbacks into more demanding positions in blanketing receivers while challenging the outside run. Therefore, I'm going to skew very post-2004 with this list and perhaps a bit more in the direction of cornerbacks from this era.
No offense to the many great Hall of Famers of past eras, but this evolving game has made the modern corner a brutal position to play. Just take it from a current NFL coach.
"It's tough to play corner (in the NFL)," Detroit Lions Coach Jim Schwartz said, via the team website. "I think it's probably the most difficult thing to do in all of sports. "You have to run with world-class receivers, you've got to start backwards and they're going forward. They know where they're running, you don't. You've got to be tough enough to take on pulling guards and running backs and skilled enough and fast enough to cover the elite athletes, you know, guys that are Olympic-caliber speed."
Note: I value a high ceiling a little more than I do longevity, which puts more weight on peak greatness.
20) Brian Dawkins
A selection of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team and the heart of some consistently excellent Jim Johnson defenses.
19) Antoine Winfield
I don't care whether he ends up a Hall of Famer, but Winfield is the best tackler from the cornerback position of this millennium and his coverage remains very good on the other side of 30.
18) Ronde Barber
The perfect Cover 2 corner in his prime, Barber made Monte Kiffin's defenses sing. His pick-six interception off Donovan McNabb en route to the Super Bowl remains the stuff of NFL Films legend.
17) Richard Sherman
Many are put off by his trash-talking ways or are swayed by Roddy White's long touchdown in the playoffs last year, but make no mistake that Sherman is now challenging Revis Island for the top cornerback around — regardless of the injury — which seemed impossible at this time last year.
16) Darren Sharper
An NFL 2000s All-Decade Team selection at safety, Sharper's nose for the ball (63 interceptions) and the end zone (11 pick-sixes) made any defense he joined instantly more dangerous.
15) Ed Reed
While 2012 might not have been his greatest season individually, it was great to see Ed Reed finally grab that elusive Super Bowl title this February. The best free safety of this millennium.
14) Dick "Night Train" Lane
Of course I'm going to throw the pre-Super Bowl era some love. The list's eldest member, the late, great "Night Train" Lane still holds the league's single-season interception record that he set back in 1952.
13) John Lynch
I fully expect Lynch to eventually enter the Hall of Fame. Until then, he can take pride in being nine-time Pro Bowler and the hardest-hitting safety of his generation.
12) Charles Woodson
Woodson replaced "The Tuck Rule Play" with the "Halftime Speech" as his most memorable moment when he delivered words of encouragement — after having left the game injured — during halftime of the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl win. His versatility, skill and leadership made the late-aughts Packers defense play above itself.
11) Aeneas Williams
The great underrated cornerback of his era, Williams earned an NFL 1990s All-Decade team selection despite being hidden out in the desert on many terrible teams.
10) Mike Haynes
His incredible range and quick-twitch ability made Haynes the best cornerback of the 1980s and a member of the NFL 75h Anniversary All-Time team.
9) Darrell Green
Green made his diminutive size as a 5-9, 184-pound cornerback work with blazing speed — NFL's fastest man in his prime — and ball-hawking savvy, earning a 1990s All-Decade Team selection.
8) Rod Woodson
Woodson made an excellent case for best defensive back on this list and may just be the greatest safety of all time, as his NFL Defensive Player of the Year season in 1993 remains a clinic in secondary play.
7) Champ Bailey
I know Redskins fans are trying to block the Clinton Portis trade out of their mind, but how could you? Bailey's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and remarkably still playing at a high level out in the Rockies.
6) Mel Blount
Known as the hardest-hitting cornerback of the 1970s, Blount was also an interception machine and equally critical to those Steel Curtain defenses his linebacker counterparts.
5) Ty Law
Law ascends up the list of greats due to his ability to rise on the big stage against the league's best quarterbacks and receivers. Just take a look at those Super Bowl triumphs, or the way he smothered Peyton Manning and Co. in the postseason time and again.
4) Ronnie Lott
One could make a great case for Lott as the best defensive back in history, but I'll settle for best pre-1990s peak. Lott's latter-years play wasn't too shabby either, making both the 1980s and 1990s all-decade teams.
3) Troy Polamalu
Some will fault me for not including his defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, on this list, but combining Polamalu's instincts and LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme created the perfect chaos en route to two Super Bowl titles and counting.
2) Deion Sanders
A great showman and greatest cover man, "Neon Deion" gave the NFL its only true shutdown corner — that was until a man who could combine this with refined tackling came along....
1) Darrelle Revis
This is not recency bias. Revis is quite often regarded as the best defensive player in the league when he's on the field, and until last season that was mostly the case. Interceptions stats and rankings here are pointless because it's usually crazy to throw at him. The man has his own island and allowed Rex Ryan to mark off large swaths of the field in creative defensive schemes. Revis is the most valuable element of any secondary in history, and it will be fun to see how he transitions down in sunny Florida.
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