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Top 20 Defensive Linemen in NFL History

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The Greatest NFL Defensive Linemen of All-Time

Kirby-Lee-USA-TODAY-Sports
Kirby-Lee-USA-TODAY-Sports

When it comes to the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history, there's a lot of room for debate. The main statistic by which these players are judged (sacks), didn't become an official stat until 1982. It's crazy to think that the sack has only been around for 30 years, but it's true.

Of course sacks aren't the only thing we judge d-linemen on, but it's probably the main thing. There are a lot of great defenders pre-1982 that simply don't get the acknowledgement they deserve, because of the lack of a tracking statistic. Many fans would like for statistions to go back and look though old stat sheets and tally up sacks for players pre-1982, but that process would be very lengthy, and certainly very imperfect. There are estimates out there for pre-sack players, but nothing that the NFL recognizes.

When looking at the greatest d-lineman in history, we must examine their true impact on the game. Some of the players on this list changed their positions forever, and some simply dominated in their era.

The saying that 'it all starts up front' is definitely accurate, because if a defense can't get any pressure on the quarterback, the rest of the unit is going to have a very difficult time being effective. When a team has a strong front, it can make all the difference in the world. Even just one dominant player on the d-line can change an entire game.

So without further ado, let's get to the 20 greatest defensive linemen in NFL history:

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Charles Haley

Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports
Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports

Haley ranks 27th all-time with 100.5 sacks. During his career he made five trips to the Pro Bowl, and was named first team All-Pro on two occasions. Haley played a major role on the championship Dallas Cowboys' teams of the early 90's.

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Neil Smith

Michael-Hickey-USA-TODAY-Sports
Michael-Hickey-USA-TODAY-Sports

Neil Smith is a very underrated DE, who made a living destroying quarterbacks in the 1990's. First in Kansas City, he teamed with the late great Derrick Thomas to form one of the best sack tandems in football. Then he joined the rival Broncos in 1997, and went on to win 2 Super Bowls. Smith made the Pro Bowl six times, and ranks 24th all-time with 104.5 sacks.

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Jason Taylor

Robert-Mayer-USA-TODAY-Sports
Robert-Mayer-USA-TODAY-Sports

The recently retired Taylor ranks sixth all-time with 139.5 sacks. Throughout the early and mid-2000's, Taylor was one of the best in the game. His career season came in 2002 when he amassed an astounding 18.5 sacks.

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Dwight Freeney

Christopher-Hanewinckel-USA-TODAY-Sports
Christopher-Hanewinckel-USA-TODAY-Sports

One of the active players on the countdown, Freeney has already established himself as an all-time great. He currently ranks 21st all-time with 107.5 sacks, and that's a total that should keep on rolling for another couple seasons. When it's all said and done, Freeney will likely end up in Canton.

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Leslie O'Neal

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Jake-Roth-USA-TODAY-Sports

O'Neal is a very underrated player from late 80's and 90's. He played a big part in the Chargers success during the mid-90's along with Junior Seau, and finished his career with 132.5 sacks, which is good for ninth all-time (tied with LT).

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Julius Peppers

Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports
Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports

Another active player on the countdown, Peppers is as good as ever at age 33. He's already climbed to the No. 18 spot on the all-time sack list(111.5), and he figures to continue moving up with several years of gas left in the tank.

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Jared Allen

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Marilyn-Indahl-USA-TODAY-Sports

Allen is simply one of the best at what he does in the NFL today, and of all-time. He currently ranks 16th on the career sacks list (117), but he has a long to go to catch No. 1.

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Cortez Kennedy

Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports
Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports

Kennedy is an underrated DT that played with Seattle in the 90's. He's now a hall of famer, after making 8 Pro Bowl appearances and being voted first team all-pro on three occasions.

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Howie Long

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Reid-Compton-USA-TODAY-Sports

Everybody knows Long for his work with FOX, but his career as a Raider earned him a place in Canton. During his career he was voted to the Pro Bowl 8 times, while racking up 84 sacks. Long went out on top, as he was even voted to the Pro Bowl in his final season (1993).

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Warren Sapp

Robert-Deutsch-USA-TODAY
Robert-Deutsch-USA-TODAY

Sapp is one of the best defensive tackles to ever step on the gridiron. He struck fear in his opponents for years with his intense on-field presence, while brining attention to a position that doesn't always get it. Sapp played a major role in the Bucs' only Super Bowl season, and he was just recently elected to the HOF.

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John Randle

Kirby-Lee-USA-TODAY-Sports
Kirby-Lee-USA-TODAY-Sports

Randle is another guy who doesn't get enough credit for his career. The DT/DE played 14 seasons with Minnesota and Seattle, and made the Pro Bowl seven times, while being named first team all-pro on six occasions. He currently ranks seventh all-time with 137.5 career sacks.

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Merlin Olsen

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Mark-J.-Rebilas-USA-TODAY-Sports

Olsen played in the pre-sack era from 1962-1975 with the L.A. Rams, and made the Pro Bowl every single year of his career but his last.

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Chris Doleman

Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports
Tim-Fuller-USA-TODAY-Sports

Doleman might be the most underrated player on this list, because he never seems to get mentioned with the all-time greats, even though his numbers stack up with the best of em'. Doleman recorded 150.5 in his 15-year career, good for fourth all-time. He's also one of the few players to make the Pro Bowl with three different teams.

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Richard Dent

Rick-Osentoski-USA-TODAY-Sports
Rick-Osentoski-USA-TODAY-Sports

Dent is one of the all-time great Bears' defenders, and that's certainly saying something. During the team's Super Bowl run in 1985, Dent led the way with 17.0 sacks during the regular season. He also ended up with Super Bowl XX MVP honors, and is currently tied with John Randle for 7th on the all-time sack list.

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Michael Strahan

Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports
Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports

Strahan was one of the most dominant players of the late 90's and 2000's. He famously/infamously holds the single season sack record (22.5), and ranks fifth all-time with 141.5 career sacks. The DE decided to go out on top after the Giants improbable Super Bowl run in 2008.

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Alan Page

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Bruce-Kluckhohn-USA-TODAY-Sports

Another pre-sack player, Page is credited by many for revolutionizing the DT position. He made 9 Pro Bowls, and was even voted NFL MVP in 1971. Page was a member of the famous 'Purple People Eaters' defense in Minnesota.

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'Mean' Joe Greene

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Vincent-Pugliese-USA-TODAY-Sports

One of the most famous players of all-time, Greene had an absolutely amazing career. He was considered the cornerstone of the 'Steel Curtain' defense that helped Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls. In total he was voted to the Pro Bowl 10 times, and was a first team all-pro five times..

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Deacon Jones

Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports
Matthew-Emmons-USA-TODAY-Sports

Jones is the player credited for coining the term 'sack' even though he played well before it became an official stat (1961-1974). He revolutionized the DE position on his way to a hall of fame career. Here are his thoughts on the term 'sack': "You take all the offensive linemen and put them in a burlap bag, and then you take a baseball bat and beat on the bag. You’re sacking them, you’re bagging them. And that’s what you’re doing with a quarterback."

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Bruce Smith

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Timothy-T.-Ludwig-USA-TODAY-Sports

Bruce Smith was simply a beast. He's the NFL's all-time sack leader (200), and he was a major part of the Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl teams. Smith ended up playing 19 years, but he was still producing up to the very end. During his final season in 2003, Smith still managed to rack up five sacks in limited time, at 40-years of age. He's one of the best to ever play the game.

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Reggie White

Evan-Habeeb-USA-TODAY-Sports
Evan-Habeeb-USA-TODAY-Sports

The late great Reggie White is the best defensive lineman of all-time. He ranks just two sacks behind Bruce Smith for the all-time record, but he did it in four less years. White made a name for himself in Philadelphia, recording several monstrous years in the late 80's, and then he famously signed with the Packers in 1993. He was the heart and soul of Green Bay's Super Bowl team in 1996, which ended up being his only championship. White was nearly unstoppable during his prime, and to call him a game-changer would be an understatement. I don't know if we'll ever see another defensive lineman like Reggie White.