Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Top 3-4 Defensive Ends In NFL History

By John Turney
In this case "NFL History" begins in the mid-1970s. Although 3-4 defenses were used, actually quite prevalently in the AFL, we contend the "3-4 era" began in earnest in the mid-1970s. Prior to that, it was used as a change up to the 4-3 schemes of the day and we wouldn't be comfortable calling Jerry Mays, Tom Sestak, or Earl Faison and others, 3-4 defensive ends.

Also, we are very aware that all 3-4 defensive ends didn't play the same scheme—some played two-gaps, others were one-gap 3-4 defensive ends so they had an easier go of it. Nonetheless, these are the players we think played 3-4 defensive end the best over their career.

One more caveat, few players were a 30 end (3-4) for their entire career. They changed when the scheme changed and some started as 40 ends (4-3) and ended as 30 ends and others vice versa. We generally included only players that were in a 3-4 scheme for at least half of their career.

We are aware some may disagree but we attempted to look at each player's career and how it ranked when they were in a 3-4 defense, whether a one-gap or two-gap. We mention sacks, but a lot of that is a reflection or indication of their production in likely passing downs. Some of these players reduced to defensive tackle in those situations, others remained at end. But in those cases their job was to put heat on the quarterback, so sacks are somewhat relevant.

Our views:

1. Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith is one of the aforementioned one-gap 3-4 defense ends. he also moved around on the line, occasionally playing left end, or nose tackle, or 3-technique rather than his usual right end position. Smith not only is the top 30 end, he has a case for being the top 40 end ever, though we wouldn't put him there, he does have the resume to be considered.

Late in Smith's career when he was in Washington he was a 40 end there. With the Bills, on passing situations, players like Cornelius Bennett and later Bryce Paup would put their hand in the turf and played defensive end on the left side completing the 40 look.

What made the Buffalo defense a one-gap defense is those players, Bennett and then Paup were committed to a gap—they were de facto defensive ends rather than being the kind of 3-4 linebackers that flowed to the ball while the three linemen would each be responsible for two gaps.

2. J.J. Watt
If JJ Watt never played another down in the NFL he would still, in our view, be worthy for Hall of Fame inductions. Plagued by injuries the last two seasons he was as dominant as a defensive player can get from 2012 through 2015, winning the AP and PFWA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2012, 2014 and 2015 while averaging 78 tackles, 17½ sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 10 passes defensed and 2.5 fumble recoveries per year during that 2012-2015 span.

Watt is a left defensive end in the base defense and earlier in his career he was usually a left defensive tackle in the nickel defense, but can appear anywhere on the line, especially the last several seasons. His transitioned from a nickel defensive tackle to a nickel defensive end around mid-season 2014.

3. Lee Roy Selmon
As a rookie Lee Roy Selmon generally was a 3-technique in what was termed a "flop 4-3" defense. It is the same position that was reintroduced to the NFL by Keith Millard and then popularized by players like John Randle and Warren Sapp and is now played by Aaron Donald.

The following season the Buccaneers switched to Tom Bass's 3-4 defense and the way Bass coached the 30 defense it required a lot from the linemen. Bass and coaches like Fritz Shurmur and Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick were three who believed in and taught.required two-gap techniques in their schemes.

Selmon faced an additional challenge in his career in that the Bucs, especially early in his career, didn't go to a four-man line on nickel/dime situations. They got their extra rush from blitzing linebackers which is fine if that linebacker is Lawrence Taylor or Andre Tippett. And while the Bucs had some fine linebackers, none of them had the skills to be a dominant or even excellent fourth rusher. As a result, the Bucs rush was Selmon and three other guys. Bruce Smith, for example, got help from Bennett who could get double digits in sacks as could Bryce Paup, who was a Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and had 17½ sacks that year. Selmon never had anything like that.

Still, Selmon had 79 sacks in his nine seasons and had 29 forced fumbles. (He also blocked six placekicks in his career). Selmon was the AP, PFWA and NEA Defensive Player of the Year in 1979 and a First-team All-Pro three times (1979, 80, and 82) and a Second-team All-Pro in two additional seasons (1978 and 1984) and was voted to six Pro Bowls. Throw in his Second-team All-NFC selection in 1977 and Selmon received post-season honors in eight of his nine seasons and additionally was "blue" by Pro Scout, Inc in eight of his nine seasons.

Said Anthony Munoz, "Selmon played the run as well as the pass and he was very smart, too. He could be you a lot of different ways". Joe Jacoby stated, "Everybody talks about Lawrence Taylor, but I believe Lee Roy was the first of his size and speed to make teams alter what they were going to do".

4. Howie Long
Later in his career the Raiders moved from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme but Long's role remained the same. He played outside on likely running downs and inside in nickel. But Long made his bones as a left end in a 3-4 base defense and as a 3-technique on the right side on a 40 nickle/dime defense. Yes, he moved around some, like spelling Lyle Alzado at right end, or over the center when the Raiders ran their version of the "46" or "Bear" defense.

Long, like Selmon, has was Pro Scout Inc (PSI) called "base" the ability to say on your feet, to play with leverage. PSI rated Long as the NFL's best defensive end in 1983, 1984, and 1985 and was the second best in 1986 and was also "blue" in most other years in his career.

Long's best pass rush move was his "rip" move which he'd use inside an outside. Long told TV Guide that since he played several positions that he watched film of three players—Lee Roy Selmon, Randy White and Jack Youngblood since those players possessed the skill sets he needed to apply.

5. Elvin Bethea
The Oilers toyed with the 3-4 defense (as did all AFL teams) early in his career. But they didn't commit to it full-time until 1974. Bethea was a very good 40 end (from 1969-73 he averaged 12 sacks a year) though he didn't make many All-Pro teams likely because the Oilers were not a competitive team.

In 1974, at midseason, the Oilers acquired HOF nose tackle Curley Culp and that move sealed the 3-4 deal. Bethea was a Pro Bowler in 1974 and 1975 and should have been in 1976 when he tallied 14½ sacks, a remarkable number for a 30 end. The Oilers blitzed linebackers to get extra rush rather than going with a fourth lineman through 1978, but in 1979 they used Jesses Baker as a fourth lineman as he'd play some inside, some outside and was outstanding. However, it led to Bethea becoming a run-down player the remainder of his career.

Bethea was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003 and ended his career with 105 sacks. He stayed square in run downs and was considered a fine 3-4 end by scouts.

6. Richard Seymour
A three-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler, Richard Seymour should be knocking on the Hall of Fame's door but so far, he's not made tons of progress. He was someone Bill Belichick coveted on the 2003 NFL draft and was a key piece on the good Patriot defenses that were winning Super Bowls and finishing high in defensive rankings.

Seymour played right defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 and would reduce to 3-technique in their nickel or when they went with a base 4-3. Seymour preferred playing inside, on the outside shoulder of a guard, rather than playing a "tight five" over a tackle, but as a team player, he did what the coaches asked of him. That led to excellent play but not what would be considered dominant stats,

In his career, Seymour averaged 49 tackles an six sacks per sixteen games which do lot leap off the screen at you, but like Selmon, Long and Bethea, Seymour was often a "grinder" playing two gaps, drawing double teams and freeing others to make plays. He was also a good kick blocker, recording seven in his career and also deflected 38 passes with a high of 10 in 2003.

7. Justin Smith
Justin Smith began his career as a 4-3 defense end, was on on the lean side but seemed to get bigger and stronger every year. In 2008 the 49ers signed Smith to a six-year contract and the following year the 49ers switched to a 3-4 defense.

The 49ers listed Smith as a defensive tackle, which was good for PR and increasing his chances at Pro Bowls, he was a right defensive end in the 3-4 and a defensive tackle in the nickel. Now, we realize that there is a good case for calling 3-4 defensive ends "defensive tackle" but no matter where anyone falls on that question we simply say if one is a defensive end, then all are a defensive end, if one is a defensive tackle then all are defensive tackles. That means we cannot call Howie Long or J.J. Watt a defensive end and then call Justin Smith a defensive tackle. They did the same thing—lined up over a tackle when there is a 3-4 on the field and lined up over a guard when they go to a 40 nickel.

Smith was a powerful player who got a lot of hurries as an inside rusher and who was excellent at stopping the run when the 49ers were using three defensive linemen.

8. Lyle Alzado
Alzado began his career in a 4-3 defense, but in one that moved players around some. The early 1970s Broncos implemented some 3-4 schemes in their philosophy but converted to it fulltime in 1976. That year Alzado was to be the nose tackle but he blew a knee about in the first game so that experiment ended. In 1977 he was back a bit lighter (248 pounds rather than 260) and was a big part in the Broncos Super Bowl run. He was All-Pro in 1977 and Second-team All-Pro in 1978.

Issues with the Denver front office led to his trade to the Browns, where he played three positions for them in 1979, in a 4-3 defense. The next two years he was back to his right defensive end spot in s 3-4 defense, making All-Pro in 1980.

The Browns traded him to the Raiders in 1982 and Alzado was All-AFC and had 7 sacks in nine games, not counting Chris Ward's helmet in the playoffs. He had solid seasons in 1983 and 1984 and then in 1985 he blew out his Achilles and it ended his career. (Not counting his failed 1991 comeback).

He ended his career with 112.5 sacks and his inside club move was likely his best, getting a tackle to expect and outside move then step in and club him to the outside while Alzado moved inside, right to the quarterback.

9. Ray Childress
Childress almost didn't make the list because he spent so much time as a 4-3 defensive tackle late in his career. Early on he was one of the classic 5-technique on the 3-4 and three-techniques in the 40 nickel/dime. He was great versus the run, and pretty good (not great) as a rusher. The Oilers moved to a 4-3 and it put Childress at left defensive tackle and he became a dominant rusher and a frequent All-Pro.

10. Calais Campbell
Calais Campbell is now in a 4-3 scheme and in 2017 was the PFWA Defensive Player of the Year. He moved around with the Jaguars and played both inside and outside.

When he was with the Cardinals (2008-2016) he was usually a defensive end in the base and a tackle in the nickel, though it was not a two-gap scheme. As a starter with the Cardinals from 2009-16 he averaged 60 tackles, 7 sacks and 5 passes deflected and was a wall against the run to his side.

11. Art Still
If he had been more consistent he would rank higher on this list. Still, for some reason was an up-and-down player in his prime.

He had a good rookie season in 1978 and then excellent in 1979, getting some All-Pro attention. In 1980 Still had 119 tackles, 9 stuffs, 14½ sacks and was the best defensive end in the NFL according to many, including Paul Zimmerman and Joel Buchsbaum.

However in 1981, though he made Pro Bowl, had 1 stuff and 2 sacks. In 1982 he was very good and had solid numbers. In 1983 he went on a fruit and nut diet, dropped wight from 260 to 235 and got pushed around all season. In 1984 back to his normal weight was again stellar with 101 tackles, 8.5 stuffs and 14.5 sacks (numbers similar to 1980). In 1985 he was hurt, missed almost half the season.

In 1986 he was "as good as any defensive end" according to Buchsbaum. In 1987 he fell to 1 stuff and 5.5 sacks and the Chiefs unloaded him to the Bills for a 5th and 8th round pick. In 1988 with new surroundings and playing opposite Bruce Smith had a nice comeback and then the following year, Still's last, he had no sacks in, no passes defensed and only 2.5 stuffs. Certainly, 3-4 ends are not the primary rushers and a low sack total does not always show poor pass rush, but no sacks?

At his best, he was as good as any 3-4 defensive end ever with great balance and base, but he just didn't sustain it year-to-year.

12. Aaron Smith
Speaking of low stats we have Aaron Smith. But in Smith's case, they are no reflection of his play. He was a great run defender in the Steelers one-gap 3-4. Yes, one-gap. At two different Super Bowls we spoke to the Steelers defensive line coach about the Steeler scheme. Coach John Mitchell was adamant "We are a one-gap scheme". We pushed a little suggesting that in one-gap schemes that in certain situations one player might have to play two-gaps. He smiled and said, "That's for us to know and them to find out". He simply meant to get a free runner or unblocked player someone might have to take two games to free another player, but that one player doing it does not make them a two-gap team.

Smith never got much credit, and played in just one Pro Bowl (2004, he was an alternate called in as an injury replacement) and was also an alternated two other seasons. Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman named him to his 2004 All-Pro team, but essentially that is it.

13. Leonard Marshall
Leonard Marshall was a right defensive end in the base and a left defensive tackle in the nickel. He often had Lawrence Taylor in his hip pocket which would help any player, but Marshall was a good player in is own right. In the Giants scheme, coordinated by Bill Belichick, Marshall did have plenty of two-gap responsibilities, unlike many on this list.

Marshall was a Second-team All-Pro in 1985 and 1986 and was a Pro Bowl those two seasons as well, but was almost as solid from 1987-91 (exception 1990) as well.
"Big Daddy" Hairston is kind of a prototype 3-4 end from his era. He was a right end in base, defensive tackle in sub (nickel/defense) defenses. In 1979 Hairston had 15 sacks and was a Second-team All-NFC selection. He was All-NFC in 1980 and Second-team All-Confernce in 1981 and 1987 as well.

Hairston was a fine rusher, again, often from the inside, ending his career with 95½ sacks and solid versus the run as well.
Julius “The Jewel” Adams was an All-Rookie selection in 1971, but he rarely achieved post-season honors after that. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1980 and was named one the NFL's top defensive linemen by Pro Quarterback magazine in 1974 and was All-AFC as chosen by the New York Daily News that same season, but other than that, he was limited to honorable mentions by the AP, UPI, etc. in various seasons.

Though he played mostly defensive tackle his first few years he also played at defensive end and it was there Adams settled for the bulk of his career. Adams was a most effective  3-4 defensive end, which the Patriots began using full-time in 1974, though they used it some in 1973. He was stout at the point of attack and had really good athleticism as a pass rusher. In 1974 he forced four fumbles and had 8 sacks to go with 86 tackles and was a major cog in making that scheme work.

He was nicked in 1975 with a foot injury but came back strong the following two seasons. He was out for 13 games in 1978 with a shoulder injury and returned in 1979 to a new role, a designated third down rusher. He and Tony "Mac the Sack" McGee would come in in likely passing downs in the Fritz Shurmur scheme, McGee on the left and Adams on the right. Adams finished with 5½ sacks as part of the Patriot defense that led the NFL with 57 sacks. Adams also led the team with four forced fumbles in 1979, matching his career-high in that category.

The following season, 1980, Adams resumed his starting role and he had a stellar season. He was named to the Pro Bowl and recorded 8½ sacks. Adams continued his career through 1985 and after Super Bowl XX he hung up his cleats ending his career with 76½ sacks.

16. Barney Chavous
Chavous, like all Bronco linemen, moved around in different schemes and calls that the coaching staff preferred, but he was primarily a left defensive end in his career. However, if you catch some Broncos highlights from the mid-1970s you could catch Chavous at left defensive tackle.

Chavous was a Colorado statesman, much like Julius Adams was for New England—a constant that was seemingly always there, at the end of one of those teams' lines. Chavous didn't get any post-season honors in his career, which is a shame, he was certainly qualified in 1976 and 1977 and perhaps other seasons as well. He ended his career with 75 sacks and he was part of an Orange Crush defense that was excellent versus the runs, year-in, and year-out.

The Broncos scheme required plenty of two-gap assignments (defensive coordinator Joe Collier shared the philosophies of Fritz Shurmur, Bill Belichick, Tom Bass, etc.) and Chavous was build to do it. He had good base and strength and if pass "showed" he could convert to a rush on the run.

17. Jacob Green
Green began and ended his career in a 4-3 defense but from 1983-89 the Seahawks used a one-gap 3-4 defense and Green did well in it, though stopping the run was not Green's forte. In the mid-1980s the Seahawks would bring in an inside rusher like Mike Fanning or Randy Edwards in the nickel. Later on, they would use Fredd Young and then Rufus Porter as the right defensive end in the nickel scheme so they didn't burden Green in those situations.

Green was, in either scheme, a very good defensive end. He didn't get tons of post-season honors, but he was not ignored, either. It was a competitive era with Selmon, Long, Richard Dent, Reggie White, Chris Doleman, Bruce Smith, and others all vying for All-Pro honors. Green was honored in some way every year from 1983-87 all of them when Seattle was a 3-4 team.

18. Doug Betters
In 1983 Doug Betters was the AP Defensive Player of the Year when he had 16 sacks and he followed that up with 14 sacks in 1984. He was a left defensive end in the base and often moved to left defensive tackle in passing situations. He was a rangy player who played hard but was a better rusher than run defender (even though he was a good run defender) but his legacy does include those 1984 and 1984 seasons and in that era he was mentioned in the same breath as the Lee Roy Selmons and Howie Longs which is saying quite a lot.

19. Pierce Holt
Holt came to the NFL as a 26-year old rookie and played until he was 33. He was another of the classic left defensive ends and left defensive tackles in passing situations. In 1992 he was a Second-team All-Pro, a Pro Bowler and an All-NFC pick but was equally good in most of his seasons.

He was signed by the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent in 1993 and had an excellent season as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense, but then fell off in 1994 and 1995. Holt was a vital cog in the late-1980s 49er championship teams.
Rulon Jones began his career as a designated pass rusher and he was very good at it. He earned a starting spot in the Broncos defense in his second year and was a solid player who capped his carer as the UPI AFC  Defensive Player of the Year in 1986. He played a lot of defensive tackle in passing situations once Karl Mecklenberg became a viable rusher. 

21. Eddie Edwards
"Fast" Eddie Edwards was, in some ways, like Jacob Green in that he was suited for a 4-3 defense, but was saddled in a 3-4 for much of his career. He ended his career with 84 sacks was was a double-digit sacker in 1981 and 1983. He began his career as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 but in 1980 the Bengals moved to a 3-4 and Edwards, fair against the run, very good rusher made due.

22. Dwaine Board
In the early 1980s Fred Dean got most of the ink among 49er defensive linemen, but Dwaine Board was a big part of the reason the defense was successful. In the 3-4 base defense Board was the right defensive end and he was solid versus the run.

When Fred Dean came into the game when they went to four-man lines he usually took the right end post and Board would play left defensive end. From 1983 through 1986 Board averaged 10 sacks a season as, as we mentioned was solid, though not spectacular on run downs.
Wilkerson has played seven seasons and has been somewhat up-and-down but when "up" was very good. Wilkerson was Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and 2015 and was very good in 2012 and 2014. The past two seasons have been disappointing. Time will tell if he can string together some great seasons and move up on this list.
As we get to the bottom of this list the decisions get more difficult. Things such as how long someone played in a 3-4 defense have to be addressed. Are four years enough? Are half their seasons enough?

Be assured, there as plenty of good players that got left out but are very close to the past few picks we have made.

Ben Williams started in a 4-3 but with the switch to the 3-4 in Chuck Knox's second year he played an undersized end in that scheme. He was very effective in it from 1979 through 1983. He was not quite that effective in his final two seasons. However, he was especially good from 1980-82, receiving post-season honors in 1980-82 (including ranking 2nd in Pro Scout Inc.'s year end list) and he had 10 or more sacks in 1980, 1981, and 1983.

25. John Matuszak
The "Tooz" was the precursor to Howie Long. From 1976-81 Matuszak played left defensive end the base 3-4 and played left defensive tackle in their sub defenses. Long, of course, played right defensive tackle in their sub defenses and also moved around but Tooz was the prototype.

In that role, Matuszak was very effective. In an era when sacks were not official Matuszak racked on some good numbers. In 1976 he had 9½ sacks, he had 9 in 1977, 6 in 1978, and 9 in 1980. Pretty good for a player who was known more for being a big man whose responsibility was to stop the run. Those numbers show he was a big part of the rush.

We give a special mention to Curtis McGriff who was as good a run-stopping defensive end you will ever see. He was a two-down player who was replaced by George Martin on passing downs. On this list, we did not include third-down rushers who may have been in 3-4 defenses or run-down only players like McGriff. But if you read the things Bill Belichick said about McGriff you'd know he was quite a special role player for those great Giants defenses of the 1980s and maybe the best run stopping two-gap defensive end ever.

We also had another 10-15 players we could mention but we didn't want to do a top 40 list but a couple who just missed the cut are Mike BellJeff BryantBruce Clark, and Bob Pollard.

Neil Smith was 4-3 ends for this purposes of this exercise since he played less than half their careers in a 3-4 defense, but it was a close call.

We're keeping an eye on the "young 'uns" Akiem Hicks, Cameron Heyward, Michael Brockers, and others. When they get closer to completing their body or work we will look and see where they fit on this list.

Here is a concise list of our picks.

1. Bruce Smith
2. J.J. Watt
3. Lee Roy Selmon
4. Howie Long
5. Elvin Bethea
6. Richard Seymour
7. Justin Smith
8. Lyle Alzado
9. Ray Childress
10. Calais Campbell
11. Art Still
12. Aaron Smith
13. Leonard Marshall
14. Carl Hairston
15. Julius Adams
16. Barney Chavous
17. Jacob Green
18. Doug Betters
19. Pierce Holt
20. Rulon Jones
21. Eddie Edwards
22. Dwaine Board
23. Muhammad Wilkerson
24. Ben Williams
25. John Matuszak
26. Vern Den Herder
27. Mike Bell
28. Jeff Bryant
29. Bruce Clark
30. Bob Pollard
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. Great list John. Loved the information on many of the less heralded players. A series like this on other positions (4-3 Will LB or 4-3 Mike LBfor example) would be much appreciated.

  2. Nice job, John T! Three Buffalo guys in the top 25, not bad ...

  3. Terrific article PFJ! Great detail.

  4. Who would you guys call the physically strongest player under consideration here?

  5. Sometimes it can be hard to separate mere strength from the abity to use hands. I'd probably go Watt / Long as best hands but keep in mind Week Ewbank wanted Gino Marchetti to gain weight in 1953/4 which he did but it was always his hands that made him great. Watt and Long have so much Gino in them I love it, Bruce was a different Ayer all together as was their 34, love John's thoughts on how the Bills 34 differed from others as I do think it favored Bruce. Simply put never confuse 1 gap with 2 gap or you'll read the stats wrong, ergo Seymour as high as he is without the numbers, look at Bethea's numbers in 43 vs 34, etc.

  6. When a defensive end player is called "technically correct" what does that mean exactly?

    1. It's the fundamentals, being in the right stance, and staying when a blocker comes at you staying square, not getting turned. And when you are gretting trapped to me that blocker and "splatter" technique him. And when pass shows, using a pass rush move that is solid and not too risky (some risk okay, but say, Freeney too many spins).

      Coaches want the defensive lineman to dominate the offensive linemen. Some DLinemen beg out, take a short cut, go inside too often and expose the flank... like that

  7. This list is one of the reasons why Pro Football Journal is one of the best and most informative content providers in all media. 3-4 defensive lineman are vastly ignored as they do not rack up the stats like those in a 4-3 scheme. The one player who I feel was low on the list was Justin Smith. His career took off after transitioning to the 3-4, and while I have not done an intensive film study on him, he was a player who was dominant in most of the games I have seen. This might be blasphemy to some but I have always thought he was similar to Howie Long but with even more power to his game. Smith retired while he was still productive and possibly could of reached 100 sacks if he had played a little longer.

  8. For sure this is one of the top football sites on the web.

    What is a splatter technique? Is that when the DLimeman drops to one knee and the OL flies over the top of him?

  9. Where would you place Otis Sistrunk on your list?

    1. He's with the 4-3 DTs, though, in 1976 he did move to 3-4 DE, his best football was from 1972-75 as a 4-3 DT, but he's a guy who played both and we decided he fit better with the 4-3 DTs

  10. Glad to see Aaron Smith on the list. Injuries really slowed him down later in his career. Do you think he was limited by the scheme in Pittsburgh?