By John Turney
documented the 4-3 defense began to transform pro football in the early-to-mid 1950s and in the late 1970s and early 1980s it began to lose steam as 3-4 schemes became dominant. Then, in the 1990s the pendulum swung back to the 4-3. In the 2010s or so many teams were using both fronts but the nickel and dime were becoming used up to and past 50% of the time.
We are going to attempt to rank the 40 ends (4-3) as we did with the 30 ends (3-4). The challenge is, as usual, with the players who are on the edges of a transition or who played both schemes. We handle those case by case and simply rendering our view of whose careers who most impactful and we try to look at peak performance and well and sustained greatness (longevity) as well as looking at stats, honors and the "testimonials" about the players.
As with any list, it's just opinion and it's prone to criticism, and that's fine. But remember, we've tried to look as deep as we could, researched the subject, watch film even of the older players like Gino Marchetti and Len Ford and have formulated views on them.
Randy Cross once told us that if the best players he faces, like a Joe Greene or Merlin Olsen were rated a "10" then the worst player he faced in the NFL would still be an "8" or so. With that in mind remember that these are the best of the best and the top of the list will be full of "10s" or "9.5s" and the bottom will still be "9s" or "8.5s" at worst. So if you favorite defensive end didn't make the top 50 keep in mind that the margins are narrow and there is not much difference between 25th and 50th and 75th on this list.
Artists include Merv Corning, Chuck Ren, Leroy Neiman, Cliff Spohn, et al.
So, with all those qualifiers, enjoy:
1. Reggie White
Bruce Smith, our top 3-4 end, at a later date as to who is the best defensive end in history. White began in the USFL and got postseason honors there and came to the NFL in 1985. He began as a 3-4 end in 1985 and was a 3-4 end in 1993, but in all other seasons, he was a 40 end, and a dominant one at that perhaps the most dominant ever.
His 198.0 sacks speak volumes and his ten All-Pro selections and 13 Pro Bowl selections do as well. He had unusual “triangle numbers” the combination of size, speed, and strength (6-5, 285, 4.6, 400+ bench press) and had enough speed to take the corner and then counter it with his “hump move” which was usually called an inside club move. White, however, performed his signature move with exceedingly more power than others. Then if a tackle wanted to defend against it he had to sit inside with his weight on his inside foot, and if he did that, White had the speed to go to the outside and beat the tackle around the corner—a deadly combination of move and counter move and then counter move and move, if you will.
When the Eagles used head coach Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense he would play over the center like Dan Hampton did in Chicago and Howie Long did with the Raiders and he was just too much for most NFL centers. When he was with the Packers he also played a little left defensive tackle with Bryce Paup at White’s normal left end spot. Gannett News Services' Joel Buchsbaum said “No one can handle him. He’s been called a bigger, faster, stronger Joe Greene”.
In the mid-1990s White, who was still called “awesome” by Buchsbaum, sometimes got a bit heavy and lacked the stamina he did earlier in his career but even the best players cannot win everyone over. One prominent right tackle told us in 1993, “I don’t like to use White as an example (of the best) because he didn’t come all the time. The best I block now is Charles Mann and the best in the first part of my career was Jack Youngblood because you had to go against great talent and all-out effort every play”
Really, though, White had it all and his positives outweigh the few negatives and when it comes to the best and most accomplished DE in NFL history it has to be between him and Bruce Smith with perhaps a coin toss needed to see who gets the crown of best DE ever, regardless of scheme.
2. Deacon Jones
Jones made the Rams as both an offensive and defensive lineman, in fact, he started his first game in the NFL as a left tackle. That ended quickly and my early mid-season he was the Rams starting left end.
He was excellent, though error-prone, as a rookie, better as a sophomore, then gained weight (up to 285) in 1963 and he slumped. In 1964 he began his streak of dominant seasons which continued through 1970.
An arch injury hampered him in 1971 and he missed three games and starts and Rams had Jack Youngblood in reserve so after looking at the 1971 production of both players they shipped Jones to the Chargers in 1972, where he went to his eighth Pro Bowl. He had a so-so season in 1973 and signed with the Redskins for 1974 because, after being publically implicated in a drug (Dexedrine, Benzedrine, Phenobarbital et al) scandal in San Diego, he said: “Pete Rozelle was not going to run me out of the league”. Jones ended his career as a designated pass rusher for the Redskins in 1974. There was talk he would go back to the Rams for a final 15th season as a backup to Youngblood and Fred Dryer, but that transaction never materialized.
Again, like Reggie White, Jones would catch some occasional criticism. In 1970, the year the Baltimore Colts moved to the AFC Rams defensive coach Tom Caitlin called a friend on the Colts staff and made a pitch, “Since you guys are no longer a division rival, could he give me some thoughts so we can self-scout? The Colt coach told him, ‘well, we would have run the ball at Deacon Jones all the time, but we couldn’t. Why is that, responded Catlin. ‘Because the guy next to him (Merlin Olsen) wouldn’t allow it”. In other words, Olsen’s unselfish play at tackle allowed Deacon to go after the passer play after play and the scheme didn’t suffer because Olsen was covering the sucker plays. So, let’s just say Deacon had some help in being able to use his ‘get up the field” style.
Jones isn’t on the top of the 40 end list because he just didn’t sustain his greatness it quite as long as White did. When Jones was acting as a designated rusher for the Redskins, White was winning Defensive Player of the Year awards. At their peaks, Jones would perhaps get the nod due to rare, rare speed. It’s Jones’s peak that put his past Marchetti, but White had a high peak as well (2 DPOY Awards 10 All-Pros and 13 Pro Bowls) and he was a top player to the end. Jones was a two-time DOPY and a six-time All-Pro (five consensus) and an eight-time Pro Bowler) So, Jones is number two since we call the ‘peaks’ about even and the longevity/consistency edge to White.
3. Gino Marchetti
So, he was back to his natural spot in 1954 and he played well enough to be voted to his first Pro Bowl and he was voted to the next ten Pro Bowls (he missed 1958 with a broken leg). He was First-team All-Pro nine times and a Second-team All-Pro one time and in 1958 was the AP Lineman of the Year, sort of, but not exactly the precursor to the Defensive Player of the Year Award and was voted as the best defensive end on the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team as well as the 75th Anniversary team.
Sid Gillman once said that Marchetti was, “The most valuable man to ever play his position”. Marchetti was a “grabber and thrower” according to Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman and our film study shows that as well. He would get his hands on the outside of the shoulder pads of the offensive tackle and he’d throw him whichever way the tackle was leaning, using the motion of the tackle against that tackle and that would free Marchetti to get to the quarterback.
We don’t have complete sack data on Marchetti’s career but we do have the key years of 1960-64 and he had at least 56.5 in those five seasons. Our T.J. Troup once shared this story with me after seeing that Marchetti was not All-Pro in 1963. “Dad, why wasn’t Gino on the All-Pro team”?
Well, Marchetti averaged 12 sacks a season in 1960-62 and 1964, but in 1963 he had only 8½. This wasn’t known by the AP or UPI voters, but it’s likely they saw him make fewer plays and thus he got fewer All-pro votes. Now, for the record, Marchetti was First-team All-Pro by the NEA (the player’s All-Pro team) but the consensus All-Pros were Doug Atkins and Jim Katcavage.
Marchetti was going to retire after 1963, actually, he DID retire but it was reported that Don Shula talked him out of it and he came back and had a fine 1964 season. He retired after that season, only to be talked out of retirement again, in 1966 as a “favor” to Colt owner Carroll Rosenbloom to backup an injury savaged Colt defensive line.
Said longtime Colt executive Ernie Accorsi, “He had just unbelievable quickness and when he got near the quarterback he was like a 747 banking toward landing. The great ones have an instinct for closing like that. For years, for All-Time teams you could stir up debate at most positions but no one ever questioned that Gino was the best defensive end. There was no debate”.
4. Jack Youngblood
In 1973 Youngblood broke out and had 16½ sacks and 13½ run stuffs and was a consensus Second-team All-Pro and likely should have been First-team All-Pro. The new defensive coordinator in 1973 was Ray Malavasi who brought a new scheme to the Rams and new techniques, especially versus the run and it was successful. In Malavasi’s five years as the defensive coordinator, the Rams allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL, the fewest total yards and were second in sacks with 213 (Dallas had 215).
Youngblood was a Consensus All-Pro five times and a Second-team All-Pro three other times and was All-NFC seven times and was Second-team All-NFC two additional times as well as seven Pro Bowls and a few other times he was an alternate to the Pro Bowl. He ended his career with 151½ sacks and was a good kick blocker with a total of eight in his career and he also forced 33 fumbles and was credited with 49 passes defensed.
Youngblood also did something that Jones and Marchetti couldn’t have done and that was play defensive end in a 3-4 defense which Youngblood did in 1983 and 1984. Pro Scout, Inc. rated him as the 13th best defensive end in 1983 and Joel Buchsbaum rated him 12th in 1984. The Rams were the second-best in the NFL versus the run in 1983 and 1984 and Youngblood had 20 sacks in those two years. (Howie Long had 25, for example). So, when doing an All-time ranking such as this, it is worth mentioning that he was good at another scheme, not just the 4-3.
Mike Giddings of Pro Scout, Inc., said, “speed wide-40 DE. Warrior who was tops at the left DE despite eight (weak) weight. Known for his ferocious rush but as long as in wide technique was a top run defender”
Hall of Fame tackle Dan Dierdorf added, “I played against Jack my entire career and I can say that he was the most difficult assignment I ever had during my career. He was the most challenging player I ever had to block. He’s extremely competitive and extremely strong, a lot stronger than most other ends, He plays the run really well, he’s a tough guy and he’s smart.”
Ron Yary chimed in, "Jack Youngblood was the best defensive end I ever faced. He did it all, he did what a defensive end was supposed to do better than anyone. Period. In my opinion, he's one of the top four defensive linemen of all time.”
Dr. Z said in 1976, “Jack Youngblood is the best. When he turns it on there are none better.”Great motor, Speed rusher primarily, relentless.’ And finally Gordon Forbes, “Great upper body strength and fierce competitive instincts.”
5. Michael Strahan
He, like Youngblood, went to seven Pro Bowls but also got some jewelry for winning a Super Bowl. Strahan was a strong player, used leverage and could push back much bigger tackles, but he was at his best as a speed rusher who was quick enough (though not the quickest) to get past the good right tackles in the NFL.
When Strahan played the top tackles in the league were on the left side, in Marchetti’s and Youngblood’s time the premium tackle spot was the right tackle, the front side tackle as it were. Even Art Shell, a left tackle, was really a “front sider’ because Stabler was left-handed. When he was protecting for Plunkett in 1980 he was a true left tackle”. As a result, sometimes Strahan gets “dinged” in All-time ratings.
We think he was great and worthy as a top-five guy in the 4-3 list. Joel Buchsbaum said in 1997, “Developed into a fine rusher last year, but also got a lot of cheap sacks”. And this was four years before the Brett Favre “belly weak” dubious sack for the NFL record. Still, his “motor ran 100% unlike Bruce Smith” was Buchsbaum’s 1998 comment on Strahan.
As we’ve seen everyone has a least one detractor. Strahan’s is Warren Sapp. Sapp told the media that Strahan failed as a right defensive end and had to be moved to left end to essentially save his career. Strahan did begin his career on the right side, but his body style and skill set was more suited for the left side.
The most fun part of Strahan’s game to watch was his pushing back the ig tackles of the time—Jon Runyan, Jon Jansen, and others. He, at times, abused them.
6. Willie Davis
Davis had just under 100 sacks from 1960-69 with a high of 14½. He was a five-time First-team All-Pro (four of them consensus) and was also a Second-team All-Pro once. He won five rings with the Pack and was an NFL 1960s All-Decade choice as well.
One thing Davis lacks is a lot of "testimonials"—the comments opponents make about opposing players. However, it's likely that there are not a lot of "he was the best defensive end I faced" since in the first part of his career GIno Marchetti was in the league and in the last part of his career Deacon Jones was in his prime.
Davis and HOF left linebacker Dave Robinson often switched positions and responsibilities to confuse the blockers and it put Davis on the tight end or back if they were in the pass protection scheme. It was very effective and when we’ve talked to both players it was something they both recounted—perhaps displaying a bit of pride in their strategy.
7. Carl Eller
Eller, according to media reports and film study, was excellent as a rookie in 1964 but dipped in 1965 and there was talk about moving him to defensive tackle. But in 1966 dropped some weight and rebounded and played very well for the next decade. From 1967 through 1975 he got some sort of post-season honors. He was a five-time First-team All-Pro (four consensus—same as Strahan) and a six-time Pro Bowler and was a Second-team All-Pro twice and an All-NFC choice nearly every year included 1975, marking his ninth season of “honors”. In addition, he was the 1971 NEA Defensive Player of the Year and was the highest vote-getter among defensive players in the 1969 AP and UPI MVP/Player of the Year polls.
He had, by the count of the Vikings, 133 career sacks and in 1977, his 14th season he had 15 sacks, which tied his career high he established in 1969. However, Father Time caught up with him in 1978 and was traded to the Seahawks for his 16th and final season. He lost his starting job in Seattle at midseason ended a great run.
Said Giddings, “Power-40 defensive end who “knew how” to play as any. Anchored Purple People Eaters left side. Seldom (eyes) out of position and few tackles could pass pro when he “turned it on”.
8. Len Ford
Sadly, Ford had a drinking problem and it, for all intents and purposed, ended his NFL career. Nonetheless, Ford was a five-time All-Pro and was a Second-team All-Pro twice, totaling seven seasons of “honors” and was a key to several NFL championships.
9. Claude Humphrey
In his prime, he made First-team All-Pro five times (two were consensus All-Pros) and was a Second-team All-Pro three additional seasons and was A Pro Bowler six times and an All-NFC selection six times and a one-time Second-team All-NFC pick. Also during his prime, in this case, 1971, one veteran NFL right tackle said that “Humphrey is the best defensive end in the league—better than Deacon, Eller and Jackson, and I have played against them all”.
Giddings states, “One of the first of the ‘athletic’ 40 DEs, he combined speed, power and knowledge. His rea; tribute is his late-career production at Phi, when despite losing a step be continued to be a top one through ethic and savvy.”
10. Doug Atkins
In 1957 the light came on and he was named to his first Pro Bowl. There, he spoke to fellow Westerns Conference defensive end Gino Marchetti and asked Marchetti for advice. Marchetti told him to get rid of the giant pads on his should and in his pants, to drop a bit of weight, to wear low cut shows rather than the giant high tops Atkins preferred. Atkins told us that that helped more than people could imagine.
Atkins was a three-time All-Pro and a seven-time Second-team All-Pro. He is given credit for eight Pro Bowls though he should get credit for 1968. He was voted to the team but due to a cracked fibula he had to decline, but back then the NFL didn’t announce who was voted to the team and then who subsequently replaced the injured players.
Atkins was known for a couple of moves, one was his ability to leap blockers who tried to cut him and also for throwing tackles, much in the same way Marchetti did. However, Atkins threw them further. Said Atkins, “Hell, I wasn’t throwing them, they were throwing themselves by committing too far”. Like Reggie White’s ‘hump move’ he was throwing guys who leaned too far to the outside and White would club them in the direction they were already going. (Look up the Reggie White-Larry Allen clip).
We don’t have compete Data for Atkins but we show he had 98½ in the 1960s and his best sack season may have been 1958. PFJ’s Nick Webster thinks Atkins could have a career total north of 150.
11. Andy Robustelli
He was a seven-time First-team All-Pro (though only two were consensus) and was a Second-team All-Pro four additional times to go with his seven Pro Bowl selections.
Teammate Frank Gifford stated, “Sure Andy was quick but he was tough, strong and very, very smart, too. He made players play better than their ability, he brought it out of them. I thought he was far and away the best defensive end of the era”.
Robustelli’s detractor was Gino Marchetti, who told us that “Brito was faster and quicker off the ball” and wasn’t as impressed with Robustelli’s play as Gifford was.
Still, Robustelli, who entered the league in 1951, was still a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as late as 1962 according to Troup. He was that effective in his twelth year.
12. Chris Doleman
He ended with 151 sacks, 44 forced fumbles, was an NFC Defensive Player of the Year, A Second-team All-Decade for the 1990s and gave certain tackles fits. He once got four sacks off of Anthony Munoz and four off of Willie Roaf, to name two.
Doleman was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro and led the NFL in sacks in 1989 with 21. Buchsbaum called him “A speed rusher with a knack for cause fumbles”
13. Julius Peppers
He is a four-time All-Pro, a Second-team All-Pro twice and went to nine Pro Bowls. He also seems to have a nose for the ball after he’s knocked it loose, recovering four fumbles (two were scoop and scores) and pick off 11 passes (four were returned for touchdowns) and defensed 78 passes, likely second only to Too Tall Jones’s total for defensive ends.
14. Fred Dean
Dean was the missing piece for the 49ers in 1981 and his rush helped the 49ers get their first Super Bowl win. He ended the year with 13 sacks. In 1983 he was again a Pro Bowler and had 17.5 sacks. He held out in 1984 but returned for the playoff run and the second Super Bowl win in the Walsh dynasty. In 1985 he slumped and was gone after the season, being replaced by Charles Haley.
He was not a particularly dedicated athlete once stating, "I get the urge to light weights. I just lie down for a while and the urge passes". Still, he had amazing natural strength and to this day is in the conversation for the fastest defensive lineman ever—he has a 4.48 forty-yard dash to his credit. Jevon Kearse, Cliff Avril, Leonard Little, and Deacon Jones are the only ones who are in that league.
Giddings comments, “Lightest strong-man ever viewed. Uncanny leg base and strength combined with top, top speed allowed him to attack much bigger blockers low and whip them most of the time."
15. Rich Jackson
He prided himself on playing the run. When asked he told us, “If they were going to run block me, I’d use their same technique on the, in a sense I’d run block them only getting lower and with more power”.
He was the enforcer on the Broncos defense as well as the best pass rusher. He led the team in 1969 with 12½ and 10 in 1970. Broncos lore is filled with Jackson’s massive bench press and overall body strength.
In the Broncos scheme he moved around on the line some playing some tackle and right end and even stood up as a linebacker on occasion. But he was best at his power moves and a combination of different head slaps and other pass rush moves.
16. Jason Taylor
Taylor was a tall, lanky, slipper type. He had good speed and great quickness, but not the type of speed of a Fred Dean or Jevon Kearse. But he developed the ability to slip tackles and make plays.
Taylor was a first-ballot HOFer, making him in the same group as Gino Marchetti, Deacon Jones, Reggie White and Bruce Smith. Come on. As good as Taylor was, the HOF committee didn’t get that right. If indeed, the first-ballot moniker means anything (and some think it is, other do no) then that was an injustice. Taylor just does not have a career with the gravitas of Marchetti, Jones, White and Smith.
However, he is one of the best, just not one of the top five.
17. Charles Haley
Haley ended his career with 100.5 sacks. He suffered quite a lot of injuries that limited his career totals. In 1994 Buchsbaum called him “the best speed rusher in the game provided his back is okay”
Haley may be one of those whose numbers don’t reflect his skills. He had some good years in sacks but it was his QB hits and hurries that made a big difference on the Cowboys defense. Like Fred Dean was to the 49ers, Charles Haley was to the Cowboys—he was the edge pressure guy that was thought of as the “missing piece” of the defense.
18. Jared Allen
Allen was hampered a bit because he had short arms for an end (No Neil Smith was he) but he had the ability to get into a blocker and break holds by tackles and once free had great effort and hustle to close the distance to a quarterback. Imagine what he'd have done with longer arms!
19. Richard Dent
Still, it seems Dent should have been better than he was, given his skills. Said Buchsbaum, “Had gotten better versus the run and can still rush the passer”. In 1987 Buchsbaum said that “success may have gone to Dent’s head” and “He didn’t wake up and play football until late in the 1986 season”.
In 1988 it was reported that Ditka was upset with Dent’s “inconsistent play and poor practice habits”. He ended up playing as a designated pass rusher in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. It was also reported that Dent was heavy in 1989.
Even with the criticisms, Dent did have a fine career, but on balance, may be somewhat overrated. But he’s not overrated to himself. In 1986, when threatening to hold out of the Super Bowl, he said: “Yeah, I’m the best defensive end in the league”. And continued, “I’ve played linebacker, I don’t think Howie Long can play linebacker. We both can play end and tackle, I feel I can play any position on the field”. And I get more sacks than Long”. Yes, Dent did get more sacks than Howie Long, but fewer run stuffs (only 41 in his career), and fewer All-Pro selections and Pro Bowls, too.
20. Mark Gastineau
Joel Buchsbaum wasn’t as down on Gastineau’s play versus the run as many in the media, including Dr. Z. In 1984 Buchsbaum wrote, “size, strength, speed, stamina, intensity and knowledge to back up the publicity he gets. He’s simply the best defensive end in the NFL.”.
Said Buchsbaum in early 1986, “He has great explosive strength and is the premier pass rusher in the game and has become a force against the run.”
Pro Scout, Inc., essentially concurred, ranking Gastineau as the top DE in NFL in 1981 and a “blue” player every year from 1981-85. Injuries and then personal issues ended his career in 1988. Had he hung around and even played somewhere as a nickel rusher he might have ended with 140 or more sacks. But, he was another of the near meteor-like careers that are on this list.
21. Earl Faison
He was the AFL rookie of the Year in 1961 and from 1961-65 was usually an All-AFL pick. He was large for the era and moved well and had natural strength. The Chargers strength coach Alvin Roy said that had Faison wanted to he could have been the strongest man in the world, competing in powerlifting contests.
He ended his career with a very short stint in Miami but his back was not up to the task.
22. L.C. Greenwood
He could have been the MVP of both Super Bowl IX and X, but lost out to Franco Harris and Lynn Swann and in addition Greenwood still hold the unofficial Super Bowl sack record with four in Super Bowl X.
Giddings states, “Again, a lot like Eller, but maybe quicker. Relied more on his feet than Eller. Top slaps.”
23. Harvey Martin
Said Giddings, “Power-40 DE. Not as fast/quick as many but had those power slaps plus the “long first step” that is mandatory for a top outside rusher. Similar style to Eller but on right side.”
24. Gene Brito
He was a four-time consensus All-Pro and was Second-team All-Pro one season with the Rams. His illness opened up a spot at left defensive end, where Deacon Jones took over.
25. Neil Smith
Smith was a one-time First-team All-Pro and three-time Second-team All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler. He ended his career with 104.5 sacks. He was "blue" more often than not when graded by Pro Scout, Inc., and was still rock solid with the Broncos in the late 1990s when he was part of getting a couple of rings for the Broncos.
26. Leslie O'Neal
O’Neal was never a First-team All-Pro but was a Second-team All-Pro in 1990, 1992, and 1994 and was a six-time Pro Bowler. He ended his career with 133.5 sacks with a career-high 17 in 1992. From 1989-91 the Chargers played a 3-4 hybrid defense which had O’Neal standing us as a linebacker on likely run downs/base defense, but playing his usual right defensive end in passing situations.
27. Dwight Freeney
He had 125.5 sacks and 46 forced fumbles, seven Pro Bowls and was All-Pro three times. He also got a good endorsement from Titan tackle Michael Roos who called Freeney the “best defensive end he ever faced.”
Nonetheless, he was a one-trick pony, a speed rusher was a devastating inside spin move. With that came lots of rewards but some issues since that move requires the player to turn his back to the offense and allows for running backs to take advantage of that it the play is a pass-action run, like a draw or screen.
28. Simeon Rice
Rice certainly has a high opinion of himself, recently saying “I’m good with what I did,” Rice says. “I was the best in the world at what I did. I know I was transcendent. I know defenses were built around me. I know I affected players around me. I know I was able to call my shot. Whether I get elected to the Hall of Fame, don’t get elected . . . that ain’t on me anymore”.
The statistics of “stuffs” or PFJ’s run/pass stuffs are just that, one data point that gives an idea of a player’s performance just like sacks do. They are not the end-all be-all, just like sacks are not. When we look at run/pass stuffs for Rice he averaged 3.5 per season with a high of 6.5. Those are not the numbers of a player who is making plays in the backfield year-in and year-out. Does it absolutely prove Rice, like many other of these 40 ends, was not great versus the run, but it does paint a fair background.
In his era, Rice was a top, top rusher. From 1996-2005, his full seasons, he led the NFL with 119.0 sacks, leading Strahan by 2.5 sacks.
29. Jim Katcavage
He’s not well known to even hardcore football fans. But was very, very good.
30. Michael Bennett
31. Ed "Too Tall" Jones
Giddings view is, “Doubt there has been & maybe won’t be a big, tall man with his level of football athletic ability. Immovable at the point of attack (even in his final years) and no stronger power rusher. Wonder how many sacks he would have had if not in “Flex” position, off the line of scrimmage and so many 1st and 10s in his career.
Ron Yary agreed, “Too Tall was saddled with a bad scheme for him. If he played for the Rams, where they let their guys get up the field and the react to the run, he may have been the best ever”.
Said Buchsbaum, “plays the run extremely well and because of his height is difficult to throw over”. Jones also was credited with 11 blocked kicks in his career.
32. Charles Mann
33. Jim Marshall
34. Jerry Mays
35. Jack Gregory
In 1974 the Giants hired Bill Arnsparger as head coach and the Rover was out and his role became very similar to that of Bill Stanfill. In his career he a total of two Pro Bowls and had a good claim on a Pro Bowl slot in 1975 but lost out to Cedrick Hardman and Fred Dryer.
Giddings of Pro Scout, Inc. states, “Underrated pro. Who won by both ability and smarts. The type whose ‘numbers’ add up when you finished evaluating him.
36. Cedrick Hardman
Giddings again, “Ex-running back, perhaps no DE has his upfield burst of speed. Made him ‘trappable’ early in career but his ‘eyes lit up’ when 49ers put an opponent in 3rd and long”
37. Tommy Hart
“Giddings view is, “Came up 6-4, 207, 4.65 forty with the 49ers as an OLBer. Was kept as linebacker and special teamer and Dl coach Paul Wiggin bulked him up to 245 in off-season. He was unsung, smart, no-harder working 40 DE who developed top pass rush moves. No more solid run stopper among your group.”
38. Coy Bacon
Was traded to the Chargers in 1973 because the Rams brass didn’t think he’d fit in the odd-man scheme the Rams were installing that season with the arrival of Chuck Knox and Ray Malavasi. He was effective with the Chargers, as he had been with the Rams. He was traded in 1976 to the Bengals for Charlie Joiner where he went to two Pro Bowls with that club, unofficially leading the NFL in sacks with 21½ in 1976. He went to the Redskins for a few years and then was a decent player for a season in the USFL in 1983.
Bacon, though not stellar versus the run did average 6 tackles for loss per season (during his prime) with a high of 13.5 in 1971—which is a rare number. He should have been First-team All-Pro that year since he had 11 sacks to go with the stuffs.
Said Giddings, “Late-bloomer” who did not fit into Dallas’s disciplined system but could wreak havoc when turned loose. More of a 30-DE or 40-DT “power-you” type. Perfect fit next to a disciplined, “read DL”.
39. Al Baker
Baker was a consensus All-Pro in 1978 and a Pro Bowler in 1978-80. He followed defensive line coach to St. Louis and moved to the left end and had decent seasons in 1983 and 1984.
In his first nine seasons Baker averaged 12½ sacks a season but just 4 run stuffs, showing the focus more on sacks that the run. His last four seasons he spent three as a designated rusher (a good role for him) but he was not all that effective compared to others in that same role.
40. Bill Stanfill
Stanfill’s neck injuries ended his career early. He played plenty in a 3-4 defense, but not enough to consider him a pure 3-4 end. Teammate Vern Den Herder is a tougher call.
Giddings view is, “A power guy who was faster than foes figured”
41. Michael McCrary
In 1998 he should have had a strong claim on the Defensive Player of the Year totaling high numbers in sacks and stuffs and was chosen to Dr. Z’s All-pro team. The winner of the DPOY award, Reggie White had 16 sacks but only three stuffs. Buchsbaum said, “a great leverage player with tremendous instincts and reactions.”
Like Curtis Greer, his knees just gave out and he didn’t get the long career that some on this list did. He did get a ring and was a part of the 2000 Ravens defenses so he does have a decent NFL legacy.
42. Ike Lassiter
43. Clyde Simmons
Was mostly a right end, but moved to defensive tackle at times when Eagles, and then the Cardinals had a good rusher to play outside and they were trying to get four best rushers on the field. This happened most often in Jacksonville when they went with a four DE set and some with the Cardinals when Keith McCants was healthy.
He also played the same spot as Richard Dent when he was with Buddy Ryan in Philly and Zona so he could be seen left end if the tight end was on the offensive left side as the 46 had the end and two “46” linebackers flop sides according to strength. Like many on this list he ended his career as a designated rusher.
44. Rob Burnett
Paul Zimmerman wrote this in 2000—
“Here's what Burnett means to the Ravens: He's the only member of their front four who can rush the passer and still stand firm at the point. Which allows the tackles, Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, to slant away from Burnett and toward Michael McCrary, freeing him to rush upfield, a skill at which he excels. It's a terrific scheme, and Burnett, who never takes a play off and can put on a serious pass rush of his own, is the guy who makes it go.”
45. John Abraham
He ended his career as a hybrid 3-4 LBer/DE in nickel player and had good success in that role with the Cardinals. He was a penchant for forcing fumbles, ending his career with 47 and had three seasons with six—a rare feat shared only with Leonard Little.
46. Cameron Wake
47. Fred Dryer
He was quick off the ball and was terrific in pursuit. However, no defensive end was hurt more as the NFL loosened the rules for offensive linemen in how they could use his hands. “My effectiveness went down beginning in 1976”, said Dryer and it was a struggle for him the rest of his career. From 1976-81 he had only one double-digit sack season and that was 1979 and in that season he had 5 sacks in one game in that campaign. He had double digits in sacks in 1970, 1973-75 as well.
Stated Giddings, “A taller, higher cut Hardman. Ted Hendricks in a 3-point stance. Fame was outside speed rusher but he was a top run defender via reads and “staying alive”. Blockers rarely hit him square, run or pass.
48. Dexter Manley
Manly was quirky, to say the least. He showed up at training camp in 1983 with a Mohawk haircut and the new, self-imposed nickname of Mr. D. He wore many different styles of facemasks, rarely if ever the same, year in and year out.
He had a cup of coffee with the Cardinals and Buccaneers and was then banned from the NFL due to drug-related issues (a fourth failed drug test). He played a handful of games over a few seasons before calling football quits.
49. Curtis Greer
In 1988, for the third straight season, he was placed on I.R. In 1989 he tried to catch on with the Vikings to spell Chris Doleman but again that didn’t work out and 1989 ended with another delegation to the injured reserve list. A week later his career ended as his contract was terminated by the Vikings and Greer took them to court.
It’s really too bad so few know of Greer’s career and how a bad knee dogged him for so long. “The kn-ee, al-ways th-e kn-ee” said Howard Cosell.
50 tie. Bubba Smith
Bubba’s reputation was such that in 1969 when he had an average year for him, Bob “Boomer” Brown still voted for him on the NEA (Players) All-Pro team. Brown didn’t want to hear about an “off year” stating “Bubba Smith is a load and you can quote me”. His teammate Roy Hilton once said, “I know I can never be the best defensive end on this team because Bubba Smith is the best in the world.”
Smith was one of the early defensive ends to move around, sometimes playing over the center when the Colts employed a three defensive end rush with Billy Newsome and Roy Hilton at the end positions.
50 tie. Ron McDole
McDole started his career on the offensive line and was moved to defensive end in 1963 and found a home as a starter in 1964. With the Bills he was a five-time All-AFL choice (though none were consensus) and he was a two-time AFL All-Star selection.
In 1971 he was traded to the Redskins and was a key member of the “Over the Hill Gang” and he lasted through 1978, making his one of the longest careers in NFL history at the time of his retirement.
50 tie. Gerry Philbin
He was on the small side (6-2, 245 or so) but was a good all-around end. He was known to be a tough and nasty player, on the high strung side.
53. William Fuller
Fuller began his career in the USFL and was drafted by the Rams in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL players. He ended up in Houston as part of the Jim Everett trade. He was a backup and fourth lineman (in a 3-man line) for two years and began as a right end and did that for a couple of years and when the Oilers moved to a 4-man line the left end spot was Fuller’s.
In 1994 he was signed as the left end for the Eagles to fill the hole left by Reggie White’s departure to the Packers prior to the 1993 season. Talk about big shoes to fill. He filled them, but it wasn’t the same as when White manned the left end position. He was a Pro Bowler all three seasons with the Eagles and a Second-team All-Pro in one of those, but it was simply an “All-Conference” level of play as opposed to an “All-Pro” level.
Fuller ended his career with 100.5 sacks and had a knack for batting down passes, finishing with 56.
54. Robert Mathis
55. Joe Johnson
56. Elvis Dumervil
57. Mario Williams
58. Cameron Jordan
59. Robert Quinn
60. Kevin Carter
61. Verlon Biggs
His post-season honors included being All-AFL in 1966 (12½ sacks) and Second-team All-NFL/AFL in 1967 (15 sacks) and 1972 and had a strong case for being at least Second-team All-Pro in 1973.
62. George Andrie
63. Lamar Lundy
64. Hugh Douglas
65. Justin Tuck
66. Tony Brackens
67. Jevon Kearse
68. Bill Glass
69. Ordell Braase
70. Leonard Little
71. Robert Porcher
Strong two-way player, solid versus the run and pass. According to Buchsbaum “A good solid player against the run or pass” who “does not have great flair”. He was an All-NFC pick in 1997, 1999 and 2001 and was a Pro Bowler in those same three years. He played some defensive tackle early in his career and was a double-digit sacker five times.
72. John Dutton
Began his career as a right side end, ended it as a left defensive tackle. Was All-Pro in 1976, Second-team in 1975 and All-AFC in 1977. As a right end, he preferred to have his left hand down which is not common but not unheard of, either.
73. Fred Cook
Cook was traded to the Redskins in 1981 and couldn’t make the club and he sat out the year. In 1982 he was signed by the Chargers but was cut in August and Cook’s NFL ride was over.
74. Norm Willey
Much has been made of "Wildman" Willey's 17 sack game (which never happened). We've seen 15 and 12 sacks reported as well. Dr. Z was at the game and charted it and he swears Willey had a big game, not 17-sacks big, but big. Zim's number is eight, with Pete Pihos getting "something like 2½ and Sears getting one" like that.
Still, eight sacks would be the NFL record and given the account, we feel it's plausible but not provable until game film surfaces.
Willey was a leader of the Eagles "Suicide Squad" defense and was a two-time All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro once. He played the bulk of his career in a 5-2 or 5-3 defense, but we are lumping those guys into the 4-3 group rather than considering them linebackers in a 3-4. It does skew the lists some but in an imperfect world we do the best we can at categorizing these players.
A right end in a 4-3, hustle-type, good technique. A two-time Pro Bowler and a four-time double-digit sacker.
76. Patrick Kerney
Solid player, like a Porcher or Kampman but not spectacular.
77. Osi Umenyiora
Forced a lot of fumbles and was solid enough versus run. He was a one-time All-Pro and a one-time Second-team All-pro and a two-time Pro Bowler.
78. Jason Pierre-Paul
A highly athletic end, he was late to football and became very skilled. A fireworks accident curbed his development but he seems to be at the level he was before the injury.
79. Aaron Kampman
Kampman was a Dr. Z favorite, but his career was pretty short, was Second-team All-Pro twice and a Pro Bowler in the same two seasons. In 2006 he had 15.5 sacks and in 2007 he had 12.0. He played some defensive tackle in his career and was known as being better versus the run, but as mentioned had a few good sacking seasons.
80. John Zook
Zook was drafted by the Rams but was traded twice before he set foot on an NFL field after having been sent to the Eagles in the Harold Jackson trade then traded to the Falcons for Jim Purnell. He was a solid player, again, not a spectacular player as evidenced by his sack totals year-to-year. From 1969 through 1976 had 9½, 9, 10, 7½, 7, 9, and 9 sacks. He was Second-team All-NFC in 1972 and 1973 and Second-team All-Pro in 1973. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1976—the Cardinals felt they were a good pass rush away from being a top Super Bowl contender.
Zook was always a right defensive end in the 4-3 fronts of the Falcons and Cardinals He became somewhat of a designated pass rusher in late 1977 when the Cardinals played more 3-4 fronts and was the right defensive end in 1978 when they went to the 3-4 full time.
Mike Giddings of Pro Scout Inc opined, “He and Humphrey ideal bookend 40 DEs. Similar to Eller and Martin, more of the smart, power type.”
81. Ben Davidson
Big Ben Davidson was a backup for the Packers and Redskins before he became a solid starter for the Oakland Raiders. In 1965 he was a Second-team All-AFL pick and he was also Second-team in 1966 and in 1967 he achieved First-team All-AFL status. He was part of the Raiders defense that set a then-pro football record of 67 team sacks.
He was 6-8, 275 pounds and played the right end in multiple fronts, though the vast majority of them were in a 4-3. Given his talents, maybe was a bit of an underachiever. His career-high for sacks was 11½ in 1970 and was just under 10 sacks from 1967-69. Good, but not dominant numbers for a player in his peak years.
82. Michael Sinclair
Led the NFL in sacks in 1998 with 16.5. A lanky player, with good moves and not a lot of strength. Was tutored in the WLAF by Jack Youngblood and took some of those skills to the NFL making the Pro Bowl in 1996, 1997, and 1998.
83. Everson Griffen
Became a top end in the NFL in 2017 after being a nickel rusher early on.
84. Sean Jones
Jones was a Pro Bowler in 1993, a Second-team All-NFC pick in 1994 and 1995 and finished his career with 113 sacks, even leading the AFC in 1986 with 15.5.
85. Marcellus Wiley
Wiley backed up Bruce Smith for three years in Buffalo and when he got a chance he did well registering 10.5 sacks in 2000. But, he was to be an unrestricted free agent and out the door he went and was a Pro Bowler for San Diego in 2001 totaling 13 sacks. He was a good versus the run and could get some pass rush but we wonder if he wouldn’t have been a very good 3-4 defensive end in the 1980s. One who could be stout versus runs his way and get some rush as an inside player in passing downs.
86. Ezra Johnson
Began his career well, was All-rookie in 1977 and went to Pro Bowl in 1978, when he had 20½ sacks. Was not responsible versus the run and spent a lot of time as a designated pass rusher.
87. Bob Dee
A left end for the Patriots and a fan favorite in Boston. He began in the NFL with the Redskins and then was a four-time All-AFL selection and if you add in AFL All-Star games he has post-season honors every season from 1960-65—six consecutive years.
88. Cliff Avril
Avril, another current player, has 74 career sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 2016. Avril one of the fastest NFL defensive ends in history with a 4.50 40-yard dash.
89. Chuck Smith
Bad knees ended Smith's career for all intents and purposes. He had three seasons with double-digit sacks and ended his nine-year career with 58.5. When healthy and a starter he averaged 9 sacks per 16 games from 1994-99.
He was Second-team All-Pro in 1997 and All-NFC that same year. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is lighting HOF left tackle Willie Roaf up with 5 sacks that year.
90. Shaun Ellis
A two-time Pro Bowler and a double-digit sacker in 2003 and 2004.
91. Chris Long
Long was the NFL Alumni Lineman of the year in 2011 and a four-time Pro Bowl alternate and in the last two seasons has won a ring. He's not been worthy of his #2 overall status but he's been a good, high-motor rusher. Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Football Outsiders (FO), two NFL metric websites, have been particularly kind to him. PFF credits him with 503 "disruptions" in his 10-year career. A disruption is the combination of sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries. FO's total is 363 for a similar combination, which shows the difference of opinion when it comes to "hurries". Nonetheless, both organizations have Long in the upper echelon of players in that metric for the past decade.
92. Carl Kammerer
Kammerer never got any post-season honors but in the late 1960s was a very good end. In 1966 he had 16½ sacks and he added 11 more in 1967
93. Aaron Brown
A fine Chiefs defensive end who got post-season honors in 1969, 70 and 1971. He was a converted fullback with good speed. From 1968-70 he led the Chiefs with 11, 14 and 13 sacks. He had just 5 in 1971 but he was All-AFC and likely shouldn't have been, but in 1968, he was probably shorted at least a Second-team All-AFL selection.
94. Lionel Aldridge
Aldridge was an All-Conference selection in 1964 and had 14½ in 1970. He was part of the Packers dynasty and ended his career playing opposite Deacon Jones in San Diego.
95. Trace Armstrong
A pass rush specialist at the end of his career, Armstrong was underrated when he was a starter in Chicago. He was the first defensive end ever to be voted to the Pro Bowl without starting a game in 2000.
A speed 40 rusher, played right end and was a solid player. Was popular with John Madden and Peter King and was a hustle player, the proverbial "motor" player. King named his to his personal All-Pro team in 2001 and Madden named him to his All-Madden team in 1999 and 2001.
97. Joe Robb
Robb played 13 years and was a Pro Bowler and Second-team All-NFLer in 1966, he was a decent rusher and good run player who had good strength for his era. He liked to roll up his sleeves to show off his "guns"—among the first players to do that. He would also stand up as a linebacker when the Cardinals wanted to shows a 3-4 look.
98. Jim Jeffcoat
No post-season honors of Jeffcoat, but he did finish career with 102.5 sacks and had five seasons of double-digit totals for sacks.
99. Ed O'Bradovich
O'Bradovich was a long-time left end starter for the Chicago Bears. Solid, strong, but not fast. A power 40-type.
100.tie Tony Cline
Cline exploded onto the NFL scene in 1970 with 17½ sacks while playing left defensive end. He also played some linebacker when the Raiders changed things up with a 3-4 defense. In 1973 he had to move to right defensive end to make way for Bubba Smith who the Raiders acquired from the Colts.
In 1975, after Bubba Smith was gone he had 11 sacks. Cline was said to be a good leverage player by John Madden.
100.tie Horace Jones
Jones was yet one more good defensive end whose career was shortened by knee injuries. He was a starter as a rookie for the Raiders in 1971 and his second year he had 9½ sacks to lead the team. He also had 13 sacks in 1975. The acquisition of Bubba Smith caused him to miss snaps in 1973 even though Smith was not his usual self. Jones missed the 1976 season with an injury and tried to make a comeback with Seattle in 1977 but it lasted just one game.
Joey Bosa, Demarcus Lawrence, and Ezekiel Ansah are coming on but have too few seasons to be ranked.