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Best Defensive Draft Prospects in NFL History: Myles Garrett, Lawrence Taylor Broke the Mold

Who are the best defensive prospects in the history of the NFL Draft? Myles Garrett and Jalen Ramsey are the top names from the modern era.

Thousands of NFL Draft prospects have come off the board on the defensive side of the ball over the years. In this article, we take on the task of naming the 25 best NFL Draft prospects in history across the defensive ranks.

Best Defensive Draft Prospects in NFL History

25) LaVar Arrington, LB, Penn State (2000)

LaVar Arrington had a penchant for showmanship that earned him additional notoriety. His “LaVar Leap” — in which he jumped over the offensive line to make a tackle for loss — still lives on to this day.

But as a prospect, Arrington was coveted for reasons beyond that.

At around 6’3″, 250 pounds, with 4.53-second 40-yard dash speed, elite explosive capacity, and a playmaking edge against both the pass and the run, Arrington had the look of a force multiplier at the second level.

If not for injuries, Arrington’s career might have been much more fruitful.

24) Buck Buchanan, DT, Grambling State (1963)

Historically, Buck Buchanon carries a great deal of relevance. He was the first African-American to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft, and he eventually became a Hall of Famer — and it was his abilities as a prospect that helped fuel that ascent.

At 6’7″, 270 pounds, Buchanan was a revelation in an NFL game that was still relatively undersized across the board compared to today. At that size, he was rumored to have 4.9 speed, and his determination, drive, and durability made him a true difference-maker.

Buchanan died of lung cancer in 1992 — but his legacy lives on, in more ways than one.

23) Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU (2022)

The 2022 NFL Draft had a potentially legendary CB duo at the top of the board in LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. and Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. But there’s a reason that — as good as Gardner was and has been — Stingley went first among them.

Stingley didn’t have Gardner’s size or length, but what he did bring was elite universal athleticism, coupled with one-of-one coverage and playmaking instincts. From the moment he logged six interceptions and 15 pass breakups, he was billed as special.

Now healthy, he’s proving that distinction to be true with the Houston Texans.

22) Darrell Russell, DT, USC (1997)

Darrell Russell went second overall in the 1997 NFL Draft and broke the record for the richest rookie contract ever signed when the Oakland Raiders selected him. He’d amassed 19 tackles for loss in his final year at USC and was expected to be a dominant NFL player.

Russell’s tools were simply incredible. At around 6’5″, 321 pounds, he could run a 4.8 40-yard dash and jumped 31.5″ in the vertical. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro in 1998 before off-field issues eventually led to the end of his career.

21) Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame (2022)

A 4.59 40-yard dash caused some to panic about Kyle Hamilton in the lead-up to the 2022 NFL Draft. But in hindsight, it was one of the only holes you could poke in his profile. And he’s proven the doubters wrong already with an All-Pro season in 2023.

At 6’4″, 220 pounds, Hamilton had virtually everything in his toolbox — explosiveness, quick processing, physicality, playmaking ability — and he could play from anywhere, too. His versatility has become a model for new-age safeties.

20) Sean Taylor, S, Miami (2004)

If you’re wondering why Sean Taylor is a top-20 defensive prospect of all time, go watch some of his film. Few players can say they were a ball-hawk and bludgeon all in one — but Taylor was. In his final year at Miami, he logged 10 interceptions and three pick-sixes.

Once he hit the NFL, the 6’2″, 231-pound Taylor wasted no time becoming a star. He was fast and rangy, and he was just as much known for his physicality. He was tragically killed in a home invasion in 2007, but he’ll always be remembered as an undeniable great.

19) Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois (1965)

The namesake of the Butkus Award — which is given to college football’s top linebacker each year — Dick Butkus himself may have set the evolution of the modern NFL linebacker in motion. He was a star at Illinois and the third overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft.

At 6’3″, 245 pounds, Butkus had the size and physicality teams craved in the old era, and he played with a hostile disposition.

But beyond that, Butkus also had the athleticism to cover multiple positions, and the playmaking ability to generate turnovers in that phase.

18) Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia (2018)

When people talk about wanting a MIKE linebacker with sideline-to-sideline range, they’re talking about Roquan Smith.

The 6’1″, 236-pound second-level defender ran a 4.51 40-yard dash and racked up 137 tackles and 14 TFLs in his final season at Georgia.

At the NFL level, Smith’s rare playmaking range and instincts have earned him Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition. But even more than that, those traits have reaffirmed that Smith is the ultimate paradigm for responsiveness, reach, and impact on the football field.

17) Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU (2011)

Patrick Peterson never quite had the ball skills that other CB prospects on this list can boast, but physically, Peterson was a “Build-A-CB” prospect in the 2011 NFL Draft cycle.

At 6’1″ and well over 200 pounds, Peterson ran a 4.31 40-yard dash and also logged a 38″ vertical and a mind-boggling 6.58 three-cone.

Peterson brought a lab-built combination of speed, explosiveness, agility, length, and play strength to the fold. And with those tools, he never missed a Pro Bowl in his first eight seasons at the NFL level. Age caught up to him, but in his prime, he was an all-league CB.

16) Mario Williams, DL, NC State (2006)

You’d have to be a pretty good prospect to go ahead of Reggie Bush, who had universal acclaim as a game-changing weapon in the 2006 NFL Draft cycle. Mario Williams beat out Bush for the first overall selection, and looking back at his profile, it’s easy to see why.

Williams was a bit of a tweener positionally, but he checked every box there was to check as a future All-Pro. In his final season at NC State, he logged 14.5 sacks and 24 TFLs. At 6’6″, 300 pounds, he boasted a 4.7 40, a 40.5″ vertical, and 35 bench reps.

15) Patrick Willis, LB, Ole Miss (2007)

Positional value may have played a role in Patrick Willis falling to the 11th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. But in hindsight, that may have been at least seven picks too far.

Willis was the ultimate two-phase enforcer and a surefire Hall of Famer, and his prospect profile was virtually flawless.

At 6’1″, 242 pounds, Willis ran a 4.51 40 and jumped 39″ in the vertical. In his final season at Ole Miss, he racked up 137 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, three sacks, and seven pass breakups.

Willis brought old-school physicality with new-school athleticism and autonomy.

14) Will Anderson Jr., EDGE, Alabama (2023)

Some prospects make the evaluation easy even before they become eligible. Will Anderson Jr. was that kind of prospect.

In 2021 — as just a true sophomore — he nearly broke the CFB record for TFLs in a season while accumulating a career-high 17 sacks.

At around 6’4″, 250 pounds with 4.6 speed and 34″ arms, Anderson had blink explosiveness off the snap, ruthless power, and an unrelenting motor in run defense and pursuit. He was the kind of blue-chip prospect who almost guaranteed success — and so far in the NFL, that’s been true.

13) Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (2014)

Aaron Donald’s size was an obvious talking point as a prospect, and it’s the main reason he fell to 13th overall in 2014. But in hindsight, that was a mistake by 12 other teams.

Donald is now a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and all of the signs were there in his evaluation.

At around 6’1″ and 285 pounds, Donald’s elite athleticism was quantified by a 4.68 40, 32″ vertical, 7.11 three-cone, and 35 bench reps. On the field at Pittsburgh, he was a record-breaking producer who weaponized his gifts with sharp, precise technique and unshakable resolve.

12) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska (2010)

There have been plenty of great DT prospects over the years, but none have been more dominant than Ndamukong Suh was in college.

At Nebraska, Suh was an absolute monster. He almost single-handedly won the Big 12 title for the Cornhuskers in a Heisman-finalist 2009 campaign that saw him amass 20.5 TFLs and 12 sacks.

As a prospect, Suh’s maniacal motor was matched only by his physical tools — he logged a 4.98 40, a 35.5″ vertical, and an absurd 7.21 three-cone at 6’4″, 307 pounds. He went second overall to the Lions and was a three-time All-Pro in his first five NFL seasons.

11) Von Miller, EDGE, Texas A&M (2011)

Every year, you hear about teams searching for the next Von Miller. To truly know what that means, you have to know what Miller brought as a prospect in the 2011 NFL Draft.

For starters, Miller was insanely productive with 27.5 sacks and 39 TFLs in his final two CFB seasons.

Beyond production, Miller was one of the most lethal speed and finesse rushers ever to hit the draft circuit. He could win with violent hands, of course, but at 6’3″, 246 pounds with 4.42 speed, his ability to bend and run the arc without losing pace was truly unmatched.

10) Kenny Easley, S, UCLA (1981)

There are a number of great safety prospects on this list, but few of them were as inherently dynamic as Kenny Easley was in the 1981 NFL Draft cycle. Easley left UCLA as the team’s all-time interception leader, and he picked up where he left off in Seattle.

At 6’3″, 206 pounds, Easley was fast, rangy, and a psychic ball tracker who always seemed to know where QBs were going. In 1984, he logged 10 picks and won Defensive Player of the Year — validation of his fourth overall selection in the 1981 cycle three years prior.

9) Charles Woodson, DB, Michigan (1998)

Natural playmakers have a way of making themselves known with their production on the defensive side of the ball. Charles Woodson was that kind of player, amassing 18 interceptions over three seasons at the University of Michigan.

Though some evaluators felt he relied too much on his raw talent and athleticism, Woodson’s penchant for playmaking and projected positional versatility at 6’1″, 210 pounds was awe-inspiring. Ultimately, he’d crack the top five all-time for NFL career INTs.

8) Neil Smith, EDGE, Nebraska (1988)

Neil Smith was a part of the contingent of dominant edge rushers in the 1980s and 1990s. And though he’s not the top one on this list, he was an incredible prospect in his own right.

Coming from Nebraska, Smith reportedly ran a 4.55-second 40 time while sporting a 6’4″, 260-pound frame with a seven-foot wingspan.

Smith’s rare physical tools made him the second overall selection to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eventually, he repaid the Chiefs’ confidence with six Pro Bowl seasons and an All-Pro campaign in 1993 in which he led the NFL with 15 sacks.

7) Champ Bailey, CB, Georgia (1999)

Some prospects win over evaluators with their measurements and potential. Champ Bailey had the numbers on his side, of course — he ran a reported 4.28 40-yard dash — but it was his sticky coverage ability and swarming recovery ability that made him unique.

At 6’0″, 192 pounds, Bailey was a CB prospect with unheard-of speed, quickness, and recovery capacity — all of which helped him become a premier playmaker, a three-time All-Pro, a 12-time Pro Bowler, and an NFL Hall of Famer.

6) Eric Berry, S, Tennessee (2010)

It says a lot that Eric Berry is over some of the other names on this list like Taylor and Easley.

Berry’s NFL career was shortened somewhat by injuries and a scare with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But when he was on the field, he was a transcendent two-phase terror.

At 6’0″, 212 pounds, with 4.4 speed, a 43″ vertical, and a 6.80 three-cone, Berry was a superlative athlete with equally enviable instincts. In college, he amassed 14 INTs and 17.5 TFLs over three seasons, and he only sustained that production as an NFL All-Pro.

5) Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State (1989)

You know him now as “Prime,” the NFL Hall of Famer and current head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. But even before his professional football career, Deion Sanders had a reputation as one of the most alluring prospects ever to hit the draft circuit.

At 6’1″, 195 pounds, Sanders boasted uncommon playmaking chops coming out of college, with 14 career interceptions at Florida State. His blazing 4.27 speed allowed him to close gaps quickly, and on top of his turnover-generating ability, he was a dynamic return man.

4) Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State (2016)

Perhaps we take Jalen Ramsey for granted because he’s so contemporary, but he’s undoubtedly one of the greatest defensive draft prospects of all time. He was extremely productive both in coverage and support, and his physical profile is nearly impossible to replicate.

At 6’1″, 208 pounds, Ramsey has longer arms than some offensive linemen, and he coupled that size with a 4.41 40, a 41.5″ vertical, and an 11’3″ broad. Scouts are already starting to use the three-time All-Pro as the standard for CBs with universal role versatility.

3) Bruce Smith, EDGE, Virginia Tech (1985)

It takes a special kind of player to be an unquestioned choice with the first overall pick. That’s what Bruce Smith was coming out of Virginia Tech.

With the Hokies, the 6’4″, 262-pound defender had 46 career sacks, including 22 in his junior season.

Smith was a freakish athlete for his time, with an enthralling mix of speed, explosiveness, and power. And as he insulated his game with refinement over time, he became a dominant force and an eventual Hall of Famer.

To this day, he’s the only defensive player to ever officially reach the 200-sack mark.

2) Lawrence Taylor, EDGE, North Carolina (1981)

No defensive player has ever been a force of pure carnage like Lawrence Taylor was, and it’s likely that no prospect will ever reach that point again.

Taylor’s relentlessness teetered on recklessness at times, but as he showed in his 16-sack final season at North Carolina, he would always do whatever it took to make an impact.

Even though Taylor was around average size for a pass rusher at 6’3″, 237 pounds, it was a near-consensus view ahead of the 1981 NFL Draft that he was a future great in the making. Not only was he great, but he developed the art of the pass-rush and changed the game.

1) Myles Garrett, EDGE, Texas A&M (2017)

Myles Garrett is a created player. There’s no other explanation.

As a college player at Texas A&M, he racked up 31 sacks and 47 TFLs over three seasons. As a prospect, he measured in at 6’4″, 272 pounds, with 35″ arms — and logged a 4.64 40, 41″ vertical, and 10’8″ broad.

Whether it was power, speed, or bend you sought, Garrett possessed all of it — and in an all-encompassing, alignment-versatile profile that invoked nightmares in opposing offensive coordinators. Garrett is on a Hall of Fame track, and his rare skill set is a prime reason why.