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Building the Best All-Time NFL Defense: Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Aaron Donald Create Ultimate D-Line

Let's look through the history books to construct the all-time best NFL defense. Can you imagine a Lawrence Taylor-Reggie White-Aaron Donald D-line?

Even the best NFL defenses have typically had at least one area of weakness. But what if we could look back through the league’s history books, assemble the top players at each defensive position, and create an all-time defense with no holes?

Pro Football Network’s All-Time NFL Defense is here, constructed from the most talented players from the many eras of NFL football. We’ve used a modern-day NFL lineup with two linebackers and three cornerbacks. How dominant would this defense be?

Building the Best NFL Defense of All Time

Edge Rusher | Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor was more than just a feared pass rusher — he redefined how the sport of football was played.

Taylor, the second pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, took the league by storm from Day 1. He posted 9.5 sacks in his rookie campaign, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year and the first of two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards.

From 1984 to 1990, Taylor won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants while racking up 10+ sacks each season. His masterpiece came in 1986, when Taylor managed 20.5 sacks and became the second — and to date, most recent — defensive player to win NFL MVP.

Rival offenses couldn’t figure out how to stop Taylor. Teams began searching for larger offensive tackles to take on the legendary pass rusher. Washington head coach Joe Gibbs created the two-TE offense, hoping to contain Taylor’s blitzes.

Nothing worked. While Taylor doesn’t boast the longevity of other great defenders, his peak is unparalleled in NFL history.

Edge Rusher | Reggie White

Reggie White is second on the NFL’s sack list despite spending the first two seasons of his career in the USFL. He dominated immediately after joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985, finishing second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting after posting 13 sacks.

White registered at least 11 sacks in each of his first nine pro campaigns, winning Defensive Player of the Year honors after posting 21 sacks in 1987. The “Minister of Defense” won another DPOY award after somehow putting up 16 sacks as a 37-year-old Green Bay Packer in 1998.

A first- or second-team All-Pro in 13 of 15 campaigns, White hit at least 10 sacks for an NFL-record nine consecutive seasons from 1985 to 1993.

Defensive Tackle | Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald retired during the 2024 offseason, hanging up his cleats after posting the best defensive tackle carer in the NFL’s history.

Donald is one of just three players — along with Taylor and J.J. Watt — to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards. He posted four other top-five DPOY finishes, won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, earned a Pro Bowl berth in all 11 seasons of his career, and received eight first-team All-Pro berths.

One of five defensive tackles with at least 100 sacks, Donald set the single-season DT sack record with 20.5 quarterback takedowns in 2018.

Defensive Tackle | Bob Lilly

Donald (181.68) laps the rest of the defensive tackle field in Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame score, but longtime Dallas Cowboys DT Bob Lilly (159.35) ranks second.

The 13th overall selection in the 1961 NFL Draft, Lilly made the Pro Bowl in his second season but truly started dominating in 1964. That season, he posted 10.5 sacks and earned the first of seven first-team All-Pro nods.

Lilly weighed just 260 pounds and played in a bygone era of smaller NFL defensive tackles. If we’re allowed to add a run-stuffing nose tackle to our roster who can supplement Lilly on early downs, we’re going with Vince Wilfork, who routinely ate space during his 13-year career.

Linebacker | Dick Butkus

Widely viewed as the ideal middle linebacker, Dick Butkus was chosen with the third overall pick of the 1965 NFL Draft and subsequently spent nine years with the Chicago Bears.

He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year twice (1969, 1970) and earned Pro Bowl appearances in every season of his career except for his final campaign. Butkus retired with 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries, the latter leading the league when he hung up his cleats after the 1973 season.

Butkus would’ve finished with an even more decorated résumé had a knee injury not ended his career at the age of 28. The Butkus Award, given annually to the best linebackers at the NFL, collegiate, and high school levels, is named in his honor.

Linebacker | Ray Lewis

Butkus gives our All-Time NFL Defense a player from the NFL’s early era, while Ray Lewis is the modern-day version of the former Bears linebacker.

Lewis headlined the Baltimore Ravens’ legendary 2000 defense, which set numerous NFL records, among them the fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) in a 16-game season. The Ravens won the Super Bowl that season, while Lewis captured the first of two Defensive Player of the Year awards.

He holds the NFL record for combined (2,059) and solo (1,568) tackles and is the only player in league history with at least 40 career sacks and 30 career interceptions. Lewis made more Pro Bowls (12) than any other off-ball linebacker, while his seven first-team All-Pros are tied for first at the position.

Cornerback | Deion Sanders

There was almost nothing Deion Sanders couldn’t accomplish on the football field.

As a cornerback, “Prime Time” was the most electric defensive player of the 1990s, consistently shutting down his side of the field for the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, and Cowboys.

From 1991 through 1999, Sanders claimed six first-team All-Pros and two second-team berths. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 after intercepting six passes and leading the NFL with three pick-sixes.

Sanders was an unforgettable returner. His 19 non-offensive touchdowns are the second-most in league history. After signing with Dallas, Sanders also played wide receiver. He hauled in 36 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown in 1996 while starting 12 games and earning first-team All-Pro honors on defense.

Cornerback | Rod Woodson

Rod Woodson made sure his name was in the record books after a 17-year NFL career.

He’s the league’s all-time leader in fumble recoveries (32) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (12). Woodson’s 13 total defensive touchdowns are tied for first in NFL history. His 71 interceptions are third all-time, while his 1,483 return yards on those interceptions rank second.

A five-time first-team All-Pro cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Woodson won Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 after posting eight interceptions. He moved to safety with the Ravens in 1999, winning Super Bowl 35 while earning two more All-Pro nods at his new position.

Cornerback | Darrelle Revis

The NFL’s premiere cornerback of the late 2000s, Darrelle Revis was a one-man show for the New York Jets.

Head coach Rex Ryan consistently had Revis follow opposing WR1s around the field. Then, he designed the rest of New York’s defense around the idea that Revis could shut down his man.

With that, “Revis Island” was born.

Revis’ best campaign came in 2009 when he led the NFL with 31 pass deflections and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting after holding each of Randy Moss (twice), Terrell Owens (twice), Reggie Wayne, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith Sr., Roddy White, and Andre Johnson to under 36 yards.

A four-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler, Revis won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots after the 2014 season and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2023.

Safety | Ronnie Lott

Remembered as one of the hardest hitters in the game, Ronnie Lott began his career with the 49ers but converted to safety in 1985.

It hardly mattered where lined up — Lott was good at everything. He was outstanding from the start, finishing second in Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 1981 while earning the first of six first-team All-Pro berths.

Lott went to 10 Pro Bowls and was among only five players who played on all four San Francisco Super Bowl teams in the 1980s. He finished his career as one of 10 safeties with at least 1,000 career tackles.

Safety | Ed Reed

While there might be some overlap between Lott and Ed Reed, there was no way we could leave the ex-Ravens safety off our All-Time NFL Defense.

The ultimate ballhawk, Reed was always in the right place at the right time. He racked up 64 interceptions — leading the NFL three times — and posted a staggering 1,590 interception return yards for seven touchdowns. Always a threat to score, Reed owns the two longest pick-sixes (106 and 107 yards) in league history.

A nine-time Pro Bowler, Reed won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2004 after posting nine interceptions, 17 pass deflections, and 64 solo tackles.