This is going to feel anti-climactic, since we already declared our position on who the greatest player in NFL history is … and it’s not Tom Brady, of course. But since we’re tackling (pun not intended) sports history more often than not now, we will proceed with the first past of our examination of the NFL GOAT.
Defensive players often get the short stick here, since statistics are not available for most defensive categories going back farther than the 1980s. Yes, we just gave our retroactive 1952 NLF MVP Award to a defensive back, but there was a special reason for that. Either way, the players here have to have had long, productive careers. That’s necessary.
How do we measure defensive players against offensive players with the dearth of data? It is difficult, for sure, so what we’re trying to do today is narrow down a list of the “best” players at the key defensive positions: defensive line (end and tackle), linebacker, defensive back (corner and safety).
Once we have that short list, then we can do further analysis to arrive at a top-3 short list of the defensive GOATs to include in our overall debate down the line. There are plenty of defensive players on the all-time career list for Approximate Value (AV), which takes into account the missing data, so let the discussion begin.
Here we go …
There is a big group here worth considering, based on overall AV and per-season AV. It starts with Reggie White (226, 15.1), Bruce Smith (223, 11.7), Alan Page (185, 12.3), and Julius Peppers (183, 10.8), before finishing with Carl Eller (168, 10.5), Jim Marshall (164, 8.2), Merlin Olsen (160, 10.7), Michael Strahan (160, 10.7), Jason Taylor (158, 10.5), and Chris Doleman (156, 10.4).
From this preliminary perspective, it’s easy to advance Page, Smith, and White to be our finalists for this positional category, based on overall longevity and productivity. The trio stands out, period. On a per-game average, this is how we see the three: White (0.97), Page (0.85), and Smith (0.80).
This is no knock against Page or Smith, but White’s impact on the game—on a week-to-week basis—is just way above everyone else’s level of play. He is clearly the GOAT among defensive linemen, all time.
We start with six linebackers making the cut, based on career AV: Ray Lewis (221), Derrick Brooks (191), Junior Seau (187), Lawrence Taylor (182), Rickey Jackson (160), and Mike Singletary (159). On a per-season basis, we can re-rank these players in the following order, with Taylor (14.0) ahead of the rest, followed by Brooks (13.6), Singletary (13.3), Lewis (13.0), Jackson (10.7), and Seau (9.4).
Eliminating Jackson and Seau is easy now, and we should also do the per-game AV as well, to account for injuries with the top four guys: Taylor (0.99), Lewis (0.97), Singletary (0.89), and Brooks (0.85). From here, it’s clear this debate comes down to Taylor and Lewis, and that presents an interesting dilemma.
Taylor redefined the position, in a lot of ways, and Lewis seemingly played forever despite a near-conviction for murder. The last tidbit is irrelevant to this discussion, for now, as both players deserve to be in the final conversation for the GOAT on defense.
Four guys stand out here: Rod Woodson (190), Ronnie Lott (161), Paul Krause (155), and Charles Woodson (155), in terms of being the Top 50 all-time for career AV. On a per-season average, Lott tops the list (11.5 AV per season), followed by Rod Woodson (11.2), Krause (9.7), and Charles Woodson (8.6). Right away, we can eliminate Charles Woodson from the conversation, because his value pales in comparison on a seasonal-average basis.
Krause is still the all-time NFL leader in interceptions (81), although he played in an era when picks were rampant in the passing game. AV takes that context into consideration, of course. But he still falls a bit short of our top duo in this category.
There’s little point in picking between Lott and Rod Woodson. On a per-game basis, accounting for injuries, Lott (0.84) and Woodson (0.80) are just as close. It‘s a tie here between two guys who all deserve the honor of being considering the defensive backfield GOAT.
So we have five defensive candidates for the GOAT: Lewis, Lott, Taylor, White, and Rod Woodson. Let’s look at their per-game AV numbers once again:
- Taylor 0.99
- White 0.974
- Lewis 0.969
- Lott 0.84
- Woodson 0.80
While the argument rages on about which position is more “valuable”—on offense or defense—it’s somewhat irrelevant as AV accounts for this, contextually. The per-game impact of the top three cannot be denied, and they stand out over the defensive backs, for whatever reason.
The front seven, it could be argued, always have more an impact on the flow of the game, in terms of being able to disrupt both the passing and the running attacks of the offense—while defensive backs generally focus pass defense, with run defense being a secondary (no pun intended).
That’s just the nature of the sport, and what we have here are three guys that impacted the game more than any other defensive players in history. We advance, therefore, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis to the GOAT Finals on May 1.