The ideal defensive ends are immovable objects against the run and unstoppable forces against the pass. In reality, the best ends tend to be great at one or the other, or good at both, with a few extraordinary exceptions. As a committee, we strove to recognize those defenders who had few holes in their game, and we had an implicit preference for the guys who excelled in both areas. However, we recognize the importance of the pass relative to the run, and we honor those who excelled in that area more willingly than we honor pure run stuffers. Ultimately, the committee voted in eleven defensive ends, with eight others receiving votes.1 This is a much wider range of disagreement than any other position and demonstrates, perhaps, a wider array of philosophical preferences among voters. Moving forward I suspect the emphasis on pass rushers will be even greater.
Hall of Fame Defensive Ends
Len Ford (1948-1958)
Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Dons, Green Bay Packers
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 4 Pro Bowls2; 3 Title Wins; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 6 GridFe Deacon Awards (2 AAFC/4 NFL)
An athletic marvel among contemporaries, Ford excelled on both offense and defense for the Los Angeles Dons in the AAFC. He went to Cleveland after the merger, where Paul Brown had him focus solely on defense. Ford quickly became the best player on one of the great defensive dynasties in history.3 Many speculate that Brown created an early version of the 4-3 defense specifically to get the lightning fast lineman closer to the line of scrimmage and take advantage of his ability to devastate passing attacks.
Gino Marchetti (1952-1966)
Baltimore Colts, Dallas Texans
1 MVP; 9 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Marchetti was the first superstar pass rusher to fit the archetype of a modern defensive end. He was a technical marvel who employed a host of or moves and counter moves designed to beat offensive linemen and take down opposing quarterbacks. Researcher John Turney estimates Marchetti had between 110 and 120 sacks in 161 career games, which is especially excellent considering the relative paucity of passing plays teams ran during his career. The Colts star was also so stout against the run that legendary coach Sid Gillman opined that running in the direction of Marchetti was a wasted play.
Willie Davis (1958-1969)
Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Davis was a devastating pass rusher and a cornerstone of the dynasty Green Bay defense that earned coach Vince Lombardi five NFL championships. At age 33 and well past his physical prime, Davis turned in perhaps his most notable performance: against a formidable Oakland Raiders offensive line in Super Bowl II, Davis made his way into the backfield to sack quarterback Daryle Lamonica three times.4 Turney estimates that, during his decade in Green Bay, Davis may have topped 120 sacks, including averaging a sack per game from 1963-65.
Deacon Jones (1961-1974)
Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Washington
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe World Awards; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
David “Deacon” Jones may be the most feared defender in the long history of professional football. His infamous head slap maneuver rattled the heads of pass protectors and allowed Jones to collect quarterbacks like trophies. The Deacon had little regard for quarterbacks and coined the term “sack” in reference to the idea of putting them in a bag and beating it with a baseball bat. Although he played his entire career before the stats that he named became official, he unofficially recorded 173.5 sacks in his career – a mark that would rank third all time.5 That includes a five-year stretch (1964-68) in which Jones notched 102.5 sacks in 70 games.
Carl Eller (1964-1979)
Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 6 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
Moose Eller made his mark as a stalwart on the left side of the famed Purple People Eaters defensive line that served as the engine for one of the greatest defensive dynasties in NFL history. With long arms and considerable power, he served as an anchor against the run, holding ground against even the mightiest right tackles of the day. Eller was also an elite pass rusher, posting 133 sacks6 in 225 regular season games, as well as an incredible 10.5 sacks in 19 postseason appearances.
Jack Youngblood (1971-1984)
Los Angeles Rams
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Deacon Awards
Youngblood was never the fastest, the quickest, or the strongest lineman. However, he was intelligent and crafty enough to compensate, and he was durable enough to play as hard at the end of games as he did at the beginning of games. His legendary toughness was on display in the 1979 playoffs when he played all three games, as well as the Pro Bowl, on a fractured left fibula. Youngblood played at a high level for a dozen years, picking up at least eight sacks every full season from 1973-84. He retired with 151.5 sacks, which ranked second in history at the time and remains good enough for sixth on the career list.7
Reggie White (1985-2000)
Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers
10 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 13 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards; 1 GridFe Mean Award
The greatest defensive end in history, and arguably the greatest defender ever to play, the Minister of Defense possessed an uncanny combination of physical skill and mental savvy. White was an imposing figure, with rare power and even more impressive functional strength. Despite weighing roughly 280 pounds, he reportedly ran the 40 yard dash in 4.6 seconds; and despite being 6 feet 5 inches tall, he could turn the corner like a speed rusher. His legendary hump move embarrassed countless tackles and enabled him to rack up gaudy sack totals and impressive run stops. He retired with 198 sacks in the NFL, and his 23.5 in the USFL suggest he would own the career record had he taken less money to play in the bigger league. In addition to his well-known prowess as a pass rusher, White was a terror against the run; his 1048 tackles as a defensive lineman are a testament to that.
Bruce Smith (1985-2003)
Buffalo Bills, Washington
9 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards
Smith retired after an illustrious career that saw him post a record 13 seasons with double-digit sacks on his way to becoming the NFL’s career sack leader. With the exception of Reggie White, no other player has come within 26 sacks of his gaudy total of 200.8 He crafted one of the finest spin moves the game has ever seen, and his prowess as a pass rusher is especially remarkable given the amount of time he played as a 3-4 one gap end. Smith was famously adept against opposing rushing attacks as well, posting well over one thousand tackles in his career.
Michael Strahan (1993-2007)
New York Giants
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Deacon Awards
Strahan is the rare modern defensive end who boasts impressive sack totals while also playing the run at an elite level. It is no exaggeration to say he is the most well-rounded end of his era, and he is arguably a top five 4-3 end in history. Strahan was a relentless penetrator on the strong side of the line, taking down quarterbacks 141.5 times, including an official record of 22.5 in 2001. While the bulk of contemporary pass rushers relied on the speed rush, he stood out as a sack artist who got the job done with raw power as a young player, before slimming down late in his career and adding speed to his repertoire.
Jason Taylor (1997-2011)
Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Washington
3 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 6 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards
Taylor was a terrific athlete with an uncommonly slender frame and long, accurate arms that allowed him to maintain separation from blockers. His ability to disengage blockers to attack quarterbacks, combined with his uncanny quickness, allowed him to rack up 139.5 sacks in his career. In addition to playing with his hand in the dirt, Taylor also possessed fluid movement in space and could aptly serve in coverage when called upon. To his sack total, he added eight interceptions, including three touchdown returns.
J.J. Watt (2011-present)
1 MVP; 4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 4 Pro Bowls; 3 GridFe World Awards; 3 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 3 GridFe Deacon Awards; 1 GridFe Mean Award
Few defenders can claim that they were ever the very best in the league when they played. From 2012 to 2014, Watt wasn’t just the best defender in the league; he was the most outstanding player at any position. He has been an effective edge rusher as a defensive end, but he is a truly magnificent interior penetrator when he sinks to play defensive tackle in nickel situations. He joins Deacon Jones as the only players with multiple seasons of at least 20 sacks, and his ability to understand when to stop rushing and, instead, focus on batting passes at the line is the stuff of legend. Watt set himself apart as a pass rusher while also making his mark as arguably the best run-stopping defensive end in football, an oft-overlooked aspect of his game.
- Others receiving votes: Andy Robustelli*, Doug Atkins*, Claude Humphrey, Lee Roy Selmon*, Howie Long*, Dan Hampton, Chris Doleman*, Julius Peppers ↩
- The Pro Bowl didn’t exist during his time in the AAFC, which makes his total look much lower than it should. ↩
- During Ford’s eight seasons in Cleveland, the Browns ranked first in points allowed six times and ranked second in points allowed twice. The team also ranked in the top two in total yardage allowed seven times. ↩
- To this day, the only player with more sacks in a Super Bowl is L.C. Greenwood, who had four sacks in Super Bowl X. ↩
- With just 173.5 sacks in 191 games, he averaged 0.91 per game. Reggie White reached that mark in his 197th game, while Bruce Smith took 221 games. ↩
- 130 with the Vikings and 3 with the Seahawks. ↩
- He ranked fifth for a long time, but he recently dropped a spot when Julius Peppers passed him in 2017. ↩
- That’s far more than any active player. The active leader, Julius Peppers, is 45.5 shy of Smith. ↩