Manning the interior line, defensive tackles tend to be the biggest and strongest players on the field. Their lower bodies must simultaneously be powerful enough to anchor against the run and quick enough to bypass blockers. Their arms must be both mighty and precise, in order to disengage linemen to make plays (or occupy linemen to allow others to make the plays). More so than their line mates on the outside, defensive tackles tend to have higher expectations to shut down rushing attacks and lower expectations to disrupt the passing game. Our voters brought their own sets of expectations to the table and, ultimately, settled on nine tackles, with eight more receiving votes.1 As with ends, there was a wide range of disagreement among voters. This is likely on account of both differences in philosophy and scarcity of statistics for the position, especially historically.
Hall of Fame Defensive Tackles
Leo Nomellini (1950-1963)
San Francisco 49ers
6 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, an Italian immigrant and the San Francisco 49ers’ first-ever draft choice, was a formidable force in the trenches – on either side of the line. He earned four first team all pro selections as one of the finest defensive tackles of his generation, while the other two came as an offensive tackle. Nomellini possessed uncanny natural strength that enabled him to exert his will on opponents through sheer physical domination.
Bob Lilly (1961-1974)
8 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Affectionately called Mr. Cowboy, Lilly was the first draft pick in Dallas Cowboys history. He didn’t cut an impressive figure or particularly look like a dominant athlete, but his performance on the field was about as good as it gets from an interior lineman. Lilly had the power, quickness, and savvy to beat blockers in a number of ways, and footage shows a man who took up residence in opposing backfields. In the regular season and playoffs combined, the legend racked up 99.5 career sacks and countless other plays for a loss or no gain.
Merlin Olsen (1962-1976)
Los Angeles Rams
1 MVP; 6 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 14 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Merlin Olsen was a gentle giant off the field and a force of nature on it. With a hulking frame and rare balance, he was incredibly stout against the run. His nimble feet and shocking punch provided him the ability to get quick penetration and leave blocker reeling. At the same time, Olsen was an unselfish player who was willing to sacrifice in the box score for the benefit of the team. He was adept at taking on double teams to allow other members of the famed Fearsome Foursome to make plays.2
Buck Buchanan (1963-1975)
Kansas City Chiefs
4 First Team All Pros (AFL); 3 Second Team All Pros (2 AFL/1 NFL); 8 Pro Bowls (6 AFL/2 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Mean Awards (AFL)
Standing 6’7″ and topping 270 pounds, Junious “Buck” Buchanan carried a monstrous stature for his era. On top of that, he had speed on par with many linebackers of the day. His exceptional blend of size and athleticism gave coach Hank Stram the force he needed in the middle for his innovative defense to thrive. Along with teammate Curley Culp, Buchanan laid siege to the offensive line of the dominant Vikings in Super Bowl IV and helped usher in a new breed of giant defensive tackles.
Alan Page (1967-1981)
Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears
1 MVP; 5 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Mean Awards
The honorable Alan Page is very likely the greatest interior pass rusher ever to play football. He finished his career with 148.5 sacks, while playing most of his career in the era of 14-game schedules and low volume passing.3 Page was undersized, even for his era, but he possessed uncanny quickness and intelligence and an innate ability to find the football. He is one of just two defensive players to earn the AP’s MVP award,4 and he was able to play at an all star level while earning his law degree from the University of Minnesota.
Mean Joe Greene is arguably the best defensive tackle of all time. Brought in by legendary coach Chuck Noll, Greene helped change the losing culture in the Steel City and became the cornerstone of a juggernaut. With incredible raw power, unbridled aggression, and a unique approach to attacking offensive lines, Mean Joe was the primary focus of opposing gameplans and the fulcrum on which the Steel Curtain dynasty pivoted. He lived up to his nickname through his tenacious play between the whistles and his added touch of violence in between plays.
Randy White (1975-1988)
9 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Mean Awards
Randy White was fairly small for a defensive tackle, but he was nonetheless incredibly athletic for his size. He began his career as a linebacker before transitioning to tackle, and he brought the requisite mobility of a linebacker to the interior line. White played with controlled fury, with every play resembling a bareknuckle brawl that usually left offensive linemen down for the count. He found his way into the backfield for 111 career sacks,6 regularly ran down backs sideline to sideline, and occasionally even ran down receivers. Along with teammate Harvey Martin, White was named the MVP of Super Bowl XII, and he is still the only defensive tackle ever to claim the award.
Cortez Kennedy (1990-2000)
3 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Mean Awards
Cortez Kennedy, or Tez to Seahawks fans, was a dynamo in the middle of the Seattle defense. He possessed a rare combination of balance, understanding of leverage, explosiveness at the snap, and lower body strength. Tez is among the great run stuffers in history, using his incredible ability to anchor, diagnose, and disengage to ruin opposing rushing attacks. It is a testament to his production that he was named defensive player of the year in 1992, despite playing for a team that finished the season 2-14. He became the third player ever to win the AP’s award for a team with a losing record.7
Warren Sapp (1995-2007)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 1 GridFe Mean Award
Sapp was an excellent pass rusher from the 3-technique position, and his ability to consistently generate interior pressure helped the incredible Tampa defenses work. Despite his large carriage, he had excellent speed8 and a legendary first step that he often used to embarrass guards. He had elite production to match his boorish bravado, knifing through the line to bring down quarterbacks 102 times in the regular and postseason combined.
- Others receiving votes: Arnie Weinmeister*, Art Donovan, Ernie Stautner*, Henry Jordan*, Curley Culp*, John Randle, Bryant Young*, Pat Williams ↩
- Here, I’m referring to the fourth Fearsome Foursome, with Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, and Lamar Lundy. This is not to be confused with the Giants, Chargers, or Lions defensive lines that also picked up the nickname. ↩
- His 148.5 sacks are good enough for eighth on the career list and are 13 ahead of the next highest DT, John Randle. No other player who played primarily on the interior line comes close. ↩
- Or one of four, depending on how you treat the 1958 and 1960 awards that seem to confuse the AP itself. It’s either Page and Lawrence Taylor, or it’s Page, Taylor, Gino Marchetti, and Joe Schmidt. ↩
- Many sources incorrectly report that Greene earned a first team All Pro nod as a rookie in 1969. This did not happen. The first team tackles that year were Olsen and Lilly. ↩
- And 11.5 more in the playoffs. ↩
- He is one of five total, and the only one who was not an edge rusher. The others are Lawrence Taylor in 1982, Reggie White in 1987, Michael Strahan in 2001, and Jason Taylor in 2006. Of them, only Jason Taylor‘s Dolphins (6-10) were more than one game under .500. ↩
- He ran a 4.69 40 yard dash at roughly 300 pounds. ↩