Nine out of 10 NFL Network analysts agree: Former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defensive player of all time.
NFL Network recently asked 10 experts to rank their top three defensive players of all time, and all but one put Taylor in the No. 1 spot. The lone dissenter was former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
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Jones-Drew ranked Taylor as the third greatest of all time, behind Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders and current Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Here’s how Jones-Drew explained his ranking:
The most difficult position on defense is cornerback, and no one played it better than Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, whose swag and big-play ability at the position is unrivaled. Having to play on an island and shut down an entire half of the field every Sunday, and doing it successfully, makes him the best defensive player in my opinion. His six first-team All-Pro and eight Pro Bowl nods and one Defensive Player of the Year honor only adds to his greatness. Donald falls in line behind him after putting up gaudy numbers in every season of his career while facing double and triple teams. It’s incredible watching that man work firsthand every Sunday. Taylor rounds out my top three as a guy who completely changed how offenses game-planned for pass-rushers, introducing a new era in the process.
The rest of the analysts all said Taylor is the best ever. Those analysts were NFL.com writers Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Chad Reuter and Adam Rank; as well as former New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, former New York Giants executive Marc Ross, former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, former NFL cornerback DeAngelo Hall and former Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones.
Sanders only made two other analysts’ top three, so MJD having him as No. 1 on his list is a serious outlier. Ranking Donald ahead of Taylor makes a little more sense, due to recency bias and the fact that they are two of only three players in NFL history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award three times. The only other player to win the award three times is former Houston Texans and current Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who was somehow snubbed from all 10 analysts’ rankings entirely.
The Single Accolade That Sets LT Apart
The factor that truly separates Taylor from everyone else is his 1986 NFL Most Valuable Player award. He and former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page are the only defensive players in NFL history to be named league MVP.
“There’s no disputing the best offensive player in NFL history (Tom Brady),” James Jones wrote for NFL.com. “If we’re all being honest with ourselves, the best defensive player of all time is clear cut as well. It’s Lawrence Taylor. It’s unheard of for a non-quarterback to win the MVP award, let alone a defensive player.”
Taylor had 20.5 sacks that season and led the Giants to a decisive victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.
Sanders, by comparison, received one (1) vote for MVP in 1994 but was never a legitimate contender to win the award.
Could Aaron Donald One Day Surpass LT?
Given the trajectory of the NFL, it is extremely unlikely that Aaron Donald ever wins an MVP award. That said, he’s only 31 years old and has the best shot of any active player to one day eclipse Taylor’s legacy.
Donald could certainly become the first to win a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award (he has won three of the past five), but he still trails Taylor by one All-Pro bid and 34.5 (official) sacks. If Donald passes Taylor in all three of those categories, then you could make a case for him as the greatest defensive player of all time even without a league MVP.