Top 10 defensive backs in NFL history
Few roles have changed over the years like those for defensive backs, who have evolved from just pass defenders to players who help with the pass rush and the return game.
Here are the 10 best players to ever play in the defensive backfield in NFL history.
10. Charles Woodson
Teams: Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers
Accolades: 1997 Heisman Trophy, Super Bowl champion, 8x NFL All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl, 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1998 Defensive Rookie of the Year
Years active: 1998-2015
The only Heisman Trophy winner on our list, Woodson was an outstanding cornerback and punt returner, who also excelled as a pass rusher. Woodson is the only player in the history of the league to register at least 20 sacks and 60 interceptions.
Woodson’s 13 defensive touchdowns are tied for an NFL record, and his 65 interceptions rank in the top five in league history. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot he appeared and is set to be enshrined in a few weeks.
9. Ken Houston
Teams: Houston Oilers, Washington Football Team
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 12x NFL All-Pro, 12x Pro Bowl
Years active: 1967-1980
Houston’s rise to a ball-hawking defender surprised many, considering he played offensive lineman and linebacker in college. However, he amassed 49 interceptions in his NFL career, along with 21 recovered fumbles.
Houston returned nine interceptions for touchdowns, which ranks fifth in NFL history, and returned another three fumbles for scores. His five defensive touchdowns in a single season are a league record, as are his 12 Pro Bowl selections as a defensive back.
8. Mike Haynes
Teams: New England Patriots, Los Angeles Raiders
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, Super Bowl champion, 8x NFL All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl, 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1976 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
Years active: 1976-1989
Along with fellow Hall of Famer Lester Hayes, Haynes formed what is considered one of the greatest cornerback pairings in the history of the NFL, and they helped lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1983.
Haynes picked off eight passes his rookie season, en route to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. It was an amazing feat, considering he was a wide receiver entering college.
In 1984, Haynes won Defensive Player of the Year, and he returned six interceptions for a staggering 220 yards. He recorded 46 interceptions in his career and is one of the only players to have his number retired by the Patriots.
7. Darrell Green
Teams: Washington Football Team
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 2x Super Bowl champion, 4x NFL All-Pro, 7x Pro Bowl
Years active: 1983-2002
The oldest player in NFL history to line up in the defensive backfield, Green played for 20 years and 295 games (both records for a DB) and retired at age 42. His 19 consecutive seasons with at least one interception is an NFL record that could stand the test of time, as he is the only player to pick off a pass in his 40s.
Green made up for his smaller frame with exceptional speed and toughness, and he helped lead Washington to a pair of Super Bowl victories in the 1980s. Green was also named the NFL Man of the Year in 1996.
6. Dick "Night Train" Lane
Teams: Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 7x NFL All-Pro, 7x Pro Bowl
Years active: 1952-65
This was one train whose tracks you did not want to cross, because “Night Train” Lane hit with a ferocity that left offensive players in pain. Known for the “Night Train Necktie” tackle, a clothesline-style takedown that was ultimately banned, Lane would bait quarterbacks into throwing his way and then either jump the route for an interception or hit the receiver with devastating force.
Lane’s 14 interceptions as a rookie is a record that may never fall, and he achieved the feat in just 12 games. His 68 interceptions rank fourth, and he also ranks in the top 10 in interception return yardage. Not bad for a player who went undrafted, after four years in the Army.
5. Deion Sanders
Teams: Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 2x Super Bowl champion, 6x NFL All-Pro, 8x Pro Bowl, 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Years active: 1989-2000, 2004-05
There isn’t a flashier or more exciting player on the list than "Neon Deion," a speed freak who played both in the NFL and as an MLB outfielder the first seven years of his NFL career. He won Super Bowls in consecutive years, with the Cowboys and then the 49ers.
“Prime Time” was not only an outstanding cornerback, but he was explosive in the return game and is one of just two players in NFL history to score touchdowns in six different ways. During his career, Sanders returned nine interceptions, six punts, three kickoffs, and one fumble for touchdowns, in addition to three touchdowns receptions and a rushing score on offense.
His interceptions returned for touchdowns rank in the top 10 in league history, and he ranks fourth in interception return yardage.
4. Ed Reed
Teams: Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, New York Jets
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, Super Bowl champion, 8x NFL All-Pro, 9x Pro Bowl, 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Years active: 2002-2013
As an offensive player, if you did not know where Reed was, you were likely about to get hit by him. As a punter, you also knew exactly where he was. Reed’s ability to intercept passes and block punts was in large part due to his freakish athleticism and his strength.
Reed blocked four punts in his career and returned three for touchdowns. Both are NFL records.
Reed ranks top 10 in defensive touchdowns and interceptions, and his 1,590 interception returns yards and nine playoff interceptions are NFL records.
Reed also led the NFL three times in interceptions and is considered by many to be the best coverage safety the league has ever seen.
3. Rod Woodson
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, Super Bowl champion, 8x NFL All-Pro, 11x Pro Bowl, 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Years active: 1987-2003
Woodson’s speed made him a terror for years in the NFL, not just as a defensive back but as a punt returner.
His size and strength allowed him to dominate at cornerback, and when he moved to safety later in his career, he was able to ball hawk even more. His 71 interceptions rank third in NFL history, and twice he led the league in picks in a season.
Woodson’s 12 interceptions returned for touchdowns are the most in NFL history, and only one player had more than his 1,483 interception return yards. He also holds a league record for fumble recoveries (32) and won a Super Bowl as part of the 1999 Baltimore Ravens, arguably the most dominant defense in league history
2. Mel Blount
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 4x Super Bowl champion, 6x NFL All-Pro, 5x Pro Bowl, 1975 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Years active: 1970-1983
Blount was was a physical monster, who could run with nearly every wide receiver in the league, and his imposing bump-and-run style forced the NFL to implement a rule change barring contact five yards past the line of scrimmage, which Blount took as a personal insult.
His 57 interceptions were topped by just one player during his 14-year NFL career, and he recorded at least one in each season he played.
During his 1975 Defensive Player of the Year campaign, he picked off 11 passes and did not allow a receiving touchdown.
He won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, and it was his interception in Super Bowl XIII that led to Pittsburgh’s game-winning drive
1. Ronnie Lott
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets
Accolades: Hall of Fame, NFL 100 All-Time Team, 4x Super Bowl champion, 8x NFL All-Pro, 10x Pro Bowl
Years active: 1981-1994
While most players on the list were stellar at either cornerback or safety, Lott excelled at both.
He was named All-Pro at corner, free safety, and strong safety in his career, and his speed and strength terrorized any receiver who went across the middle.
Lott’s toughness was amplified by the fact that he chose to have the top of his left pinky finger amputated, rather than undergo cosmetic surgery that would have cost him games.
Lott ranks in the top 10 in interceptions (63) and led the league in the statistic in two different seasons. His nine postseason interceptions are tied for the most in league history.