Discuss: Who is the greatest defensive player in NFL history?

Getty Images

It all depends what you prefer as a consumer of this sport, right?

A showboating playmaker in the secondary. A tackling machine serving as the heartbeat of a defense. A pass rusher who’s batting around the quarterback all game. Maybe it’s raw toughness you seek, a badass like Ronnie Lott who’ll chop off his pinkie finger to keep playing.

There are many candidates: Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Deion Sanders, Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene, Ray Lewis, even Aaron Donald deserves to be on a short list at this point. And Buffalo Bills legend Bruce Smith — who has sacked more quarterbacks than anyone in NFL history — warrants a seat at the table. Nobody may ever touch his 200-sack mark, and let’s not forget he did all of his damage in a 3-4 scheme.

We had a Q&A with Smith here soon after launching and, this week, I added that conversation to the podcast feed. That audio is available on Apple and Spotify and the player embedded below. With July 4th around the corner, Smith’s wild stories about visiting troops in Iraq is worth revisiting. Once overseas, he thought he was under attack and Smith hit the deck.


When it came to football? His legacy? Bruce Smith will make you think…

“When we say that body of work, it wasn’t over four, five years or eight or nine years. We’re talking about a 19-year body of work. Nineteen years in a 3-4 defensive scheme, where when you put your hand in the dirt, that’s a man’s world. No disrespect to the wide receivers, to the defensive backs, running backs but when you play on the defensive line, that is a man’s world.

“How do I want to be remembered? This is not gloating or boasting or bragging. It’s just stating it: The all-time sack leader. More tackles in NFL history than any other defensive linemen who ever played in the game. So that body of work speaks for itself and I can leave it at that.”

Nor did Smith have the benefit of a dangerous pass rusher on the other side.

“You have to throw Reggie out there. Reggie had Clyde Simmons and Sean Jones. They both had over 110 sacks. I think Clyde had 113 and Sean Jones had 121. The closest I had was Phil Hansen who had 60.

“In a 3-4 defensive line, you’re known for making tackles. In a 4-3, you’re known for making sacks. But to have that combination of being able to do both speaks for itself.”

And his style of play?

“Totally and completely different than any other in that era. Leverage. Speed. Athleticism. Power. Agility. And I got a lot of those athletic qualities from playing basketball and having balance. And even though I was a bigger man, when I lost all of that weight, it provided me with endurance. Once I did that, that’s when I became a player who could play for a whole game and then when I put it together — the football IQ of being able to break down the strengths and weaknesses of an offensive lineman and then when I learned the tendencies of certain offenses when they lined up in certain formations from Chuck Lester and Ted Cottrell — that’s when that light switch went off and, as they say, the rest is history.”

The Buffalo Bills fans reading may have a Bruce Smith story or two to share. There’s a case to be made.

The vote here? Reggie White. He won defensive player of the year 11 years apart for two different teams, all while averaging an all-time best 0.85 sacks per game for his career. That’s nuts. His dominance was unparalleled and his willingness to play in Green Bay — the NFL’s Siberia at the advent of free agency — helped change the Packers franchise forever.

Let your voice be heard below. Thanks, everyone.