The most important position on the football field is the quarterback position. But the second most important position in football is the guys who tackle the quarterback. Defensive ends, edge rushers, and defensive tackles have a lot of jobs, but for the most part, their main one is getting after the quarterback.
Quarterbacks at the NFL level can make any throw if they have all day in the pocket, so NFL coaches have leaned heavily on having elite-level sack artists who can rush the passer and make the quarterback's life miserable. The sack has always been an important part of football, even before it was an officially recorded statistic (starting in 1982). So with that being said, here are the ten best sack artists in NFL history.
10. Julius Peppers
Julius Peppers had a long and successful career getting after quarterbacks. Peppers started his career off as the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002 and then went on to earn nine Pro Bowl selections. The star defensive end ranks lower on this list because he was rarely the best pass rusher in the league at any given point in his career, but he is worthy of a spot because he was a consistent force for a long time, playing 17 years in the NFL. Peppers' longevity allowed him to finish fourth all-time with 159.5 career sacks.
Peppers is a member of both the 2000s All-Decade Team and the 2010s All-Decade Team, a testament to his durability and longevity. His 52 forced fumbles are also the second most ever in the history of the league.
9. Derrick Thomas
On January 23rd, 2000, Derrick Thomas was in a severe car crash that left the pass rusher paralyzed from the chest down. He tragically died on February 8th of that year, only 37 days after his last sack in the NFL. Thomas' death was heartbreaking and left fans wondering what his career could have been had it not been cut short.
Thomas still accomplished a lot as a sack artist in his NFL career. He led the 1990s (an era many view as the golden standard for pass rushing) in sacks, and he had 126.5 sacks in his career, a number that ranked 9th all-time at the time of his passing and now sits as the 17th-highest total ever. The Kansas City Chiefs star was a master at the strip sack, forcing 41 fumbles over his career, and if it weren't for his untimely death, Thomas would have likely ranked higher on this list.
8. Michael Strahan
A lifelong member of the New York Giants, Michael Strahan is tied with T.J. Watt for the most sacks in a single season with 22.5. The 2001 season in which Strahan accomplished the feat is one of the best individual seasons in NFL history, as he also was tied for the league lead in forced fumbles, and unsurprisingly won Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
Strahan wasn't a one-trick pony, though. He went to seven Pro Bowls and was First-Team All-Pro four times.
Strahan has a charming personality, and people may smile when looking at the gap in his teeth, but on the football field, he was a terror for opposing linemen.
7. Von Miller
Von Miller redefined what it means to be a pass rusher, making executives and coaches further emphasize the edge position. Miller prototypically wins with speed. He is a 3-4 outside linebacker, so he starts in an upright position and not with his hand in the dirt. Miller is lightning quick getting off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped, and he has an uncanny ability to perfectly time snaps. If Miller didn't beat a lineman with his initial jump, then he is likely to do it with his ability to dip or bend around tackles. When rushing from the outside, Miller is able to angle his body to the point where it seems like he is about to fall over. He somehow stays upright and maintains his power and speed, making it nearly impossible for the bigger and less agile offensive lineman to block.
Miller's technique is unmatched, but his accolades aren't too shabby either, as the 2011 Rookie of the Year has produced his entire career. He is a three-time First-Team All-Pro, four-time Second-Team All-Pro, and eight-time Pro Bowler. The peak of Miller's career came in 2015 as part of one of the best defenses ever with the Denver Broncos “No Fly Zone.” Miller forced the ball quickly out of the quarterback's hands, allowing the legendary defensive backs behind him to feast. His 2015 campaign culminated with a win in Super Bowl 50, in which he won Super Bowl MVP.
In Miller's first season away from the Broncos, he won another Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams. Now on the Buffalo Bills, Miller is a part of one of the best defenses in the NFL and will look to add another ring to his collection. He has 123.5 sacks in his career, which is the highest total among active players.
6. Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald is the best interior pass rusher ever. Donald has played his entire career as a defensive tackle, a position where it is much harder to get after the quarterback. While most defensive tackles take double teams and stop the run, Donald has managed to surpass the 100-sack mark in his career, proving his elite abilities as a sack artist. His 103 sacks put him 34th all-time, and he is still going strong. And even more impressively he is racking up sacks against double or even triple teams.
Donald is undersized for a defensive tackle, weighing only 285 pounds, but he is nearly impossible to block. Playing on the interior, he blows up the offensive line and ruins the pocket, making it hard for quarterbacks to step up and make throws. No one has ever used leverage to their advantage as well as Donald, who is one of the strongest players in NFL history.
The defensive tackle has spent his entire career with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. He is one of three players to be named the Defensive Player of the Year three times, and his 20.5 sacks in 2018 are the most ever by a defensive tackle. Donald is a seven-time First-Team All-Pro and a nine-time Pro Bowler as well.
5. J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt was on pace to become the greatest defensive player ever, but injuries limited his time on the field in the NFL. Still, Watt had arguably the greatest prime ever, and he did that in large part by being a dominant sack artist.
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Watt, who retired after the 2022 season, won Defensive Player of the Year three times over a four-year span. In those prime years from 2012-2015, Watt did everything. He could stop the run and even catch touchdown passes offensively. But this list is only about sacks, and he did that better than almost anyone as well. Watt twice led the league in sacks, and he finished his career with 114.5, 24th all-time.
Watt is the only player to officially have over 20 sacks in multiple seasons. He outworked and out-hustled everyone and was going to do whatever it took to get after the quarterback. His sacking ability was enhanced by his ability to bat balls down at the line of scrimmage. The unique skill set made quarterbacks hesitate before throwing the ball, allowing Watt more time to get to them for the sack.
4. Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith knew how to get sacks. The defensive end is the all-time NFL leader in sacks with 200. Smith played 19 seasons in the NFL, the second most ever for a defensive player. While the longevity certainly helps Smith's all-time numbers, his career was still incredibly impressive, and he did have a good prime, evident by his two Defensive Player of the Year trophies.
Smith had 13 seasons with double-digit sacks and had at least one sack in all 19 of his seasons, both of which are NFL records, and he was an integral part of the Buffalo Bills appearing in four straight Super Bowls. Even with Smith's prolonged ability to get after the passer, he doesn't rank higher on this list because he only had two seasons with at least 15 sacks. He was consistently great, but he wasn't quite as great as the guys ahead of him on this list during their respective peaks.
3. Reggie White
While Bruce Smith is the only player to get to 200 sacks, Reggie White had 198 during his career (second most ever) in four fewer seasons. White won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987 and then again over a decade later in 1998. The 13-time Pro Bowler twice led the league in sacks.
Most impressively, White had 21 sacks in a 12-game, strike-shortened season in 1987. He would have surely eclipsed the single-season sack record had he played a full season.
2. Deacon Jones
Deacon Jones was a victim of playing before the sack was an officially recorded statistic, but he was so unstoppable at tackling the quarterback that the league named the award for leading the league in sacks after him. Jones has an unofficial total of 173.5 sacks, which would be the third highest total in the history of the league.
Nicknamed “the Secretary of Defense”, Jones is the original master of the sack. Jones won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, was an eight-time Pro Bowler, and unofficially led the league in sacks five times.
Jones' 1967 season was one of the scariest in football history. Researchers have discovered that he sacked the quarterback up to 26 times, a number that blows the official record out of the water, and he managed to do this in a shorter 14-game season. However, some historians claim that he only had 21.5 sacks during that season. Regardless, Jones was ahead of his time, and he is one of the main reasons the sack became as important as it did. He is even credited as the person who named the sack its name.
1. Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor is the most dominant force and the best defensive player in NFL history. Taylor was feared by opponents. The first player to ever win the Defensive Player of the Year award three times, Taylor was arguably the best player in football in the 1980s, regardless of which side of the ball he played on.
The 1986 sacks leader, Taylor, was a 10-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time First-Team All-Pro member. Throw in two Super Bowl wins, and few players can match his accomplishments. Taylor was only the second defensive player to win the league's MVP award, and no one has done it since. His MVP award is one of the most impressive ever, considering voters would always prefer to give the award to an offensive player.
On top of all of that, Taylor didn't even play his entire career with sacks as an official statistic. His 132.5 official sacks all came with the New York Giants, but had sacks been officially recorded in his rookie year, he would have been sixth all-time with 142 sacks.