DT Warren Sapp looms large and loud over today's NFL landscape
(Editor's Note: The theme of the November-December issue of NFL Insider is Ultimate Football -- as in Ultimate Football Lists of the greatest quarterbacks, running backs, coaches, rivalries, and more in NFL history. Only one concession was made: Active players and coaches are ranked separately from those who are retired. Following is NFL Insider's list of the greatest defensive players in the game today, compiled by Vic Carucci with input from Bill Walsh, Marv Levy, Don Shula and Ron Wolf.)
1. Warren Sapp He's big, quick, and tenacious -- not to mention noisy. Sapp is one of the game's rare characters who both plays and talks a good game. He is equally at home camping in the trenches and denying running room, or slipping a block, getting an angle, and chasing down a quarterback on a passing play. It's rare for a defensive tackle to be the most explosive member of his unit, but Sapp is nothing if not unusual.
2. Ray Lewis He put on a clinic in 2000, taking the helm of the best defense on the planet. Lewis can overtake scatbacks, drop back into pass coverage, and, when the mood strikes him, rush the passer. Speed is his greatest asset, followed closely by his tackling technique. He is the reason that so few teams execute lengthy drives against the Ravens. He's also the main reason they won Super Bowl XXXV, for which he was named MVP.
3. Jevon Kearse He might not leap tall buildings, but he can catch up with almost any quarterback. Kearse's first, quick move off the line of scrimmage gets him past most blockers, and his huge hands and enormous wingspan enable him to cut off a quarterback's escape paths. His 14½ sacks as a rookie in 1999 sounded an alarm throughout the league, which resulted in considerable double-teaming last year -- one of the few ways to contain him.
4. Charles Woodson He is one of the best in the business at man-for-man coverage, thereby enabling the Raiders the freedom to blitz or double-team other receivers. His speed is better than average, but technique is the real secret to his success. What else would you expect from a Heisman Trophy winner? His four interceptions last year came in spite of opponents trying their best to avoid challenging him.
5. Derrick Brooks He labors in the shadow of teammate Warren Sapp, but teammates know his worth. They voted him their most valuable player twice in his first six years. Brooks generally lines up at weakside linebacker, but he possesses the speed to cover the width of the field. He closes quickly and is a sure tackler -- he has led the team each of the past three years. His last Pro Bowl berth was his fourth in a row. 6. Zach Thomas He isn't gifted with great size (5-11, 235) or exceptional speed, but opponents say that Thomas is the most important player on Miami's defense. That's a tribute to his studying habits -- he spends hours upon hours reviewing film -- and a pugnacious attitude that gives him the air of a bulldog. Among his gifts is a shrewd assessment of game situations. Once he has seen a play, he doesn't get beaten on it again.
7. Champ Bailey How good is he on pass coverage? When Redskins opponents looked downfield last year, they preferred to challenge Deion Sanders. Bailey is the complete cornerback package -- great acceleration, terrific leaping ability and lightning reactions. He's good enough to recover even when he is out of position. Last year's harvest included five interceptions en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
8. Jessie Armstead He's the easiest player to find on the field. Just follow the ball. Armstead is the Giants' perennial tackles leader -- the heart and soul of a defense that propelled the club's Super Bowl run last year. A better-than-average pass defender, he excels at stopping the run, which might explain why Giants opponents gained only 3.2 yards per carry. Last season marked his fourth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl.
9. Junior Seau He isn't involved in every tackle the Chargers make; it only seems that way. His motor is constantly running, his eyes darting back and forth, presumably lining up the crosshairs before he delivers his next blow. Seau is the one unavoidable obstacle for any team playing San Diego -- and he has been for 11 years, the past 10 of which were punctuated with Pro Bowl appearances.
10. Rod Woodson No one does a better job of getting in front of enemy passes, as 58 career interceptions might suggest. Woodson was an excellent cornerback in Pittsburgh before a knee injury cost him a step. Now, he's an outstanding safety in Baltimore, which makes good use of his experience. About once a game, he lands a blow that reminds old friends how hard he can hit, but the Woodson of today is a guy who more often lives by his wits.