This was a tough spot to decipher, especially with a key stat — sacks — only becoming official in the NFL annals in the early 1980s. That really hurts the candidacy for some of the old guard at the position, although I sincerely did try to honor that generation properly.
Ultimately, my picks have a more modern feel. But with two stars from the 1980s and 90s, one who played a generation after that and one who is still active today, my four picks do have a modern feel. However, I feel my choices represent the best two-way stars of their respective eras.
The all-time NFL sacks leader, Smith played a whopping 19 NFL seasons — 13 of them with 10 or more sacks — and rightfully was named to both the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams.
After a few early-career injuries, Smith was shockingly reliable and dependable in the second half of his career, seldom missing games (only five over his final 11 seasons). And you really could make the case he was a better player in his 30s than he was in his 20s, which is just remarkable. Lost in the Bills’ playoff loss in the “Music City Miracle” game to the Titans was Smith’s 2.5-sack effort, harassing Steve McNair all game. It was Smith’s final game in a Bills uniform.
In addition to being a dominant power and speed rusher, Smith also was a terrific run-game eraser. Oh, and he was as good at knocking the ball out as any end in his era. Truly dominant in almost every facet.
The “Minister of Defense” was only two sacks behind Smith’s 200 all time, and White collected that total despite playing 47 fewer regular-season games. He’s the Eagles’ all-time sacks leaders, registering more of them (124) than he totaled games played (121) in his eight seasons in Philly. And at the time he left the Packers in 1999, White was that franchise’s leader in sacks — 68.5 in 98 games — before Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila overtook him a decade later.
With 12 seasons including 10 or more sacks, three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards (spanning 12 years between them) and All-Pro first or second team in 13 of his 15 seasons, White’s qualifications are clear.
He also left us far too soon, dying one week after his 43rd birthday and just two days after Christmas. I was scheduled to interview him the day after he died, too, so White is seldom too far from my thoughts when it’s late December and the anniversary of his death comes around.
I can see why others might choose Deacon Jones or Howie Long or Julius Peppers or any number of players here over Taylor. But he truly was a dominant defender whose late-career work — especially as a stand-up performer — to me is shockingly underrated. There were few more versatile and impactful players in the era of the sack than Taylor, and that’s a hill I am willing to die on.
A truly special player who collected a stunning 139.5 sacks, 46 forced fumbles, 29 recoveries (six run back for touchdowns), eight interceptions (three run back for scores) and three safeties. Taylor’s lack of team success hurt him, but he’s good enough to make my Team for the Ages with ease.
Even if he never dominates again the way he did in his first seven-plus seasons in the NFL, there hasn’t been a more imposing and impactful defender in the trenches over the past two decades for that length of time. And something tells me Watt still has some juice left in him despite a bad season-ending injury in 2017.
Now you've seen Eric's Team for the Ages DE corps, it's time to vote for your best imaginable 50-player modern-era roster, which automatically enters you to win a free trip to Atlanta in February for the "Big Game."