With another year of NFL in the books, the behemoths of the gridiron have added a new chapter to the NFL's book of devastating hits and ridiculous plays. Many football fans watch the game for its physical aspect, hoping to see a competition involving strong, determined beasts manhandling each other. Due to the intervention of a few bureaucrats in response to some lawsuits however, hitting is nearly illegal in the NFL.
Looking at it honestly, hits occur in American football in the form of a block or a tackle and while it is all well and good to disallow some forms of tackling, these new rules regarding hits to the head and "defenseless" receivers who aren't actually defenseless are causing problems for the watch-ability of the game. It now seems like the refs are paid per flag (especially with the new rules regulating contact with receivers) and hits that used to be known as good entertainment are now enough to have a player publicly shamed. In short, the game is still great, but some rules are hampering the product.
With that said, much like illegal substances, robbery, and bestiality, you can make them illegal, but people will still do it, and that is what is happening with big hits. Players are being fined a few thousand dollars (peanuts) and the hits have kept coming but now they are accompanied by flags and fines. Has the game changed monumentally? No, but what has been gained in player safety (next to nothing) has been viciously stripped from the entertainment value. My moping and complaining aside, however, the game has gone on and the hits, when they happen, are still devastating, and should continue to be. With that in mind, here is a rundown of twenty of the NFL's greatest hitters of all time. Time has been taken to include players from decades past but if your personal favorite is not present, angrily belch his name into the comments section, you mighty Sunday afternoon couch-bound warrior, you!
*All stats taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com
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20 Chuck Cecil
Free safety Chuck Cecil, drafted in 1988 out of Arizona, played seven years in the NFL and dished out some of the most brutal hits the league has ever seen. He got fined multiple times for his brutalizing hits that often targeted other players' heads, and would probably have been forced to take sensitivity training if he played today. Legal or not, his hitting style was intimidating and Cecil was a fearless hitter who was featured in Sports Illustrated with the tagline "Too Vicious for the NFL?" He was known to wear a helmet with extra padding to protect his head, but still sustained several concussions which forced him out of the league early. He now works as the defensive backs coach for the Rams.
19 Brian Urlacher
The Chicago Bears' brutalizer drafted in 2000 out of New Mexico didn't start out his football career at linebacker. He played receiver in high school and only started playing linebacker in college. While his 6'4, 260 lb frame is great for an inside backer, his speed is what really allowed him to tackle with incredible strength. While a player's forty time isn't always a great way to measure in-game speed, he showed off his 4.58 40 time over and over again, chasing down plenty of ball carriers and convincingly bringing them down.
18 Joe Greene
You don't get the name "Mean" Joe Greene for nothing. He was a great hitter, but it was his overall dominance at the defensive tackle position that made him great. He was strong enough to toss some offensive linemen and could put the hurt on just about anyone in the league, while possessing great speed for a 275 pounder. He was the central figure of the Steel Curtain and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers.
17 Ronnie Lott
Another of the best defensive players of all time, Ronnie Lott played cornerback and safety throughout his career and had heart, figuratively, coming out his ears. Putting his entire body into a hit on a running back much bigger than himself was routine for the four time Super Bowl winner. He was elected to the Hall of Fame back in 2000, as he was far from just a mean hitter. He also had sure hands for a DB, picking off 63 passes in his illustrious career.
16 Patrick Willis
Not only is San Francisco 49ers' linebacker Patrick Willis one of the best overall defenders in the NFL, he's also an intimidating hitter. Seven Pro Bowl appearances and five All-Pro seasons can't be wrong. Not only does he lead the defense, he also racks up tackles, interceptions, and can blitz with the best of them. Whether a running back, tight end or wide receiver, Willis can demolish them all. What's more, while plenty of his hits are just devastating transfers of force, he is also one of the soundest tacklers in the league, using great form on top of brute strength.
15 Chuck Bednarik
A linebacker who also played center, Bednarik was an absolute machine back in the 1960s and was one of the toughest players of all time. In 1960, he hit Frank Gifford so hard that he missed the next year. He played his entire career for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949 until 1962, later being elected to the Hall of Fame. While being one of the last two-way players the league has seen, Bednarik was also a devastating tackler and his (clean) hit on Gifford is just an example of the tenacity with which he played.
14 Kam Chancellor
While the entire Seahawks' defensive secondary like to call themselves the Legion of Boom, and they'd still be great without Kam Chancellor, they wouldn't be able to have a name like that. Sherman and Maxwell are good in coverage and Earl Thomas can hit, but Chancellor is a devastating hitter coming out of the secondary.
While some tight ends can run through a safety and plenty of running backs can put a safety on their back, Kam Chancellor can tackle them all and make them remember it.
13 Ray Nitschke
The career Green Bay Packer middle linebacker Ray Nitschke is our number 13, having dished out some of the greatest hits the league has ever seen over his fifteen years. He had great speed for his size but also had hands that could keep the ball out of a receiver's hands. along with a football sense that allowed him to frequently be first to the ball carrier. After that it was all strength, as he was a ferocious hitter who regularly knocked around blockers, receivers, and running backs alike. He was a key defensive asset for a Packers dynasty that won five NFL Championships and two Super Bowl victories.
12 Dick Lane
The "Night Train" holds the NFL record for most interceptions by a rookie with 14. While much can be said of his abilities in coverage, he was best known as a hard hitting corner. He would probably be higher on this list were it not for his style of hitting, which would see him fined multiple times per game in today's league. Lane was known to take opposing players out by the head or neck, with his hits looking like a judo throw as much as a football tackle. His seven Pro Bowls speak volumes about his ability, as he was an effective hitter and knew how to take guys out, despite not being physically imposing himself.
11 Steve Atwater
One of the most feared tacklers of the 1990s, Steve Atwater's decade in Denver saw some of the most devastating hits in league history. Even in today's NFL, Atwater, standing 6'3 and weighing 218 lbs is the perfect size for a hard hitting safety. The eight time Pro Bowl selection contributed to the Broncos' two Super Bowl winning years in the 90s. Despite his nearly 1,200 tackles throughout his career, Atwater is known for his devastating hit when he remained standing after knocking Christian Okoye
10 Ryan Clark
This one will likely bring some hate our way, but we consider Ryan Clark to be one of the most punishing hitters in the history of the NFL. Granted, many of his hits have been dirty and he has been fined, but this is an article detailing hardest hitters, not cleanest hitters, or most sportsmanlike hitters. Ryan Clark's victim list includes Willis McGahee, Santonio Holmes and, of course, Wes Welker. These may be among the most notorious of his hits, but Clark hit hard throughout his entire career and took as many hard hits as he delivered.
9 Andre Waters
The crushing hits of Andre Waters were the highlights of the Philadelphia Eagles from the mid 80s until 1993. After going undrafted in 1984, he was able to make a name for himself as one of the most intimidating tacklers in the league. He reached All-Pro status just once, and was known to hit as hard as he did because, to quote Ron Jaworski; "if you keep hitting people, eventually they don't want to get up." Waters tragically committed suicide back in 2006, having suffered from depression due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to ESPN.
8 John Lynch
Warren Sapp once referred to Lynch as "that hard-hitting white boy playing safety." None of those things are untrue, especially the "hard-hitting" part. Lynch was one of the best safeties in the history of the game and he put all of his weight, effort, and force into his opponent when he hit them. He could wrap up a ball carrier if necessary, but his angles were nearly perfect and he hit with such speed and determination that he could drop someone hitting high, low, or right at the waist.
7 Willie Lanier
The eleven year Kansas City Chief, who was selected to the Hall of Fame back in 1986, was not only one of the hardest hitters of his era, but also one of the most technically sound in the league's history. Lanier played a nearly perfect positional game, often being in the perfect place to put the hurt on a ball carrier. You don't get the nickname "Contact" without well...making contact. The eight time Pro Bowler was instrumental in the Kansas City Chiefs' victory in Super Bowl IV.
6 Ray Lewis
Like quite a few others on this list, Ray Lewis was by no means the most physically imposing players on the field in terms of size. 245 lbs and 6'1 isn't small by any means, but there are plenty of larger linebackers. He unleashed his unrelenting fury every time he got the chance to hit someone. In terms of intensity and motivation to put the hurt on people, it is difficult to find a better example than Ray Lewis.
5 Jack Tatum
For those who don't know, Jack Tatum was the defender who deflected the ball to Franco Harris during the famous play known as the Immaculate Reception. Outside of that one piece of trivia, Tatum, nicknamed "The Assassin," was a vicious hitter who not only hit hard but also hit receivers (not necessarily with malicious intent) while they were mid-air making a catch. Tatum once hit a New England receiver, Darryl Stingley, in such a way that he was paralyzed for the rest of his life. Tatum's hit, like many of his other devastating tackles, was legal at the time but would probably have had him suspended for a longtime in today's NFL.
4 Deacon Jones
Much like Jack Tatum's hit on Darryl Stingley caused the NFL to work to limit such violent hits, Deacon Jones' signature move, the head slap, was outlawed after smacking offensive linemen allowed him to gain what was later deemed an unfair edge. Deacon Jones was one of the fastest defensive linemen every to play the game and his speed, combined with his strength, was what made him such a dominant hitter. Whether a running back, receiver, or a quarterback, nobody was safe when he was on the field.
3 Lawrence Taylor
LT is widely considered the greatest defensive player in the history of the game. Few defenders could pass rush with the speed and explosiveness of the 10 year Pro Bowler. If you want to see a somewhat accurate portrayal of LT on and off the field, watch Any Given Sunday. He was essentially The Shark in real life. He was the most feared tackler in the league for years and could make offensive linemen look foolish, turning even the best quarterbacks into fools, picking pieces of sod out of their facemasks.
2 Jack Lambert
The Steelers' middle linebacker from their four Super Bowl wins in the late 1970s is our number two. Lambert had a look to him, and that look was one of a disgruntled, chainsaw wielding maniac who probably grew up in a small cabin in the woods. That's not a criticism, by the way, but merely an observation. Lambert looked like he might have been crazy. The lack of teeth and perpetually angry face were all that it took. Intimidating looks aside, he hit like a crazy person too, ripping offenses to shreds and making impressive tackles behind and close to the line.
1 Dick Butkus
Dick Butkus is what I imagine we would get if someone genetically combined a gorilla with a rabid pit bull. Ball carriers simply had nowhere to go when Butkus got a hand on them. He was one of those infuriating defenders who just made tackles and was consistently all over the field, mangling quarterbacks, running backs and receivers with brutality and force. Out of his nine years with the Bears, he earned eight Pro Bowl selections. If you want to talk about strength, Dick Butkus was one of those guys who would tackle a blocker and the ball carrier at the same time. In other cases, he'd just stop a play dead by pushing a blocker back into a runner. Like a great football player does, he put his weight and muscle into somebody on every play, and for his incredible career, he is the hardest hitter in NFL history.
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