The 2021 season has already seen plenty of exciting moments, as well as numerous shocks – who saw the Arizona Cardinals being so dominant? However, not everything has changed. Tom Brady continues to age like a fine wine while defensive phenoms such as Myles Garrett and Aaron Donald tear apart offensive lines and torment quarterbacks – no surprises there.
So, with Halloween fast approaching, Pickswise decided to run through the scariest players in the NFL since the turn of the century to see how these stars stand up against the greats. Any player that featured in the 2000 season or later was eligible, but only the seasons from this point onwards have been taken into consideration, so fearsome talents such as Reggie White and Deion Sanders miss out.
All these players are sure to have featured in the nightmares of opposition coordinators at some point or another due to their game-changing ability.
10. Myles Garrett
First on the list is the gargantuan Myles Garrett. The reawakening of the Cleveland Browns has been one of the main talking points over the last few seasons with Myles Garrett playing a key part as the defensive linchpin.
His sheer physical profile makes him scary to come up against as the Chicago Bears offense will recently attest to – Garrett set a franchise record with four and a half sacks. He followed that up with a highlight reel moment against the Minnesota Vikings as he tore through Rashod Hill before forcing Kirk Cousins to throw the ball away. Mason Rudolph can also vouch for being on the wrong side of him as Garrett ripped off his helmet and used it as a weapon to attack him in 2019.
After the Rudolph incident, Garrett was fined an additional $45,623 on top of his indefinite suspension for a minimum of the final six games of this season and playoffs. The six-game checks cost him about $1.14 million.
Key stat: Garrett is 4th in sacks since being drafted number one overall in 2017 with an impressive 52 sacks in 58 games played.
9. Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch inspired a generation of fans with his relentless style and unwillingness to talk to the media. His nickname ‘Beast Mode’ was well-earned as he regularly made light work of defenders even when it looked like he was contained.
The lack of openness with the media only added to his mystique as he was purely focused on turning up and helping his team win. His presence in the team coincided with the Seattle Seahawks’ most successful period as the ‘Legion of Boom’ combined with a Russell Wilson and Lynch-led offense to create a scary proposition for opposing teams.
Key Stat: Before his initial retirement in 2016, Lynch had 5,645 career rushing yards… after contact.
8. Ed Reed
Ed Reed may not have been the most physically intimidating player, but he would scare the hell out of quarterbacks by luring them into interception traps. Many a top quarterback found themselves tricked by the ‘Ball Hawk’, including Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
His career is a testament to brains over brawn as he was regularly able to outwit quarterbacks through his in-depth preparation, although he was still a tough tackler as can be seen with the fine he received for repeated unnecessary roughness calls. Most importantly, he turned up for the big games as he is tied for the record of most postseason interceptions, with one of those coming in the Super Bowl XLVII victory against the San Francisco 49ers.
Key stat: Since coming into the league in 2002, Ed Reed has caught the most interceptions, with 64 picks.
7. JJ Watt
JJ Watt may be a nice guy off the pitch but he is a mean sack machine on it. Injuries have limited him to playing only seven full regular seasons, but he has already recorded over 100 sacks in his career.
His stats speak for themselves as he is the only player to record multiple 20-sack seasons and sits alongside Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald as the only players to have won the Defensive Player of the Year award three times, as well as receiving 13 votes in 2014 for the offense-dominated MVP award. He would certainly feature higher if his likeable personality didn’t undercut his impressive numbers.
Key stat: Since coming into the league in 2011, Watt is joint 2nd in total sacks (102). He’s also the only player in NFL history with multiple 20+ sack seasons.
6. Derrick Henry
The Tennessee Titans running back has made many a defender look tiny with his rampaging runs through defenses. The 250-pound behemoth has the right mix of strength, speed and agility to make small openings seem like massive gaps as he blows right through them.
His highlight reels are the stuff of legend as he regularly sits players down on the way to a touchdown. Unfortunately, for defensive coordinators, he is set to be a recurring nightmare as his stats have jumped considerably each season.
Unsurprisingly, he is part of the exclusive ‘2000 yard club’ and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be the first to repeat that achievement as the Titans offense certainly makes the best use of his abilities.
Key stat: In the first six weeks of the 2021 NFL season, Derrick Henry (783) rushed for 260 more yards than the next closest player (523).
5. DeMarcus Ware
DeMarcus Ware was a sack machine during his time in the NFL, eight out of his 12 seasons in the league saw him reach double figures. Constantly in the periphery of a quarterback’s vision like a shadow, Ware would regularly ghost through offensive lines to get to his intended victim.
The 39-year-old sits ninth in the all-time sacks leaders list with 138.5 and led the league twice with the most sacks in a season. However, to truly appreciate his greatness, his career length should also be considered as he only played for 11 years and still put up scary numbers.
Key stat: Between the 2005 and 2016 seasons (his career), DeMarcus Ware had the most sacks, with 138.5.
4. Ray Lewis
Part of two Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl-winning sides, Ray Lewis was a fearsome opponent on the field. His accolades speak for themselves as he was the Super Bowl XXXV MVP, which makes one of only four linebackers to win the award, while also holding the record for most combined and solo tackles in the NFL.
A loud individual on the field, opponents and teammates knew when he was in the game. This energy was a huge part of his game as he was an intense presence that shut down the opposing offense in any way possible. His versatility meant a wide range of offensive players came up against him, but they often ended up coming out of it worse.
Key stat: Lewis stands at 2nd overall in career tackles per game (6.43), only trailing 49ers legend Patrick Willis.
3. Aaron Donald
Picking Aaron Donald in the first round of the 2014 draft is one of the best decisions the Los Angeles Rams (or the St Louis Rams as they were known then) have ever made even if they are yet to win a Super Bowl with him.
He has quickly become the best defensive player in the league with three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Key stat: The 30-year-old leads the league in sacks since he was taken 13th overall – recording a jaw dropping 89 sacks in 116 games played.
2. Michael Strahan
On the edge of the defence, Michael Strahan made a habit of bulldozing his way through players to deliver bone-crunching tackles on unsuspecting quarterbacks. It may have taken him a while to get used to the demands of the league, but he certainly made his mark.
His final season saw him feature as part of a formidable defensive line that saw off Brady and the Patriots in the 2007 season when they stopped what would have been a legendary unbeaten run. The unrelenting pass rush was a key factor in the Giants’ win and we’re sure Brady and Bill Belichick have replayed that game many times in their heads in an attempt to banish the demons.
Key stat: No other player in history has managed to top his single season sack record, when he recorded a whopping 22.5 sacks in 2001.
1. James Harrison
One of the strongest players in the league at his peak, James Harrison more than made up for his perceived lack of height and weight to play linebacker early on in his career. A master of the dark arts, he may have been fined on numerous occasions, but that didn’t help the players who came up against him – just ask Mohammed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs who were knocked out by him in the same game.
Considering Pittsburgh Steelers’ rich history, Harrison’s franchise sacks record is hugely impressive and highlights his longevity. The 2008 season has to be the highlight as he was a menace for quarterbacks with 17 sacks and even recorded a 100-yard pick six in the Super Bowl XXXI victory. His combination of dirty tactics, including late hits on quarterbacks and numerous unnecessary roughness calls throughout his career, as well as impressive numbers sees him top this list, but if Donald continues his trajectory then he could very easily jump to the top.
Key stat: Harrison racked up fines in excess of $100,000 in the 2010 season for multiple late/dirty hits.