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Best Sports Debates - Best NFL Defensive Back Ever

A defensive back, a cornerback or safety, has a few jobs. You gotta be able to defend passes. It's even better if you can pick them off. You gotta be able to tackle, both the receivers, if you let them catch the ball, and all rushers if they get that far. And on blitzes, you gotta be able to bring down the QB.

Unlike some of the other sports debates, this one can't be done with stats alone. Why? Well, the NFL didn't start tracking some of these stats until "recent" times. For example, a sack wasn't tracked as a stat until 1982. So, I'll state right here that this "best ever" will be a bit subjective.

One of the stats that has been tracked for a while, which we can look at here, is interceptions. So, who are the all-time leaders?

Paul Krause - 81 total, 0.36 per game (regular season)
Emlen Tunnel - 79 total, 0.47 per game
Rod Woodson - 71 total, 0.30 per game

Dick "Night Train" Lane - 68 total, 0.43 per game
Ken Riley - 65 total, 0.31 per game

Okay, so once a defensive back makes the interception, what do you want him to do? If you're like most coaches, you want him to fall to the ground so your offense can take over! But, some coaches actually do want them to run with the ball, and gain as many yards as possible. So, of the five DBs above, who has gained the most yards on INTs?

Rod Woodson - 1,483 yards, 20.89 yards per INT (regular season)
Emlen Tunnel - 1,282 yards, 16.23 yards per INT
Dick "Night Train" Lane - 1,207 yards, 17.75 yards per INT
Paul Krause - 1,185 yards, 14.63 yards per InT
Ken Riley - 596 yards, 9.17 yards per INT

Incidentally, Ed Reed, Darren Sharper and Deion Sanders are all in the top 5 all-time for INT return yards. And, you can make a case that they have less interceptions total, due to the fact that QBs didn't throw their way as much. It's a valid argument. But, without the stat going back in NFL history to look at how many times the receiver they were covering was "targeted", we won't be able to look at the argument objectively. But we can certainly take the subjective view into consideration for this discussion.

Now let's look at some more subjective stuff, while we're on that topic. First off, you've probably heard of the NFL's 75th anniversary all-time team, right? It was voted on by media and NFL personnel in 1994. So which defensive backs made that list? Here they are:

Rod Woodson
Dick "Night Train" Lane
Mel Blount
Mike Haynes
Ken Houston
Ronnie Lott
Larry Wilson

Okay, so there's one list combining cornerbacks and safeties. And we see that Dick Lane and Rod Woodson are on both lists.

Let's now look at one NFL expert and writer's list. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who has spent many years covering the NFL, and has proven his NFL knowledge, ranked his top all-time NFL cornerbacks. Who were the top 5?

1. Dick "Night Train" Lane
2. Mel Blount
3. Mike Haynes
4. Rod Woodson
5. Deion Sanders

There are those Dick Lane and Rod Woodson guys again.

A list put together by SI.com's Peter King in 2007 lists Dick Lane and Deion Sanders as the two best cornerbacks ever.

So, with the above information, two things have cleared up for me. Number 1: Dick "Night Train" Lane can be considered the best defensive back of all-time. (Rod Woodson comes in a close second).  Number 2: I am probably going to have to put out a separate list just for safeties. Look for that in a future post.

Other Best Sports Debates
Best NFL QB Ever
Best NFL Running Back Ever

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