Here are the hardest hitters in NFL history

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

It’s a given that anyone who makes an NFL roster as a defensive starter knows how to tackle, but some hit much harder than others. While helmet-cracking hits are mostly a thing of the past — and that’s honestly not a bad thing — there have been plenty of players who built their reputations on delivering them.

Based on quotes from other players and reports from experts on the game, we’ve collected our picks for the hardest hitters to ever suit up in the NFL. From linebackers to defensive backs and even linemen, these are the guys who made some of the toughest men on the planet wince every time they touched the ball.

30. Howie Long

He may flash that brilliant smile as an analyst on Fox and as he hawks comfy dad shoes in commercials these days but Howie Long was a straight-up brute during his playing career. In fact, he earned the nickname, “Caveman,” for his minimal knowledge about the intricacies of the game as a rookie, as he explained in a 1987 NFL Films special about the league’s hardest hitters. Long was such a natural and punishing tackler, the then-Oakland Raiders took a risk and drafted him in the second round and played him in all 16 games in 1981.

The Hall-of-Fame defensive lineman was a constant presence in the Pro Bowl during the 1980s, as fans loved his relentless rush on opposing passers.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

29. Roy Williams

You’ll notice several players on this list whose hitting style led directly to NFL rule changes because of the danger it posed to other players. Former Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams is one of them, as his penchant for horse-collar tackles led the league to overwhelmingly vote to ban them in 2005. Williams seriously injured four players during the 2004 season alone with his tackling style, leading the new rule to be dubbed the “Roy Williams Rule.”

It’s been said that the five-time Pro Bowler would’ve been a legendary player in an earlier era but Williams had the bad luck to enter the league in 2002, when truly dangerous hits were no longer popular within the league.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

28. Robert Mathis

Defensive linemen typically don’t get to build up the kind of running speed that makes for earth-shaking hits but Robert Mathis overcame that and slammed quarterbacks like a truck. Considering that he’s the NFL’s all-time leader in fumbles forced, his hitting style certainly deserves to be spotlighted as punishing. The self-described “quarterback hater” and Indianapolis Colts lifer once sacked ex-teammate Peyton Manning so hard that he reportedly diminished his throwing strength for the rest of the game.

AP Photo/AJ Mast

27. Patrick Willis

It probably won’t shock you to know that Patrick Willis was coached by Mike Singletary for the first four years of his NFL career. It seems that hard-hitting icon — whom we’ll get to in a moment — passed his knowledge about punishing ball carriers down to the former San Francisco 49ers star. In a 2014 anonymous survey of NFL players, Willis was named the fourth most-feared defensive player in the league and that was at the very end of his career.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz once said that Willis hit him so hard during a game that he still has no clue what happened to him during the 15 minutes that followed the collision.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

26. Willie Lanier

You don’t earn a nickname like “Contact” without being able to hammer opposing players. Hall of Famer Willie Lanier did just that during his legendary career with the Kansas City Chiefs, which saw him break out as the first Black middle linebacker in NFL history in 1967. For the first year of his NFL career, Lanier hit exclusively with a head-first style, driving his helmet into the chest of his targets with wicked effectiveness. He decided to change his tackling style after a self-diagnosed concussion nearly killed him — but he was still just as hard of a hitter.

AP Photo/Bob Scott

25. Hardy Brown

In the earliest days of the NFL, San Francisco 49ers star Hardy Brown might have been the first player to become a fan-favorite specifically for his hard hits. The expert researchers at NFL Films once named the linebacker one of the five hardest hitters in league history, despite standing at just 6 feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds. Like many others on this list, Brown’s style of hitting was reportedly derided as “cheap” by some but mostly cheered by others.

Legendary Chicago Bears owner and coach, George Halas, apparently once had a referee check under Brown’s shoulder pads to make sure there wasn’t a metal plate under them because of the reputation his tackles had earned.

Image of Hardy Brown's card courtesy of the Vintage Football Card Gallery

24. Mike Singletary

The Chicago Bears defense of the mid-1980s has been described as arguably the best in pro football history and Mike Singletary personified its style. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was one of the most popular figures in the league during that decade, largely because of his ruthless hits from the linebacker position. The Chicago Tribune described Singletary’s tackling impact as “like a sledgehammer” and reported that he broke as many as 25 helmets while making tackles in college.

Even when he became a head coach in 2009, Singletary’s style was controversial, as one of his favorite practice drills was blamed for injuring a player for an entire season.

AP Photo/Curtis Compton

23. Chuck Bednarik

In the last years of two-way players, Chuck Bednarik was a star center and an equally effective linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1949-1962. The impact of his hits on the defensive side of the ball was best shown in 1960, when he seriously injured one of the league’s biggest stars in what has been called “the most famous tackle in football history.”

“Concrete Charlie” hammered New York Giants quarterback Frank Gifford in the backfield, leaving him flat on his back and unable to play football for more than a year. It was the perfect example of how hard the 6-foot-3 Bednarik could hit when flying at full speed.

AP Photo

22. Andre Waters

In this shot, you see safety Andre Waters carrying the ball and ready to use a stiff arm on Jim Plunkett — which makes him look like a star running back. But this was the aftermath of a 1986 play that led Waters to grab a fumble and nearly take it into the end zone. Waters — another Philadelphia Eagles legend — was pinned with the reputation of being a “dirty” player, which is something you’ll notice many of the game’s absolute hardest hitters unfairly have in common.

Waters’ former teammate, Ron Jaworski, told Sports Illustrated, “He scared everybody: receivers, running backs, quarterbacks. He was a tough guy.”

AP Photo/Bob Galbraith

21. Ndamakong Suh

Speaking of players who made other tough guys shake, Ndamukong Suh was voted the most feared player in the NFL in a 2014 anonymous survey of players. The controversial defensive tackle is the only active player to crack our list and has earned that place by maintaining the overly aggressive style of play that is frowned upon in today’s league. While Suh was in college, ESPN’s “Sport Science” actually measured how hard he tackled a crash dummy at full speed and it was revealed that he delivered more than 3,200 pounds of force — which meant he hit harder than Ray Lewis at the time.

AP Photo/Steve Luciano

20. Mike Curtis

Another Colts defensive icon — this time for the Baltimore Colts — Mike “Mad Dog” Curtis was one of several players on this list whose brutal style of hitting unfortunately led to his death decades later because of chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE). There’s a famous photo of Curtis apparently trying to behead Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel during a vicious tackle that shows exactly why fans loved him in the 1970s.

Long before Ray Lewis would come to town, Curtis was the linebacker who made Baltimore a city known for hard hits. His offensive teammates reportedly looked forward to game day every week because practicing against him during the week was so punishing.

AP Photo

19. Mel Blount

There’s an urban legend in NFL lore that Mel Blount killed two different players on the field during his Hall-of-Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s completely untrue but the fact that it could carry weight at all shows how monstrous his reputation as a tackler was during the hard-hitting 1970s era. But it is a fact that Blount’s dominant and extremely aggressive style of play at the cornerback position led the NFL to change several rules in 1978 related to pass coverage. Dubbed the “Mel Blount Rule,” one such change made it illegal for defenders to make contact with an eligible receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

AP Photo

18. John Lynch

Don’t let those leading-man looks fool you into thinking John Lynch wasn’t a brute during his NFL career. The Hall-of-Fame defensive back spent the majority of his 15-season career playing strong safety, making receivers shiver a little every time they caught a ball over the middle. In a Sports Illustrated-initiated anonymous survey of 354 NFL players in 2004, Lynch was named the third hardest hitter in the league, ranking only behind two others on this list.

On its own list, the NFL named him one of the 10 most-feared tacklers in history and highlighted a moment in 1997, when he knocked his own brother-in-law, a fellow pro player, out cold with a vicious hit.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

17. James Harrison

One look at James Harrison’s scowl and many people would just turn around and stroll back into the locker room. The fearsome linebacker of the modern Pittsburgh Steelers was a throwback to the team’s hard-hitting icons of the 1970s — several of whom are on this list — which made him beloved by those fans but hated by all others. In a 2012 anonymous poll of players done by ESPN, Harrison was named the “most violent, dangerous” person in the NFL in a landslide, which shocked nobody.

Harrison’s list of fines by the league for dangerous hits was massive but none touched the time he was docked $75,000 for a single hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010, which gave the target a concussion.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

16. Chuck Cecil

Chuck Cecil now strolls NFL sidelines as a defensive coach but in 1993, Sports Illustrated published a famous cover that asked if he was “too vicious” for the league. The former Pro-Bowl safety with the Green Bay Packers only lasted seven seasons in the league before he retired because he’d suffered too many head injuries. Cecil’s penchant for helmet-to-helmet hits made him a constant payer of fines. When he was playing for the then-Phoenix Cardinals in 1993, a hit he leveled against tight end Ron Middleton caused the latter man a sprained neck, bruised jaw and lacerated tongue.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

15. Jack Ham

Yet another hard-hitting defender for the “Steel Curtain” defense, Sports Illustrated has called Jack Ham the best outside linebacker to ever wear a Pittsburg Steelers jersey. The ferocity of Ham’s hits were largely credited to his speed, which has been described as remarkable.

Legendary coach Chuck Noll said he was “the fastest Steeler in the first 10 yards,” which is saying something when you realize who was on that defense with him. Ham had 53 total takeaways in his Hall-of-Fame career, which reportedly rank as the most for any non-defensive back.

AP Photo/Harry Cabluck

14. Deacon Jones

Los Angeles Rams legend Deacon Jones was one of the roughest players in football during the 1960s. Not only is he credited with coining the term “sack” for bringing down an opposing quarterback in the backfield, Jones also influenced the league’s rules because of his clever, aggressive style. The Hall-of-Fame defensive end loved to use the now-illegal “head slap” on blockers, which involved him hammering their head with a forearm or both hands to knock them off balance.

AP Photo

13. Kam Chancellor

While everyone loves a hard-hitting linebacker, real football nerds go nuts for defensive backs who deliver crushing shots at full speed in the open field. Kam Chancellor was exactly that kind of hitter when he played safety for the Seattle Seahawks during his brief career. The team’s defense during the 2010s was known as the “Legion of Boom” and Chancellor was regarded as its most punishing tackler.

Despite playing in an era that made it tough for defenders to hit hard without being penalized, Chancellor made it work and drew praise for his clean tackling technique, which was still heavy on power.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

12. Sean Taylor

While Kam Chancellor is undoubtedly one of the meanest safeties ever, he’ll tell you that he lifted his hitting style from his idol, the late Sean Taylor. While Taylor was tragically murdered in 2007, just four seasons into his career with Washington, his name still carries immense weight among football lovers. A natural on the gridiron, Taylor’s former college teammate, Antrel Rolle, once said he put his entire body weight into his hits — including his legs, hips and butt — leading to a “massive, massive impact.”

Even all-time great safety Tyrann Mathieu once dubbed Taylor one of the two hardest hitters in football history.

P Photo/Lawrence Jackson

11. Jack Tatum

Raiders icon Jack Tatum’s nickname was “The Assassin” and he earned it several times over during his career. You can see in this photo the result of one of Tatum’s most vicious hits at Super Bowl XI in 1977 — which sent Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sammy White flying backward without his helmet — but his most infamous tackle came in 1978. During a preseason game against the New England Patriots, Tatum hammered wide receiver Darryl Stingley so hard that he was left paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.

Tatum’s reputation for damaging hits, and the fact that he never apologized to Stingley for that fateful tackle, made him one of the more controversial players in NFL history.

AP Photo/Richard Drew

10. Dick Lane

“Night Train” Lane is another one of those players who was so disruptive that the NFL decided to change its rules to keep his style in check. The Hall of Famer and legendary Detroit Lions cornerback of the 1950s was in the league when face masks first started being used — and he took full advantage of them to terrorize his targets. It’s been reported that Lane was such a fan of grabbing a ball carrier’s face mask and slamming their head to the ground with it that he’s the reason the NFL banned that practice completely.

P Photo/Preston Stroup

9. Bill Romanowski

Many of the league’s hardest hitters have a reputation that precedes them and that would be an understatement when it comes to Bill Romanowski. The four-time Super Bowl champion idolized Jack Ham growing up and has been called “an extremist” by his own teammates. Romanowski was known for starting fights on the field — even at practice — and got in trouble for kicking other players and spitting on one in a high-profile incident.

The Sporting News once listed him No. 8 on the NFL’s most hated players ever and they might have undersold him.

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

8. Junior Seau

Like a few others on this list, Junior Seau’s full-tilt style of defense tragically contributed to his death at a young age. The then-San Diego Chargers icon was one of the NFL’s most popular linebackers for 20 years because he punished ball carriers and routinely piled up more than 100 tackles a season. Then, in 2012, just two years after he retired from a Hall-of-Fame career, Seau shot himself in the chest, preserving his brain to be studied and putting the devastating effects of CTE on full display for the first time.

AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

7. Rodney Harrison

When hundreds of players were anonymously asked who was the hardest hitter in the NFL in 2004, a whopping 17% of them chose Rodney Harrison. It’s easy to think of him as a polished, affable broadcaster these days, as he is on NBC, but when Harrison was patrolling the secondary as a strong safety from 1994-2008, he was a menace. He’s been described as a “bad guy” on the field but also simply as “an extremely hard hitter” and a key to the New England Patriots dynasty of the early 2000s.

In 2012, Harrison admitted that he’s “scared to death” of what may happen to his mind as he ages because he estimated he suffered “at least 20 or 30” concussions during his NFL career.

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

6. Steve Atwater

When Steve Atwater finally got tapped for inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, many felt it was an honor long overdue for one of the game’s most vicious hitters. During his 10 seasons playing safety for the Denver Broncos, mostly in the 1990s, Atwater routinely rattled the teeth of any ball carriers brave enough to cross the middle of the field, including Kansas City Chiefs rusher Christian Okoye during one immortal tackle on Monday Night Football in 1990. SB Nation’s Mile High Report once wrote that Atwater’s full-speed hit of Okoye during that game “could be used in every textbook to demonstrate Newton’s first law of motion.”

Atwater’s reputation for punishment is so strong that when a fan called fellow Hall of Famer Ed Reed the hardest-hitting safety ever, Reed reportedly replied, “Nah, that’s Steve Atwater.”

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

5. Lawrence Taylor

You should have no reason to doubt Lawrence Taylor’s ferocity on the field but, in case you do, just remember that he once ended the career of a Super Bowl champion with a single hit. In 1985, Taylor’s sack of Washington quarterback Joe Theismann snapped his leg in half “like a breadstick,” as Theismann said, and cemented the New York Giants linebacker’s tough-as-nails legacy forever. Unlike some others on this list, Taylor appears remorseful about the life-changing hit he put on Theismann but it didn’t stop him from punishing countless others during his Hall-of-Fame career.

AP Photo

4. Dick Butkus

Deacon Jones, another ruthless hitter on this list, called Dick Butkus “an animal” and said, “Every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” The legendary Chicago Bears linebacker personified the hard-hitting era that took off in the mid-1960s when he joined the NFL. Butkus didn’t want anyone having fun when he was involved in a game, once reportedly saying that simply seeing another person smile anywhere on the field ramped his intensity back up. There’s a reason his name is on the most prestigious award given to college linebackers every season.

AP Photo

3. Ray Lewis

There was arguably no hitter more feared in the NFL in the decade of the early 2000s than Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis. If you don’t believe us, just ask the players. In an anonymous survey of the league done by Sports Illustrated in 2004, Lewis got an incredible 40% of the votes for the NFL’s hardest hitter. In a video done by “Sport Science” that measured the force of Lewis’ tackles, they found that he hit with more than 1,000 pounds of force, which was more than is delivered by a battering ram used by police to break down doors.

AP Photo/Gail Burton

2. Brian Dawkins

While Ronnie Lott would get many votes for the roughest defensive back ever, Brian Dawkins might get his fair share. ESPN once reportedly voted him the hardest-hitting safety in NFL history and Philadelphia Eagles fans worshipped him because of his reckless attitude on the field. Teammate Takeo Spikes has said that Dawkins once told him that he was going to take another player’s “soul” before leveling a ruthless hit on him the next play.

It’s moments like that which kept his intimidating nickname, “Weapon X,” from sounding like a joke.

AP Photo/Chris Gardner

1. Ronnie Lott

Like Lawrence Taylor and several others on this list, Hall-of-Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott is credited with hitting guys so hard that he ruined their careers. Legendary wide receiver Art Monk credited Lott with just that, saying one tackle from him late in Monk’s NFL tenure “pretty much messed me up for my career,” while his hits on Cincinnati Bengals rusher Ickey Woods during the Super Bowl in 1989 are believed to be part of the reason Woods retired young.

In an NFL Films retrospective of Lott’s career, appropriately titled, “Thunder and Destruction,” his San Francisco 49ers teammate, Bubba Paris, said, “If somebody was to hit my son like [Lott hits opponents], I’d probably go to the game with a shotgun and shoot him.”

AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

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About the Author
Clint Davis
Clint has watched way too many TV shows and movies and makes a great partner for trivia night. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, baby son and two massive dogs.

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