All-decade defense: Strahan, Taylor stand out

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The choice between Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor was simple when ESPN.com selected its all-decade defense.

We took both.

Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins prevailed at defensive tackle. Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher made the cut at linebacker, edging Zach Thomas.

Champ Bailey was an easy choice opposite Troy Vincent at cornerback. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu beat out a strong field of safeties.

"It's a great group to be associated with," Taylor told ESPN.com's Tim Graham. "Derrick Brooks, Mr. Consistency and Class. Ray Lewis, everybody fears. And Urlacher came in and took the game to another level at that position.

"The two big guys inside -- Jenkins doesn't get a whole lot of credit, but we all know what kind of player he is. Sapp is Sapp. We know he's good. He knows he's good. He's going to tell you he's good.

"And to be associated with 'Stray,' he's the best of our generation."

Taylor, back with Miami after a season with the Redskins, and Strahan combined for 189.5 sacks over the first eight years of the decade. Strahan, who retired in 2008 after a 15-year career with the Giants, had 22.5 in 2001. Taylor had 18.5 in 2002.

"No. 1, [Strahan] really loved playing the game," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "No. 2, he's well known for rushing the passer, but he's one of the best run-playing defensive ends of all time."

Taylor and Strahan combined for 10 Pro Bowl appearances this decade. Overall, our 11-man squad combined for 60 Pro Bowl appearances in the first nine years of the decade. They wouldn't need much coaching.

"I'd probably tell them, 'Take care of yourself, give me a call during the week at some point so I know you're alive and I'll see you Sunday,'" Taylor said. "Then just turn them loose."

With training camps beginning next month for the final year of the decade, we thought we had sufficient evidence to determine our all-decade teams. ESPN.com began the evaluation process by ranking players according to most Pro Bowl appearances since the 2000 season (tight end Tony Gonzalez was the only player with nine).

General managers, scouts, coaches and players shaped the selections from that list. I consulted with several of them on background while selecting the defensive line and linebackers. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert did the same in selecting cornerbacks. NFC East blogger Matt Mosley handled the safeties.

Brooks, Lewis and Bailey were consensus choices. Lewis' ferocity gives this defense a menacing edge.

"Ray deserves this honor, without a doubt," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "There is no question that he plays at a Hall of Fame level year in and year out. He's as smart and as instinctive a defensive player as I've ever seen. He plays hard eve
ry play -- every single play."

Newsome was new to the Ravens in 1996 when he asked the team's then-coach, Ted Marchibroda, what he wanted from a player.

"Ted said, 'Give me a player with a 'football temperament,' meaning a player who loves every part of the game -- the preparation, the practices, the long offseason workouts, the physicality, the games," Newsome said. "Ray embodies that definition. There is no player who enjoys preparing, competing and playing as much as Ray. There is only one Ray Lewis, and the Ravens have the good fortune of having him for his entire career."

Taylor felt strongly that his longtime teammate, Thomas, deserved inclusion.

And one veteran offensive lineman I consulted said he would "line up against Sapp every day before I'd go against La'Roi Glover" simply because Glover could beat an opponent in more ways.

"Sapp had one move and he was good at it," the lineman said. "He lined up so wide and it was so much different than all the other three-technique guys. Glover would butt you in the chin and run over your ass, but he was so quick, he could take a side-angle on you. He had a move and a counter and a counter off that one."

Thomas, Glover (who announced his retirement Monday) and other victims of this high-stakes numbers game could fill out a dominant defense of their own. The list of near-misses also includes Richard Seymour, Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, Bryant Young, Kevin Williams, Casey Hampton, Keith Brooking, Ty Law, Ronde Barber, Brian Dawkins and John Lynch. Seymour seemed particularly worthy, but not at the expense of Taylor or Strahan.

Only Bailey and Brooks have more Pro Bowl appearances this decade -- eight apiece -- than Lynch (seven) among defensive players. Six defensive players have six Pro Bowl appearances in the decade. Three of them -- Dawkins, Thomas and Glover -- fell just short.

A position-by-position look at the all-decade defense:

Strahan Taylor
Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor: "Stray's a left end and I'm a right end, so it works perfect," Taylor said. "You let the two big boys do what they want inside. Let's hit it and get it."

Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates was with the Dolphins during Taylor's most dominant years.

"The biggest thing that has made Jason special over the years is to not only have God-given ability, but intelligence," Bates said. "He did a great job studying the opponent. He was very effective with several different moves he used on his pass rush. He's not only fast, but he's explosive. When he put together the power move with his speed, he had it all."

Jenkins Sapp
Defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Warren Sapp: No players dominated at the position for the full period in question.

Jenkins, at his best, disrupted opposing offensive lines to a degree that might have exceeded the problems his peers created. I had a hard time leaving off Glover based on what offensive linemen told me, but Sapp enjoyed broad support and was also worthy.

Linebackers Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher: Brooks has started 16 games in each of the last 13 seasons. He has 17 Brooks Lewis Urlacher interceptions this decade. Brooks, released by Tampa Bay in the offseason, brought exceptional quickness to the position even late in his career.

Lewis and Chicago's Urlacher are sluggers by comparison.

At his best, the 260-pound Urlacher was athletic enough to play the deep middle in coverage, yet strong enough to punish receivers and running backs on underneath plays.

Bailey Vincent
Cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Troy Vincent: Shutdown cover corners with height are a rarity, but Vincent and the Broncos' Bailey qualify.

Smarts, range and playmaking ability set them apart from Barber and other candidates, although the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha is making a strong run late in the decade.

"You want to talk about an all-around corner, that's Troy Vincent," said former Eagles secondary coach Leslie Frazier, now the Vikings' defensive coordinator, told Seifert. "He could cover as well as any guy out there in the league, but he wasn't one-dimensional by any means. He could hit. He could support the run. He was a sure tackler. Total package, as far as I'm concerned."

Vincent played for the Eagles, Bills and Redskins during this decade.

Polamalu Reed
Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed: Lynch (seven) and Dawkins (six) have more Pro Bowls this decade, but the Steelers' Polamalu and Ravens' Reed stood apart in overall athletic ability and their flair for the spectacular play.

"I love watching [Polamalu] play," Cowboys Ring of Honor member Cliff Harris told Mosley. "They give him a lot of freedom and he's able to make a lot of plays. I think I'd love playing in that defense -- even though it's the Steelers. I'm biased, but I still think it's one of the most important positions on the field. And no one can match Reed and Polamalu right now."

Reed's production -- 43 interceptions in seven NFL seasons, compared to 34 picks in 13 seasons for Dawkins -- separates him from all challengers.

Lynch spent four seasons with Denver and four with Tampa this decade. And while he kept racking up Pro Bowl appearances, his best years were probably with the Bucs.

The Colts' Bob Sanders might have challenged if injuries hadn't limited him to two seasons with more than six games played.

Tim Hasselbeck and Michael Smith break down the all-decade defense.