Top 10 Hardest Hitters in NFL History
The hardest NFL hitters can completely change a game. They can deflate any momentum of the opposing team with some of the biggest hits ever. These are the top 10 hardest hitters in NFL history. The players who have big hits like no others.
This list is based on the eye test. While there are players who have more tackles, this list is only judged on their hard-hitting ability. For that reason, a lot of the players in today’s game don’t make this list because the rules don’t permit them to let loose.
#10 – Kam Chancellor
Kam Chancellor was the BOOM in the Legion of Boom. He was the one who set the tempo. That was the luxury of a linebacker playing at safety who could move like Bam Bam Kam.
Sadly, he has his career cut short due to a neck injury, but his impact was already felt. He has a highlight reel full of some of the best hits ever.
He was also a safety during a time when most hard hits were penalized. Kam still found ways to make hits in the target area keeping those yellow flags inside the refs pocket… most of the time at least.
#9 – James Harrison
James Harrison is a scary, scary dude. I’m even getting a little intimidated looking at his photo now. Just a perfect fit for the rugged Steel Curtain defense.
Later in his career, he became known for being a “dirty player” who got fined a lot but consider the context. The majority of these dirty hits were legal when he first started in the NFL. Then the rules changed and he was forced to adapt. He did his best, but changing your first instinct isn’t something that happens overnight.
Because this list is just about the hardest hitters, James Harrison earned his spot on this list. He was a violent player who hurt a lot of players.
#8 – Steve Atwater
6 foot 3 inches and 220 pounds. This was a linebacker playing safety.
They called him the “Smiling Assassin” because after he destroyed the ball carrier, he would stand over them with a big smile on his face.
Because of his size, he often found his talents being used in the box. That led to a lot of 1 on 1 moment with Running Backs including his most iconic hit against Christian Okoye.
They called him the “Nigerian Nightmare” and at the time, many viewed him as the best power running ever, but Atwater single-handedly shattered that reputation at this moment. For the first time ever, Christian Okoye found himself going backward. Steve Atwater put all of his strength against the 260-pound beast of a man across from him.
Not only was he one of the hardest NFL hitters ever, but also one of the surest tacklers as he has racked up over 1000 tackles in his career. He was vital for the Denver Broncos’ two Super Bowls also earning a reputation as one of the best safeties in NFL history.
#7 – Jack Tatum
“I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” Jack Tatum was simply out there to hurt people and the NFL loved it. Sure, most of his big hits would be flagged and fined in modern-day football, but it was perfectly legal at the time. He would annihilate players with his head-to-head collisions.
One of his hits was so massive that it turned the opposing Wide Receiver, Darryl Stingley, into a permanent quadriplegic. An absolute tragedy, but the fact of the matter is that Jack Tatum struck the guy that he was paralyzed for the rest of his life. This is nothing to celebrate, but it truly embodies the hitting ability of Tatum and is proof of why head-to-head collisions should be taken very seriously today.
They called him “The Assassin” and now you know why.
#6 – Dick Lane
When Dick Lane played in the ’50s and ’60s, the NFL allowed EVERYTHING on both sides of the ball. No pass interference. No unnecessary roughness. It was a constant battle. Consider it like the fight scene from Anchorman.
Form tackling was nonexistent and Dick Lane insisted on delivering hits that would make the opponent think about him. His signature move was the clothesline when he would smash ball carriers in the head with his flailing arm. It was so lethal the NFL outlawed it. He then decided to start grabbing the facemask the slamming them on the floor. Once again, it was so lethal that the NFL outlawed it.
Dick Lane is the reason many hits are banned today as he had zero regards for human life. His description of the move was, “Gotta hit ’em with your elbow like BAM! but make sure you hit ’em right or you’ll dislocate it”.
This wasn’t a one-trick pony either as Dick Lane racked up 68 interceptions over his career cementing his spot as one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history along with his hard-hitting prowess.
Honorable Mention – Sean Taylor
It’s very tough ranking Sean Taylor on this list. If he played a full career, I’m very confident he would be in the top 5 of the hardest hitters in NFL history along with the best safeties in NFL history. Sadly that wasn’t the case and he passed away far too early!
They called him “Meast”. Half man, half beast. Sean Taylor was drafted out of Miami University and in his draft promo he called himself the hardest-hitting player in his draft class. He then lived up to that reputation as a bone-crushing hitter and more as he soon become the most feared player in the league.
Just ask Brian Moorman. Many players decided to take the pro bowl off while cashing their checks, but Sean Taylor only knew how to play at 100% speed. When Moorman bounced out for the fake punt, Sean Taylor sprinted for about 20 yards to deliver one of the hardest hits in NFL history.
Sean Taylor could have easily been mentioned in the top 3 if longevity hadn’t held him back. Even considering the fact he only played 4 seasons, he has a highlight tape full of some of the hardest hits ever.
#5 – Brian Dawkins
Brian Dawkins off the field was a devout Christian and a very well-mannered man. On the field, his alter ego took over. On the field, he became Weapon X.
When the game started, it was clear he wanted to put players in body bags. This was a very dangerous man who loved roaming at the safety position taking ownership in the middle of the field. His career ended just before the NFL started altering its rules, therefore Dawkins has a full career of highlight-reel hits that would not be allowed today.
What made him truly special was his ability to keep that energy in the biggest games possible. His biggest hit ever came against the Falcons in the NFC championship. Alge Crumpler caught the ball near the sideline and Dawkins crushed him leaving him wincing with pain on the floor.
His accolades also do the talking for his dominance. He is the first player to enter the 30/30 club with 36 forced fumbles and 37 interceptions. Those 36 forced fumbles are the most for any Safety proving that his hard-hitting nature did even more than make opponents fearful.
#4 – Dick Butkus
Players openly said that after they played Butkus and the Chicago Bears, there would always be more people for rehab in the training room than ever before. Nobody looked forward to facing Dick Butkus, especially the ones holding onto the football.
The Chicago Bears have produced many elite linebackers, but it is Dick Butkus who is by far the best. He lived for football.
A great quote describing this beast is, “He was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl”. Players would become deer in headlights after seeing Dick Butkus downhill, Butkus. He was fast, powerful, and fearless always running through contact.
Unfortunately, Butkus’ career was shortened due to a knee injury, but his relentless intensity, and pure desire to destroy ball carriers and blockers earned him his spot as the 4th hardest hitter in NFL history.
#3 – Lawrence Taylor
If Bill Belichick calls you the best defensive player ever, he’s not one to lie. Lawrence Taylor was special. He is the reason Left Tackles are now one of the highest-paid positions in the NFL. LT was too fast and powerful for any single man to block him. The quarterback’s blindsides were always exposed when he was on the field.
For seven seasons straight he never produced under double-digit sacks including his career-high of 20.5 sacks in a single season. He was the defensive player of the year in his first two seasons and earned a third DPOY along with MVP in 1986. It didn’t take long for blocking schemes to completely change to account for this pass-rushing machine and that still didn’t work.
Lawrence Tayler is just shy from the title of the hardest hitter in NFL history, but he still holds his title as both the best pass rusher ever and best linebacker ever. That being said, in the words of Rick James, “Cocaine is a helluva drug!”
#2 – Ronnie Lott
Storytime. And one of my favorite NFL player stories ever. Ronnie Lott was always looking for the big hit and never held back. One time when hitting the opposing player he got his finger caught in his facemask. He was so badly injured that the team’s doctors gave him two options. Option one was to amputate the finger to be able to keep playing and option two was to go on injured reserve. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to go ahead and keep my finger. Not Ronnie Lott. This guy lived for football and decided he would rather lose part of his finger than miss any games.
Now you know his willingness to sacrifice his body for his team and his desire to win. To no surprise, this desire to win led him to four Super Bowl victories with the 49ers. People love to give the credit to Joe Montana or Steve Young, but it was Ronnie Lott who was the leading this defense. /
Ronnie Lott was a punisher. He wanted to hurt players so badly that their families would be thinking about their safety. He knew the importance of momentum in a game doing everything in his power to shift it in his team’s favor. If he is willing to inflict that amount of pain on himself for the game, imagine what he was willing to do to his opponents.
It’s shocking to think that this was an all-pro cornerback converted safety. He could do it all and for that reason, he is the best safety in NFL history.
#1 – Ray Lewis
They said that he had the explosion of a Cobra. I’m officially afraid of both snakes and Ray Lewis.
His movement was perfect. No wasted steps. This allowed him to rarely be out of position as well as the ability to always be in a position to deliver some of the hardest hits ever. Anytime he would blitz or drop into coverage, he owned the middle of the field. People were scared to run near Ray Lewis.
He was extremely instrumental in both of the Ravens’ Super Bowl victories. In 2013, he announced before his playoff run that he would be retiring after the season no matter what. In true Hollywood fashion, the Ravens ended up hoisting the Lombardi trophy one last time.
There have been many victims who will preach just how hard of a hitter Ray Lewis was over his time. The Raven’s defense has not been the same since his departure with not a single linebacker replicating his dominance.
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