As often as pride-driven (and often retired) football players and nostalgia-fueled (and often jaded) football fans lament the sport’s movement away from old-school, smash-mouth defense — thanks to increasingly strict pass-interference rules and penalty flags flying on just about any hard hit these days — there still remains a place for defensive players who strike a bit of fear into their opponents.
Fear, however, is an overused word in pro sports.
Perhaps it’s because the vast majority of fans and media are coming at this from a rec-league, weekend-warrior, never-made-it-past-high-school-varsity state of mind, but it’s highly unlikely that any player who has made it to the National Football League is truly scared of another player.
These athletes have taken the hardest of hits and stood back up. They’ve failed in front of the biggest crowds and come back to succeed again. They’ve endured every insult imaginable from hecklers, journalists, and Internet trolls and still come out shining on the other side. The worst NFL player is still better at football than almost everyone else in the world, and they’ve probably seen just about all the game has to offer.
The truth is that no pro football player actually fears another in the same way you or I would if we were dropped into the middle of an NFL game. But there are some players who will inspire the kind of extreme professional respect — call it “fear” if you must — that keeps offensive coordinators awake on Saturday nights and keeps opposing quarterbacks, ball-carriers, and blockers aware of where they are on the field at all times. Maybe they’re not scared of them; but they’re scared of the many ways they can ruin an offensive game plan.
Here is a starting lineup of Patrick Willis and the NFL’s 11 Scariest Defensive Players.
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