Top 10 Defensive Players in Arizona Cardinals History

Though the Cardinals have finished inside the top five in scoring defense just twice since 1970, they have still produced some defensive superstars. This article explores the franchise’s top 10 defensive players of all time.

Cardinals players celebrate with defensive tackle Calais Campbell (93) after returning a fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Who Are the Greatest Cardinals Defensive Players of All Time?

The Cardinals have finished inside the top five in scoring defense 16 times over the course of their 100-year history, but that includes eight seasons from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, when the NFL had fewer teams. Since 1970, the franchise has accomplished this feat just twice, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals haven’t produced defensive superstars. From four Hall of Famers to players who enjoyed long careers with the team, the greatest defensive players in Cardinals history span several decades and are well-remembered by fans.

Selection Criteria

This list of the 10 greatest defensive players in Cardinals history is based on the following criteria:

  • Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, retired number, etc.)
  • Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, league leader, etc.)
  • On-Field Success (winning percentage, winning seasons, playoff appearances, etc.)
  • Longevity (years with the Cardinals, percentage of career with the Cardinals, etc.)

Only games played with the Cardinals are factored into this list, so while Terrell Suggs is a prime candidate for a list about the Ravens, his 13 games in Arizona won’t make the cut here. Following the top 10, you’ll also find a handful of honorable mentions as well as the franchise’s defensive records.

Darnell Dockett was a fan favorite in Arizona.

10. Darnell Dockett

  • Years With the Cardinals: 2004–14
  • Position: Defensive Tackle
  • Playoff Appearances: 2008–09
  • Pro Bowl: 2007, 2009–10
  • Awards: NFL All-Rookie (2004)

Darnell Dockett missed just two games during his first 10 seasons with the Cardinals, but a torn ACL prior to the 2014 season prematurely ended his career. Dockett was a force on the defensive line in Arizona. He racked up 40.5 sacks as part of his 90 career tackles for loss and helped lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008. Dockett had three sacks in Super Bowl XLIII, but the Steelers came away as 27–23 winners. He tried to make a comeback from his ACL injury with the 49ers, but ultimately signed a one-day contract to retire with the Cardinals in 2015.

Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby (56) tackles Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon (24) at University of Phoenix Stadium.

9. Karlos Dansby

  • Years With the Cardinals: 2004–09, ‘13, ‘17
  • Position: Linebacker
  • Playoff Appearances: 2008–09
  • Awards: NFL All-Rookie (2004)

Karlos Dansby is the only linebacker to crack the top 10, but he is certainly deserving of his spot. Dansby had three stints with the Cardinals, but is remembered most for his leadership role during Arizona’s run to Super Bowl XLIII. In that season’s three playoff victories, Dansby had 23 tackles (four for a loss), and he made an interception in their 27–23 Super Bowl loss to the Steelers. Dansby’s lone selection as an All-Pro (second team) came in 2013, when he made four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and 122 tackles. In eight seasons with the Cardinals, Dansby had 776 tackles, 33 sacks and 15 interceptions.

Simeon Rice was a sack machine.

8. Simeon Rice

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1996–2000
  • Position: Defensive End
  • Playoff Appearance: 1998
  • Pro Bowl: 1999
  • Awards: Defensive Rookie of the Year (1996), NFL All-Rookie (1996)

Simeon Rice wasted no time in establishing himself as a standout defender in 1996 by tying the then the NFL rookie record with 12.5 sacks. By 1999, he had become the second player in franchise history to record at least 10 sacks in three seasons. His 53.5 sacks over five seasons rank fourth on the Cardinals’ list of career leaders, and his single-season mark of 16.5 from 1999 established a team record that stood for nearly two decades.

Adrian Wilson announces his retirement after signing a contract with the Cardinals at the Cardinals Training facility in Tempe on April 18, 2015.

7. Adrian Wilson

  • Years With the Cardinals: 2001–12
  • Position: Safety
  • Playoff Appearances: 2008–09
  • All-Pro: 2009
  • Pro Bowl: 2006, 2008–11
  • Legacy Honors: Cardinals Ring of Honor

Adrian Wilson came to the Cardinals as a third-round draft pick, and he left the team as one of the top defensive players in their history. Wilson played all 12 seasons of his career with Arizona, becoming a feared safety who was known for his pass protection (27 interceptions) and ability to rush the passer (25.5 sacks). Wilson owns the second-longest interception return for a touchdown in franchise history (99 yards), as well as the second-longest fumble return for a touchdown (also 99 yards). In his career, Wilson had 903 tackles and defended 99 passes. During the postseason, he added 26 tackles (three for a loss) and forced two fumbles.

6. Freddie Joe Nunn

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1985–93
  • Position: Defensive End/Linebacker

Freddie Joe Nunn has held the franchise record for career sacks since 1991 and is arguably the best defensive lineman on this list. In 1985, Nunn was the Cardinals’ first-round draft choice, and as a rookie, he started all 16 games at linebacker. He moved to the defensive line for his third season, and in four years as a defensive end, Nunn produced 39 sacks. In his career, Nunn recorded 66.5 sacks for the Cardinals. That record is likely to be exceeded by current linebacker Chandler Jones, who has 60 sacks for Arizona.

Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) intercepts a pass intended for Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) during a 2019 game at State Farm Stadium.

5. Patrick Peterson

  • Years With the Cardinals: 2011–Present
  • Position: Cornerback
  • Playoff Appearances: 2014–15
  • All-Pro: 2011, ‘13, ‘15
  • Pro Bowl: 2011–18
  • Legacy Honors: NFL 2010s All-Decade Team
  • Awards: NFL All-Rookie (2011)

The Cardinals selected Patrick Peterson in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, and throughout his first eight seasons, he did not miss a single game or Pro Bowl. Peterson snared 25 interceptions in his career and recovered 12 fumbles as a model of consistency in Arizona’s defensive backfield. Peterson has also found success as a punt returner, especially early in his career. As a rookie, he became one of just four players to ever record four punt return touchdowns in a season, including a franchise record 99-yard jaunt in overtime to give the Cardinals a win over the Rams.

4. Dick (Night Train) Lane

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1954–59
  • Position: Cornerback
  • All-Pro: 1956
  • Pro Bowl: 1954–56, ’58
  • Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1974), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team

When Dick (Night Train) Lane came to the Cardinals, he was already a rising star. After two stellar seasons with the Rams, the Cardinals acquired Lane in a trade and picked up one of the best defensive backs of all time. In his first season with the Cardinals, Lane led the NFL with 10 interceptions. Overall, Lane had 30 interceptions in 64 games with the Cardinals, which at the time was a team record. Lane took the occasional snap on offense, and once hauled in a 98-yard touchdown, which is tied for the longest offensive play in franchise history.

Roger Wehrli arrives during the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

3. Roger Wehrli

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1969–82
  • Position: Cornerback
  • Playoff Appearances: 1974–75, ’82
  • All-Pro: 1975–77
  • Pro Bowl: 1970–71, ’74–77, ’79
  • Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (2007), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team

Roger Wehrli spent 14 seasons with the Cardinals and was among the NFL’s best defensive players throughout the 1970s. The Cardinals made Wehrli their first-round draft pick in 1969 and watched the pinnacle of his career match the height of the team’s success in the 1970s. From 1974 to ’76, the Cardinals won at least 10 games each season and made two playoff appearances. In that span, Wehrli had 12 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. Overall, Wehrli intercepted 40 passes during 193 career games and recovered 19 of his opponents’ fumbles, which is tied for the franchise record.

Aeneas Williams and son Lazarus Williams react during the 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame Grand Parade on Cleveland Avenue in Downtown Canton.

2. Aeneas Williams

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1991–2000
  • Position: Defensive back
  • Playoff Appearances: 1998
  • All-Pro: 1995, ’97
  • Pro Bowl: 1994–99
  • Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (2014), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1990s All-Decade Team
  • Awards: NFL All-Rookie (1991)

Aeneas Williams was the model of consistency for the Cardinals throughout the 1990s, never missing a game and intercepting at least one pass in all 10 seasons with the team. Williams wasted little time establishing himself as NFL-ready by snaring an interception in each of his first two games. He was exceptionally strong from 1994 to ’97, intercepting 27 passes and returning five for touchdowns during that period. Then, in 1998, he helped the Cardinals make the playoffs and had a pair of interceptions in a first-round win over the Cowboys—the team’s first postseason victory since 1947. Williams owns the longest fumble return in team history (104 yards against Washington in 2000), and the most interception returns for touchdowns (six). In 160 games with the Cardinals, Williams recorded 46 interceptions and 568 tackles.

1. Larry Wilson

  • Years With the Cardinals: 1960–72
  • Position: Safety
  • All-Pro: 1966–70
  • Pro Bowl: 1962–63, ’65–70
  • Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1978), Cardinals Ring of Honor, Cardinals No. 8 Retired, NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
  • Awards: 1966 Defensive Player of the Year

Larry Wilson was a thorn in the sides of quarterbacks throughout the 1960s, and his balanced play made him an easy choice for the top spot on this list. Wilson was among the earliest players to perfect the safety blitz—and when he wasn’t rushing the quarterback, he was interfering passes. Sacks weren’t an official statistic during Wilson’s playing days, but he did rack up franchise records with 52 interceptions for 800 yards over 13 seasons.

Wilson was a seventh-round draft choice by the Cardinals in 1960, but he worked his way into the starting lineup for 11 games and started a streak of 13 straight seasons with at least two interceptions. His best season came in 1966, when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions—two of which he returned as touchdowns. After his playing career, Wilson remained with the franchise in various capacities for the next 30 years.

Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell attempts to block Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s pass during a 2016 game at Hard Rock Stadium.

Honorable Mentions

While the above players are the best of the best in Cardinals history, there are a couple of other players who have made significant contributions to the franchise but fell just outside of the top 10.

Chandler Jones

The only thing missing from Chandler Jones’ resume with the Cardinals is longevity. In four seasons, Jones already has his fingerprints in the franchise record book. With 60 sacks, he has the second-most of all time, and his single-season marks of 17 (2017) and 19 (2019) are the top two tallies in franchise history. He was named a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in both 2017 and 2019.

Calais Campbell

Calais Campbell was dependable on the defensive line for the Cardinals, racking up 56.5 sacks (third in team history) in nine seasons. He was a Pro Bowler in 2014 and 2015, and helped the Cardinals into the playoffs both seasons. Overall in the postseason, Campbell had 21 tackles in nine games.

Larry Stallings

Larry Stallings was a solid linebacker for 14 seasons with the Cardinals. He was called to the Pro Bowl in 1970 and helped St. Louis into the playoffs in 1974 and 1975. Stallings recovered 13 fumbles in his career (two touchdowns) and added nine interceptions (one touchdown), and he missed just two games over the final 11 seasons of his career.

Special Mention

While the above players comprise the best of the best in Cardinals history, there is one player who never got a chance to prove just how good he may have been.

Pat Tillman

After being selected in the seventh round of 1998 NFL Draft, Pat Tillman put in the work to prove himself and earned a starting role in the Cardinals’ secondary. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, Tillman found a higher calling and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Following his death, the Cardinals retired his jersey number (40). In 60 games with Arizona, Tillman had three interceptions, forced three fumbles and recorded 2.5 sacks. Tillman is remembered through the Pat Tillman Foundation.

Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) tackles Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) during a 2019 game at MetLife Stadium.

Defensive Franchise Records for the Cardinals

Defensive records are difficult to track since some basic statistics (most notably tackles and sacks) weren’t recorded by the NFL for several decades. Below are a handful of Cardinals defensive records that are in the franchise record book.

Cardinals Defensive Records

  • Career Interceptions: 52, Larry Wilson (1960–72)
  • Single-Season Interceptions: 12, Bob Nussbaumer (1949)
  • Single-Game Interceptions: 4, Kwamie Lassiter (Dec. 27, 1998); Jerry Norton (Nov. 26, 1961 and Nov. 20, 1960); and Nussbaumer (Nov. 13, 1949)
  • Longest Interception Return: 102 yards, Greg Toler (Dec. 16, 2012)
  • Career Sacks*: 66.5, Freddie Joe Nunn (1985–93)
  • Single-Season Sacks*: 19, Chandler Jones (2019)
  • Single-Game Sacks*: 4.5, Curtis Greer (Dec. 8, 1983)
  • Longest Fumble Return: 104 yards, Aeneas Williams (Nov. 5, 2000)

*Sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Records here only reflect official statistics.


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