By George Somerville

George continues his trip into the annals of NFL Draft History with a look at one of the greatest defensive classes of all time…

1981 NFL Draft

Defense Wins Championships


I am willing to accept the criticism that I spend way too much energy writing about the offensive side of the ball. Conversely, I spend too little time writing about the bad guys who try to stop those offensive geniuses who capture my imagination.

So in this spirit, when working on this series of articles I thought – which was the greatest defensive draft class of all time?

As I suggested in my article on the 1998 NFL Draft, the mark of a great class is the number of players who go on to leave a mark on the game – notably as Hall of Famers, and to a similar degree the number of Pro Bowlers.

In 1981, defenses were on top in the NFL and the idiom that ‘Defense wins Championships’ ruled NFL front offices. So it’s no surprise that this draft was dominated by defensive players. But how good? Well, in fact seven defensively minded players would go on to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and thirty two defensive players drafted would become pro bowlers. This doesn’t include another eight players who went undrafted in 1981 but would also become pro bowlers. So it’s fair to say that this was a strong defensive class. So strong perhaps, it was the greatest of them all. You be the judge of this….

Let’s start at the beginning. 

It Began With A... Running Back?

1981 NFL Draft
Credit: Getty Images

It would just be perfect if we kicked this draft off with the #1 pick of a defensive giant. 

Sadly this was no defensive fairytale story, and the New Orleans Saints would select running back George Rogers from the South Carolina Gamecocks with their first pick. Rogers, a Heisman winner, would go on to an excellent NFL career, rushing for over 7,000 yards in his 8 year professional career with the Saints and latterly with the Washington Redskins. Rogers would win Superbowl XXII with the Saints. 

But that’s not why we are here. This is about the greatest defensive draft class ever… remember?

#2: The New York Giants

1981 NFL Draft
Credit: Reuters

Well, thankfully the New York Giants did not forget this and stayed in the Carolina region for the second overall pick. And from Chapel Hill’s Tar Heels, the Giants picked perhaps the greatest Giant of all Time. Big Blue selected linebacker Lawrence Taylor.

Coming out of North Carolina, LT was the consensus number one pick of the draft with 26 of 28 NFL GM’s saying they would take Taylor if they had the first pick. Fortunately for the Giants, Saints GM Bum Philips was one of the two GM’s who did not fancy Taylor. 

However, it was not love at first sight for Taylor, who was keen on playing for the Cowboys. In fact Taylor chose to wear the #56 jersey as a tribute to the Cowboys linebacker, Thomas Henderson, who LT was a fan of. Taylor would play his entire 13 season career in New York securing two Super Bowl wins during this time. 

To say that Taylor had a huge impact on the game not just in New York but in the NFL cannot be under estimated. Lawrence Taylor changed the way in which Linebacker’s dominated the defensive line. NFL great, John Madden would say this of Taylor,

“Lawrence Taylor, defensively, has had as big an impact as any player I’ve ever seen. He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers”.

Having won every major honour as a professional, Taylor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, as a first ballot member; the ultimate endorsement of a pro footballer’s achievements.

#3: Seattle Seahawks

Credit: Joe Robbins (Getty Images)

With pick #4 the Seattle Seahawks selected safety Kenny Easley out of UCLA. Although Easley would only play for seven seasons in the NFL his career totalled 32 interceptions for 538 yards and three touchdowns. But this doesn’t tell the full story of Easley’s impact defensively on the Seahawks and the NFL. 

In his first four seasons in Seattle, Easley was voted AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, AFC Defensive Player of the Year and invited to four Pro Bowls. However, shortly after signing a new contract with the Seahawks, Easley’s role as a Player Representative resulted in him being heavily involved in the NFL Player’s strike in 1987. This soured his relationship with the Seahawks. His career was cut short when he was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease following a medical required to confirm a trade to the Phoenix Cardinals. The trade fell through and Easley retired through ill health shortly thereafter. Easley blamed the Seahawks for his conditions citing the oversubscribing of painkillers for a knee injury. Kenny Easley severed ties with the team and vowed never to return to Seahawks Stadium.

When Paul Allen bought the Seahawks he invited Easley back to Seattle to be inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honour, which Easley accepted. Easley would subsequently be inducted into the Pro Football hall of Fame in 2017. 

#8: San Francisco 49ers

1981 NFL Draft
Credit: Associated Press

With the eighth pick, the 49ers would stay in California and select cornerback Ronnie Lott from the University of Southern California. What Lawrence Taylor did for linebacker play in the NFL, Ronnie Lott did for the safety position in the Pro game. It is probably not hyperbole to say that Lott is considered one of, if not the best to play the safety position in the NFL. 

So my introductory sentence to this section wasn’t a mistake. Ronnie Lott was selected in the draft as a cornerback, and in fact played his first season in San Francisco at corner. In that first season he would be runner up Rookie of the Year (behind Lawrence Taylor) and would win Superbowl XVI with the Niners. However in the following season, Lott would switch to safety. In his ten years in the Bay Area, Lott would win eight division titles and four Superbowls. In fact Lott would be one of only four players to be ever present in all four Superbowl wins.

After his dominant spell with the 49ers, Lott would go on to play In Los Angeles with the Raiders and the New York Jets. Lott would subsequently sign with  Kansas City Chiefs, although injuries would mean that he would never play for them before retiring. Ronnie Lott was elected as a first ballot member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. He would be voted on to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and again to its 100th Anniversary Team.

But interestingly, Ronnie Lott may never have been a defensive player at all. When at USC, both Lott and Marcus Allen were fighting it out for the tailback position. USC Head Coach John Robinson moved Lott to cornerback as he was a better tackler than Marcus Allen. The rest as they say is history.

#38: Chicago Bears

1981 NFL Draft
Credit: Beckett Media

Now we move down into the second round, where yet another linebacker was selected and who too would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. With pick #38, the Chicago Bears would select Mike Singletary from Baylor University.

Singletary would become the lynchpin of that famous Bears 85 Championship Winning defense, but it wouldn’t take long before Singletary would establish himself as a leader in the Bears locker room. Buddy Ryan’s “46” defensive scheme seemed tailor made for Singletary who would go on to play 172 games for the Bears, missing only two games in his career. He would be voted to ten Pro Bowls in a twelve year career which was a Bears record. Singletary would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Pro Football Hall in 1998. Singletary’s break up of a Patriot’s play which appeared a sure fire touchdown, would propel the Bears to their 1985 Superbowl win.

Mike Singletary would go on to a successful coaching career, first with the Baltimore Ravens as linebackers coach and subsequently as Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers where he would coach for three seasons.

#48: Los Angeles Raiders

1981 NFL Draft
Credit: Getty Images

Another Hall of Famer to come out of this second round was defensive tackle Howie Long. Long had played his College Football at Villanova University which is better known as a Basketball school. Starting out as a Tight End at Villanova, Long excelled on the defensive line for the Wildcats, where he played nose guard early on.

Howie Long would go on to play thirteen seasons in the NFL for the Raiders, playing in eight Pro Bowls. Long would be on the Raiders team that won Superbowl XVIII and would amass 91.5 sacks in his career. Impressive, particularly given that in his first year with the Raiders sacks were not recorded as a game stat.

Howie Long would subsequently have a career in TV and film once his playing time was over.  He is better known as a TV analyst but also had roles in movies. You my not know that Howie Long wrote “Football for Dummies” as part of the well known Dummies series.

Howie Long was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. 

#51: New Orleans Saints

Credit: Getty Images

This incredible class of Hall of Fame linebackers continues with the 51st pick, where the New Orleans Saints would select Rickey Jackson from the University of Pittsburgh. In Jackson’s first season with the Saints he would be voted on the NFL All-rookie team and would then go on to receive post season honours in his next seven seasons in the league.

Rickey Jackson became an integral member of the “Dome Patrol” – the Saints linebacking corps which would be named the best in history by NFL Network. Jackson played thirteen seasons with the Saints before moving to the 49ers in 1994 where interestingly, Jackson would win the only Superbowl of his career. Rickey Jackson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 2010 – the first ever New Orleans Saint to be voted in.

#69: Washington Redskins

Credit: Mike Powell (Getty Images)

The final player of note sees us swing back over to offense. With the 69th pick, the Washington Redskins selected guard Russ Grimm, also from the University of Pittsburgh. Grimm was a teammate of Rickey Jackson at Pitt and played in the same Pitt team as Dan Marino. In the period 1979-1980 this Pitt team would rack up a 22-2 record and would incredibly not make a National Championship game.

Russ Grimm played in Washington for 11 seasons as starting guard and would become an integral and founding member of the famous “Hogs” Offensive line. In 11 seasons Grimm would make four Superbowl appearances, winning three Championship rings in the process. 

After making it to the final ballot of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, Grimm was finally inducted into the Hall in 2010.

Post his playing career, Grimm moved into coaching, first in Washington and then for the Steelers back in Pittsburgh – where he would win his 4th Superbowl ring in 2005. Grimm went on to coach for the Cardinals in Arizona and latterly in Nashville with the Tennessee Titans. Russ Grimm retired from the game in 2017.

So there you have it. Mean, tough, bad, miserly, but bloody good at what they do. The best in the business and the greatest defensive draft class of all time….No? Well, tell me what was then! CLASS DISMISSED!
Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer