The history of the New England Patriots is made up of all-time talent.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who ever lived. Rob Gronkowski had the most dominant stretch the NFL has ever seen out of a tight end. Sports Illustrated proclaimed John Hannah the “Greatest Offensive Lineman of All Time” halfway through his playing career. New England’s history at defensive line is less than obvious, however.
There are two reasons why only a handful of players came under consideration for this list. 1. The first 40 seasons in Patriots history were short of what we’d consider all-time talent. 2. Bill Belichick isn’t exactly known for relying on his defensive lineman to do anything more than two-gap.
That is what makes these men so special.
5. Rob Ninkovich (2009-2016)
There isn’t one obvious thing about Rob Ninkovich that would make you think he deserves a place on this list.
That is until you think about the road Ninkovich took to becoming one of Belichick’s most dependable players in the early 2010’s. Initially arriving as a long snapper-edge hybrid, this is a player that made the 2009 Patriots as a special teams player with defensive upside. Then he just started consistently contributing.
Ninkovich only registered 8.0 sacks on three separate occasions, but finished his Patriots career with 46.0. In addition to his abilities off the edge, the two-time Super Bowl champion tallied five interceptions, 12 forced fumbles and 55.0 tackles for loss. A steady starter who helped his team to a 75% winning percentage? Solid.
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4. Houston Antwine (1961-1971)
Take a seat, kids. Let’s learn about one of the greatest defensive tackles in Patriots history.
Houston Antwine is an OG Patriot. New England acquired Antwine in a trade from the Houston Oilers and watched him immediately become its best defender. The Patriots Hall of Famer earned six consecutive American Football League (AFL) All-Star selections from 1963-68, the most by any defender in franchise history.
Appearing in 142 games across 11 seasons, Antwine registered 39.0 sacks before being named as a member of the Patriots’ 50th Anniversary Team and a member of the 1960’s All-Decade Team.
3. Willie McGinest (1994-2005)
Is Willie McGinest a linebacker or is he a defensive end? That question could have had an effect on his placement, but, given the role he played on some of the greatest defenses in NFL history, we chose defensive end.
McGinest is a three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro-Bowler, serving as the original chess piece in Belichick’s early Patriots defenses. As good a run defender as he was a pass rusher, McGinest finished his Patriots career with four interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 78.0 sacks and 79 tackles for loss — a franchise record. His run stuff on Edgerrin James in 2003 is stuff of Patriots legend, and his sack of Peyton Manning in the 2004 season opener helped extend the Patriots’ NFL record winning streak. That doesn’t even mention his playoff performances.
McGinest holds the NFL postseason record for career sacks (16.0) and sacks in a game (4.5; 2006 Wild Card). He also punked Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI. That was funny.
2. Richard Seymour (2001-2008)
There was a common cliché that followed Richard Seymour around prior to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.
If Seymour didn’t put team success first, he would have racked up some of the most impressive counting numbers of any defensive lineman in NFL history. Instead, he played into the Patriots system and anchored a dominant defensive line that won three Super Bowls and 76% of its games when he took the field.
Seymour is a seven-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro, a member of the NFL’s All-2000’s team and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He’s just not the best d-lineman in Patriots history.
1. Vince Wilfork (2004-2014)
There’s an argument to be made that Vince Wilfork is the greatest defensive tackle in NFL history.
In fact, let’s make that argument here.
Wilfork arrived to New England as a luxury. Expected to be a top-10 pick, the Miami product slid all the way to No. 21 where the Patriots took him and added him to a dominant defense. After a year of sitting and learning, Wilfork stepped in and became a force as a sophomore — giving his team a decade of All-Pro play from the interior.
Though he only made one All-Pro team and five Pro Bowls, Wilfork was always the best at his position in the NFL. He bookended his Patriots career with two Super Bowl wins and filled that gap with 16.0 sacks. 37.0 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and three interceptions, all while taking on double teams to open up lanes for his linebackers. A dominant individual and team player, Wilfork’s place in Canton, Ohio, should open up eventually.
Honorable Mention: Ty Warren (2003-2009), Jim Lee Hunt (1960-1971), Bob Dee (1960-1967)