They are the playmakers on defense; special defenders in Green Bay Packers history with the rare knack for creating turnovers in bunches and often converting them into touchdowns on their own. These are the ball hawks – a gallery of thieves – the best players at taking the ball away from an opponent either by interceptions, fumbles or even on special teams.
NFL coaches have binders full of data, and research proves that the momentum shift of turnovers impact a game more than any other factor – particularly those returned for touchdowns. Hours are spent in practice just working on protecting the ball, and quarterbacks are reminded endlessly of the virtue of throwing the ball away.
Despite those efforts, some players still have the gift of graft, whether by luck, skill or hustle, and typically a combination of all three. What follows is a list of the 10-best ball hawks in club history.
10. Willie Buchanon (1972-78) – Buchanon had four interceptions at San Diego in 1978, tying an NFL record. He would play in three Pro Bowls during his time in Green Bay, was named the 1972 Rookie of the Year and recorded 21 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries while with the Packers. He returned two interceptions in his career for touchdowns.
9. Don Hutson (1935-45) – Hutson is the best wide receiver in club history, but also consider that while hauling in 99 touchdown passes he also contributed 30 interceptions, led the NFL in 1940 with six and picks off a career-high eight in 1943. That season he led the league with 197 interception-return yards, including an 84-yard TD. Hutson led the Packers in interceptions three times. No matter where he lined up, when the ball was in the air, he figured it was thrown to him, and Hutson also scored a pair of TDs off blocked punts.
8. Ray Nitschke (1958-72) – The menacing middle linebacker may be a rhino within a pack of gazelles in this herd, but the Hall of Famer had 25 career interceptions and recovered 20 fumbles. Few in team history can match those totals. The three-time All-Pro even rumbled for a 43-yard touchdown off an interception vs. Dallas in 1960, one of two TDs in his career.
7. Nick Collins (2005- ) – In six seasons, Collins has been a true playmaker at defensive back. He has 21 interceptions for 507 yards in returns since being chosen in the second round, along with four forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries. He has returned four interceptions for touchdowns and set a team mark in 2008 with an NFL-high 295 interception-return yards. In Super Bowl XLV, Collins returned a Ben Roethlisberger pass 37 yards for a game-changing TD. Collins is also a willing performer on special teams, and he scored a touchdown in 2010 by scooping up a fumble by a Dallas kick-returner.
6. Darren Sharper (1997-2004) – Combining great ball skills with speed that allowed him to roam, the safety is tied with Herb Adderley for second in team history with seven defensive touchdowns. He returned five interceptions for TDs and also took two fumble recoveries back for scores. In his eight seasons, he had 36 interceptions, including an NFL-high nine in 2000.
5. LeRoy Butler (1990-2001) – With 38 career interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries, Butler was always around the ball. He led the club in interceptions five times, was an excellent blitzer and scored three defensive touchdowns; one was on a 90-yard interception return and two others on fumble returns. He punctuated a forced fumble vs. Oakland in 1993 by jumping to his feet, taking a pitch from Reggie White and sprinting 25 yards to the end zone, then jumping into the stands, thus inventing the "Lambeau Leap." It was the day after Christmas and Butler gave a gift that has kept on giving.
4. Bobby Dillon (1952-59) – He played only eight seasons, but Dillon is the club's all-time leader in interceptions with 52 – and he played in an era when a season was 12 games – and return yardage with 976. He either finished first or was tied for the lead in picks seven times during his career, another team record. Dillon scored five touchdowns off interception returns and led the NFL in return yardage in 1956 with 244. Like other stalwarts of the 1950s, he toiled on teams without winning records. Dillon's final season was Vince Lombardi's first, and the Packers were 7-5-1.
3. Willie Wood (1960-71) – Few undrafted players have made a greater impact. After playing quarterback at USC, the Packers signed Wood following a tryout and converted him to safety. He was voted an All-Pro nine times, recorded 48 interceptions and recovered 16 fumbles. He led the team in interceptions five times, including a career-high nine in 1962, and finished with 699 return yards. Wood helped Green Bay to five NFL titles. In Super Bowl I, he intercepted Kansas City QB Len Dawson and returned it 50 yards. The Packers would score on a 5-yard run on the next play to go ahead, 21-10. Bart Starr has called that the biggest play of the victory.
2. Herb Adderley (1961-69) – A number one pick in 1961, Adderley was a prototype cornerback for any era, with sprinter's speed at a sturdy 6-0, 205 pounds. It almost wasn't to be – Adderley was a halfback and Lombardi didn't move him to cornerback until he recognized the logjam in the backfield. Adderley went on to lead the team in interceptions three times, record 39 interceptions for 795 yards and recover 13 fumbles. Until the arrival of a talented newcomer four decades later, no player could convert turnovers into touchdowns as Adderley did – he returned seven interceptions for touchdowns. No player in Green Bay record books has more postseason interceptions than Adderley's four, including a 60-yard TD vs. Oakland in Super Bowl II.
1. Charles Woodson (2005- ) – The 13-year veteran has achieved so much in a Packers uniform that it doesn't seem that only six seasons have passed since he arrived. Woodson has 30 interceptions for 505 return yards, 13 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and nine defensive touchdowns. In 2010 he had a 48-yard return after an interception vs. Detroit, leaping into the end zone to surpass Adderley and become the club's all-time leader in touchdowns off interceptions. Last season he had a career-high five forced fumbles and he became the only player in NFL history to score off an interception return in five straight seasons. The 2009 NFL defensive player of the year has been one of the most significant defensive players in the NFL since coming to Green Bay.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.