It’s no easy task to look at the National Football League’s 97-year history and select the 100 best players to ever wear a uniform. The game has evolved from a run-heavy, pass-resistant environment to one in which the modern rules cater to high-volume passing attacks. Statistics are readily available to today’s fans, but that wasn’t the case 50, 40, even 30 years ago.
I can’t pretend to have watched all these players. I never saw Joe Montana play. I certainly never saw Dick Butkus or Otto Graham play. But I’ve studied football history for over 20 years, and I’m able to look at accolades, awards, and accomplishments to see which players are typically recognized as being among the elite.
I looked heavily at long-term durability. The ability to have a sustained run of greatness weighs much heavier than just a few seasons. I looked at MVP awards, First-Team AP All-Pro selections, Pro Bowl invitations, and statistics if available. Super Bowl rings don’t play much of a factor in a team game with 22 starters, but individual postseason success can move a player up the rankings. Here’s a shot at my top 100 players.
100. Joe Schmidt, MLB, 1953-1965
10 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
24 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns
In the history of the NFL, there have been just 11 players to earn eight First-Team All-Pro selections. Joe Schmidt is one of them. The Hall of Fame linebacker routinely beat out Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff, and Chuck Bednarik in the ’50s and ’60s to secure All-Pro selections. Schmidt’s durability led to a nice 13-yea vcareer, he led Detroit to two NFL championships, and was voted the league’s Defensive MVP on two occasions. Schmidt was an impressive ballhawk for a middle linebacker, at one point recording nine takeaways in a 12-game season.
99. Mel Hein, C, 1931-1945
4 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 MVP, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
History doesn’t remember much about Mel Hein, but he is one of a kind. He literally won the 1938 NFL MVP award as a center, which makes him the only offensive lineman ever to pull off such an accomplishment. Passing was much limited back then, but imagine an offensive lineman in today’s era winning such an award. That speaks to Hein’s dominance as a blocker, and of course, he also played on the defensive line as a two-way star. Hein led the New York Giants to seven championship games and two titles, playing in 170 regular season contests over 15 years.
98. Michael Strahan, DE, 1993-2007
7 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
141.5 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns
Michael Strahan is most known for breaking the single-season sack record (22.5)*, but he was more than just a dominant pass rusher. He was a complete defensive end who could also stop the run. Strahan’s seven-year peak from 1997 through 2003 was remarkable – he played all 112 games, averaged 14 sacks per season, and earned four All-Pro selections, including a Defensive Player of the Year award. Strahan retired after leading the New York Giants to a Super Bowl championship over the 18-0 New England Patriots, a game in which Strahan sacked Tom Brady once and helped hold the Patriots’ record-breaking offense to just 14 points.
97. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, 2004-Active
10 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro
1,125 receptions, 14,389 receiving yards, 104 receiving TDs
Thirteen seasons into his NFL career, Larry Fitzgerald is still going strong. He’s 33 years old but fresh off a year in which he just led the league in receptions (107), posted his eighth 1,000-yard season, and became just the second wide receiver in history to make 10 Pro Bowls (Jerry Rice is the other). Among wide receivers, Fitzgerald is second just to Rice in career receptions, and if he was intent on playing past 2017 (he’s currently non-committed), he would probably become the only non-Rice player ever to top 16,000 receiving yards. He was blessed to have late-season Kurt Warner, but he also dealt with passers such as Ryan Lindley, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, and Drew Stanton. That’s almost unfair. Factor in that Fitzgerald has been a stellar postseason player and a superb blocker, and he’s an easy Hall of Famer.
96. Darrell Green, CB, 1983-2002
7 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
54 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries, 8 defensive touchdown
You can’t even talk about Darrell Green without talking about how fast he was. He was a four-time NFL Fastest Man champion. He was said to have posted a 4.2 time on his 40th birthday and a 4.43 time when he was 50 years old. Green was also a dynamic cornerback and punt returner, earning seven Pro Bowl selections in a 20-year career that spanned from the Terry Bradshaw days to the Tom Brady era. Green made the Pro Bowl at age 24 and then again at age 37. No defensive player has ever suited up for more games than Green (295), which was a testament to Green’s amazing durability.
95. Herb Adderley, CB, 1961-1972
5 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 6 rings, Hall of Fame
48 interceptions, 1,046 return yards, 14 fumble recoveries, 7 defensive touchdowns
Herb Adderley actually started his career as a halfback for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers before becoming a Hall of Fame cornerback. Adderley picked off 39 passes in nine years with the Packers, helping the team dominate the 1960s – five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Adderley then helped the Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowl V, making him one of three players in league history with six rings.
94. Lenny Moore, RB, 1956-1967
7 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
5,174 rushing yards, 63 rushing TDs; 363 receptions, 6,039 receiving yards, 48 receiving TDs; 11,213 scrimmage yards, 111 total TDs
Lenny Moore would fit perfectly in today’s era of football; he caught passes, ran the ball incredibly well, and was essentially a modern day Marshall Faulk. Moore led the NFL in yards per carry four times and posted a ridiculous 16.6 yards-per-catch average as a receiver out of the backfield. He was a big-play machine, scoring 26 touchdowns of 50+ yards, and he held the record for many years by scoring a touchdown in 18 straight appearances.
93. John Elway, QB, 1983-1998
9 Pro Bowls, 1 MVP, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
51,475 passing yards, 300 TD passes, 79.9 passer rating, 148-82-1 as starter
One of the most hyped pre-draft athletes ever, John Elway played 16 seasons in a Hall of Fame career for the Denver Broncos. He’s one of just three quarterbacks selected first overall to eventually make it to Canton, Ohio. Elway’s efficiency numbers don’t match up to those of Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre, but he still accumulated over 50,000 passing yards and 300 touchdown passes, while also serving as one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks ever. Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances, finishing his career with consecutive titles. If you’re starting a football team from scratch, Elway has all the physical attributes you’d want from your quarterback – he was big, had a rocket arm, could move, and had a fast release.
92. Lem Barney, CB, 1967-1977
7 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
56 interceptions, 1,077 return yards, 17 fumble recoveries, 7 defensive touchdowns
Lem Barney didn’t waste any time becoming an NFL star. He had a pick-six on the first passing play of his career (against Bart Starr!), two interceptions in his second game, and league-leading totals in interceptions (10), return yards (232), and touchdowns (3) as a rookie. Barney had an unbelievable knack for getting to the ball – he had 39 takeaways in his first four seasons, and he also made plays as a returner, scoring three touchdowns via kicks and punts. Barney is still one of just nine players in history with over 1,000 interception return yards.
91. Steve Hutchinson, G, 2001-2012
7 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro
Steve Hutchinson was one of the most dominant run blockers of all-time. He blocked for Shaun Alexander for five years, during which Alexander averaged 1,501 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns, then five years for Adrian Peterson, during which Peterson averaged 1,350 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns. Even more telling was Alexander’s production after Hutchinson left the Seattle Seahawks; Alexander averaged just 3.5 yards per carry from 2006-’07 after averaging 4.5 in the five prior seasons. Hutchinson becomes a Hall of Fame candidate in 2018 and should be a first-ballot induction.
90. Walter Jones, OT, 1997-2008
9 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
At his peak in the mid-2000s, a strong case could be made for Walter Jones as the best overall player in football. In fact, The Sporting News named Jones as its No. 1-rated player following the ’05 season – a year in which Jones helped Shaun Alexander break the single-season record for rushing touchdowns (28). Think about what that offensive line looked like with Jones at left tackle and Hutchinson at left guard. Jones started 180 games in a career that saw him make nine Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams, and he helped the Seattle Seahawks reach the Super Bowl once and the playoffs six times. He was most effective as a pass blocker, as he allowed just 23 sacks in 12 seasons.
89. Marion Motley, RB, 1946-1955
1 Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 5 rings, Hall of Fame
4,720 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 31 rushing TDs
Marion Motley was a 238-pound bruising fullback in an era in which offensive linemen didn’t even weigh that much; as a result, Motley was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cleveland Browns. He benefited greatly from playing with a Hall of Fame quarterback (Otto Graham) and in an offense that featured standout receivers Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, but Motley still averaged a ridiculous 5.7 yards per rush if you include his AAFC days – that’s the highest mark in league history. Motley also contributed on defense as a linebacker. Former Sports Illustrated great writer Dr. Z called Motley the greatest player in league history.
88. Earl Campbell, RB, 1978-1985
5 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 MVP, Hall of Fame
9,407 rushing yards, 74 rushing TDs; 10,213 scrimmage yards, 74 total TDs
With all due respect to Marion Motley, if it’s fourth-and-goal from the opponent’s 1, and I can take any running back from history, I’m taking Earl Campbell. Campbell was a Heisman Trophy winner in college, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NFL draft, and the league rushing champion each of his first three years. Campbell’s racked up five seasons of 1,300 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns on a team that never had a Pro Bowl quarterback. He’s since paid the price – Campbell has had both knees replaced, undergone multiple back surgeries, and he uses a walker to get around. But for five years, he was as good as it gets.
87. Joe Thomas, OT, 2007-Active
10 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro
Ten seasons into his NFL career, Joe Thomas has been a model of consistency like few players in league history. He’s swept the Pro Bowl, earning a selection in 10 of a possible 10 years. He’s been named First-Team All-Pro on six occasions. He’s never missed a game. Most remarkably, he’s never missed a snap. Next year, Thomas can become the only offensive player ever to start his career with 11 straight Pro Bowl selections. It’s a shame he’s never been surrounded with competent quarterback play; despite suiting up for close to 10,000 snaps of his own at left tackle, he’s seen 20 quarterbacks take at least one snap. For Thomas’ sake, here’s to hoping Cleveland trades him to a contender so he can finally get to play in the postseason before his career is over.
86. Emlen Tunnell, CB/S, 1948-1961
9 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
79 interceptions, 1,282 return yards, 16 fumble recoveries, 4 defensive touchdowns
Emlen Tunnell’s pro career began when he hitchhiked across the country to request a tryout with the New York Giants. It ended with him holding the NFL’s career record of 79 interceptions and earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tunnell was a ridiculously athletic ballhawk, at one point recording at least six interceptions in 10 consecutive seasons. He led the New York Giants to the 1956 NFL Championship and then retired as a contributor on the 1961 Green Bay Packers team that won their first of five titles that decade.
85. Steve Van Buren, RB, 1944-1951
5x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
5,860 rushing yards, 69 rushing TDs; 45 receptions, 523 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs; 8,958 all-purpose yards, 77 total TDs
Steve Van Buren was one of the most dominant football players of the game’s first 30 years, winning the rushing crown four times in a five-year span. He ran the ball incredibly well; in fact, retiring as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, but he also returned punts and kicks, and even played a little defense. Van Buren led the Philadelphia Eagles to consecutive championships, rushing for the only touchdown in a 7-0 win in 1948 and then totaling 196 yards and a score in a 14-0 win in 1949.
84. Orlando Pace, OT, 1997-2009
7 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
Orlando Pace is one of just three offensive tackles to be drafted first overall since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, and he went on to start for over a decade and produce Hall of Fame results. Pace was a key player for the St. Louis Rams, known as the Greatest Show on Turf, helping the team rank first in both points and yards for three straight seasons. He blocked for Kurt Warner’s blind side, while also paving the way for Marshall Faulk on the ground, and that led Pace to seven Pro Bowls. And here’s a nice Pace statistic: during his tenure with the Rams, the team ranked in the top six in both points scored and yards gained. Since he left, the team ranks last in both categories.
83. Michael Irvin, WR, 1988-1999
5 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, 3 rings, Hall of Fame
750 receptions, 11,904 receiving yards, 65 receiving TDs
As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, do I like Michael Irvin? No. Do I respect him as a player? You better believe it. Those most familiar with the Dallas Cowboys’ 1990s dynasty say it was Irvin, not Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith, who fueled the dynasty. “The Playmaker” was a big, physical receiver who wasn’t afraid to go across the middle, and he dominated defensive backs until a career-ending neck injury in ‘99. During Irvin’s prime (1991-’95), he averaged a ridiculous 90/1,419/8 statline and posted his best numbers in the three Super Bowl wins.
82. Eric Dickerson, RB, 1983-1993
6 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
13,259 rushing yards, 90 rushing TDs, 281 receptions, 2,137 receiving yards, 6 receiving TDs; 15,396 scrimmage yards, 96 total TDs
In terms of being a natural runner of the football, Eric Dickerson may be the best ever. He still holds league records for rookie rushing yards (1,808) and single-season rushing yards (2,105). He led the NFL in rushing four times in his first six seasons, and he was able to withstand an incredible amount of carries; the 370-carry threshold is typically considered the breaking point for an NFL running back, but Dickerson topped this four times without missing significant time the following year. Two notable factors keep Dickerson from ranking higher on this list: he played with 22 Pro Bowl offensive linemen during his career (more than any other runner except for Emmitt Smith), and he fumbled a ridiculous 78 times, frequently coughing up the ball as many as 10-12 times per season.
81. Adrian Peterson, RB, 2007-Active
7 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 1 MVP
11,747 rushing yards, 97 rushing TDs, 241 receptions, 1,945 receiving yards, 5 receiving TDs; 13,692 scrimmage yards, 102 total TDs
There aren’t many running backs in history that have possessed Adrian Peterson’s combination of size, power, and speed. He was quite possibly my favorite running back to watch his highlight tape over and over again. AP’s first reception was a 60-yard touchdown. He broke the single-game rushing record in just his ninth NFL game, putting up 296 yards (253 in the second half!). And he won three rushing titles, including a near-record-setting 2,097-yard performance in 2012 that earned him the league MVP award. Most impressively, that ’12 campaign came just nine months after AP suffered what would have been a career-ending knee injury for some players. As it stands, Peterson is 16th on the career rushing list (11,747 yards), and can climb even higher on this list if he is able to bounce back with the New Orleans Saints in 2017. It’s doubtful he can add much to his career totals, seeing as he’s 32 years old, but we’ve all doubted Peterson before (see 2012 injury) and been wrong.
80. Shannon Sharpe, TE, 1990-2003
8 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 3 rings, Hall of Fame
815 receptions, 10,060 receiving yards, 62 receiving TDs
At his Hall of Fame induction, Shannon Sharpe called himself the second-best football player in his own family, trailing his brother, Sterling, whose career was cut short by a neck injury after the 1994 season. Sterling was a phenomenal wide receiver and well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but Shannon gets the spot in the top 100 because of longevity and sustained success at a position that doesn’t traditionally the receiving numbers Shannon put up. This Sharpe retired as the all-time leader for tight ends in receptions (815), receiving yards (10,060), and touchdowns (62), until Tony Gonzalez passed him in all three marks, and he was a key component on three Super Bowl champion teams.
79. Gale Sayers, RB, 1965-1971
4 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
4,956 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 39 rushing TDs; 9,435 all-purpose yards, 56 total touchdowns
On a per-play basis, Gale Sayers may be the most dangerous offensive threat of all-time. Injuries shortened his career, but he still managed to put together a career’s worth of highlights in a five-season span. Sayers was named First-Team All-Pro in each of his first five years – the only other NFL player to do that since 1960 is Lawrence Taylor. Sayers scored 56 touchdowns in just 68 games, led the league in all-purpose yards three times, and tied an all-time NFL record with six touchdowns in one game (as a rookie!). It’s an absolute shame that knee injuries wrecked his career before he was even 27, or that he never got to play in the postseason with Chicago. Interesting fact about Sayers: he was named Pro Bowl MVP three of the four times he played in the NFL’s all-star game.
78. Ray Nitschke, MLB, 1958-1972
1 Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 5 rings, Hall of Fame
25 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive touchdowns
For 15 years, Ray Nitschke fueled the Green Bay Packers defense, leading them to five championships, including the first two Super Bowl titles, and winning the game’s MVP after the 1962 championship game. Nitschke was curiously only selected to one Pro Bowl during his career, but he played at a perennially high level and was selected as the NFL’s all-time top linebacker by a panel in 1969, and then again named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.
77. Mel Renfro, S, 1964-1977
10 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
52 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns
A college running back, Mel Renfro quickly transitioned to defensive back in the NFL, where he became a superstar. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons in the league; the only other defensive player to do that in history is the great Lawrence Taylor. Renfro played safety for his first six years, then cornerback for the next eight, and led the Dallas Cowboys to a pair of Super Bowl championships in four appearances
76. Bobby Bell, OLB, 1963-1974
9 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
26 interceptions, 9 fumble recoveries, 8 defensive touchdowns
The mid-to-late 1960s Kansas City Chiefs teams were incredibly talented, featuring a slew of Hall of Famers or perennial Pro Bowlers in Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas, Jerry Mays, and Johnny Robinson – all who lined up on the defensive side. Bobby Bell was the most talented; in fact, he’s one of the most physically gifted athletes of all-time. Bell was a high school quarterback, a defensive and offensive lineman in college, and then one of the greatest outside linebackers in league history. Bell recorded 26 interceptions in pass coverage, but was also noted as one of the best blitzing linebackers of his era.
75. Jonathan Ogden, OT, 1996-2007
11 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fam
At 6’9”, 340 pounds, Jonathan Ogden was one of the most physically imposing men to ever put on an NFL uniform. Ogden was the first-ever draft pick for the newly-formed Baltimore Ravens in 1996, and he went on to dominate at left tackle for the next decade. He helped the team win the Super Bowl in 2000, fueled Jamal Lewis’ 2,066-yard season in 2003, and retired having made more Pro Bowls (11) than any other offensive tackle ever. Whether you take Ogden or Orlando Pace as the best tackle of the 2000s, you have yourself an all-time great at the position.
74. John Mackey, TE, 1963-1972
5 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
331 receptions, 5,236 receiving yards, 38 receiving TDs
Tight ends were an afterthought in the passing game when John Mackey started his career, but Mackey helped to make it a more prominent role. He was a Pro Bowler from the first time he stepped on the field, securing seven touchdowns and averaging a ridiculous 20.7 yards per catch as a rookie. If you watch the highlights of Mackey on YouTube, you can see that he was a nightmare for opposing defensive backs to try to tackle. Mackey was a favorite target for Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas – esepcially after Raymond Berry retired – and Mackey’s most memorable moment was catching a 75-yard touchdown pass in Super Bowl III. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982, Mackey became just the second pure tight end ever to be inducted.
73. Bill George, MLB, 1952-1966
8 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
18 interceptions, 19 fumble recoveries
Has any team ever experienced more success at one position than the Chicago Bears with their middle linebackers? Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, and the one who started it all, Bill George. George is actually credited with having invented the middle linebacker position; he initially started his career as a middle guard in a five-man front, where he would line up over the center, hit the center, and then drop back into coverage. George didn’t miss a game in his first 10 seasons and was named AP All-Pro seven consecutive seasons and eight times total.
72. O.J. Simpson, RB, 1969-1979
6 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 MVP, Hall of Fame
11,236 rushing yards, 61 rushing TDs; 203 receptions, 2,142 receiving yards, 14 receiving TDs; 13,378 scrimmage yards, 75 total touchdowns
Off-the-field issues aside, few players in history ever did more with less than O.J. Simpson, the former Heisman Trophy winner at USC and No. 1 overall pick of the Buffalo Bills. The Juice led the league in rushing four times in a five-year span, averaging 110 yards per game, earning a First-Team All-Pro selection every season, and becoming the first NFL player to break the 2,000-yard rushing barrier – this in just 14 games and in a season in which his quarterbacks literally combined to throw just four touchdown passes. O.J. was as pure of a runner as this league has ever seen, and his numbers would have been even more spectacular had he played with better quarterbacks.
71. J.J. Watt, DE, 2011-Active
4 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 3x DPOY
76.0 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive touchdowns
Is four incredibly dominant seasons enough to put a player in the top 75 all-time? When they’re J.J. Watt seasons, I think it’s enough. Watt is already a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner (tying Lawrence Taylor for the most ever), and he’s still just 28 years old. He’s the only player ever with multiple 20-sack seasons, and he’s done this as a 3-4 end, a position normally reserved for occupying double teams so outside linebackers can get sacks. In 2014, the Houston Texans finally started using Watt as a tight end, and he caught three touchdowns (on just three targets!), looking like Rob Gronkowski in the process. Watt finally succumbed to a herniated disc in 2016, missing his first action as a pro. Assuming he can return at full strength next season, he’s going to shoot up this list and eventually push for a top-10 spot ever.
70. Ken Houston, S, 1967-1980
12 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
49 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries, 9 defensive touchdowns
Some safeties have the gift of being hallhawks. Ken Houston had it. He scored a ridiculous 10 defensive touchdowns in his first five seasons, including a record-setting five in 1971. Houston’s success started in the old AFL, but he translated well to the modern NFL, making 12 consecutive Pro Bowls and retiring with 49 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries. No safety in history has earned more Pro Bowl selections than Houston.
69. Jason Taylor, DE, 1997-2010
6 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, Hall of Fame
139.5 sacks, 46 forced fumbles, 29 fumble recoveries, 8 interceptions, 9 defensive touchdowns
Defensive ends aren’t supposed to accumulate as many statistics as Jason Taylor did, but that’s why he’s one of the all-time greats at his position. Besides racking up a ridiculous 139.5 sacks in a 14-year career, he’s second among defensive ends with eight interceptions and first among any position on defense with six fumble return touchdowns. Taylor was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, a season in which his numbers were off the charts – 13.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns. He was a deserved first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2017.
68. Forrest Gregg, OT, 1956-1971
9 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 6 rings, Hall of Fame
A strong case could be made for Forrest Gregg as the game’s second-best offensive tackle ever, and that’s where I have him ranked (if you count Jim Parker as a guard). Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi called Gregg the finest player he ever coached, and Gregg’s accolades support that claim – he was a nine-time Pro Bowler, seven-time First-Team All-Pro, and the anchor of an offensive line that led Green Bay to five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. In fact, by virtue of Gregg ending his career with the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, he’s one of two players in history to win six rings as a player.
67. Tim Brown, WR, 1988-2004
9 Pro Bowls, Hall of Fame
After winning the Heisman Trophy and going sixth overall in the 1988 NFL draft to the Los Angeles Raiders, it took Tim Brown some time to become a No. 1 receiver. When he finally clicked, he became a star, earning nine Pro Bowl selections and retiring with more receiving yards (14,934) than any player in history except for Jerry Rice – and he did that largely with mediocre quarterbacks. Brown was never a First-Team All-Pro; his nine Pro Bowl selections are tied for the most ever by a player never to be a first-team selection, but he was incredibly consistent, averaging an 87/1,192/8 statline over a 10-year span. Brown was also a superb return man, running back three punts and a kick for touchdowns. His career total of 19,682 all-purpose yards is the fifth-highest total ever.
66. Steve Largent, WR, 1976-1989
7 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Steve Largent was drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1976, and they thought so little of him that they traded him to Seattle for an eighth-round draft choice before Largent had ever even played a game with Houston. That was clearly a mistake, as Largent went on to catch 819 passes for 13,089 yards and 100 touchdowns in 14 seasons for Seattle, retiring as the NFL’s all-time leader in all three of those statistical categories.
65. Randall McDaniel, G, 1988-2001
12 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Offensive guards aren’t supposed to run a 4.6 40 and be able to jump 37 inches in the air, but that’s probably why Randall McDaniel went on to be one of the greatest linemen in league history. McDaniel was a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1988 and pulled off a ridiculous achievement in the 1990s – he and Bruce Matthews are the only players in history – at any position – to start every game and make the Pro Bowl every year for an entire calendar decade. McDaniel helped the ’98 Vikings set a then-league record with 556 points scored.
64. Raymond Berry, WR, 1955-1967
6 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
631 receptions, 9,275 receiving yards, 68 receiving TDs
Raymond Berry was just a one-year starter in high school, a fringe college athlete, and a 20th-round pick of the Baltimore Colts in 1954, so it’s pretty unprecedented that he went on to become one of the greatest wide receivers in league history. Berry’s chemistry with quarterback Johnny Unitas uncanny; Berry perfected the art of route running, and used it to lead the league in receptions and yards three times each. In the famous 1958 NFL Championship Game that was dubbed ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played,’ Berry posted a 12-178-1 statline. When he retired after the ’67 season, he held the league record for both career receptions and receiving yards.
63. Randy White, DT, 1975-1988
9 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 1 ring, 1 Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Fame
Sacks weren’t an official statistic in Randy White’s day, but he’s unofficially credited with 111, an absurd total for a defensive tackle. That’s probably why White was referred to as “The Manster”, a nickname alluding to his being half man and half monster. White actually began his career as a middle linebacker, but then moved to Bob Lilly’s old position and made seven First-Team All-Pro squads in an eight-year span. White is one of just seven defensive players in league history to have been named a Super Bowl MVP.
62. Cris Carter, WR, 1987-2002
8 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
1,101 receptions, 13,899 receiving yards, 130 receiving TDs
It took Cris Carter some time to get his career started, but after he worked through his drug issues, he developed into an unstoppable wide receiver. He had prototypical wide receiver size at 6’3”, 202, and he was a scoring machine. Carter was second to just Jerry Rice in receptions and touchdown catches in the 1990s, and Carter led the NFL in touchdown grabs three times. He holds the all-time record with nine touchdown grabs from a yard away, along with records for scores from inside two yards (16), four yards (28), five yards (36), six yards (44), and seven yards (48).
61. Aaron Rodgers, QB, 2005-Active
6 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, 2x MVP, 1 ring, 1 SB MVP
36,827 passing yards, 297 TD passes, 104.1 passer rating, 90-45 as starter
Perhaps no quarterback in the history of the league can make the kinds of throws that Aaron Rodgers makes, and he does this on a regular basis. He has almost an uncanny ability to complete Hail Marys, and he’s still in his prime at age 33 in an era in which quarterbacks can excel well into their late thirties. Rodgers is a two-time regular season MVP, one-time Super Bowl MVP, and owner of the highest career passer rating in league history (104.1). Rodgers isn’t without his flaws; he takes too many sacks, went through an uncharacteristic 22-game skid from 2015 through 2016, and you would expect more than one Super Bowl appearance from a player who many consider on par with the greatest ever. The biggest factor keeping Rodgers out of my top 50 is the fact that he’s played just eight full seasons, but given the late-career success of Drew Brees (age 38) and Tom Brady (age 39), it’s reasonable to expect that Rodgers can play until he’s their age. If I do this list again in a few years, he’ll probably be pushing for a spot in the top 20 players.
60. Jack Lambert, MLB, 1974-1984
9 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
28 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries
The Steel Curtain defense didn’t become an all-time historically great defense until the organization drafted Jack Lambert in a 1974 draft that produced three other Hall of Famers for Pittsburgh. Jack Lambert was a full-time starter by year one, a Pro Bowler by year two, and an All-Pro and the league’s best defensive player by year three. Middle linebackers don’t typically register the turnovers that Lambert got, which makes his 28 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries even more remarkable.
59. Jack Ham, OLB, 1971-1982
8 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
32 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive touchdowns
There are a lot of similarities between Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. Each was a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, each made six First-Team All-Pro squads, and each registered an uncanny number of turnovers for a linebacker position. There’s even the common first name ‘Jack.’ Ham ranks higher because he played longer and made more of an impact in the postseason – he recorded a ridiculous eight turnovers in just 16 games.
58. Roger Staubach, QB, 1969-1979
6 Pro Bowls, 2 rings, 1 Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Fame
22,700 passing yards, 153 TD passes, 83.4 passer rating, 85-29 as starter
For a player who didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old, Roger Staubach’s accomplishments are pretty impressive. He won a Super Bowl as a first-year starter, nearly lost his starting job after an injury in year two, and then rebounded to become the finest quarterback of the 1970s. He led the league in passer rating four times, won two Super Bowls, and then retired abruptly after arguable his best season due to a bout of concussions. I see Staubach as being a comparable player to Rodgers – both started their careers late, both were high efficiency passers, and both ran very well. I have Staubach higher because he had more postseason success than Rodgers.
57. Charles Woodson, CB/S, 1998-2015
9 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 1 ring
65 interceptions, 33 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries, 20 sacks, 13 defensive TDs
Charles Woodson was probably the best player on the football field in almost every game he ever played in his life. He was Ohio’s Mr. Football as a high school senior, the Heisman Trophy winner for the University of Michigan, and then a Pro Bowler as a rookie for the Oakland Raiders. Woodson went on to appear in nine Pro Bowls over an 18-year career, earning selections at multiple positions (corner and safety) for multiple teams (Oakland and Green Bay) in three different decades (1990s, 2000s, and 2010s). Woodson simply refused to age; he averaged six interceptions per season in his first six years with Green Bay (from age 30-35), leading the team to a Super Bowl championship. Even at age 39, he recorded a ridiculous nine takeaways in a Pro Bowl campaign with the Raiders. Woodson retired when he was still a top-tier player; there’s reason to believe he could have excelled into his forties.
56. Junior Seau, OLB, 1990-2009
12 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
1,522 tackles, 18 interceptions, 56.5 sacks, 18 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive TD
The late Junior Seau had a simply remarkable NFL career, spanning a full two decades and becoming just the third defensive player ever to suit up at age 40. Seau debuted with the San Diego Chargers, making 12 consecutive Pro Bowls from 1991-2002, earning a Defensive Player of the Year award, and leading the Chargers to a Super Bowl appearance. After a stint with the Miami Dolphins, Seau played a reserve role for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, signing four consecutive one-year deals before finally retiring in January 2010. Seau is unofficially credited with the fourth-most career tackles in NFL history (1,522).
55. Ed Reed, S, 2002-2013
9 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 1 ring
64 interceptions, 1,590 return yards, 13 fumble recoveries, 9 defensive TDs
Every time Ed Reed touched the ball on defense, he was a threat to score. This was a man who took an interception 106 yards for a touchdown in 2004, then topped it with a record-setting 107-yard return in 2008. Reed holds the single-season record with 358 return yards, as well as the career record with 1,590 interception return yards. Three times he led the league in interceptions and recorded a ridiculous seven interceptions in his first seven playoff games. If you put Reed in the 1950s when quarterbacks threw interceptions at a much higher rate than they do now, there’s no telling how many career interceptions Reed would have. Fittingly enough, Reed’s final game as a member of the Baltimore Ravens was the Super Bowl win against the San Francisco 49ers, during which Reed intercepted Colin Kaepernick.
54. Champ Bailey, CB, 1999-2013
12 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro
52 interceptions, 464 return yards, 4 defensive touchdowns
In the prime of his career, Champ Bailey was about as dominant of a shutdown cornerback as this league has ever seen. He intercepted five passes as a rookie and was still playing at a top-tier level 13 seasons later. Bailey’s 12 Pro Bowl selections are the most ever of a cornerback, and he was involved in one of the most famous player-for-player trades in league history when the Washington Redskins shipped him to Denver for running back Clinton Portis. The Broncos made the right decision there. You can find a running back like Portis. It’s much tougher to find an all-world shutdown corner.
53. Gene Upshaw, G, 1967-1981
7 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
There probably isn’t a better offensive line in NFL history than the Oakland Raiders’ line that featured Hall of Famers Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, and Jim Otto. Upshaw played for 15 seasons, becoming the first player to appear in Super Bowls in three different decades. He dominated former league MVP Alan Page in the 1976 Super Bowl, helping the Oakland running game put up 266 yards in an 18-point win. That performance didn’t get him the game’s MVP, but it should have. After his career, Upshaw went on to be the leader of the NFL’s Player Association.
52. Terrell Owens, WR, 1996-2010
6 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro
1,078 receptions, 15,934 receiving yards, 153 receiving TDs
Terrell Owens’ career wasn’t without controversy, and that’s why the Hall of Fame hasn’t welcomed him. In terms of what he did on the field, not only is T.O. a surefire HOF talent; he’s a top-five wide receiver of all-time. Owens is second to just Jerry Rice in receiving yards (15,934) and third in receiving touchdowns (153). He was known as a physical blocker who wasn’t afraid to go across the middle, and he still doesn’t get enough credit for playing in the 2004 Super Bowl on a recently-broken leg that was still healing. Did he ‘destroy’ locker rooms? That’s tough for me to say without being his teammate. But a player who averaged 1,062 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for his entire 15-year career is certainly doing more good than bad.
51. Derrick Brooks, OLB, 1995-2008
9 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
25 interceptions, 24 forced fumbles, 13.5 sacks, 1,297 tackles, 7 defensive touchdowns
There has probably never before been a linebacker who could cover like Derrick Brooks. Brooks finished his career with 25 interceptions, and he was at his best during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ magical 2002 campaign – Brooks recorded five interceptions, a fumble recovery, 11 passes defensed, and a ridiculous four defensive touchdowns, plus another one in the Super Bowl. Brooks never missed a game in 14 seasons with Tampa Bay, suiting up for all 224 in the regular season.
Stay tuned for Part II of the series ranking players #50-11.