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, specifically players ranked #50-11.
50. Mike Webster, C, 1974-1990
9 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
Before he became the face of CTE for retired NFL players, Mike Webster staked his case as arguably the most talented center in league history. Iron Mike started 217 games over 17 seasons (plus another 19 in the playoffs), earning a multitude of individual accolades – nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections. He was a backup on the first two Pittsburgh Super Bowl champion teams, but played a major role in the ’78 and ’79 title winners. Webster was the last active player to have been on all four Steelers Super Bowl teams.
49. Mel Blount, CB, 1970-1983
5 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
57 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, 4 defensive touchdowns
A 6’3” cornerback in today’s NFL is rare. That made Mel Blount an absolute giant back in the 1970s. Blount’s physical style of play was so effective that the league actually created rules to make life easier for opposing wide receivers. Blount was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1975, when he had 11 interceptions. He had at least four picks in eight different seasons, finishing his career with 70 takeaways, and he helped fuel a Pittsburgh dynasty that won four Super Bowls in six years.
48. Larry Allen, G, 1994-2007
11 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
Larry Allen’s athleticism is unparalled for a guard. You may think of guards as big, fat, and slow immovable objects. Allen was all of those things, except his speed is something you don’t often see from a 340-pound man. Allen could bench press 700 pounds. He could squat over 900 pounds. It was that absurd physical talent that helped Allen make 11 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro squads, and Allen was a key player in Emmitt Smith’s pursuit of the all-time rushing record.
47. Marshall Faulk, RB, 1994-2005
7 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 MVP, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
12,279 rushing yards, 100 rushing TDs; 767 receptions, 6,875 receiving yards, 36 receiving TDs; 19,154 scrimmage yards, 136 total TDs
Marshall Faulk was a special breed of running back, a rare talent whose pass-catching abilities are unprecedented in the league’s 95-year history. Faulk was the best player on The Greatest Show on Turf, a three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, a league MVP, and the focal point of who Bill Belichick wanted to stop in the 2001 Super Bowl. He played running back, but could have excelled as a slot receiver as well. Faulk’s three-year span with the St. Louis Rams is legendary; he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, 2,255 scrimmage yards, and 20 total touchdowns per season, fumbling just five times total. When he was the league MVP in 2000, he set a record with 26 touchdowns and literally touched the ball 334 times without fumbling once.
46. Bruce Matthews, C/G, 1983-2001
14 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Bruce Matthews comes from a long line of football greatness, but he’s the best of his family. Matthews was drafted in the first round in 1983, and over a 19-year NFL career with the same franchise, he established himself as possibly the greatest interior lineman of all-time. Matthews made All-Pro teams in three different decades. He’s one of four players ever to earn 14 Pro Bowl invitations. He has played every position on the line, and his remarkable durability allowed him to finish his career with 229 consecutive games started. There aren’t many players with his career list of accolades.
45. Julius Peppers, DE, 2002-Active
9 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro
143.5 sacks, 50 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions, 18 fumble recoveries, 6 defensive touchdowns
Julius Peppers entered the NFL as a physical freak, and he’s gone on to have a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. There aren’t too many 6’6”, 283-pound men who can run a 4.68 40-yard dash, and that athleticism has enabled Peppers to be a star as both a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s fifth on the NFL’s all-time sack list (143.5) and second in forced fumbles (50). He’s the only defensive lineman ever with double-digit interceptions (11), and his six defensive touchdowns trail just Jason Taylor at the position. Peppers is still going at age 37, having signed on for another season with the Carolina Panthers.
44. Jim Otto, C, 1960-1974
12 Pro Bowls, 10x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Jim Otto was a true warrior in the sense of the term warrior; he played every game for 15 seasons for the Oakland Raiders. He had nine knee operations during his playing career, and he’s had dozens and dozens of surgeries in all, but it never resulted in diminished performance on the field. Otto was selected to 12 Pro Bowls and 10 First-Team All-Pro teams, and he’s entrenched in the discussion of the greatest centers who ever lived.
43. Chuck Bednarik, C/MLB, 1949-1962
8 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
Chuck Bednarik’s accolades are noteworthy, to say the least. Concrete Charlie is arguably the greatest player in Philadelphia Eagles’ franchise history. He was the first overall pick in the 1949 NFL draft, then went on to have a Hall of Fame career that saw him make eight Pro Bowls, earn five First-Team All-Pro selections, lead the Eagles to a pair of championships, and serve as the league’s final 60-minute man. Bednarik is also credited with having two of the most famous tackles of all-time – first the game-saving tackle of Jim Taylor to secure the 1960 NFL Championship, then the hit that knocked out Hall of Famer Frank Gifford for a full year.
42. Brett Favre, QB, 1991-2010
11 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 3x NFL MVP, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
71,838 passing yards, 508 TD passes, 86.0 passer rating, 186-112 as starter
Brett Favre has become historically underrated and overly criticized. He threw too many interceptions, but his prime was every bit as impressive as any quarterback who ever lived. Favre is the only man in league history to capture three straight MVP awards. He made the Pro Bowl 17 years apart, starting every game during that span, won a Super Bowl and played in five conference championship games, and retired with the league’s all-time records in passing yards (71,838) and touchdown passes (508).
41. Mike Singletary, MLB, 1981-1992
10 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
7 interceptions, 19 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries
Somehow, the Chicago Bears have always managed to have great middle linebackers. Bill George and Dick Butkus were early all-time greats, and Brian Urlacher was a recent player who will likely make the Hall of Fame. Mike Singletary though, made more Pro Bowls (10) than any of them. He was the AP Defensive Player of the Year for the legendary 1985 Bears squad that went 15-1, and he recovered two fumbles in the 46-10 Super Bowl win. Singletary won another Defensive Player of the Year award in 1988, making him one of just seven players to win the award twice. For his 12-year career, Singletary registered 1,488 tackles (885 solo), 19 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries, and seven interceptions.
40. Emmitt Smith, RB, 1990-2004
8 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 1 MVP, 3 rings, 1 Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Fame
18,355 rushing yards, 164 rushing TDs; 21,579 scrimmage yards, 175 total touchdowns
Several factors helped Emmitt Smith become the all-time leading rusher in NFL history. He was durable. He could handle a full workload. He was blessed with Hall of Fame teammates. And he just kept grinding out yards year after year after year. Smith won four rushing titles in his first six years, rushed for 1,000 yards in 11 straight seasons, and helped the Dallas Cowboys win three Super Bowls. Smith is the only running back ever to win the rushing title, NFL MVP, a Super Bowl ring, and Super Bowl MVP award in the same season – and he did it in a year in which he held out the first two games due to a contract dispute.
39. Drew Brees, QB, 2001-Active
10 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, 1 ring, 1 Super Bowl MVP
66,111 passing yards, 465 TD passes, 96.3 passer rating, 131-101 as starter
By this point, it’s pretty clear Drew Brees is the best free-agent signing in NFL history, and he’s staking his case to eventually be a top-five quarterback of all-time. Brees’ numbers are inflated by the modern era and playing half his games in a dome, but you don’t get to 66,000 career passing yards and 465 touchdown passes without being a special player. Brees has missed just one game due to injury since joining New Orleans. He’s led the league in passing yards seven times, registered half the 5,000-yard seasons ever, and few quarterbacks have dealt with a worse defense or more turnover at the skill positions (Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Brandin Cooks) on a yearly basis. Brees is 38 years old, but there’s reason to believe he can play several more seasons at a high level.
38. John Hannah, G, 1973-1985
9 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Just eight seasons into his career, Sports Illustrated called John Hannah the greatest offensive lineman ever; even a full 35 years later, he’s still considered to be the best guard ever. Hannah was said to be the master of the sweep, and his dominance as a run blocker was never more evident than the 1978 New England Patriots team that set an all-time league record with 3,165 rushing yards. Hannah is one of four offensive linemen ever whose career started after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to make at least seven All-Pro teams.
37. Lance Alworth, WR, 1962-1972
7 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
542 receptions, 10,266 receiving yards, 85 receiving TDs
The one they call Bambi had a seven-year stint in the 1960s that was as dominant as any wide receiver this game has seen, outside of Jerry Rice or Don Hutson. Lance Alworth did his work in the old AFL, but still, he was the greatest player the American Football League has ever seen. He earned six consecutive First-Team All-Pro selections, averaging 1,250 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns over a stretch in which teams didn’t pass the ball nearly as much (or as efficiently) as they do today. Alworth retired at a young age (just 32), and was essentially done his career at age 29; had he been productive for a few more seasons, he would be in the top 20 players all-time.
36. Jim Parker, OT/G, 1957-1967
8 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
Whether you consider Jim Parker to be a tackle or a guard, he’s among the greatest offensive linemen ever. Imagine the experience you would get with having to block Gino Marchetti every day in practice. Parker played 5 ½ years at tackle, then moved to guard and was dominant for another 5 ½ seasons. He blocked for a handful of Hall of Famers in Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, and Raymond Berry, and was a key component on consecutive NFL championship teams in 1958 and 1959.
35. Gino Marchetti, DE, 1952-1966
11 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
161 games played, 13 fumble recoveries, 2 defensive TDs
Gino Marchetti started his career as a defensive end, played a year at left tackle, and then moved back to defensive end, where he became one of the greatest linemen in league history. Marchetti was highly decorated, earning 11 Pro Bowl selections, seven First-Team All-Pro nominations, and playing a major role in two NFL championships. Marchetti famously broke his leg in the ’58 title game against the New York Giants, but refused to leave the sideline until the game was over. His contemporaries raved about him, with Hall of Fame offensive tackle Forrest Gregg calling Marchetti the greatest all-around player he’s ever competed against.
34. Sid Luckman, QB/DB/P, 1939-1950
3 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 NFL MVP, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
Only Sammy Baugh kept Sid Luckman from being the best quarterback of the 1940s; in fact, only Baugh and Don Hutson kept Luckman from being the best player of that decade. Given their similarities, it makes sense to compare Baugh and Luckman against one another, and Luckman sure held his own: he led the NFL in a slew of passing statistics, won the 1943 MVP award, and outdueled Baugh in two of their three head-to-head matchups in the league championship games. Luckman was a pretty good defensive back as well, recording 17 interceptions, and he even topped the NFL in punting average in his rookie campaign. What ultimately gives Baugh the edge was his longevity and slightly superior performances as both a passer and defensive back.
33. Bronko Nagurski, FB, 1930-1943
4x All-Pro, 3 rings, Hall of Fame
2,778 rushing yards, 25 rushing TDs
Besides having one of the all-time great football names, Bronko Nagurski was just a complete football player. He was 6’2”, 226 pounds in an era in which players routinely weighed 165 pounds; that means Naguski was big enough to play both fullback and offensive tackle, as well as defensive tackle. In fact, he’s the only player in history to be named an AP First-Team All-Pro at three different non-kicking positions. Nagurski even threw seven touchdown passes during his career, which was a testament to his overall athleticism. After he retired, he went on to be a professional wrestler. There are a multitude of positions he would likely play in today’s NFL, but regardless, he would be a dominant player.
32. Steve Young, QB, 1985-1999
7 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 2x NFL MVP, 1 ring, 1 Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Fame
33,124 passing yards, 232 TD passes, 4,239 rushing yards, 43 rushing TDs, 94-49 record as starter
Two seasons in the USFL, two seasons as a failed starter for Tampa Bay, and four seasons backing up Joe Montana… that experience and time on the bench helped to turn Steve Young into arguably the most efficient dual-threat quarterback who ever lived. With the possible exception of Peyton Manning, it’s doubtful any QB of all-time can match the eight-year stretch Young put up from 1991-1998. During that span, Young led the NFL in passer rating six times, completion percentage and yards per attempt five times, and touchdown passes and ANY/A four times each, and he did this during the heart of the Brett Favre era. Young won a Super Bowl with San Francisco (throwing for six touchdowns in the game!). He rushed for an absurd 4,239 yards and 43 touchdowns in his career. The only thing stopping him from ranking in the top five quarterbacks ever is a shortened peak.
31. Fran Tarkenton, QB, 1961-1978
9 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro, 1 NFL MVP, Hall of Fame
47,003 passing yards, 342 TD passes, 3,674 rushing yards, 32 rushing TDs; 124-109-6 as starter
Dual-threat quarterbacks of Fran Tarkenton’s caliber didn’t really exist until Tarkenton came along. Tarkenton was a full-time starter for nearly two decades, amassing over 47,000 passing yards and 342 touchdowns, despite never throwing more than 25 touchdowns to a single receiver. He was the greatest running quarterback of his era (and perhaps of all-time), yet still managed to stay healthy – he didn’t miss a single game until his 11th season. He led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls, and if he had won just one of them, he would likely be considered among the three greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
30. Deacon Jones, DE, 1961-1974
8 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
15 fumble recoveries, 191 games played
Deacon Jones was a little-known collegiate player at two different universities and a 14th-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams; he went on to be arguably the greatest player in the franchise’s history. Jones is recognized with inventing the phrase ‘sack’, and while official statistics don’t exist for his era, he’s unofficially credited with having registered 173.5 of them over his career, including three different seasons of at least 20. He was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in both 1967 and 1968 (this was by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, as it was before the official AP awards were established), and was so effective with the head slap that it was later barred.
29. Rod Woodson, CB/S/PR, 1987-2003
11 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
71 interceptions, 1,483 return yards, 32 fumble recoveries, 23 forced fumbles, 13.5 sacks, 1,049 tackles, 13 defensive touchdowns
Rod Woodson had a pretty amazing NFL career – he was a tremendous player at three different positions (cornerback, safety, and punt/kick returner) for four different teams over three different decades. He was at his best with the Pittsburgh Steelers, earning five First-Team All-Pro selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award at cornerback, then transitioning to safety where his ballhawking prowess continued into his late thirties. Consider his 2002 season for Oakland when he had 11 takeaways (eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries) at the age of 37.
28. Deion Sanders, CB/PR, 1989-2004
8 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 DPOY, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
53 interceptions, 1,331 return yards, 10 defensive TDs; 9 kick/punt return TDs
There has never been an athlete quite like “Prime Time”, Deion Sanders. He played pro baseball and pro football, once hitting a home run and scoring a touchdown in the same week, and he’s the only man in history to play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. As a football player, Deion shut down one side of the field like no cornerback has before or since – there were entire games in which opposing quarterbacks simply wouldn’t throw in Deion’s direction. And when they did, he’d usually make them pay for it. Sanders had the fastest closing speed you’ll ever see, and with the ball in his hands, he was as electrifying an athlete as you’ll see open field. Sanders recorded 53 interceptions in his career, and found the end zone a remarkable 20 times via return touchdowns (interceptions/punts/kicks/fumbles).
27. Randy Moss, WR, 1998-2012
6 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro
982 receptions, 15,292 receiving yards, 156 receiving TDs
Has there ever been a player who could take the top off of a defense quite like Randy Moss? At 6’4”, 210 pounds, and with 4.28 speed, Moss was capable of burning even the best cornerbacks on any given play. He caught two touchdowns in his first-ever NFL game, a league-record 17 as a rookie in 1998, an all-time record with 23 in 2007, and led the league in receiving touchdowns five separate times. He played for the two highest-scoring offenses of all-time (the 1998 Minnesota Vikings and 2007 New England Patriots). It’s easy to criticize for his “I’ll play when I want to play” comments, but he was simply the most dangerous weapon on the field for nearly every game he ever played.
26. Alan Page, DT, 1967-1981
9 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, 1 NFL MVP, Hall of Fam
Alan Page was flat out dominant during the 1970s, and he sets off a string of three consecutive defensive tackles from the same era. Page is one of two defensive players ever to win league MVP and he’s one of seven players to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. Amazingly, Page played 218 consecutive regular season games without missing one, plus another 19 in the Vikings’ four Super Bowl appearances. Page is unofficially credited with 148.5 sacks, plus 23 fumble recoveries, three safeties, and three defensive touchdowns, which are pretty unreal numbers for a defensive tackle.
25. Joe Greene, DT, 1969-1981
10 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
16 fumble recoveries, 181 games played
Mean Joe Greene was the catalyst of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty in the 1970s, a unit that won four Super Bowls in a six-year span and once held opponents to 28 total points over a nine-game span. Greene essentially invented the 3-technique role by shifting his spot so that he lined up between the center and the guard. It worked like a charm for Greene, who was the first NFL player to earn multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards. His finest game as a pro may have been his performance against future Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff in the 1974 Super Bowl, a contest in which Greene recorded an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, while helping to limit the Minnesota rushing attack to just 17 ground yards.
24. Merlin Olsen, DT, 1962-1976
14 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
9 fumble recoveries, 208 games played
There weren’t too many stats for defensive linemen when Merlin Olsen played, but here’s what we do know. Olsen is one of four players in league history to make 14 Pro Bowls, and he actually did it in his first 14 NFL seasons before missing in 1976. Olsen never missed a start after year one, and he was one-quarter of the Fearsome Foursome, a defense that went to the playoffs six times in a 10-year span.
23. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, 2001-2011
5 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 MVP, Hall of Fame
13,684 rushing yards, 145 rushing TDs, 624 receptions, 4,772 receiving yards, 17 receiving TDs; 18,456 scrimmage yards, 162 total TDs
Simply put, LaDainian Tomlinson is the greatest touchdown scorer in NFL history. He’s probably the best player in the modern era of fantasy football. He was a true workhorse who averaged 300+ carries per season, but he was a talented enough receiver out of the backfield to be able to add 60+ receptions, one time even reaching 100. He almost never got hurt. LT holds the single-season record with 31 total touchdowns. He averaged 2,070 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns over a six-season span. He scored a touchdown in 18 straight games. He threw seven touchdowns on 12 career pass attempts. Perhaps his most unbelievable achievement: LT once scored 23 touchdowns in an eight-game span. Even those of us who lived through his fantasy football days still don’t recognize just how good he was.
22. Tony Gonzalez, TE, 1997-2013
14 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro
1,325 receptions, 15,127 receiving yards, 111 receiving TDs
There are two professional athletes of my lifetime who probably could have played – and dominated – forever: Mariano Rivera and Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a first-round draft pick in 1997, made 14 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro selections, and retired when he was still one of the best tight ends in the game. Gonzalez’s durability and consistency were absolutely remarkable; he played in 270 of a possible 272 games and averaged a ridiculous 922 receiving yards over his final 16 seasons. He was a huge red zone threat at 6’5”, 251 pounds, a sure-handed receiver (only Jerry Rice has more catches), and extremely careful with the football – unbelievably, Gonzalez fumbled the ball just once over his last 1,100-plus catches. He’s the model for which all future tight ends should aspire to be.
21. Night Train Lane, CB, 1952-1964
7 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
68 interceptions, 1,207 return yards, 11 fumble recoveries, 6 defensive touchdowns
Night Train Lane is an absolutely fascinating case; he was essentially the NFL’s defensive version of Kurt Warner but from the 1950s. Like Warner, Lane was an undrafted free agent who enjoyed immediate rookie success, but Lane’s season was perhaps more remarkable. He was a 24-year-old graduate of the U.S. Army who essentially walked into the Los Angeles Rams’ camp and asked for a tryout. He started as a wide receiver, switched to cornerback, and was so successful in his first year of professional football that his 14 interceptions still stands as a single-season record. Lane was a physical tackler, to the point that rules were implemented prohibiting the neck tackle. Even 50-plus years after Lane announced his retirement, he’s still the greatest overall corner this game has ever seen.
20. Bob Lilly, DT, 1961-1974
11 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
196 consecutive games played, 18 fumble recoveries, 4 defensive touchdowns
Bob Lilly was Mr. Cowboy, the first-ever draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys and a Hall of Fame player who never missed a single game in 14 seasons. Lilly was the catalyst for the legendary Doomsday Defense, and he had the ability to line up at both tackle and end on the defensive line. They didn’t keep track of sacks or forced fumbles during Lilly’s playing career, but still, sportswriters who followed the game selected him to seven First-Team All-Pro squads, including six straight. Lilly’s 29-yard sack of Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI is one of the most memorable plays in the game’s history.
19. Dick Butkus, MLB, 1965-1973
8 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
22 interceptions, 27 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown
Dick Butkus was one of the meanest football players this league has ever seen, and that’s a badge of honor for a man who made a living out of wrecking ball carriers and opposing quarterbacks. Butkus’s career was short because his knees gave out, but he still packed eight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections into less than a decade of action. Butkus recorded a ridiculous 12 takeaways in his 14-game rookie season and retired with a then-league record 27 fumble recoveries. It’s an absolute shame Butkus never got to play in the postseason, let alone come close to winning a championship.
18. Ronnie Lott, CB/S, 1981-1994
10 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
63 interceptions, 17 fumble recoveries, 8.5 sacks, 1,113 tackles, 5 defensive touchdowns
Most people think of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice as fueling the 1980s San Francisco 49ers dynasty, but don’t overlook the impact of Ronnie Lott and the defense. Lott had the ability to play both corner and safety; in fact, he was a tremendous cornerback with a penchant for making big plays, before he transitioned to being a world-class safety who could hit defenders and cover receivers. Lott led the league in interceptions twice and he’s currently eighth on the all-time list (63), plus an impressive nine more in 20 career postseason games. How dedicated was Lott to the game of football? He once had the tip of his pinky finger removed to stay on the field.
17. Ray Lewis, MLB, 1996-2012
13 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, 2 rings
1,562 tackles, 31 interceptions, 41.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns
Is there a player whose passion and performance on the field meant more to his team than Ray Lewis? He fueled the Baltimore Ravens’ record-setting defense to a Super Bowl title in 2000, then went out on top as they won another title following the ’12 campaign. Lewis had rare speed (4.45 40) to cover running backs and wide receivers, and he played at a Pro Bowl level for parts of three different decades. Lewis is the only man ever with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions. He led the league in tackles a ridiculous five times. Simply put, he was a complete middle linebacker who could stop the run, rush the quarterback, and defend against the pass.
16. Joe Montana, QB, 1979-1994
8 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 2x NFL MVP, 4 rings, Hall of Fame
40,239 passing yards, 273 TD passes, 92.3 passer rating, 117-47 as starter
Joe Cool was the guy you’d want quarterbacking your team on the NFL’s biggest stage. Montana was a perfect 4-0 in Super Bowls, throwing 11 touchdowns to no interceptions, posting a 127.8 passer rating, and throwing memorable touchdowns in both a Super Bowl (John Taylor) and an NFC Championship Game (Dwight Clark). Montana was the ideal signal-caller for Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, given that he could both throw and run. He was deadly accurate with his passes, topping the NFL in completion percentage five times in the 1980s and earning consecutive MVP awards before a devastating injury essentially ended his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
15. Dan Marino, QB, 1983-1999
9 Pro Bowls, 3x All-Pro, 1 NFL MVP, Hall of Fame
61,361 passing yards, 420 TD passes, 86.4 passer rating, 147-93 as starter
Dan Marino was as pure of a passer as this game had seen until Peyton Manning came along. Marino was a Pro Bowler as a rookie and the NFL MVP by year two, during which he set records in passing yards (5,084) and touchdown passes (48). Marino led the league in passing yards five times in his first 10 seasons, but it was his ability to evade sacks that was his best quality in a long line of great qualities. Marino once went 19 consecutive games without being sacked, during which he threw 33 touchdowns. Don’t be that guy who blames Marino for never winning a Super Bowl; he threw multiple touchdown passes 10 times in his first 13 playoff games, but was never backed by a strong enough running game or defense to get that elusive championship ring.
14. Barry Sanders, RB, 1989-1998
10 Pro Bowls, 6x All-Pro, 1 NFL MVP, Hall of Fame
15,269 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 99 rushing TDs; 18,190 scrimmage yards, 109 total TDs
Barry Sanders was one of a kind – he was a dynamic running back with a repertoire of moves that has never been seen before. He was capable of spinning out of any defender’s tackle attempt, and only a shocking retirement at the age of 29 kept him from breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. Sanders took the league by storm as a rookie (1,470 rushing yards), earned First-Team All-Pro honors in each of his first three seasons, and then actually got better as his career went on. After averaging 1,358 rushing yards on 4.7 yards per carry in his first five years, Sanders averaged 1,696 yards on 5.2 yards per carry in his final five. Most impressively, Sanders did all this without ever having the services of a Pro Bowl quarterback.
13. Anthony Munoz, OT, 1980-1992
11 Pro Bowls, 9x All-Pro, Hall of Fame
Anthony Munoz is widely considered the league’s greatest offensive lineman ever. He dealt with knee issues in college, but then went on to stay remarkably healthy during his NFL career, missing just three games in his first 12 seasons. Munoz was voted the NFL’s Offensive Lineman of the Year three times in the 1980s, and he helped two different quarterbacks win league MVP. Munoz was even effective as a weapon on tackle-eligible plays, grabbing four touchdowns on seven receptions.
12. Bruce Smith, DE, 1985-2003
11 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, Hall of Fame
200 sacks, 43 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries, 1,075 tackles
Bruce Smith was 99 percent of the player the great Reggie White was; in fact, some might argue that his sack total is even more impressive. Smith, the only man ever to reach 200 career sacks, actually did so as a 3-4 defensive end, which traditionally is a position that makes it more difficult to get to the quarterback. Smith was a former No. 1 overall draft pick who lived up to his draft billing – he made 11 Pro Bowls, eight AP First-Team All-Pro squads, and earned two Defensive Player of the Year selections. Smith’s dominance stretched over two decades, as he was named to the NFL All-1980s and 1990s teams, and he even put up 29 more sacks in the early 2000s for the Washington Redskins. Smith also recorded 14.5 sacks in 20 career postseason games, taking the Bills to a quartet of Super Bowls (although without a win).
11. Walter Payton, RB, 1975-1987
9 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 1 NFL MVP, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing TDs; 21,264 scrimmage yards, 125 total TDs
Sweetness was a rare running back who was a complete football player. He’s a top-three running talent of all-time as well as being an exceptional pass-catcher, superb blocker, a pretty good passer, an underrated kick returner, and even an emergency punter and kicker. Walter Payton never missed a game due to injury after his rookie campaign, averaging 1,410 rushing yards per year over the next 11 seasons, and he did this with a subpar group of quarterbacks. Payton won the league MVP in 1977, earned First-Team All-Pro selections five times, and led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl championship.
Stay tuned for Part III of the series ranking players #10-1.