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 the top 10 NFL players ever on my countdown to the top 100.
10. Otto Graham, QB/DB, 1946-1955
5 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 3x NFL MVP, 7 rings, Hall of Fame
174 TD passes, NFL-record 9.0 YPA, 44 rushing TDs, 57-13-1 as starter
Similarly to Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham was a dynamic two-way player, and he never missed a game in a decade in pro football. Graham was also a dual-threat quarterback before the team was even used; he threw for 174 touchdowns in 10 years but also rushed for 44, a record that stood until Cam Newton came along. Four years of Graham’s dominance came in the lesser AAFC, but he didn’t miss a beat when he and the Cleveland Browns merged into the modern NFL in 1950, winning the league championship in year one. Graham’s .814 career winning percentage is the highest ever for a quarterback; he played in 10 championships in 10 seasons, winning seven of them. His 9.0 yards-per-attempt average is still the highest of all-time, which is remarkable given the inflation of the modern passing offense.
9. Johnny Unitas, QB, 1956-1973
10 Pro Bowls, 5x All-Pro, 3x NFL MVP, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
40,239 passing yards, 290 TD passes, 78.2 passer rating, 118-63-4 as starter
Johnny U was the consummate quarterback in an era in which defenders were actually allowed to hit the opposing quarterback. Unitas was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers in his rookie training camp, then went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Colts. Unitas is one of the most decorated passers in league history, having won three MVP awards, led the NFL in touchdown passes four straight seasons, and thrown a touchdown in a then-record 47 straight games. His most notable accomplishment was leading the Colts to an overtime victory in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, dubbed ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’.
8. Reggie White, DE, 1985-2000
13 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 2x DPOY, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
198 sacks, 33 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 1,048 tackles
Realistically, Reggie White could have played every position on the defensive line. He excelled as a 4-3 defensive end, but he was big and strong enough to have been a 3-4 end, a 4-3 tackle, or even a two-gapping 3-4 nose tackle. White dominated as a pass rusher, racking up double-digit sacks in nine straight seasons, 21 in a 12-game strike-shortened year, and 198 in a Hall of Fame career, but he also could play the run. White was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year for two different teams in two different decades, the most famous free agent ever, and a key component in the Green Bay Packers’ 1996 Super Bowl championship.
7. Lawrence Taylor, OLB, 1981-1993
10 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 3x DPOY, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
132.5 sacks, 11 fumble recoveries, 8.5 postseason sacks
The most dominant defensive player in league history literally changed the way offenses lined up. It was because of Lawrence Taylor that Washington coach Joe Gibbs utilized an H-back, whose main function was to block Taylor. LT wrecked opposing offenses from his rookie season; in fact, he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in both his first and second years, and then again in his sixth. He’s one of two defensive players ever to win league MVP, and he led the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl trophies. LT may not have enjoyed as long of a career in today’s era, given that he battled serious drug use and off-the-field issues. But a top-tier pass rusher is worth his weight in gold, and LT was the best that ever lived when it came to getting to the opposing quarterback.
6. Tom Brady, QB, 2000-Active
12 Pro Bowls, 2x All-Pro, 2x NFL MVP, 5 rings, 4 Super Bowl MVPs
61,582 passing yards, 456 TD passes, 97.2 passer rating, 183-52 as starter
Tom Brady is staking a strong case to be considered the greatest quarterback of all-time. He’s 39 years old but fresh off his most efficient season, one in which he set the single-season league record in TD:INT ratio while leading a ridiculous 25-point comeback in the Super Bowl. By now, you all know the story of Tom Brady’s underwhelming NFL Combine that led to him being a sixth-round pick and afterthought behind $103 million quarterback Drew Bledsoe. If not for the injury to Bledsoe, Brady may never have gotten his shot, but it happened and Brady happened. What we’ve seen is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the sport, a pinpoint accurate passer whose freakishly strict fitness regime has him still excelling as he hits age 40. Brady & Belichick go together like no quarterback-coach combo in history; Brady has made the offense run despite frequently subpar No. 1 wide receivers and an ever-shuffling group of running backs. Brady’s five Super Bowl rings are a testament to his stellar January play, but he’s been even more impressive in the regular season – he’s led the league in touchdowns four times, made a dozen Pro Bowls, and earned multiple league MVP awards.
5. Sammy Baugh, QB/DB/P, 1937-1952
6 Pro Bowls, 4x All-Pro, 2 rings, Hall of Fame
21,886 passing yards, 187 TD passes; 31 defensive interceptions
There were some great two-way players back in the day, but how about Sammy Baugh as a legitimate three-way player? The game’s top quarterback until Johnny Unitas came along also played defensive back and punted. So dominant was Baugh as a player that he once led the league in passing, punting, and interceptions in the same season. Even as a quarterback, Baugh would rank among the greatest to ever play, as he led the NFL in completion percentage a ridiculous eight times and passer rating on three occasions, but that extra element on defense and special teams puts him in the top five all-time. Baugh earned four First-Team AP All-Pro selections and led the Washington Redskins to a pair of championship victories.
4. Don Hutson, WR, 1935-1945
4 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 2x NFL MVP, 3 rings, Hall of Fame
488 receptions, 7,991 receiving yards, 99 receiving TDs; 30 defensive interceptions
Modern football has largely chosen to forget Don Hutson, the game’s greatest two-way player ever and the man who largely invented the wide receiver position and many of the same pass routes that are still run today. You know those Antonio Brown and Julio Jones and Larry Fitzgerald highlights we all love to watch on SportsCenter? Hutson was a better player than all of them.
He played 11 seasons in the NFL and combined to lead the league in receptions, receiving yards, or receiving touchdowns 24 of a possible 33 times. His first-ever play was an 83-yard touchdown grab. He once scored 29 points in a quarter. He was named First-Team AP All-Pro eight times and league MVP twice, and his 1942 season is still one of the most dominant ever – Hutson posted a 74/1,211/17 statline when the next-highest numbers were 27/571/8. Hutson even played defense, recording 30 interceptions as a safety and once leading the league. If you need a player capable of absolutely taking over a game, Hutson is your man.
3. Jim Brown, RB, 1957-1965
9 Pro Bowls, 8x All-Pro, 3x NFL MVP, 1 ring, Hall of Fame
12,312 rushing yards, 5.2 YPC, 106 rushing TDs; 14,811 scrimmage yards, 126 total TDs
Jim Brown was not only the greatest football player of the first 75 years; he’s one of the best athletes this world has ever seen. Brown was a multi-sport star at Syracuse, even being called the greatest lacrosse player ever; he then went on to wreck opposing NFL teams for a nine-year career. Brown led the league in rushing as a rookie; in fact, doing it every year of his career but one. He was a pure blend of power and speed, capable of handling a full workload and maintaining an incredible level of durability – Brown never missed a game due to injury. It takes a truly special player to win the league’s MVP award in his first and last seasons (and one in between), but that was Brown. Had he not hung up his cleats at age 29, Brown would probably still hold the league’s all-time rushing record. As it stands, he’s the only man ever to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his career.
2. Jerry Rice, WR, 1985-2004
13 Pro Bowls, 10x All-Pro, 3 rings, 1 Super Bowl MVP, Hall of Fame
1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, 197 receiving TDs; 23,540 scrimmage yards, 207 total TDs
Jerry Rice dominated his position like few athletes have ever done so in professional sports history. He finished his career with 22,895 receiving yards and 197 receiving touchdowns. The next-best totals of any wide receiver ever are 15,934 receiving yards and 156 receiving touchdowns. Rice actually accumulated more receiving yards after the age of 30 (13,823) than Calvin Johnson did in his entire career. I could list Jerry Rice stats for you all day. He once caught 22 touchdowns in 12 games. He has as many First-Team All-Pro selections as Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Michael Irvin made combined. He’s led the league in receiving yards six times. Since the merger, no other player has done it more than twice.
Rice was the greatest pure route runner of all-time, a masterful blocker, and spectacular at gaining yards after the catch. His work ethic is unparalled, and allowed him to sustain success into his age-40 season – when most great wide receivers have already been elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rice was putting up 1,211 yards for the Oakland Raiders. Rice’s postseason achievements only enhance his legacy – he played in four Super Bowls in his career, scored in all four, and actually averaged an 8/147/2 statline on the game’s biggest stage.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, 1998-2015
14 Pro Bowls, 7x All-Pro, 5x NFL MVP, 2 rings, 1 Super Bowl MVP
71,940 passing yards, 539 TD passes, 96.5 passer rating, 186-79 as starter
No quarterback in NFL history has positively impacted his teams more than Peyton Manning. Essentially serving as his own offensive coordinator, Manning’s accolades speak for themselves – he’s a 14-time Pro Bowler, seven-time First-Team All-Pro, and five-time winner of the NFL MVP award, the first four of which came with the Indianapolis Colts and the last in a record-setting 55-touchdown season with the Denver Broncos.
Manning’s durability at the toughest position was legendary; even after missing the entire 2011 campaign with a career-threatening neck injury, he returned with Denver to post three successive dominating campaigns and then retiring after a Super Bowl win. No player has ever elevated their teammates more than Manning. He turned Brandon Stokley into a 1,000-yard receiver. He made his offensive line look like the best in the game on an annual basis. When Manning was injured in ’11, the Colts went 2-14.
He was the smartest quarterback in the league, the hardest to sack, and a master of the pre-snap read. Manning’s postseason performances are often said to be his shortcomings, but he’s the owner of multiple rings, 3-2 against Tom Brady in January, and the only man in the last 40 years to post a perfect passer rating in a playoff game. He’s not just the best quarterback in the game’s history – he’s been its best player as well.