The NFL has produced some of the best athletes in professional sports. Some of the best talents have come through and made their mark on the league. There are great quarterbacks on this list, but the top players span all positions including some of the top pass rushers, wide receivers and running backs as well.
The top players all made huge impacts in revolutionizing the game, producing on the field and winning games at a high clip. From Jerry Rice to Walter Payton, here’s a look at the 30 best NFL players of all-time.
If you put Rice’s numbers up against any other wide receiver in the NFL, it’s a straight-up massacre. He has a nearly 6,000-yard advantage in total receiving yards over the next receiver on the list and a lead of 41 in total touchdowns caught in NFL history. A three-time Super Bowl champion, Rice was the key target for Joe Montana and later on Steve Young in the San Francisco 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s.
Even as a New York Jets fan, I have to give Brady props begrudgingly. A six-time Super Bowl winner and a four-time Super Bowl MVP, Brady was the crown jewel of a nearly two-decade dynasty with the New England Patriots. He’s a heady quarterback with 14 Pro Bowl appearances and the most wins by a quarterback (219). Brady’s in a new situation after signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this NFL offseason, so the question must be asked: At 43, can he take the Bucs to the promised land?
The only fullback on this list, Jim Brown helped power the Cleveland Browns to an NFL championship in 1964. Brown rushed for at least 1,000 yards in seven of his nine seasons. He also was the MVP on three different occasions. After all of these years, Brown’s still the all-time rushing leader for the Browns franchise.
A hard-hitting linebacker, Lawrence Taylor might be the most feared defensive player in NFL history. A two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants in 1987 and 1991, Taylor was the rare defensive player to win NFL MVP in 1986. That season he accumulated 20 ½ sacks.
There might not be another signature calling card that stands out more than Peyton Manning calling “Omaha” as an audible play. A two-time Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, Manning’s accuracy as a supreme quarterback thrower was unmatched. The 6’5” quarterback racked up individual awards as well, taking home five MVP trophies and being named to the NFL All-Pro First team on seven different occasions. Manning has the most seasons (14) with at least 4,000 passing yards in NFL history.
I think every quarterback had nightmares the night before a matchup with Reggie White. A Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers, White made 13 Pro Bowls. When he retired, White was the all-time sacks leader with 198. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, White led the NFL in sacks in two different seasons.
A four-time Super Bowl champ and a three-time winner of the big game’s MVP award, “Joe Cool” was an NFL regular season MVP twice and made the Pro Bowl eight times. Montana had several clutch moments late in games and is a factor in some of the best moments in NFL history. Montana’s late touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC Championship game is simply known as “The Catch.” I just got some shivers down my spine writing about this.
If your name gets slapped on an award forever, you must be doing something right. If it’s on two awards, now we’re reaching unprecedented levels. Given the nickname “Sweetness,” Walter Payton was a dominant running back. He registered at least 1,200 rushing yards in a 10 out of 11 season stretch. The 1977 NFL MVP, Payton won a Super Bowl in 1985 with the Bears and qualified for nine Pro Bowls.
The Super Bowl MVP in 2000, Ray Lewis handled the middle for the Baltimore Ravens for 17 years. A late first-round pick by Baltimore, Lewis excelled and became a franchise player. He helped elevate the Ravens to a contender on numerous occasions despite not having the traditional elite quarterback that so many title worthy teams carry. Lewis made the Pro Bowl 13 times and won two Super Bowls with the Ravens. He piled up the hits, racking up 2,061 tackles in his career.
A physically imposing middle linebacker, Dick Butkus anchored the Chicago Bears defense for nine seasons. Butkus was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time Pro Bowler and an agitator on defense that struck fear in the hearts of his opponents. A master intimidator and disruptor on the field, when Butkus retired from the NFL, he had the most fumbles recovered in league history (25).
Johnny Unitas was a true Cinderella story in the NFL. He was a ninth round selection and cut in his first training camp by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts and after an injury by starter George Shaw, he took over and the rest is history. A three-time champ with the Colts, Unitas was a three-time regular season MVP and a 10-time Pro Bowler. He threw at least 20 touchdowns in eight different seasons.
Given the nickname “Mean,” Joe Greene was a major part of Pittsburgh’s dominant “Steel Curtain.” A defensive tackle, Greene was a four-time Super Bowl champion, 10-time Pro Bowler and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Also, kudos to Greene for being a G.O.A.T. in the sports ad world. His Coca-Cola commercial still sounds fresh 41 years later.
Moss’ ability to create separation from his defender stands out as what made him a special wideout . A former basketball player in college, the 6’4” Moss’ length and athleticism made him unstoppable. A six-time Pro Bowler, He led the NFL in receiving touchdowns five different seasons. This included a record 23 touchdowns in the 2007 season with the New England Patriots.
Ronnie Lott is one of the best defensive backs of all time. A four-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, Lott managed to lead the NFL in interceptions on two separate occasions. Known for his anticipation and ability to tackle in the open field, Lott made 10 Pro Bowl teams throughout his career. The hard hitting safety deserves a spot just for all of the injuries he played with.
A two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the 1960s, Deacon Jones came up with the phrase “sacking the quarterback.” A piece of the “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line of the Los Angeles Rams in the 1960s and 1970s, Jones revolutionized the defensive end position with blinding speed and a bloodthirst for the quarterback. Though sacks weren’t an official statistic during Jones’ playing career, he’s estimated to have gotten to the QB 173 ½ times.
A number one overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, John Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in the late-’90s with the Denver Broncos. The Most Valuable Player of the 1987 NFL season, Elway is just one of six quarterbacks to throw for over 3,000 yards in 12 separate seasons. “The Drive” will be remembered for years and years as arguably the best late-game drive in NFL history.
One of the biggest what-ifs in sports history, is what would’ve happened if Gale Sayers wasn’t maligned by a serious left knee injury and played longer than seven seasons. The fact that he’s on this list after that short NFL career is remarkable. A halfback with the Chicago Bears, Sayers was a five-time First team All-Pro and led the NFL in rushing in 1966 and 1969.
Anthony Munoz had one of the most decorated careers for an offensive lineman in NFL history. Munoz made the Pro Bowl 11 consecutive times while leading the charge for the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line. An NFL Hall of Famer, Munoz physically was startling. Standing 6’6”, Munoz showcased a unique mix of strength and quickness for a long period of time.
The fourth pick of the 1944 NFL Draft, Otto Graham had a great run as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. He collected numerous trophies, including three Super Bowl victories and three NFL regular season MVPs. A five-time Pro Bowler, Graham still is the all time leader in touchdowns (174) in Browns history.
The ultimate risk taker as a quarterback, Brett Favre had one of the best careers a QB could have in NFL history. His play from the 1995-1997 seasons with the Green Bay Packers remains one of the better stretches of football that you’ll ever see. Favre won the regular season MVP all three seasons and won the Super Bowl in 1996.
A two-sport athlete, there aren’t many players that were as skilled at the game of football as cornerback Deion Sanders. A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sanders’ list of accomplishments is startling. A two-time Super Bowl champion, Sanders made eight Pro Bowls and also was on the All-Pro squad as both a kick returner and punt returner. Sanders’ signature high-step and celebration after a pick-six is legendary. Must be the money?
The Super Bowl MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, the 41-year old Brees is sure to be a Hall of Famer. A 19-year veteran, Brees has exceeded the expectations that came with being an early second round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. He’s made the Pro Bowl in 13 different seasons with the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints. Though touchdown passes are a bit inflated, Brees is still playing and is the current leader in all time touchdowns thrown.
Dan Marino spent all of his 17-year career with the Miami Dolphins. Marino arguably had the best natural throwing ability of any quarterback in NFL history. Though he was never able to get that Super Bowl ring, Marino’s numbers are too remarkable to ignore. A nine-time Pro Bowler and the 1984 NFL MVP, he has 420 touchdown passes and 61,361 total passing yards in his career.
A defensive end that was picked first in the 1984 NFL Draft, Smith is the all time leader in sacks with 200. Smith was a key cog in the Buffalo Bills teams of the 1990s that reached the Super Bowl four consecutive seasons. What stands out from Smith’s 19-year run in the NFL is his consistency. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year recorded at least 10 sacks in 13 different seasons.
An NFL Hall of Famer and one of the premier wide receivers of all time, Terrell Owens was a primetime star in his 15-year NFL career. A six-time pro bowler, Owens recorded at least 1,000 yards receiving on nine different occasions and at least 10 touchdowns eight different seasons. Owens’ most gutsy moment was when he played with a broken leg and torn ligament in his ankle during Super Bowl XXXIX. He still managed to catch nine passes for 122 yards.
Owens’ flair and personality also added an extra layer to an interesting career. The pom pom celebrations and the popcorn fun was good, but the celebration on the Dallas star was a moment that will never be forgotten.
You can’t talk ‘bout them Cowboys without looking at the impact of running back Emmitt Smith. During the franchise’s dynasty-like dominance over the NFL in the ‘90s, the featured back was at the center of it all. The NFL’s MVP in the 1993 season, Smith made eight Pro Bowl squads throughout his playing days. A three-time Super Bowl winner with Dallas, Smith won the MVP of the big game in Super Bowl XXVIII.
There aren’t many players with a 100 percent success rate in Pro Bowl appearances to seasons played. In 10 seasons, running back Barry Sanders made the Pro Bowl every year and rushed for at least 1,000 yards too. This included a career-high 2,053 yards in his penultimate campaign. There’s no doubt that Sanders retired early at the age of 31, but the former 1997 NFL MVP’s track record speaks for itself even with his shortened career.
A physical defender who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, Pittsburgh Steelers middle linebacker Jack Lambert was definitely a game changer. In his 11-year stint in the NFL, Lambert racked up the awards. He won Defensive Player of the Year on two separate occasions, won the Super Bowl four times and earned nine berths in the Pro Bowl. At 220 pounds, Lambert was considered skinny for the linebacker position. Lambert was at the center of Pittsburgh’s disruptive defense and sported an intimidating look with his top middle teeth missing.
A versatile player on the field, Sammy Baugh played quarterback, free safety and punter while playing 16 years in the NFL for the Washington Redskins. He made the All-Pro First and Second teams nine times combined. 1943 is a memorable season as Baugh dominated across multiple categories. He led the NFL in interceptions (11) and punting yards (1195). Baugh also managed to finish second in total passing yards (1754). Baugh’s talents crossed over to the movie screen where he starred in 1941’s King of the Texas Rangers.
A three-time Super Bowl champion with the Green Bay Packers, Hutson played multiple roles throughout his 11-year career in the NFL. He was a kicker and also played on both offense and defense, Hutson is considered the original wide receiver in the NFL’s history. He recorded 99 touchdowns and led the NFL in receiving yards eight different times throughout his playing career. An eight-time All-Pro selection, Hutson also won the NFL’s MVP Award in both 1941 and 1942.