Considering the National Football League has been around since 1920, it’s safe to say the league has seen its fair share of legendary talent come and go. While quarterbacks may draw the most attention and scrutiny, all 11 positions on each side of the ball carry a huge amount of importance.
Still, not all players are created equal. Who are the 10 greatest players in the history of the NFL?
By most accounts, Reggie White was one of the friendliest and nicest people you could ever come across. Of course, that pleasant demeanor had a way of vanishing whenever he put the helmet on and got between the lines on the football field.
White was one of the most feared pass rushers in the history of the NFL, and it took him no time to establish himself. As a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985, White finished tied for eighth in the league with 13 sacks. He would go on to play a total of 15 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, and he finished with less than double-digit sacks just three times.
After minimal team success during his eight years in Philly, White signed with the Packers prior to the 1993 season and helped lift them back to glory. The Packers made it to consecutive Super Bowls in the late 1990s with White on board, and he proved instrumental in their victory in Super Bowl XXXI over the New England Patriots.
White’s 198 career sacks rank second all-time behind only Bruce Smith.
Jim Brown was one of the earliest players to combine amazing athleticism with brute force at the running back position. A multi-sport athlete during his time in college at Syracuse, Brown would go on to be selected with the sixth overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 Draft. From there, he would go on to become one of the most decorated players in the history of football.
Brown played nine seasons in the NFL, all with Cleveland. He was named to the Pro Bowl in every one of his nine pro campaigns, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1957, earned three AP Most Valuable Player awards and led the NFL in rushing eight times.
Brown was an eight-time first-team All-Pro and led the Browns to the NFL championship in 1964. They were also league runners-up in both his rookie season (1957) and his final season (1965). When he retired, Brown owned NFL records for rushing yards in a season, career rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns, total career touchdowns and career all-purpose yards. He also remains the only running back in NFL history to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in his career.
However, Brown’s impact didn’t end with his playing career. He would go on to launch an incredibly successful acting career that includes 54 acting credits. Brown has also been an outspoken advocate for civil rights and has remained an active voice in America’s social and political discourse.
Despite being considered “too skinny” to play quarterback at Notre Dame, Johnny Unitas would go on to become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the history of the sport. Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts after being drafted and subsequently cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he led the Colts to never-before-seen heights.
He won three titles as the Colts’ starting quarterback (1958, 1959, 1968) and put up passing numbers that were considered gaudy for the time period. Unitas was named to the Pro Bowl ten times, was a first-team All-Pro five times and won three AP MVP awards during his lengthy playing career.
Unitas became the first player to pass for 40,000 yards in his career, and also the first to throw at least 30 touchdown passes in one season. In all, He finished with a completion percentage of 54.6 along with 290 touchdowns and 40,239 yards. Unitas retired in 1973 as the NFL’s all-time leader for touchdown passes.
Walter Payton actually enjoyed a rather lengthy career for a running back. Payton played a total of 13 NFL seasons – all with the Chicago Bears – and many still consider him to be the best rusher they have ever watched. In all, the man known as “Sweetness” ran the ball 3,838 times for 16,726 yards with 110 rushing touchdowns.
He was also one of the first true dual-threat running backs. Payton was phenomenal as a pass-catcher, as well, and ended his career with 492 catches for another 4,538 yards and 15 receiving scores. Payton rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards in just three of his 13 seasons, topping out at 1,852 yards during the 1977 campaign.
Payton was an integral part of the Bears team that won Super Bowl XX in 1985. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first-team All-Pro and earned AP MVP honors for his aforementioned 1977 season. He was named to the NFL’s 1970s and 1980s All-Decade Teams, and he has several honors named after him.
Most notably, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award honors a player’s volunteer and charity work in addition to his excellence on the playing field. The award was renamed in Payton’s honor shortly after his premature death in 1999 in honor of his legacy as a humanitarian.
Lawrence Taylor may still be the most feared defensive player in the history of football. Taylor was just quicker and stronger than everyone he played against. He played his entire 13-year career with the New York Giants, earning ten first-team All-Pro honors, 10 Pro Bowl selections and a league record three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
He also helped the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles (XXI, XXV) and remains one of just two defensive players to ever earn league MVP honors (1986).
Hall of Fame coach John Madden summed up Taylor’s impact perfectly: Lawrence Taylor, defensively, has had as big an impact as any player I’ve ever seen. He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers.”
While most dominant linebackers in the past played in the middle, Taylor was the one that completely revolutionized what it means to be an outside linebacker. He was fast enough to cover receivers, strong enough to force his way through the offensive line and tenacious enough to single-handedly discombobulate an entire opposing offense.
While Peyton Manning may not have the rings to compete with the likes of Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana, he still has a viable claim to the throne of “best quarterback of all-time.” The way offense was played changed monumentally over the course of Manning’s lengthy career, and he was right at the forefront of the pass-happy league we now know today.
Manning holds countless individual league records. He ended his career in 2015 as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (71,940), touchdown passes (539), Pro Bowl appearances (14), 4,000 passing yard seasons (14) and AP MVP awards (five). He set the record for passing yards in a season (5,477), touchdown passes in a season (55) and passing touchdowns in a game (seven).
Manning was a seven-time first-team All-Pro, three-time second-team All-Pro, and two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He is also the only quarterback in the history of the league to win a Super Bowl with two different teams (Colts, Broncos). There have only been two other QBs to even start a Super Bowl with two different teams.
Manning was, quite literally, a coach on the field. He would completely run the offense nearly single-handedly, and he helped make the no-huddle offense popular throughout the league.
He holds 48 individual Colts franchise records and at least 33 Broncos franchise records. Had Manning been able to win the two Super Bowls in which he came up short, he may well be unanimously regarded as the best player to ever play the position.
Barry Sanders is one of the few truly legendary athletes to retire at the top of his game. Sanders shockingly called it quits just 10 seasons into his NFL career while still at full health. In 153 career NFL games, all with the Detroit Lions, Sanders totaled 15,269 yards on just 3,062 carries for an average of five yards-per-carry. Only Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith have rushed for more yardage than Sanders did during his pro career.
Sanders was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 seasons in the league and earned first-team All-Pro honors six times. He was a second-teamer in his other four years. He was named league co-MVP in 1997 with Brett Favre and led the league in rushing four times.
Sanders was known for his electrifying running style that would leave defenders in the dust. Unfortunately, the Lions enjoyed very little success during his playing career. Sanders played in just six playoff games over the course of his entire career, and they won just one of those games.
Sanders would have easily shattered countless individual NFL records, but reportedly retired due in large part to the Lions’ inability to build a real winning team around him. He said that it was tough to stay motivated amidst all the losing, and eventually he had had enough.
Still, Sanders will go down as perhaps the greatest running back in the history of the sport.
Joe Montana is right up there with the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as one of the most celebrated and decorated quarterbacks in NFL history. He spent his prime seasons with the San Francisco 49ers during their dynastic run in the 1980s. Montana led the Niners to four Super Bowl titles (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV) and was named MVP in three of those games.
He led his teams to a total of 31 fourth quarter come-from-behind wins, including game-winning touchdown passes in the 1981 NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XXIII.
Montana earned back-to-back AP MVP honors in 1989 and 1990 and was a three-time first-team All-Pro. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and also was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1990.
He owns 49ers franchise records for passing yards (35,124), touchdown passes (244) and game-winning drives (28). He retired having won more Super Bowl MVP awards (three) than any other player, and recently had his record broken by New England’s Tom Brady.
When Steve Young emerged as a younger option at quarterback, the 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs in April of 1993. While Montana enjoyed a couple of playoff runs with the Chiefs, he was never able to get them over the hump in the end. He retired in 1995.
Jerry Rice is so obviously the greatest wide receiver of all-time that no other player at his position even warrants serious consideration in the running. Even in this current day of pass-happy football, Rice holds countless receiving records that will likely never be broken.
He teamed up with Montana and Young to win a trio of Super Bowls with the 49ers (XXIII, XXIV, XXIX). Rice was a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, 10-time first-team All-Pro, two-time second-team All-Pro, two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year and a member of both the NFL All 1980s and 1990s teams.
Rice is the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards with 22,895. To put that in perspective, Terrell Owens ranks second on this list, yet he only compiled 15,934 yards through the air. Rice also finished his career with 1,549 catches, which is more than 200 more than second-place Tony Gonzalez. His 197 receiving touchdowns are 41 more than Randy Moss’s 156. The statistics Rice put up are completely staggering, and it’s difficult to imagine another receiver of this caliber coming along ever again.
Rice also holds the NFL mark for all-purpose yards (23,546), which is another that seems unlikely to ever be matched. He holds over 100 current NFL records, which is the most of any player in league history by a sizable margin.
Who else was going to be No. 1? Some have been hesitant to tab Tom Brady as the best player in league history, but his stellar showing in the Patriots’ thrilling comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI likely sealed his legacy.
Much of Brady’s greatness stems from the fact that none of this could have ever been expected. New England infamously nabbed Brady with a sixth-round pick back in the 2000 Draft. He was thrust into duty when Drew Bledsoe got hurt during the 2001 season, and the rest is history.
The Northern California native has gone on to enjoy unprecedented success with the Patriots. He and head coach Bill Belichick have combined for five Super Bowl championships, which is the most for any quarterback of head coach in NFL history. He recently broke Montana’s aforementioned record for Super Bowl MVPs when he won his fourth in February of 2017, as well.
Brady is a 12-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro, two-time second-team All-Pro and has won a pair of NFL MVP awards. He may not hold the numerous individual statistical records that Peyton Manning does, but Brady’s overall team success is the true trump card in this discussion.
In 16 NFL seasons (and counting), Brady has completed nearly 64 percent of his throws and has amassed 61,582 passing yards along with 456 touchdowns and just 152 interceptions. His passer rating of 97.2 ranks third all-time behind Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
The fact that Brady has accomplished so much while missing so little time (he’s played in all 16 games in all but two of his seasons as the full-time starter) cements his status as the best football player that has ever lived.