It’s one of the oldest barstool debates known to sports fans: who’s the greatest player of all time? With all the different players and styles of play throughout NFL history, how exactly are you supposed to measure that?
Do you give it to the guy with the best stats? The guy with the most wins? Or the guy with the most Super Bowl rings? Is it Jim Brown or Barry Sanders? What about Jerry Rice or Joe Montana? How about Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
With so many all-time greats to choose from, making this list wasn’t easy. While most fans would assume this list would be dominated by quarterbacks, you might be surprised to see who made the cut. Without further delay, here is our ranking of the 20 Greatest Players in NFL History.
Honorable Mention: Gale Sayers, Bears, 1965-71
After being drafted by the Bears in 1965, Sayers immediately took the NFL by storm. In his rookie season (14 games) Sayers scored 22 touchdowns and totaled 2,272 all-purpose yards (NFL records at the time). In perhaps the most memorable of his career, Sayers scored six touchdowns in a single game against the 49ers.
Unfortunately, multiple knee injuries limited Sayers to just 68 career games. If not for the injuries, NFL experts believe Sayers would have easily finished as one of the top players in NFL history — regardless of position.
20. Dan Marino, Dolphins
Plain and simple: Dan Marino was born to throw the football. We have seen very few quarterbacks in the history of the NFL who could throw the ball with the strength, quick release, and accuracy that Marino had. He threw for a record-breaking 5,084 yards in just his second season in the NFL, which was an absolutely absurd yardage total at the time; that record held for just under 30 years.
He led the league in passing five different times, and led the league in touchdown passes three times. Marino was named to nine Pro Bowl teams and seven All-Pro teams, but sadly will be most remembered for never having won a Super Bowl.
19. Emmitt Smith, Cowboys, Cardinals, 1990-2004
The NFL’s all-time leading rusher certainly wasn’t the flashiest. Smith didn’t overwhelm defenses with speed, size, or power — his best attribute was his excellent vision. Although he didn’t possess the same talent as some of the other backs on this list, Smith made up for any physical shortcomings with his durability and toughness.
Smith seemed to get stronger as the game went on, often punishing tired defenses in the fourth quarter. Smith rarely missed time due to injury. As a result of his durability, he finished his career with more rushing yards (18,355) and touchdowns (164) than any running back in NFL history.
18. Brett Favre, Packers, Jets, Vikings, 1991-2010
The “Gunslinger” himself, Brett Favre brought two Super Bowl titles back to the NFL’s “title town” in Green Bay. When Favre finally retired, once and for all in 2011, he left the game as the as the all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to win three consecutive NFL most valuable player awards, and the only quarterback in league history to win a playoff game over age 40.
His 186 career wins is tied with Peyton Manning for the most ever by a quarterback. But for all his career achievements, he might best be known for the 297 consecutive starts he made during his 20-year NFL career.
17. Otto Graham, Browns, 1946-55
We tried not to include too many players who played before the 60’s. There were only 13 NFL teams at the time, so participation in pro football wasn’t what we are used to now – and the competition suffered as a result. But with all that said, there was no way we could make this list without including former Browns quarterback Otto Graham. How good was Graham? He was widely regarded as the most dominant player of his era, having taken the Browns to the championship game every year of his career.
The Browns have been one of the most miserable franchises in all of pro sports over the past 50 years, but Graham stands out as a bright spot for an otherwise tortured fan base. In 10 seasons with Graham at quarterback, the Browns posted a record of 114 wins and only 20 losses. To put that into perspective, in 2016 alone, the Browns lost 15 games.
16. Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 2005-Current
Over the past decade, Aaron Rodgers has put up some of the best numbers in NFL history. Since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008, Rodgers has tossed 297 touchdowns compared to just 72 interceptions. That is UNREAL.
Rodgers already has one Super Bowl under his belt, and looks poised to win another if the Green Bay defense can play their part. But including the 2016 season, Rodgers has played in just 142 regular season games (compared to 237 for Brady and 242 for Marino).
With another 2 or 3 elite seasons on his resume, Rodgers will easily slide into the top 5. Assuming health and another Super Bowl (or two) — by the time he’s done — Rodgers could make a case for the top spot.
15. Deacon Jones, Rams, Chargers, Redskins, 1961-74
Deacon Jones revolutionized the defensive end position in the 60’s — and is famously known for creating the phrase “sacking the quarterback.”What separated Jones from every other defensive end was his speed and his ability to make tackles from sideline to sideline, which was unheard of in his time. Nowadays the NFL is stacked with superhuman defensive ends like Von Miller, J.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney – but back in the 60’s players of his size (6-foot-five and 270 pounds) lacked athleticism. How good was Jones…?
In 1967, Jones had 21½ sacks in only 14 games; he tallied 22 sacks in 14 games the following year. Aside from his elite size and speed, Jones prided himself on his extreme work ethic. Something that was necessary for a guy selected as a 14th-round draft choice from Mississippi Vocational College. Jones was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980 — his first year of eligibility.
14. Barry Sanders, Lions, 1989-1998
Undoubtedly the most electric player in NFL history, Sanders was a threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball. Sanders possessed a unique combination of quickness, elusiveness, and strength that may never been seen again. Despite playing behind a weak offensive line on a struggle team, Sanders still managed to become the first back in history to notch five 1,500-yard seasons.
Frustrated with management and their inability to surround him with better players — which often lead to defenses ganging up on him — Sanders shocked the NFL community and retired in 1998 at the age of 30.
13. “Mean” Joe Greene, Steelers, 1969-81
Charles Edward Greene, better known as “Mean” Joe Greene, is widely considered one of the greatest defensive linemen in NFL history. Greene was the centerpiece of the “Steel Curtain” defense that led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl championships in a six-year span. He was known for his leadership, fierce competitiveness, and intimidating style of play for which he earned his nickname.
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 280 pounds, Greene was able to overpower opposing linemen with ease and completely disrupt the offense’s game plan. Besides his team success, Greene has an impressive list of individual awards: 2x Defensive Player of the Year, 6x All-Pro, 10x Pro Bowl selection. The case for Greene earning a spot on this list was pretty strong — he was the best player on one of the best defenses in NFL history.
12. Ronnie Lott, 49ers, Raiders, Jets, 1981-1994
Arguably the most complete defensive back in NFL history, Lott was voted an All-Pro at three different positions in the secondary. His talent and toughness were obvious from the very beginning of his career. In his rookie season, he recorded seven interceptions, returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns, and helped the 49ers to win Super Bowl XVI. He finished second for Rookie of the Year honors, behind some guy named Lawrence Taylor — ever heard of him? Lott was the centerpiece of the 49ers team that won four Super Bowls in the 80’s.
He has a reputation as being one of the toughest, most feared players in NFL history, and there’s good reason for that. He had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated after the 1985 season when trainers told him he would miss the start of the 1986 season if he had the necessary surgery. Not only did Lott play through extreme pain, he played well… In that season, Lott missed two games and still managed to lead the NFL with 10 interceptions.
11. Dick Butkus, Bears, 1965-73
What was the internal philosophy for the legendary linebacker Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears? “If you can get someone who you’re competing against either fearful or intimidated, it’s going to make my job easier.” As one of the greatest tacklers in in NFL history, Butkus avoided trying to bring down ball carriers by the legs, and instead try to pick them up and slam them to the ground with such jarring forces that it would cause the ball carrier to fumble the ball.
It’s that tenacity and ferocity that led him to become the gold standard of which all future linebackers would hold themselves to. According to Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones, Butkus “was a well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” In 2009, the NFL Network named Butkus the most feared tackler of all time.
10. Reggie White, Eagles, Packers, Panthers, 1985-98, 2000
Of all the defensive players that Buddy Ryan turned into Hall of Fame offense-wreckers, Reggie White might have been his most lethal creation. The “Minister of Defense” was a soft-spoken Bible devotee six days a week, and a one-man Armageddon for offenses on that seventh day of the week. White still has the second most career sacks in NFL history (198 sacks) and is often considered to be the greatest defensive end in NFL history.
White was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, and a 13-time All-Pro selection. In his 15-year career, White recorded double-digit sacks in 12 of those seasons, and averaged almost one sack per game over the course of his 232 game career. The Minister of Defense dominated the line of scrimmage throughout his 15-year career, playing well into his late 30s.
9. John Elway, Broncos, 1983-98
Even to this day, people consider John Elway as the greatest quarterback prospect to ever come out of college. The All-American quarterback from Stanford University had it all: unparalleled athleticism, incredible arm strength, and the ability to win games in the clutch. After he forced his way out of Baltimore and became the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, he lived up to almost all of the hype that surrounded him coming out of college.
He’s one of only six quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in 12 seasons. Known for tormenting teams (like the Cleveland Browns) with his late-game heroics, Elway led Denver to 35 comeback wins in the 4th quarter & overtime, tied for third all time with Johnny Unitas. And to cap it all off, Elway became the first quarterback to ever start in five different Super Bowls, winning back-to-back titles during his last two seasons in the NFL.
Fun Fact: Elway was such a good baseball player in college that the Yankees picked him in the 1981 MLB Draft six picks before future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn.
8. Johnny Unitas, Colts, Chargers, 1956-73
When he first came into the league, people didn’t know how to pronounce his name. But by the time Johnny Unitas retired from the league, he became the guy that future quarterback legends were compared to. Between 1955 and 1973, Unitas was named to 10 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams.
He’s one of only four players to win the NFL’s MVP award three times. For all his career accolades, Unitas is probably best known for leading the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants in the NFL Championship game in 1958, which is often referred to as “the “greatest game ever played” and credited with sparking the interest in professional football in the United States.
7. Peyton Manning, Colts, Broncos, 1998-2016
You can very easily make the argument that Peyton Manning deserves to be a few spots higher on this list. You practically need an encyclopedia-sized book to list all the records that Manning has set or broken through the course of his 18-year NFL career. He currently holds the record for most career passing yards, most career touchdown passes, the most passing yards in a single season, the most touchdown passes in a single season.
He’s the first quarterback to reach 200 career wins between the regular season and the playoffs. No other quarterback in NFL history has been named to 14 Pro Bowls, or been awarded five MVP trophies. The only reason he doesn’t take the top spot is because of his 2-2 record in Super Bowl appearances.
6. Lawrence Taylor, Giants, 1981-93
It’s likely that no defensive player in this history induced unbridled terror in opposing quarterbacks the way Lawrence Taylor did, as a member of the New York Giants. His teammate Beasley Reece once told the New York Times: “I’ve seen quarterbacks look at Lawrence and forget the snap count.” Former offensive tackle Jerry Sisemore of the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles is reported as saying he’d start having cold sweats midweek, at the prospect of facing Taylor that ensuing week.
Taylor wrought such havoc on opposing offenses that Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs changed the way traditional offenses were schemed back then, eschewing a second running back in place of a second tight end, just to he could stop Taylor from destroying their offense.
5. Walter Payton, Bears, 1975-87
In 1975, exactly 10 years after selecting Gale Sayers with the 4th overall pick in the draft, the Chicago Bears selected another all-time great running back with the 4th pick. For those NFL fans who never had the pleasure of watching Walter Payton, his famous nickname “Sweetness” described his personality off the field — Payton was anything but sweet on the gridiron.
Payton was a bruising runner who refused to run out of bounds, and punished defenders until the whistle blew. As physical as he played, Payton missed just one game during his 13-year career.
4. Joe Montana, 49ers, Chiefs, 1979-94
When you look back, it seems ridiculous that 81 players were taken in the 1979 NFL Draft, before Joe Montana. But, after winning a national championship as quarterback of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Montana went on to become the most decorated quarterback of his generation in the NFL. As the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Montana won four Super Bowls, went to eight Pro Bowls, and was named to the NFL’s All-Pro team five times.
He was the MVP of the league in 1989 and 1990, and became the first player in the history of the league to be named MVP of the Super Bowl three times. With his numerous fourth quarter comebacks, Sports Illustrated named Montana as the number one clutch quarterback of all time.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots, 2000-Current
Tom Brady is living proof that, when it comes to the quarterback position in the NFL, the intangibles are far more important than raw talent. Let’s take a look at Brady’s resume: 5x Super Bowl champion, 4x Super Bowl MVP, 2x NFL MVP, 12x Pro Bowl. But this might be the most impressive stat – if you exclude the 2008 season when he was injured for the year in Week 1 – Brady has played 16 NFL seasons (not including 2017). In those 16 NFL seasons Brady has 7 Super Bowl appearances.
That means he has been to the Super Bowl in almost half of the seasons he’s played in the NFL! Love him, or hate him, there’s no denying the guy is a winner. Brady has won the AFC East 14x (an NFL record) and has a career record of 214 wins and only 63 losses. Not too bad for a guy selected with the 199th Pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
2. Jerry Rice, 49ers, Raiders, Seahawks, 1985-2004
Everyone knows the numbers that Jerry Rice has put up — among them NFL records in touchdowns (205), receptions (1,519) and receiving yards (22,466). On paper, those numbers might not wow you by just looking them, but let’s compare Rice to the #2 player to put things into perspective. Ready…? Rice has 33 more touchdowns and 6,961 more receiving yards than any other player in NFL history.
That’s the equivalent of an extra 3 to 5 Pro-Bowl caliber seasons! But what set Rice apart was his work ethic. Rice’s work ethic was, and still is at 41, unparalleled and that’s a major reason why he’s one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL. He not only made big catches in the games that didn’t matter, he also made them when the games mattered.
1. Jim Brown, Browns, 1957-1965
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Jim Brown was a man amongst boys. Brown was bigger, faster, and stronger than the competition. He was too fast to be tackled by lineman and linebackers, and too strong to be taken down by defensive backs. During his nine seasons in the NFL (1957-1965), Brown claimed eight rushing titles and walked away from the league as the owner of every significant record.
Although several backs have surpassed Brown in the record books, fans must remember that when Brown played, the regular season was 12 games long from 1957-1960 and 14 games from 1961-1965. In terms of per game production, Brown ranks #1 in NFL history with an impressive 104.3 yards per game — a record that has stood since he retired in 1965.