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Top Ten NFL Players of All Time

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Jesse is a lifelong sports fan with a passion for finding the facts. His writing has been recognized and published by Sports Illustrated.

Who is the best football player of all time?

Who is the best football player of all time?

Who Is the Best Football Player Ever?

The NFL has been around since 1920. Over the years, we have witnessed some of the greatest athletes of all time demonstrate the ferocity of the sport of football on the gridiron. There have been different styles of play that crossed over several different eras. Today, the passing game dominates the NFL, but in the past, it was very much a defensive and run-first offense that led to championships. We've seen gunslingers and accurate passers, shifty and powerful rushers, towering receivers and shifty small slot receivers, and more. With all of these varying skills, differences in play style, and levels of athleticism, skill, and coaching, it's hard to determine who the best player of all time is, especially considering the vast array of positions in the game. Arguments can be made for players like Tom Brady, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, and Jerry Rice, and all could be considered the best for different reasons. When looking at the entire picture, we must look at stats, accolades, what the era of the NFL was like at the time, and what strengths and weaknesses each player had in order to determine who was truly the greatest. Most importantly, I will factor in the personal dominance of the game and how the player impacted their team during their career. This article will cover my top 10 players who I believe are the greatest to ever play.

Dick Butkus yells at a referee during a game.

Dick Butkus yells at a referee during a game.

10. Dick Butkus (The Monster of the Midway)

"I wanna just let 'em know that they've been hit. And when they get up they don't have to look to see who hit 'em. It shouldn't be any puzzle when they come through they gotta say 'Well it must have been Butkus who got me.'" -Dick Butkus

Dick Butkus played middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1965–1973. During his time in the NFL, Butkus was one of the most ferocious and hard-hitting defensive players in the league! He earned the nickname "The Monster of the Midway" and struck fear into his opponents. It's said that he would growl and snarl at opposing players to intimidate them, all while cursing them out and telling them he was going to destroy them. But Butkus was more than just an intimidator. He was quick to the ball and had the finesse and awareness to be one of the greatest turnover machines on defense that the league has ever seen. In only 9 years of play, Butkus forced 49 turnovers, 22 interceptions, and 27 fumble recoveries.

Butkus was named to five All-Pro selections and was a Pro Bowler in eight straight seasons. While the AP Defensive Player of the Year award wasn't official until 1971, Butkus was named the Defensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America in 1970 despite the team only winning a single game. At the time of his retirement, Butkus held the record for most forced fumbles in NFL history. To this day, the award for the best linebacker at various levels of play is called the Dick Butkus Award.

Accolades

  • 8x Pro Bowl selection
  • 5x All-Pro selection
  • 1970 Defensive Player of the Year
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960's Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970's Team
  • 1st Ballot NFL Hall of Famer (1979)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • The award for the best linebacker in the nation is named after Butkus
Reggie White beats his man on his way to a sack.

Reggie White beats his man on his way to a sack.

9. Reggie White (The Minister of Defense)

"The thing that I know, and everyone else knows, is that no one can ever take my accomplishments away. My goal as a football player was to be the best to ever play my position. I believe I’ve reached my goal.” -Reggie White

What can be said about Reggie White that hasn't been said before? The defensive end put together one of the greatest careers on the defensive side of the ball ever. He was a prime member of both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers, amassing incredible stats throughout his career. White played in 121 games with the Eagles and registered 124 sacks over that time. When he went to Green Bay he added an additional 68.5 sacks in his 6 years with the team.

White was one of the most dominant linemen to ever play football. In his 15 year career, he produced double-digit sack seasons 13 times, leading the league twice. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year recipient and helped win Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots by recording 3 sacks in the game, which was a Super Bowl record held only by him at the time and has since been tied by 3 other players.

Most impressively, White had arguably the greatest season of all time for a defensive player in 1987. Despite the league playing only 12 games due to a strike-shortened season, White had 21 sacks on the year, along with 4 forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown where he strip-sacked a QB and ran the ball back 70 yards. It didn't matter where or when White played, he was always the best pass rusher on the field. Despite Reggie finishing as the second all-time leader in sacks for his career, he only has two less than Bruce Smith and played four fewer seasons.

Accolades

  • 13x Pro Bowl selection
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro selection
  • 2x NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1987, 1998)
  • #2 All-Time Career Sack Leader (198)
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1980's Team
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1990's Team
  • 1st Ballot NFL Hall of Famer (2006)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
Walter Payton escapes a tackle while hurdling his offensive lineman.

Walter Payton escapes a tackle while hurdling his offensive lineman.

8. Walter Payton (Sweetness)

"I was a runner that wouldn't die easy. It's like one of those cowboy movies where a guy is coming at em, and he gets shot once and doesn't go down. He's gets shot again, and again, and again, and he's still walking. Then all of a sudden, a big explosion goes BOOM and an arm over here, arm over there, a leg over there and they're still trying to get together. That's the type of runner I was." -Walter Payton

Walter Payton was selected fourth overall in the 1975 NFL Draft and spent his entire career with the Chicago Bears from 1975–1987. There are two stories as to how Walter Payton became known as "Sweetness," one being the sweet way he ran the ball, and the other being his higher-pitched voice and sweet demeanor. Regardless of why he was named "Sweetness," he was anything but. Payton was not just an elusive runner like his nickname may suggest, but an extremely powerful runner. The great Jim Brown used to say Payton was a "warrior" and never ran out of bounds to avoid a hit. Despite his power running, Payton was incredibly durable. After an injury in his rookie year, he went on to play in 186 consecutive games.

Payton would go on to set many records during his career, including becoming the then-leading career rusher in yards. Payton also had a "flu-game" long before Michael Jordan ever did. On November 20, 1977, Payton fought off flu-like symptoms and a 102-degree fever on his way to the then single-game rushing record with 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. The record held for 23 years.

Aside from his football skills, Payton was also an incredible man off the field. Throughout his career, he launched a children's literacy program and many other charitable organizations. He also became a strong advocate for organ donation before his untimely death at the age of 45 to liver disease. Because of his outreach, the NFL named the Man of the Year award after Walter Payton in 2000. The award goes to one of 32 nominated players; one from each team, who showed great skill on the field and excellence off the field. The winners are given $250k to a charity of their choice.

Accolades

  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 5x First-Team All-Pro
  • 1977 NFL OPOY
  • 1977 NFL MVP
  • 1977 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award
  • Pro Football HOF All-1970’s Team
  • Pro Football HOF All-1980’s Team
  • Hall of Fame (1993)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • #2 NFL Career Rushing Yards (16,726)
  • #5 NFL Career Rushing Touchdowns (110)
  • #3 NFL Career All-Purpose Yards (21,803)
Aaron Donald swings Tom Brady to the ground.

Aaron Donald swings Tom Brady to the ground.

7. Aaron Donald

"I know you ain't gonna win every one-on-one, but in my mind, I'm supposed to." -Aaron Donald

Now I know what you're thinking already, how could Aaron Donald already be a top-ten player of all time when he's still in the league and hasn't even played for ten years yet. The answer is simple, he's just that good. Donald is already a lock for a first-ballot Hall of Fame nomination and he's only played in the league for seven years. Since he was drafted in 2014 he hasn't missed a Pro Bowl and has been an All-Pro selection every year except his rookie season when he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Donald may go down as the greatest defensive player to ever play football. He consistently finishes each season near the leaderboard in sacks despite playing on the interior line and facing double, and sometimes triple teams. Donald even led the league in sacks in 2018 with 20.5 from the defensive tackle position. His technique, power, and finesse are all well-rounded assets to his game that allow for him to bowl over offensive linemen, get skinny to split defenders, and simply outwork his opponents.

In Donald's short career he's already tied the NFL record for the most Defensive Player of the Year awards with 3. (Lawrence Taylor, J.J. Watt) He is the most dominant defensive player in the league annually without question and consistently puts up great numbers. Donald already sits at #13 all-time in career tackles for a loss and if his averages hold he'll become the all-time leader in less than four seasons.

Time will tell whether Donald rises or falls within this list, but the sheer dominance he's put into the NFL from such a disadvantageous position on the field speaks volumes. He's truly a force to be reckoned with and if you strongly disagree with this position I'd respond by telling you to watch the man play the game.

Accolades

  • 2014 NFL DROY
  • 7x Pro Bowler
  • 6x First-Team All-Pro
  • 3x DPOY (207, 2018, 2020)
  • Pro Football HOF All-2010’s Team
  • #13 NFL Career Tackles for Loss (131)
  • #61 NFL Career Sacks (85.5)
Peyton Manning changes the play at the line of scrimmage.

Peyton Manning changes the play at the line of scrimmage.

6. Peyton Manning (The Sheriff)

"Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what the hell you're doing." -Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning is arguably the single smartest player in NFL history. During his 18-year career, Manning was known for his audibles and vast knowledge of the offenses that he ran. Many players made careers and multi-million dollar contract extensions off the arm of Manning. He was easily the most important player on every team he played for, proven by his five Most Valuable Player awards, the most ever in NFL history. He only posted a losing record twice in his career, once as a rookie and again in 2001 when he led the #2 ranked offense in both yards and scoring but had the worst defense in the NFL. When he had a near-career-ending injury in 2010, the Colts went from a 10-win team to earning the first overall pick in the following draft. Similarly, after Manning retired from football after the 2015 season, the Denver Broncos went from winning the Super Bowl to failing to win double digits in five years with four losing seasons during that stretch.

The greatest thing about Manning was his ability to always keep his teams in the game. His career is riddled with game-winning drives and comebacks, but none was greater than on Monday Night Football on October 6, 2003. After throwing a pick-six to Ronde Barber, Manning and the Colts trailed 35–14 with four minutes left in the game. In that time, Manning orchestrated three touchdown drives, the final one coming after a 52-yard pass to Marvin Harrison that landed the team in the endzone. The game went into overtime and they capped off the victory 38–35. That game epitomizes Manning's career; determination, skill, leadership, perseverance, and above all, winning.

Accolades

  • 14x Pro Bowler
  • 7x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x OPOY (2004, 2013)
  • 5x NFL MVP (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2013)
  • 2x Super Bowl Champion (2006, 2016)
  • 2006 Super Bowl MVP
  • 2005 Walter Payton Man of the Year
  • Pro Football HOF All-2000’s Team
  • Hall of Fame (2021)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • Single-Season Passing Touchdown Leader (55)
  • #3 NFL Career Passing Yards (71,940)
  • #3 NFL Career Passing Touchdowns (539)
  • #1 NFL Career Game-Winning Drives (54)
  • #1 NFL Career Comebacks (43)
Lawrence Taylor drives a quarterback into the ground on a sack.

Lawrence Taylor drives a quarterback into the ground on a sack.

5. Lawrence Taylor (L.T.)

“You try to stay within the rules for the sake of the game, but you can always turn up the intensity.” -Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor singlehandedly changed multiple positions and offensive schemes forever. In the 1970s, the average NFL lineman was barely larger than Taylor was himself, coming in at an average 6'3" 255lbs. The league began to mount its offense towards a quarterback-driven system, with pass-catching running backs and less rushing overall. Taylor came into the league during this transformation and completely took it by storm. His combination of size and speed decimated offensive schemes. Teams traditionally would allow for runningbacks to block outside linebackers, but Taylor soon showed everyone that he could overpower any back they put in his way. This led to teams scouting larger, more athletic left tackles who could stand against Taylor on their own. Fast forward 30 years and the left tackle position is the second-highest-paid position in the NFL only behind the quarterback.

Taylor's relentlessness was incredible. He was strong enough to bowl over lineman but fast enough to go around them as well. Teams had to scheme new running plays due to Taylor getting behind the line and simply running the play down from behind. Taylor would even rush when he wasn't supposed to. Coach Bill Parcells said in a game against the Cardinals on December 13, 1981, Taylor was supposed to drop into coverage on a play. He rushed instead and sacked the opposing quarterback on the play. Parcells scolded Taylor for deviating from the play despite its positive outcome. The same play was called again later in the game, and again Taylor rushed, only this time he recorded a sack-fumble that was returned for a score. Afterward, Taylor told Parcells to put the play into the playbook.

Taylor changed the game forever with his incredible skill and is commonly known as the greatest linebacker of all time, and arguably the greatest defensive player of all time. As one of only two NFL defensive players to ever win the MVP award, I'd say his impact on the game and dominance during his career earns him a top-five placement in the all-time rankings.

Accolades

  • 1981 NFL DROY
  • 10x Pro Bowler
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro
  • 3x NFL DPOY (1981, 1982, 1986)
  • 1986 NFL MVP
  • Pro Football HOF All-1980’s Team
  • Hall of Fame (1999)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • #14 NFL Career Sacks (132.5)
Barry Sanders avoids three would-be tacklers.

Barry Sanders avoids three would-be tacklers.

4. Barry Sanders

"I never valued it (the career rushing yardage record) so much that I thought it was worth my dignity or Walter’s dignity to pursue it amid so much media and marketing attention.” -Barry Sanders

Many argue whether or not Barry Sanders is the greatest running back to ever carry a football. At the age of 30, Sanders retired early from football after coming off a nearly 1,500 rushing yard season. The move shocked the sporting world because Sanders was less than 1,500 yards from the all-time rushing yardage record. He retired as the only player to rush for 1,000 yards consecutively in each of their first 10 seasons. Sanders is also the only player to ever rush for at least 1,500 yards in 4 consecutive seasons.

Despite his personal skills, Sanders was rarely part of a winning organization. The Detroit Lions were plagued with a lack of talent during Sanders' career, which makes his feats even more impressive. In a time where defenses knew the only real threat was Sanders, he dominated anyway. He was a perfect mixture of strength, agility, speed, and balance. His change of direction and ability to stay low made it nearly impossible for defenders to bring him down one-on-one.

Sanders finished his career averaging 99.8 rushing yards per game. He finished with over 2,000 scrimmage yards twice and never had less than 1,300 in his career. If not for his early retirement, it's likely that Sanders would have owned every single rushing record before he was done playing, but unfortunately, we will never know what would have happened. Regardless of his early departure and team around him, it's unarguable that Sanders is one of the greatest talents to ever step on a football field and, while his talents may have been wasted, he dominated the game on a personal level in a way many couldn't even to this day.

Accolades

  • 1989 NFL ROTY
  • 10x Pro Bowler
  • 6x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x NFL OPOY (1994, 1997)
  • 1997 NFL MVP
  • Pro Football HOF All-1990’s Team
  • Hall of Fame (2004)
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • #4 NFL Career Rushing Yards (15,269)
  • #2 NFL Career Rushing Yards Per Game (99.8)
  • #10 NFL Career Rushing Touchdowns (99)
Jerry Rice celebrates during a game.

Jerry Rice celebrates during a game.

3. Jerry Rice

"I don't think I’m such a natural, I think what I'm doing is very hard work. I work hard to keep in shape, I work hard on the practice field, I work hard in a game. Cornerbacks are the best athletes on the team; they wouldn't be out there if they weren't. Those are the guys I have to beat. It isn't easy.” -Jerry Rice

I honestly believe the final three players listed here could be swapped in any order and I'd be happy with the change. Jerry Rice is the single greatest wide receiver in NFL history, and it isn't even close. Rice holds every single major receiving record in NFL history, and the next person up isn't even close. Rice leads the number two receiver in receiving categories by over 5,000 yards, over 100 receptions, and over 40 receiving touchdowns. And while some may argue that his records come because of his longevity in the league, being 20 seasons, it's because he was a dominant player at the positive well into his old age. In fact, Rice had over 1,200 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns at the age of 40.

Rice played for the San Fransisco 49ers for the majority of his career, catching passes from the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Although Rice had Hall of Fame talent throwing him the ball, his success didn't come from the talent of his quarterbacks. Rice is arguably the most dangerous open field and after-the-catch receiver in the history of football. He was known for his ability to take a short slant route and go the distance for a touchdown. In fact, he was part of the West Coast Offense that instilled a short passing game that changed the NFL forever. Rice's abilities helped build a dynasty in San Fransisco that led to three Super Bowl victories while he was with the team, one of which he earned the Super Bowl MVP for.

It's safe to say that it will take a god-like athlete to ever surpass the records and accolades that Rice accumulated in his time in the NFL. Because that is what Rice was when he stepped onto the field, a god amongst men. Rice was and continues to be, the greatest NFL wide receiver of all time.

Accolades

  • 13x Pro Bowler
  • 10x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x NFL OPOY (1987, 1993)
  • 3x Super Bowl Champion (1989, 1990, 1995)
  • Pro Football HOF All-1980’s Team
  • Pro Football HOF All-1990’s Team
  • Hall of Fame (2010)
  • Nfl 100 All-Time Team
  • NFL Career Leader in Receptions (1,549)
  • NFL Career Leader in Receiving Yards (22,895)
  • NFL Career Leader in Receiving Touchdowns (197)
Jim Brown runs through defenders.

Jim Brown runs through defenders.

2. Jim Brown

“I went for the extra yard. I took the chances. That has a lot to do with who I am, and I’m not going to respect anything less. They say it’s smart to run out of bounds. I don’t care; I’m not going to respect it. When you accept this game, you accept a certain amount of violence. The nature of the game is hitting. If you can only do it for two years, then do it for two years and get out. Otherwise, you’re taking away from the game.” -Jim Brown

In my opinion, Jim Brown is the greatest running back of all time. While many believe Barry Sanders is better and didn't surpass Brown because he left the game early, they also forget that Brown left the game even earlier and at an even higher height to his career. Jim Brown retired from football at the age of 29 after playing for 9 seasons. After a dispute with owner Art Modell, Brown decided to leave football and pursue a career in movies instead. When he retired he owned every single major rushing title and still owns many to this day over 50 years later.

Brown played in the early years of football when only 12-14 games were played in a season. Despite this, Brown is the only player in NFL history with career averages of over 100 yards per game and over 5 yards per carry. In Brown's 9-year career he led the NFL in rushing 8 times and led the league in touchdowns 5 times. He was selected to the Pro Bowl every single year and was a First-Team All-Pro in 8 of his 9 seasons. There was no player that was his equal in his time in the NFL. His records may never have been touched had he not retired early, leaving the game after an MVP season where he rushed for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns, one of his greatest statistical seasons.

What made Jim even more impressive was his incredible durability. Despite playing in a run-first league, Brown never missed a single game. He led the league in touches six times during his career and still never had to miss time due to injury. What's most impressive is he did this in a time where the league ran the ball more than any of his major rushing competitors who would come later such as Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, or Emmitt Smith. When Brown played in the NFL, rushing the ball accounted for 54.8% of all offensive play calls, and still no one could ever stop Brown despite knowing the ball was going his way.

To this day, no player has ever dominated their position or the league the way that Jim Brown did in his nine years in the NFL. While he may not have had the longevity of some of the players on this list, he absolutely left his mark on the game as one of the greatest to ever play.

Accolades

  • 1957 NFL OROY
  • 9x Pro Bowler
  • 8x First-Team All-Pro
  • 3x NFL MVP (1957, 1958, 1965)
  • NFL Champion (1964)
  • Pro Football HOF All-1960’s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • #30 NFL Career Rushing Attempts (2,359)
  • #11 NFL Career Rushing Yards (12,312)
  • #6 NFL Career Rushing Touchdowns (106)
  • NFL Career Leader in Rushing Yards Per Game (104.3)
Tom Brady fired up!

Tom Brady fired up!

1. Tom Brady (Tom Terrific)

"You wanna know which ring is my favorite? The next one." -Tom Brady

Forget football, Tom Brady is the greatest story in the history of sports. He started as an embarrassing display of athleticism at the combine. A chubby, pale, pathetic-looking quarterback out of Michigan would go on to be selected in the sixth round, 199th overall by the New England Patriots. The greatest writer in the world couldn't write a better story of what would come next. Brady would go on to play over 20 seasons, claiming multiple all-time records and winning more Super Bowls than any other franchise had in their history. That's right, not more than any other player, more than any FRANCHISE.

Tom Brady is one of the fiercest competitors to ever play the game. He's consistently played at a top-five level year in and year out even into his mid-40s. In his 20 years in the NFL, he's played in 10 Super Bowls, winning 7. He currently sits second all-time in passing yards and touchdowns, but with his return for his 21st season, he will become the leader in those categories barring any major injuries or a sudden retirement.

Brady has seemingly done it all in his career. Aside from winning more than any player in NFL history, he also has held the record for the most passing touchdowns in a season at one point, led the largest comeback in NFL history, threw for the most yards in Super Bowl history, been the comeback player of the year after breaking his leg, led his team to a perfect regular-season record, and led a team he joined at the age of 43 to the Super Bowl victory after spending 19 years playing in a different system elsewhere.

Brady has been met with great controversy over the years, but he's slowly chipped away at the doubters and has been accepted as the greatest to ever play the game. He wins more than anyone ever has and did so as the leader of each of those incredible teams. Tom Brady is the greatest player to ever play the game, and it isn't close.

Accolades

  • 14x Pro Bowler
  • 3x First-Team All-Pro
  • 2x NFL OPOY (2007, 2010)
  • 2009 NFL Comeback POY
  • 3x NFL MVP (2007, 2010, 2017)
  • 7x Super Bowl Champion (2002, 2004, 2005, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021)
  • 5x Super Bowl MVP (2002, 2003, 2015, 2017, 2021)
  • Pro Football HOF All-2000’s Team
  • Pro Football HOF All-2010’s Team
  • NFL 100 All-Time Team
  • Most Super Bowl Appearances in NFL History (10)
  • Most Super Bowl Victories in NFL History (7)
  • NFL Career Leader Regular Season Wins (230)
  • NFL Career Leader Postseason Wins (36)
  • NFL Career Leader Passing Touchdowns (581)
  • #2 NFL Career Passing Yards (79,204)
  • #2 NFL Career Comebacks (39)
  • #3 NFL Career Game-Winning Drives (48)

Who's the Greatest NFL Player of All Time?

© 2021 Jesse Unk

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