Top 10 Greatest Football Players in NFL History
Few debates will get the blood flowing and the mean words flying between you and your football-loving friends than by simply asking the question: Who's the best NFL player of all time?
It's a debate that pits generation versus generation, fans of one team versus fans of an opposing one, or even those who prefer a specific position to another for time immemorial, and we're here for it.
Think quarterbacks deserve more love? Think defensive players get the short shaft? Think running backs are overrated? There's space for all of you here.
Here are the best NFL players of all time.
10. Barry Sanders
Born: July 16, 1968 (Wichita, Kansas)
Position: Running Back
Teams: Detroit Lions (1989-98)
Career highlights: NFL Most Valuable Player (1997), two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (1989), 10-time NFL All-Pro (1989-98), 10-time Pro Bowl (1989-98), PFWA All-Rookie Team (1989), NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team
Bottom Line: The only player to make this list who ended his career without a championship, Barry Sanders is always in the discussion for the greatest running back of all time and, like Jim Brown, shocked the sports world by retiring in his prime.
When Sanders retired following the 1998 season, he not only had the NFL career rushing record directly in his sights but could have put it into an almost unreachable territory.
Sanders' highlight reels are still see-to-be-believed type of stuff, dating back to when he won the 1988 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State, and he quit playing football just one year after he was named NFL Most Valuable Player in 1997.
Oh, he was also an NFL All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl for all 10 seasons he played.
9. Walter Payton
Born: July 25, 1954 (Columbia, Mississippi)
Died: Nov. 1, 1999, 46 years old (South Barrington, Illinois)
Position: Running Back
Teams: Chicago Bears (1975-87)
Career highlights: Super Bowl champion (1985), NFL Most Valuable Player (1977), NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1977), eight-time NFL All-Pro (1976-80, 1984-86), nine-time Pro Bowl, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, NFL 1980s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
Bottom line: Walter Payton — "Sweetness" — was possibly the greatest running back the NFL has ever seen. He rushed for at least 1,200 yards in 10 of the 13 seasons he played for the Chicago Bears, won NFL Most Valuable Player in 1977 and a Super Bowl after the 1985 season on arguably the greatest team in NFL history. He was also no slouch catching passes out of the backfield, with 4.538 receiving yards and was named an NFL All-Pro eight times.
Sadly, Payton died of a rare liver disease in 1999, at just 45 years old.
8. Deion Sanders
Born: Aug. 9, 1967 (Fort Myers, Florida)
Positions: Cornerback/Return Specialist
Teams: Atlanta Falcons (1989-93), San Francisco 49ers (1994), Dallas Cowboys (1995-99), Washington Redskins (2000), Baltimore Ravens (2004-05)
Career highlights: Two-time Super Bowl champion (1994, 1995), eight-time NFL All-Pro (1992-94, 1996-98), NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1994), NFL 100th Anniversary Team
Bottom Line: Simply the greatest defensive back of all time, Deion Sanders played with a flash and exuberance that seemed to transcend the game itself.
Arguably the fastest human who ever lived, Sanders also played Major League Baseball full-time for his first seven seasons in the NFL, led the National League in triples in 1992 and returned for two more seasons in the majors in 1997 and 2001. Sanders won Super Bowls in back-to-back years with two different teams, the 49ers and Cowboys, and retired from the NFL for three years before returning for two seasons with the Ravens in 2004 and 2005.
7. Peyton Manning
Born: March 24, 1976 (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Teams: Indianapolis Colts (1998-2011), Denver Broncos (2012-15)
Career highlights: Two-time Super Bowl champion (2007, 2016), Five-time NFL Most Valuable Player (2003, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013), Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (2007), 10-time NFL All-Pro (1999, 2000, 2003-06, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013), 14-time Pro Bowl (1999, 2000, 2002-10, 2012-14)
Bottom Line: Peyton Manning was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft out of Tennessee and took a dead-in-the-water franchise with the Indianapolis Colts and turned it into a billion-dollar, Super Bowl winner.
Manning would eventually win five NFL Most Valuable Player awards and two Super Bowl titles — the second of which came with the Denver Broncos. As far as being the people's champion, few NFL players can compete with Manning who is as beloved and as recognized as any football player who ever lived.
6. Ray Lewis
Born: May 15, 1975 (Bartow, Florida)
Team: Baltimore Ravens (1996-2012)
Career highlights: Two-time Super Bowl champion (2000, 2012), Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (2000), 13-time Pro Bowl (1997-2001, 2003, 2004, 2006-11), 10-time All-Pro (1997-2001, 2003, 2004, 2008-10), two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2003), NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, Pro Football Hall of Fame (2018)
Bottom Line: No player has been as consistent on the defensive side of the ball, start to finish, as Ray Lewis was in his 17 seasons for the Baltimore Ravens. That includes Super Bowl wins in 2000 and 2012, with the latter coming in Lewis' final game.
Lewis' 10 All-Pro selections are tied for the NFL career record alongside Lawrence Taylor. Off the field, Lewis' career was almost over before it started — he beat a double-murder charge before the 2000 season following the stabbing deaths of two men in a fight after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, Georgia.
5. Joe Montana
Born: June 11, 1956 (New Eagle, Pennsylvania)
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1979-92), Kansas City Chiefs (1993-94)
Career highlights: Four-time Super Bowl champion (1982, 1985, 1989, 1990), Three-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (1982, 1985, 1990), Two-time NFL Most Valuable Player (1989, 1990), Eight-time Pro Bowl (1981, 1983-85, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993), Six-time NFL All-Pro (1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1990), Pro Football Hall of Fame (2000)
Bottom Line: The title of NFL's greatest quarterback of all time was firmly entrenched with Joe Montana for several decades until Tom Brady wrenched it away sometime in the 2010s.
But, man, Montana was as good as they get. Montana didn't have great size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) or speed or arm strength … but he could just win. Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins and also had the benefit of playing with Jerry Rice, hands-down the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.
4. Jim Brown
Born: Feb. 17, 1936 (St. Simons, Georgia)
Position: Running Back
Teams: Cleveland Browns (1957-65)
Career highlights: NFL champion (1964), three-time NFL MVP (1957, 1958, 1965), nine-time NFL All-Pro Team (1957-65), nine-time Pro Bowl (1957-65), NFL Rookie of the Year (1957), NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team, two-time NCAA All-American (1955, 1956)
Bottom line: Jim Brown is still the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his entire career. In just nine seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and was NFL MVP three times.
When filming of the war classic, "The Dirty Dozen," began to cut into the start of Cleveland Browns' training camp in 1966, Brown was threatened with a fine by owner Art Modell and responded by retiring from football.
Also considered perhaps the greatest lacrosse player of all time, Brown went on to have a lengthy film career as one of Hollywood's first Black action stars.
3. Lawrence Taylor
Born: Feb. 4, 1959 (Williamsburg, Virginia)
Team: New York Giants (1981-93)
Career highlights: Two-time Super Bowl Champion (1986, 1990), NFL Most Valuable Player (1986), 10-time Pro Bowl (1981-90), 10-time All-Pro (1981-90), three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1981, 1982, 1986), NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (1981), NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, Pro Football Hall of Fame (1999)
Bottom Line: Lawrence Taylor isn't just the greatest linebacker of all time — he's also the greatest defensive player of all time. The No. 2 overall pick in 1981 out of North Carolina led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins, was a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1986 — the last defensive player to win that award.
Taylor's dominance changed the way football is played on every level, from how offensive lines block to the way teams on every level teach players how to rush the quarterback.
2. Jerry Rice
Born: Oct. 13, 1962 (Starkville, Mississippi)
Position: Wide Receiver
Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000), Oakland Raiders (2001-04), Seattle Seahawks (2004)
Career highlights: Three-time Super Bowl champion (1988, 1989, 1994), Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (1988), NFL Most Valuable Player (1987), two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1987, 1993), 11-time NFL All-Pro (1986-90, 1992-96, 2002), 13-time Pro Bowl (1986-97, 1998, 2002), NFL 1980s All-Decade Team, NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team
Bottom Line: Simply the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice came from HBCU Mississippi Valley State to win three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and then hopped across the bay to win an AFC championship with the Oakland Raiders in the twilight of his career.
Rice still holds NFL career records for receptions, receiving yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdown receptions and led the NFL in receiving six times and receiving touchdowns six times.
1. Tom Brady
Born: Aug. 3, 1977 (San Mateo, California)
Teams: New England Patriots (2000-19), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2020-present)
Career highlights: Seven-time Super Bowl champion (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020), five-time Super Bowl MVP (2003, 2004, 204, 2016, 2021), three-time NFL MVP (2007, 2010, 2017), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2009), two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year (2007, 2010), six-time NFL ALl-Pro (2005, 2007, 2010, 2016, 2017, 2021), 15-time Pro Bowl (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009-18, 2021), NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team, AP Male Athlete of the Year (2007), Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year (2005)
Bottom line: Tom Brady went from being a throwaway, sixth-round pick by the New England Patriots in the 2000 NFL Draft to the greatest player in NFL history.
He has started more Super Bowls than any quarterback in NFL history — 10 — and his seven Super Bowl wins are the most by any player in NFL history. In 2021, at 43 years old, Brady also became the oldest quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl and did it in his first season with a new team after signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March 2020.
There's a great argument for Brady that you can actually divide his career into two halves — and both careers are worthy of the Hall of Fame.
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