It’s one of sports fans’ oldest barroom debates: who is the greatest player of all time? How are you expected to quantify it with all of the varied styles of play and players throughout NFL history?
Do you give it to the player with the most outstanding stats? Who has the most wins? Or who has the most Super Bowl rings? Which one is it, Jim Brown or Barry Sanders? What about Joe Montana or Jerry Rice? Consider Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
Making this list was difficult since there are so many all-time greats to pick from. While most fans would expect quarterbacks to dominate this list, you might be surprised by who made the cut. So without much further ado, here is our list of the Greatest NFL Players of all time.
Top 7 NFL Players of All Time
1. Jim Brown, Browns, 1957-1965
Jim Brown, at 6’2″ and 230 pounds, was a man among boys. Brown outweighed the rivals in terms of speed, size, and strength. He was too fast for linemen and linebackers to tackle, and too powerful for defensive backs to take down.
During his 9 seasons on the NFL (1957-1965), Brown won eight running crowns and held every key record in the league.
Although other backs have overtaken Brown in the record books, fans must remember that the regular season was 12 games long from 1957 to 1960 and 14 games long from 1961 to 1965 when Brown played.
He also holds the record for most yards per game in NFL history, with 104.3yds per game, which he set when he retired in 1965.
2. Jerry Rice, 49ers, Raiders, Seahawks, 1985-2004
Jerry Rice’s statistics are very well-known, including NFL records for touchdowns (205), catches (1,519), and receiving yards (22,466). On paper, those figures may not wow you, but compare Rice to the #2 player to put things into perspective.
Ready…? Rice has more receiving yards and touchdowns than any other player in NFL history, with a total of 6,961 yards.
That’s three to five further Pro-Bowl-caliber seasons! Rice’s work ethic, though, distinguished him. His work ethic was and still is, unrivaled, and it’s one of the reasons he’s regarded as one of the most influential players in NFL history.
He not only made big catches in non-important games, but he also made them when it counted.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots, 2000-Current
When it comes to the quarterback’s position, Tom Brady is living proof that intangibles are far more important than sheer talent. Let’s take a look at Brady’s credentials: 5 Super Bowl titles, 4 Super Bowl MVPs, 2 NFL MVPs, and 12 Pro Bowl appearances.
But maybe the most astounding statistic is that, excepting the 2008 season, when he was hurt for the season in Week 1, Brady has played in 16 NFL seasons (not including 2017). Brady has been in 7 Super Bowls over his 16 NFL seasons.
That means he’s been to the Super Bowl in nearly half of the NFL seasons he’s played! Love him or despise him, there’s no denying he’s a star. Brady has even won the AFC East 14 times (which is an NFL record), and his career record stands at 214 wins and 63 losses.
Not bad for a player that went 199th overall in the NFL Draft in 2000.
4. Joe Montana, 49ers, Chiefs, 1979-94
Looking back, it seems absurd that 81 guys were selected in the 1979 NFL Draft before Joe Montana. However, after leading the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a national title, Montana went on to become the most decorated quarterback of his period in the NFL.
Montana won four Super Bowls as the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback, went to eight Pro Bowls, and was chosen for the NFL’s All-Pro team five times.
He was the league MVP in 1989 and 1990, and he was the only player in league history to be awarded MVP of the Super Bowl three times.
Because of his numerous fourth-quarter comebacks, Montana was named the number one clutch quarterback of all time by Sports Illustrated.
5. Lawrence Taylor, Giants, 1981-93
No defensive player in NFL history has likely instilled fear in opposing quarterbacks like Lawrence Taylor did as a member of the New York Giants. “I’ve seen quarterbacks stare at Lawrence and forget the snap count,” his colleague Beasley Reece once told the New York Times.
Former offensive lineman Jerry Sisemore of the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles is quoted as claiming that the anticipation of meeting Taylor the next week would cause him to break out in cold sweats.
Taylor wreaked such havoc on rival teams that Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs modified the way typical systems were designed at the time, foregoing a second running back in favor of a second tight end, specifically to keep Taylor from ruining their attack.
6. Peyton Manning, Colts, Broncos, 1998-2016
You might easily argue that Peyton Manning deserves to be ranked higher on this list. To include all of Manning’s records set or broken over his 18-year NFL career, an encyclopaedia-sized book would be required.
He now owns the career records for most passing yards in a single season and most touchdown passes in a single season.
He is the only quarterback in NFL history to have 200 career victories in both the regular season and the playoffs.
No other quarterback in NFL history has been selected for 14 Pro Bowls or received five MVP awards. The only reason he isn’t ranked first is his 2-2 record in Super Bowl appearances.
7. Johnny Unitas, Colts, Chargers, 1956-73
People didn’t even know how to pronounce his name when he first entered the league. However, by the time Johnny Unitas resigned from the NFL, he had become the man to whom subsequent quarterback legends were compared.
Between 1955 and 1973, Unitas was picked for eleven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams.
He is one of just four players in NFL history to have won the MVP award three times.
For all of his career accomplishments, Unitas is probably best known for leading the Baltimore Colts to an NFL Championship game victory over the New York Giants in 1958, which is often referred to as the “greatest game ever played” and is credited with igniting interest in professional football in the United States.
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