Compiling a list of the top 15 NFL players of all time is nearly an impossible task, but it’s one worth attempting. Most of the players on this list are offensive stars, but the top defensive players in NFL history deserve some love too. All but one of these players are currently retired, and most haven’t played in the league for almost 20 years or longer. Let’s take a look at my very bias rankings of the top 15 NFL Players of All Time.
1. RB Walter Payton, Chicago Bears 1975-1987: As a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, there was no way that Walter Payton wasn’t going to be at the top of this list. “Sweetness” is arguably the greatest running back to ever play the game, but he could also do so much more on the field. Payton carried the Bears offense to a Super Bowl victory, and was one of the toughest men to ever play this game. He played in 186 consecutive games, and had ten straight seasons of 1,000 rushing yards. At the time of his retirement he was the all-time leader in career rushing yards. “Sweetness” was one of a kind.
2. RB Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns 1957-1965: Jim Brown probably would have set a career rushing mark that would have never been broken, but he retired at the peak of his career. Brown played just nine seasons in the NFL, but still rushed for 12,312 yards. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and was absolutely punishing to would be defenders. Brown played in Cleveland when the Browns were actually a relevant, competitive NFL team, winning an NFL Championship in 1964.
3. WR Jerry Rice, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks 1985-2004: Checking in at number 3 on the list of the all-time best NFL players is the best wide receiver in league history. Jerry Rice put up monster numbers during his long career, and set records that will probably never be broken. He holds the record for career touchdowns (205), receptions (1,519), and receiving yards (22,466). Rice gets extra points for showing up when his teams needed him the most in some of the biggest games of his career. The dude could ball.
4. LB Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants 1981-1993: Quarterbacks feared having to take on the Giants in the 1980’s in early 90’s because Lawrence Taylor could end a career. He did just that to Joe Theismann in 1985 in one of the most devastating tackles in NFL history. Taylor was mean and nasty, and he changed the way that the linebacker position was played. LT recorded 132.5 sacks during his 15 seasons with the Giants. He will go down as the greatest defensive player in NFL history.
5. QB Tom Brady**, New England Patriots 2000-Present: Tom Brady is the only active player on this list, and it’s for good reason. The 41 year old pretty boy QB is still leading his team to Super Bowls and playing at an elite level. Brady has played in a record eight Super Bowls and the Patriots have won five of those games. He plays in an era of great quarterbacks, but he has clearly separated himself from the pack.
6. DL Reggie White, Eagles, Packers, Panthers 1985-1998, 2000: At number six on the list of top 15 NFL players of all time is a mammoth defensive player. Reggie White is not only one of the best NFL players in NFL history, he also has a great nickname. “The Minister of Defense” led the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 1996, and made it to 13 straight Pro Bowls during his career.
7. QB Joe Montana, 49ers, Chiefs, 1979-1994: Nicknamed, “Joe Cool,” Montana was calm under pressure and always rose to the challenge. Montana won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and was named the Super Bowl MVP three straight seasons. He had ice in his veins, and is widely considered the greatest 4th quarter QB of all time. Any list of all-time great NFL players must include Montana.
8. LB Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears, 1965-1973: Placing Butkus at number eight might be a stretch, but I’m a Bears fan remember? Butkus epitomized what it was like to be a Chicago Bear, and he delivered some of the biggest hits in NFL history. Butkus was a monster, and would have been ejected from nearly every game he played based on today’s rules. Bear Down.
9. QB Peyton Manning, Colts, Broncos 1998-2015 : Peyton Manning will always be compared to Tom Brady, and he simply can’t measure up. Still, Manning has to be in the top-10 of all-time NFL players. Manning earned four MVP awards during his career, and put up huge numbers. He also is terrific at doing commercials.
10. QB Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins, 1937-1952: Take a ride in the way back machine for this addition to the list. Sammy Baugh played well before video was kept and stats were recorded, but word has it that he was really good. Baugh was giving the nickname “Slingin Sammy” for his passing skills, but he also was a great puner and played some defense as well.
11. QB Johnny Unitas, Colts, Chargers 1956-1973: Sitting just outside the top-10 is legendary Johnny Unitas. His career stats don’t rank very high on the list of all-time great quarterbacks, but he was the best of his era. Unitas was brilliant in the 1958 Championship game, winning the title with the Colts.
12. QB John Elway, Denver Broncos 1983-1998: It is fitting that Elway played for the Broncos, because he was an absolute horse. Elway led the Broncos to a pair of Super Bowl victories, diving across the goal line in one of them. What he lacked in skill, he made up for in heart and determination.
13. RB Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions 1989-1998: Being a Bears fan, I absolutely hated Barry Sanders, but loved watching him run. Sanders cut his own career short by hanging up the cleats in his prime, but he is an all-time great. The Lions great made 10 straight Pro Bowls and was named MVP of the league in 1997. Sadly he was able to play in just 6 playoff games due to playing in Detroit.
14. QB/DB Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns 1946-1955: Graham earns his way onto this list due to the fact that he was able to play both offense and defense at a Hall of Fame level. Graham doesn’t have great stats at either position, but his greatness has been passed down by his peers.
15. WR Don Hutson, Green Bay Packers, 1935-1945: When Hutson retired in 1945 he held 11 league records and was regarded as the best wide receiver ever. His mark of 99 career receiving touchdowns was still the record until 1999. Hutson was way ahead of his time, but earned him a spot on the list of the 15 best NFL players of all time.