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Sports Then and Now

NFL at 100: Top 100 Players of All-Time – 100-76

Posted on November 16, 2019 by Dean Hybl

One of the cool parts of the NFL celebrating 100 years in 2019 is remembering the great moments and players that have helped shape the history of the game.

The NFL Network has been sharing their selections for the top moments, game-changers, teams and characters. Soon they will be unveiling their list of the top 100 players in NFL history.

In a sport that has seen great change and evolution over 100 years, creating any comprehensive all-time list is going to be subjective and open to interpretation.

That is likely even more pronounced when trying to choose the top 100 players of the NFL’s first 100 years.

Some will certainly rely heavily on statistics as a guide, but my opinion is that while individual season statistics and the number of seasons leading the league in a statistical category can help identify greatness, career and all-time statistics are not as helpful and can be misleading when trying to pick an all-time team.

Whether it is related to the number of games played each season, move from playing both ways to position specialization or rule changes that impact offensive production, there has been enough change over the history of the game that I believe reduce the importance of career statistics.

 That is why for the Sports Then and Now list of the Top 100 Players in NFL history we chose to give greater emphasis to other factors. The things we looked at when choosing our top 100 included All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, number of times leading their league in statistical categories, how they compared to other players from within their era and peak performance. Team success was given greater weight in ordering quarterbacks, but played only a minor role in selecting players from other positions.

The result is a Sports Then and Now Top 100 list that I fully expect to look very different than the list that will be unveiled on the NFL Network beginning on November 22nd. For our list, we made sure not to forget those players from the 1920s-1950s whose career statistics are well below players from future decades, but who were clearly all-time greats.

The distribution of players by era for the ST&N Top 100 is very interesting: 1920s-1930s: 8; 1940s-1950s: 13; 1960s: 24; 1970s: 15; 1980s: 12; 1990s: 12; 2000s: 8; 2010s: 7. However, 14 of our top 20 played a majority of their career after 1980.

This is the first of four posts over the next couple weeks announcing the ST&N Top 100. This one includes players 100-76.

100. Larry Wilson – St. Louis Cardinals – 8 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: The creator of the safety blitz, Wilson was a hard-nosed player who was one of the top defensive players of the 1960s. He registered 52 career interceptions and scored seven defensive touchdowns during his career.

99. J.J. Watt – Houston Texans – 5 Pro Bowls, 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: When healthy, J.J. Watt has clearly distinguished himself as an all-time great. He has earned first-team All-Pro in each of the five seasons in which he has been healthy throughout the year and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first four years. Unfortunately, a recent injury that has ended his 2019 season marks the third time in the last four years that he has played in eight or fewer games.

98. Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings (primary team) – 7 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st team All-Pro: A three-time NFL rushing champion, Adrian Peterson was the most dominant running back in the NFL during his 10 seasons in Minnesota. After suffering a major knee injury in 2011, the next season he rushed for 2,097 yards, which is the second highest single season total in NFL history.

97. Derrick Brooks – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 11 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st team All-Pro: Often over-shadowed by more flamboyant teammates, Derrick Brooks was the steady leader of a Tampa Bay defense that was among the best in the league for nearly a decade. In their Super Bowl winning season in 2002, Brooks was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year as he returned three interceptions for touchdowns during the regular season and had another score in the Super Bowl.

96. John Randle – Minnesota Vikings – 7 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st team All-Pro: Undrafted out of Texas A&M-Kingsville, Randle developed into one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history. He registered double-digit sacks for eight straight seasons, including a league leading 15.5 in 1995.

95. Gale Sayers – Chicago Bears – 4 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st team All-Pro: Injuries limited him to just 68 NFL games, but during that time Sayers established himself as a game-changer and all-time great. Able to impact the game as a runner, returner or receiver, Sayers led the NFL in all-purpose yards in each of his first three seasons. As a rookie in 1965, he scored six touchdowns in a game and 22 touchdowns for the season. After suffering a devastating knee injury during the 1968 season, he came back to lead the NFL in rushing in 1969.

94. Rod Woodson – Pittsburgh Steelers – 11 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st team All-Pro: Rod Woodson was so good during the first seven years of his NFL career that he was the youngest player selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team in 1994. He went on to play another decade in the NFL to establish himself as one of the greatest defensive backs in league history. He registered 17 defensive and return touchdowns during his career while intercepting 71 passes.

93. Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay Packers – 7 Pro Bowls; 2 time 1st team All-Pro: One of seven active players in the ST&N Top 100, Aaron Rodgers has been the NFL MVP twice and was also MVP of Super Bowl XLV. Currently in his 12th season as a starting quarterback, Rodgers has thrown 354 touchdown passes with only 82 interceptions while completing 64.8% of his passes.

92. Larry Little – Miami Dolphins – 5 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st team All-Pro: One of the most dominant offensive linemen of the 1970s, Little was a key leader on a Miami offensive line that helped lead the team to three straight Super Bowl appearances and two championships. The Dolphins finished among the top five in the league in rushing yards seven times in the decade, including twice leading the league in rushing yards.

91. Clarke Hinkle – Green Bay Packers – 3 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st team All-Pro: When Clarke Hinkle retired from the NFL after the 1941 season he left as the leading rusher in NFL history with 3,860 yards. A two-way starter as a running back and defensive back, Hinkle was named a first or second team All-Pro in each of his 10 seasons with the Packers. He was also one of the best punters in the league throughout his career.

90. Brett Favre – Green Bay Packers – 11 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st team All-Pro: Possessing one of the strongest arms in NFL history, Brett Favre struggled throughout his career to balance his gun-slinger mentality with the occasional need for situational constraint. He tossed 508 touchdown passes, but was intercepted 336 times. He twice threw crucial late game or overtime interceptions in NFC Championship Games. He was the NFL MVP three straight years from 1995-1997.

89. Mike Ditka – Chicago Bears – 5 Pro Bowls; 2 time 1st team All-Pro: The first tight end to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, “Iron Mike” made an immediate impact as a rookie in 1961 with 56 receptions, 1,076 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns. He helped the Chicago Bears win the NFL Championship in 1963 and then caught a touchdown pass to help the Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowl VI.

88. Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints – 12 Pro Bowls; 1 time 1st team All-Pro: Since joining the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Drew Brees has been statistically the most prolific passer in the NFL. He has led the NFL in passing yards seven times, completion percentage five times and touchdown passes four times. He is currently the NFL’s all-time leader in passing completions and passing yards and ranks second in touchdown passes.

87. Julio Jones – Atlanta Falcons – 6 Pro Bowls; 2 time 1st team All-Pro: Since joining the NFL in 2011, Julio Jones has consistently been among the top receivers in the league. He has twice led the league in receiving yards and has averaged more than 100 yards receiving per game in a season five times. In 2015 his 136 catches and 1,871 receiving yards each ranked as the second highest since season totals in NFL history.

86. Raymond Berry – Baltimore Colts – 6 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st team All-Pro: Known for his precision patterns, Raymond Berry teamed with Johnny Unitas to form one of the greatest passing combos in NFL history. Despite playing primarily in an era with just 12 games per season, Berry retired as the NFL all-time leader with 631 receptions and 9,275 receiving yards.

85. Art Donovan – Baltimore Colts – 5 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st team All-Pro: Though he was better known following his career for his large personality and stories, Art Donovan was one of the best defensive linemen of his era and a key defensive leader on back-to-back Baltimore Colts championship teams in 1958 and 1959.

84. Roosevelt Brown – New York Giants – 9 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st team All-Pro: A dominant left tackle with the New York Giants for 13 seasons, the 6-foot-3, 255 pound Brown was one of the dominant offensive linemen of his era.

83. Buck Buchanan – Kansas City Chiefs – 8 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st team All-Pro: At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Buck Buchanan was part of the great Kansas City defenses of the 1960s. He was the anchor of the defensive line that reached two of the first four Super Bowls.

82. Andy Robustelli – New York Giants – 7 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st team All-Pro: Andy Robustelli played in eight NFL title games in 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, winning two titles. He missed just one game during his career and was a dominant defensive end. He registered 22 career fumble recoveries.

81. Kellen Winslow – San Diego Chargers – 5 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st team All-Pro: The premier tight end of his era, Kellen Winslow was integrated into the Air Coryell passing attack in a way unlike any previous tight end had been used. As a result, he twice led the NFL in receptions and eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards three times. Injuries limited his production over the final four years of his career.

80. Earl Campbell – Houston Oilers – 5 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st team All-Pro: Earl Campbell was the NFL’s leading rusher in each of his first three NFL seasons, including 1,934 yards in 1980. He was a powerful runner who also had the ability to break big gainers. He gained over 1,300 yards in five of first six seasons (all but strike-shortened 1982 campaign). He gained over 100 yards rushing in 29 of the first 47 games of his career and finished his career with 9,407 yards in 115 career games.

79. Randy White – Dallas Cowboys – 9 Pro Bowls; 7 time 1st team All-Pro: One of the most dominant defensive tackles in NFL history, Randy White was dominant against both the run and pass. He registered 111 career sacks and was co-MVP of Super Bowl XII.

78. Jack Lambert – Pittsburgh Steelers – 9 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st team All-Pro: At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds Jack Lambert was thought to be undersized for a middle linebacker. However, his ability to pursue from side to side and play both against the run and pass mad Lambert the perfect middle linebacker for the dominant Pittsburgh defense of the 1970s. He registered 28 interceptions and recovered 17 fumbles during his career.

77. Larry Fitzgerald – Arizona Cardinals – 11 Pro Bowls; 1 time All-Pro: One of the most consistent receivers of the last two decades, Larry Fitzgerald has caught over 100 passes in a season five times and has 80 or more receptions in 10 seasons. He also has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in a season nine times. In the 2008 post season he caught 30 passes for 546 yards and seven touchdowns in four games.

76. Dan Marino – Miami Dolphins – 9 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st team All-Pro: The most dominant statistical passer of his era, Dan Marino set NFL records in 1984 when he passed for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. He led the NFL in passing yards five times and in passing touchdowns three times. At the time of his retirement, Marino was the NFL career leader in touchdown passes and passing yards.

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