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Sports Then and Now

NFL at 100: Top 100 Players of All-Time – 25-1

Posted on February 02, 2020 by Dean Hybl

As part of our celebration of the NFL at 100, Sports Then and Now is finishing our list of the top 100 players in NFL history with picks 25-1.

One of the cool parts of the NFL celebrating 100 years 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. They also picked their All-Time top 100 team, though they did not rank the players 1-100.

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 includes many of the players selected by NFL Network, but does have quite a few differences. 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.

You can read our players 100-76, 75-51 and 50-26 in previous articles.

25. Bulldog Turner – Chicago Bears – 4 Pro Bowls; 7 time 1st Team All-Pro: A two-way star for the Chicago Bears, Clyde “Bulldog” Turner helped lead the Bears to four NFL Championships. As a rookie in 1940, he played center on offense and had an interception return for a touchdown as the Bears defeated the Washington Redskins 73-0.  Playing primarily center on offense and linebacker on defense, he was an eight-time first team All-Pro.

24. Mike Webster – Pittsburgh Steelers – 9 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: Considered by many to be the greatest offensive center in NFL history, Mike Webster helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles. He played in 245 career games, including 150 consecutive starts from 1976-86.

Merlin Olsen

23. Merlin Olsen – Los Angeles Rams – 14 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: One of five players in NFL history to have been selected to 14 Pro Bowls, Merlin Olsen teamed with Deacon Jones to anchor the Los Angeles Rams Fearsome Foursome defensive line during the 1960s. As a defensive tackle, Olsen was a stalwart against the run. A durable player, Olsen missed only two games in his 15 year career. He was the NFL rookie of the year in 1962 while earning the first of 14 straight trips to the Pro Bowl.

22. Chuck Bednarik – Philadelphia Eagles – 8 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st Team All-Pro: One of the last of the two-way players, Chuck Bednarik earned All-Pro honors as an offensive center and defensive linebacker during his career. Nicknamed “Concrete Charlie”, Bednarik was known for his ferocious hits. In the 1960 Championship Game he tackled Green Bay running back Jim Taylor at the 9-yard line on the final play of the game to ensure a 17-13 Philadelphia victory.

21. Bronko Nagurski – Chicago Bears – 0 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st Team All-Pro: At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Nagurski was one of the largest running backs in the NFL in the 1930s and larger than many linemen of the era. He threw a touchdown pass to Red Grange to help the Chicago Bears defeat the Portsmouth Spartans 9-0 in the first-ever NFL Playoff Game. Nagurski was a first or second team All-Pro in each of his first seven NFL seasons. He retired following the 1937 season, but returned to the team in 1943 and played tackle and fullback to help the Bears win the NFL Championship.

20. Emmitt Smith – Dallas Cowboys – 8 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st Team All-Pro: The NFL’s career leader in rushing yards, Emmitt Smith led the league in rushing four times and had 11 straight seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing. He was the NFL MVP in 1993 and helped the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl Championships. Smith was the MVP of Super Bowl XVIII after rushing for 132 yards and two touchdowns against the Buffalo Bills. His 25 rushing touchdowns during the 1995 season were an NFL record at the time and remain the fourth most in a season in NFL history.

19. Dick Butkus – Chicago Bears – 8 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: An intimidating defensive presence, Dick Butkus is considered one of the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history. He intercepted 22 passes and also recovered 27 fumbles during his nine year career. He was a first or second team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in each of his first eight NFL seasons.

18. Red Grange – Chicago Bears – 0 Pro Bowls; 2 time 1st Team All-Pro: It is very possible that the NFL that exists today would be very different, if it existed at all, without Red Grange. The Galloping Ghost was the first breakout star in the league after a legendary college career at the University of Illinois. His participation in a 19 game barnstorming tour in late 1925 and early 1926 helped grow excitement and legitimacy for the NFL. However, the grueling schedule took a physical toll on Grange and he struggled with injuries for the remainder of his career. He was twice selected as a first team All-Pro and helped the Bears win consecutive titles in 1932 and 1933.

17.  Peyton Manning – Indianapolis Colts – 14 Pro Bowls; 7 time 1st team All-Pro: One of the most prolific passers in NFL history, Peyton Manning holds the NFL records for most passing yards (5,437) and touchdown passes (55) in a single season. He was named the NFL MVP five times and won a Super Bowl with both the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos. Manning had a regular season record of 186-79 as a starter and suffered only two losing seasons in 17 seasons.

16. John Hannah – New England Patriots – 9 Pro Bowls; 7 time 1st Team All-Pro: Considered one of the greatest offensive guards in NFL history, John Hannah was seven time 1st team All-Pro in 13 seasons with the New England Patriots. In Hannah’s final season, he helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl for the first time.

Anthony Munoz

15. Anthony Munoz – Cincinnati Bengals – 11 Pro Bowls; 9 time 1st Team All-Pro: A dominating left tackle throughout his 13 year career, Anthony Munoz earned first or second team All-Pro honors 11 times. He helped the Cincinnati Bengals reach two Super Bowls during his career.

14. Deion Sanders – Dallas Cowboys – 8 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st Team All-Pro: A dynamic playmaker and one of the top cornerbacks in NFL history, Deion Sanders ranks second all-time with 19 interception and return touchdowns. He intercepted 53 passes for 1,331 return yards and nine touchdowns. During the 1994 season he was the Defensive Player of the Year while intercepting six passes for 303 return yards and three touchdowns for the San Francisco 49ers. He helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XXIX and the next season was part of the Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl XXX championship squad.

13. Tony Gonzalez – Kansas City Chiefs – 14 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st Team All-Pro: The career leader in receptions and receiving yards among tight ends, Tony Gonzalez caught more than 90 passes in a season five times, with a high of 102 catches in 2004. He also eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in a season four times. He earned first team All-Pro honors six times and second team honors four times during his career.

12. Johnny Unitas – Baltimore Colts – 10 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: The greatest quarterback of his generation, Johnny Unitas went from being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers to leading the Baltimore Colts to back-to-back NFL titles in just four years. At the time of his retirement, Unitas was the NFL’s all-time leader with 40,239 career passing yards and 290 career touchdown passes. He was named the NFL MVP three times and had a 118-63-4 regular season record as a starter.

11. Ray Lewis – Baltimore Ravens – 13 Pro Bowls; 7 time 1st Team All-Pro: The greatest defensive player of his generation, Ray Lewis was the anchor of the Baltimore Ravens defense from his middle linebacker position for 17 seasons. Twice named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis recorded over 2,000 career tackles, 41.5 sacks and 31 interceptions in his career. The 2001 Ravens defense is considered one of the greatest defensive units in NFL history.

Don Hutson

10. Don Hutson – Green Bay Packers – 4 Pro Bowls; 8 time 1st Team All-Pro: Perhaps no player in NFL history has been further ahead of his contemporaries than Don Hutson was as a wide receiver during his career from 1935-1945. In 11 NFL seasons, the Green Bay Packers star led the NFL in touchdown receptions nine times, receptions eight times and receiving yards seven times. He was twice named the NFL MVP and in 1942 set then NFL records with 74 receptions, 1,211 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. His record of 99 career touchdown receptions stood for 44 years. Of his 488 career receptions, 20.2 percent went for touchdowns.

9. Barry Sanders – Detroit Lions – 10 Pro Bowls; 6 time 1st Team All-Pro: Only Jim Brown averaged more rushing yards per game throughout his career than the average of 99.8 yards per game posted by Barry Sanders. Despite always being the primary offensive weapon for his team, Sanders led the NFL in rushing four times. He was the NFL MVP in 1997 when he rushed for a career-high 2,053 yards. Sanders is the fourth leading rusher in NFL history with 15,269 career rushing yards.

8. Sammy Baugh – Washington Redskins – 6 Pro Bowls; 4 time 1st Team All-Pro: In the era of 60-minute men, Sammy Baugh was the best quarterback, defensive back and punter in the NFL. He led the NFL in completion percentage eight times, passing yards four times, touchdown passes twice, punting average five times and defensive pass interceptions once (with 11 in 10 games). He led the Washington Redskins to NFL Championships in 1937 and 1942. At the time of his retirement, Baugh was the NFL’s career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. There is no punter in NFL history who played prior to 2000 who had a higher career average than his 45.1 yards per punt.

7. Reggie White – Philadelphia Eagles – 13 Pro Bowls; 8 time 1st Team All-Pro: One of the most dominant pass rushers in NFL history, Reggie White registered 198 sacks during his career while twice being named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. During the 1987 strike season he registered 21 sacks in just 12 games for the Philadelphia Eagles. After moving to the Green Bay Packers, he helped them win Super Bowl XXXI and registered three sacks in the game.

6. Joe Montana – San Francisco 49ers – 8 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st Team All-Pro: Joe Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl Championships and was named the Super Bowl MVP three times. In Super Bowl XXIII, Montana led the 49ers 92-yards in the final minutes to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16. He was the NFL MVP in 1989 and had a 117-47 record as a starter during his career. He led the NFL in completion percentage five times and completed 63.2 percent of his passes during his career.

Walter Payton

5. Walter Payton – Chicago Bears – 9 Pro Bowls; 5 time 1st Team All-Pro: One of the steadiest and most durable players in NFL history, Walter Payton was among the top running backs in the NFL throughout his 13 year career. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,852 yards in 1977 and retired as the NFL’s career rushing leader with 16,726 yards. Also a standout receiver, Payton caught 492 career passes and had 21,264 yards from scrimmage, which still ranks third all-time. He was the NFL MVP in 1977 and in 1985 won the Bert Bell Player of the Year Award while helping the Bears go 18-1 and win Super Bowl XX.

4. Tom Brady – New England Patriots – 14 Pro Bowls; 3 time 1st Team All-Pro: The first quarterback to lead his team to six Super Bowl titles, Tom Brady is considered by many as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He is currently second all-time in career passing yards and touchdown passes. Brady has been the MVP of the Super Bowl four times and league MVP on three occasions.

3. Lawrence Taylor – New York Giants – 10 Pro Bowls; 8 time 1st Team All-Pro: Considered by many to be the greatest defensive player in NFL history, Lawrence Taylor revolutionized the position of outside linebacker. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, starting with his rookie season in 1981, Taylor was a pass rushing threat unlike any prior outside linebacker. He registered a career-high 20.5 sacks during the 1986 season to help the Giants claim their first Super Bowl.

2. Jerry Rice – San Francisco 49ers – 13 Pro Bowls; 10 time 1st team All-Pro: Setting records during his 20 year career that will likely never be eclipsed, Jerry Rice is the NFL’s career receiving leader with 1,549 catches, 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. He led the NFL in receptions twice and receiving yards and touchdown receptions six times each. Rice was named MVP of Super Bowl XXIII after catching 11 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. He had three touchdown receptions in Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX.

Jim Brown

1. Jim Brown – Cleveland Browns – 9 Pro Bowls; 8 time 1st Team All-Pro: The most dominant rusher of any era in NFL history, Jim Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times in nine seasons (no other player has ever won more than four rushing titles). He is the only player in NFL history to average more than 100 yards (104.2) per game over his career. The Cleveland Browns reached the NFL Championship four times during his career and he rushed for 114 yards to help them win the title in 1964. Brown eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in a season seven times in his career, including a then NFL record of 1,863 yards in 1963.

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