There’s perhaps no more difficult or worthwhile task than trying to rank the greatest NFL players of all time.

While this type of list inherently favors quarterbacks, we wanted to do our best to think outside the box when ranking the greatest players in NFL history. That means looking at the best players, period, not just the best players at the most important position.

25 greatest NFL players of all time

Of course, even a list of the 25 best NFL players of all time doesn’t give us much leeway. That’s actually a small number of players considering how long the NFL has been around.

However, we truly wanted this list to be the best of the best. With that said, here is our ranking of the 25 greatest NFL players of all time.

25. Tony Gonzalez

Our list of the best NFL players of all time wouldn’t be complete without the best tight end of all time. Tony Gonzalez is surely the best tight end of all time, amassing the most career receptions and receiving yards of any player at that position.

       

In 2004, he even led the NFL in receptions, making more catches than every wide receiver in the league. He had four seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards, which is virtually unheard of as a tight end. Gonzalez also went to the Pro Bowl 14 times in a 15-year span, as his sustained excellence and longevity made him an obvious choice for the Hall of Fame.

24. Gale Sayers

Unfortunately, injuries cut his career a little short, but while he was healthy, there were few running backs as explosive and fun to watch as Gale Sayers.

To date, he’s tied with two other players for the most touchdowns in a single game with six. He did that as a rookie, helping him own the rookie record for 22 touchdowns. Sayers played seven seasons but played fewer than 10 games in three of those seasons. However, he still led the league in rushing twice and was a Pro Bowler four times. In short, he was something special.

23. Ray Lewis

Among middle linebackers, nobody in NFL history patrolled the field like Ray Lewis. He was a tackling machine, holding the NFL records for both combined tackles and solo tackles, not to mention the year he set the single-season record with 156 solo tackles.

But Lewis didn’t just rack up gaudy numbers; he hit ball carriers hard. On the field, he was as intense and physical as it got, earning the respect of everyone in the league. In addition to helping the Ravens to two Super Bowl victories, Lewis compiled 13 Pro Bowl invitations and 10 All-Pro selections while also leading the league in tackles three times during his Hall of Fame career.

22. Dan Marino

A lack of a Super Bowl ring isn’t enough to keep Dan Marino off a list of the best players of all time. The longtime Miami quarterback had one of the best seasons in NFL history when he took home MVP honors in 1984, which was just his second season in the league.

He proceeded to lead the league in passing yards five times and touchdowns three times during his career, helping him get to nine Pro Bowls. Marino still holds the record for the fewest games before reaching 200 career touchdown passes, ultimately finishing with 420 touchdown passes in his Hall of Fame career.

21. Alan Page

The fact that Alan Page is one of two defensive players to win MVP is enough to mention him among the best players of all time. He was a huge part of Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” defense and showed incredible durability during his career, starting 215 straight games.

Naturally, Page went to nine straight Pro Bowls during the prime of his career, eventually getting credited with 148.5 career sacks. While he and the Vikings fell short in the Super Bowl four times, Page is undoubtedly one of the best defensive linemen ever.

20. Randy Moss

In terms of pure talent, there’s never been a wide receiver better than Randy Moss. From the day he stepped on an NFL field for the first time, nobody could measure up. As a rookie, Moss won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and set the rookie record for 17 receiving touchdowns.

He also made his first of six Pro Bowls that season while leading the league in receiving touchdowns for the first of five times.

Of course, he eventually set the single-season record with 23 touchdown catches in 2007. While he wasn’t always the best teammate or role model, Moss finished his career with 10 1,000-yard seasons and could be close to unstoppable when he was at his best, putting him among the best players ever.

19. Dick Butkus

Without question, Dick Butkus was one of the toughest, meanest, and most intimidating defensive players ever. He could hit as hard as anyone and became the embodiment of everything a middle linebacker in the NFL should be.

The only caveat is that his career was limited to nine seasons.

However, he made the Pro Bowl eight times in those nine seasons and twice won Defensive Player of the Year. In many ways, he remains the gold standard for middle linebackers and undoubtedly left a lasting impact on the league.

18. Deacon Jones

There have been few defensive ends in NFL history that struck fear in opposing teams more than Deacon Jones. He was nicknamed “the Secretary of Defense” and the word sack didn’t exist before Jones came around.

That was his specialty, as he unofficially led the league in sacks five times, totaling an estimated 173.5 during his career. His propensity for harassing quarterbacks in the pocket sent Jones to eight Pro Bowls and earned him Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. He was truly one of the best and most influential players in NFL history.

17. Aaron Rodgers

Somewhere around his third or fourth MVP award, it became clear that Aaron Rodgers belongs among the best players of all time. No quarterback has been better than Rodgers at throwing touchdown passes without throwing interceptions. He has the lowest career interception percentage in league history while also having the best single-season passer rating ever recorded.

Surely, there have been some ups and downs for him and some bad playoff losses. But Rodgers has 10 Pro Bowl selections and eight seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes. When all is said and done, his name will be in the record books as much as almost any other quarterback ever.

16. John Elway

Almost no quarterback in NFL history has been as efficient as John Elway. At the time of his retirement, no quarterback had won more games. Plus, few have the luxury of winning back-to-back Super Bowls in their final two seasons.

Since he played in an era with many other great quarterbacks, Elway only has one MVP award and only led the league in passing once. However, he was a nine-time Pro Bowler in 16 seasons. Elway also stood out because of his ability to bring his team from behind in the fourth quarter. He was also known for his running ability in an era when few quarterbacks were particularly mobile, helping to cement Elway’s place among the best quarterbacks ever.

15. Joe Greene

There were a lot of great players, especially on defense, who contributed to the Steelers winning four Super Bowls during the 1970s, but Joe Greene may have been the best. While most considered him a nice guy despite his nickname, Greene was one of the toughest and most physical players in NFL history.

He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1969 while also earning the first of his 10 Pro Bowl selections. Greene would later become Defensive Player of the Year twice while collecting 77.5 career sacks. In addition to being big and strong, Greene came up with new tactical ways of disrupting opposing offenses. He did things that no linebacker had ever done before him, making him an influential figure and arguably the best defensive player of his generation.

14. Ronnie Lott

In addition to being the best safety in NFL history, Ronnie Lott is simply among the best defensive players ever. He could cover ground and deliver hard hits as well as any safety who’s ever played. Lott also led the league in interceptions twice, racking up 63 picks during his career.

Equally important, he played a key role on four 49ers teams that won the Super Bowl. During his first 11 seasons in the league, Lott went to the Pro Bowl 10 times and was a First-Team All-Pro selection eight times. During that decade, there was no defensive back in the league as good as Lott, making him a Hall of Famer and an all-time legend.

13. Deion Sanders

As cocky and arrogant as he could be at times, Deion Sanders undoubtedly warrants mention among the greatest NFL players of all time. As a two-sport star, there are few athletes on his level. It’s also hard to find any player in NFL history who was anywhere near as good as him at covering receivers or returning kicks.

The man they call Prime Time was simply electric. He spent the 90s blanketing one elite receiver after another, going to the Pro Bowl eight times during a nine-year span and winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1994.

If you include his pick-sixes and special teams exploits, Sanders scored 19 touchdowns during his career, which is incredible for a defensive player and puts him head and shoulders above most players on that side of the ball.

12. Anthony Munoz

Among offensive linemen, there’s no question that Anthony Munoz is the best to ever play. Starting in his second pro season, Munoz went to 11 consecutive Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro selection nine times, earning Second-Team honors twice during that span.

While he never won a Super Bowl during his career with the Bengals, he was part of a golden era in Cincinnati. Not only was he an excellent blocker but Munoz was remarkably consistent and always on the field, missing just three starts in 185 career games. For what it’s worth, Munoz also caught seven passes for 18 yards in his career, which isn’t too shabby for an offensive tackle.

11. Johnny Unitas

During his era, there was no quarterback better than Johnny Unitas. He was called the “Golden Arm” because he had every skill a quarterback could need, including a phenomenal arm. While he and the Colts lost Super Bowl III after Joe Namath’s famous guarantee, Unitas previously led the Colts to three NFL championships and later a win in Super Bowl V.

During his career, Unitas won MVP honors three times and went to the Pro Bowl 10 times in an 11-year span during the prime of his career. He once led the NFL in passing touchdowns in four consecutive years while also leading the league in passing yards in three of those years.

A few quarterbacks who came after him have surpassed his accomplishments, but during his generation, nobody was better than Unitas.

10. Barry Sanders

The only thing wrong with Barry Sanders’ career was that it was far too short. After 10 seasons, Sanders called it a career when he was still among the best running backs in the league. We know that because he made the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his seasons and led the league in rushing four times, including his penultimate season.

In fact, Sanders also won MVP honors in 1997, which ended up being his second-to-last year in the NFL. But aside from the numbers, Sanders was just fun to watch. He was a little small but incredibly quick and elusive, making defenders look foolish and then running away from them.

Sanders rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons and averaged over 1,500 yards per season and five yards per carry for his career. With another year or two in the league, Sanders would have retired as the league’s all-time leading rusher. Nevertheless, there’s no question that’s among the best NFL players of all time.

9. Reggie White

Reggie White was everything that a great pass rusher should be. He was strong and powerful but still had the flexibility to get past offensive linemen and wreak havoc in the backfield. Starting in 1986, he went to the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro honors in 13 consecutive seasons. That doesn’t happen by accident; it happens because he owns the all-time record with nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks.

Early in his career, White also had three straight seasons with at least 18 sacks.

What separates White from all of the other great pass rushers in NFL history? How about the fact that he won Defensive Player of the Year twice with the second one coming 11 years after the first?

In the penultimate season of his 15-year NFL career, White racked up 16 sacks and won Defensive Player of the Year. That’s all you need to know about how great he was.

8. Emmitt Smith

There’s no way we could leave off the NFL’s all-time leading rusher from our list of the best players of all time. Emmitt Smith is arguably the best example of an undersized running back playing like a much bigger back.

He definitely wasn’t the biggest or strongest back, although smart, shifty, and always got the most out of his talents. During the first six seasons of his career, Smith led the league in rushing four times, led the league in rushing touchdowns three times, and helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls.

He took home MVP honors in 1993 and would ultimately have 11 consecutive seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards. That certainly explains how he became the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and even rushing attempts while also making eight Pro Bowls and getting an invitation to the Hall of Fame.

7. Walter Payton

With all that he accomplished, no running back deserves to be ranked higher than Walter Payton on our list of the best NFL players of all time. He busted out moves and had a running style that nobody had ever seen before Payton.

Even if all of his records didn’t stand the test of time, Payton once took over the all-time records for rushing yards, touchdowns, and all-purpose yards, among many others. His first of nine Pro Bowl selections came in his second season while his MVP award came in his third pro season.

Payton was also a true workhorse back, leading the league in carries during each of his first four seasons. Plus, he still holds the record for most consecutive starts by a running back at 170 games. That explains his 16,000-plus career rushing yards, which will always keep him among the best of all time.

6. Joe Montana

At the time of his retirement, Joe Montana was regarded by many as the best quarterback ever. Decades later, he’s still among the best to ever play.

Montana was not just talented but also great under pressure, which came in handy in a couple of the four Super Bowls he won with the 49ers. Montana twice had the highest passer rating in the NFL, including the 1989 season when he won his first of back-to-back MVP awards.

During the prime of his career, Montana put together some of the best seasons that a quarterback has ever had, posting mind-blowing numbers with unbelievable efficiency. Keep in mind that he twice led the 49ers to a 14-1 record during the regular season, as he knew how to lead a team to wins, which counts for a lot.

5. Peyton Manning

As we’ll see, one of Peyton Manning’s rivals ranks ahead of him as the top quarterback on our list of the greatest players in NFL history. However, Manning isn’t too far behind.

While he won just two Super Bowls, no other player in league history has five MVP awards. Manning also went to 14 Pro Bowls during his career and had some of his best years after sitting out an entire season following neck surgery.

In fact, he led one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history following that absent year. Intellectually, there is no other quarterback in NFL history on Manning’s level. He understood how to play the quarterback position better than anyone who’s played the game, which is why Manning has landed near the top of the list of the best NFL player of all time.

4. Lawrence Taylor

In ranking the best defensive players ever, there’s no question that Lawrence Taylor belongs at the top. But he also warrants a spot among the best NFL players of all time regardless of his position.

That’s what happens when you revolutionize a position the way that Taylor did, turning the outside linebacker position into a pass-rushing position. On top of that, Taylor was just an athletic freak who forced opposing teams to game plan around him in a way that few defensive players have ever done.

He was as strong and powerful as any player in NFL history, helping him go to 10 straight Pro Bowls. Taylor also won Defensive Player of the Year three times, including his rookie season. He’s also one of two defensive players to ever win MVP, which speaks to just how impactful of a player he was.

3. Jerry Rice

To be honest, it’s hard not putting Jerry Rice at the top of our list of the greatest NFL players of all time. He’s undoubtedly the best receiver of all time but there’s a strong argument that he should be at the top of the list of the best NFL players ever. We’re talking about a 13-time Pro Bowler and someone who led the league in receiving yards six times and receiving touchdowns six times.

He won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, becoming an integral part of San Francisco’s dynasty. But more than anything, Rice played the game the right way. Few players of his generation worked harder while also being smarter on the field. Rice ran great routes and had excellent hands. He was everything you could ever want in a football player and deserves to be mentioned among the greatest ever.

2. Tom Brady

Among quarterbacks, Tom Brady has to be considered the best. After all, the goal of football is to win, and while playing the most important position on the field, Brady won seven Super Bowls, being named MVP in five of those Super Bowls.

He also won three MVPs while leading arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history. For what it’s worth, there were some outstanding quarterbacks keeping him company during his career. But Brady’s longevity and propensity for winning for more than two decades put him at the top. He wins all of the Brady vs Manning debates and had a better career than everyone other than the player at the top of our list.

1. Jim Brown

Frankly, Jim Brown might be the best pure athlete of all time and the greatest player in NFL history. Physically, he was on a different level than every other player of his generation, and that probably would have been the case in any generation. Brown also excelled in basketball, track, and lacrosse growing up, helping to give him a skill set that no other player could come close to replicating.

While he played just nine seasons, he was a Pro Bowler in each one and led the NFL in rushing in all but one of those years. Somehow, that only gave him three MVP awards, including both his rookie season and his final season.

Nevertheless, three MVPs in nine years isn’t too shabby. Only two other running backs averaged more yards per carry during their careers while Brown remains the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game for his entire career. He was so much better than everyone else he played against that it’s impossible not to rank him as the best player of all time.

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