The Top 10 Best Football Players of All Time

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American football is the most popular sport in the United States by a longshot. Fans have witnessed many great players on the NFL stage in the last century, but only a handful are considered the best. These are the Top 10 best football players of all time based on their individual and team achievements.

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown eluding a defender
Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

The number one spot on our list goes to Jim Brown. Brown played college ball at Syracuse University and fittingly spent his entire NFL career with the Cleveland Browns from 1957-65. He won two championships and four league MVPs. Although he only played nine full seasons, his peak was better than anyone else’s. Nobody could tackle him. 

Brown doubled as a fullback and running back for the Browns, never missing a game and running roughshod over the entire league. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and accrued 12,312 yards in just nine seasons. Most impressively, he averaged 133 all-purpose yards per game, which is still an NFL record for non-quarterbacks.

Brown’s short tenure in the NFL is the only knock against him, but he played during an era with just 12 regular season games. His overall statistics are going to be slightly deflated, but that doesn’t take away from his dominance. He passed away at age 83 on May 18, 2023, leaving behind an untouchable legacy as the best football player of all time.

2. Tom Brady

Tom Brady getting hyped before a game
Image Courtesy of The Boston Globe

Most would argue that Tom Brady is the best football player of all time. He certainly has a strong case, with seven Super Bowls, five Super Bowl MVPs, three regular season MVPs and almost every passing record to his name. He was the leader of the greatest dynasty in NFL history with the New England Patriots and won another ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

To put Brady’s greatness into perspective, he passed for 89,214 yards in his career. The next closest player is Drew Brees at 80,358 yards. Brady has 649 career passing touchdowns, and Brees is in second place with 571. But the statistics only tell half of the story. TB12 had a superhuman competitive drive that drew comparisons to only Michael Jordan himself.

Many people hate Brady for his on-the-field arrogance and strange off-the-field personality, but nobody can deny that he’s the greatest quarterback and one of the best football players of all time. His career achievements are unmatched and he played the most important position at a higher level than anyone else.

3. Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice celebrating a touchdown

Jerry Rice is the undisputed best wide receiver of all time and arguably the best overall football player ever. His positional dominance is on par with Brady’s at the quarterback position. Rice leads the NFL in all-time receiving yards (22,895), touchdowns (197) and All-Pro selections (10). He is also a three-time Super Bowl champ with the San Francisco 49ers.

Nobody could guard Rice. His speed and shiftiness made him the most lethal offensive weapon in the league from his 1985 rookie season to 1996. His performance dropped off after this eleven-year stretch of mayhem, but that’s more than enough time to label him as a top-three player ever.

4. Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor in Super Bowl 25

Lawrence Taylor is the best defensive player of all time and certainly the most terrifying player on this list. Opponents were legitimately afraid of him when they lined up across from him. Lawrence said he could tell which lineman was supposed to block him by seeing the terror in his eyes before the snap. 

Taylor is most notably the only player to win Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie. He continued his dominance for the rest of the 1980s, racking up two more DPOY awards, a league MVP and two Super Bowls. His career was cut short by off-the-field issues, but he did more than enough to earn a place among the all-time greats.

5. Joe Montana

Joe Montana eludes a pass rusher

Until about 2016, Joe Montana was considered the best quarterback of all time, not Tom Brady. Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowls during the 80s and 90s, winning two MVPs and making eight Pro Bowls in the process. His individual statistics don’t jump off the page, but his leadership abilities and countless clutch performances earn him a spot in the top five.

Montana’s cerebral play during big games earned him the nickname “Joe Cool” and gave him an aura that no other player possessed at the time. Championships are the most important accomplishments in the NFL, and nobody won more big games than Montana until Brady came along. That’s why he ranks so high on this list.

6. Walter Payton

Walter Payton running at full speed

Known by his contemporaries as “Sweetness”, Walter Payton was the best running back of the 70s and 80s with the Chicago Bears. His running style was both graceful and brutish, as he could shake you out of your cleats or run you over without a second thought. He had more than 1,600 all-purpose yards in nine of his 13 seasons, including an MVP award in 1977.

Payton also won the Super Bowl with the famous ‘85 Bears team as the only formidable offensive player. He is the most beloved athlete in the history of Chicago sports after Michael Jordan and the second-greatest running back ever after Jim Brown, who ranks #1 on this list. He needs to be on anyone’s list of the best football players of all time.

7. Reggie White

Reggie White shedding a blocker
Image Courtesy of USA Today

Reggie White is the second defensive player on this list and almost as terrifying as Lawrence Taylor. He was abnormally large for a defensive end, measuring 6’5” and almost 300 pounds. He used a combination of sheer power and perfect technique to embarrass opponents and wreak havoc on NFL offenses for 13 years. 

White racked up an NFL-record 198 sacks in his career and his 1,048 solo tackles is the most ever by a defensive lineman. Although he didn’t have the same game-breaking athleticism as Lawrence Taylor, he firmly ranks as the second-best defensive player ever and one of the best football players of all time.

8. Peyton Manning

Image Courtesy of NBC Sports

For most of his career, Peyton Manning was known as an individual star with underwhelming team success. He won five regular season MVP awards and made the Pro Bowl 14 times, but his teams rarely had any postseason success. That finally changed in 2006 when he led the Indianapolis Colts to their first Super Bowl in almost 50 years.

Manning further solidified his status as one of the all-time greats when he led the 2013 Denver Broncos to the best offensive season ever and won another Super Bowl with them in 2015. He ranks third all-time in passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns (539) behind only Tom Brady and Drew Brees. He lived up to his expectations as a top draft pick and then some.

9. Dick Butkus

Dick Butkus chasing the ball carrier
Image Courtesy of CBS Sports

Dick Butkus was another defensive monster who instilled fear in opponents. He was ahead of his time in the 60s and 70s, being the best pass and run defender in the league. He could rush the quarterback, guard the running back and lock up tight ends from his linebacker position. But most importantly, he played like a wild dog. He was rabid and relentless.

The Animal only played eight seasons in the NFL, but he made the Pro Bowl every year and finished top-five in MVP voting four times. He was considered the best defensive player of all time until Lawrence Taylor came along. You might not have seen him play, but you still have to respect his greatness. 

10. Ronnie Lott

Ronnie Lott celebrating a touchdown

The final spot in our Top 10 goes to Ronnie Lott, the best defensive back of all time and the anchor of the 49ers defense in the 1980s. He made the Pro Bowl ten times in 14 seasons and consistently ranked among the league’s best in tackles, interceptions and pass break-ups. He is also famous for being the hardest hitting defensive back ever.

Lott revolutionized his position, playing cornerback on both sides of the field and stepping in at free safety or strong safety whenever necessary. He was a do-it-all defender on the back end, accumulating 63 interceptions and 1,146 tackles in his illustrious career. His toughness and versatility make him one of the best football players of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

Johnny Unitas (1956-1973)

Barry Sanders (1989-1998)

Don Hutson (1935-1945)

Ray Lewis (1996-2012)

Anthony Munoz (1980-1992)

Drew Brees (2001-2020)

Patrick Mahomes (2017-Present)


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