Both Sanders and Jackson were so talented that they transcended the NFL and managed to play in two professional sports, the other being the MLB. The NFL has yet to see athletes as gifted as these again, and likely won't see a multi-sport rarity such as Sanders or Jackson ever again.
Sanders and Jackson were both at the top of their respective games during their tenures in the NFL. Jackson was a star running back ahead of his time, while Sanders turned out to be one of the better cornerbacks and special teams contributors in NFL history.
Let's break down the classic Sanders vs. Jackson argument and crown a winner.
Jackson seemingly defined the word "freak athlete" before it was officially coined. Taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft, Jackson would go on to have a short, albeit stunning NFL career with the Los Angeles Raiders.
At 6'1" and 230 pounds, Jackson was a powerful back that could run between the tackles with ease. What makes him one of the greatest to play was his elite speed. Despite his heavy stature, Jackson had recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.12 in the combine leading up the draft.
Jackson would play just four years in the NFL, where he recorded 2,782 yards and 16 touchdowns with an exceptional 5.4 yards per carry average. Being so versatile allowed Jackson to be a threat in the passing game as well, where he recorded 352 yards and two scores in the same time span.
Outside of the NFL, Jackson spent nine years in the MLB, where he recorded 598 hits and 141 home runs with a career .250 average. He also used his electric speed to steal 82 bases.
It's hard even in today's NFL to find a running back as talented and athletically gifted as Jackson was during his time with Oakland. He was ahead of his time at the position, and without a doubt one of the greatest NFL athletes in history.
"Primetime" was a multi-faceted threat on the NFL field who helped redefine not only defensive back play, but special teams contributions as well.
Sanders landed in the NFL as the No. 5 overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft with the Atlanta Falcons and immediately changed the league as we know it. He would spend 14 seasons in the NFL with a variety of different teams before hanging up the cleats.
In those 14 years, Sanders was a jaw-dropping performer, hence his nickname. As the NFL's best cornerback for most of his career, he would intercept 53 passes, which he would then almost always turn into a big return. He tallied 1,331 interception return yards and returned nine of them for touchdowns.
Sanders' production didn't end there. He would also see time at wide receiver, where he would record 784 yards and three touchdowns. As a return specialist, Sanders amassed 3,523 yards and three touchdowns on kick returns. He was an even better punt returner, gaining 2,199 yards and six touchdowns.
Like Jackson, Sanders would also spend time in the MLB. During his time there, Sanders notched a career .263 batting average with 558 hits and 39 home runs. His elite speed translated well to the majors, allowing him to steal 186 bases.
Standing at 6'1" and 200 pounds with an NFL combine 40-yard dash speed of 4.27, Sanders managed to redefine what versatility in the NFL meant.
While both Jackson and Sanders were ridiculously talented individuals, only one can claim the crown as the best NFL athlete.
That honor goes to Jackson.
Make no mistake, Sanders' versatility was impressive. His efforts defensively and on special teams were bar-none, but more and more we are seeing electric wide receivers or cornerbacks have big roles on special teams as well.
A recent example would be Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings. He's one of the NFL's best all-around offensive weapons. Not only does he provide a threat as a receiver, but he can line up as a running back and be effective and also happens to be one of the best return men in the NFL. He obviously cannot compare to Sanders directly, but we're seeing more and more of this pop up in the NFL today.
What makes Jackson the better athlete is two-fold. First, the fact that he was faster than Sanders despite being 30 pounds heavier should end the argument right away. Second, we still haven't seen running backs reach the size and speed ratio that Jackson achieved.
Sanders lasted longer in the NFL, but that is a direct result of the positions he and Jackson played. Every time Jackson touched the ball he was battered by defenders, which is the nature of the running back position. Sanders was only susceptible to hits a few times a game.
While his career was short-lived, Jackson was a better NFL athlete than Sanders.