The National Football League has a very rich history. In football, there were some dominant offensive players, like Johnny Unitas (pictured), Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Don Hutson and Walter Payton, but there are some dominant defensive players who some consider the best ever, like Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis, Dick Butkus, Bob Lilly and Ed Reed. In this list, I will present to you the ten best players in football history.
10. Bob Lilly, DT: The one thing I admire the most about Bob Lilly is his durability, as he played in 196 consecutive games. That'd be incredible for a defensive tackle in today's NFL, but the NFL when Lilly played (1961-1974) was a lot more violent, tough and hard-nosed. Lilly had great pass rushing skills, great agility and quickness for a defensive tackle. In his 196 game career, he had 94 and a half sacks. At least he had triple digits, right? As NFL Films put it: "he was the unblockable, unstoppable force of the Doomsday Defense". That might be an overstatement, but Lilly made it seem that way. In his first year of eligibility, 1980, Lilly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lilly cracks the top ten because of his amazing durability and how revolutionary he was to the NFL. The usually reserved Tom Landry put it best: "A man like this comes along once in a generation. I don't think Bob ever was aware of how good a player he was or how valuable he was to his team."
9. Johnny Unitas, QB: In Baltimore, there are two heroes: John Constantine Unitas and Raymond Anthony Lewis. Ray Lewis was also revolutionary for the game of football, but Unitas is just a legend. In a time when quarterbacks generally had bad TD-INT ratios, "Johnny U" finished his career with over 40,000 passing yards, 290 touchdowns and 253 interceptions. He won Super Bowl V over the Cowboys in 1971 and won two NFL Championships, the most famous being the "Best Game Ever", the NFL Championship between Unitas' Colts and the Giants. Unitas, who was 6-3 in his playoff career, was good enough to win, throwing for 349 yards and leading the Colts down the field for a 23-17 victory. Some could argue he is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He was clutch and above average for his time. He was 118-64-4 as a starter, but he ranks for me as ONE of the best quarterbacks ever, and also one of the greatest players ever.
8. Dick Butkus, LB: He was ferocious. Tough. Revolutionary, perhaps more so than Lilly. Yes, Dick Butkus is an NFL legend. In 1965, the Bears made an excellent move by drafting 22-year old linebacker Dick Butkus out of the University of Illinois. As a rookie, he had five interceptions and recovered a phenomenal seven fumbles. Former Colts center Bill Curry put it best: "Before you could begin to block on Dick, you had to overcome the mystique. And I know Dick doesn't appreciate this, but I said it was almost like an odor." For nine seasons, Butkus put a hurting on running backs and offensive lineman. He played with the Bears from 1965 to 1973, so he wasn't as durable as Lilly, but was more revolutionary. There's even an award for the best college linebacker, the Dick Butkus Award. Butkus finished his nine year career with 1,020 tackles, 27 fumble recoveries and 22 sacks and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
7. Lawrence Taylor, LB: "You're looking, you're looking. He's coming, he's coming. And you're just like, man," as former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston put it. Taylor is one of the most ferocious hitters and relentless pass rushers in NFL history. One could make a good argument that he's the best linebacker of all time, as well as the best pass rusher of all time. Taylor made an impact on young linebackers that can't be overstated. Drafted by the Giants in 1981, Taylor had one of the best rookie seasons in sports history, winning both Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. "He was awesome. Just awesome," said former Eagle Bill Bergey. In NFL history, I doubt there's a more disrupting player defensively. He not only could allow little to running backs, he is one of the greatest pass rushers ever. He's the complete linebacker. If an offense had to change his gameplan to adjust to Taylor and it still didn't work, Taylor has to be in the top ten.
6. Don Hutson, WR: In his last article, Bryn Swartz made a compelling argument, saying Don Hutson was the best wide receiver in NFL history. In ways, I agree with him. As always, he provided credible facts to back it up. I think Hutson is the sixth best football player in NFL history. He'd be considered just a good receiver in the NFL now, as he had just 7,991 yards in ten seasons, which is 799.1 yards per year, but that is phenomenal for the era he played in (1935-1945). Quarterbacks weren't very good, as teams tended to want to pound the ball with their run game. Hutson had an absolutely amazing 1942 season, catching 74 passes from 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns. He accounted for 50.3 percent of Green Bay's passing attack. Hutson may not be the greatest wide receiver of all time, but Bryn proved it's very arguable and debatable, and I think he's just behind one wide receiver.
5. Jerry Rice, WR: While Bryn provided a pretty good argument, I still am convinced Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. He helped Joe Montana tremendously, and when Montana passed the baton to Steve Young, Young had no problem putting the ball in Rice's hands. In his 20-year career, he had 1,549 catches, 22,895 yards and caught 197 touchdown passes. Imagine this: he averaged 77 catches, 1144 yards and ten touchdowns for twenty full seasons. That's amazing. That's what pushes Rice past Hutson in my mind. Rice made Young into a guy that not can only run, but can stand back there in the pocket and throw the pass. Rice mentored Terrell Owens, who turned into a Hall of Fame receiver. Since T.O. left, the 49ers have thrown for 76 touchdowns and 94 interceptions.
4. Jim Brown, RB: In my mind, there is no No. 2. Jim Brown is the best running back in NFL history. No dispute. In just nine seasons, he averaged 1,368 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was a power back, as NFL Films rated him the best power runner in NFL history. The MVP in 1957, 1958 and 1965, Brown is one of the greatest football players in the history of the National Football League. Brown isn't quite my No. 1 because he didn't have a lasting impact on the game and didn't have the versatility my top three did. Deacon Jones said it best: "How the heck did he do that?" Brown is the best running back of all time, and there is no doubt about it, in my mind. However, I don't think he's the best football player ever. Brown's take-on-every-tackler mentality was later copied by guys like Walter Payton, Shaun Alexander and Jerome Bettis, but Brown still surpasses them all, in my opinion.
3. Joe Montana, QB: 40,559 passing yards. 273 touchdowns and just 139 interceptions. A four-time Super Bowl Champ and three-time Super Bowl MVP. Yes, Joe Montana is a very accomplished NFL player. Montana was the comeback king. In the Super Bowl in 1989, he had the ball with 3:10 left in the game on their own eight yard line. However, Montana showed his poise, leading the 49ers down the field and ended up hitting John Taylor for game-winning touchdown pass. Montana may be the greatest quarterback ever. A very compelling argument could be made. The eight time Pro Bowler was a third round draft pick in 1979 out of Notre Dame. It was worth a second day pick. Montana may be the greatest ever, but you have to go way back to really find the greatest player in the rich history of the NFL.
2. Otto Graham, QB: Get this: in ten years in football, Browns quarterback Otto Graham won seven NFL Championships. He had a playoff record of 9-3 and was a phenomenal 57-13-1 as a starter. While his stats can't even touch Montana's, but Graham was great for his era, as he threw for 23,584 yards, 174 touchdowns and 135 interceptions. That's an average year of 2,358 yards, 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Even in today's NFL, that's good, and back then, he was Tom Brady. For example, in 1954, one of Graham's last years in the NFL, Chicago Cardinals quarterback Lamar McHan threw eight touchdowns and 22 interceptions. Also, Bears quarterback George Blanda threw for 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions while leading his team to an 8-4 record. So, back then, if you had more touchdowns than interceptions, it was a big deal. And when you toss in the fact that Graham played in the NBA, he beats Montana.
1. Sammy Baugh, QB/CB/P: In Chris "Mad Dog" Russo's book, he listed the top ten NFL, MLB and college players ever. He listed Sammy Baugh in the top ten of NFL players. Three words from me: not good enough. When you think of an ultimate player, Baugh is the total package. He wasn't a phenomenal quarterback, but above average for his time, played defense, was an amazing punter and was a true ballhawk. In his career, he tossed 187 touchdowns and 203 interceptions. Not impressive, I know. But for his time? Impressive. Back then, like in Graham's era, quarterbacks weren't utilized well, and anyone who threw for more touchdowns than interceptions was considered amazing. So if Baugh averaged 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions a year, he must be special. Also, he averaged 45.1 yards per punt, which would have been 12th in the NFL this year. Oh by the way, he had 31 career interceptions, 47 fumbles forced, including 21 recovered and intercepted an amazing 11 passes in 1943. That's a football player.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!