Top 25 Players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

Top 25 Players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

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    The Pro Football Hall of Fame is populated with incredibly talented individuals. This week, it welcomes the 2013 class.

    Bill Parcells, Cris Carter, Larry Allen, David Robinson, Jonathan Ogden and Warren Sapp will all be enshrined as newly minted Hall of Famers this weekend, and the 2013 NFL season kicks off with the Hall of Fame game between Dallas and Miami.

    But who among the football ghosts that wander the halls in Canton are the cream of the crop? Here are the top 25 Hall of Famers already enshrined.

     

    Statistics and award information courtesy of Pro Football Reference. Biographical information courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Notable Omissions

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    O.J. Simpson, Buffalo Bills

    If there was a Hall of Infamy, O.J. Simpson might be at the top of the list.

     

    Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas Cowboys

    The NFL's all-time leader in rushing yardage and touchdowns is most certainly a notable omission here. Emmitt Smith was great, but he didn't bring the electricity like Barry Sanders or plow through defenses like Jim Brown. 

    A good deal of Smith's success can be attributed to the players around him, not the least of which played on his fantastic offensive line. 

     

    Marcus Allen, RB, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs

    There are too many great running backs ahead of him.

     

    Kellen Winslow, TE, San Diego Chargers

    Before Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, there was Kellen Winslow.

    The San Diego legend was known as the greatest tight end in NFL history, a title now likely belonging to the still-active Gonzalez. 

     

    Gene Upshaw, OL, Oakland Raiders

    There was simply no room for Upshaw here.

     

    Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay Packers

    Bart Starr was certainly one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, leading his team to five NFL championships throughout his illustrious career. He didn't put up numbers like some of his peers at the position, however.

25. Gale Sayers, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Like a fire burning too hot and flaming out early, so went Gale Sayers' career.

    Few running backs in the NFL have seen more punishment than Gale Sayers did during his injury-shortened career. The dynamic running back was a returner extraordinaire for the Bears on top of his workload at running back.

    Sayers went ham on the league right from the start, scoring 16 total touchdowns in his rookie season. He took NEA and UPI Rookie of the Year honors—the Associated Press awards were created in 1967—as a result of his all-around exploits as a rookie.

    But he wasn't done.

    The Kansas Comet led the league in all-purpose yardage during his first three years in the league before injuries began taking their toll. He would win the Comeback Player of the Year award in 1969 after shredding his knee in the middle of the previous season, but that was his last hurrah.

    Were it not for injuries, we might be talking about the greatest all-around player in NFL history. As it stands, Sayers barely makes this list because

24. Jim Thorpe, HB, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals

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    The NFL's original renaissance man was there before the league even existed.

    Jim Thorpe was an all-around athlete for the ages. After winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, the Canton Bulldogs signed Thorpe to coach and play for the team in 1915.

    He led them to three championship before the American Professional Football League—which would become the NFL two years later—formed in 1920.

    When the Bulldogs joined the fledgling professional league, Thorpe was named its first president. He still played with the Bulldogs during his brief tenure as the league's commissioner. Now imagine Paul Tagliabue suiting up for the Jets in 1999.

    Thorpe could do it all—the original punt, pass and kick champion if there ever was one. He was eventually named the best athlete of the half-century in 1950.

23. Ronnie Lott, DB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Before Ed Reed snatched the "best safety ever" title away from him, Ronnie Lott was that man. Even before that, Lott was a stud cornerback. There was nothing he couldn't do in the secondary.

    Lott burst into the league in 1981, tying a NFL record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns as a rookie. He would only return two more for touchdowns in his career, but he is sixth on the all-time list with 63 interceptions.

    But picking passes off isn't the only thing Lott did well.

    Lott would become one of the most feared tacklers in NFL history, a big reason why he was an effective safety. His 1,113 tackles is fourth all-time among defensive backs, and he did it in far fewer games the top two on that list—Eugene Robinson and Darrell Green.

    The hard-hitting safety was a key cog in a strong defense that keyed San Francisco's romp through the '80s. 

22. Joe Greene, DE, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh boasted a ferocious team defense in the 1970s. Dubbed the Steel Curtain, "Mean" Joe Greene was one of its key components.

    Greene might have been the best pass-rushing defensive tackle of all time, except the league didn't begin tallying official sack totals until just after his retirement. Greene parlayed his skills into five All-Pro selections and two Defensive Player of the Year awards.

    Of course, nothing made Greene more famous than the Coke commercial above. Who could think Joe was mean after that?

21. Bronko Nagurski, FB, Chicago Bears

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    If ever there was a power back in the NFL, his name was Bronko Nagurski.

    Decades before Jim Brown ran roughshod through the league, Nagurski was there pummeling opponents with prejudice. He bulled his way through opposing defenses for a living.

    Remember the jump pass? That tricky play most recently popularized by Tim Tebow where he faked a plunge up the middle only to pull up and throw a short pass to a wide open receiver? Nagurski invented it.

    Nagurski was key in the NFL's first official championship game. He walked off the field a winner, scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the championship game of his ultimate season in the league. 

    His hard-nosed version of football went out of style long ago, but Nagurski was instrumental in promoting the nascent sport.

20. John Elway, QB, Denver Broncos

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    John Elway had a rocket arm and a ton of fourth-quarter magic. What he lacked was a great surrounding cast for much of his career.

    Until Terrell Davis arrived and Mike Shanahan shored up Denver's defense, Elway's career was marred by some embarrassing postseason losses. Ever the bridesmaid, Elway finally became a bride in 1997 when he led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl victory.

    Elway had one of the best arms in NFL history, but he was an underrated runner in his own right. He has over 3,000 rushing yards to his name, the only other quarterback besides Fran Tarkenton with that kind of output while throwing for more than 40,000 yards in his career.

    But Elway's best trait was his mettle. He is best-known for his late-game heroics, second only to Dan Marino and Peyton Manning in fourth-quarter comebacks. (Elway is purportedly the record-holder, but the evidence says otherwise.)

    Whatever the case may be, Elway has gone down in history as one of the best NFL quarterbacks to have played the game.

19. Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    If only the Dolphins had gotten Dan Marino help like the Broncos eventually did for John Elway.

    Back in the '90s, there were rumblings Miami should trade for Barry Sanders. My what a sight that would have been. Instead, Marino was forced to deal with the likes of Cecil Collins, John Avery and Karim Abdul Jabbar. The defense only tightened up as his career wound down.

    Marino set the league on fire soon after he took over for David Woodley as a rookie in 1983. His 20 touchdowns in just nine starts was a harbinger of the destruction he would bring opposing defenses.

    The quick-armed quarterback shattered records in his first full season as starter, becoming the first NFL player to throw for 5,000 yards and crushing the touchdown record by throwing for 48.

    Marino and the Dolphins would never reach those heights again, much to the chagrin of South Florida's fans. He would go on to break many career statistical records, but the Dolphins never reached the Super Bowl again under Marino.

    Had he won a championship or two, Marino's legacy would be cemented atop the Quarterback Mountain. As it stands, he will have to settle for best-ever to never win a Super Bowl.

18. Jack Lambert, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Steel Curtain closed over the rest of the NFL in the 1970s. Jack Lambert became the curtain operator.

    Lambert burst onto the scene with the Steelers in 1974, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors as the Steelers tore through the NFL en route to their first championship. It was all uphill from there.

    The fearsome tackler would be named to the All-Pro team eight of the following nine seasons, and he won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1976.

    He anchored that terrifying Steelers defense that buoyed the team, winning four championships during his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh.

17. John Hannah, OG, New England Patriots

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    How could a man who was once voted the best offensive lineman of all time be left off this list?

    As Hall of Famers go, interior linemen aren't sexy to talk about. But beauty in football is impossible without the down-and-dirty trench warfare. John Hannah embodies the grime and grit of a lineman like no other.

    Hannah was a big reason the Patriots run game was so good during the 1970s. The big guard was an All-Pro selection for 10 straight seasons from 1976 through 1985, winning the NFLPA Offensive Lineman of the Year award four consecutive times in that span. 

     

16. Chuck Bednarik, OL/LB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chuck Bednarik represents a breed of football player long extinct.

    The former Eagle played offensive center and linebacker throughout his career, both quite well. He earned an All-Pro nod at center in 1950, But he was known for his ferocious play on defense, earning All-Pro honors eight times at the position.

    Bednarik ended his career on the highest of high notes, tackling Green Bay's Jim Taylor to save the Eagles in the NFL championship game as the clock expired.

15. Sammy Baugh, QB, Washington Redskins

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    One of the game's most versatile players in NFL history helped modernize the game on offense.

    Sammy Baugh came into the league as a running back but left it as an accomplished quarterback and punter. Even though the Redskins didn't move him to quarterback until 1944—his eighth year in the league—he led the league in passing twice as a tailback.

    Not only was he battling Sid Luckman for top honors at quarterback, but Baugh was the league's best punter during his tenure. He led the league in punting average five times, and he is still the 13th-best punter in NFL history. Baugh even led the league in defensive interceptions in 1943.

    Slingin' Sammy led the Redskins to a league title as a rookie and once more en route to an epic career.

14. Dick "Night Train" Lane, DB, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions

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    There are few stories better suited for a screen adaptation than Dick "Night Train" Lane.

    Working in a factory after serving in the army, Lane decided to walk on to the Los Angeles Rams in 1952. He made the team and proceeded to snatch 14 interceptions in 12 games as a rookie, a record that still stands today.

    The "Night Train" was not a gentle player. Some of the hits he laid during his tenure in the league would have earned him fines or worse in today's NFL. He was one of the most feared tacklers in NFL history, as you might surmise from the video above.

    Lane would wind up with the Cardinals and later Lions, ultimately swiping 68 passes out of the air. That number is good for fourth all-time.

    Not bad for a walk-on.

13. Anthony Muñoz, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Arguably the best offensive tackle in the history of the game, Anthony Muñoz was simply a stalwart on the left side for the Cincinnati Bengals.

    The big offensive lineman was certainly considered the best offensive lineman of his era, as evidenced by his 11 straight All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections that spanned the 1980s.

    He is a big reason for the Ickey Shuffle and Cincinnati's postseason success—yes they were good before they became the Bungles—during his tenure in the league. He even caught four touchdown passes in his career, a la Mike Vrabel.

12. Johnny Unitas, QB, Baltimore Colts

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    How is it that a quarterback amassing statistics in the 1950s and '60s could set a record that was only recently broken?

    That's what Johnny Unitas accomplished when he tossed a touchdown in a record 47 consecutive games, a number only recently eclipsed by Drew Brees. Unitas was a men among boys at quarterback during his heyday, but he barely got his chance.

    A year after getting cut by the Steelers, the Colts signed Unitas as a backup. Four games and an injury to former first-round pick George Shaw later, Unitas began his heralded career in earnest with an inauspicious pick-six. That didn't stop him from becoming one of the greatest passers in NFL history, though.

    Unitas would go on to have one of the most illustrious quarterback careers in NFL history, effectively making George Shaw his own Wally Pipp.

    His nemesis, Bart Starr, cannot come statistically. Unitas nearly doubled him up in yardage and touchdowns in just one more season of play, though Barr would get the better of Unitas in postseason and championship wins.

    Unitas was the victor in the "Greatest Game Ever Played," when he brought the Colts back from behind against the New York Giants to beat them in overtime in a nationally televised event. That game popularized the sport like nothing before, and Unitas was at the forefront.

11. Otto Graham, QB, Cleveland Browns

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    If we were to judge quarterbacks on wins alone—a terrible proposition that seems to be the way of the sports world nowadays—nobody would come close to Otto Graham.

    Graham played in 10 straight title games and won seven of them. Let that sink in.

    The Browns were once kings of football, winning four straight All-America Football Conference championships before joining the NFL and winning the championship in their inaugural season there. Otto Graham was the biggest reason why.

     

10. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

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    Barry Sanders could be atop this list. If only he played a few more seasons, or if the Lions put a good team a few years.

    Sanders was as electric as they come, shimmying and shaking his way to fame in the 1990s. He became the first running back in history to rush for 1,000 yards in every season of his career, during which he was also an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

    His early retirement robbed us of more juke and jive magic, leaving us wanting more. But he was still arguably the best running back in history.

9. Dick Butkus, LB, Chicago Bears

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    When talking about fearsome tacklers in NFL history, Dick Butkus immediately rises to the top of the conversation.

    Butkus came into the league alongside smooth-running Gale Sayers in 1965, giving the Bears an incredible anchor on each side of the ball. Where Sayers made his living slicing through opposing defenses, Butkus was known for his sheer ferocity. Larry Schwartz writes on ESPN.com:

    He had the speed and quickness to make tackles from sideline to sideline and to cover tight ends and running backs on pass plays. He had instinct, strength, leadership andperhaps most importantanger.

    "When I went out on the field to warm up, I would manufacture things to make me mad," Butkus said. "If someone on the other team was laughing, I'd pretend he was laughing at me or the Bears. I'd find something to get mad about. It always worked for me."

    Teammates and opponents alike marveled at Butkus' ferocity. He intimidated players like nobody else. "If I had a choice, I'd sooner go one-on-one with a grizzly bear," former Green Bay Packers running back MacArthur Lane said. "I prayed that I could get up every time Butkus hit me."

    Like Sayers, Butkus ended his career injury-stricken, but not before he amassed over 1,000 total tackles

8. Lawrence Taylor, OLB, New York Giants

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    The league had never seen anything like Lawrence Taylor before he tore through it like a sharknado.

    Taylor utterly revolutionized the outside linebacker position. He was a pass-rushing dynamo at outside linebacker for the Giants. 

    He is the only defensive player to win the league MVP award, winning it for his masterful 1987 season. He won a record three Defensive Player of the Year awards as well, but he may not have been better than when he played Luther Lavay in Any Given Sunday.

    Alright, he was a tad better on the field.

7. Walter Payton, RB, Chicago Bears

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    The Bears didn't have to wait long after Gale Sayers retired to find their next great running back. Walter Payton was waiting for them with the fourth pick of the 1975 draft.

    Walter Payton swooped into the NFL and walked away with a myriad of records, including the all-time marks for rushing yards, touchdowns, 1,000-yard seasons and the single-game yardage mark. Many of those have been broken since, but Sweetness went down as one of the best players in NFL history.

    Payton's legacy went beyond the football field. He and his wife Connie were incredible humanitarians, so much so that the NFL renamed its Man of the Year award after him. Connie still sits on the committee that hands out the award, and she is still active in the community.

    On and off the field, Payton was larger than life.

6. Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco 49ers

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    If the "heart of a champion" was more than a mythical cliché, Joe Montana would embody it.

    The legendary quarterback led the 49ers to four championships, winning Super Bowl MVP honors in three of those games. Montana was known for his clutch performances, including a 92-yard game-winning drive to win Super Bowl XXIII against the Bengals

    It was one of those pressure-packed drivessuch as the overtime drive led by Baltimore's Johnny Unitas in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, or John Elway's 98-yard drive against Cleveland in the 1986 AFC title gamethat defines a great quarterback. And no quarterback ever appeared as much in control as Montana did on that final possession against the Bengals. 

    Montana led his team 92 yards in 11 plays over 2 minutes and 46 seconds. What's more, he made it look easy. He completed 8 of 9 passing attempts, and his lone incompletion was a deliberate throwaway. That was the hallmark of Montana's greatness. He could make playing quarterback in the NFL look ridiculously easy. He could make winning Super Bowls look easy, which other quarterbacks know it is not. Just ask Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. 

    No quarterback is more iconic than Joe Cool.

5. Reggie White, DE, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers

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    Reggie White was the arguably the best pass rusher in NFL history. 

    The Minister of Defense was an absolute terror to opposing quarterbacks. Despite spending his first two years in the USFL, White shattered the all-time record for sacks. He would wind up with 198, a number only eclipsed by Bruce Smith, who played for three more seasons in the NFL.

    If you add the 23.5 sacks he had with the Memphis Showboats, the record is his.

    He roared into the NFL after two seasons in the USFL, scoring 31 sacks in just 28 starts through his first two seasons and winning Rookie of the Year in the process. He almost broke the all-time record in his third, strike-shortened seasons, notching 21 sacks in just 12 games.

    White would eventually bring his fearsome presence to the Green Bay defense, where he would help lead the team to the only championship he ever won. He sacked New England's Drew Bledsoe three times in that game.

4. Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jerry Rice might not have been the biggest, fastest or most athletic receiver to have played the game, but he was the best. And it could be a while if someone ever unseats him.

    It was sheer willpower that fueled Rice throughout his career.

    Rice outworked everyone else, be it teammate or foe. His famed work ethic propelled him to the top of the NFL, where he remained for almost two decades. Rice was a huge part of three championship squads, turning in some massive performances in the Super Bowl.

    He set all sorts of unbreakable records through his 19-year career. The single-season touchdown record (22) Randy Moss in 2007 broke was set in just 12 games. Nobody is going to catch him in career receptions, touchdowns or yardage anytime soon.

    Rice was an All-Pro selection 11 times in his illustrious career. He was still playing at a high level into his 40s with the Raiders.

    It's quite simple: the 49er great is the standard by which all other receivers are measured.

3. Don Hutson, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    Don Hutson is, perhaps, the most underrated player in pro football history.

    The former Packer was simply ahead of his time, shattering receiving records left and right while revolutionizing the position. David Whitley writes at ESPN.com

    Defenses couldn't contain Hutson. He ran a 9.7 100-yard dash and could shift and shake. His precise routes were revolutionary. Defenses began double and triple-teaming him, concepts that were unheard of at the time.

    "He would glide downfield," Packers coach Curly Lambeau said, "leaning forward as if to steady himself close to the ground. Then, as suddenly as you gulp or blink an eye, he would feint one way and go the other, reach up like a dancer, gracefully squeeze the ball and leave the scene of the accidentthe accident being the defensive backs who tangled their feet up and fell trying to cover him."

    The Alabama Antelope led the league in touchdowns eight times. One year he led the league with 74 catches, an astounding number in that era. The next-best receiver had 27 receptions.

    Hutson invented a host of pass-routes, many of which are still used today.

    The former Packer wasn't just the NFL's premiere receiver of his era, he was also an accomplished defensive back. He wound up picking off 30 passes while pulling double-duty at safety. 

    Without Hutson, we might not have seen Jerry Rice or Randy Moss setting impossible records. Heck, the NFL might never have gained the popularity it enjoys today.

2. Jim Brown, FB, Cleveland Browns

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    Jim Brown stormed out of college and into the NFL record books right from the start of his illustrious, shortened career.

    He started by leading the league in rushing yards and touchdowns in his first three seasons. He would go on to lead the NFL in rushing in all but one of his years in the league.

    Brown was a men among boys, the most dominant player of his era. He led the Browns to their last title in 1964, abruptly and surprisingly retiring after one more season. Like Sanders, fans were left to wonder just how great he could have been with a few more seasons in the league.

1. David "Deacon" Jones, DE, Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers

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    There can be no better pass-rusher on this list than the late Deacon Jones, who coined the term "sack."

    The NFL didn't keep official sack statistics until Jones retired, but he unofficially had 173.5 for his career. That is more sacks per game (0.9) than Reggie White (0.85) or Bruce Smith (0.72).

    Perhaps his decision to ditch his given name—David—in favor of Deacon as a rookie was a sign of things to come. Jones was arguably the most feared pass-rusher in NFL history. Not bad for a 14th-round pick.

    Unfortunately for Jones, he never tasted team success. His teams never won a playoff game despite his prowess as a pass rusher. Still, his lore lives on as one of the league's best players of all time, and the top player on this list.