Notre Dame Football: Power Ranking the Irish's Best NFL Players of All Time

Keith ArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterMay 7, 2014

Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana has a last minute talk with head coach Dan Devine in closing minutes of game with the University of Houston at Cotton Bowl classic on Jan. 2, 1979 in Dallas, Texas. Notre Dame won the hard-fought game 35- 34. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
BILL HABER/Associated Press

It's a debate that should be had over cold beers at the Linebacker or hot burgers at CJ's. But with football still months away in South Bend and the interminable run-up to the NFL draft almost over, there's no better time to debate Notre Dame's best NFL football players. 

The Irish's rich history of sending football players to the professional ranks will continue tomorrow, when up to three different players could hear their names called in the first round. While it's a great indicator of future success, it's by no means a lock. After all, while Hall of Famer Alan Page was the first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Joe Montana didn't come off the board until the third round. 

The competition for this list is incredibly stiff. No bust in Canton? You've got some work to do.

Let's take a look at Notre Dame's best NFL players of all time. 


1. Joe Montana

George Nitikin/Associated Press

It's hard to start any list with anybody but Montana, arguably the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. A four-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, Montana was named the game's MVP in three of those victories. 

The eight-time Pro Bowler was the ultimate triggerman for Bill Walsh's West Coast offense and finished his 15-year career with two winning seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs as well. He was elected to the NFL's Hall of Fame in 2000. 

That illustrious pro career wasn't all that easy to predict when he came out of Notre Dame, where Montana played from 1975-78 for the Irish. He was selected in the third round after completing 54.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in a Cotton Bowl-winning season for Dan Devine.  

Why he's No. 1: Montana brought quarterbacking into the modern era, and was the ultimate money player for one of the sport's top franchises. 


2. Alan Page

Harry Cabluck/Associated Press

There has been no more dominant defender to come out of Notre Dame than Page, who was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round and immediately became one of the league's premiere players. Page was a part of the Minnesota's fearsome Purple People Eaters, leading a defense that made appearances in four Super Bowls.

Page played in an era before sacks were official statistics, but the numbers he put up were still mind-numbing. He recovered 23 opponent fumbles. He unofficially blocked 28 kicks and recorded 173 sacks as a defensive tackle, a number that would put him in the top three in league history.

Page's career off the field was just as impressive. After being a consensus All-American at Notre Dame and spending 16 years in the NFL, he became a lawyer and was elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

Why he's No. 2: Page's biggest negative is playing in an era when sacks weren't tallied. Playing defensive tackle in a run-first era, Page would've set every passing rushing record in the sport if the statistics were counted. And for as impressive as he was on the field, Page makes Domers everywhere proud with his accomplishments off the field. 


3. Tim Brown

PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

It won't be long until Brown joins the rest of this group in Canton. Notre Dame's most recent Heisman Trophy winner, Brown played 17 seasons in the NFL, 16 of them as one of the most fearsome weapons on the Oakland (and Los Angeles) Raiders. 

Named to nine Pro Bowl teams, Brown was one of the most dynamic players of his era. He had nine-straight seasons of 1,000 yards receiving or more. He had 100 receiving touchdowns in his career and was also one of the NFL's most dynamic return men.

Brown played from 1984-87 for the Irish and was a consensus All-American in 1987, the same year he won the Heisman Trophy and Walter Camp Award.

Why he's No. 3: If it weren't for Jerry Rice, Brown might have been the modern era's most dominant wide receiver, with nearly a decade straight of 1,000 yard seasons. While receiving stats have made it more difficult to objectively measure greatness, Brown's nine Pro Bowls tell you how he stacked up against his peers. 


4. Curly Lambeau

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

A letterman on the 1918 Fighting Irish, Lambeau founded the Green Bay Packers in 1919 and was either its star player or coach for over 30 years. While illness forced him to leave Notre Dame, one season under Knute Rockne helped Lambeau become one of the premier innovators in the NFL, utilizing the forward pass with star receiver Don Hutson.

Why he's No. 4: Without Lambeau, Green Bay would be just another small town in the middle of Wisconsin. But because of him, the Packers are one of the NFL's proudest franchises. That's the kind of legacy that leaves a mark. 

5. Jerome Bettis

MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

Also soon to see his bust in Canton is Jerome Bettis. The Bus, one of the premiere big running backs in NFL history, was named to six Pro Bowls during his 13-year NFL career after being picked 10th overall in the 1993 NFL draft.

In Bettis' first nine seasons in the NFL, he rushed for an average of 1,208 yards a year, with an injury-shortened 1995 season limiting him to 637 yards. Bettis' 13,662 yards are sixth-most in NFL history. He retired after winning the Super Bowl with the Steelers. 

Bettis has been a Hall of Fame finalist in each of the last four votes, falling just short in each vote. Bettis played three years for the Irish, leaving after his junior season to head to the NFL. 

Why he's No. 5: Bettis revolutionized the running back position, capable of doing things that a 250-pounder never did before him. From the moment he entered the league he became one of the NFL's top impact backs, and his production over a 13-year period is still staggering. 


6. Dave Casper

Sal Veder/Associated Press

After playing both offensive tackle and tight end for Notre Dame, Casper was a second-round selection by Al Davis' Oakland Raiders. He became one of the NFL's premier tight ends, catching 378 passes and 52 touchdowns in his 13-year NFL career between the Raiders, Oilers and Vikings. 

Nicknamed "The Ghost" by his teammates in Oakland, Capser was a first-team All-Pro four times and an NFL Pro Bowler five times. The Bemidji, Minnesota native was a consensus All-American for the Irish in 1973. 

Why he's No. 6: At a school that's produced some excellent tight ends, Casper stands alone for his production, at a time when tight ends weren't known for being pass catchers. At 6'4", 240 pounds, Casper was a tight end playing in an offensive tackle's body. 


7. Paul Hornung

HAROLD MATOSIAN/Associated Press

One of Notre Dame's seven Heisman Trophy winners, Hornung is also a member of the NFL's Hall of Fame. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and a member of four Super Bowl champions. Hornung was the first overall pick of the 1957 NFL draft, playing halfback, fullback and quarterback for the Packers. 

At Notre Dame, Hornung was a consensus All-American in 1955 and won the Heisman in 1956. The Golden Boy has lived up to that colorful description both during and after his playing days. 

Why he's No. 7: Hornung was one of football's most versatile players. He was also one of the game's first true celebrities, his fan-friendly status got him through a season-long gambling suspension unscathed. 


8. George Connor

Associated Press

A consensus All-American at Notre Dame in 1946 and 1947, Connor was the fifth overall pick in 1946 by the New York Giants and ended up with the Chicago Bears, where he became a dominant player. During his eight seasons in Chicago, Connor was named to the All-NFL team at three different positions—offensive tackle, defensive tackle and linebacker.

At 6'3", 240 pounds, Connor was one of the earliest prototype linebackers, moving to the position out of necessity for the Bears. A knee injury ended his career early, but Connor was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1975.

Why he's No. 8: He might not have the name-brand recognition as the former Irish players on the list in front of him, but Connor was one of the NFL's most fierce and versatile players. Bigger, stronger and faster than most in his era, Connor's dominance at multiple positions punched his ticket to Canton. 


9. Nick Buoniconti

John Bazemore/Associated Press

An undersized linebacker leaving Notre Dame, Buoniconti played 14 years in the NFL after being drafted in the 13th round of the AFL draft by the Boston Patriots. Buoniconti played in five AFL All-Star games with the Patriots before continuing his career with the Miami Dolphins. 

In his seven seasons with the Patriots, he made 24 interceptions at middle linebacker, still good for seventh in team history. After heading to the Miami Dolphins, Buoniconti became the leader of Miami's "No-Name Defense," played in three Super Bowls (winning two) and featured in the famed 1972 undefeated season.

At Notre Dame, Buoniconti finished second on the team in tackles in 1960 before becoming an All-American in 1961.

Why he's No. 9: Why he might only be remember now for his champagne toast when the last NFL team loses each season, Buoniconti was the ultimate warrior at middle linebacker, and encapsulated the scrappy, over-achieving nature that personifies Notre Dame football. 


10. Wayne Millner

Associated Press

Millner was a consensus All-American for the Irish in 1935 before joining the Boston Redskins the following year. According to the Hall of Fame website, Millner's head coach Ray Flaherty was so excited about the prospect that he promised to resign if Millner didn't lead the Redskins to a title. 

The Redskins won the division, and Millner was a big reason. He teamed with Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh to become one of the most dynamic pass-catchers in NFL history and also excelled as a two-way end.

Millner was enshrined in the NFL's Hall of Fame in 1968 and also entered college football's Hall of Fame in 1990. He was one of the heroes of the Irish's 1935 victory over Ohio State in one of the earliest "games of the century." 

Why he's No. 10: While he played in an era that didn't fully capitalize on his skills, Millner's place in both the college and professional Hall of Fame give you an idea of the type of player he was back in the day. A member of the 1930s All-Decade Team with size and speed that would still fit in today, Millner was an athlete ahead of his time. 


11. George Trafton

Wally Fong/Associated Press

Like Lambeau, Trafton only spent one season at Notre Dame. But he became one of the most fearsome players in early professional football, playing on both sides of the football for the Chicago Bears (and their early iterations). 

Trafton is credited with being the first center to snap the football with one hand and was a part of six all-league teams during his 12 seasons. Per the Hall of Fame's official website, fabled running back Red Grange called Trafton the "meanest, toughest player alive" and a newspaper writer once wrote that Trafton was disliked in every NFL city except Green Bay and Rock Island—where he was hated.

Why he's No. 11: The type of nasty, gritty lineman that would've likely been notorious in any era, Trafton's all-pro selections and place on the 1920s All-Decade team make him the first of many hard-nosed Notre Dame linemen.