Tough As Nails: The 25 Most Durable NFL Players of the Last 15 Years
The average NFL career spans about three and a half years which makes sense when you consider the physical pounding that these athletes are subjected to on a weekly basis.
But there are a select few who have been able to sustain extremely long and relatively healthy careers because of a multitude of factors including; luck, hard work, genetics and sheer determination.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of these NFL iron-men have put together immensely successful and long careers, because let’s be honest, if you’re not very good you probably won’t be playing very long anyway.
While the biggest factor that makes a player great is his talent, perhaps one of the more overlooked characteristics that most great players possess is their durability, which allows them to consistently be out on the field in situations where less durable players would not.
Of course, we all remember guys like Bo Jackson, Billy Sims, Sterling Sharpe and Gale Sayers, all of whom were supremely talented football players that simply weren’t able to sustain long careers due to serious injuries.
It’s tough to say how the aforementioned players would be remembered had they played full careers, but it’s certainly not out of the question to speculate that the NFL record book might look a lot different than it does today.
During the more than eighty-year history of the NFL, the way the game is played has changed many times and in the year 2010 we are seeing players who are bigger and faster than ever before who throw their bodies around the field with reckless abandon partly because of the advances in protective equipment.
When you combine the increasing size and strength of NFL players with the 16 game regular season, it’s little wonder that many guys suffer serious injuries which cause them to miss substantial amounts of time.
Thus making the feats that the players on this list have accomplished all the more impressive.
A little about the list:
-This list is the most durable NFL players of the last 15 years, so if someone retired before 1996 they won’t be found here.
-Every player on this list needs to have played at least three seasons in the NFL after 1996 which weeds out guys who were simply on the tail ends of their careers from making the list.
-For the purposes of this list I defined durable as players who played for at least 10 seasons that missed very little time due to injury and consistently played at a high level for the majority of their career.
-I also gave more of an advantage to players who played positions which required them to take a pounding over those that played positions who were only hit a couple of times per game, so there won’t be any kickers/punters on the list.
-Finally, I gave more of an advantage to guys who simply played the game of football in a tough and gutsy manner. Enjoy.
25. Hines Ward
NFL Seasons: 13, 1998-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 191
Games Missed: 6
Career Highlights: Four-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl Champion, 2005 Super Bowl MVP
Hines Ward is known for being one of the more physical players in the NFL today and despite being a wide receiver, he’s a terrific blocker who never shies away from contact.
Instead, Ward seems to initiate the contact on most occasions and whether he’s finishing off a run or blocking for one of his teammates, you can bet that Hines will be getting his moneys worth.
Considering how physical of a player he’s been over his long and storied career, it’s a testament to his durability that Ward has just missed six games while throwing his body around for 191 NFL games.
Ward has been the heart and soul of the Steelers organization since he was drafted out of the University of Georgia in 1998 and although he’s just 6’0’’ and 205 pounds, he’s a fierce competitor who plays the game as hard as anyone.
In 2010 Ward is in his 13th NFL season and although he turned 34 in March he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and should continue to play his hard-nosed brand of football for a few more years to come.
24. Jon Runyan
NFL Seasons: 14, 1996-2009
Games Played: 207
Games Missed: 6 (Coaches decision in rookie season)
Career Highlights: 2002 Pro Bowler, 1999 AP 2nd team All-NFL
Jon Runyan is probably most well known for being one of the dirtier players in recent NFL history as well as being one of the most durable offensive linemen the game has seen in a long time.
The 6’7’’ 330 pound behemoth of an offensive tackle established himself as one of the toughest players in the game during his 14-year NFL career and was the kind of player you hated playing against and loved having on your side.
After being drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1996, Runyan became a starter just six games into his rookie season and never looked back, as he went on to start every game for the next twelve seasons.
Runyan’s durability is impressive for any professional football player, but when you consider that he was doing the dirty work in the trenches for all of those games it makes this feat almost incomprehensible.
Runyan played in the NFL until he was 36 years old, and a 2008 poll showed that getting blocked by him on a screen pass was one of the scariest things in the NFL.
While Jon probably wouldn’t help an old lady cross a busy intersection, he was one hell of a durable offensive tackle and after undergoing microfracture surgery during the 2008 off season he signed on with Chargers at the end of November for the stretch run of the 2009 season where he played the final five games of his impressive career.
23. Junior Seau
NFL Seasons: 20, 1990-2009
Games Played: 268
Games Missed: 31
Career Highlights: 12-time Pro Bowler, six-time First Team All-Pro, 56.5 sacks (102nd all-time)
Not many players had a finer and longer career than Junior Seau who played for an astonishing 20 seasons at linebacker for the Chargers, Dolphins, and Patriots.
During his prime in the early 90’s, Seau was one of the premier linebackers in the NFL and he registered at least 100 tackles in six straight seasons while being the leader of the 1994 Chargers team which made it all the way to the Super Bowl.
As the years went by, the physical nature of the linebacking position took its toll on Seau’s body but it’s hard to question the durability of a guy who started at least 13 games for 14 consecutive seasons and amassed over 1,500 tackles during his extremely successful career.
At the back end of his career, in a fairly forgettable stint with the Miami Dolphins, Seau suffered a torn pectoral in 2004 and an achilles injury in 2005 which account for 17 of the 31 games he missed in his career.
Seau continued to play the game well into his late 30’s signing on with the New England Patriots mostly as a part time player and even logged a couple games for the Patriots at age 40 filling in for a few injured players.
22. Warren Sapp
NFL Seasons: 13, 1995-2007
Games Played: 198
Games Missed: 10
Career Highlights: Seven-time Pro Bowler, four-time First Team All-Pro, 1999 AP Defensive Player of The Year, 2003 Super Bowl Champion 96.5 sacks (28th all-time)
Sapp might not have been a choir boy during his time in the NFL, but he was one of the best defensive tackles of his generation and rarely missed a game.
Over his storied 13-year career Sapp was the anchor and vocal leader for the defenses he played on and was an instrumental part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2002 Super Bowl Championship.
During every game he played in, Sapp was generally the focal point of the opposing offensive line’s blocking scheme because of how disruptive the 6’2’’ 300 pound lineman could be.
He constantly dealt with double teams throughout his career but Warren was able to use his unbelievable combination of strength, size, and speed to make plays in spite of how many people were trying to get in his way.
Sapp made his living in the trenches for 13 grueling NFL seasons, always helping his team win the battle for the line of scrimmage and despite the incredible wear and tear this type of play puts on a players body he only missed 10 games in his entire career.
Because of how good he was and how controversial he was during certain points of his career, it is easy to overlook how durable of a player Sapp was, but there are very few guys who played the defensive tackle position with more fire and missed as few games as Sapp did.
21. Terrell Owens
NFL Seasons: 15, 1996-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 211
Games Missed: 19 (which includes the nine games he missed in 2005 because of his deteriorating relationship with the Philadelphia Eagles)
Career Highlights: Six-time Pro Bowler, five-time first team All-Pro
Whether you like him or not, T.O. has been one of the more durable wide receivers the NFL has seen in a long time, and when you’ve missed almost as many games due to injury as you have due to conduct issues, you either did something terribly wrong or you’re one extremely durable player.
In Owens case he’s never done anything that bad (granted he’s annoying), but he was suspended for the final nine games of the 2005 season as his relationship began to sour with the Philadelphia Eagles, compared to the 10 he has missed with injury.
Standing 6’3’’ and weighing 225 pounds, Owens is a physical specimen who possessed an unparalleled combination of speed and strength that was virtually impossible for any defense to stop on a consistent basis.
Over his 15 year career Owens has had his ups and downs but while most players productivity is winding down once they hit their 30’s, Owens had some of the best years of his career after his 30th birthday.
He’s currently playing for the Bengals where he’s gotten out to a fast start to the 2010 season as he once again shows that at 37 years of age, he’s still got what it takes to make plays at an extremely high level.
20. Curtis Martin
NFL Seasons: 11, 1995-2005
Games Played: 168
Games Missed: 8
Career Highlights: Five-time Pro Bowler, 2004 First-Team All-Pro, 3,518 carries (3rd all-time), 14,101 rushing yards (4th all-time), 90 rushing touchdowns (12th all-time)
Over the years, it’s been heavily publicized that NFL running backs have the shortest lifespan of any position in the league because of the constant pounding they endure pretty much every time they touch the ball.
Not only are NFL running backs hit hard 20 times a game, they are being tackled by defensive lineman and linebackers who generally have a great size advantage over them.
This is what makes Curtis Martin’s eleven year career so impressive, because not only did he miss just eight games, he constantly carried the ball over 20 times per contest and came back the next weekend to do the same thing again.
Believe it or not, Curtis Martin logged the third most carries in NFL history behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, and with a grand total of 3,518 carries he took more than his fair share of hits over his 168 game career.
Martin was simply a consummate professional during his time in the NFL and may fly under the radar because he was a fairly quiet player and he never had that 1,800 yard 20 touchdown season, but he was as durable as any running back has been in a long time.
Toward the end of his fine career, Martin’s body did begin to break down and during the 2005 season, he would be sidelined for the final three games of the year with a right knee injury which eventually led to his official retirement from the NFL in 2007.
But there’s little doubt that Martin was one of the more durable players of the last 15 years when you take into account the position he played, how few games he missed, and how productive he was over his entire career.
19. Brian Dawkins
NFL Seasons: 15, 1996-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 204
Games Missed: 26
Career Highlights: Eight-time Pro Bowler, Four-time first team All-Pro, 37 interceptions
For 13 seasons Brian Dawkins was the glue that held the Philadelphia Eagles defense together. From his free safety spot, Dawkins flew around the field and delivered big hit after big hit, which entrenched him as one of the fiercest players in the NFL.
While his size is adequate; standing 6’0’’ tall and weighing 210 pounds, Dawkins plays the game with an incredible blend of intensity and power that most linebackers would have a tough time matching.
Over the years, the former Clemson standout has shown his versatility by forcing over 30 fumbles, recording over 20 sacks, and intercepting nearly 40 passes showing that he can give a defense a little bit of everything.
On top of the numbers that he puts up, Dawkins is a great team leader whose intensity is something his teammates feed off of.
After his 13 seasons with the Eagles where Dawkins set the team record for most games played, he signed on with the Denver Broncos where in 2009 at age 36, he recorded a career high 95 tackles and added two interceptions all the while not missing a single game.
There’s little doubt that Brian Dawkins is one of the most durable players the NFL has seen in the last 15 seasons. The fact that he plays the safety position in such a physical manner and is still doing so at a high level at the age of 37 is a testament to this durability.
18. Brian Mitchell
NFL Seasons: 14, 1990-2003
Games Played: 223
Games Missed: 1
Career Highlights: 1995 Pro Bowler, 1995 First-team All-Pro, 23,316 all-purpose yards (2nd all-time), 13 special teams touchdowns (1st all time), 607 kick returns (1st all-time), 463 punt returns (1st all time)
Brian Mitchell is probably the greatest special teams player of all-time, but that’s not why he’s on this list.
In addition to the fact that the man holds pretty much every return record to speak of, he was also an incredibly durable player throughout his 14 years of NFL service with the Redskins, Eagles, and Giants.
And while he was primarily used as a return man for his entire career, Mitchell’s body took a pounding on the more than 1,000 combined kickoff and punts he returned over his long career.
In spite of this, and the fact that Mitchell also tallied up over 600 combined carries and receptions, he missed just one NFL game out of 224.
The 5’11’’ 225 pound Louisiana native played until he was 35 years-old and although he had lost a step or two towards the end of his career, he was still a productive player until the very end, which is rare for players who play such a prominent role in the return game.
17. Tony Richardson
NFL Seasons: 16, 1995-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 224
Games Missed: 22
Career Highlights: Three-time Pro Bowler, two-time second team All-Pro
While the full back position might not be what it once was in the NFL, Tony Richardson is a perfect example of how the position is played.
He’s not a great ball carrier, nor is he going to wow you with his receiving skills out of the backfield, but over his 16 year career Tony has perfected the art of lead blocking.
In his stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Jets Richardson has led the way for players like Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Marcus Allen, Thomas Jones, and Shonn Greene.
And there’s little doubt that Richardson’s hard nosed blocking helped every single one of these players put up some of the best numbers of their careers.
Having a guy like Richardson leading the way at 6’1’’ and nearly 240 pounds is a luxury that many running backs have enjoyed over the years and Richardson has left more than his share of defenders wanting no part of trying to take him on the next time a running play is called.
For his 16 seasons in the league Richardson’s been a glorified battering ram who takes on linebackers, defensive lineman, and even the occasional safety or corner that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the while sacrificing his body so the ball carrier can have more room to run.
He is currently 39 years old and although he’s now sharing time with John Conner as the Jets fullback, Richardson still has a few more bone crushing blocks in him even after countless head-on collisions at full speed.
16. London Fletcher
NFL Seasons: 13, 1998-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 198
Games Missed: 0
Career Highlights: 2009 Pro Bowler, 2000 Super Bowl Champion
For one reason or another London Fletcher always seems to get overlooked despite the fact that he’s one of the most underrated and consistent players in the NFL.
Maybe it’s because he was an undrafted free agent in 1998, maybe it’s because he played football at Division III John Carroll University, or maybe it’s because he’s only 5’10’, but one thing that can’t be overlooked about London is his incredible durability.
Over his nearly 200-game career patrolling the middle linebacker spot for the Rams, Bills, and Redskins Fletcher has yet to miss an NFL game.
That’s right; he’s never missed a game.
When you consider the type of physicality that’s necessary to play middle linebacker in the NFL it seems almost impossible that any player could do what London has done for as long as he’s done it and not miss at least one game.
But Fletcher continues to punch the clock day in and day out. And in doing so, he’s become the model of durability and consistency in the middle of whatever defense he’s anchoring.
Over the last decade, Fletcher’s been good for 16 starts, 90-plus tackles, a few sacks, and great leadership all the while not receiving much publicity or recognition from the national media for his performance, but Washington Redskin fans know just how important he is to their team.
There aren’t too many guys who play Division III football that go on to make waves in the NFL, but then again, London Fletcher’s not like many guys.
15. Will Shields
NFL Seasons: 14, 1993-2006
Games Played: 224
Games Missed: 0
Career Highlights: 12-time Pro Bowler, two-time first team All-Pro, 2003 Walter Payton Man of the Year
There aren’t many guys in the history of the NFL who played at such a high level for as long as Will Shields did. For the full 14 years of his career, Shields was a game changer at right guard for the Kansas City Chiefs where he opened up holes for the likes of Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, and Larry Johnson all the while never missing a game.
Like most linemen, Shields was never a flashy player and you might not have heard much about him if you weren’t a fan of the Chiefs but his accolades and soon-to-be Hall of Fame bust tell you everything you need to know about his lengthy and impressive career.
In addition to never missing a game in his magnificent 224 game career, Shields only missed one start which was, of course, the first game of his rookie season. After that Shields went on to make 223 consecutive starts which was the second longest streak in the NFL at the time of his retirement behind only Brett Favre.
Shields owns the Kansas City Chiefs franchise record for games played as well as starts and it would be difficult to find a more durable and productive offensive lineman than him.
14. Tony Gonzalez
NFL Seasons: 14, 1997-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 212
Games Missed: 2
Career Highlights: 10-time Pro Bowler, five-time first team All-Pro, 1,023 receptions (7th all-time), 12,053 receiving yards (17th all-time)
Not only is Tony Gonzalez in the conversation for the best tight end who ever played the game, he’s also one of the most durable.
During his masterful career, in which he now owns almost every major statistical record for a tight end, he’s only missed two games.
Gonzalez has made his living in the NFL going over the middle and despite the fact that he’s endured his share of hits, both after receptions as well as blocking; he seems immune to the usual wear and tear that takes its toll on pretty much everyone else.
The 6’5’’ Gonzalez has been a match up problem for his entire career and he’s either too big for a safety to cover or too quick for a linebacker to keep track of, which is why he’s been terrorizing opposing defenses for well over a decade.
At 34 years of age Gonzalez remains one of the best tight ends in the NFL and his longevity, which is nothing short of amazing, might have something to do with his strict diet and workout regimen that help to keep No. 88 at the top of his game.
Because Gonzalez takes such good care of his body, there’s no telling how long he could play in the NFL as he continues to re-write the record books and make the case that he’s the greatest tight end who ever played the game.
13. Peyton Manning
NFL Seasons: 13, 1998-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 198
Games Missed: 0
Career Highlights: Four-time NFL MVP, 10-time Pro Bowler, five-time first team All-Pro, 2006 Super Bowl MVP
Manning isn’t just one of the most durable players of the last 15 years; he’s one of the most durable quarterbacks ever. Although it might be hard to look past his unbelievable list of accomplishments, records, and endorsements Manning simply doesn’t miss a game.
He’s also one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the NFL and there’s little doubt that this is part of the reason why Peyton currently owns the longest consecutive start streak to begin a career which stands at 197.
And it’s a good thing that Manning has never missed a start because whether he’s dissecting a secondary, throwing the perfect pass, or barking out signals at the line of scrimmage there might not be another player who means more to his team than Manning does to the Colts.
There’s no doubt that Peyton’s superior intelligence and offensive line have helped keep him out of harms way, but even the smartest, most well protected quarterbacks take their share of hits. But through 13 NFL seasons, no matter how hard he’s been thrown to the turf Peyton’s always gotten up and continued his assault on defensive coordinators everywhere.
It’s anyone’s guess just how long Peyton’s consecutive start streak will continue, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he one day gave Brett Favre’s streak a run for its money.
12. Jerome Bettis
NFL Seasons: 13, 1993-2005
Games Played: 192
Games Missed: 16 (Missed the last game in both the 1997 and 2004 season because of coaches decision to rest him)
Career Highlights: Six-time Pro Bowler, two-time first team All-Pro, 1993 Offensive Rookie of the Year, 2001 Walter Payton Man of the Year, 2006 Super Bowl Champion
“The Bus” was one of the best power running backs of all time and with a playing weight somewhere in the vicinity of 250 pounds he was never shy about throwing his bulk around.
On any given Sunday from 1993-2005 you were likely to see Bettis dragging defenders with him as he fought through the trenches for tough yards like few other players could.
Over his great career, Bettis logged 3,479 carries which is the fourth-most in NFL history and on pretty much every single one of these attempts he ran as hard as he could and put a hurting on whoever was trying to bring him to the ground.
Of course, you can’t deliver punishment the way Bettis did and not endure a fair amount as well, and despite the fact that Bettis was a big target for defenders, he rarely let these hits slow him down.
In his later years of NFL service, Bettis became a backup player who excelled mostly in short yardage and at the goal line, but he still was an effective player and was an instrumental part of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2005 Super Bowl Championship.
The fact that Bettis made his living as a physical between-the-tackles runner and only missed 16 games over his 13 year career shows just how durable of a player he was. And while most power running backs fizzle out of the NFL after just a few seasons, Bettis was able to have an extremely long and productive NFL career, especially for a running back.
11. Lorenzo Neal
NFL Seasons: 16, 1993-2008
Games Played: 239
Games Missed: 17
Career Highlights: Four-time Pro Bowler, two-time first team All-Pro
Believe it or not, Lorenzo actually started his NFL career as a running back with the New Orleans Saints in 1993, but after suffering a season ending ankle injury in just his second professional game he went on to become one of the best blocking fullbacks of all-time.
Neal was a journeyman throughout his 16-year NFL career having played for seven different teams and spending no more than five years with any one franchise.
But this lack of continuity didn’t stop him from bulldozing would be tacklers and clearing plenty of room for the running backs he led the way for.
The 5’11’’ 255 pound Neal was a force of nature in the NFL and he used his impressive strength and vision to open holes for players like; Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Corey Dillon, and most famously Ladainian Tomlinson.
If there was ever a player that could withstand the punishment of being a lead blocker for 15 NFL seasons, it was Neal.
The former state champion wrestler showed off his durability by not missing another game after his rookie season for 13 years and put together an extremely impressive 221 consecutive games played streak which ended in 2007.
In total, Neal missed just three games after his rookie season despite taking a constant pounding in the trenches.
Over his unheralded career, Neal blocked for a 1,000 yard rusher 11 times and sacrificed his body so that others could shine.
10. Kevin Mawae
NFL Seasons: 16, 1994-2009
Games Played: 241
Games Missed: 15
Career Highlights: Eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time first team All-Pro
Regardless of what team he was playing for over his 16-year NFL career, Kevin Mawae was an anchor on the offensive line and a source of great leadership.
Over the years he gained a reputation as being somewhat of a dirty player, but even guys who were victimized by one of Mawae’s leg whips can’t deny his impressive durability throughout his career.
After adjusting to life in the NFL with Seattle, Mawae signed with the Jets in 1998 where he would establish himself as one of the best centers in the league and become a rock on an offensive line that led the way for seven straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons from Curtis Martin.
Despite doing battle in the trenches against some of the opposing defenses biggest players, Mawae missed just 15 games in 16 seasons of play and continued to perform at a Pro Bowl level until the day he retired at age 38.
From 1994 to 2005 the 6’4’’ 298 pound center started 177 consecutive games, a streak that could have continued much longer if not for a serious triceps injury he suffered in the Jets sixth game of 2005.
After being cut by the Jets in 2005, Mawae would play four more productive seasons with the Tennessee Titans only missing three total games despite the fact that he was playing well into his late thirties.
9. Darrell Green
NFL Seasons: 20, 1983-2002
Games Played: 295
Games Missed: 24 (missed three games in the strike-shortened 1987 season)
Career Highlights: Seven-time Pro Bowler, one-time first team All-Pro, 1996 Walter Payton Man of the Year, two-time Super Bowl Champion, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, 54 interceptions (19th all-time)
Few players in the history of the NFL enjoyed a longer or more successful NFL career than Darrell Green.
Green was a mainstay in the Washington Redskins secondary for 20 full seasons and continued to play until he was 42 years old, earning him the nickname “Ageless Wonder,” for his ability to maintain such a high level of play so late into his career.
Not only was he incredibly durable considering he was only 5’9’’ and 184 pounds soaking wet, Green was one of the fastest players in NFL history having won the NFL’s fastest man competition four times.
The former first-round pick from the famed 1983 draft class holds his share of NFL records, including; most games played by a defensive player (295), most consecutive seasons with an interception (19), and the most seasons with the same NFL team (20 tied with Jackie Slater), not to mention a slew of “the oldest player to do X” records that Green was able to accomplish because of his unbelievable durability.
While some players begin to lose a step in their mid to late 30’s Green was stronger than ever, and not only did he start every single game from the ages of 33-39 he also continued to play at a high level and was an important part of the Redskins defense.
It’s very likely that we will never see another NFL player as durable as Darrell Green was for his 20 seasons with the Washington Redskins.
8. Ray Lewis
NFL Seasons: 15, 1996-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 200
Games Missed: 30
Career Highlights: 11-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first team All-Pro, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2000 Super Bowl MVP
When all is said and done, Ray Lewis will be remembered as one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game.
Not only has he been insanely productive over his 15 year career, but his leadership and locker room presence might be second to none.
Lewis is one of the most intimidating players the NFL has seen in a very long time who is ready to make that big hit on an unsuspecting tight end who ventured just a little too far over the middle.
In addition, the former Super Bowl MVP is an extremely durable player, having just played in his 200th career NFL game all the while maintaining an unbelievably high level of play.
It seems like Lewis has been terrorizing opposing offenses forever, and every year we’re waiting for some discernible drop-off in his level of play but even at age 35, it doesn’t seem like Ray’s lost more than a step if anything at all.
When you play with as much passion and fire as Ray does, there are bound to be a few injuries, including the ones he suffered in 2002 and 2005 both of which ended his season.
That being said, the 6’1’’ 250 pound monster, has bounced back each time and continues to be one of the best defensive players in the NFL today.
It’s tough to say when Lewis will slow down or simply call it a career, but one thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t bet against him.
7. Derrick Brooks
NFL Seasons: 14, 1995-2008
Games Played: 224
Games Missed: 0
Career Highlights: 11-time Pro Bowler, five-time first team All-Pro, 2002 Defensive Player of the Year, 2000 Walter Payton Man of the Year, 2003 Super Bowl Champion
Simply put, Derrick Brooks is one of the greatest and most durable linebackers the NFL has ever seen.
In 1995 he was drafted by a Tampa Bay franchise that had only managed three winning seasons in their first 19 years of existence.
But with the help of Brooks, the Buccaneers would transform from a league-wide laughingstock to a force to be reckoned with, culminating in their 2002 Super Bowl championship.
Brooks was the heart and soul of those feared Tampa defenses of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, whose hard-nosed play and sound tackling let opposing offenses know it was going to be tough sledding for the entire game.
Over his immaculate career, Brooks patrolled the middle of the field for the Buccaneers and even though he routinely squared off against bigger players, he was never outmatched and always seemed to make that big tackle.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Derrick’s career is that despite the brutal physical demands of the linebacker position, he never missed a game and the former Florida State alum started all but three games in his 14 year career.
Brooks played in the NFL until he was 35 and despite his advanced age he still played the game as hard and with as much passion as he did when he was in his 20s.
Derrick Brooks’ career is the definition of durability, and even after logging well over 1,000 tackles and playing over 200 games he still never let up and never missed a game.
6. Bruce Smith
NFL Seasons: 19, 1985-2003
Games Played: 279
Games Missed: 24 (missed three games in the strike-shortened 1987 season)
Career Highlights: 11-time Pro Bowler, eight-time first team All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 200 sacks (first all-time), inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009
For nearly 20 seasons Bruce Smith was a quarterback’s worst nightmare who constantly made life for opposing offenses miserable.
Not only did Smith possess an almost uncanny ability to get after the quarterback, but he was a tremendously durable player whose career spanned through three decades.
Smith was a mainstay on some extremely successful Buffalo Bills teams in the early 90’s who reached a record four straight Super Bowls.
Even though Smith played most of his career in the 3-4 defensive scheme, which generally doesn’t generate a lot of sacks for defensive ends, he recorded 200 quarterback take-downs in his career, which is the most in NFL history.
As for Smith’s durability, it’s hard to argue with a player who was selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980’s and 1990’s who continued to play until he was 40 years old.
Smith’s 279 games played ranks him 15th all-time, and even though he spent most of his time fighting off double teams, he missed just 25 games in his career, and only missed more than two games in a season three times in 19 years.
When Bruce left the Bills after the 1999 season, he caught on with the Redskins where he was still a serviceable pass-rusher; compiling 29 sacks in four seasons in spite of the fact that he was playing through his late 30’s.
Smith might be remember as the NFL’s sack king, but the reason he got to 200 sacks was because of his incredible durability which allowed him to miss very few games and kept him playing at a high level for 19 seasons.
5. Reggie White
NFL Seasons: 15, 1985-2000 (White also played two seasons in the USFL with the Memphis Showboats in which he didn’t miss a game)
Games Played: 232 (played an additional 36 games in the USFL)
Games Missed: 7 (missed three games in the strike shortened 1987 season)
Career Highlights: 13-time Pro Bowler, eight–time first team All-Pro, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 1997 Super Bowl Champion, 198 sacks (2nd all-time), inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006
Few players in NFL history have ever been as dominant as Reggie White.
For 15 NFL seasons, The Minister of Defense relentlessly rushed the quarterback with a fire and intensity that only a small amount of NFL players have ever exhibited.
Over his unbelievable career, White totaled 198 sacks while being named to a slew of Pro Bowls as well as All-NFL teams.
While it’s certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the name Reggie White, his durability was extraordinary when you consider how long he played the game and how productive he was until the day he retired.
Out of a possible 239 career games, White missed just seven and three of those were because of the 1987 strike shortened season, further cementing him as one of the most durable players the game has seen in a long time.
Reggie was also one of the most consistent pass rushers ever, having totaled at least 10 sacks in all but three seasons and despite the fact that he was playing in the NFL through his late 30’s, he only missed one game in his final 12 seasons.
After eight magnificent seasons with the Eagles, White moved on to Green Bay where he continued to harass quarterbacks for another six seasons and was an integral part of the Packers 1996 Super Bowl championship.
If Reggie hadn’t started his career in the USFL his NFL numbers would be even more impressive but even with those two lost seasons, he was still perhaps the greatest defensive end to ever play the game.
4. Jerry Rice
NFL Seasons: 21, 1985-2004
Games Played: 303
Games Missed: 17 (missed three games in the strike shortened 1987 season)
Career Highlights: 13-time Pro Bowler, 10-time first team All-Pro, 1988 Super Bowl MVP, three-time Super Bowl champion, pretty much every major receiving record, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010
There’s not too much that needs to be said about the player who most regard as the best wide receiver of all-time.
But like many of the greats on this list, you might overlook just how durable of a player Rice was over his 21 year career.
The man who holds almost every major receiving record would only miss 14 games due to injury in his entire career which took place in 1997 when he tore his ACL and MCL in the first game of the season.
Despite suffering an incredibly serious knee injury in the first week of the season, Rice actually made it back in time to play in the teams Week 15 game against the Denver Broncos in which he caught a touchdown before shutting himself down for the rest of the season.
Overall, Rice played in 303 games, which is currently the most in NFL history for a player who was never a kicker or punter.
There’s little doubt that Jerry Rice is known as the greatest wide receiver ever because of his incredible talent but he was also revered for his amazing work ethic and training regimens which kept him playing in the NFL until he was 42 years old and made him one of the most durable players of all-time.
3. Brett Favre
NFL Seasons: 19, 1991-2010 (Active)
Games Played: 294
Games Missed: 0
Career Highlights: 11-time Pro Bowler, three-time first team All-Pro, three-time NFL MVP, 1997 Super Bowl Champion, pretty much every major quarterback record
Most quarterbacks don’t last half as long in the NFL as Brett Favre has and it’s truly a testament to his durability and toughness that he’s still playing at a high level into his 40’s.
You may despise Favre for the media circus that surrounds him but it’s impossible to deny how durable the man has been for the last 19 seasons in which he has never missed a game due to injury.
When you take into account that Favre has been sacked an NFL-record 516 times (and counting) and when you add in all of the hits he’s taken that don’t show up in the box score, it’s nothing short of remarkable that he’s never missed a game in his entire career.
After 19 years of playing in the NFL, Favre knows that he’s going to take his share of big hits when he’s in the pocket, but that’s never discouraged him from standing tall and making the necessary reads.
This isn’t to say that Favre doesn’t get banged up, as he’s dealt with his share of injuries over his career and especially in the last few seasons, but they haven’t yet stopped him from leading his team on Sunday.
If he manages to stay healthy through the rest of the 2010 season, Favre will pass Jerry Rice for the most games played by a non-kicker in NFL history.
You can say whatever you want about Favre’s off the field antics and I’m sure there are some people who would question how good of a player he actually is, but you can’t take anything away from how durable he’s been over his entire career.
2. Emmitt Smith
NFL Seasons: 15, 1990-2004
Games Played: 226
Games Missed: 14 (held out for the first two games of the 1993 season due to a contract dispute with the Cowboys)
Career Highlights: Eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time first team All-Pro, 1990 Offensive Rookie of the year, 1993 NFL MVP, 1993 Super Bowl MVP, three-time Super Bowl champion, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010
There really wasn’t anything that Emmitt Smith didn’t accomplish during his stellar NFL career.
He won Super Bowl titles, rushing titles, an MVP award and retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher after the 2004 season.
But perhaps the most impressive thing Smith ever accomplished during his 15 year career was that he rarely got hurt or missed a game despite being the Dallas Cowboys workhorse running back for 13 seasons.
During which time, in an era where there were no running-back-by-committee time shares, Smith logged over 300 carries seven times and still holds the NFL record for most carries with 4,409.
These 4,409 carries are close to 600 more than the next closest player and almost 1,000 more than any other player has ever carried the ball in the history of the NFL.
When you look at the career of most great running backs, they play for nine or 10 seasons before their bodies break down or they have the good sense to retire while they can still walk.
But Emmitt was simply an incredibly durable player who lasted 15 full seasons in the NFL despite taking a pounding day after day. Of course, he was aided by the fact that he ran behind one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history for many seasons with the Cowboys, but Smith still logged an incredible amount of carries the likes of which no other player has ever come close to.
Perhaps Emmitt wasn’t the greatest running back to ever play in the NFL, but he was probably the most durable, which is why he is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
1. Bruce Matthews
NFL Seasons: 19, 1983-2001
Games Played: 296
Games Missed: 7 (all because of a holdout in the 1987 season)
Career Highlights: 14-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first team All-Pro, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007
They simply don’t make players any more durable than Bruce Matthews, whose career spanned 19 seasons and into three decades.
The 6’5’’ 305 pound offensive lineman wrote the book on durability and amazingly never missed a game in his entire career due to injury.
Not only was Bruce as durable as any player has ever been in NFL history, he was also one of the best lineman the league has ever seen, having been selected to 14 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro first teams.
The most amazing part about all of these Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections is that many of them came when Matthews was well into his 30’s and he was even selected to the Pro Bowl at age 40.
Matthews essentially had the career of a kicker or punter but he was waging war in the trenches for his entire career.
His 296 career games played are the most by far for any offensive lineman and it’s almost astounding to consider how many plays Matthews was involved in over his 19 year career and was never once injured to the point where he had to miss a game.
For all of these reasons, Bruce Matthews tops my list of the 25 most durable NFL players of the last 15 seasons.