NFL HistoryDownload App

Power Ranking the 25 Toughest NFL Players of All-Time

Joseph ChasanCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2017

Power Ranking the 25 Toughest NFL Players of All-Time

1 of 27

    George Rose/Getty Images

    When you play in the NFL, you're not really playing that much at all, are you?

    Football at that level isn't so much a game or a sport as it is a battle.  A hard fought battle for every yard out there.  And only the tough men need apply.

    As we approach the end of another season, we at Bleacher Report felt it was a good time to look back and recall some of the men that have made this league what it is.  They are the giants whose shoulders today's greats stand on.

    Here is a list of 25 of the legendary gladiators of the gridiron.

Honorable Mention: Brett Favre

2 of 27

    Win McNamee/Getty Images

    Think what you will of the way Favre has ended his career, but the fact is, he was one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.

    Everyone knows of all the records he holds, including the most yards, most completions and the most touchdowns of all-time, as well as his record streak of 297 consecutive starts.  And maybe towards the end it was getting to be a little like Cal Ripken Jr. at the end of his streak, but throughout most of it, he kept it going simply because he loved the game.

    Few players have ever played the game with such unabashed enthusiasm and joy.  We might be sick of him now, but rest assured, we'll all miss him when he's gone.

25) Steve Young

3 of 27

    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Steve Young played from 1985 to 1999, and made his name as Joe Montana's replacement as the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

    He was named to seven Pro Bowls, was a first team All-Pro three times and led the Niners to a win in Super Bowl XXIX.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

    Young was one of the most mobile QBs in NFL history and was never afraid to scramble for those few extra yards.  That fearlessness led to a number of hard hits and concussions, which may have ended his career prematurely.

    Nevertheless, he'll always be remembered as a 49ers legend.

24) Larry Csonka

4 of 27

    Csonka was a fullback for the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants during an 11-year career between 1968 and 1979.  A five-time Pro Bowler and twice named first team All-Pro, Csonka became a Hall of Famer in 1987.

    He featured a brutal, straight ahead running style and often hit harder than the linemen and linebackers trying to bring him down.  He's notable for once receiving an unnecessary roughness personal foul for giving a stiff arm to a defender while carrying the ball.

    Csonka was one of the few players who could make teal and orange look tough.

23) Jim Marshall

5 of 27

    Jim Marshall played defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings throughout the 1970's, and was a key member of the famed 'Purple People Eaters' defense that led the Vikes to seven 10 win seasons in eight years between 1969 and 1976 (back when the season was just 14 games) and four Super Bowl appearances.

    Marshall's most notable accomplishment was his then-record total of 270 consecutive starts, a number which was only recently surpassed by Brett Favre.  But amassing that streak as a defensive end is an accomplishment that continues to stand alone.

    He also accumulated an unofficial total of 127 sacks and recovered an NFL record 30 fumbles.  He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1968 and 1969.

22) Walter Payton

6 of 27

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Don't let the "Sweetness" nickname fool you, Walter Payton was tough as nails between the hash marks during his 13-year career with the Chicago Bears from 1975 to 1987.

    A Hall of Famer in 1993, Payton earned nine Pro Bowl selections and was named first team All-Pro five times.  He held the NFL's all-time rushing record until it was surpassed by Emmitt Smith.

    More of a testament to his toughness, however, is the fact that he led the league in rushing attempts in four consecutive seasons between 1976 and 1979, and surpassed 300 carries in a season 10 times.  He literally carried the Bears' ground heavy, ball control offense for over a decade, and did it with a toughness that was only matched by his grace.

21) Sam Huff

7 of 27

    Huff played for 13 seasons with the Giants and Redskins in the 1950's and 60's, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.  He was a five-time Pro Bowler and was twice named first team All-Pro.

    A middle linebacker during the glory days of the position, Huff patrolled the field with a reckless fury that opponents both feared and respected.  His reserve was fortified by a childhood spent in a West Virginia coal mining camp.

    Then Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry specifically designed his new 4-3 defense to fit Huff's skills, and it remains one of the most popular defensive alignments in football to this day.

20) Walt Garrison

8 of 27

    Garrison's career didn't have the longevity of some of the other players on this list because he suffered a knee injury wrestling a steer that forced him to retire at age 30.

    But during the nine seasons that he played for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1960's and early 70's, he was one of the league's top fullbacks.  He was a real life cowboy and fit the stereotype well, spending time on the professional rodeo circuit.

    He could grind out those tough yards between the tackles with the best of them, and never shied away from contact.

19) Earl Campbell

9 of 27

    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Campbell was a fearsome running back for the Houston Oilers in the late 1970's and early 80's.  He remains one of the best combinations of speed and power the NFL has ever seen.

    A five-time Pro Bowler who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991, Campbell managed to run a 4.5 40-yard dash with his 5'11", 240 pound body.  He was a true downhill runner and once he got up a head of steam, he was near impossible for any one defender to bring down.

    He led the league in rushing each of his first three seasons after winning the Heisman in 1977 and being selected first overall in 1978.  His career ended prematurely due to the physical toll exacted by years of hard hits, but he remains the standard for any power back to this day.

18) Johnny Unitas

10 of 27

    Don't let his Madison Avenue appeal fool you, Johnny Unitas is famous as much for his heart as for his golden arm.

    The quarterback of the Baltimore Colts for 17 seasons, Unitas was the NFL's biggest star throughout the 1960's.  Women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him.  At a time when the game was very different than the flashy, speedy, pass-heavy one we see today, Unitas pioneered the pocket passer that all signal callers since have tried to imitate.  But Unitas was the original.

    He was a 10-time Pro Bowler, a five-time first team All-Pro and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

17) Jim Otto

11 of 27

    Jim Otto played one of football's least glamorous positions—center—for 15 seasons, and did it as well as anyone in the history of the game.

    Spending his entire career as a member of the fearsome Silver and Black attack of the Oakland Raiders from 1960 to 1974, Otto was a 12-time Pro Bowler and a 10-time first team All-Pro selection who became a Hall of Famer in 1980.

    He never missed a game in his entire decade-and-a-half career.  Just look at that guy.  Who wouldn't be scared of him?  Wearing double zero didn't hurt either.

16) Jack Youngblood

12 of 27

    George Rose/Getty Images

    Jack Youngblood played defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams from 1971 through 1984, and played with a passion and intensity seldom seen before or since.

    A seven-time Pro Bowler and five times named first team All-Pro, Youngblood was so tough that he played all three playoff games, including the Super Bowl, for the Rams in 1979 with a broken fibula.

    Called the John Wayne of Football by Hall of Fame coach John Madden, among others, Youngblood missed just one game in his career—in his final season.

15) Dick 'Night Train' Lane

13 of 27

    Dick Lane, nicknamed "Night Train," is one of the few players in NFL history who played both defensive end and defensive back.  He starred for the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions throughout a 14-year NFL career in the 1950's and 60's.

    He was both a punishing hitter in the mold of the best safeties and a skilled cover man, setting an NFL record in interceptions as a rookie in 1952 that still stands, and picking off 68 passes in his career.

    Night Train was a seven-time Pro Bowler, three times named first team All-Pro and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.

14) Bronko Nagurski

14 of 27

    Bronko Nagurski was one of the NFL's earliest stars as a fullback for the Chicago Bears in the 1930's.  He was a first team All-Pro selection four times, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.

    At 6'2" and 230 pounds, Nagurski was one of the most intimidating physical presences in the league in his day and helped lead the Bears to two NFL championships.  He also played on the offensive and defensive lines, and excelled at all three.

    He is famously reported to have once run straight into Wrigley Field's brick wall after scoring a touchdown and upon returning to the sidelines, told his teammates, "That last guy hit me awfully hard."  With an approach like his, I'm sure the wall felt the same way.

    And come on, he'd make this list just for being named Bronko Nagurski.  It's one of the best names in football history.

13) Gino Marchetti

15 of 27

    During a career that spanned 14 seasons, Marchetti starred as a defensive end for the Baltimore Colts throughout the 1950's and 60's.

    Marchetti was an 11-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time first team All-Pro.  In a 1969 vote conducted by the Hall of Fame, he was named the greatest defensive end in pro football history.  He would join the Hall's ranks in 1972.

    He was known for being equally effective against both the run and the pass, and helped lead the Colts to back to back NFL championships in 1958 and '59.  In the 1958 title game, he broke his ankle making a tackle, but stayed on the sidelines to cheer on his teammates rather than retreat to the locker room for treatment.

12) Jack Lambert

16 of 27

    At 6'4" and 220 pounds, Lambert wasn't the biggest linebacker out there, but he was one of the meanest.

    He played his entire 11-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was a prominent member of their famous Steel Curtain Defense that helped the team to four Super Bowl victories.  A nine-time Pro Bowler and a six-time first team All-Pro, Lambert was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.

    Well known for a famous Sports Illustrated cover shot with the headline: "The Man of Steel," Lambert's four front teeth were missing due to a wayward elbow by an opponent in a high school basketball game.  His toothless scowl added to his image as someone who was not to be crossed.

11) Ronnie Lott

17 of 27

    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Ronnie Lott started his pro career as a cornerback, but was eventually moved to the safety position in order to give him more free rein to roam the field, seeking to punish anyone who dared cross the middle.

    Over the course of a 14-year career spent mostly with the San Francisco 49ers, Lott was a 10-time Pro Bowler and a six-time first team All-Pro choice.  He helped lead the Niners to four Super Bowl victories in the 1980's.

    One of the most ferocious hitters in NFL history, Lott once had the tip of his pinkie finger crushed during a game and chose to simply have that part of the digit amputated so he could get back out on the field sooner.

    He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.

10) Jim Brown

18 of 27

    Harry How/Getty Images

    To this day, Brown remains the standard by which all ball carriers are measured.

    He was a Pro Bowler in every one of his nine seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns from 1957 to 1965.  He was also a three-time league MVP and led the league in rushing in all but one season.  His career average of 5.2 yards per carry remains one of the best averages in NFL history, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.

    Brown retired at the height of his game and popularity at the young age of 30 and never looked back.  But while he played, he never missed a game and despite his early exit (or perhaps because of it), he nonetheless left an indelible legacy that endures to this day.

9) Hardy Brown

19 of 27

    Hardy Brown is one of the most overlooked players of all time, but his career was an explosive one that should not be forgotten.

    Brown's brief career included five sparkling seasons during the 1950's with the San Francisco 49ers, when he was widely regarded as one of the league's most fearless players.  He lined up as a fullback and a defensive back over the years, but made his biggest impression as a linebacker.

    At just six feet tall and weighing less than 200 pounds, he had to rely more on speed, leverage and guts than sheer size or strength, but those attributes were more than enough to carry him to legendary status.  If there was a picture of a game he played in with a blur in it, chances are that blur was him.

8) Jack Tatum

20 of 27

    Another of the pre-eminent members of the Raiders' Silver and Black attack of the 70's, Jack Tatum was a defensive back who was also one of the most violent players in the sport, and he enjoyed his reputation as a player who struck fear in the hearts of opponents.

    He was nicknamed "the Assassin," and is known as the player who paralyzed Darryl Stingley in 1978.  But beyond all the ferocity and anger, there was serious talent, and he was a three-time Pro Bowler who is still revered by Raider fans everywhere.

7) Deacon Jones

21 of 27

    Deacon Jones was a defensive end who made his name with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1960's.  He is known for being one of the best pass rushers of his day, and coined the usage of the term "sack."

    One of his most popular moves for getting to the quarterback was the "head slap," where he would try to knock an offensive lineman off balance with a quick blow to the side of his helmet.  The move was so effective (and so dangerous) that it was eventually banned by the league.

    Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-times first team All-Pro, who joined the Hall of Fame in 1980.

6) Ray Lewis

22 of 27

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Ray Lewis is the modern day linebacker most often associated with the greats of days gone by, and he enjoys the distinction of being arguably the toughest player of the modern era.

    He just finished his 15th season in the NFL, but even now at the age of 35, he shows no signs of slowing down, having just enjoyed his eighth season with over 100 tackles.  He's been named to the Pro Bowl 12 times and has been selected as a first team All-Pro seven.

    Without a doubt the greatest player in Baltimore Ravens history, he's a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.

5) Ray Nitschke

23 of 27

    Ray Nitschke joins Bronko Nagurski and our No. 1 player as one of the best names in football history, but he backed it up with his gritty, determined play on the field.

    A dominant middle linebacker, Nitschke played his entire 15-year career with the Green Bay Packers, and was one of the key members of the great Packer teams that won five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls under legendary coach Vince Lombardi.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.

    Even with his reputation for toughness, he was never considered a dirty player.  Nitschke was one of the most respected players in football throughout his career, right up until his retirement in 1972.

4) Lawrence Taylor

24 of 27

    T.G. Higgins/Getty Images

    Lawrence Taylor was a force of nature and redefined the outside linebacker position for the Giants in the 1980's.

    A 10-time Pro Bowler and eight times named first team All-Pro, the original LT was a sack machine, including recording a league leading 20.5 in 1986, even though he was routinely double teamed on almost every play.

    He single-handedly changed games with his intensity and relentlessness, and was the dominant defensive player on the great Giants teams that won Super Bowls XXI and XXV.

    He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1999.

3) Chuck Bednarik

25 of 27

    Bednarik was a two-way star with the Philadelphia Eagles of the 1950's, and he was a Pro Bowler as both a middle linebacker and a center over the course of his 14-year career.

    He was also one of the last great two-way players, as it became less and less common as the game became more and more specialized.  But despite his extra duties, he remained one of the league's most brutal tacklers for many years.

    He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Bednarik Award, given annually to the best defensive player in college football, is named in his honor.

2) 'Mean' Joe Greene

26 of 27

    Few players in any sport have had a more succinct, yet accurate nickname as 'Mean' Joe Greene.

    During his playing days, the 6'4", 275 pound Greene was an intimidating defensive tackle who, along with Jack Lambert, led Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain Defense throughout the 1970's.

    He earned his nickname due to his quick temper and intolerance for losing.  Luckily for him (as well as those around him), he didn't lose much.

    He was perennially one of the best defensive linemen in the game, and is still considered one of the greatest of all time.  The 10-time Pro Bowler was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

1) Dick Butkus

27 of 27

    Who else could top this list?

    Butkus played linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1973, eight seasons in which the trail of destruction he left in every game he played was inescapable.  The term "one of" doesn't apply for Butkus, he was the hardest hitter in football, he was the most feared defensive player in the sport and he redefined the position for all who came after.

    The eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time first team All-Pro was named to the Hall of Fame in 1979.  His name still strikes fear in the hearts of players and fans, even those who never saw him play, such is his legacy.  An award named in his honor is given annually to the best college linebacker in the country.

Where can I comment?

Stay on your game

Latest news, insights, and forecasts on your teams across leagues.

Choose Teams
Get it on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Real-time news for your teams right on your mobile device.

Copyright © 2017 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved. is part of Bleacher Report – Turner Sports Network, part of the Turner Sports and Entertainment Network. Certain photos copyright © 2017 Getty Images. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of Getty Images is strictly prohibited. AdChoices