The Top 25 NFL Players of All Time

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIMarch 5, 2009

Of all the sports, it is probably hardest to compare the players in football.  How do you accurately compare an offensive lineman with a quarterback?  Or, an offensive player with a defensive player? 

Now, throw in different eras and try to compare players who you saw play with ones you did not.  I think you get my point.

In 1999, Jim Brown was named by The Sporting News as the greatest professional football player ever (Jerry Rice was second).  I have always held this view and when I started this article I had Brown at No. 1.

I have always been very impressed with his rushing stats (for example, 5.22 yards per carry) and dominance (he lead the league in rushing eight out the nine years he was in the league). 

However, then I remembered what I just wrote in my article on the greatest running backs of all time. Specifically, that Brown was the greatest running back and "pure runner" (along with Gale Sanders and Barry Sanders), however, that Walter Payton (No. 8 on Sporting News' list) was the greatest all-around running back of all time. 

Payton could pass, was a great receiver, and especially, an awesome blocker.  Brown, by all accounts, was a disinterested, lousy blocker.  Given his athletic ability, strength, and toughness and the two running backs scheme at the time—this was inexcusable.

Hence, for those of you who ask how I could have Sanders No. 1 all time when he was not a good tackler (which I admit is a legitimate criticism); I respond, how Brown be No. 1 all time when he was lousy blocker?

By this way of thinking, perhaps I should have listed Payton ahead of Brown since we are listing "players" and not runners.  I do not know and I certainly would not criticize someone who did. (As a side not, I did not look at Sporting News' list before I did mine because I did not want to be influenced by it.) 

Joe Namath, incidentally, was 96th on the list. And while I defended Namath a little in my article about the greatest quarterbacks of all time (on the Internet he is considered the most overrated athlete ever), honestly, he does not belong on their list.

Anyways, as I wrote to defend my listing of Deion as No. 2, I realized that he should be No. 1 and I switched his ranking with Brown. And while I certainly would not criticize you if you listed Rice as 1st (I listed him third), it is not even clear to me that he the greatest receiver of all-time, since I am big fan of both Don Hutson and Randy Moss

To each his own.

I actually think Deion Sanders is underrated (No. 37 on Sporting News list—which I find absurd) and not overrated as a player.  OK, so he was not a hard or tough tackler, but that does not make him a weak or bad tackler.

In fact, rarely did I see a receiver/runner get by him—he usually grabbed them (till someone else helped) or pushed them out of bounds. Besides, the receiver he was covering caught the ball a lower percentage of the time against him than any cornerback in the history of the NFL (or, at least since 1965, which was when I started watching football). (I took into consideration he always covered the best receiver.)  

Yes, Deion was the best cover corner (or safety) in NFL history and this does not seem to be in dispute. He took away half the field from the offense on passing grounds; this was a tremendous advantage to a defense in the pass-happy era he played in. 

And his teams won.  He would show-up late from playing baseball and Atlanta suddenly started winning games after struggling.  He signed with San Francisco for one year and they won the Super Bowl. The next year he signed with Dallas and they won the Super Bowl. Coincidence? 

I think not. 

I once watched a game (I think in 1995) where the ball was thrown to Jerry Rice and he ran past Rice and intercepted it. Twice—the second time in the end zone.

In addition, he was a great kick returner and would have been a great wide receiver if he was allowed to play receiver more.  And once Sanders got the ball in his hands, he was the most dangerous runner in the history in the NFL. 

During his career, Sanders intercepted 52 passes for 1,331 yards (a 25.1 yards per return average) and ran 56 times for 1,578 yards—for an absolutely amazing 28.7 yards a rush!

Sanders amassed 7,838 all-purpose yards and scored 22 touchdowns: nine interception returns, six punt returns, three kickoff returns, three receiving, and one fumble recovery. 

His 19 defensive and return touchdowns are an NFL record. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls in 1991-1994, 1996-1999. He was also awarded the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1994.

Sanders is the most valuable non-quarterback that I ever witnessed play in the NFL.  And since the question is "football players" -- all of this increases his ranking as a player.

You, the Sporting News, and the Internet can continue to foolishly underrate Sanders if you want to because your idea of a great football player is someone who is mean or tough. I guess Randy Moss is overrated, too. (I have 23 tough football players on my list—I think I am allowed two that are not tough since they have unreal athletic ability.) 

As for me—if I had the No. 1 pick in the all time NFL draft, I would take Sanders without hesitation. After all, there are lots of great quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, and defensive players, but only one Deion.
Here is my guess for the 25 Top Players in NFL History, with my apologies to the hundreds of players (especially the ones I did not see play who were at a disadvantage) who could have easily made this list.

1. Deion Sanders

2. Jim Brown

3. Jerry Rice

4. Lawrence Taylor

5. Dick Butkus

6. Roger Staubach

7. Joe Montana

8. Don Hutson

9. Ray Nitschke

10. Walter Payton

11. Reggie White

12. Forrest Gregg

13. Johnny Unitas

14. Gale Sayers

15. Barry Sanders

16. O.J. Simpson

17. Tom Brady

18. Randy Moss

19. Brett Favre

20. Bart Starr

21. Otto Graham

22. Ray Lewis

23. Dick (Night Train) Lane

24. Bruce Smith

25. Mike Ditka