The 50 Greatest Black Athletes in NFL History

Louis Musto@LouisMustoContributor IIIFebruary 21, 2012

The 50 Greatest Black Athletes in NFL History

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    For those that do not know, February is "Black History Month" throughout the United States and Canada. Since 1976, this month-long observance has been celebrated throughout the U.S. and Canada, dedicating the month to the education of millions on the amazing, inspiring story that is the history of African-Americans throughout the US, Canada and the world.

    There is no question that blacks make up perhaps the largest percentage of successful athletes in the NFL as well as throughout sports. Since 1919 when Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first African-Americans to play in the NFL, a vast number of African-Americans have been honored with their induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an even greater number have had the opportunity to step foot on an NFL field.

    With the plethora of athletes throughout sports, and especially the NFL, it seemed only right to take a look at the 50 greatest black athletes to ever grace the gridiron with the spirit of Black History Month in mind.

50. Tiki Barber

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    Since his retirement, Tiki Barber has managed to make quite a few people angry with his quotes in the news as well as on national television, including even his own former teammates. Before Tiki turned into a loudmouth analyst though, he was the All-Pro running back for the New York football Giants!

    Tiki struggled early on in his career, failing to rush for more than 511 yards in his first three seasons in the NFL. He finally broke out, rushing for 1,006 yards in the 2000 season when he was teamed with Ron Dayne as “Thunder and Lightning.”

    In 2002, Tiki took the reins as the feature back. From 2002-2006, Tiki arguably carried the entire Giants’ offense single-handedly. He accounted for 12, 877 yards from scrimmage over that span, leading the NFL in 2004 and 2005.

    Tiki retired with his name splattered across the Giants’ record book, as well as the NFL’s. At the time of his retirement, he was one of 21 players to rush for 10,000 yards. He shares the connotation of being one of only three running backs to have over 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving with Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen.

    Despite the fact that Tiki’s post-football antics have likely taken all attention of his pro career, there is no denying Tiki Barber was a stellar athlete during his time. More time in the NFL would certainly have catapulted him up this list and put him in place for the Hall of Fame, but unfortunately, that is all for naught.

49. Darren Sharper, S

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    There hasn’t been as dangerous a safety in the NFL in recent years as the Saints ball hawk Darren Sharper outside of Baltimore Ravens superstar Ed Reed.

    The five-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro safety has built a reputation on devouring any poor decisions a quarterback chooses to make, which is, throwing in the direction of Darren Sharper. Sharper has led the NFL twice in interceptions, both times with nine on the year. Sharper also had nine interceptions in 2005.

    Retirement has forced Sharper’s impressive career to come to a halt, but there is no denying his greatness on the gridiron. He ranks sixth in interceptions with 63 and ties for second all-time in interception touchdown returns with the Green Bay Packers’ Charles Woodson behind Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, with 11.

    Darren Sharper was arguably the key to the New Orleans Saints’ defense as they went on their way to the Super Bowl Championship in 2009, intercepting those nine aforementioned passes and shattering Ed Reed’s previous record for interception yards in a season, amassing 376 yards.

    In Super Bowl XLIV, Sharper and the Saints defense managed to hold the outstanding Indianapolis Colts to just 17 points and forced a game-wrapping interception in the fourth quarter.

48. Charles Woodson, CB

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    Everyone and their mother knew a bright future was in front of Michigan do-it-all, Charles Woodson, who became the first defensive player in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy.

    When he jumped into the NFL in 1998, Woodson’s outstanding play continued as he garnered the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after an impressive year with the Oakland Raiders.

    Woodson would follow his impressive rookie campaign with four-straight Pro Bowl trips (including his rookie year) and All-Pro selection in 1999.

    Injuries slowed Woodson’s middle years and he failed to play an entire season from 2002-2005.  Despite strong years in 2003 and 2004, the Raiders chose not to re-sign Woodson following another injury-plagued 2005 season.

    And so came the revitalization.

    Woodson signed with the Green Bay Packers and immediately became an impact, intercepting eight passes in his debut season with the team. Over six seasons with the Packers, Woodson has amassed 37 interceptions, nine of which have been brought back for touchdowns.

    Woodson has been elected to the Pro Bowl four more times from 2008-2011 and also earned the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.  He holds the record for most defensive touchdowns by a Packers player.

    He is currently second among active players with 54 interceptions and tied for second all-time with 11 interception return touchdowns with Darren Sharper behind Rod Woodson.

47. James Lofton, WR

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    One of the most underrated wide receivers in NFL history, James Lofton contributed a lot at the position in a time when the game relied heavily on running the football rather than passing.

    Playing through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Lofton was the first player to catch for over 14,000 yards and left the Green Bay Packers in 1986 as the franchise’s all-time leading receiver with 9,656 receiving yards—though he has since been unseated by Donald Driver. Today, Lofton is still seventh in career receiving yards.

    During his tenure with the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s, Lofton was a major contributor in the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl run where he collected 57 catches for 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns. At the time, Lofton was oldest player to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season.

    Lofton was elected to eight Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams (four first-team and two second-team selections) and in 2003, he was one of five players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

46. Curtis Martin, RB

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    There may be no more well-liked player in NFL history than Curtis Martin. But for as great a man as Martin is, he was just as great a running back during his time in the league.

    The Hall of Fame running back was amongst the NFL’s best, putting together a dazzling resume that compares with the game’s greatest of all-time. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL, joining Barry Sanders as one of only two men to rush for 10,000 yards in the first 10 seasons.

    Playing for the New England Patriots and New York Jets in his career, the former third-round pick amassed 14,101 rushing yards, 90 touchdowns and 17,430 yards from scrimmage. He ranks within the top seven in each of those categories.

    In 2004, Martin became the oldest player (age 31) to win a rushing title with 1,697 rushing yards for the Jets. It was Martin’s final year with over 1,000 yards as he retired after the following season.

45. Torry Holt

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    Best known for his time with the St. Louis Rams as part of “The Greatest Show on Turf,” Torry Holt was always a must-watch receiver on Sunday afternoons.

    The former first-round pick gave the St. Louis Rams all his worth, tallying eight consecutive seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving between 2000 and 2007—six straight over 1,300 yards. Holt led the league twice in receiving yards with 1,635 in 2000 and 1,696 in 2003. In 2003, he also led the NFL with 117 receptions.

    In his rookie season, Holt enjoyed a spectacular Super Bowl victory over the Tennessee Titans—the Rams first ever championship. He had the game of his life, catching seven balls for 109 yards and a touchdown from fellow future Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner.

    Holt retired following the 2010 season, forced out by numerous injuries. He did so as a seven-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro receiver, NFL 2000s All-Decade selection and holder of an abundance of NFL and St. Louis Rams receiving records.

44. Derrick Thomas, LB

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    Arguably the biggest Hall of Fame snub to date, there might have never been a greater linebacker in NFL history than the Kansas City Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas. Thankfully, Thomas was finally inducted in his fifth year of eligibility in 2009.

    Unfortunately, that induction came posthumously as he died in February of 2000 as a result of a massive blood clot that developed in his lower extremities just a month after a terrible car accident that struck the Chiefs linebacker paralyzed.

    Thomas left behind on his NFL resume was an elite career cut short by such terrible circumstances. Still his tragic death and stellar professional career delivered an inspiring story for so many.

    In  11 NFL seasons, Thomas recorded 126.5 sacks—good enough for 12th all-time. In Thomas’ second season in the league, he led all pass rushers with an astounding 20 sacks. He also tallied 19 fumble recoveries, taking four in for the touchdown—tied for third amongst career leaders.

    At the young age of 33, Derrick Thomas still had at least a half-decade remaining in his career. One can only wonder what kind of numbers the nine-time Pro Bowler could have posted by the end of his career.

    Thomas’ most memorable game is his phenomenal seven-sack performance against the Seattle Seahawks in 1990. To this day, his record-setting performance goes unmatched.

43. Thurman Thomas, RB

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    As a central piece in each of the Buffalo Bills’ four Super Bowl trips, Thurman Thomas made his mark as one of the NFL’s elite running backs in history. Thomas recorded eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing and posted at least 1,200 rushing yards in each year between 1989 and 1993.

    But Thomas’ work on the ground was not all he contributed to the Bills offensive attack. The former second-round pick was also a helpful target in the passing game, amassing 4,458 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns. He is one of six NFL running backs to exceed 60 rushing touchdowns and 20 receiving touchdowns in his career along with Jim Brown, Lenny Moore, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk and Herschel Walker.

    Though Thomas and the Bills never won the Super Bowl, the Bills running back does hold NFL playoff records with 21 touchdowns, 126 points scored and an impressive nine consecutive playoff games with a touchdown.

    In the regular season, Thomas finished his career with 12,074 rushing yards, 65 rushing touchdowns and a ninth-ranked 16,532 yards from scrimmage.

42. Cris Carter, WR

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    If Derrick Thomas being snubbed by the Hall of Fame process four years straight was not the biggest snub of all time, former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter certainly has an argument.

    The future Hall of Famer—though when is still yet to be revealed—put up unimaginable numbers during his career with the Vikings. Carter ranks eighth in career receiving yards with 13,899 yards, fourth with 1,101 receptions and fourth with 130 receiving touchdowns.

    All this despite tallying just 3,506 yards in the first six seasons of his NFL career. Of course, Carter did follow those subpar years with eight straight seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards and five consecutive seasons with over 10 touchdown receptions between 1995 and 1999.

    Yet three years on the Pro Bowl ballot and no luck yet. Could this be the year the Pro Bowl voting committee finally gets it right?

    If it’s not, it would be a terrible and unjustified crime against one of the game’s greatest players.

41. Ozzie Newsome, TE

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    “The Wizard of Oz” Ozzie Newsome was one of the first great tight ends in NFL history—maybe the greatest.

    Playing for the Cleveland Browns from 1978-1990, Newsome was a talented target in the passing game for the Browns. He played in 198 straight games while setting Browns records with 662 receptions and 7,980 yards in his NFL career.

    The current general manager for the Baltimore Ravens was a three-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro Team selection.

    At the time of his retirement, Ozzie Newsome led all tight ends in career receiving yards which has since been broken by Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe and the Atlanta Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez.

40. Terrell Owens, WR

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    There might be no greater an athlete in the NFL as talented, entertaining and unbearable than future Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens.

    Owens, who has played for five different teams in his 15-year career, delivered a legacy full of popcorn-ready memories that should be remembered for years to come. Who can forget TO’s legendary touchdown celebrations?

    At this time, Owens’ future in the NFL is not promising. Despite that, he has already put together a fantastic career and has his names stamped all over the record books.

    Owens is sixth in receptions (1,078) and second in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns with 15,934 yards and 153 touchdowns, respectively. He is a six-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro selection and could have accomplished so much more if not for all his antics.

39. Derrick Brooks, LB

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    One of the most feared linebackers throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Derrick Brooks is one of the players responsible for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ heralded defensive units.

    Over the course of his 14-year NFL career, Brooks was elected to the Pro Bowl 11 times, was a nine-time All-Pro linebacker, Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner in 2000 and Bart Starr Man of the Year Award winner in 2003. Brooks was as solid a man off the field as he was on it, and that helped to contribute to his long, Hall of Fame-caliber career.

    Brooks finished his career with 1,301 tackles and ranks amongst the greatest linebackers in the history of the NFL. His talent and leadership finally paid off when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to win their first Super Bowl during the 2002 season with a defensive-laden 48-21 triumph over the Oakland Raiders.

38. Larry Allen, G

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    Among the NFL’s elite offensive lineman in history, former Dallas Cowboys guard Larry Allen certainly ranks. An All-Decade Team member in the 1990’s, Allen was a key piece to the dominant Cowboys teams that were major competitors in the NFC throughout the second half of the decade.

    Allen was the tenth offensive lineman selected in the 1994 NFL Draft and the first ever drafted from his college, Sonoma State. Despite that, Allen outplayed each and every offensive lineman taken in the draft before him with only Kevin Mawae even playing on the same level as Allen.

    The guard was able to be a part of the Cowboys’ most recent Super Bowl championship in 1994, anchoring one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.

    Allen played  the final two seasons of his NFL career with the rival San Francisco 49ers, earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2006 as well as being selected as an alternate in 2007. Altogether, Allen made 11 trips to the Pro Bowl for the Cowboys and 49ers while posting one of the best careers for an offensive lineman in recent NFL history.

37. Ed Reed, S

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    Not since Ronnie Lott has there been an NFL safety quite as widely regarded as the Baltimore Ravens’ Ed Reed.

    Spectacularly still without a Super Bowl ring, Reed has been a key component on the Ravens’ perennial powerhouse defensive unit since 2002. Since that time, Reed has racked up 57 career interceptions—good enough for first amongst active players and 11th all-time. Three times Reed has led the NFL in interceptions at a position that does not tend to do so.

    Well known for his ball hawk play-making abilities, Reed is also one of the most feared tacklers in the open field.

    These hits (music NSFW) are a common occurrence over the course of Reed’s illustrious career.

    In the former Miami Hurricane’s 10-year career, Reed has been selected to eight Pro Bowls, is a five-time First-Team All-Pro and was the 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Though Reed teased with retirement two years ago, he still has a few years left in the tank to add to his stellar Hall of Fame resume. And if he’s lucky, he will finally be able to add a Super Bowl ring to his collection of accolades.

36. Willie Roaf, OT

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    Willie Roaf is one of the NFL’s newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and deservedly so.

    Through 13 years in the NFL, Roaf was one of the best offensive tackles with 11 selections to the Pro Bowl while anchoring the offensive line for the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs.

    Roaf was a major contributor in the success of running backs Ricky Willliams, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. All three running backs amassed impressive numbers behind Roaf and opened up an otherwise anemic passing game for the Saints’ revolving door of quarterbacks and the Chiefs’ Trent Green.

    A member of the 1990’s and 2000’s All-Decade Teams, Roaf was a fantastic offensive tackle whose place in the Hall of Fame now solidifies his status as one of the best after a stellar career in the NFL.

35. Art Shell, OT

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    Art Shell is a Raider for life. His career as a player, assistant coach and finally head coach are a testament to that. He was clearly beloved by the late Raiders owner Al Davis.

    His playing career for the Raiders garnered him that love.

    Shell was a top-notch talent on the offensive line for the Raiders during their time in Los Angeles throughout the 1970’s, earning him a selection to the NFL’s 1970’s All-Decade Team.

    For the first 11 seasons of his career, Shell did not miss a game. He became a staple in the Raiders offensive line, garnering Pro Bowl honors eight times and two Super Bowl victories as a a member of the team.

    In 1989, Shell was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

34. Kellen Winslow, TE

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    You know the way tight ends are utilized today in the NFL? Kellen Winslow is responsible for that.

    Winslow paved the way for stud receiving tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski two decades before any of these men would ever see a pro field. He flourished in Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” offense and made the San Diego Chargers a lethal team in the 1980’s.

    Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995, Winslow’s most memorable game came in a 1982 playoff game against the Miami Dolphins, now known as “The Epic in Miami.” He caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, then blocked a field goal in the final minutes of regulation to send the game to overtime.

    He accomplished all of this while suffering a pinched nerve, dehydration, severe cramps and stitches in his lip.

33. Michael Strahan, DE

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    Always the character, the gap-toothed Michael Strahan made an illustrious career for himself while playing at defensive end for the New York Giants.

    A second-round pick from Texas Southern, Strahan was a dominant pass rusher who set the record for sacks in a single season with 22.5 sacks in 2001.

    He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, finishing his NFL career with 141.5 sacks in 15 seasons with the Giants—a franchise record.

    Strahan’s career of giving opposing offensive tackles fits finally paid off when he and the New York Giants triumphed in Super Bowl XLII over the New England Patriots. With a ring and a glorious resume to boast, Strahan retired after the Giants’ successful season.

32. Marcus Allen, RB

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    A lengthy career marred by injuries and strike-shortened seasons, Marcus Allen was a superb NFL running back who never had trouble finding the end zone in his 16-year career.

    Before a rocky relationship with Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis eventually cast him out of Oakland, Allen was a pivotal piece to the successful Raiders teams of the 1980’s. His stellar play was awarded in 1983 when 191 yards rushing and two touchdowns put the Raiders over the edge in Super Bowl XVIII. Allen, of course, garnered MVP honors.

    Allen won the NFL MVP two seasons later in 1985. After that season, however, his numbers took a dramatic dip, though he did get selected to two more Pro Bowls in 1986 and 1987.

    Despite this, Allen continued playing and while injuries often kept him off the field. He excelled whenever he saw the field, rushing for 12 touchdowns in 1990 and 1993 with the Kansas City Chiefs where he won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.

    Allen’s 12,243 rushing yards ranks 12th all-time and his 123 rushing touchdowns are a phenomenal third behind only Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson.

31. Michael Irvin, WR

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    Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007, Michael Irvin was one of the key components to the Dallas Cowboys dynasty in the 1990’s.

    Famous in Philadelphia for having his career-ending injury cheered for by Eagles fans, Irvin did some more impressive things to gain recognition by every other NFL fan.

    He was a Pro Bowl selection five times in his career while being one of the most difficult receivers to cover, as if the Cowboys needed more talent to abuse their opponents. Seven times in his 12-year NFL career he caught for at least 1,000 yards.

    His career was unfortunately cut short in Philadelphia in Week 5 of the 1999 season, suffering serious cervical spinal cord injury that demanded Irvin hang up his football gear early.

30. Tony Dorsett, RB

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    Few running backs have enjoyed as much success in their collegiate and NFL careers as superstar back Tony Dorsett was able to do.

    Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship in 1976 with the University of Pittsburgh, and then won Rookie of the Year and the Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys the following year. That was only the beginning, however, for a man who would go on to rush for 12,739 yards, 77 rushing touchdowns and be elected for four Pro Bowls in his 12-year NFL career.

    Dorsett rushed for at least 1,000 yards in eight of his first nine seasons—his lone season without 1,000 yards was shortened by the strike in 1982.

    He is one of two players, along with No. 32 in this list Marcus Allen, who has won the Heisman Trophy, the National Championship, the Super Bowl and to be enshrined in both the Pro Football and College Hall of Fames.

29. Darrell Green, CB

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    The “Ageless Wonder” Darrell Green was blessed with both speed and the inability to wane over time, enabling him to spend 20 seasons in the NFL for the Washington Redskins at the cornerback position.

    Green is one of very few players, especially at his position, to enjoy such a long stint in the NFL. What’s more impressive was his ability to be amongst the very best corners in the league despite his lengthy tenure.

    It was a beautiful thing to see for a player as classy as he was great on the gridiron for the Redskins, winning the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1996.

    In 258 games for the Redskins, Green picked off 54 interceptions and took six of those back for a touchdown. He was selected for the NFC Pro Bowl team seven times in his career and is a two-time Super Bowl champion as part of the Redskins triumphant units during the 1987 and 1991 seasons.

28. Willie Brown, CB

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    Similar to Darrell Green, former Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders cornerback Willie Brown enjoyed a lengthy NFL career filled with impressive accolades throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

    Brown found success during his career, helping the Broncos to an AFL Championship in 1967 and the Raiders to a Super Bowl championship in 1977.

    He was a five-time AFL All-Star and four-time Pro Bowl selection with 54 career interceptions.

    Brown’s most memorable feat came during Super Bowl XI for the Raiders, when he took a Fran Tarkenton pass 75 yards for a touchdown. The play stood as a record until it was broken by Kelly Herndon of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

27. Marshall Faulk, RB

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    One of the most exciting players of the last 20 years, Marshall Faulk never failed to entertain when on the field.

    The former running back for the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams was a major contributed in every facet of the offensive game. He is one of just three players with 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards.

    While injuries slowed Faulk’s career in its final years, it did not stop him from retiring with 12,279 rushing yards, 100 rushing touchdowns and 19,154 yards from scrimmage—good enough for fourth all-time.

    Faulk won the Super Bowl in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, playing a major role in the “Greatest Show on Turf” along with teammates Kurt Warner, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

    In 2011, Faulk was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot.

26. Jonathan Ogden, OT

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    Former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden is a prime example of what it means to be a left tackle in the NFL today, as showcased in the film The Blind Side.

    Ogden is 345 pounds of burly, mammoth man and spent his 12 seasons in the NFL terrorizing opposing pass-rushers. The blueprint for what many teams search for in a left tackle, Ogden was selected to 11 Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pro teams and won NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2002.

    The Ravens tackle had a penchant for smiling while playing, striking an uneasy fear in opponents who knew he’d be trying to take their heads off once the ball was snapped.

25. Willie Lanier, LB

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    Though former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Lanier enjoyed numerous honors throughout his pro football career, perhaps the most memorable is earning his spot as the first black middle linebacker in history during his rookie season.

    Boasting such an honor, Lanier became one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Well known for his vicious tackling technique, Lanier was also one of the most feared linebackers.

    Lanier was elected to six Pro Bowls and two AFL All-Star games in 1968 and 1969.

    The Chiefs retired Lanier’s No. 63 jersey and was the second Chiefs player ever elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

24. Gene Upshaw, G

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    A 1987 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former Oakland Raiders guard Gene Upshaw led a solid career throughout the 1970’s. That play garnered him a spot on the 1970’s All-Decade Team amongst a collection of honors.

    Upshaw had the opportunity to play in an astounding 217 games in his AFL and NFL career, appearing in three Super Bowls for the Raiders in the three different decades. Upshaw’s contributions on the offensive line enabled the Raiders to win two of those Super Bowls.

    Upshaw dominated his opposition for much of his career, especially in big spots lined up against superb defensive tackles such as the Minnesota Vikings’ Alan Page and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Charlie Johnson in those Raiders Super Bowl victories.

23. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB

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    LaDainian Tomlinson is the best running back of the last 15 years and one of the top backs of all time.

    Able to avoid injuries for much of his career and led by an incessant need to succeed, Tomlinson ranks within the Top 5 in career rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns. With potentially one or two season left in the tank, Tomlinson has the ability to move even further up those lists.

    Tomlinson is a five-time Pro Bowler who won the NFL MVP in 2006 as well as the Offensive Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

    LT’s career started with a bang as he rambled off eight consecutive seasons of at least 1,110 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns. To add to the accolades, he is the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes, providing an excellent passing option out of the backfield over the course of his career.

    LaDainian Tomlinson is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer who has led a memorable NFL career all while being a classy, personable role model.

22. Earl Campbell, RB

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    A phenomenal player in such a short amount of time, Earl Campbell is truly one of the all-time greats.

    Campbell leaped into the league after being taken first overall by the Houston Oilers and did not disappoint, leading the NFL in rushing yards his first three seasons.

    Unfortunately, the brutal beating Campbell took, especially after opposing teams began to stack their defense against him, resulted in a premature retirement from the game he loved.

    Campbell finished his career with a spectacular 9,407 rushing yards and 74 rushing touchdowns in just eight seasons for the Oilers and New Orleans Saints.

    Despite such a short stint, Campbell still ranks as one of the best running backs ever. The 1979 NFL MVP’s legacy as one of the elite power backs in history is one of the most admired and most saddening stories.

    Campbell now struggles to walk due to the beating he took and must use a wheelchair often.

21. Mike Singletary, LB

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    As a member of the fearsome “Monsters of the Midway” for the Chicago Bears, Mike Singletary had no trouble earning a penchant for being a lethal force on the defensive side of the football.

    Singletary was a tackle machine from the linebacker position and a dominant force for the Bears during their 1985 Super Bowl run. His contributions during that run were monumental, accounting for three fumbles recoveries during the playoffs, including two in the Bears’ 45-10 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

    A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Singletary was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

20. Eric Dickerson, RB

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    Eric Dickerson is an elite running back who, at the time of his retirement in 1993, was the NFL’s second leading rusher of all time.

    Dickerson was an integral piece for otherwise poor teams on the St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts. He holds the record for single-season rushing yards with 2,105. To this day, Barry Sanders has come closest with 2,053 rushing yards in 1997.

    Dickerson is 12th all-time with 90 rushing touchdowns and was twice voted as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, Dickerson is unquestionably one of the greatest running backs of all time.

19. Mel Blount, CB

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    Quite possibly the greatest cornerback of all time, the former Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount was always atop the league in defensive prowess.

    Blount was a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, having his best year in 1975 when he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. He was a major contributor in the “Steel Curtain” dynasty of the 1970’s for the Steelers, having a hand in each of their four Super Bowl championships during the decade.

    In 1989, Blount was properly inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot, capping off a phenomenal NFL career with the perfect ending.

18. Alan Page, DT

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    Famously a part of the “Purple People Eaters” during his time with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970’s, there were few defensive tackles in NFL history who were quite as dominant as Alan Page.

    Page played in an astounding 218 consecutive games, excelling on defense for the Vikings while being a weekly presence for their team.

    Boasting a supposed total of 148.5 sacks in his NFL career, Page helped guide the Vikings to four NFC Championships. Unfortunately, Page and the Vikings were never able to win the Super Bowl.

    Page was named the NFL’s MVP in 1971. He was the first defensive player to win the award, a certain exhibit of his greatness on the gridiron.

17. Gale Sayers, RB

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    It’s spectacular how amazing Gale Sayers was in such a short amount of time.

    Sayers is well known for the film Brian’s Song, based on his special friendship with fellow Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo and his battle with cancer. But his performance on the gridiron is just as noteworthy.

    Sayers was an all-purpose darling, giving opposing teams a headache in a variety of ways. He scored a record 22 touchdowns in his rookie year with the Bears. In seven seasons, two of which he played just two games, Sayers had 39 rushing touchdowns, nine receiving touchdowns, an NFL-record six kick return touchdowns and two punt return touchdowns.

    Amongst Sayers records, he holds the record for six touchdowns in a game, shared with two other players, as well as the highest kick return average with 30.6 yards per return.

    His career was very short-lived, but his impact on the game is remembered to this day. There is no denying, despite this, that Sayers is one of the best players the NFL has ever seen.

16. OJ Simpson, RB

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    Sadly, this name garners nothing but scorn, but once upon a time O.J. Simpson was a well-respected, admired running back in the NFL.

    At the time of Simpson’s retirement, he was second on the NFL’s all-time leading rusher list with 11,236 rushing yards. The former Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers star was a six-time Pro Bowler and 1973 NFL MVP.

    In 1985, Simpson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame supported by a spectacular career in the NFL. Unfortunately, what he will be remembered for isn’t quite as honorable.

15. Rod Woodson, CB

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    An 11-time Pro Bowler, 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl champion, few have a resume that comparable to that of cornerback Rod Woodson’s.

    In Woodson’s 17 NFL seasons, the cornerback played in an impressive 238 games. He is third all-time with 78 career interceptions, and first in interception return yards and interception touchdowns.

    Woodson was rightfully inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009 on his first ballot.

14. Ronnie Lott, S

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    If there is ever a question who the greatest safety of all time is, there shouldn’t be. That moniker goes to former hard-hitting San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders safety Ronnie Lott.

    Though he played well early in his career as a cornerback, Lott really broke out when moved to the safety position. In his first season at the position, he had a career-high 10 interceptions.

    Lott was a 10-time Pro Bowler with 63 career interceptions. He was a member of four Super Bowl teams with the 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

13. "Mean" Joe Greene, DT

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    A great defensive lineman during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty years, “Mean” Joe Greene anchored the “Steel Curtain” defense while helping his team to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970’s.

    Greene was a dominant, lethal force at the defense tackle position for the Steelers, imposing fear upon and all who wished to come his way. He was a tackle machine and a staple in Pittsburgh’s success.

    “Mean” Joe Greene was a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and 10-time Pro Bowl selection who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 after playing all 13 seasons of his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

12. Randy Moss, WR

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    Randy Moss was something special. He was fast, tall and had the best hands the NFL had ever seen. It’s unfortunate to think what his career could have been if not for his childish antics over the course of his 13 seasons (and possibly counting) in the NFL.

    Though Moss has had a penchant for starting up some locker room drama, his resume speaks for itself.

    Moss is ninth in receptions, fifth in receiving yards and second in receiving touchdowns all-time. He was a perennial stud at the wide receiver position and excelled against opposing teams because he made it near impossible to stop him—at least when he was trying.

    A six-time Pro Bowler, four-time First-Team All-Pro selection and one of the best wide receivers of all time, Moss is a sure-fire future Hall of Famer.

11. Bruce Smith, DE

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    Bruce Smith was a staple for the spectacular Buffalo Bills teams that enjoyed a lot of success during the early 1990’s. Though he, or the Bills, never won the Super Bowl, Smith led a legendary career that ranks him as one of the best defensive lineman of all-time.

    The 11-time Pro Bowler spent 19 seasons in the NFL giving offensive linemen fits trying to stop him. Smith holds the record for sacks in a career with an iconic 200.

    Smith’s ability to avoid injury and stay on the field enabled him to have a lengthy, illustrious career in which he played in 267 games for the Bills and Washington Redskins.

    Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

10. Deacon Jones, DE

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    Deacon Jones might just be the greatest pass-rusher of all time. Unfortunately, the “Secretary of Defense” had a penchant for sacking the quarterback when the action was not recorded as a statistic by the NFL.

    Regardless, there is no denying the type of dominant success Jones had against inferior offensive linemen.

    In 14 NFL seasons, Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Defensive Player of the Year in 1967 and 1968 for the Los Angeles Rams. Impressively, Jones missed just six games over the course of his rugged career.

9. Emmitt Smith, RB

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    As part of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty during the 1990’s, Emmitt Smith racked up an assortment of accolades in his outstanding NFL career.

    Smith is the record holder for rushing attempts (4,409), rushing yards (18,355) and rushing touchdowns (164). No one has touched the football more than Smith, who holds the record with 4,924 touches.

    The Cowboys superstar was an eight-time Pro Bowler, 1990 Rookie of the Year and NFL MVP in 1993. He was a key component in the Cowboys three Super Bowl victories in the 1990’s.

    In 2010, Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot.

8. Ray Lewis, LB

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    Fewer players in NFL history are quite as imposing and consistently successful as the Baltimore Ravens’ inside linebacker Ray Lewis.

    The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been one of the top linebackers in the league since being drafted in the first round of the 1996 NFL Draft. An unmatched leader on the Ravens team, there is no single player who has been as special as Lewis has at the inside linebacker position.

    It’s strange to think what the Baltimore Ravens will be like without Ray Lewis, but that moment may be coming soon. Fortunately for Lewis, however, he is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he has decided to retire.

7. Deion Sanders, CB/WR

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    Never has there, nor will there be, a player who really knows how to bring the show to the NFL quite like “Primetime” Deion Sanders could. What made him even greater was the fact that he was, without a doubt, the very best cornerback ever in pro football.

    He couldn’t tackle worth a lick, but that didn’t matter. Any quarterback foolish enough to throw it Sanders’ way usually paid for it.

    In 13 NFL seasons, Sanders caught 53 interceptions, returning nine for a touchdown. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1994 and back-to-back Super Bowls in 1994 with the San Francisco 49ers and 1995 with the Dallas Cowboys.

    “Primetime” didn’t just excel on defense, though. He was a phenomenal return specialist, lethal every time he got his hands on the football. He scored nine return touchdowns in his NFL career.

6. Reggie White, DE

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    “The Minister of Defense” Reggie White led a decorated career in the NFL.

    His 198 sacks are second all-time to fellow Hall of Famer Bruce Smith. A gentle giant off the field, no one was more fierce than White on it. He dominated like no other defensive lineman has ever been able to do, consistently posting some of the best sack numbers year-after-year.

    White was a 13-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and in 2006, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction came posthumously as White died in 2004 at the young age of 43.

    To this day, White’s nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks remains an NFL record unmatched by any of the league’s top pass rushers.

5. Lawrence Taylor, LB

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    There is not a defensive player in NFL history who changed the game quite like Lawrence Taylor.

    Cause for an entire change from the way offensive tackles were viewed, Taylor is the most lethal pass-rusher of all time. His power and athleticism revolutionized an outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense that continues to excel in the NFL today.

    Though issues off the field marred LT’s career, there is no ignoring his 132.5 sacks. His 20.5 sacks in 1986 are still an impressive mark unable to be met by his successors at the outside linebacker position. That season rightfully garnered the New York Giants linebacker the 1986 NFL MVP.

    LT was an amazing talent whose abilities on the football field are incomparable by anyone else. His stellar career was awarded with an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

4. Jim Brown, RB

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    The Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown was one of those running backs who burst onto the scene and dominated without hesitation. Unfortunately, like many, his career ended too soon.

    But that’s what makes him all the more impressive.

    In just nine seasons, Brown tallied 12,312 rushing yards and 106 rushing touchdowns. Along the way, Brown plastered his name across the Browns and NFL record books, making his mark as one of the best running backs in NFL history.

    Brown’s unspeakable 5.2 yards-per-carry average are a testament of the type of player he was in such a short time. He retired in 1965 having posted the second-highest rushing yards total of his career and tied his career-high in touchdowns.

    As a result of his stellar play, Brown was a three-time NFL MVP and saw himself inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

3. Walter Payton, RB

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    For a long time, no one was better than “Sweetness” Walter Payton. Payton’s hard-nosed running style delivered him into the record books with a dramatic lead in all-time rushing yards at the time of his retirement in 1987.

    The Chicago Bears superstar was a classy gentleman off the field, but his brutal play on the field left many men wishing they never stepped in his path. In 13 NFL seasons, Payton tallied 16,726 rushing yards and 110 rushing touchdowns, despite two seasons shortened by strikes and playing his first three seasons under a 14-game schedule.

    Unlike many running backs in the NFL today, Payton was a stud back who refused to run out of bounds. He survived on his motto to “never die easy.”

    His illustrious career culminated in an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

2. Barry Sanders, RB

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    Barry Sanders was a highlight reel. One game created a career’s worth of juke moves, stiff arms and touchdown runs every time Sanders took the field.

    What made Sanders that much more special, was the atrocious Detroit Lions team he was a part of throughout his career.

    Despite that, Sanders still rushed for 15,269 rushing yards and 99 touchdowns in just 10 NFL seasons for the Lions. His 2,053 rushing yards in 1997 are the most since Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 in 1984.

    Sanders is an icon in NFL history. He is widely regarded as one of the best running backs in NFL history. To think what kind of numbers he could have posted had he not decided to retire so early is mind-boggling.

    Regardless, there is no running back quite as spectacular as Sanders was when he had the football in hands. His five yards-per-carry average is still second only to the great Jim Brown. His induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004 was an easy decision for voters.

1. Jerry Rice, WR

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    With all these outstanding athletes on this list, none of them are quite as amazing as Jerry Rice and the mind-blowing career he led.

    Head and shoulders above every wide receiver in NFL history, Rice is the holder of nearly every receiving record. His 22,895 receiving yards and 197 receiving touchdowns are two records that will never fall.

    No one comes close to the numbers he posted in his career nor has anyone ever matched the play he did in his 20 NFL seasons.

    Underestimated coming out of Mississippi Valley State, Rice blew every doubt for his career out of the water. Adding three Super Bowl championships to the mix was just pouring salt in the wound.

    Without much question, Jerry Rice is the greatest player of all time. His numbers and all-around performance speak for themselves. There is no argument, Rice must be No.1 on this list.

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