Ranking the 100 Toughest NFL Players All-Time

David Levin@@davidlevin71Senior Writer IINovember 16, 2011

Ranking the 100 Toughest NFL Players All-Time

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    What makes an athlete tough? A look, a demeanor, maybe one play that is caught on tape and shown over and over again like it is the greatest hit of all time.

    Players earn reputations as "great" or "mean" or "tough" usually from consistency. We have seen them go to battle (No, I am not making a "war" reference) time and time again, and what we get is some of the toughest play in the National Football League.

    This is a list of 100 of the toughest players to play the game. While football has been around for decades, I have shortened the time frame because there are just too many players, and there would be arguments to the tops of stadiums about who was put into this list and who was left off.

    That said, these players have been involved in the game from 1971-2011. That is 40 years of great, tough play that we can appreciate as fans of sports and the game, itself.

    I would love to hear whom you think should have made this list. I know players like Bronko Nagurski and YA Tittle did not make the cut, but it did not mean they weren't tough. They just played in a different era.

    There is no ranking of this list, just a composition of players. Please enjoy.

Steve Tasker

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    When many players tried to avoid playing on special teams, Steve Tasker welcomed it and became a star.

    He was just as important to the Buffalo Bills success under Marv Levy as Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, et al.

    Tasker was small at 5'9" but had good speed and a vision that allowed him to help his team establish field position.

Joe Morris

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    Small and diminutive in size, but not in heart. Joe Morris was another cog in the New York Giants machine that was so good in the 1980s.

    Morris fought for the tough yards and proved to be a great multi-purpose back in Bill Parcells offense.

Bryan Cox

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    As a linebacker for the Dolphins and Jets, Cox played liked a crazed man who would stalk and attack opponents.

    He was one of the most fierce linebackers in the game and played as if the opposition was taking food off his family's table, or someone was trying to harm his children.

James Brooks

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    A tough, small runner for San Diego and Cincinnati, Brooks fought for tough yards in a game of bigger, stronger defenders.

    Brooks was a key cog in the Bengals running game in the late 1980s.

LC Greenwood

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    A member of the famed Steel Curtain. He was just as instrumental as others like Mean Joe Greene in the success of the Steelers.

    The Hall of Famer was just that tough.

Mark Bavaro

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    He was as tough as any tight end every to play the game.

    Bavaro was the security blanket in the Giants 1980s offense.

    He was also a good blocker and took punishment as well as giving it out.

Mark Van Eeghen

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    An unsung hero type who played for the Raiders and Patriots.

    He was a bruising back who fought for tough yards and moved the chains.

Chuck Muncie

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    A good runner on some really bad teams in New Orleans and then made his way to San Diego.

    He was the lead runner for the Saints when they were really the Aints of the NFL.

    He fought for tough yards with little hope of winning football games.

Mosi Tatupu

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    The hard-running, tough special teams demon for the Patriots.

    No one in the 1970s or early 1980s played special teams like he did.

    He made it look like an art form.

Warrick Dunn

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    He was told he was too short, too thin and fragile.

    And all he did was become one of the most versatile backs in the NFL during this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons.

    As someone who went to college with him, there is no one more admirable than Dunn and the efforts he put forth as an athlete and as a human being.

    And his toughness merits a spot on this list.

Jesse Tuggle

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    Short and diminutive but full of energy.

    He may be the best linebacker ever to wear black and red.

    Tuggle was fierce and competitive and was great as a mainstay in the Falcons defense.

Ken Riley

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    He was one of the best defenders in the 70s and 80s.

    Riley was a mainstay in the Bengals secondary and was a big part of their first Super Bowl appearance in 1982.

    He was a hard hitter and great cover defender.

Earl Campbell

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    He was both quick and sudden and one of the better runners of the 1970s and early 1980s.

    Campbell took punishment over the years and gave as good as he got as well.

Roger Wehrli

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    Defensive back from St. Louis.

    A nice cover defender who draped the opposition's best receivers on a weekly basis.

    He did not play on many winning teams, but he as a great player nonetheless.

Peyton Manning

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    Until this season, Manning had played in every game he has been eligible to play in since being drafted in 1998.

    He is big, strong and sturdy, and if he's out this season, it's because he's truly injured.

    There aren't many quarterbacks who can stand in the pocket like he can and fling it week after week.

Reggie McKenzie

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    He was one of the linemen that was part of the "Electric Company" that helped OJ Simpson reach 2,003 yards on the season.

    In the 1970s, there were few who played along the line any better than McKenzie.

Larry Little

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    When he lined up for the Miami Dolphins, defenders did not come across the line.

    Little, a Hall of Famer, was one of the reasons the Dolphins could boast two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season in 1972.

Franco Harris

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    He was big and burly and ran through and over runners.

    Franco Harris was the epitome of the running back in the 1970s.

    And he had as much to do with the Steelers success in the decade as anyone else on that squad.

Dave Widell

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    He was not the most popular player in the NFL or the most talented. But for the Broncos and Jaguars, he was the perfect fit for their offensive lines.

    While playing center in the 1980s and 90s, Widell was regarded as a mean SOB who took short cuts to block defenders.

    His tough demeanor was beneficial for the upstart Jaguars.

Fran Tarkenton

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    It seemed like he ran for his life every year he was in the NFL.

    He still may be running.

    Tarkenton was as tough as they came, being chased by bigger defenders.

    But when he slowed down, he proved he was one of the best quarterbacks ever.

Bill Romanowski

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    He would have thrived playing football in the 1970s.

    Romo was a tough man who allowed roid rage to overtake a lot of his playing ability.

    When he was at the top of his game, he was one of the best linebackers at his position.

Carl Eller

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    He was such a key component of the Purple People Eaters.

    Eller was menacing on the field and was as relentless as any other defensive linemen in the NFL during the 1970s.

Lynn Swann

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    He had style and grace. He graced fans with some of the most amazing catches.

    But he was also one tough receiver.

Ed McCaffrey

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    Was there a receiver out there that looked like he was going liked every time he ran a pass route.

    McCaffrey wore little padding in his playing days and looked like he paid the price for it every weekend.

Lamar Parrish

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    Tough defender from the Cincinnati Bengals.

    He was a great defensive back in the 1970s.

    The Hall of Famer formed a pretty good team with Ken Riley in the Bengals secondary.

Warren Sapp

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    Sapp fell to the 12th selection in the 1995 NFL draft and then made every team pay for it.

    He was relentless in the middle of the Buccaneers line and was doubled-teamed and triple-teamed at times.

    He was a leader by force and was a favorite until he retired.

Randy White

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    When I was growing up, the big bad Cowboys were the talk of the 1970s.

    Randy White anchored that defense.

    White was a force by sheer speed and power. I did not realize how good he was until he retired, and I was older.

Lester Hayes

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    Hayes used to love the Stick-em and used it liberally. In 1980, Hayes intercepted 13 passes and led the league. He and Michael Haynes formed a tough duo in the Raiders secondary.

    Hayes was not the same player without his biggest "friend."

Randy Gradishar

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    He was the leader of the "Orange Crush" defense.

    One fast, deliberate linebacker who wrapped you up and you stayed put.

Bruce Matthews

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    In 1983, the Houston Oilers selected Bruce Matthews and plugged him into their lineup.

    He was a fixture for 19 seasons.

    He played against them all and took on the best and what the best had to offer.

Art Shell

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    He helped establish a line of excellence for the Raiders.

    Shell was an All-Pro players and highly regarded for his tough play and skill.

    He parlayed that into coaching after he retired and became the first African-American head coach of the modern era for his former team.

Joe Delamielleure

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    Another key cog in the line that blocked for OJ Simpson.

    From the moment he stepped in the field in 1973 after he was drafted in the first round, he proved to a fixture on the line until he was traded to Cleveland in 1980.

Gene Upshaw

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    Another great Raiders lineman who had an impact on the NFL well after his playing days were over.

    Upshaw was a 255-pound tackle when he was drafted and immediately made an impact for the Raiders when he was drafted in 1967.

    He played in over 300 games in his career.

Ed Reed

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    Like Ray Lewis, he is still playing at such a high level.

    Reed is one of those guys that may have to be told to stop playing football.

    And he does not look like he will be slowing down any time soon.

Michael Vick

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    When you expose yourself like he does on a football field, you are going to get injured.

    Vick gets injured but comes right back to surprise us.

    He takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

Hines Ward

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    He gets hit and hit and hit.

    Then he goes to the sideline and comes back for more.

    One of the toughest receivers ever to play.

Terrell Owens

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    No one can ever say he's not ready to play. One of the best conditioned athletes to play today and one who fights through injuries and plays hurt to help his team win.

    When he isn't complaining about them.

Dave Casper

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    He helped invent the tight end of today.

    A tough guy to bring down and one who had soft hands.

    He was also a good blocker.

Ken Anderson

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    He played on the good and the bad in Cincinnati.

    Had a great career and was most successful in the early 1980s on some strong teams.

    He played with some bad teams where he took a beating as well.

James Harrison

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    He's a threat to reach the quarterback every time he gets on the field.

    Harrison is also one of the hardest hitting players ever to strap on a helmet.

Rickey Jackson

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    One of the best linebackers to ever play for the Saints.

    Jackson played on decent teams under Jim Mora, when it was cool to root for them, long before the success they are enjoying now.

Rulon Jones

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    Unheralded and maybe underappreciated.

    Jones was a terror for the Broncos in the 1980s.

    A major part of the Orange Crush defense.

Everson Walls

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    I never liked him.

    He always helped the Eagles lose.

    Walls was a good defender who usually covered the opponent's best receivers.

Willie Roaf

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    Played for the Saints and Chiefs.

    Performed at a Pro Bowl level for both.

Jared Allen

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    He plays at such a high level game after game.

    Even with his team having a down year, his statistics are amazing.

Joshua Cribbs

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    You cannot go out week after week and do the things he does without being tough or crazy.

    Or maybe both!

Jim Haslett

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    Linebacker for the Bills who coached the Saints who is now the defensive coordinator in Washington.

    There weren't many better in the middle of the defense than him in the 1970s and early 80s.

Phil Simms

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    When he came out of Morehead State, he honestly looked like he did not belong in an NFL uniform. He was injured, and others played for him.

    Then, he grew up.

    Simms took a knocking in the NFL before he solidified himself as one of  the best. And when he did finally rise to the top, he was one of the the great playoff quarterbacks.

Matt Millen

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    He will never be known as the best linebacker to play the game, but nobody will ever question his heart and toughness.

    Millen played like he was dying on the field. Giving it his all on every play.

    While he did not success in the management in the NFL, he excelled on it when he was a player.

Thurman Thomas

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    There is a picture of him sleeping while the NFL draft was going on because he lasted past the first round.

    Then, teams fell asleep on him on the field, and he made them pay for it.

    Thomas was a great runner, receiver and blocker for the Bills and was part of their improbable Super Bowl run in the 1990s.

Jerry Rice

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    The greatest receiver ever in the NFL makes this list.

    He wasn't the fastest or the tallest or the strongest. But he was the best and put himself out there game after game and helped both Joe Montana and Steve Young get to the Hall of Fame.

    What he did on a football field may never be matched again.

Marshall Faulk

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    He was Roger Craig on a grander scale.

    Faulk could catch, run, bowl you over and just be a punishing back.

    He had great speed and helped the Greatest Show on Turf become the best act in the NFL.

    He was in a class to himself.

Mark Gastineau

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    The leader of the New York Sack Exchange.

    Gastineau was flamboyant, tough and fast, and he could get through blocks to get to the quarterback.

    A great talent playing in New York. Both were made for each other.

Steve Young

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    He played with four known concussions.

    How do you succeed as the man who replaced Joe Montana?

    You run like crazy, throw like crazy and win Super Bowls.

    That is exactly what Young did and proved he was a great replacement.

Marcus Allen

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    I don't think he gets as much credit as he deserves for what he did on the field.

    He came into the league with the Raiders and finished with the Chiefs.

    He was a great straight ahead runner and good receiver.

    While Al Davis tried to keep him down, Allen kept on going and proved he was still a great player.

Tim Brown

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    He may be the best receiver to ever play for the Raiders.

    Brown was great because of size and speed.

    He could break away from defenders and catch the ball in traffic.

    And he was a great kick returner as well.

Brian Sipe

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    I got to see him play in the USFL, but it wasn't the same.

    Sipe was a gritty player who willed the Browns to wins.

    He took a beating some years but got up game after game.

    For some reason, I will forever link him with Ken Anderson.

Mike Webster

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    The heart and soul of the Steelers offensive line in the 1970s and early 1980s.

    Webster was the reason Terry Bradshaw was so successful, and there were running lanes for Franco Harris.

John Hannah

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    The Alabama graduate may still be the best linemen to ever play for the Patriots.

    Hannah was strong and fierce and played for 12 seasons while battling the Dolphins, Jets, Colts and Bills for the AFC East Division.

    Some say he may have been the finest guard to ever play the game.

Rod Woodson

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    He was the 10th pick of the 1987 draft, and the Steelers got the "steal" they needed to solidify their secondary.

    Woodson was a great cover safety and one of the best return men to ever play the game.

Dave Dalby

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    You need to be tough if you are a center for the Raiders.

    Dalby was replaced by Don Mosebar, but before he retired, he carried on the long line of traditional centers for the Raiders.

Rodney Harrison

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    He hit receivers and running backs with a vengeance.

    He also knew he would be fined for his actions.

    Harrison has admitted that he put away money each year to cover fines because he loved to hit people for a living.

Olin Kreutz

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    A tough-nosed center who came to the NFL and made himself right at home.

    Kreutz just played the game as he saw fit and with a style that was relentless. He was prominent in the run-blocking schemes of the Bears for years.

Leroy Selmon

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    He's regarded as the finest lineman ever to wear Orange and White.

    Selmon played on good and bad teams for the Buccaneers as he endured losing seasons and NFC championship games as well.

    There was no one better on the team at pressuring the quarterback.

Jonathan Ogden

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    He came out of college and the first thing you thought was, he could gain some weight and still be dominant.

    Ogden was a fixture on the Ravens line and proved to be one of the best at the pancake block.

    He was part of the new breed of tackles in the NFL.

Art Monk

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    Classy receiver who fought through blocks and tough defenders.

    He was once the all time leader in receptions in the NFL.

    The Redskins receiver seemed to be at the right place at the right time whenever a reception needed to be made.

Michael Haynes

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    He was a great defensive back with the Raiders and the Patriots.

    One of the best kick returners in the game.

Dwight Stevenson

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    He helped keep Dan Marino upright and healthy.

    Stephenson was one of the best centers to play the game of football.

    A draft pick out of Alabama, he played on an offensive line that did what it could to make the Dolphins the most proficient passing team in the NFL during the mid 1980s.

Andre Reed

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    Jim Kelly's favorite target.

    Reed had good speed and could separate from defenders and make the tough catch.

    He was a key part of the four Super Bowl appearances.

John Matuszak

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    He was in Goonies.

    Really he was an out of this world character perfect for the Silver and Black in the early 1980s.

    He and Lyle Alzado were partners in crime on the 1980 Super Bowl team.

Archie Manning

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    Another poor quarterback who took his licks and looked like he was fighting for his life every week.

    Manning played in New Orleans when they were the laughing stock of the NFL.

    Manning ran for his life but only put up decent numbers during this NFL career. 

Richard Dent

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    He teamed with Dan Hampton to form a mean end tandem on the Bears 1985 Super Bowl team.

    Dent had great speed and power and moved off the snap in quick time, catching linemen off guard.

Ted Hendricks

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    The Stork, known for his size, was a towering figure from the linebacker position.

    He was another cog in the circus in Oakland that won the 1980 Super Bowl.

Troy Polamalu

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    He is the standard by which all defensive backs are now measured.

    Take away the hair and you still have a great competitor on the field.

Bruce Smith

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    Teams designed plays to avoid him.

    That might be the best compliment you can give a player.

    He was awesome.

Fred Dean

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    He was equally tough as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers.

    A tough defensive linemen with big feet and an even bigger first step off the snap count.

    He created havoc for the opposition.

Merlin Olsen

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    Before he was Father Murphy or the FTD guy (I am dating myself), Olsen was one of the most feared defensive linemen ever to play the game.

    With big arms and hands and pretty good speed, he was a nightmare for quarterbacks.

Howie Long

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    When the Raiders had the Villanova graduate on the defensive line, everything seemed to be just fine.

    I always thought of Long as a tough guy who was marginal at best, but I was wrong.

    Long played hard on every down and was part of the Raiders Super Bowl victory over the Redskins.

John Elway

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    If a guy is going to be a scrambler or be able to take off to make hard yardage, he better be tough.

    Elway may have been the best quarterback ever to play the game.

    And when he wasn't trying to get yardage with his feet, he had a pretty good arm he could use.

Russ Grimm

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    He is now an assistant coach in the NFL, but Grimm took a career playing in the trenches for the "Hogs" in Washington and has taught what he knows to today's players.

    Grimm was a hard-nosed lineman who won many a battle to open holes for Redskins runners.

Jackie Slater

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    He was big and intimidating and was the anchor of some good Rams' offensive lines.

    Slater set the bar for Russell Pace and the new line of tacklers in the NFL.

Emmitt Smith

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    The NFL's All-Time leading rusher.

    Played through pain and battled injuries and still was a key component in the Cowboys success while he was in Big D.

    Smith run through lines and over linebackers, even with his size to become one of the greats of all time.

Dan Hampton

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    Strong rush end for the Bears.

    He and Richard Dent were twin towers for the Bears of the 1980s.

    As part of the Super Bowl winning team, he had his finest season in 1985.

Fred Biletnikoff

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    There weren't many receivers like Fred Biletnikoff in the 1970s.

    Durable and fearless. He seemed to catch everything that came his way.

    Having a quarterback like Ken Stabler throwing to him helped make it a bit easier.

Deacon Jones

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    David "Deacon" Jones was a terror to try and control.

    He was one of the Fearsome Foursome on the Los Angeles Rams' defensive line and will always be one of the most popular Rams to ever play the game.

    He will also be remembered for the head slap to the helmet on his first step off the line.

John Riggins

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    He ran like a bull in a china shop.

    Straight forward and if anyone got in his way, well, that was their problem.

    Riggins was the a true fullback if there ever was one.

Jack Youngblood

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    The defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams was one tough son of a gun.

    In the 1979 playoffs, Youngblood, a former first-rounder out of Florida, played the entire stretch of the postseason.

    That includes the 1979 Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The Rams lost 31-19.

Mike Singletary

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    Just look at his eyes. That is all you needed to know.

    When Singletary locked in on a player, it was all over.

    He was one of the leaders of the 1985 Bears team that throttled the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10.

Anthony Munoz

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    One of the finest tackles to ever play the game of football.

    Munoz may not have played on many great teams, but players and coaches knew how great and tough an athlete he was.

    He set the standard for the likes of Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden and Jim Lachey.

Mean Joe Greene

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    Thanks Mean Joe for giving us everything you had on the field.

    Greene was an animal on the field and a kindhearted sort off it.

    When he was in the game, there was no one more feared on the defensive line.

Sam Mills

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    At only 5'9", he was the heart and soul of the Saints and then the Panthers' linebacking corps.

    He was relentless on the field, playing all the time and not allowing his lack of size to stop him from playing against some of the biggest athletes in the NFL.

    Mills was also a coach before he passed away after a long battle with cancer.

Lawrence Taylor

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    He played the game like he was on fire.

    He may have been. Taylor redefined the outside linebacker position once he was taken in the 1981 draft by the New York Giants.

    With that one selection, a football foundation was born.

    Taylor did things on the field that many had never seen and played with a toughness and intensity that the league prospered from.

Ronnie Lott

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    He was selected in the same draft that produced Lawrence Taylor.

    An instant starter in the San Francisco 49ers secondary, he helped establish the team as the best on the West Coast.

    Lott played with an intensity that was more of a throwback to defenders of the 1970s. While he played for other teams during his career, he will forever been remembered as one of the cornerstones of the 49ers dynasty.

Jack Tatum

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    He was the consummate Raiders player of the 1970s.

    Mean looking with a hard-hitting attitude. He was everything Al Davis wanted in a player.

    Tough as they came, receivers knew when they came across the middle to make a catch he was waiting.

    They may make the catch, but they paid the price for it.

Jack Lambert

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    He had a look like he was going to kill someone.

    Lambert struck fear in the minds of opposing running backs and anyone who got in his way and was a mainstay on the Steelers' Super Bowl teams.

    The Steel Curtain may have been the talk of Pittsburgh, but the linebackers on that team were just as fierce.

Conrad Dobler

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    Not only was he thought to be the "dirtiest" player in the game, Dobler was one of the toughest.

    Offensive linemen don't get a lot of recognition for their play, but Dobler was one in the 1970s who was constantly talked about for his tough play and tactics that left defenders in pain.

Walter Payton

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    He ran through, around and over defenders to get the tough yards.

    While other runners over the years have avoided contact, Payton took it all the time on some pretty bad Bears' teams.

    "Sweetness" just carried the load and did the things necessary to become maybe the greatest runner of all time.

Brett Favre

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    Did you really think he would be left off this list?

    Favre, for all that he was and still is, may be the toughest quarterback to play the game.

    You don't start every game like he did for years and not get the crap knocked out of you.

    Broken hands, concussions, leg injuries, bad backs. You name it, Favre had it. He proved week after week he was a tough player and loved the game.

    He willed his teams to wins with his arm and passion for football.

Ray Lewis

99 of 100

    Even at his age today, he plays at such a high level.

    Ray Lewis may be playing better now than he did five years ago.

    And he does not appear to be letting up any time soon.

    The former University of Miami star has been the main reason the Ravens defense has been so good over the last decade and figures to remain that way while he's still in the starting lineup.

Larry Csonka

100 of 100

    As someone who has met the man and stood next to him when he was playing, there may not have been anyone in my eyes as imposing.

    Csonka was the type of runner and fullback you wanted leading your team. And while he ran through opposing defenses, he put a hurting on those who tried to stop him.

    He and Jim Kiick were instrumental in the Dolphins' 17-0 run to the Super Bowl.

    One of the great running backs of the NFL who may not get his due as tough as he was.