The NFL's 10 Best Players from Each Decade

Brian Wright@@BrianWright86Correspondent IINovember 14, 2011

The NFL's 10 Best Players from Each Decade

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    Since the inception of the National Football League in 1920, the way the game is played has changed. However, spectacular players have been readily present throughout.

    Pro football has emerged as America's premier sport, and that's partly due to the superb talents that grace the gridiron each week.

    Some are more celebrated than others. For those, we have the top 10 players from each decade of the NFL.

The 1920s

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    1. Red Grange

    "The Galloping Ghost" was the first player to bring pro football into the national spotlight.

    Just hours after playing his last game at the University of Illinois in 1925, Grange signed with the Chicago Bears and immediately drew the largest crowds the NFL had ever seen, including 70,000 at the Polo Grounds for a game against the New York Giants.

    2. Jim Thorpe

    His best days came prior to the start of the league, but Thorpe still showed why he was the country's greatest athlete as a member of six different teams.

    He was a part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class of 1963.

    3. Ernie Nevers

    Nevers only played for five seasons, but he made those count. He was a an All-NFL team member each year and accounted for 40 points on Thanksgiving Day of 1929.

    4. Paddy Driscoll

    A six-time member of the All-NFL squad, Driscoll scored four touchdowns and connected on three extra points in a game against the Rochester Jeffersons in 1923. He was also a standout on defense.

    5. George Trafton

    The most dominant center in the NFL's origin, Trafton was the first to snap with one hand.

    The Notre Dame grad won two league titles in the following decade as a member of the Chicago Bears.

    6. Mike Michalske

    While Trafton was a two-time champ, Michalske won three rings. The guard was an integral cog of the Green Bay Packers' rushing attack.

    7. Cal Hubbard

    Hubbard has the distinction of being the only individual inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    As far as his gridiron prowess is concerned, his play at offensive tackle helped the New York Giants win the league title in 1927.

    8. Pete Henry

    The Canton Bulldogs were the first powerhouse of the NFL, and Henry was a major reason why. In 1922, the offensive tackle helped the Bulldogs finish 10-0-2.

    9. Joe Guyon

    With Jim Thorpe in the same backfield, it's easy to be overlooked. But Guyon was nearly as formidable.

    He teamed with the likes of Hubbard to win the 1927 championship with the Giants.

    10. Link Lyman

    The tackle from Nebraska joined the Chicago Bears in 1925 and remained with them for the remainder of his career. He made it to Canton in 1964.

The 1930s

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    1. Don Hutson

    Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver ever to play the game. Before there was Rice, though, Don Hutson was the dominant pass-catcher.

    When his career ended, Hutson's 99 touchdown receptions were three times more than the next highest on the list.

    2. Bronko Nagurski

    The name was certainly fitting. Bronko bulldozed opposing defenders with his battering-ram running style at fullback.

    Five times he was a member of the All-NFL team, and he finished with 4,000 rushing yards.

    3. Mel Hein

    Hein dominated on both sides of the football for the New York Giants. He became the first center to be named NFL Most Valuable Player when he received the honor in 1938.

    4. Dutch Clark

    The quarterback of the Detroit Lions also starred as a formidable runner. Clark led the league in scoring four times and made the All-NFL squad on four occasions.

    5. Clarke Hinkle

    Like many other players during his era, Hinkle played many roles. With the Green Bay Packers, he served as kicker, linebacker and fullback.

    Hinkle finished with 3,860 rushing yards.

    6. Arnie Herber

    In a career interrupted briefly by World War II, Herber led the NFL in passing three times. He threw 81 touchdowns and totaled more than 8,000 yards through the air.

    7. Johnny McNally

    "Blood" played for five different teams in his 14-year career. With the Packers, McNally was a member of four championship clubs, as he was their main tailback.

    8. Dan Fortmann

    The ninth-round pick went from obscurity to a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears. Fortmann was a six-time All-Pro team member.

    9. Joe Stydahar

    A 1967 enshrinee to Canton, Stydahar aided the Bears on both the offensive line as well as the defensive line. He later became a head coach with the Rams and Cardinals.

    10. Cliff Battles

    A six-year playing tenure with the Braves/Redskins resulted in a 4.2-yard rushing average. Battles also found the end zone 31 times.

The 1940s

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    1. Sammy Baugh

    Baugh was the first great passer in the annals of the NFL.

    Aside from his throwing prowess, Baugh also led the league in punting and interceptions.

    2. Steve Van Buren

    There's no question who the greatest Eagles running back is. Van Buren ran for 5,860 yards, won  four rushing titles and scored 464 points.

    He also led Philadelphia to back-to-back NFL championships.

    3. Sid Luckman

    The leader of the Chicago Bears offense, Luckman threw for more than 14,000 yards and 137 TDs.

    He was an NFL All-Pro five times and led the league in passing in three seasons.

    4. Bulldog Turner

    Turner did most of his work as a center, anchoring the Bears' outstanding offensive line. The 1966 Hall of Famer was a member of four NFL championship clubs and seven All-NFL teams.

    5. Bill Dudley

    The 1946 NFL MVP gained 8,217 yards, scored 478 points and had 23 interceptions during his nine-year career. "Bullet Bill" donned the colors of the Steelers, Redskins and Lions.

    6. George McAfee

    Naval service in World War II prevented him from being on the football field during his peak years.

    However, McAfee still totaled 5,313 yards, 25 interceptions and an NFL-record 12.78-yard punt return average.

    7. Tony Canadeo

    One of five Packers to have his number retired by the storied franchise, Canadeo arrived in Green Bay in 1946 after five years of military service.

    He was the third player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season.

    8. Charley Trippi

    The Georgia standout is the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with 1,000 yards of receiving, 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.

    In the 1947 NFL championship, Trippi had two punt returns for touchdowns as the Cardinals won their only league title.

    9. Marion Motley

    One of four players to break the professional football barrier in 1946, Motley was a wrecking ball with the pigskin.

    Playing all but one season with the Cleveland Browns, he finished his career with 828 carries for 4,720 yards.

    10. Bob Waterfield

    The Rams' rookie quarterback in 1945 made a great first impression. Waterfield not only won the league's MVP, but his team also won the NFL title.

    He was an All-Pro three times, throwing for 11,849 yards and 97 touchdowns.

The 1950s

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    1. Otto Graham

    Graham has to be the most underrated quarterback in NFL history.

    There's no overlooking him here. He threw for 23,584 yards and helped lead the Cleveland Browns to a staggering seven league titles.

    2. Dick "Night Train" Lane

    It's hard to believe that "Night Train" went undrafted, especially when you consider that he intercepted 14 passes in his rookie campaign of 1952.

    He had 68 picks in his career and was also one of the game's most feared tacklers.

    3. Chuck Bednarik

    "The last of the 60-minute men" is one proud distinction for one of the game's ultimate tough guys. Bednarik led the Eagles as both a center and a linebacker, earning eight Pro Bowl selections.

    4. Gino Marchetti

    He would be double-teamed with regularity—to little avail. Marchetti reached 11 Pro Bowls and the All-NFL squad nine times.

    5. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch

    Starting as a tailback, Hirsch moved to end just as he entered the prime of his career.

    In 1951, he compiled 17 receiving TDs as well as an NFL-record 1,495 receiving yards, a mark that held for 19 years.

    6. Johnny Unitas

    Johnny U quickly went from an unknown college player to a legend, one that started with his performance in the 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants.

    His record of 47 straight games with a TD pass began in 1956.

    7. Jim Brown

    From his pro debut in 1957 until the end of the decade, Brown made three Pro Bowls and won the NFL MVP twice. He was just getting started.

    8. Emlen Tunnell

    When he left the game, Tunnell was the NFL's all-time leader in interceptions with 79. As a member of the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, he made six All-NFL teams.

    9. Sam Huff

    A five-time Pro Bowler, Huff (along with Tunnell) made the Giants defense the first with a true identity. Aside from his tackling, he also recorded 30 interceptions.

    10. Norm Van Brocklin

    The fiery Van Brocklin helped turn the Rams into an air show. In fact, a 1951 contest saw him throw for a record 554 yards.

The 1960s

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    1. Jim Brown

    Not only is he the greatest running back of all time, he may very well be the best player ever.

    When his stellar nine-year career was said and done, Jim Brown held nearly every rushing record, as he had compiled more than 12,000 yards on the ground.

    2. Johnny Unitas

    It's hard to argue there was a better player at quarterbacking a two-minute drill. Unitas won the MVP award twice (1964, 1967) and made the Pro Bowl seven times during the decade.

    3. Dick Butkus

    Quite possibly the most feared tackler the game has ever seen, Butkus played all nine seasons as a member of the Chicago Bears, finishing with 1,020 tackles to his name.

    4. David "Deacon" Jones

    He didn't just invent the term "sack"—he perfected it.

    With his play on the field, he revolutionized the position of defensive end. 

    5. Gale Sayers

    Devin Hester may have surpassed Sayers in terms of kick/punt returns. However, Sayers was able to be just as dynamic as a running back.

    A career that was cut short ended with 9,435 combined net yards and 336 points scored.

    6. Bart Starr

    There were many Hall of Fame players on the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s, with Starr being one of them.

    He not only won the MVP of the first two Super Bowls; he also engineered a classic drive in the iconic Ice Bowl.

    7. Forrest Gregg

    Protecting Starr and blocking for the famed Packer sweep was Gregg, the player that Vince Lombardi noted was the greatest player he ever coached.

    He was a first-team All-Pro selection seven times in the decade.

    8. Ray Nitschke

    While Starr and Gregg were the leaders of the Green Bay offense, Nitschke was the face of the defense. He was a great tackler and also had 25 career interceptions.

    In 1962, Nitschke was the MVP of the Packers' NFL championship victory over New York.

    9. Bob Lilly

    The dominant force of the "Doomsday Defense" in Dallas, Bob Lilly was a first-team All-NFL choice every year from 1964 through 1969. He also played in 196 consecutive regular season games.

    10. Merlin Olsen

    The two main components of the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" were Deacon Jones and Olsen. The latter made eight of his 14 straight Pro Bowls in the '60s. He played all 15 seasons with Los Angeles.

The 1970s

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    1. Walter Payton

    From 1976 through 1979, "Sweetness" had at least 1,300 rushing yards in each season and scored 52 touchdowns.

    In his MVP season of 1977, Payton ran for 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings.

    2. Roger Staubach

    "Captain Comeback" was the perfect face for "America's Team." Staubach went to six Pro Bowls, won two championships and led the Cowboys to many thrilling victories.

    3. O.J. Simpson

    Simpson broke out in a big way in 1973.

    The Buffalo Bills running back became the first to run for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. He won four rushing titles during the decade.

    4. "Mean" Joe Greene

    When you think of the "Steel Curtain" defense, he's the first name that probably comes to mind.

    The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year recorded 78.5 sacks, as Pittsburgh was the team of the '70s.

    5. Jack Ham

    Greene didn't do it alone. Ham was a product of Penn State's linebacker factory, and he took the skills he learned in college and applied them brilliantly in the NFL.

    6. Art Shell

    He and Gene Upshaw made the 1976 Oakland Raiders the best offensive line of all time. Shell reached the Pro Bowl eight times and was a first-team All-Pro selection on three occasions.

    7. Franco Harris

    Franco reached the Pro Bowl each season from 1972 to 1979. He rushed for 1,000 yards in a season eight times and was the MVP of the Steelers' first Super Bowl championship.

    8. Ken Houston

    As a star with both the Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins, Houston had 49 interceptions in 196 games played.

    As a member of the burgundy and gold, he reached seven consecutive Pro Bowls.

    9. Dave Casper

    At the start of his third pro season (1976), Casper earned a spot as the starting tight end with the Raiders.

    He took full advantage, with 53 catches and 10 TDs in that year. He earned All-Pro honors from 1976 through '79, as he hauled in 220 receptions and 28 TDs through the remainder of the 1970s.

    10. Terry Bradshaw

    Aside from the legendary defense and the fantastic running game, the Steelers had the arm of Bradshaw.

    The top pick in the 1970 NFL draft, he won two Super Bowl MVPs and threw for nearly 28,000 yards.

The 1980s

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    1. Joe Montana

    Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Montana has four Super Bowl rings and won the NFL MVP in 1989.

    The 49ers dynasty of this decade would not have been possible without the greatness of No. 16.

    2. Lawrence Taylor

    L.T. was one of the rare players who could dominate a game on the defensive side of the ball.

    The 10-time Pro Bowler averaged just over 15 sacks per season from 1985 through 1989.

    3. Jerry Rice

    The 1985 season saw Rice named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Two years later, in a strike-shortened 1987 season, he had 1,078 receiving yards and a then-record 22 touchdown receptions in just 12 games.

    4. Walter Payton

    Continuing to churn out consistent performances running the football, Payton's best season of the '80s came when he compiled 1,684 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    He also finally got a ring with the legendary 1985 Bears and retired as the all-time rushing leader.

    5. Ronnie Lott

    The six-time member of the first-team All-Pro squad excelled as a cornerback in his early seasons. In 1985, he moved to safety and only added to his legacy as one of the game's greatest defensive backs.

    6. Reggie White

    When the USFL folded, Reggie signed with Philadelphia. The Eagles' all-time sacks leader had a staggering 21 of them in the 12-game campaign of '87.

    7. Anthony Munoz

    The USC product was a severe injury concern coming out of college. However, he missed just three games during his first 12 seasons.

    Instead of spending time on the trainer's table, he spent plenty of time on Pro Bowl rosters. Munoz made nine trips to Honolulu during the decade.

    8. Dan Marino

    Marino proved to be an instant success as the Dolphins' starting quarterback.

    His second season (1984) was the greatest by a quarterback in this 10-year era. Marino threw for 48 touchdowns and 5,084 yards.

    9. Eric Dickerson

    He also had a pretty good 1984. In that season, Dickerson ran for 2,105 yards (still an NFL record).

    In his four-plus years as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, he scored 56 touchdowns rushing.

    10. John Hannah

    On 10 occasions, Hannah was named one of the guards to make the NFL All-Pro First Team. Six of those times occurred in this decade.

    Hannah retired following the 1985 season, one in which his New England Patriots reached Super Bowl XX.

The 1990s

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    1. Jerry Rice

    There are debates regarding the best players at most positions—with one exception.

    Jerry Rice is the most dominant to ever play wide receiver.

    And the 1990s were his most dominant decade.

    2. Barry Sanders

    No running back was as exciting to watch as Barry Sanders. He led the league in rushing four times, including the 1997 season, in which he ran for 2,053 yards.

    3. Emmitt Smith

    He made nine Pro Bowls over the course of the 10-year period. He also helped turn the Dallas Cowboys back into "America's Team."

    Now, Smith is the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

    4. Brett Favre

    A winner of three straight MVP awards (1995-97), Favre piloted the Green Bay Packers to their first Lombardi Trophy in nearly 30 years with a victory in Super Bowl XXXI.

    5. John Elway

    One year later, it was finally Elway's turn. The Super Bowl XXXII win was special, but his career was punctuated with another title the very next year.

    6. Bruce Smith

    Smith played a huge role in the Buffalo Bills' unprecedented run of four straight Super Bowl appearances. The all-time sacks leader had 10 or more in eight seasons during the decade.

    7. Rod Woodson

    The leader in interception returns for touchdowns did most of his destruction to opposing pass offenses throughout the 1990s.

    In 1993, he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

    8. Deion Sanders

    "Prime Time" flashed his many talents with the Atlanta Falcons. Then he helped the 49ers to the Super Bowl XXIX title.

    The next year, Sanders was holding up the trophy as a member of the Cowboys. He remains the greatest cover corner in NFL history.

    9. Bruce Matthews

    The ultra-consistent Matthews matched Merlin Olsen's record of 14 consecutive Pro Bowls as a member of the Oilers/Titans. His prowess on the offensive line earned him Hall of Fame induction in 2007.

    10. Reggie White

    Reggie took his talents from Philadelphia to Green Bay after the 1992 season. He didn't slow down much and, in fact, won his first ring with the Packers' triumph in Super Bowl XXXI.

The 2000s

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    1. Peyton Manning

    Manning and Tom Brady was the best individual rivalry of the decade.

    No surprise that they're No. 1 and 2 on this list.

    Peyton gets the edge with his statistics. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in all but one year in that 10-year span.

    2. Tom Brady

    Of course, Brady gets the edge in terms of rings.

    His 2007 effort was one for the record books, as he threw for 50 touchdowns and helped the Patriots to a perfect regular season.

    3. LaDainian Tomlinson

    The most recent version of L.T. made the Chargers' running game an explosive one.

    He was a five-time Pro Bowl member during the decade and in 2006 he set the record for most touchdowns scored (31) and most yards from scrimmage (2,323).

    4. Ray Lewis

    In his 16th season, Lewis is still going strong.

    In 2000, the middle linebacker was part of one of the most dominant defenses in modern football. The Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXV that year, and Lewis was the game's MVP.

    5. Marvin Harrison

    One reason why Peyton Manning was so effective was the fact that he had a receiver as talented as Harrison.

    The former Syracuse standout was an eight-time All-Pro selection during the decade and had a record 143 receptions in 2002.

    6. Alan Faneca

    The Pittsburgh Steelers' ground game worked because of Faneca's blocking ability. He made nine Pro Bowls with the black and gold as well as with the New York Jets.

    7. Tony Gonzalez

    We're all glad he didn't play basketball. The Chiefs and Falcons are glad too.

    Gonzalez holds Kansas City records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

    8. Randy Moss

    His 1998 rookie season was something else. He maintained a high level of play after that with five Pro Bowls and the NFC Player of the Year Award in 2003.

    9. Derrick Brooks

    On six occasions, the Tampa Bay linebacker reached the NFL All-Pro squad. In 2002, he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year as the Buccaneers went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII.

    10. Champ Bailey

    In an era when the passing game is king, Bailey is one of the few that has been able to contain it to a degree.

    The No. 7 overall pick in 1999 has starred with both the Washington Redskins and (currently) the Denver Broncos, having snatched 50 interceptions.

The 2010s

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    1. Aaron Rodgers

    The Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLV has started the second year of the decade in about as fine of fashion as one could hope—327.4 passing yards per game, 24 passing touchdowns, three interceptions and a 72.5 percent completion rate.

    2. Tom Brady

    The man who won three rings in the 2000s had 57 touchdown passes to his credit in the first two years of the 2010s. He also has a league MVP to boot.

    3. DeMarcus Ware

    Arguably the best pass-rusher in the game, Ware has followed up last year's 15.5-sack campaign with 12 so far this season.

    4. Arian Foster

    For all those that thought his breakout performance in 2010 was a fluke, the Texans running back has 656 rushing yards and five TDs in seven contests.

    5. Calvin Johnson

    "Megatron" is the main offensive threat in the revival of the long-slumbering Detroit Lions. Johnson has already surpassed last year's efforts with 100.5 receiving yards per game and 11 scores.

    6. Ray Lewis

    Lewis continues to cement his name as one of the all-time great linebackers.

    He continues to be a major reason why the Baltimore Ravens are consistently one of the NFL's premier defensive units.

    7. Darrelle Revis

    He continues to be one of the least-targeted defenders in the league.

    There's good reason not to throw in his direction. In 2010, Revis allowed just 19 receptions against him.

    8. Adrian Peterson

    It's not his fault that the Minnesota Vikings are sinking downward. Peterson is fourth-best when it comes to rushing yardage this season.

    9. Drew Brees

    Interceptions aside, Brees can still sling it. The leader of a potent offensive attack, No. 9 has thrown for more than 7,600 yards in the past year and a half.

    10. Ed Reed

    One of the league's best safeties hasn't slowed down much. Reed had eight interceptions in 2010 and has 31 tackles already in 2011.