Back in August I spent a little time breaking players down by position to create my list of the 100 greatest players in NFL history. My plan was to post this before the 2019 season started to celebrate 100 years of the league, but then I ran into a familiar problem of not being sure how to rank one player over another when they play different positions.
For example, I knew I would have more quarterbacks (15) than any other position. However, just because I favor Roger Staubach over John Elway, does that mean I like both over Jack Lambert, my No. 4 linebacker, or does Lambert belong somewhere between the two? Also, thought was given to extending the list to 101 players and starting it with Patrick Mahomes just because of how absurd the start to his career was coming into 2019. I’m not doing that, but he is off the charts so far.
So as a late Christmas gift, you are getting my list today. After seeing the way the NFL has rolled out its controversial top 100, I decided to just rank the players by position instead of a 1-100 ranking. I’ve already made my share of comments on here and Twitter about the NFL Network’s list, and some of those will be repeated here. I expect about 66 of my players to match the 100 on here:
As far as how I arrived at my 100 players, I did not purposely neglect the early decades. I absolutely did place an emphasis on players who were truly dominant and stood out despite having so many worthy peers to compete with for honors and statistics. I can honestly say I’m not too interested in what a two-way lineman from the 1920s did, but I feel like I still included enough pioneers of the game who deserve honor in 2019. I also wasn’t going to neglect this past decade and the players who have already carved an incredible legacy.
I am not a ring counter, but I respect a player’s contribution towards winning. There’s no fancy formula or system I use to rank players, but I try to take everything I’ve learned from research into consideration from stats, eye test, peak performances, longevity, durability, awards, rings, how quickly they made the Hall of Fame, and how the player was perceived during his career. When we’re only picking 100, we should be focusing on first-ballot HOF types.
The choice to keep comments open may be one I regret, but let’s do this. Scroll to the bottom (or click here) if you want to see my full list of the top 100 players in NFL history.
- Peyton Manning
- Joe Montana
- Johnny Unitas
- Drew Brees
- Tom Brady
- Dan Marino
- Steve Young
- Roger Staubach
- Brett Favre
- Aaron Rodgers
- Sammy Baugh
- Fran Tarkenton
- Ben Roethlisberger
- John Elway
- Otto Graham
My last real post about the top quarterbacks in NFL history is over four years old and a Part II was never made. You can read that if you want, but the fact is my thoughts have changed a lot since September 2015. Sure, my top 15 quarterbacks are the same group of players, and my top three hasn’t changed. However, nearly five full seasons have been played since and even just fundamentally I am seeing things a bit differently now.
I may be even more down on rings for quarterbacks than I was in 2015. This comes after watching Zombie Manning win his second, the Falcons handing Brady another after he turned a game-ending pick into a 23-yard catch by Julian Edelman, Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP, and Brady again cementing his legacy as the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl by scoring 13 offensive points (for the second time). When 2016 Matt Ryan and 2018 Patrick Mahomes turn in two of the greatest QB seasons ever and don’t even get the ball in overtime in championship game losses, what are we really accomplishing by putting everything on rings?
Sustained peak play is also something I value more now, so that will definitely come up when we get into the middle of the list here.
1-3: No Changes (Manning-Montana-Unitas)
I still have Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas as my top three quarterbacks of all time, which has been the case for quite a while now.
3. Johnny Unitas
Unitas always deserves respect for being the game’s first true field general. He called the shots and is regarded as having created the two-minute drill. His championship game performances against the Giants are the stuff of legends. He led the league in touchdown passes four years in a row. He threw 32 touchdowns in a 12-game season in 1959. He was as good as anyone when it came to throwing game-winning touchdown passes. He was a five-time All-Pro and three-time MVP winner. He succeeded with multiple coaches. The only real knock on him would be that his career was in the gutter after Year 12 and his playoff games after 1959 were rough, but what a run it was before that. He would have loved to play in this era with more passing, more shotgun, better kickers, wild cards, etc. In his last great season (All Pro in 1967), Unitas led the Colts to an 11-1-2 record that wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. Imagine that now. Unitas would have routinely been in the playoffs in a league with expansion.
2. Joe Montana
Montana was a great fit for Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, displaying elite accuracy, decision making and underrated mobility for years in San Francisco. He put up great numbers and won two Super Bowls even before the team drafted Jerry Rice in 1985. Montana proved he could win big without Walsh as he did in 1989, his most dominant season and first MVP. Montana also showed later in Kansas City after major injuries that he could still lead a team to success, getting the cursed Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game immediately in 1993. Like Unitas, Montana was great at throwing game-winning touchdowns in the clutch. His playoff runs over the 1988-1993 seasons were incredible. Durability was a knock as Montana did miss roughly 55 games to injury in his career. So he never threw for 4,000 yards and only hit 30 touchdown passes once, but he was the most efficient passer of his era.
1. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning played the position at a higher level more consistently for a longer period of time than any quarterback in NFL history. He was the most individually-honored QB of all time with seven first-team All-Pro seasons and five MVP awards. He could have easily had eight of each (see 2005, 2006 and 2012). He struggled the first six games of his career before improving and setting numerous rookie records in 1998 at a time when rookies rarely did anything in the NFL. He didn’t struggle consistently like that again until 2015 when he was 39 and his body was failing him. He still led the Broncos to five late wins in the fourth quarter that year to help win a second Super Bowl before retiring.
Manning’s career path is most enviable, if not logical. He was at his worst as an infant and an elder, and still came away with records and a ring in those two seasons. For the 15 seasons in between, he was the most valuable player in NFL history. We’ll likely never see another quarterback take four different head coaches (from two franchises) to a Super Bowl like Manning did. He was the system, and it fell apart any time he was taken out of the game for playoff rest or when he missed the 2011 season for the 2-14 Colts. He couldn’t even leave a game for one play with a broken jaw without the offense fumbling in the fourth quarter to lead to a game-losing touchdown. No player took on a heavier burden and won as often as Manning did. He was also 89-0 when his team allowed fewer than 17 points in a game he finished. No one was better at making sure a strong defensive effort resulted in a win.
We’ll likely never see another quarterback break the passing touchdown record twice like Manning did, including 2013 when he threw 55 scores and the most yards ever in a season with marginal arm strength at best. The way he tailored his game in Denver to throw with even more anticipation was amazing.
In his physical prime in Indianapolis, Manning led the Colts to at least 12 wins in every season from 2003 to 2009. They were almost never out of any game then, including that 21-point comeback in the final four minutes in Tampa Bay in 2003 or the 18-point comeback win over the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. With most quarterbacks you can turn the game off with a big deficit in the fourth quarter, but Manning was the best at making those games uncomfortable for the opponent.
Aside from maybe Dan Marino, Manning was the toughest quarterback to pressure and sack, always making life easier for any offensive line put in front of him. He called his own shots like Unitas in an era that’s increasingly gone towards radio communication telling the QB what to run. The Colts took the no-huddle offense to new heights in the 2000s. Manning was so uniquely talented that he even made the end zone fade — one of football’s worst play calls — a useful weapon thanks to the work he put in with Marvin Harrison before games. Manning’s work ethic, accuracy and consistency helped make millionaires and household names out of numerous coaches and teammates. When a putz like Adam Gase brags about being rich, he can thank Manning for their time in Denver.
The bugaboo for Manning will always be the 14-13 playoff record and the nine one-and-done postseasons, but the fact is he was one of the best playoff quarterbacks in NFL history too with numerous records there. As I solved before Super Bowl 50, the record number of playoff losses (13) are a combo of making the playoffs more often than anyone with teams that sometimes had no business being there, and losing several of the most highly-contested opening-round games to good teams. Most players aren’t opening their playoffs against the 99 Titans, 05 Steelers, 07 Chargers, or 12 Ravens. Other quarterbacks would have their close calls in the later rounds of the playoffs, but Manning saw five of his record six blown fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs happen in opening games. Only one other QB in NFL history (Warren Moon, 3) had more than two such games. In years where Manning got past the first game, his teams were 13-4 in the playoffs and 2-2 in the Super Bowl.
The detractors have to stick with poor box-score scouting of playoff games and remembering things like Tracy Porter and Ty Law (but forgetting the picks the 2003 Colts didn’t make that day) because that’s all they have left. Year after year Manning erased the arguments against him:
- They said Manning was only good because of RB Edgerrin James (see record in 1998 and 2001 without him), so Manning immediately won his first Super Bowl after Edge left in 2006.
- They said Manning was only good because he had a left tackle like Tarik Glenn, so after Glenn retired he kept things going and even won an MVP with noted bust Tony Ugoh as his left tackle in 2008. He also improved his pocket movement after the 2005 Pittsburgh loss.
- They said Manning would miss the calming presence of Tony Dungy and his all-time leading receiver Marvin Harrison after retirement in 2009. He only started that season 14-0 with the corpse of Jim Caldwell on the sideline and by integrating Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie seamlessly into the offense.
- They said Manning’s QB whisperer Tom Moore was the key to his success in Indianapolis, but Manning set up shot without Moore in Denver and immediately got the desired results for a franchise that tried to run a 1930s offense with Tim Tebow in 2011.
- They said Manning had great stats because he played in a dome in Indianapolis, so after diminished arm strength following four neck surgeries, he led one of the most dominant passing offenses in NFL history for three years in Denver outdoors. Several of his worst games in that uniform came indoors as a visitor.
The only thing Manning didn’t prove is that he can still play at a high level thru age 39 and beyond like Favre, Brady and Brees have. Then again, they’re the only three on my list to do that, so it’s not a deal-breaker.
Manning is the easiest quarterback to defend because his success isn’t dependent on one constant coach, team, owner or any factor but his own hard work and skill. He wasn’t the most durable, but he was more durable and harder to replace than Montana. He wasn’t washed after Year 12 like Unitas nor did he peak in his first five years like Marino. His peak was far longer than the eight years of relevance Young gave us. He didn’t need four years to break out like Brees did and 7-9 seasons were beneath him. There were some throws he’d like to have back, but that’s true for all of these guys, and there were fewer regrets than Favre had. He also didn’t have Bill Belichick holding his hand for two decades like Brady. We didn’t have years of “What’s wrong with Peyton?” articles like we’ve had with Aaron Rodgers since 2015, because the decline was so rapid.
Manning ascended to the top of the game quickly, stayed there for a long time, and then fell off the cliff in a hurry. Maybe another quarterback with the initials P.M. will wipe Manning out of the record books in the next 15-20 years. But for the first 100 years of NFL history, the only clear GOAT to me is Peyton Manning. Period.
4-6: I Want to Watch the World Burn (Brees-Brady-Marino)
Good news for Brady fans: this is the first time you’ve seen me rank Brady ahead of Dan Marino. Bad news for Brady fans: I put Drew Brees ahead of them both, which you might have expected was coming from my recent look at Brees as the Hypothetical GOAT. You can read that for more context on the crazy amount of records Brees owns so I don’t need to repeat them here.
My very recent epiphany on this was that Brees is having the career we wish Marino had. Don’t get me wrong when it comes to Marino’s greatness. If Marino played now he would be battling Brees for the most 5,000-yard passing seasons and would still be incredibly hard to sack with his quick release. But why do we seemingly only do this “if he played now” thing with Marino and never with Unitas or Montana or even 1983 classmate Elway? It’s always the hypothetical for Marino, the best to never win a Super Bowl, or something Brees actually has done and could still do again.
My justification for putting Marino ahead of Brady all these years was that he was a better passer surrounded by far worse teams, especially on defense. If it was a close playoff game, Marino always did his job. He just wasn’t always close or in the playoffs often enough because he didn’t have enough help around him.
This argument actually works better for Brees, who has seen more great seasons and games go to waste than any QB in NFL history. Sean Payton has just never done much to coach up the defense in New Orleans. Brees won three passing titles in a row in 2014-16 for teams that never won more than seven games in any of those seasons. Brees has been saddled five times with a defense that ranked 31st or 32nd in points per drive allowed. As I already explained a few weeks ago, Brees has the most fourth-quarter comebacks in NFL history, but not the most comeback wins.
In the playoffs, Brees actually has better efficiency stats than Brady and Marino. Brees is one of 12 quarterbacks to appear in at least eight different postseasons (he’ll make his ninth this year). He’s the only QB out of those 12 who can say he’s never had a bad postseason. The closest was 2013, but in two road games he still pulled out one late win in Philadelphia before struggling with Seattle’s vaunted defense. The guy just doesn’t have duds in January, and I’m sure I’m jinxing myself here but it’s a fact so far.
Brees has been on the losing end of many heartbreakers in the playoffs. Brees lost his first playoff game (2004 NYJ) after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal in overtime. He threw for over 400 yards and scored 36 points in Seattle, but it wasn’t enough because of the Beastquake. He is the only quarterback to lose a playoff game after throwing two go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter because of what Alex Smith did to his defense in the final two minutes. Then we have the last couple of years with the Minnesota Miracle (only walk-off TD in 4Q in playoff history) and the sham of no DPI on the Rams that would have enabled the Saints to kick a last-second field goal and get to another Super Bowl.
While Brees continues to excel at 40, Marino peaked very early with that 1984 sophomore season and never got back to the Super Bowl. His first five years are significantly better than the rest of his career. He struggled at 38 and retired. One of the most nonsensical things is when people say “Marino would throw for 6,000 yards and 60 TD if he played today.” No, he wouldn’t. Even though passing stats continued to get better throughout Marino’s career, his own numbers did not. Maybe that was from a decline of the talent around him a la Rodgers in Green Bay right now (see below), but he never really found that resurgence outside of his 1994 season when he came back from the Achilles injury. Why would Marino throw for more than Brees and Peyton ever did when he was barely ahead of the pace of Moon and Kelly in the 90s?
Meanwhile, Brees was the best QB not named Mahomes in 2018 and should have been back to the Super Bowl. He was injured this year, but is back to being a top passer again. Even if he was fully healthy he’d probably still be denied MVP because of what Lamar Jackson did, which is just the kind of luck Brees has had in his career.
Brees’ continued excellence and success that would be even greater if he had better teammates gives him my Marino argument, except his case is even better. So that’s really why I swapped him into Marino’s spot at No. 4 ahead of Brady. The biggest knock on Brees is really the length of time it took him to get to a high level of play.
Brees didn’t do himself any favors in that he played one game as a rookie, was middling at best in 2002, then played poorly and was benched in 2003. He finally broke out in 2004 and has played at a high level for the 16 seasons since. Meanwhile, Marino had that incredible start, but as I said, he never really had elite years down the stretch of his career. Brady also started off better than Brees, only hitting his low point this year at the age of 42. So early impressions have put Brees behind the eight ball here, but he’s continued to play at such a high level that he owns the all-time passing records and may never have to give them up to Brady if he puts it far enough out of reach.
The concept of Brady chasing Brees is wild given how it’s really always been the other way around due to how their careers started. Perception is a hell of a drug in the NFL. By the time Brees finally showed us he was good (2004), Brady had already won two Super Bowls. After Brees’ first year in New Orleans, big things were expected, but 2007 actually proved to be his worst season as a Saint with a poor 0-4 start. Meanwhile, Brady exploded that year with by far his best season with 50 touchdown passes. Then after Brees was Super Bowl MVP in 2009, big things were again expected with him set to join the ranks of Manning and Brady at the top. However, 2010 proved to be Brees’ second-weakest season as a Saint while Brady had a hot eight-game finish to claim his second MVP award. Brees exploded in 2011 again, but Aaron Rodgers was just a hair better, so Brees again was second fiddle. Then a lot of those seven-win seasons started for the Saints and it wasn’t until 2017 that they started consistently winning again. Meanwhile the Patriots are in at least the AFC Championship Game every year since 2011.
Over the last three years Brees’ passer rating is 15 points higher than Brady’s (111.1 to 96.1). If we continue working backwards from 2019, Brees has a higher rating than Brady for every single year back to 2001. However, we experienced their careers in the normal order where Brady was higher every year from 2002 through 2017. Brees didn’t surpass him until 2018.
Now how could I put Brees ahead of Brady when the MVP count is 3-0? Even with Marino it’s 1-0. That one’s simple. I think their top seasons match up very well, and Brees’ lack of MVPs is a case of bad luck. Several of his best years coincided with someone else having a career year like Mahomes in 2018 or Rodgers in 2011. Then he’s also been bitten by Peyton a couple of times. Meanwhile, I think Brady was a default MVP in 2010 and 2017 since no other candidate stayed healthy or was worthy enough that year. In the end, I think Brady (2007) and Marino (1984) have the best individual seasons (2007) between the three, but seasons from Brees like 2009, 2011 and 2018 are all better years than Brady’s MVP years of 2010 and 2017. Marino’s only other MVP argument would have been 1986, but he missed the playoffs at 8-8. So I don’t think the MVP argument is a valid one for Brees vs. Brady/Marino like it would be for Brees vs. Peyton/Unitas/Montana.
Sadly, it looks more and more likely that Brees will be left off the NFL’s top 100 as I have been saying for weeks. It’s a tough list to crack and people have stronger biases than usual when it comes to quarterbacks. Brees has had the misfortune of trying to shine in an era with three other all-time greats, but I just don’t know how anyone could look at the body of work and how he’s played and not be super impressed. Most accurate quarterback of all time and most prolific passer of all time are worth celebrating.
Some quarterbacks simply receive more help and have better luck than others. These things do not just even out, even over two decades in the league. It’s true that I don’t think I can use my method of changing one play (usually one that has nothing to do with the QB too) to change enough outcomes to get any other QB in nine Super Bowls like Brady. But I know I just have to change the Tuck Rule/Vinatieri’s kick (2001), Lee Evans in the end zone (2011), and Dee Ford offsides (2018) and I already have Brady down to a 4-2 Super Bowl record. Don’t even get me started on the 2014 Seahawks and 2016 Falcons not committing to the run when they should have, or Drew Bennett in 2003 (Titans) or #MylesJackWasntDown in 2017. The list just goes on and on for what I call the Coin Flip Dynasty in New England. Meanwhile, I could find a few more title games and possible Super Bowls for Manning and Brees quite easily.
That’s how I don’t get caught up in counting Super Bowls for this list. I can look at how the QB performed individually and asses how much help they had to win or lose the game. We know Brady isn’t blowing away his peers in any statistic except for the one that says New England wins the most in practically every situation.
The one stat the QB has the least control over should not be the centerpiece for his greatness. That’s been my argument for Marino over Brady, but it’s better applied to Brees now.
7-10: The Curious Case of Aaron Rodgers
Here’s an interesting one. Roger Staubach and Steve Young are similar in that they were the most efficient passer of their decade while also being really good at scrambling. Both had shorter-lived runs as starters for various reasons, but they rarely left you disappointed. The Green Bay quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, also showed some dominance with multiple MVP awards and a flair for extending plays. They however couldn’t be any more different when it comes to interception avoidance. Maybe Rodgers learned from watching Favre slump through a bad 2005 season as a rookie, but we know he’s very protective of the ball and will throw it away or take sacks at a higher level than he should. Favre was the ultimate gunslinger, but he paid for that a lot too. You had more exciting comebacks with Favre, but also some really tough losses after bad interceptions.
With Staubach, we basically had eight relevant seasons with only one of those (1974) seeing him have subpar stats and missing the playoffs. With Young, his peak in San Francisco was also eight years (1991-98) and it’s one of the best eight-year runs you’ll ever see. I think only 2003-2010 Manning exceeds it. Young, Favre and Rodgers are three of the best ever one-ring QBs. Favre’s Packers (and Aikman’s Cowboys) actually had a lot to do with Young only starting one Super Bowl. It’s one of the biggest disappointments this decade that the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers.
Favre obviously has the ironman streak and longevity in his favor. The thought was that Rodgers could provide 15 years of standout play despite having to wait until his fourth season to start a game thanks to Favre. However, it has been a strange path. Most all-time great quarterbacks don’t have to wait as long to start as Rodgers did. Most never come close to the peak run Rodgers had in 2009-2014, which I have dubbed as Peak Aaron Rodgers. Then we have the last five years that have taken place since I last ranked quarterbacks. Ever since that 6-0 start in 2015 without Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has seen his stats take a major nosedive from his lofty standards. In his last 64 regular season games, starting with that embarrassing night in Denver (2015), his YPA is just 7.05. Rodgers has had the lowest TD% of his career in the last two seasons.
Blame has made its rounds everywhere. Former head coach Mike McCarthy took the brunt of it, but under new coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers is having a very familiar 2019 season that looks a lot like last year. The difference is the defense has been much better and the schedule more favorable. We have metrics to show the offensive line is pretty good. Aaron Jones has been an impressive running back as the running game has been blamed for this decline even though Rodgers rarely had one in his peak years.
I think there is something to be said for having the best and deepest receiving corps in the NFL when Peak Aaron Rodgers played, compared to now just having Davante Adams and some guys. That obviously doesn’t reflect greatly on Rodgers for not developing the receivers better, but he is clearly working with less than he had before. He’s also never been a huge fan of tight ends for some reason so Jimmy Graham hasn’t been much help there. I think this hurts him a bit in an era where Manning and Brees could seemingly plug anyone in and get production. Rodgers loves to extend plays and go off script, but the rewards just haven’t been there like they used to, and he misses having a threat like Jordy Nelson. Health concerns have also been present for Rodgers in some of these seasons.
I used to knock Rodgers for the lack of 4QC/GWDs. He’s improved there for sure, but some of it has come at the expense of his usual early-game dominance. Simply put, the Packers trail by bigger margins and more often now than they used to. So while it helps Rodgers get more big comeback opportunities like the ones he led last year against the Bears and Jets, it’s overall hurting the team that he’s just not as efficient as he used to be.
So it’s unusual to see such a great QB with these struggles in his ages 32-36 seasons. If Rodgers had a 15-year career that looked like his play for 2015-19, I’m not sure he’d be a HOFer. He might be short of the mark like Philip Rivers actually. I’ve been saying that the ways to get Peak Aaron Rodgers back come in only three forms. One is to change teams, which seems unlikely right now. Another was to change coaches, but again, that hasn’t done the trick yet. The third is for Green Bay to land a generational talent at receiver that can transform the offense. Unfortunately, players like this rarely come along (think Rob Gronkowski or Randy Moss). That might be the only hope.
Peak Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs we’ve ever seen, but this guy of the last five years is not. I’m keeping Favre ahead of him for now because not only did he have an MVP reign and great run in the 90s himself, but he rebounded later with a great season at 38 in 2007 and nearly had the Vikings in the Super Bowl when he was 40.
Rodgers will turn 37 next season. Does he have that kind of resurgence in him? Time will tell, but he still has an opportunity right now to turn in an impressive postseason no one really expected from Green Bay and get to another Super Bowl in February. Perhaps denying Brees a second trip would be a big win for Rodgers’ legacy.
11-15: Roethlisberger over Elway
Wrapping things up for quarterbacks, I’ve kept my order of Baugh > Tarkenton > Graham from 2015, but Elway has moved down from eighth and Roethlisberger has gone from 15th to 13th. I have known for years that I wanted to move Elway down more, but this did not prove to be perfect timing for the Roethlisberger push only because he suffered the first long-term injury of his career this year and missed all but 1.5 games.
Let’s not ignore the facts though. Roethlisberger and Elway have each played 16 seasons in the NFL. Roethlisberger expects to play at least a 17th too, so there’s no longevity dispute here. Elway has only appeared in 16 more regular-season games than Ben, but Ben already has more passing yards, more passing touchdowns, and he is only four wins behind Elway as a starter. They have the same number of comeback wins (34) and game-winning drives (46). Roethlisberger has one more lost comeback (9) than Elway (8), or games where the QB put his team ahead late but still lost.
Roethlisberger kills Elway in rate stats and top 5/10 finishes among his peers. Top 5 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has five to Elway’s two. Top 10 seasons in passing DVOA? Roethlisberger has 10 to Elway’s seven. Roethlisberger has finished 11th or better in passing DYAR (total value) in 14 of his 16 seasons, only missing in 2008 (23rd) and 2019 (IR). We don’t have any QBR data on Elway’s career, but chances are he wouldn’t finish that well in most years. Elway had more rushing production which could help, but he also fumbled 38 more times.
Beyond that, Roethlisberger didn’t need 11 seasons to start putting up efficient passing numbers like Elway, who had 158 touchdowns and 157 interceptions from 1983-1992. Look at this split for each quarterback’s first 10 seasons versus their 11th-16th seasons and how they ranked among their peers at that time (minimum 1,000 attempts for rate stats).
(Keep in mind Roethlisberger has had stiffer competition too with Brady, Brees and Rodgers in each split. Someone like Manning is replaced by Mahomes in the 2014-2019 split. Meanwhile, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell were two of the better quarterbacks in that 1993-1998 split for Elway, a bit of a down period for offenses league-wide.)
Roethlisberger immediately had great efficiency stats and was Offensive Rookie of the Year before later having the volume stats as well. He’s always had top 10 statistics while Elway was often poor for a decade among his peers before turning it on later when the Broncos eventually supplied him with a HOF tight end (Shannon Sharpe), HOF RB (Terrell Davis), HOF left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), HOF-caliber wideout (Rod Smith), and other good assets. Roethlisberger’s boost starting in 2014 was Le’Veon Bell becoming a capable receiver at running back, which he never had before in his career. The improved line and his personal change to get rid of the ball faster has resulted in far fewer sacks taken. The Steelers also had better skill weapons in recent years before Bell and Antonio Brown mentally imploded, but Roethlisberger has always helped his receivers excel. Santonio Holmes, Antwaan Randle El, Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant disappointed greatly after leaving Pittsburgh, and almost every draft prospect (mostly mid-round picks) has panned out thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s consistency. The only wideout who broke out somewhere else was Emmanuel Sanders in Denver (with Manning of course).
Roethlisberger didn’t need 15 seasons to win his first Super Bowl either. He needed two and then added a second in his fifth year with the greatest game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. If you want to say Roethlisberger sucked in his Super Bowl win against Seattle, that’s fine. Just admit the same for Elway against the 1997 Packers. The helicopter spin was cool, but it’s not a better play than the tackle Roethlisberger made to save Jerome Bettis’ legacy and his team’s ring in the playoffs in Indianapolis in 2005. While “The Drive” is an iconic moment for Elway, it didn’t directly win the game for Denver like Roethlisberger’s march and throw against Arizona.
Elway has his moments of lore, but so does Roethlisberger to anyone paying attention to the last 15 years of the NFL. This is the problem of playing in the same era as the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers. Yet Roethlisberger is the only QB in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games, which were all wins against winning teams, including the last-play touchdown to Mike Wallace against the 2009 Packers. He also has the most 450-yard games (7). He’s the only QB to ever throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, which was also done against playoff teams. He is tied with Brady for the third-most games of five touchdown passes (seven) in NFL history, and five of those games were nationally televised. He is tied with Peyton for the most 158.3 perfect passer rating games with four. He had a great game as a rookie to end New England’s historic 21-game winning streak. He led a memorable comeback to win the AFC North on Christmas in 2016, connecting with Antonio Brown in the final seconds. There was the slug-out win in Baltimore in 2008 with a Santonio Holmes touchdown breaking the plane late. He’s broken the hearts of Bengals and Ravens fans with nine game-winning drives against each.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t surprise me that Roethlisberger wasn’t even one of the 22 nominated names for this list by the NFL. He’s always been the Rodney Dangerfield of quarterbacks — no respect. But what factors other than nostalgia would make one choose Elway? Are an extra two Super Bowl losses the deciding factor? It’s not for me when I know that’s the result of Elway playing in a far weaker AFC where he took advantage of cursed Marty Schottenheimer teams like so many others would. Imagine if Elway had to deal with the Patriots and Manning-led teams like Roethlisberger has. Elway did nothing to break up Buffalo’s four-year run of winning the AFC. Elway wasn’t the only one who saw his defense implode in playoff games either, most notably those three Super Bowl losses. Roethlisberger is 13-1 in the playoffs when the Steelers allow no more than 24 points, but 0-7 when they allow 29-plus.
It’s hard to say how Roethlisberger, going on 38, will recover after surgery. The Steelers could also be in for some lean years with the Ravens running wild now and the Bengals probably drafting QB Joe Burrow with the top pick. The Super Bowl window may be closed for Ben, but he’s long since matched Elway in that “precious” ring category people care about.
It has been a pleasure watching Roethlisberger the last 15 years. It has been painful watching the Steelers try to operate an offense without him this season. That should earn him more respect, but we know that never seems to be the case despite all the evidence.
Running Backs (7)
- Barry Sanders
- Jim Brown
- Walter Payton
- Emmitt Smith
- Eric Dickerson
- LaDainian Tomlinson
- Marshall Faulk
My top three have been set in stone for quite a number of years now thanks to their pure domination and consistency. When it comes to No. 4 Emmitt Smith, I hear the arguments about the offensive line, but his longevity and durability were special. There’s no other way you get to be the all-time leading rusher without that. He was also the dominant, featured player in his offense at a time when his Cowboys were the most successful team in the NFL. The 90s were a peak time for workhorses and he won four rushing titles despite battling with the human highlight reel that was Barry Sanders. Eric Dickerson rounds out my top five, and he may be No. 1 if we just focused on his first six or seven seasons when he was so prolific and didn’t have much help from his passing game. His record of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984 still holds up and may never be broken (at least not in a 16-game season).
While the NFL included 12 backs, I only felt it was necessary to pick seven as I am a firm believer in the ease of replacement at the position. I also picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk to round out my list, which explains why I was so shocked to see neither make the NFL’s list. Both were league MVPs who set the single-season touchdown record and were prolific receivers as well. Faulk had that dominant 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season in 1999 that led to a Super Bowl win for his Rams. Tomlinson was insanely productive through seven seasons back at a time when the league was still filled with the workhorse back, a dying breed ever since.
You have to wonder if there was a personal vendetta against Faulk at the NFL Network to not honor him on this show due to his involvement in a sexual harassment case years ago. That would be a bit hypocritical for a show that had no problem bringing Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Lawrence Taylor on the studio and also talked about the inclusion of O.J. Simpson. Not to get on a moral high horse, but allegations of murder and physical/sexual assault against women are a serious matter.
Either way, I have no problem putting players who finished third and seventh in career touchdowns on my list. Tomlinson and Faulk were massive snubs by the NFL. I did not pick a back older than Brown, but I respect the NFL’s decision to include Steve Van Buren. I think that’s the right pre-1950 pick and I also like Lenny Moore a lot too as a big-play threat. I can even respect O.J. Simpson’s inclusion as he was a monster (on and off the field).
But again, I just do not love the position enough to include more than seven as I wanted to get more quarterbacks on my top 100.
Wide Receivers (10)
- Jerry Rice
- Randy Moss
- Don Hutson
- Terrell Owens
- Lance Alworth
- Calvin Johnson
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Julio Jones
- Marvin Harrison
- Cris Carter
For the record, if I was ranking all players 1-100, Jerry Rice would be my No. 1 overall player, the GOAT. You could kill a lot of time digging into his records and being amazed at how incredible his peak was and how he was the best Old Man WR in history too. One of the first football articles I ever did was about how unbreakable Rice’s records were. Even in this era of pass-happy offenses, it’s hard to see anyone playing now breaking his records. It would have to be someone who comes in later when the seasons are 18 games long. Hopefully that change never happens and someone beats him on merit instead of increased opportunities. If one record falls it would have to be receptions, but good luck to anyone on the yards and touchdowns. Not to mention all the playoff records.
I saw more of Randy Moss than I ever did Rice, but he’s my No. 2 because I think he had a tendency to take plays off. He basically quit on the 2006 Raiders, which maybe I can’t blame him for given his QB was Andrew Walter and his coach was Stuck in the 1990s Art Shell. But Moss was such a dangerous deep threat and I loved seeing him raise his hand almost instantly out of his break to get his QB’s attention to throw it. He might have sniffed Rice’s touchdown record if his career didn’t go haywire at age 33 (played for three teams in 2010), but that’s just another reason Rice is the GOAT.
Now that I hit on my two favorites, let’s circle back to the NFL’s very controversial list, which I had a somewhat viral tweet about in mocking the addition of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
In my opinion, my top five players should be locks for a top 10. The NFL didn’t go with Terrell Owens for probably some of the same reasons he had to wait years for the HOF. Perceived “bad teammate” stuff. As an on-field talent, the guy was amazing and excelled with several quarterbacks and franchises, and his teams generally won. His performance in the Super Bowl loss after a serious leg injury was also awe inspiring. T.O. can be in my top five for sure.
When it comes to 6-10, I think many players have a good argument. Wide receiver is a very difficult position to evaluate because their success is so dependent on the quarterback in a way that just isn’t true for RB/OL/TE (see my rant here). We have to consider the team’s pass-run ratio, the quality of the quarterback and other receivers, and did the receiver create a lot of YAC, score a lot of touchdowns, or did he just load up on short completions from the slot? There’s a lot more to evaluate here so it’s not surprising that the HOF has a difficult time with the position and so did this list.
For one, I think having five of the top 10 wide receivers of all time as white players is a head scratcher (unless that was the Bill Belichick Special given he’d include “Julian Welkendola” as a player if he could combine the three). Don Hutson and Lance Alworth were locks that I included in my top five. Hutson is basically the George Washington of the position, the first true great receiver. Alworth was an incredible deep threat and the best from the AFL era. I did not include Raymond Berry or Steve Largent on my list, but I at least see cases for them making the NFL’s list.
The one that bugged me was Crazy Legs Hirsch. He indisputably had one of the all-time great receiving seasons in 1951 with 1,495 yards and 17 TD in 12 games. But that was on a stacked, historically prolific passing team with two HOF passers. The competition also leaves something to be desired from that year. The Rams opened the season with the New York Yanks, a team that finished 1-9-2 and was defunct the following year. That’s the game where Norm Van Brocklin set the single-game record with 554 passing yards, and Hirsch had 173 yards and four touchdowns that day. Hirsch never came close to his 1951 numbers again and only had a couple other really strong seasons.
I get that they were trying to highlight different eras, but why so much focus on that time between Hutson and the pass-happy AFL that Alworth helped bring along? I would have ignored Hirsch’s era for sure, just like how they ignored the last dozen years when Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones were so outstanding, living up to the draft hype with their freakish talent. Calvin came the closest to a 2,000-yard season of anyone so far and retired early much like Detroit’s other great skill player (Barry Sanders). Julio doesn’t score touchdowns like you’d like to see, but it’s hard to argue with his NFL record average of 96.4 receiving yards per game. He is looking to finish in the top three in yards for the sixth time this year. That’s big when you consider Larry Fitzgerald has only finished in the top three one time in his career (he has been fourth a total of three times). This gets back to how voters don’t seem to properly understand how to evaluate a player relative to his peers in this era.
Fitzgerald made my list too even though he’s less dominant than most of the other guys. His hands are amazing, he’s been very durable, and his playoff performances were nothing short of historic. Cris Carter also made my list for his ability to score a ton of touchdowns with various quarterbacks. I’ve always had him ranked ahead of the likes of Tim Brown and Michael Irvin. Sterling Sharpe would get more respect if injury didn’t stop him early, but he should be in Canton.
Then there’s Marvin Harrison. I’ve said that the best WR in NFL history, statistically, would be Peyton Manning’s No. 1 WR. Harrison was fortunate to get the biggest chunk of those seasons as he lit up the record books with Manning in Indy. Harrison’s playoff struggles are hard to explain, but it’s hard to argue with his 1999-2006 peak when he averaged 105 catches, 1,425 yards and 13 TD per 16 games.
Tight Ends (6)
- Rob Gronkowski
- Tony Gonzalez
- Antonio Gates
- John Mackey
- Kellen Winslow
- Mike Ditka
This was probably the least disagreeable position on the NFL Top 100. They only selected five players, but I had the same five plus Antonio Gates, who played college basketball in case you forgot. Shannon Sharpe would also be an honorable mention, but I like this list.
Gronk was the GOAT and the numbers would be even more stunning if he wasn’t injured so often. But when playing he was the best. Think of Tony Gonzalez as Arnold’s T-800 model of Terminator. Iconic and durable. Got the job done. But Gronk was the T-1000, except he’d rather melt into a puddle of goo off the field than continue risking his body after yet another Super Bowl win. Man, it sure is funny how the two most stat-inflating receivers of the last two decades (Moss and Gronk) played at their peak with the quarterback who “never has any weapons” in New England.
John Mackey has one of the best highlight reels of any player in NFL history. He was an OG like Mike Ditka, and Kellen Winslow took things to another level in Air Coryell’s offense as a receiving tight end. A relatively newer position than the others, it wasn’t hard to come up with the tight ends.
OFFENSIVE LINE (19)
Before we get into the OL positions, I want to acknowledge that it’s still the unit we have the least data for, especially for past decades. At least we have new game charting metrics for blown blocks and rates of snaps won in pass blocking, but we’re still pretty much in the dark on most decades of NFL history. So excellence at these positions have largely been defined by draft status, games started/longevity, and Pro Bow/All Pro honors. We know that can be very dubious, such as Maurkice Pouncey making eight Pro Bowls largely on the fact that the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2010 rather than his actual play. So when I’m picking an offensive lineman, I try to pick someone who contributed to successful offenses while also garnering a lot of individual honors, but again I think a lot of us are simply guessing when it comes to these positions.
Offensive Tackle (7)
- Anthony Munoz
- Orlando Pace
- Jonathan Ogden
- Willie Roaf
- Joe Thomas
- Forrest Gregg
- Jim Parker
The NFL list had seven tackles too, though we only agreed on three of them. Sort of. Jim Parker made my list here, but the NFL list put him at guard where he also played. He was Johnny Unitas’ left tackle during the title years in Baltimore. Point is he’s on this top 100 list. My top pick was Anthony Munoz who seems to be the consensus for the best tackle ever.
It was surprising not to see Orlando Pace on the NFL’s list. He was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and really highlighted that great run on tackles in the late 90s with Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Tony Boselli, etc. I have no problem including someone from the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
Joe Thomas did not make the NFL’s list, which is another slap in the face to modern players since he was retired at the time they voted. Thomas went to 10 Pro Bowls and 6 first-team All-Pros for the freakin’ Browns, their best player by far since returning to the league in 1999. He never missed a snap until 2017. He’s a first-ballot HOF lock and in an era where a lot of tackles struggle and high draft picks miss, it’s worth highlighting the best of the last two decades in Thomas. It’s just too bad he retired right before the Browns got a quarterback worth protecting (at least we hope that’s the case with Baker Mayfield).
Offensive Guard (7)
- John Hannah
- Bruce Matthews
- Gene Upshaw
- Larry Allen
- Randall McDaniel
- Jerry Kramer
- Steve Hutchinson
John Hannah was the GOAT for the Patriots before people ruined that label. Bruce Matthews could excel at any position on the line, so you know he would make the list high somewhere. I did not choose Art Shell for my tackles, but I did go with Gene Upshaw from those Oakland lines for the guards. Larry Allen was a monster who could also play multiple positions. Randall McDaniel was a 12-time Pro Bowler who was also All-Pro when the 1998 Vikings set the scoring record.
The NFL also chose seven guards, including my tackle pick of Jim Parker. They didn’t pick Steve Hutchinson and Jerry Kramer like I did. Kramer finally got into the HOF as a key member of the Packers, the most successful dynasty in NFL history. Hutchinson was my pick for representing the last 20 years of football. He should get into the HOF soon too, and he was an anchor for those strong Seattle offenses and also blocked for a young Adrian Peterson in Minnesota.
- Jim Otto
- Dwight Stephenson
- Mike Webster
- Dermontti Dawson
- Mel Hein
Hard to say if there’s any consensus on the #1 center like there is for tackle (Munoz) or guard (Hannah), but Jim Otto was a 10-time first-team All-Pro. Sure, it helped that most of that came in the AFL when there weren’t many teams, but the Raiders were a highly successful offense in that era. Dwight Stephenson might have gone down as the best if he played longer (just 114 games), especially since he was with Dan Marino in Miami.
I mentioned Pouncey earlier, but you can see why center is such a big deal in Pittsburgh. Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson were two of the best to ever do it. Finally, Mel Hein made my list as the best from his era (1931-1945).
The NFL had the same list, except Dawson didn’t make it there. So there’s probably more groupthink with OL than any position, but my 19 picks being somewhat close to the NFL’s list makes me feel good.
Defensive End (9)
- Reggie White
- Bruce Smith
- Deacon Jones
- J.J. Watt
- Carl Eller
- Michael Strahan
- Jack Youngblood
- Julius Peppers
- Gino Marchetti
You might be able to argue with the order, but I think White/Smith/Jones make up a pretty consensus top three. This is such a crucial position, so I was surprised to see the NFL only chose seven players. More baffling was how they included Doug Atkins and Lee Roy Selmon, but not J.J. Watt or Michael Strahan.
The Watt snub especially bugged me because it showed that they’re not acknowledging how great an active player has already been in his career. Watt played six full seasons and was first-team All-Pro in five of them and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Most guys can play 15-20 years and never sniff those achievements. Watt’s only played nine fewer games than Selmon, who started out on those horrible Tampa Bay teams and only had one All-Pro season and DPOY award. Watt is as big of a snub as any by the NFL.
I also like to represent Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters line, so I included Eller on my list. Strahan was a surprise snub too. Not only does he still hold the record for sacks in a season (22.5), but he still ranks sixth all time (141.5) and led the Giants defense on that great Super Bowl run in 2007, shutting down the undefeated Patriots. Julius Peppers also made my list as a modern player with his freak athleticism and having the fourth-most sacks ever. He should be an easy HOF choice in 2024.
Defensive Tackle (9)
- Joe Greene
- Merlin Olsen
- Bob Lilly
- Randy White
- Warren Sapp
- John Randle
- Alan Page
- Cortez Kennedy
- Aaron Donald
Much like with the Watt selection, I think Aaron Donald has already done enough this decade to belong on the list. We are fortunate to have stats for pressures and QB hits now, even if they aren’t as objective as a sack. But Donald is so dominant in those categories despite playing inside and seeing a lot of double teams. Donald and Watt will be the first two incredible defenders in the game charting era where we have more data to quantify just how much better they were than their peers. I’m not surprised the NFL snubbed him, but I won’t.
Like with Marshall Faulk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren Sapp was purposely left off as he’s also run afoul off the field in recent years. But he was another great pass-rusher at a position where it’s just harder to break through to the quarterback than playing on the edge.
The NFL chose seven players, of which I agreed with six of them (not Buck Buchanan from the Chiefs). It’s pretty obvious to agree with the gold standards of the position like Greene, Olsen and Lilly. I just think Sapp, Donald and also the late Cortez Kennedy deserved it too.
- Lawrence Taylor
- Ray Lewis
- Derrick Brooks
- Jack Lambert
- Junior Seau
- Mike Singletary
- Dick Butkus
- Derrick Thomas
- Chuck Bednarik
- Joe Schmidt
- Bobby Bell
- Jack Ham
Here is an old-school position where teams start three or four players, so it’s not that hard to come up with a list of legends. I picked 12 just like the NFL did, but we had two big disagreements. I went with Derrick Thomas and Mike Singletary while they chose Willie Lanier and Ted Hendricks. Sure, Hendricks is a fine selection and nearly made my list too. Lanier is overkill for me since he played with Bobby Bell on the Chiefs, who also made the list. Singletary was a dominant force in Chicago and is second to only Ray Lewis in Pro Football Reference’s new HOF monitor for inside linebackers.
Derrick Thomas was the snub that stood out most to me the night the NFL revealed their list, because I assumed Singletary was on there too. But for Thomas, he was a great pass-rusher with monster games (games of 7 and 6 sacks) and production (41 forced fumbles) for a winning Chiefs team in the 90s. He sadly passed away at 33 after a car accident, but I have to have him on my list.
This was a position where I didn’t think any active player was really deserving of inclusion. Ray Lewis was the most recent player, retiring after 2012. Luke Kuechly is building up a great resume in Carolina, but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Brian Urlacher yet, let alone in the top 12.
- Rod Woodson
- Deion Sanders
- Mel Blount
- Champ Bailey
- Darrelle Revis
- Night Train Lane
- Willie Brown
- Charles Woodson
- Herb Adderley
This was another controversial position from the beginning when Patrick Peterson was included on the finalist list over Richard Sherman. What bugged me about the NFL’s list of seven cornerbacks is that Mike Haynes was reportedly a unanimous choice, but Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders were not. How in the world can any of the 26 voters not all have Woodson and Sanders on their ballot? That’s absurd. I put them in my top two along with Mel Blount, who changed the game so much for Pittsburgh that they had to create illegal contact.
I also made sure to give credit to shutdown corners in this era where the pass is so heavily utilized. So that’s why I have Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis so high when neither made the NFL’s list. Charles Woodson also made the cut for me with one of the best resumes a football player has ever put together.
Night Train Lane is someone I joke about getting 15-yard penalty after 15-yard penalty if he played today with his rough style, but he was the stud corner in his era. I also gave respect to Willie Brown and Herb Adderley with the latter being a snub in my eyes from the NFL list. Given what we know about NFL media and the things they value, you would think a six-time champion with five picks in the playoffs and four All-Pro seasons would be more highly regarded.
I left out Darrell Green on my list, but the NFL didn’t. I said on Twitter that he was most notable for his speed and insane longevity (played thru his age-42 season). In 20 seasons he was an All-Pro just once and he never had more than five interceptions in any season. While interceptions may not be the end-all, be-all stat for a player, just keep in mind that roughly 600 players can claim to having a season with six interceptions at least once. It’s not asking for much. So I’d much rather have Revis and Bailey than Green and Mike Haynes.
- Ed Reed
- Ronnie Lott
- Emlen Tunnell
- Larry Wilson
This was a position I cut short a bit at the end to not go over 100 players. The NFL list had six, including all four of my players. Ed Reed was an easy choice as the GOAT for me and the only one needed from his era (over Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins). Ronnie Lott was crucial and a punisher for the 49ers’ success so he’s up there, but I love the way Reed could outsmart the Manning’s and Brady’s in a way no other safety could. When Reed got the ball in his hands (64 INT!) he was electric to watch too. You didn’t know if he’d make a 100-yard return or lateral to a teammate. Here’s one of my favorite stats ever:
Emlen Tunnell was before my time, but the four-time All-Pro still ranks second in interceptions (79) and probably will never be passed unless someone changes teams weekly to play against Jameis Winston for years to come. Paul Krause still holds the record with 81 interceptions and may have been my fifth safety if I had room, but I felt like he was more of a compiler in that statistic than anything. So my last pick went to Larry Wilson, an innovator of the safety blitz.
I did not select a punter, let alone two like the NFL did, but Ray Guy is the obvious choice there. For kicker, I’ll go with Adam Vinatieri for his longevity and reliability in clutch situations and inclement weather. He also really started finding the touch on 50-plus yard kicks in the back half of his career. Justin Tucker is on his way though, but this is still too much kicker talk. Devin Hester would be my pick for the return specialist, and finally, you can see my top 10 coaches here:
Here is the final breakdown of my top 100 players in NFL history: