The NFL started way back in 1920. Since then, there have been 98 thrilling years of gridiron action thanks to powerful, talented and memorable players. These standout players changed the course of the game and helped establish some of pro football’s greatest dynasties.
We’ve rounded up our picks for the greatest players in NFL history. Comparing quarterbacks to running backs and linemen is like comparing apples to oranges, so we’ve listed the players in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Our picks span all eras of the league’s history, including many Hall of Famers and even a few standout current stars, who’ve already made their mark.
Quarterback — Dallas Cowboys (1989-2000)
This six-time Pro Bowler and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame led the Cowboys dynasty throughout the ’90s. Aikman became the first starting quarterback to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. He earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXVII after completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, defeating Buffalo.
Quarterback — Washington Redskins (1937-1952)
A six-time Pro Bowler, eight-time All-Pro and charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Baugh led the Redskins to two NFL championships. He was a four-time NFL passing champion while also leading the league in completion percentage a whopping eight times, becoming one of the game’s first legitimate star QBs. His arm also earned him the nickname “Slinging Sammy.”
Cornerback — Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-1983)
Mel Blount was such an imposing player, the NFL instituted the Mel Blount Rule in 1978, which kept defensive backs from hitting receivers more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. This member of Pittsburgh’s legendary “Steel Curtain” defense was a five-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro and was named the 1975 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He retired with 57 career regular-season interceptions. That year, he topped the league with 11 interceptions in 14 games. He also won four Super Bowl rings and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Quarterback — New England Patriots (2000-Present)
Brady has been playing, and winning, for 19 seasons. In that time, he has taken the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl a record eight times and won five of them. In addition to championship titles, Brady dominates the league’s all-time postseason records, including playoff wins, division titles, playoff passing yards and more.
Quarterback — San Diego Chargers (2001-2005), New Orleans Saints (2006-Present)
One of the most prolific and accurate passers in NFL history, Brees has won seven NFL passing titles and appeared in 11 Pro Bowls. He has thrown for 4,000+ yards every season since 2006 and a handful of those included 5,000+ yards. Brees also took home Super Bowl MVP honors leading New Orleans to victory over Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. He’s 39 and still going strong.
Running Back — Cleveland Browns (1957-1965)
Brown only needed nine seasons in the NFL to make his mark in the league and on football history. He retired with 12,312 yards, which at the time was the most in history. He won an NFL championship in 1964 and was named to the Pro Bowl every season he played. The league had never seen a rusher as dominant as Brown when he was its star.
Linebacker — Chicago Bears (1965-1973)
Known as the “Maestro of Mayhem,” Butkus made eight straight Pro Bowls and was named the NFL’s defensive player of the year twice. The middle linebacker had his career cut short by knee injuries but still had a Hall-of-Fame career. He persevered amid injuries and retired with an impressive 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries. Every year, the Butkus Award is given to the nation’s best linebackers in high school, college and the pros.
Running Back — Los Angeles Rams (1983-1987), Indianapolis Colts (1988-1991), Los Angeles Raiders (1992), Atlanta Falcons (1993)
Dickerson set a rookie record with 1,808 rushing yards and won offensive rookie of the year honors in 1983. He went on to be a six-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dickerson led the league in rushing in 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1988. In 1984, he had a season that has still never been matched, racking up 2,105 rushing yards for the all-time single-season mark.
Quarterback — Denver Broncos (1983-1998)
Another all-time great who spent his entire career with one team, Elway was the first quarterback to lead a franchise to five Super Bowls. To reach one of those championship games, Elway led “The Drive,” an instantly iconic scoring drive against the Browns in the 1986 AFC title game. He also was a nine-time Pro Bowler, was league MVP in 1987 and is a member of the Hall of Fame. He retired after winning MVP honors of Super Bowl XXXIII, the second of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Since 2011, he’s continued to serve the Broncos as general manager, helping the team win its third Super Bowl in 2015.
Quarterback — Atlanta Falcons (1991), Green Bay Packers (1992-2007), New York Jets (2008), Minnesota Vikings (2009-2010)
When Favre retired, he topped the NFL in passing and all-time wins. Since then, other impressive quarterbacks (also on this list) have surpassed him but he still holds the record for consecutive QB starts at 321, including playoff games. In addition to a Super Bowl championship, he is an 11-time Pro Bowler and three-time AP NFL MVP.
Quarterback— Cleveland Browns (1946-1955)
One of football’s first star players, Otto Graham only played for nine years but left a lasting mark on the game. Graham was a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time NFL MVP and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also led the Cleveland Browns to three NFL championships in the 1950s. Though his numbers don’t top the record books today, when he was playing he led the NFL in passing yards, completion percentage and passing touchdowns multiple seasons.
Defensive Tackle — Pittsburgh Steelers (1969-1981)
“Mean” Joe Greene played a major role in each of Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s, leading the “Steel Curtain” up front. He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also played in 10 Pro Bowls. His number 75 jersey is one of only two ever retired by the Steelers.
Wide Receiver — Green Bay Packers (1935-1945)
Known as the “Alabama Antelope,” Hutson was the first great receiver in NFL history and is the only player at that position not named Jerry Rice to win multiple league MVP awards. Hutson led the NFL in touchdowns receptions nine times, receptions eight times and receiving yards seven times. Hutson won three championships with the Packers. He retired on top in 1945 and was chosen as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s first class in 1963.
Defensive End — Los Angeles Rams (1961-1971), San Diego Chargers (1972-1973), Washington Redskins (1974)
Jones was the greatest pass rusher of his time and had maybe the best nickname ever: “The Secretary of Defense.” Not only did he lead Los Angeles’ “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line, he also coined the phrase “sack” in the 1960s. Over the course of his career, Jones was an eight-time Pro Bowler, eight-time All-Pro and two-time defensive player of the year. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Linebacker — Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-1984)
Another member of the “Steel Curtain,” Lambert was an intimidating defensive force on the field. He earned nine consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and eight straight All-Pro selections. Lambert helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl championships between 1974 and 1979. He was also 1976 NFL defensive player of the year, 1974 defensive rookie of the year and now is a member of the Hall of Fame.
Linebacker — Baltimore Ravens (1996-2012)
The 13 time Pro Bowler was integral to Baltimore’s defense throughout his career, including anchoring the team’s legendary 2000 defense. He won two Super Bowl championships and earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXV. Lewis was recognized as a two time NFL defensive player of the year and was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Safety — San Francisco 49ers (1981-1990), Los Angeles Raiders (1991-1992), New York Jets (1993-1994)
Over the course of his career, Lott was a 10-time Pro Bowler andeight-timee All-Pro. Many consider the Hall of Famer the greatest safety of all time. He played a major role in the San Francisco 49ers defense during the 1980s dynasty, helping the team win four Super Bowls. He retired with 63 career interceptions and led the league in interceptions in 1986 and 1991.
Quarterback — Indianapolis Colts (1998-2011), Denver Broncos (2012-2015)
Manning was a fan favorite, all-star quarterback who seriously vied to be the greatest of all time. He won a record five NFL MVPs and was selected to 14 Pro Bowls. Additionally, he threw for more than 4,000 yards in a record 13 seasons and currently holds the record for most career touchdown passes but will likely be passed by Tom Brady soon. He also holds the record for total combined yards in the regular season and postseason, though Tom Brady is also threatening that mark. Manning is the only starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different franchises, earning a ring with both the Colts and Broncos before retiring as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Quarterback — Miami Dolphins (1983-1999)
A nine time Pro Bowler and member of the Hall of Fame, Marino retired in 1999 as the NFL’s all-time leading passer. His arm gave him one of the best passing seasons in NFL history and the Dolphins a trip to the Super Bowl in 1984. That year, he won league MVP honors after throwing for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, both single season records at the time.
Quarterback — San Francisco 49ers (1979-1992), Kansas City Chiefs (1993-1994)
Also known as “Joe Cool,” Montana has the records to prove he deserves to be considered among the best quarterbacks of all time. For example, he threw for more than 300 yards in a game 39 times and his six 300-yard passing performances in the postseason are an NFL record. He led the 49ers to four Super Bowl championships during the 1980s and earned three MVP titles in the process.
Wide Receiver — Minnesota Vikings (1998-2004), Oakland Raiders (2005-2006), New England Patriots (2007-2009), San Francisco 49ers (2012)
Moss made a splash in his rookie season and kept improving as his Hall-of-Fame career developed. He played in Super Bowls with three different franchises, unfortunately losing all of them But Moss was a six time Pro Bowler and five time receiving touchdown leader. Moss retired with 982 receptions for 15,292 yards and 156 touchdowns. Today, when a receiver makes a great catch over a defender, the defender is commonly said to have been “Mossed.”
Offensive Tackle— Cincinnati Bengals (1980-1992)
Muñoz is considered one of the greatest offensive linemen in the history of the league. During his 13-year career with the Bengals, he became the gold standard for blocking. What’s more impressive, he made his mark playing against many Hall-of-Fame pass rushers. As a result, he was an 11-time Pro Bowler and 11-time All-Pro.
Running Back — Chicago Bears (1975-1987)
His career statistics are pretty sweet, just like his nickname, “Sweetness.” Payton boasts 16,726 rushing yards, 110 rushing touchdowns, 21,803 combined net yards, 125 combined touchdowns and 77 100-yard rushing games. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in rushing and had 10 seasons of 1,200+ yards. Payton missed just one game in his entire career, during his rookie season, and not even the flu could hold him back from breaking records. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Payton’s legacy is that the NFL now gives the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award to the player who does outstanding humanitarian work each year.
Safety — Pittsburgh Steelers (2003-2014)
Polamalu combined smarts and strength on the field like no other in his position. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and the 2010 NFL defensive player of the year. He won two Super Bowl titles with the Steelers.
Safety — Baltimore Ravens (2002-2012), Houston Texans (2013), New York Jets (2013)
A nine-time Pro Bowler and eight-time All-Pro, Reed was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2004. Reed retired with 64 career interceptions and led the league in that stat three times. He ranks in the top five all-time safeties in the NFL thanks to his impressive stats and memorable plays. He finally won his Super Bowl in 2012, his final season with the Ravens.
Wide Receiver — San Francisco 49ers (1985-2000), Oakland Raiders (2001-04), Seattle Seahawks (2004)
Rice is arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history. He led the NFL in receiving yards six times including a record 1,848 yards in 1995. Rice also led the NFL in touchdown catches six times. He retired after a 20-year career with three Super Bowl rings and caught 1,549 passes for 22,985 yards and 197 touchdowns — all of which are still NFL records.
Quarterback — Green Bay Packers (2005-2018)
Rodgers’ career passer rating is currently the highest in NFL history. He’s earned his place as one of the all-time elites, as a two time NFL MVP and a six-time Pro Bowler. He led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory in 2011 and earned Super Bowl MVP honors in the game.
Running Back — Detroit Lions (1989-1998)
Sanders was a Pro Bowler in every one of his 10 NFL seasons. He also won the NFL MVP award in 1997 after rushing for 2,053 yards. When Sanders retired, he was the NFL’s second all-time leading rusher with 15,269 yards and 99 touchdowns, despite having a relatively short career. Today, his career rushing yards stand at third all time.
Running Back — Buffalo Bills (1969-1977), San Francisco 49ers (1978-1979)
After Jim Brown, Simpson was the league’s most dominant rusher. In 1973, he ran for 2,003 yards and topped the league. He is the only player in NFL history to rush for 2,000+ yards in a 14-game season. Simpson earned five straight first-team All-Pro selections from 1972-76 and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Running Back — Dallas Cowboys (1990-2002), Arizona Cardinals (2003-2004)
During his career, 22 won three Super Bowls, four NFL rushing titles and the NFL’s MVP award in 1993. Smith also rushed for 132 yards in Super Bowl XXVIII and earned MVP of the game. He retired with 18,355 yards rushing as the league’s all-time best rusher. His rushing record was so impressive it still stands.
Quarterback — Dallas Cowboys (1969-1979)
A six-time Pro Bowler and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Staubach was the first quarterback to lead his team to four Super Bowls. He helped the Cowboys win two of those Super Bowls and helped turn the team into “America’s Team.” Additionally, Staubach earned game MVP honors while leading the Cowboys to a 24-3 victory over the Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
Linebacker — New York Giants (1981-1993)
L.T. was such a dominant pass rusher for the New York Giants, opposing teams reconfigured their offenses to compensate. The 10-time Pro Bowler and 10-time All-Pro helped the Giants win two Super Bowls. He wrapped up his 13-year career with 132.5 sacks. That impressive number doesn’t even include the 9.5 sacks from his rookie season, a year before that statistic became official.
Defensive Lineman — Philadelphia Eagles (1985-92), Green Bay Packers (1993-1998), Carolina Panthers (2000)
He earned his nickname as “Minister of Defense” and made his mark as one of the best defensive linemen in NFL history. When he retired in 2000, he was the NFL’s career sacks leader with 198 sacks, including three in Super Bowl XXXI. White was a 13 time Pro Bowler, 13-time All-Pro and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Cornerback/Safety — Pittsburgh Steelers (1987-1996), San Francisco 49ers (1997), Baltimore Ravens (1998-2001), Oakland Raiders (2002-2003)
Woodson was an 11 time Pro Bowler and twice led the league in interceptions. In 1993, he was NFL’s defensive player of the year thanks to eight interceptions and 95 tackles. Woodson retired with 71 total interceptions and played in three Super Bowls, winning one in 2001 with the Ravens.
Quarterback — Baltimore Colts (1956-1972), San Diego Chargers (1973)
His name is simply synonymous with football, and for good reason. With his strong arm, “The Golden Arm” set the standard for the modern professional quarterback. He also set many records, including passing yards, touchdown passes and touchdowns in consecutive games. In fact, his record for throwing a touchdown pass in 47 straight games lasted for 52 years before Drew Brees broke it in 2012. He was a 10 time Pro Bowler and a three-time NFL MVP, winning three NFL championships and a Super Bowl.
Quarterback — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1985-1986), San Francisco 49ers (1987-1999)
The seven-time Pro Bowler and Hall-of-Fame QB led the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships, following in Joe Montana’s mighty footsteps. Young won NFL MVP honors in 1992 and 1994 and he led the league in passer rating a record six times. Young threw a record six touchdown passes in the 49ers’ 29-26 victory over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, being named the game’s MVP. He was one of the pioneering dual-threat quarterbacks, also rushing for a career 4,239 yards and 43 touchdowns.
Who would you add to our list?