While there have been many outstanding football players to come through the NFL in the past century, the guys whose legacies are so closely tied to a single franchise are still pretty special. They are those players that spent most — if not all — of their entire careers with one team, becoming more ingrained in the city’s lore than most politicians could ever hope to be.
We’ve looked back through the history of all 32 NFL franchises and found the players who best define greatness in their uniform. Though many of the players on our list no longer play — and some aren’t even alive — their names will likely continue to resonate with fans of their teams for decades to come as new stars try to live up to their legacies.
Arizona Cardinals — Larry Wilson
This was always going to be a toss-up between two elite players with the same first name, and while Larry Fitzgerald is one of the all-time greats, Larry Wilson is the all-time Cardinal. Wilson played his entire Hall-of-Fame career with the franchise from 1960-1972, when it was still in St. Louis, before eventually having a career as a coach and executive with the team in St. Louis and Arizona that lasted into the early 1990s. The late defensive icon was a five-time first-team All-Pro, which is tied as the most of anyone in Cardinals history, and he made eight Pro Bowls to boot.
Atlanta Falcons — Matt Ryan
In a history that stretches back to 1966, only one Atlanta Falcons player has ever been named the NFL’s most valuable player and that was Matt Ryan. His legacy is closely tied to that of Julio Jones, who also makes a strong case as the best player in Falcons history. In 13 seasons so far, all in Atlanta, Ryan has missed just three games, racked up a collection of franchise records and led the team to one of only two Super Bowl appearances in its history. His No. 2 jersey will surely be hung from the rafters by this franchise when he retires from the game.
Baltimore Ravens — Ray Lewis
While Lamar Jackson is trying to make a spot for himself on the Mount Rushmore of the Ravens franchise, he’ll have a tough time surpassing legends like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Jonathan Ogden. We ultimately went with Lewis because of his role in both of the franchise’s first two Super Bowl wins — including an MVP performance in the first one — and his consistent excellence at his position. Lewis was arguably the league’s single best linebacker for a decade, making seven first-team All-Pro squads and 13 Pro Bowls from 1997-2011, both of which are Ravens records.
Buffalo Bills — Bruce Smith
We went with a defensive legend as our pick for the best player in Bills history, too. In 15 seasons with Buffalo, the Hall-of-Fame defensive end was selected to eight first-team All-Pro squads and 11 Pro Bowls, both of which are franchise records. The two-time NFL defensive player of the year was instrumental in helping the Bills reach four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s and become one of the most feared franchises of that decade.
While he may not be as beloved by the folks of Buffalo as teammates like Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, Smith was the best player to ever suit up in Western New York.
Carolina Panthers — Steve Smith
Former MVP Cam Newton and potential first-ballot Hall of Famer Luke Kuechly can’t be overlooked in the discussion of the best Panthers ever, but our vote goes to Steve Smith. The franchise’s all-time leader in receiving yards and a star wide receiver with the team for 13 seasons, Smith defined Carolina football for many onlookers during the 2000s decade. While coaches, quarterbacks and running backs came and went during Smith’s tenure with the Panthers, he was always there, playing in at least 14 games in all but one of his seasons there and making five Pro Bowls in the process.
Chicago Bears — Walter Payton
When you’re weighing the best Bears in history, it pretty much comes down to running backs and linebackers. In the franchise’s 100-year history, it has had many guys who defined those positions, including Mike Singletary, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus and Brian Urlacher. But Walter Payton is one of those larger-than-life names that is immortal across the league for good reason. “Sweetness” spent all 13 seasons of his NFL tenure in Chicago and retired as the best to ever run the ball, helping the team to its only Super Bowl win after the 1985 season.
It also helps that Payton’s legacy as a great human being shines on today, as the league’s most prestigious humanitarian honor is named for him.
Cincinnati Bengals — Anthony Munoz
In the 53-year history of the Bengals, Anthony Munoz is the only player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame primarily for his work with that franchise. The big offensive tackle was a lifelong Californian until he was drafted by Cincinnati in 1980, and has become part of the fabric of that town since then. But he’s topping this list primarily because of his on-field contributions, which were just about unbeatable at his position. In 13 seasons in the league, all spent with the Bengals, Munoz was named to the All-Pro first team nine times and was selected to the Pro Bowl 11 times, both of which are easily franchise marks.
Cleveland Browns — Jim Brown
The Browns franchise wasn’t named for Hall of Famer Jim Brown, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that. The rushing legend was a one-man wrecking crew for the all-too-brief nine seasons he spent in the NFL, all with Cleveland, and he is still the all-time leading rusher for the team. Browns icons like Otto Graham, Lou Groza and Gene Hickerson all deserve a spot in the conversation of the best to ever play by Lake Erie, but the three-time MVP’s legend still looms largest 55 years after his retirement.
Dallas Cowboys — Bob Lilly
While there are Cowboys that have more Super Bowl rings and there are Cowboys that are more famous outside of Dallas, Bob Lilly is still the best to ever wear the star. “Mr. Cowboy” was the first player ever drafted by the franchise in 1961 and went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career that included a starring role on the defense during the team’s first Super Bowl win. Lilly was a native Texan, only endearing him more to the team’s fans, and spent all 14 of his NFL seasons with the Cowboys. In that time, he was named to 11 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro squads as a defensive lineman, both of which are still franchise records.
Denver Broncos — John Elway
When you think of Broncos football, it’s impossible not to think about John Elway firing rockets across the field or helicoptering his way into the end zone. The Hall-of-Fame quarterback spent 16 seasons with Denver, which was his entire NFL career, and retired after back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the late 1990s. No player in Broncos history has been named to more Pro Bowls than his nine and it’s tough to imagine any other passer breaking his many franchise marks for decades to come. For many fans, Elway simply is the Denver Broncos.
Detroit Lions — Barry Sanders
Picking the best Detroit Lions star in a history that dates back to 1930 was pretty tough but ultimately came down to Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Joe Schmidt. While Schmidt, a linebacker in the 1950s and ’60s, had the edge in first-team All-Pro selections and league championships, the way Sanders dominated his position was just too hard to ignore. Sanders spent all 10 of his NFL seasons in Detroit and became arguably the best running back in league history, being named to the Pro Bowl every single year and never registering less than 1,100 rushing yards in a campaign.
When many football fans think of Lions football, Sanders making defenders look silly by dancing around the field in his No. 20 uniform is likely the first thing that comes to mind.
Green Bay Packers — Don Hutson
While the Packers have had a legendary trio of quarterbacks that each could’ve topped this spot, none has defined his position as much as Don Hutson. The receiver spent his entire career in Green Bay, from 1935-1945, before spending a few seasons as an assistant coach with the franchise. While on the field, Hutson revolutionized the receiver role, leading the NFL in touchdown catches a remarkable nine times and in total catches eight times. He was the first player to ever have his number retired by the legendary franchise and was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Houston Texans — Andre Johnson
The Texans have yet to retire any jersey numbers, which is understandable given the franchise has only existed since 2002, but it’s likely that Andre Johnson’s No. 80 could be the first. The star receiver spent 12 seasons with Houston and made seven Pro Bowls, which is still a record for the team. In that time, he surpassed 900 receiving yards in nine seasons and topped 1,500 yards three times. Current Texans icon J.J. Watt could surpass Johnson’s legacy by the time he retires, but it will still be a toss-up for many fans.
Indianapolis Colts — Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning donning the No. 18 Colts uniform as he commanded the no-huddle offense remains one of the most indelible images in modern NFL history. While his career ended with a few great years in Denver, the 13 seasons Manning spent in Indianapolis saw him redefine the quarterback position for a new era, winning four MVP awards and the franchise’s first Super Bowl in more than 30 years while there. His 11 Pro Bowl appearances while playing for the Colts are tied with fellow icon Gino Marchetti as the most in franchise history.
Jacksonville Jaguars — Jimmy Smith
While the franchise has only been around since 1995, there was some tough competition for the best Jaguar in history. We love what Fred Taylor and Tony Boselli did in Jacksonville’s colors but the great Jimmy Smith just outdid them. After winning a Super Bowl with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1993, Smith was waived by the team and eventually tried out for the upstart Jaguars, joining the squad initially as a backup receiver during its charter season. Smith is still the franchise’s all-time leading receiver and his five Pro Bowl appearances are tied as the most in team history.
Kansas City Chiefs — Tony Gonzalez
While Patrick Mahomes is doing all he can to become the best player in Chiefs history, he still has a lot of work to do before unseating the many legendary players this franchise has had. We wrestled between guys like Len Dawson, Will Shields, Bobby Bell and the immortal Derrick Thomas but had to give the nod to Tony Gonzalez. The Hall of Famer spent 12 seasons calling Arrowhead Stadium home and was a Pro Bowler in all but the first two. He’s the all-time leading receiver in Chiefs history, which is remarkable for a tight end, and is arguably the best to ever play his position.
Las Vegas Raiders — Jim Otto
The Raiders are one of the few NFL franchises that don’t retire jersey numbers but if they did, you can bet Jim Otto’s No. 00 might be the first to go up in the rafters. He’s arguably the best center to ever play the position and did so in a black and silver uniform for his entire Hall-of-Fame career. Otto spent 15 seasons with the Raiders — which was his entire NFL tenure — and never missed a single game in that span. Otto was part of the franchise’s first league championship team in 1967 and was named a first-team All-Pro 10 times, which is a team record.
Los Angeles Chargers — Junior Seau
Despite only having won a single league title since being founded in 1960, the Chargers have had some all-time great players on its roster. Hall of Famers LaDanian Tomlinson, Kellen Winslow and Dan Fouts come to mind, but defensive icon Junior Seau is the one who tops all former Bolts. He was a San Diego native before going on to spend his first 13 NFL seasons playing there when it was home base for the Chargers. In that time, Seau was named to a franchise-record 12 Pro Bowls and won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
His untimely and tragic death at the age of 43, just three years after he retired, only makes Seau’s shadow loom larger.
Los Angeles Rams — Merlin Olsen
It makes sense that the greatest player in Los Angeles Rams history would moonlight as an actor when his football career was over. Before he co-starred in “Little House on the Prairie,” Merlin Olsen was one of the most feared defensive linemen in NFL history. No other Rams player has ever come close to his 14 Pro Bowl appearances, which also ties the league’s overall record for that honor. The Hall of Famer missed just two games in his 15-season career, all of which was spent with the Rams.
Miami Dolphins — Dan Marino
The Dolphins have had a wealth of legendary players since being founded in 1966, including Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and two-time Super Bowl winner Bob Griese. But the otherworldly figures that Dan Marino put up during his long career in Miami made him the player that will forever be tied to the franchise’s image. In 17 seasons, Marino led the Dolphins to 10 playoff berths and a Super Bowl appearance, although he’s unquestionably the best quarterback to never win a ring. His nine Pro Bowl appearances are a Dolphins record and he’s been working as an executive for the franchise since 2014.
Minnesota Vikings — Alan Page
Alan Page, who would have maybe the most unlikely post-playing career of anyone in NFL history, is our pick for the best Viking ever. Before he spent more than 20 years as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, Page was delivering painful punishments on the field as a defensive tackle. He spent more than 11 seasons with the Vikings, never missing a game and making nine consecutive Pro Bowls. Page was part of the franchise’s first NFL championship in 1969 and was named league MVP in 1971, making him the first non-offensive player to win the honor.
New England Patriots — Tom Brady
Was there ever a doubt about this one? Apologies to John Hannah and Nick Buoniconti but Tom Brady runs away with the honor of being the best Patriot in history. It was his play at starting quarterback that turned New England into the most dominant franchise of the first 20 years of the 21st century. He led the team to nine of its 11 total Super Bowl appearances and all six of its championship wins so far, while being elected to a league-record 14 Pro Bowls. It’s safe to say football fans in Massachusetts will be missing No. 12 for decades to come.
New Orleans Saints — Drew Brees
Not only is Drew Brees the all-time leading passer in Saints history, he’s also the best player in franchise history, according to an advanced stat recorded by Pro Football Reference. The site tracks a metric called “approximate value,” which rates every player in the league based on performance, and Brees has the highest figure in Saints history and the second-highest in NFL history. Not only did he lead New Orleans to its first Super Bowl win ever, Brees has also been named to a team-record 12 Pro Bowls and is the only Saint ever to win the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
New York Giants — Lawrence Taylor
The last time a defensive player won the NFL’s MVP award, it was Lawrence Taylor in 1986. The Hall-of-Fame linebacker was one of the best to ever play the position and his take-no-prisoners style still resonates with Giants fans decades after his retirement. “L.T.” was a star member of the franchise’s first two Super Bowl-winning teams and was the first player to have his number retired by the historic franchise in more than 20 years when they did so in 1994. Taylor’s eight selections as a first-team All-Pro and 10 selections as a Pro Bowler are also team records.
New York Jets — Larry Grantham
All due respect to Winston Hill, Don Maynard and Curtis Martin but if the modern Jets had an ounce of Larry Grantham’s toughness, their fans would be much happier people. No player in franchise history has defined his own position as well as Grantham, who was picked as a first-team All-Pro at linebacker a team-record five times in the early 1960s. He spent all 13 of his professional seasons with the Jets and was part of the team’s first — and so far, only — Super Bowl victory.
Philadelphia Eagles — Reggie White
Along with Peyton Manning, Reggie White is one of just two NFL players to have his number retired by two teams. The “Minister of Defense” finished his career with a brilliant run in Green Bay, but his time in Philadelphia made him a legend among that town’s notorious sports fans. In eight seasons with the Eagles, White was named to seven Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro squads, the latter of which ties the franchise record. He’s also the only player in Eagles history to be named NFL defensive player of the year.
Pittsburgh Steelers — Joe Greene
The greatest Steeler ever had to be a member of the “Steel Curtain” defense and Joe Greene gets our nod. His NFL career lasted for 13 seasons, all spent in Pittsburgh, but included four Super Bowl rings and a franchise-record 10 Pro Bowl appearances. Greene was the first Steelers player to ever win the honor of NFL defensive player of the year and the only one to win the coveted award twice. Guys like Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Rod Woodson make great cases, but “Mean” Joe Greene still defines what Pittsburgh football is all about.
San Francisco 49ers — Jerry Rice
The 49ers have given the NFL a handful of its greatest players ever, but none of them touch what Jerry Rice did as wide receiver. In 16 seasons in San Francisco, the GOAT was named a first-team All-Pro a league-record 10 times and was picked to 12 Pro Bowls, which is a franchise mark. He’s one of only two receivers in NFL history to get votes for MVP consideration in multiple seasons and was an instrumental part of three Super Bowl-winning teams. When you think of the 49ers, you have to think of No. 80 streaking down the field.
Seattle Seahawks — Bobby Wagner
No player in Seahawks history has been named to more first-team All-Pro squads than future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner. The linebacker has earned that honor six times since 2014, including for his play during the most recent campaign. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles and it’s a team that has had its share of great defenders, including Richard Sherman, Cortez Kennedy and Eugene Robinson. Wagner was part of Seattle’s first Super Bowl title and still likely has plenty of time to add another ring to his collection.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Derrick Brooks
The team that helped the Buccaneers win the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 2003 was a defensive powerhouse — and Derrick Brooks was at the center of that unit. The Florida native spent 14 seasons with Tampa Bay, his entire NFL tenure, and made a team-record 11 Pro Bowls. He was named the league’s defensive player of the year for his work during that championship season, which was surprisingly not one of the three years in which he led the NFL in tackles. In 2014, the Hall of Famer became just the third Bucs player to have his jersey number retired by the organization.
Tennessee Titans — Bruce Matthews
Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews is one of just five players to ever appear in 14 Pro Bowls and one of only two to make that many consecutively. He played all 19 seasons of his career with the Titans franchise, beginning in 1983 when the team was still the Houston Oilers. He missed just eight games in that entire span, all of which came during one season, and easily holds the franchise record for first-team All-Pro honors with seven. Everyone who wears a Titans uniform will have their tenure compared against that of Matthews.
Washington Football Team — Chris Hanburger
It is downright bizarre that the NFL’s historic Washington franchise has never retired Chris Hanburger’s No. 55 jersey, but this is, after all, one of the league’s most confounding organizations. Hanburger spent his entire 14-season career playing linebacker in Washington and commanded a host of honors during that time. No player in franchise history has been named to more Pro Bowls or All-Pro first teams and his dominant play in the early 1970s helped ensure Washington made five playoff appearances in six years from 1971-1976. Much respect to fellow Hall of Famers Sammy Baugh, John Riggins and Russ Grimm, but Hanburger was the best to ever play for this particular team.