Making the Cut: The 100 Greatest Football Players of All-Time

Let’s start this off with a radical statement: being one of the top-100 football players of all-time is not an easy accomplishment. Shocking, I know. That declaration, however, is not meant to be limited to the literal sense. Considering just .08% of high school football players make it to the NFL, it’s pretty evident how hard it is just to get to the NFL, let alone excel. What might not be as evident is how hard it is to perform at a top-100 level in the relative sense. The NBA/ABA has had just under 5,000 players in its history. Putting together the top-100 players in professional basketball history requires selecting the top 2% of all the players who ever played. The NFL, on the other hand, has had just under 27,000 players in its history. The top 2% of players in NFL history would result in 540 players. In other words, being one of the top-540 players in NFL history is equivalent to being one of the top-100 players in NBA history. Think about how unlikely it is that a player entering the NBA will end up being one of the top-100 basketball players of all-time. Well, it’s 5.4 times more difficult than that for an NFL player to achieve the same status in football. Since nobody (including me) sets out to identify the top-540 players in any sport, it just means that a massive list of deserving players needs to be whittled down to 100. Given the relative unfairness of the football top-100 list compared to other sports, it is imperative that it is put together as judiciously as possible while fully acknowledging the many superlative football players among the omissions. Below are some of the factors and parameters that I leaned on to get to the fairest list possible.

Position Distribution

It would be pretty easy to toss 40 QBs into the top-100, pull 60 from other positions, and call it a wrap. QBs get the most accolades and deservedly so. They have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of games and should have a disproportionate presence in the top-100. However, there are at least 13 different positions in non-special teams play. It’s important to the integrity of the list that it not be skewed too heavily towards offense or defense, and that the distribution of positions is commensurate to the relative value of each position. Specific quotas were not used, but I did make it a point to start with a similarly-sized pool of players from each position group to guarantee certain position groups weren’t handicapped before the process even started. I also made it a point to specifically scrutinize the quarterback and skill positions to avoid too heavy and too light an emphasis due to the tendency for those positions to receive the most publicity.  Although I won’t be adhering to a positional quota as the list evolves, here is the very first iteration of the top 100 (released in January, 2021) just to give an example of what a positional breakdown might look like:

Offense (51)       Defense (49)

QB 14                    DE 10    

RB 10                    OLB 9

WR 8                      CB 9

OT 8                       MLB 8

G 7                         DT 8                      

TE 3                        S 5

C 1

Five-year Requirement

In order to qualify for the top-100, a player needs five years of service. There have been too many great players in NFL history for a player to reach the top-100 in just four years. The five-year mark is pushing it too, but I think there are rare exceptions who have accomplished enough by the five-year mark. This is especially true at running back given the average shelf life of the position. Earl Campbell was awarded the AP Offensive Player of the Year his first three years in the league (tied with Marshall Faulk for most all-time) and the 1979 MVP while leading the league in rushing three times and touchdowns twice. By his fourth season, Campbell had amassed 6,457 career yards and 55 touchdowns. Considering his hardware and the number of times leading the league in yards and touchdowns, it doesn’t take much of an effort to justify Campbell’s inclusion in the top-100 after just five seasons. The five-year requirement will also act as an artificial check on overreacting to the next big thing.

Special Teams

Kickers, punters, and returners are pivotal to team success and they have provided some of the most exciting moments in NFL history. However, while the units themselves are important, special teams players participate in a disproportionately small number of plays in a given game. For example, Ray Guy—one of the great punters in NFL history—played roughly 1,049 snaps over his 14-year career. Randall McDaniel—one of the great guards in NFL history—played approximately 14,300 snaps over his 14-year career.  Over the same career length, McDaniel played roughly 15 times the number of snaps as Guy. There’s simply too much of a discrepancy in playing time for any special teams player to break the top-100 over an every-down player. If I had 540 spots to fill (see intro paragraph above), then Devin Hester, Adam Vinatieri, and Ray Guy would undoubtedly have a home.

Regular Season vs. Playoffs

As we established above, the top-100 players in the NBA are equivalent to the top-540 players in the NFL when adjusted for player population. Trying to squeeze 540 players into 100 spots creates a traffic jam every bit as gridlocked as the Dan Ryan Expressway with a horse galloping in the right lane. Differentiating between nearly identical resumes quickly devolves into a game of picking the most dapper Oompa-Loompa. So, it is important to identify distinguishing characteristics to help establish a hierarchy among equally deserving players. To fairly compare two elite players to each other, we first need to consider the entire resume.  While regular-season success gives the best apples-to-apples comparison, it’s often necessary to lean on playoff success to provide the differentiator. The two most prominent examples of this are comparisons of Tom Brady to Peyton Manning and Emmitt Smith to Barry Sanders. The four engaged in epic regular-season duels, Brady and Manning battling back and forth for league MVP for 15 years, and Emmitt and Barry engaging in a 9-year war for the regular season rushing crown. All four are safely among the top-25 players in NFL history on regular-season accolades alone. In both instances, however, one player has a massive advantage over the other in playoff performance. There is no doubt that access to the playoffs is largely dependent on what franchise a player has had the (mis)fortune of playing for which is why “playoff success” needs to be narrowly defined. For the purposes of player comparisons, “playoff success” references individual performance, not simply just playing on a good team. Tom Brady has been to nine Super Bowls and won six of them. He wasn’t just along for the ride; he was the ride. His four Super Bowl MVPs are the most in NFL history—only four others have won it more than once—and he’s the all-time playoff and Super Bowl leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. It’s true that he played for a great organization, but Brady played the quarterback position in the playoffs against the most difficult competition in the league better than any quarterback in history. It’s a similar story for Emmitt Smith. He was the workhorse who powered the Dallas Cowboys dynasty to three Super Bowl championships. He is the all-time playoff leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. E. Smith didn’t just get the opportunity to play in the playoffs, he performed better at his position than any player in playoff history. It’s true that Brady and E. Smith played for better teams but it’s not the opportunities that get them rated so highly; rather, it’s what they did with those opportunities on the biggest stage against the most difficult competition.     

League Size

Jim Brown and Don Hutson are universally considered two of the greatest players in NFL history. Brown led the NFL in rushing yards eight times and rushing touchdowns five times. Hutson led the NFL in receiving yards seven times and receiving touchdowns nine times. Those are eye-popping accomplishments to be sure, but there’s a reason we’ve never seen anything like that since and probably won’t see anything like that ever again. Hutson and Brown entered the NFL when there were just 10 and 12 teams, respectively. There are currently 32 teams in the NFL. Using “number of times leading the league” as a metric to rate Brown and Hutson against modern players is not helpful unless it is put into the proper context. For instance, Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rushing yards four times and rushing touchdowns three times in a league that had anywhere from 28-30 teams depending on the year. Since the NFL/AFL merger in 1970, no player has led the league in rushing yards or rushing touchdowns more often than E. Smith. Is that more impressive than what Jim Brown did in a 12-team league? Statistically speaking, it might be. E. Smith’s league-leading marks actually outpace Brown’s when adjusted for league size. Randy Moss led the NFL in receiving touchdowns five times. Since the NFL/AFL merger, Jerry Rice is the only other player to lead the league more than three times. Are Moss’s accomplishments more impressive than what Hutson did in a 10-team league? The math certainly seems to indicate that it is. Moss played in a league that had three times the number of players making it three times harder to lead the league in touchdowns. Adjusted for league size, Moss’s league-leading touchdown count far exceeds Hutson’s.     

A similar dance plays out when comparing Johnny Unitas to Brett Favre. Unitas won the NFL MVP three times. The number of teams in the league when he won each MVP, respectively, was 12, 14, and 16. Favre also won the NFL MVP three times. There were 30 teams in the NFL when Favre won his MVPs. Being voted the best in a league with 1,380 active players is a much more impressive feat than being voted the best in a league with 640 active players. Similarly, both players led the NFL in passing touchdowns four times. Favre had to throw more touchdown passes than 29 other starting quarterbacks each season to accomplish this feat. Unitas had to beat out anywhere from 11-15 depending on the year. In a comparison between Favre and Unitas where both have similar career accomplishments, it would be a disservice to Favre not to factor in the heightened degree-of-difficulty under which he carved out his resume.

 

Composition of the League

Let’s stick with the Unitas/Favre comparison. In 1964, when Unitas won his first NFL MVP, there were two major professional football leagues: the NFL and the AFL. The NFL had 560 active players in 1964. The AFL—a league that would prove its mettle by winning four of the first eight Super Bowls—had 272 active players. Of the 832 active-roster professional football players in 1964, Unitas played in a league with 67% of them. Additionally, NFL teams had quotas on the number of black players that could be on their rosters, significantly reducing the talent level leaguewide. Brett Favre had no such luxury. By the time Favre won his first MVP in 1995, the NFL and AFL had long since consolidated, and the shameful quotas on black players had been lifted, resulting in 100% of the best professional football players making their home in the NFL. While both Unitas and Favre each won three MVPs, a deeper look reveals that Favre’s were considerably more difficult to achieve. Unitas isn’t the only Hall-of-Fame player who benefited from a watered-down league prior to the merger. Other great players from the 60s who played in the NFL when it had only 67% of the available talent pool and restrictive quotas on black players include Jim Brown, Gino Marchetti, Bob Lilly, Deacon Jones, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, and Merlin Olsen.   

Versatility

Mastering one position in the NFL is hard enough; doing it at 3+ positions is indicative of a truly special football player. The rare player who excels at multiple positions is incredibly valuable and that value is reflected in the top-100. Rod Woodson was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at an NFL record three different positions (CB, S, KR). He was also an above-average punt-returner making him a four-position contributor. Deion Sanders was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at two different positions (CB, KR) while also being one of the best punt-returners in the game. Sanders was so versatile that he scored 22 career touchdowns in six different ways (rushing, receiving, punt return, kick return, fumble return, and interception return) which is unheard of for a defensive player. Bruce Matthews played at least 16 games at all five positions on the offensive line making him the most versatile—and perhaps greatest—offensive lineman of all-time. Like R. Woodson, he was selected as a 1st-team All-Pro at three different positions (LG, RG, C).  R. Woodson, D. Sanders, and B. Matthews are universally considered all-time greats at their primary positions but it’s their versatility that gets them into the top-25. Other players whose versatility bolstered their resumes include Ronnie Lott, Charles Woodson, Antonio Brown, Sammy Baugh, and Chuck Bednarik.

Hardware

In the NFL, hardware isn’t just bling; it’s your ticket to the Hall of Fame and status as one of the greatest players to ever play. There are certain achievements that pretty much guarantee a player’s place among the top-100. Since the AP MVP Award was first given out in 1958, there have been nine players who have won multiple AP NFL MVP Awards; eight are in the top-100. Of that group, only Kurt Warner misses out. The AP Defensive Player of the Year Award has been given out 49 times since its inception in 1971; 33 of the 49 recipients are in the top-100. There have been eight players who have won multiple AP Defensive Player of the Year Awards; not only are all eight in the top 100 but they’re all in the top-30. Ten players have won an AP NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP; eight are in the top-100 and a ninth—Patrick Mahomes—is all but assured a spot in the future. Again, only Kurt Warner misses out on the top-100 which brings us to…

Kurt Warner

Kurt Warner is the most difficult omission for me which is counterintuitive considering there are other players who didn’t make the list who would be added before Warner. What makes Warner’s omission uneasy is the elite company he keeps. As I mentioned above, there have been nine players who have won multiple AP MVP Awards and Warner is the only one who didn’t make the top-100. Similarly, there have been ten players who won an AP NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP and Warner is the only player of that group who won’t end up on the list. Perhaps most difficult to overlook is the fact that Warner is one of only seven players in history to have multiple AP NFL MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP. The other six to accomplish that feat aren’t just in the top-100, they’re in the top 50. So, why isn’t Warner in the top 100? First, there’s no doubt that Warner would make a list of, say, the top-200, which is no small feat in a league that has played home to 27,000 players. The factor that keeps Warner out of the top-100 is simply longevity. Warner only started 116 games in his career while winning just 58% of them (no modern quarterback in the top-100 has a winning percentage below 60%). Warner not becoming a starter until he was 28 played a role in limiting his career but he was also plagued by injuries as evidenced by the fact that he started 12+ games in a season just four times. In fact, he only put together four seasons that can even be considered above-average. There are simply too many great players who performed at an elite level over a much longer period of time to include Warner in the top-100. Steve Young only started 143 games and—like Warner—doesn’t have the career counting stats to measure up against the other great quarterbacks on the list. However, what gets Young on the list is what he did with his relatively short time in the league. Young led the league in QB rating six times, completion percentage five times, yards per attempt five times and touchdown passes four times. He is 2nd all-time in rushing touchdowns by a QB and won 66% of his games as a starter while also duplicating Warner’s two MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP.

Terry Bradshaw

It might be becoming cliché to keep Bradshaw off top-100 lists—so cliché, in fact, that I considered the possibility before ultimately deciding at the 2-minute warning that his hardware collection is still top-100 worthy. Although there were contemporary quarterbacks who statistically outperformed Bradshaw in the regular season who aren’t in the top-100, including Dave Anderson, Bradshaw was pretty successful in the regular season in his own right, winning an AP MVP and leading the league in touchdown passes twice. While that certainly doesn’t hurt Bradshaw’s profile, it’s what he did in the post-season that still stands the test of time. Bradshaw won four Super Bowls (behind only Tom Brady in NFL history) and is one of only five players to win multiple Super Bowl MVPs. Only Bradshaw, Brady, and Joe Montana won at least four Super Bowls, at least two Super Bowl MVPs, and at least one AP NFL MVP. Additionally, Bradshaw has the highest winning percentage in postseason history among quarterbacks who have played at least 10 playoff games. Although Bradshaw’s residency in the top-100 will come to an end sooner than later, he still has a few years before his lease is up.

Steve Van Buren vs. Terrell Davis

Walking through this player comparison will help illuminate how using sound logic and reasoning help avoid making the same mistakes that led to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team being so overrepresented by players who debuted prior to NFL/AFL merger in 1970. To reiterate, only 33% of all the players in NFL history played before the merger. This era featured small leagues, rival leagues, and a ban/quota on black players, making this the easiest era to succeed in that the NFL has seen. We need to make sure to factor this in. Now, let’s get started with the comp…

First, it’s important to establish that Terrell Davis is not a top-100 player. He was an absolute beast of a running back who may have had the highest three-year peak of all-time, but he simply did not stay healthy for long enough to sneak into the top-100. Although T. Davis is not a top-100 player, he can be very useful as a gatekeeper of sorts for running backs looking to break into the top-100. In the simplest terms, if a running back can’t beat T. Davis, then the top-100 is out of reach. Steve Van Buren has universally been included on top-100 lists for the last 60 years. He was undoubtedly one of the NFL’s biggest stars before the merger. He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1940s All-Decade Team and enshrined in Canton in 1965. However, when we adjust his career for league size and demographic factors, it becomes obvious that his resume falls short of T. Davis’s, let alone the top-100.

Van Buren led the NFL in rushing yards four times, touchdowns four times, and total yards from scrimmage twice. He did this in a 10-team league. T. Davis led the league in touchdowns twice, yards from scrimmage twice, and rushing yards once. He also finished second in rushing yards twice. He did this in a 30-team league. In a league with three times the players, it is three times as difficult to lead the league in statistical categories making each of Davis’s second-place finishes in rushing yardage more impressive than Van Buren’s 1st place finishes. Adjusted for league size, Davis was statistically more impressive in the regular season including what is arguably the greatest season by a running back in NFL history when he became the first and only running back to rush for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in the same season. He was named the NFL MVP in 1998 and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1996 and 1998. Van Buren did not win an MVP award and would’ve needed to win three MVPs and six Offensive Player of the Year awards just to keep pace. Davis even played more regular-season games than Van Buren which is ironic considering Van Buren’s longevity doesn’t seem to be questioned while everyone agrees that Davis’s candidacy for the top-100 is torpedoed by career length. Then there’s the postseason…

T. Davis has arguably the most impressive per-game postseason statistics of any player in NFL history. In eight career playoff games, Davis ran for 12 touchdowns and averaged 142.5 yards-per-game at a 5.59 yards-per-carry clip. The Broncos rode Davis to seven consecutive playoff wins, resulting in back-to-back Super Bowl victories. He took home one Super Bowl MVP and would’ve won a second behind a 162-yard effort in Super Bowl XXXIII had Howard Griffith not “vultured” two 1-yard touchdowns. Van Buren, for his part, rushed for two touchdowns and averaged 91.3 yards-per-game at a 3.92 yards-per-carry clip in four playoff games including back-to-back NFL Championship Game victories.

While Van Buren is almost universally considered a top-100 player in NFL history, Terrell Davis is not. Although there isn’t a justification for those opinions to exist in tandem, it is conventional wisdom nonetheless. This is just one example that reveals how badly the methods we have historically used to compile the all-time greats are in need of recalibration.

O-Line

If we were to put together a list of the top-100 offensive linemen in NFL history, the 100th player on that list would be a really good player. Frustratingly, there’s only room for a fraction of that number. Making matters more difficult is that a metric to judge the historical significance of offensive linemen has been the “white rabbit” of NFL statistics for as long as the league has existed. While the technical ability that is required to excel on the offensive line in the NFL is arguably the most difficult to master in football, it is also the least statistically quantifiable making the three spots on the line the most difficult to rank of all NFL positions. With the addition of Pro Football Focus to the landscape, there is hope that differentiating between two great offensive linemen will be easier in the future. In the meantime, ranking offensive linemen pretty much boils down to the inexact science of finding the players who have the greatest combination of honors and longevity, while also accounting for playoff success, sacks allowed, and historic production in the running game. The average profile of the offensive linemen in the top-100 who debuted after the merger in 1970 is 202 games started, 10 Pro Bowls, and seven 1st team All-Pro selections. Future players who manage to achieve a similar profile will likely find a path into the top-100.  

Playoff Format

Prior to Super Bowl I in 1967, winning the NFL Championship required winning one playoff game. Otto Graham won seven championships and it took him just seven games to do it (not counting tiebreakers). Tom Brady won six Super Bowls and it took him 18 games to do it. Quarterbacks pre-1970 had a considerably easier route to winning a championship than the quarterbacks who followed. As a result, you will find quarterbacks pre-merger rated lower than might be expected based on their championships—or in some cases—not rated at all.

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