The National Football League has been around for almost 100 years, making it one of the oldest professional sports associations in the United States. With nearly a century of history, players in the NFL have seen events come and go, including the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, and every other major cultural event of the past 10 decades of American life.
During this time, the game has changed considerably, with the introduction of new rules and strategies dramatically altering the whole format and style of professional football.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed in all of this time is the fact that the game of football is still a game about people. Though it may not be immediately apparent to the casual football fan on the screen on Sundays, from top to bottom, at every single level, a team’s success is determined by the strength of individual relationships:
And what’s amazing about the National Football League is that this entire web of relationships has taken place on every single team for generations, adding a whole extra element to the game: history.
In addition to the current working relationships of the four types described above, the people-first business of the NFL thrives on past relationships: A head coach gelling with an offensive coordinator who played together on the same team back in the day; a GM hiring a head coach who started out on the same coaching staff as he did thirty years ago; a former player coming back to coach.
And it’s not just about who you know: Consider long-standing NFL families, like the Mannings, or the Browns, or the Shulas, or the Longs.
This is why we review football stars both past and present:
For example, consider Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, widely believed to be the best pure thrower of the football in the history of the league. It’s impossible to understand what drives Aaron Rodgers to be a great quarterback without first understanding the context in which he became great.
Aaron Rodgers was born in December of 1983 in Chico, California, about three hour’s drive north of San Francisco. A short 11 months prior to his birth, future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana had just led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
Seven years later, in February of 1990, with young Rodgers halfway through second grade and just beginning to understand what it means to root for a professional sports team, Montana won his fourth Super Bowl ring, making the 49ers one of the preeminent dynasties in the league at the time.
Subsequently, when the 1994/95 Super Bowl rolled around, now-middle school-aged Aaron Rodgers was once again blessed to watch his team compete in and win a Super Bowl, this time with another future Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm. By the time Steve Young retired, a few months after the turn of the 21st century, Rodgers was the starting quarterback at Pleasant Valley High School, setting all kinds of school records and hurtling towards football stardom.
Without going any further, a few things already become immediately apparent about Aaron Rodgers: Why the precision of his game is frequently compared to Steve Young’s; why he developed such incredible escapability like Joe Montana; most importantly, why he has always played with a chip on his shoulder after the 49ers selected Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, leaving Rodgers to slide all the way down to #24.
But what’s most amazing is that the story of Aaron Rodgers isn’t the exception – it’s the rule.
The National Football League is full of stories about the importance of relationships in the game, whether it be watching the great football stars of the past on television as models, or seeing their legacy physically remain in the coaching staffs and administrative offices of the league today.
For this reason, here we look back at an assortment of the greatest football stars to ever play the game, from all eras. Our list is broken down by unit, with players on offense, defense, and special teams represented, and further broken down by position, with all major positions in today’s game present.
After 100 years of history, there are too many stars than is possible to cover. But here is a good place to start.
The National Football League has always been about scoring points, and among all of the units in the game, offenses have likely changed the most. As the league has become increasingly specialized and increasingly focused on passing offense, those players able to score touchdowns in the passing game have become increasingly valuable.
Even still, here are an assortment of football stars for all offensive positions, including quarterback, running back, fullback, offensive tackle, offensive guard, center, wide receiver, and tight end.
The quarterback position has always been the face of every NFL franchise. Here are three QBs that define what it means to be the leader of an offense.
Nicknamed “The Golden Arm,” Johnny Unitas was the prototypical marquee quarterback that we see in today’s NFL despite the fact that at the time when he played, in the 1950s and 60s, passing offense had yet to become an integral part of the game. Playing for the Baltimore Colts for much of his career, the record Unitas held for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass stood for over five decades (not broken until Drew Brees surpassed his mark in 2012), an incredible testament to an incredible quarterback.
Nicknamed “The Comeback Kid,” or “Joe Cool,” Joe Montana played almost the entire duration of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, with whom he won four Super Bowls. Montana holds the distinction of being the first player in league history ever to have been named Super Bowl MVP three times, and holds all-time career Super Bowl records for most passes thrown without an interception and highest quarterback rating. An eight-time Pro Bowler and first-ballot Hall of Famer, Montana was known for his ability to keep his eyes downfield and maintain his composure in the pocket even while under pressure.
After orchestrating a historic 25-point come-from-behind Super Bowl victory in 2016/17, Tom Brady became the only quarterback in the history of the National Football League to win five Super Bowls, cementing his position as one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Brady’s seven Super Bowl appearances during the 21st century are also the most in league history, and his four Super Bowl MVP awards surpass Joe Montana for the most by a single player. Having been drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady is widely held to be the biggest steal in all of football lore.
Though the NFL has moved towards passing offense, Vince Lombardi’s prophetic words still ring true: “Football is first and foremost a running game. That will never change.” Here are three running backs who prove why the position will always be valuable.
Playing for the Cleveland Browns for the entire duration of his nine-season career, Jim Brown is widely held to be the greatest running back across all eras of professional football. Despite playing in the late 1950s and early 1960s – an era in which teams utilized the passing game sparely and defenses were orchestrated primarily to stop the run – Brown remains the only running back in history to average more than 100 yards rushing per game, and also holds the record for most yards per carry over the course of a career (5.2). What’s more, Jim Brown walked away from the game of football after only nine seasons – at the height of his powers – in order to pursue a successful career as a movie star.
The pride and joy of Detroit Lions fans during the 1990s, Barry Sanders is arguably the most elusive running back in the history of the league. Despite only playing for a decade, Sanders ranks third in career rushing yards, and was selected to play in the Pro Bowl in each of his ten seasons in the league. Sanders’ combination of size and speed made him nearly impossible to tackle, and helped him win the Most Valuable Player award in two seasons and the NFL rushing title in four others.
The current record-holder for the most rushing yards gained in a single game (296), at the peak of his career Adrian Peterson was known as the complete running back, with both the size and strength to run north-south through the middle of the line, and the lateral quickness and shiftiness to run outside the tackles. Not to mention that when it came down to a foot race in the second level against a defensive back, the winner would most often be Peterson. Peterson is sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as soon as he becomes eligible.
Though the fullback is unquestionably the position most often cited as unnecessary or useless in today’s NFL, the versatility of a big blocker that can run the football is still utilized by many teams in the league. Here are three fullbacks that demonstrate just what the position is all about.
Originally hailing from Canada with Ukrainian parents, Bronko Nagurski played fullback for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s. Also enjoying success as a professional wrestler, earning recognition multiple times as the World Heavyweight Champion, Nagurski played defensive lineman as well as fullback and earned additional All-Pro honors at offensive tackle. An inductee in the inaugural years of both the College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fame, Nagurski is now remembered for a rule change that bears his name, enabling forward passing down the field from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.
Playing for the Cleveland Browns during their original heyday in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), Motley was widely held to be among the greatest rushers and pass-blockers of the 1940s and 50s. After averaging an incredible 8.2 yards per carry in his rookie season with the Browns in 1946, Motley managed to record 188 yards in only 11 carries in a 1950 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a record average of 17.1 yards per rush. Sometimes called the Jackie Robinson of football, Motley’s combination of size and speed simply overwhelmed the opposition, and he was one of the primary reasons for Cleveland’s five championships in the glory days of Browns football.
Playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1972 to 1984, Franco Harris is one of the best examples in league history of a smooth-style running fullback. With long strides and an uncanny ability to accelerate to high speed almost instantaneously, Harris was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times and helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls. Despite a prolific career in the running game (falling only 192 yards short of Jim Brown’s record at the time of 12,312 career rushing yards), Harris is perhaps best remembered today as the recipient of the Immaculate Reception, widely believed to rank among the greatest individual plays in league history.
Though the casual fan might not know it, the offensive tackle position is believed by all NFL coaches to be one of the three cornerstone positions on a team. Here are three blind-side defenders who exemplify why it’s impossible to be a great team without great play at the tackle position.
Playing for the Green Bay Packers in the heyday of “Titletown,” among all of his many career accomplishments none shines brighter than the statement by legendary Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, who named Forrest Gregg as the greatest player that he ever coached. Alongside fellow Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Jerry Kramer, and Ray Nitschke, Gregg was responsible for bringing five championships to the Packers around the dawn of the Super Bowl era, and ended his career with nine Pro Bowl selections and seven First-Team All-Pro appearances. But more than this, Gregg will always be remembered as one of the forces of nature responsible for the Packers’ “Power Sweep”.
The fourth overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, Jonathan Ogden was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with their first pick as an NFL franchise in their inaugural season, with the intention that Ogden would become their franchise left tackle. Becoming a Day 1 starter at left guard as a rookie and subsequently moving to tackle for the subsequent 11 seasons (each of which earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl), Ogden not only lived up to expectations but greatly exceeded them. Along with fellow 1996 1st-round selection Ray Lewis, Ogden went on to become an anchor on the Ravens’ roster throughout his playing career and contributed to Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory in 2000.
Selected by the St. Louis Rams with the number one overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, Orlando Pace protected the blind side of Kurt Warner throughout the entire Rams era now remembered as “The Greatest Show on Turf”. With seven Pro Bowl appearances to his credit and a selection to both the 2000s All-Decade team and the NCAA All-Century team, Pace will go down in history as the originator of the term “pancake,” as he would often leave a wake of unfortunate defenders that found themselves flat on their back after an encounter with Orlando Pace.
Though one of the most thankless positions on a football team, if a team hopes to have an identity for getting those few key yards on the ground when needed (like, say, on the goal line), that team better hope that they have some quality offensive guards. Here are three players that exemplify the importance of guard play in the NFL.
One of the most well-respected human beings to ever play the game of football, the most lasting and important tribute to Gene Upshaw remains the fact that upon his death in 2008, each franchise in the National Football League put a “GU 63” patch on the helmet of every single player, and also painted the same insignia onto the field itself for Week 1 of the 2008 season. Playing 15 seasons at offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders between 1967 and 1981, Upshaw helped the club earn two Super Bowl rings, was voted to seven Pro Bowls, and missed only 10 games in his entire career. After his playing career, Upshaw served as the executive director of the NFL Players’ Association.
While the stereotypical profile of an offensive guard generally includes a paunch and a wide backside, Randall McDaniel defied expectations and is remembered as one of the most incredible physical specimens to grace an offensive line. To this day, McDaniel holds the record for the fastest 100-meter dash time among offensive lineman at 10.64, was timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and had a 37-inch one-step vertical leap on a 6’4”, 287-pound frame that contained only 9% body fat. Making the Pro Bowl in a record 12 consecutive seasons from 1989 to 2000, McDaniel’s freakish athleticism was one of the primary reasons for the Minnesota Vikings’ record-breaking 556-point season in 1998.
While many people look back at the heyday of the playing career of Adrian Peterson and marvel at the running back’s physical talents, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the men in the trenches had a lot to do with Peterson’s success, offensive guard Steve Hutchinson chief among them. Selected in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Hutchinson played 12 seasons in the league, with roughly half played for the Seattle Seahawks (propelling Shaun Alexander to the rushing title) and the other half for the Minnesota Vikings (propelling Adrian Peterson to the same). Hutchinson made the Pro Bowl in seven consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2009, and earned five selections to the First-Team All-Pro.
Though often overlooked, in today’s NFL the center position is one of the most cerebral in the game, and throughout the history of the league the snapper of the football has become increasingly valuable to a team. Let’s look at three players that prove just how important the center position is.
Playing for the New York Giants for the entire duration of the Great Depression and World War II, Mel Hein was the first offensive lineman ever to win the Most Valuable Player Award, a feat accomplished in 1938 and never duplicated. A member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, Hein played fifteen seasons and never missed a single down due to injury despite the fact that he played 60 minutes in every game, doubling as a ferocious linebacker on defense. When the Pro Football Hall of Fame was opened in 1963, despite nearly twenty years of additional playing careers having passed since his last game, Hein was inducted into the inaugural class.
Widely believed to be the greatest center of all time, “Iron Mike” Webster was known not only for his athletic prowess but also for his durability, starting in 217 of a possible 245 games in his 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster was the brain of the offensive line for quarterback Terry Bradshaw through the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s and 80s, and also the brawn that opened holes for running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. For his efforts, Webster was selected to nine consecutive Pro Bowls from 1978 to 1987.
Despite being undrafted, Jeff Saturday will go down in the history of the NFL as one of the best and most intelligent centers to play the game of football, retiring in 2013 with a Super Bowl ring, six Pro Bowl appearances, and two selections to the First-Team All-Pro. Saturday was an integral part of the famously cerebral Indianapolis Colts offense led by Peyton Manning, and was responsible for relaying the numerous audibles and modifications made by Manning to the rest of the offensive line. Saturday also holds the distinction for having scored a game-saving fumble-recovery touchdown in an AFC Championship game, a rare feat for a lineman.
Despite the fact that it is one of the most specialized, the wide receiver position nonetheless receives a large part of a team’s attention in today’s NFL because of the great emphasis placed on passing offense. Let’s look at three great receivers throughout the league’s history that have ushered in this change.
Put simply, Don Hutson was the first modern-type wide receiver in the history of the game, despite the fact that his 11 seasons came in 1935-1945. Hutson laid the groundwork for the modern routes that characterize the passing game today, and the novelty of his route-running made him nearly unstoppable: In 1942, for example, Hutson tripled the production of his closest competitor. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leader in every conceivable wide receiver metric; his career touchdown record stood for an incredible 49 years. The Packers’ practice center in Green Bay still bears his name today, a significant accomplishment in a city that has seen a multitude of legends pass through over a period lasting nearly a century.
Despite playing a vulnerable position, Jerry Rice set records that could very well stand the test of time primarily because of his incredible durability and unmatched longevity. In an incredible career spanning 20 seasons (three quarters of which were played with the San Francisco 49ers) Rice set career records for receptions, touchdown receptions, and receiving yards that have all stood for over a decade. Judging by the amount that he leads the other challengers in these categories, there’s reason to believe that they will stand for decades to come – if not forever.
Drafted with the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Larry Fitzgerald quickly became the face of the Arizona Cardinals franchise, and is likely to be remembered as one of the greatest wide receivers to play the game. He is the youngest player ever to have gained 7,000 career receiving yards, and demonstrates his mental toughness with incredible performances in the playoffs: In 2008, Fitzgerald notched 546 yards and 8 touchdowns in only 30 receptions during a single postseason run. What’s more, Fitzgerald truly shines off the field as well, with his high character earning him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2016.
In the 2010s, a long, fast, pass-catching tight end has become one of the most coveted players in the league. Throughout the league’s history, though, tight ends focused more on hitting people than on catching passes. Let’s look at examples of both trends.
A man whose very name has become synonymous with the game of football, Mike Ditka was a living legend even before he led the ’85 Bears (considered among the greatest single teams of all time) to the Super Bowl as head coach. As a player, Ditka changed the passing game forever as one of the very first viable dual-threat tight ends, acting as both blocker and pass-catcher. In an era before tight ends were considered receiving targets, Ditka finished in the top ten in receiving for four consecutive seasons from 1961 to 1964.
When the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore in 1995, Ozzie Newsome was chosen to be the new franchise’s general manager. While Cleveland fans were undoubtedly conflicted about seeing their team head to a new city, having a Browns legend head the new franchise undoubtedly sweetened the deal. In a playing career spanning 13 seasons from 1978 to 1990, “The Wizard of Oz” terrorized defensive backs, finishing second in the league in receptions in back-to-back seasons in 1983 and 1984. As GM, he led the Ravens to two Super Bowl victories in 2000 and 2012.
Even though he was selected to the National Football League’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s, Antonio Gates did not even consider himself a football player until comparatively late in life, playing basketball in college and signing with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted player in 2003. In short order, Gates became the Chargers’ franchise leader in career receptions, career touchdown receptions, and career receiving yards. The skills he developed as a basketball player served him well, enabling Gates to box out receivers down the field and go up and get jump balls.
Though many people would say that the offenses of the NFL have gone through the most change over the years, since the very beginning it has always been the case that defenses have immediately found a way to match the changes brought by new offensive schemes and provided the antidote through adjustments of their own.
Here is an assortment of stars from all different eras of defense at each of the major positions, including defensive end, defensive tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety.
The defensive end position has been forcing quarterbacks to lose sleep for generations, causing them to tremble in fear as they rumble into the pocket off the edge. Let’s take a look at some D-ends throughout the years that have exemplified what it means to shore up the edge of the line.
Unfortunately, given the fact that sacks were not recorded as an official stat until after the career of Gino Marchetti concluded, we’ll never know just how often the 11-time Pro Bowler got to the quarterback. But playing in the 1950s and early 1960s, an era when the only true passing quarterback (Johnny Unitas) was on Marchetti’s own team, it’s safe to say that his pass rush opportunities were limited anyway. Marchetti was the cornerstone of the best defense in the league at the time, and helped bring the Baltimore Colts to two NFL Championships.
Known as “The Minister of Defense” both for his commanding on-field presence and for his strong faith and practice as an ordained Baptist minister off the field, Reggie White ranks among the most terrifying, earth-shaking men in the history of the National Football League. Playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers in a career spanning 15 years from 1985 to 2000, White is best known for helping bring the Brett Favre-led Packers to a Super Bowl in 1996. As Drew Bledsoe and the New England Patriots tried to mount a comeback against the Packers, White notched back-to-back sacks, effectively ending a Patriots drive and helping secure the victory. His ranking on the NFL’s Top 100 list (#7) is the highest of all defensive linemen.
Another NFL legend who demonstrates freak athleticism and tremendous ability across multiple sports, Julius Peppers continued to play competitive basketball in the offseason even well past the 15-year mark of his professional football career. Playing for the Carolina Panthers, the Chicago Bears, the Green Bay Packers, and then ultimately returning home to Carolina (where he played for UNC in college), Julius Peppers more than lived up to expectations as the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, and was selected to the 2000s All-Decade Team.
While defensive tackles won’t often get the same free rush that a defensive end or outside linebacker might (more often getting bottled up in the middle of the pile), having stout, unmovable anchors in the middle of the D-line is essential to strong defense. Here are three players who prove just how important the D-tackle position is.
An NFL player who demonstrates the value of being a good person in addition to being a good athlete, Alan Page fundamentally changed the way that defense is played in the NFL, spending his 14-year career (from 1967 to 1981) confusing offensive linemen by lining up in a variety of different locations along the defensive line. His intensity and mental sharpness earned him the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1971, a performance that NFL Films would later call the greatest single season performance of all time. After a 15-year playing career in which he never missed a game (during which time he earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Minnesota and was often found studying for law school exams in the locker room before games), Page left football behind and had a 22-year stint on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969 to 1981, Joe Green was the recipient of ten Pro Bowl and eight All-Pro selections, earned four Super Bowl rings, and was also honored as the Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974 as well as the NFL Man of the Year in 1979. Widely considered one of the greatest defensive linemen to play the game, Greene was known primarily for his fiercely competitive and dominatingly intimidating style of play, for which he earned the nickname “Mean” Joe Greene.
The twelfth pick overall in the 1995 NFL Draft, Warren Sapp played for nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before going to Oakland for the final four seasons of his career. In his brief stint with the Bucs, Sapp earned seven Pro Bowl selections, four consecutive selections to the First-Team All-Pro, and was a member of both the 1990s and 2000s All-Decade Team. Not only was Sapp able to clog up the middle of the defensive line and create rush holes for his linebackers, but he was also a phenomenal pass rusher, with his 96.5 career sacks the second highest all time among interior defensive linemen.
The middle linebacker position has traditionally served as the captain of the defense, much in the same way that the quarterback serves as the captain of the offense. Let’s take a look at three players throughout the league’s history that demonstrate this combination of leadership, intelligence, and bruising ferociousness.
Although he would never appear in a playoff game, Dick Butkus has nonetheless gone done in NFL history as one of the most iconic players to ever play the game. Named the most feared tackler of all time by NFL.com, Butkus is one of the few players to have exceled at his position despite having an exceptionally weak supporting cast around him. Playing for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1973, Butkus managed to notch 23 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries in addition to his fearsome tackling.
Another player who exceled individually despite being on a weak team, Sam Mills was one of the few bright spots on the team referred to by fans and non-fans alike as the ‘Aints, and managed to make the Pro Bowl four times while playing in New Orleans despite going undrafted. The unquestioned leader of the Dome Patrol, the nickname for the Saints linebacking corps, Mills was known for being the consummate professional at his position, never being out of position and exceling with slight size and deceptive speed.
Drafted in the first round of the Baltimore Ravens’ inaugural draft as an NFL team, Ray Lewis would go on to become the face of the franchise, playing his entire prolific 17-year career in Baltimore. While the captain of the stout Ravens’ defense, Lewis made 13 Pro Bowl appearances, earned 10 All-Pro selections, was named the Defensive Player of the Year twice, and brought two Super Bowl rings to the new franchise. Lewis was also remarkable for his longevity, being one of the few players in the history of the league to make it to a Pro Bowl in three different decades, and being the last Raven to leave the team that had been with the franchise since its inaugural season.
The outside linebacker position requires some of the most versatile players in the game, being frequently called on both to come up and play strong in the run game, setting an edge and not letting the running back get outside, but also being increasingly needed to cover tall, fast wide receivers and tight ends over the middle. Let’s take a look at three players who showed just such versatility.
Along with Alan Page, Lawrence Taylor is one of only two defensive players in the history of the league to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. After being selected with the #2 overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, “L.T.” played thirteen seasons with the New York Giants, being voted to both the Pro Bowl and the First-Team All-Pro in ten consecutive seasons and helping the Giants to two Super Bowl victories. During his MVP season, Taylor notched an incredible 20.5 sacks, making him an integral part of the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” of the Giants.
After being drafted with the #4 pick overall in 1989, Derrick Thomas charged out of the gate to win the NFL Rookie of the Year Award in his first season in the league, and over the course of his 10-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs Thomas would notch some of the most impressive pass rush statistics in NFL history. Tragically, Thomas’s career was cut short by his untimely death in 2000 due to complications of a car accident, and in 2009 he was elected posthumously to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Even though Derrick Brooks only notched 13 and a half sacks over the course of his 13-year career, Brooks nonetheless merits being mentioned in the conversation for the greatest defensive players in the history of the league. Notching over 1,700 tackles over the course of his career, 25 interceptions, 24 forced fumbles, and 7 defensive touchdowns, Brooks was one of the most intelligent, tenacious, and technically sound outside linebackers in the game, and a primary reason for the renaissance of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise around the turn of the 21st century.
The cornerback position, more than any other position on the defense, has tracked evenly with the wide receiver position in its needs and requirements. Here are three cornerbacks throughout the league’s history that have done more than matched up against receivers – they’ve dominated.
Despite the fact that Willie Brown played from the mid-60s to the late 1970s – a time when passing offense was just starting to become fully implemented into the National Football League – the American Football League (that would eventually merge with the NFL by 1970) was much more pass-happy, and Willie Brown was up to the challenge. Easily the best cornerback of the AFL era, Brown anchored a Raiders defense that ranked among the top in the league each season, and cemented his legacy by sealing the Raiders’ victory in Super Bowl XI with a 75-yard interception return touchdown.
Nicknamed “Neon Deion” or “Prime Time,” even a cursory glance at his career highlights will illustrate why Deion Sanders earned a reputation for being a flashy player. Despite the fact that he is often characterized as being allergic to tackling, occasionally making the “business decision” to protect himself rather than go after the ball carrier, his accumulated statistics as a pure cornerback specialist still earn him top honors at the position (not to mention his contributions in the return game). Sanders retired finally in 2005, having made it to eight Pro Bowls, earning two Super Bowl rings, and being voted to the First-Team All-Pro eight times despite playing for five different teams.
After being drafted by the New England Patriots with the 23rd pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Ty Law went on to play fifteen seasons in the NFL, the first ten of which came with the Pats and included three Super Bowl victories. A five-time Pro Bowler, Law was not only proficient during the regular season but also truly shined in the postseason, with his tour de force performance coming in the 2003 AFC Championship Game, in which Law notched three interceptions against league MVP Peyton Manning.
The safety position serves as the literal last line of defense, and more than any other position on the defense safeties are called upon to play a chess match against the opposing quarterback. Here are three safeties that have amply shown the intelligence and tenacity necessary to be great.
Continuously mentioned in the discussion for the greatest defensive back in the history of the National Football League, Ronnie Lott was the prototypical dual-threat safety, both intimidating ball carriers with his fearless coverage and tackling, and also intimidating opposing quarterbacks by constantly thinking a step ahead and often winning the mental chess match. And his toughness was unmatched: In 1985, after a gruesome hand injury during a tackle, Lott had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated to avoid missing games for bone graft surgery.
One of the most well-liked football fixtures in recent league history, John Lynch played safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Denver Broncos from 1993 to 2007, ending his career with one Super Bowl ring, four All-Pro selections, and nine appearances in the Pro Bowl. After his playing career was over, Lynch spent nearly a decade as a color commentator for FOX before ultimately being hired as a general manager for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017.
Playing out his entire 12-season career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Troy Polamalu will always be remembered for the high-flying, seemingly reckless way in which he played the game. With his trademarked long hair flowing, Polamalu was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, equally likely to fly out of the backfield for a pick-6 as he was to dive headfirst over the offensive line for a sack. His incredible instincts, lightning speed, and high football IQ earned him a permanent place in the pantheon of NFL safeties.
The history of specialists and special teams units does not stretch back nearly as far as that of offenses or defenses, with the first pure special teams unit not coming about until the second half of the 20th century and the first soccer-style kicker not drafted into the league until the 1960s.
Nonetheless, despite the shorter history, the game has seen a number of star specialists over the years. Here’s an assortment of stars both past and present at special teams positions including kicker, punter, and returner.
While frequently teased for being the most protected and least “manly” position on a football team, placekickers are also among the best paid and most important. Here are three kickers that demonstrate just how valuable a clutch kicker is in the NFL.
A player who defies all categorization, George Blanda is one of the great legends in the history of the game. Playing an NFL record 26 seasons between four different teams, Blanda is one of the only players in league to have appeared in an NFL game during four different decades, and at the time of his retirement in 1976, at age 48, he had scored more points than anyone in history. Starting his career in an era where NFL players played in all three phases, staying in the game for the full 60 minutes, Blanda is better known as a quarterback than a kicker, and also saw time on defense as a linebacker. He holds the record for most extra points kicked, and is also tied for the record for most touchdown passes thrown in a single game.
Born without toes on his right foot, for decades Tom Dempsey held the record for the longest field goal in the history of the NFL, with his 63-yard boot lifting the New Orleans Saints to a 2-point victory over the Detroit Lions in 1970 despite the fact that the kick occurred on a day that followed a night of serious drinking and debauchery in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter. Playing for five different teams in his ten-year career, Dempsey’s special square kicking shoe made him particularly emblematic of the straight-toe kicking style that would eventually be replaced by the soccer style of today.
Born in Walbrzych, Poland, Sebastian Janikowski is one of the rare specialists to be drafted in the first round of an NFL Draft, and in a career stretching well beyond a decade and a half with the Oakland Raiders, he has more than proven that he was worth it. Janikowski holds the record for most 50+ and most 60+ field goals in a career, as well as the longest field goal attempt in league history (at 76 yards). Nicknamed “The Polish Cannon,” Janikowski is famous for his historically powerful leg.
In addition to booting the ball downfield and being an integral part of the field position game, punters also frequently serve as holder, and many times will bring down a returner in the open field. Let’s take a look at three punters throughout league history that show just how important the position is.
Another player entering the league in the “one-platoon” era, in which players played in all three phases and generally stayed in the game for all 60 minutes, “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh was a quarterback, defensive back, and punter drafted with the 6th overall pick in 1937 by the Washington Redskins, with whom he would play out the duration of his 15-year career. Despite also leading the league in touchdowns and interceptions at other times in his career, Baugh remains #2 on the list of highest career punting average well over half a century after his retirement.
A rare specialist drafted in the first round, the Oakland Raiders brought on Ray Guy with the #23 overall selection in 1973 NFL Draft, making him the first pure punter ever drafted so highly. Fourteen seasons later, after three Super Bowls, seven Pro Bowl appearances, six First-Team All-Pro selections, and a spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, Guy had amply demonstrated that he merited being drafted so highly. In 2014, the league honored Guy’s playing career and cemented his status as the greatest punter of all time by inducting him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the first pure punter to receive such an honor.
Even early in his career, Sam Koch gained a reputation as an innovator at the punter position, becoming known for his wide variety of different punting variations that he likens to the different clubs in a golf bag. While many punters are still laboring simply to kick the ball far and in the direction that they intend, Koch is well beyond this simple skill and attempts to use any number of different combinations of screwballs, changeups, and other proprietary punting secrets to gain an advantage.
The kick return game is one of the more recent innovations in the NFL, historically speaking, and unfortunately for many teams one of the more underappreciated and undervalued. Here are three returners that prove just how much a quality returner can rocket a team into the upper echelon.
While his career statistics demonstrate his quality as a return specialist, earning him three Pro Bowl appearances and three selections to the First-Team All-Pro, alongside a spot on the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson is better known for being among the very first players to perform elaborate end zone celebrations after scoring a touchdown, a tradition that has remained in the league ever since he exited it in 1988 after 15 seasons.
In only his second season in the league, Eric Metcalf led the league in both kickoff return yards, with over 1,000, and in kickoff return touchdowns. Metcalf also led the league in punt return touchdowns four times in his 13-season career, and retired among the top 10 in the history of the league in all-purpose yards despite playing for seven different teams. To this day, he remains the only player in league history to notch more than 7,000 yards on both offense and 7,000 yards on special teams.
Widely believed in today’s NFL to be the greatest return specialist in the recent history of the NFL, Devin Hester was one of the major factors to push the Chicago Bears over the edge from a fringe playoff team to a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and was voted three times onto the First-Team All-Pro during his tenure with Chicago. A member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, Hester holds the league record for total career return touchdowns, with 20, total career punt return touchdowns, with 14, and is tied for the record for total return touchdowns in a season, with 6.