1. Tom Brady
Years active: 2000 – Present
Teams: New England Patriots; Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Notable accolades: 7x Super Bowl Champion (1st All-Time); 5x Super Bowl MVP (1st All-Time); 3x MVP; 3x First Team All-Pro; 2x Second Team All-Pro; 2x OPoY; 14x Pro-Bowl; multiple Super Bowl, playoff & regular season records
If you were wondering where Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. was on this list, wonder no longer. He was already named to the NFL 100 in 2019, but after smashing the massively favored Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV on his first try with a brand new team, he has silenced all questions about his individual greatness. Belichick was great in New England as well and was vital to Brady’s growth, but all questions have been answered. Tom Brady can now rightfully claim his title as the Greatest of All Time.
2. Jerry Rice
Years active: 1985 – 2004
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (2010 Class); 3x Super Bowl Champion; 1x Super Bowl MVP; 1x MVP; 10x First Team All-Pro; 1x Second Team All-Pro; 2x OPoY; 13x Pro Bowl; All-Time Leader in touchdowns (208), receiving touchdowns (197), receptions (1,549), consecutive 1+ reception games (274)
You’ll find that wide receivers are rare on these types of lists. Up until recently, the game was predicated on defense, running backs, and if the air attack was good enough, quarterbacks. If you’re looking for the man who brought pass catchers into vogue, you found him. What makes Jerry Rice’s case unique is his longevity and extended excellence. Wide receivers are usually the lightest players in the NFL behind punters, kickers, and occasional quarterbacks, and most have had their careers but short by injury. Not Jerry. Until our number one-ranked player came along, he was the league’s iron man.
3. Lawrence Taylor
Years active: 1981-1993
Teams: New York Giants
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (1999 Class); 2x Super Bowl Champion; 1x MVP; 8x First Team All-Pro; 2x Second Team All-Pro; 3x DPoY; DRoY
Naturally, as only one of two defensive players to earn MVP honors, and the only one to do so unanimously, Lawrence Taylor is popularly regarded as the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL. As the saying goes, ‘defense wins championships’, so Taylor naturally can slide no lower than 3rd on this list. He continues the trend of definitive GOATs at their position, and only slides down to 3rd because of the insane longevity of the two players ahead of him. A 12-year NFL career as the hardest hitter in football is no joke, though, and he has accolades to back up that claim. He brought modern love to the less glamorous side of football, and for that alone, he belongs here.
4. Jim Brown
Years active: 1957-1965
Teams: Cleveland Browns
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (1971 Class); 1x Super Bowl Champion; 3x MVP; 8x First Team All-Pro; 1x Second Team All-Pro; 9x Pro Bowl; RoY (1957)
Jim Brown marks the beginning of GOAT territory in this list: he and the three players ranked above him are the four greatest to ever play at their positions, all in a row. From here on out, we are dealing with absolutely undisputed top-of-the-mountain prestige. So it should speak to the talent above Brown that as the greatest to ever play arguably the second-most important role on an NFL team, he ranks at the bottom of this particular Mt. Rushmore.
5. Joe Montana
Years active: 1979-1994
Teams: San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (2000 Class); 4x Super Bowl Champion; 3x Super Bowl MVP; 2x MVP; 3x First Team All-Pro; 2x Second Team All-Pro; 8x Pro Bowl
The original “Joe Cool”, Joe Montana Just exuded Hollywood-style quarterback energy. Synonymous with the peak of the San Francisco 49ers, Montana was the undisputed GOAT quarterback before a certain Patriot/Buccaneer leveled up in the 2010s (more on that later). From his name, to his looks, to his stats, to nearly everything else about him, Montana has been the modern prototype for every hopeful signal caller in the NFL, and for good reason.
6. Walter Payton
Years active: 1975-1987
Teams: Chicago Bears
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (1993 Class); 1x Super Bowl Champion; 1x MVP; 1x OPoY; 2x NFC OPoY; 1x MoY; 7x First Team All-Pro; 1x Second Team All-Pro; 9x Pro Bowl
The late Walter Payton, rest his soul, has a legitimate argument to be placed multiple spots higher on this list. It seems almost criminal, therefore, to list him this low, but quarterbacks are generally more historically remembered, and the ‘greatest’ running back in NFL history is more iconic and is statistically comparable (even better in some cases) on a per-game basis. If this were a ranking of the ‘best’, rather than ‘greatest’ NFL players of all time, Payton would arguably be at the top of the list. His ranking here is still debatable and should be a credit to those ranked above him, rather than a knock on his legacy.
7. Reggie White
Years active: 1985-2000
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (2006 Class); 1x Super Bowl Champion; 2x DPoY; 3x NFC DPoY; 8x First Team All-Pro; 5x Second Team All-Pro; 13x Pro Bowl
Reggie White (RIP, Minister of Defense) is the greatest edge rusher of all time. At such a violent position, without today’s modern medicine and health solutions, imagine playing for nearly two decades, and only missing two All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods for your entire career. While not quite as impactful as the greatest defensive player of all time, Reggie White is a clear positional GOAT, and this is the lowest he can reasonably be slotted before we start to disrespect the defensive side of the game of football.
8. Johnny Unitas
Years active: 1955-1973
Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (1979 Class); 4x Champion (1x Super Bowl, 3x pre-Super Bowl); 3x MVP; 1x MoY; 5x First Team All-Pro; 3x Second Team All-Pro; 10x Pro Bowl
Considered the first great quarterback by many, Unitas’ story a precursor to Tom Brady: drafted in the 9th round by Pittsburgh, only to be released before the season began, Unitas was asked at the last minute to join the Baltimore Colts. The rest, as you say, is history. While not as statistically brilliant as his successors, Unitas’ place here is not simply nostalgic. His NFL record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass went unbroken until 2012, not by Brady or Manning, but by Drew Brees. You don’t get a nickname like the Golden Arm for nothing.
9. Peyton Manning
Years active: 1955-1973
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (2021 Class); 2x Super Bowl Champion; 5x MVP; 2x OPoY; 1x MoY; 7x First Team All-Pro; 3x Second Team All-Pro; 14x Pro Bowl; multiple records (career MVPs, Pro Bowls, 4,000-yard passing seasons, single-season passing yards (5,477), single-season passing TDs (55))
Numbers. That sums up Peyton Manning’s career. Honestly, the biggest nod to his greatness was the effectiveness of a Colts offense (and team, really) that rested solely on his shoulders. The next player on this list is more prototypical and more iconic/nostalgic in the sport of football, but Peyton, with his huge arm (and bigger forehead), is arguably the most talented quarterback, and player, in NFL history. How in the world does one even approach 5,000 yards and 55 touchdowns?
10. Emmitt Smith
Years active: 1990-2004
Teams: Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals
Notable accolades: Hall of Fame (2010); 1x MVP; 1x Super Bowl MVP; ORoY; 4x First Team All-Pro; 2x Second Team All-Pro; 8x Pro Bowl; multiple records (rushing yards, touchdowns, attempts
Okay, let’s talk about this. There might be more iconic names to non-fans or casual fans that have already been listed, but Emmitt Smith is by far the greatest of the Cowboys offensive trio that made Dallas the juggernaut brand it is today. As the starting running back for the most successful era of America’s team, Smith has an argument to be the greatest NFL running back of all time, and the stats back it up. His records are very much untouched, and his production remained even with Aikman and Irvin eating up possessions.