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Best NFL Players of All Time: Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes Headline Top 25

Who are the best NFL players of all time? We offer our top 25, which include legends such as Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Jerry Rice.

Ranking the best NFL players of all time is harder than doing so for any other sport. How do you compare a quarterback to an offensive lineman? A free safety to a punt gunner?

Ultimately, the best practice is to look for players who were/are uniquely exceptional at their positions. But even then, you’d invite arguments for kickers or punters —  and nobody is putting them on top 25 lists.

Nevertheless, we dug through the archives and found the 25 best players in NFL history, along with six players who just missed the cut.

Best NFL Players of All Time | 25-11

Just missed the cut: Don Hutson (WR), Alan Page (DT), Rod Woodson (DB), Emlen Tunnell (DB), Aaron Rodgers (QB), Roger Staubach (QB)

25) Gale Sayers, RB
24) Deacon Jones, DL
23) Ray Lewis, LB
22) Rob Gronkowski, TE
21) Aaron Donald, DT
20) Emmitt Smith, RB
19) Randy Moss, WR
18) John Elway, QB
17) Anthony Muñoz, OT
16) Deion Sanders, CB
15) Ronnie Lott, S
14) Dick Butkus, LB
13) Dan Marino, QB
12) Joe Greene, DT
11) Johnny Unitas, QB

10 Best NFL Players of All Time

10) Patrick Mahomes, QB

There’s a solid chance Patrick Mahomes will be higher on this list in a few years, perhaps even as early as next year. He’s the best quarterback on the planet, and it’s not particularly close.

If the goal were to rank the 10 most talented players in NFL history, Mahomes might be at the top. But that’s not what this list is. And it’s still too early to rank him anywhere near the top five.

With all that said, Mahomes is ridiculous. Still just 28 years old, he already has three Super Bowl titles, two MVPs, and six Pro Bowl nods on his résumé. If his career ended today, he’d be a Hall of Famer.

9) Peyton Manning, QB

You definitely can poke holes in Peyton Manning’s résumé.

His first Super Bowl title came against an inferior, unworthy opponent, and his second saw the defense-led Denver Broncos win in spite of him. The early years of Manning’s career also were filled with postseason choke jobs, including two against the New England Patriots. Manning probably would be the first to tell you he left some championships on the table.

But that’s where the negativity ends. There wasn’t a ton of flash in Manning’s game, but he was as good of a pure quarterback as the NFL has ever seen. A football savant, Manning outsmarted opposing defenses before and after the snap. With him under center, the Indianapolis Colts were AFC contenders year in and year out.

The accolades speak for themselves: five MVPs, 14 Pro Bowl nods, seven first-team All-Pro selections, and two Super Bowl titles.

8) Barry Sanders, RB

Barry Sanders might be the most entertaining football player who’s ever lived. If you weren’t alive or old enough to watch him in his prime, you missed out.

The Detroit Lions legend ran unlike anyone before or since. Sanders could make anyone miss in the open field, and his speed made him a threat to turn any play into a touchdown. Sanders unfortunately retired early, but he still racked up 15,259 rushing yards during an incredible 10-year career.

7) Joe Montana, QB

Joe Montana would be higher on this list if not for the player in the No. 1 spot. He’ll just have to settle for being the second-best quarterback of all time and the No. 7 player on our all-time list.

Montana didn’t have the strongest arm. And while his mobility was underrated, he wasn’t exactly a burner. Yet, he did have pinpoint accuracy, great leadership, arguably the most catchable ball ever, and the clutch gene.

The San Francisco 49ers legend went 4-0 in Super Bowls and won two MVPs. His postseason run from 1988 to 1990 was particularly absurd, as Montana posted a 100+ passer rating in eight straight playoff games.

He was just about the perfect quarterback.

6) Walter Payton, RB

Some would argue that Walter Payton is the greatest running back in NFL history — and they might be right. After all, his 16,726 rushing yards rank only second all-time behind Emmitt Smith’s 18,355.

Regardless of where you rank Payton relative to Sanders and Jim Brown (more on him in a bit), the reality is he’s one of the greatest players in football history. “Sweetness” was a complete running back: tough, fast, great at receiving, and a willing blocker.

The Chicago Bears legend finished his Hall of Fame career with five first-team All-Pro nods and one MVP.

5) Reggie White, DL

Reggie White is the greatest defensive lineman of all time. No disrespect to Aaron Donald, but it’s true. White also had two Hall of Fame-worthy careers: one with the Philadelphia Eagles and one with the Green Bay Packers.

White won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award with both franchises, and he made first- or second-team All-Pro in all but two of his seasons.

He was a great run defender, but White was especially great as a pass rusher. He posted double-digit sacks in 12 seasons, including nine in a row. He also posted 18+ sacks three times, including 21 sacks in 1987.

Simply put: White is one of the two greatest defensive players in NFL history.

4) Lawrence Taylor, LB

Bill Belichick believes Lawrence Taylor is the obvious choice for the greatest defensive player in NFL history. That’s good enough for us.

Let’s do some bullet points:

  • Hall of Famer
  • 10 Pro Bowls
  • Eight first-team All-Pro selections
  • Two-time Super Bowl champion
  • 1986 MVP
  • Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year
  • 1981 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
  • 142 sacks, including 20.5 in 1986
  • Nine interceptions

The list goes on and on. Taylor was the face of the New York Giants throughout the 1980s and could wreck a game by himself. There’s never been anyone else like him.

3) Jim Brown, RB

The best running back of all time, Brown also is considered by some to be the greatest athlete in the history of United States professional sports. (Look up his lacrosse highlights, kids.)

Brown led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons and finished his illustrious career with 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns in just 118 games. He made the Pro Bowl in each season and was the NFL’s most dominant player from the time he entered the pros until the day he left.

Brown averaged 104.3 yards per game, the highest mark of any player in NFL history.

2) Jerry Rice, WR

Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver of all time and one of the two best players in the history of football.

Rice is the all-time leader in receptions, reception yards, and touchdowns. He’s a 10-time first-team All-Pro, a 13-time Pro Bowl, and a three-time Super Bowl champion. The list of accomplishments goes on and on.

Rice finished his career with the Raiders and Seattle Seahawks, but he made his name with the 49ers. The top target for both Montana and Steve Young, Rice helped the Niners go on a dynastic run throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Will we ever see a receiver better than Rice? Perhaps, but he’ll hold the honor for a long, long time.

1) Tom Brady, QB

Seven Super Bowl titles in 10 appearances. Fourteen Conference Championship game appearances, including eight in a row. Fifteen Pro Bowls. Three first-team All-Pro selections. Three MVPs. Two of the greatest statistical seasons in QB history (2007 and 2010).

Tom Brady also led New England to 17 AFC East championships, including 11 in a row. He did what Mahomes is doing, and he did it for literal decades.

The cherry on top came in 2020 when Brady proved he could do it elsewhere. In his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title over Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Brady basically had three Hall of Fame careers.

2000-2007: Three Super Bowl titles (four appearances), four Pro Bowls, one MVP, one first-team All-Pro, undefeated regular season.

2008-2014: One Super Bowl title (two appearances), six Pro Bowls, one MVP, one first-team All-Pro.

2015-2022: Three Super Bowl titles (four appearances), five Pro Bowls, one MVP, one first-team All-Pro.

Brady is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, and completions. At 45 years old, he threw for 4,694 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also tore his ACL during the prime of his career.

Brady is the best quarterback of all time and the greatest player in NFL history. period.