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There have been many, many great, terrible, inspiring, despicable, and interesting players, coaches, and staff in the century-long history of the National Football League. There are 346 people enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame alone, and those are only the ones who have broken records or changed how the game of football is played. This page collects some of the most notable Sportspeople to professionally play offensive roles in American Football history. All of these players were well-known stars in their day; many spun that stardom off into roles in other works, and even those that were more camera-shy are still likely to be referenced in works released during and after their playing careers, so it's worth knowing why they were famous to begin with.

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For those on the other side of the ball, see NFL Defensive and Special Teams Players. For coaches, commissioners, broadcasters, owners, and other key figures whose greatest contributions to the NFL came while not wearing pads, see National Football League Non-Player Figures. For players better known for controversy or for on-field disappointment, as well as coaches and executives better known for the same in their respective roles, see National Football League Notorious Figures. The names of players and coaches who were part of the NFL but are better known for their college accomplishments can be found on the Collegiate American Football Names To Know page.

Individuals in folders are listed alphabetically, by last name.


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     Quarterbacks 

Running Backs

     A-G 
  • Shaun Alexander played for the Seattle Seahawks through the '00s. A first round pick in 2000 out of Alabama, he put up a series of 1,000 yard rushing seasons starting in his second year, tied the single-season TD record in 2004, and put up a truly spectacular 2005 season where he broke the single-season touchdown record and won league MVP (the first Seahawk to do so). Unfortunately, his solid career has been largely overshadowed by his reputation as one of the most prominent examples of the "Madden Curse". In 2006, while he adorned the cover of Madden NFL in recognition of his excellent prior season, he suffered a foot injury that nearly halved his playing time. That same year, LaDainian Tomlinson broke Alexander's TD record and won MVP for himself. Alexander continued to struggle with injuries—Seattle released him to Washington after the next season, and he was out of football entirely the year after that. Despite the relative brevity of his career, he is a member of the Seahawks Ring of Honor.
  • Marcus Allen was a star in the league for 16 seasons through the '80s and '90s. Drafted #10 overall in 1982 by the Los Angeles Raiders after a Heisman- and national championship-winning season at USC, Allen immediately broke out as a star on his local team, leading the league in touchdowns during the strike-shortened season and being named Offensive Rookie of the Year. He later led the Raiders to a Super Bowl XVIII victory, setting records for longest rush in a Super Bowl and total rushing yards (both since broken), co-led the league in total TDs in 1984,, and was named MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1985 after leading the NFL in rushing yards. However, his performance regressed the following season, and his relationship with the Raiders and owner Al Davis began to deteriorate when the team brought in two-sport superstar Bo Jackson (see below) to play for the Raiders part-time, cutting into Allen's playing time and preventing him from a getting a higher-paying contract. After several seasons of being mostly relegated to the bench during the prime of his career, Allen took advantage of the NFL's new free agency system in 1993 to leave the Raiders, sign with the hated division rival Kansas City Chiefs, and immediately rebound, leading the league in rushing TDs once again while winning Comeback Player of the Year. He played effectively for five more seasons until retiring at the ripe age (especially by running back standards) of 37, holding the then-record for career rushing TDs (he's now #3). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, joining Tony Dorsett (see below) as the only players to win a Heisman, a college national championship, a Super Bowl, and be enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.note 
  • Mike Alstott, aka "The A-Train", was one of the last great ball-carrying fullbacks in the NFL, spending his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Drafted in the 2nd round in 1996 out of Purdue, where he left as the school's all-time leading rusher (unheard of for a fullback in modern times), he made six straight Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro four times as a preeminent power rusher. He was part of the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII-winning team in 2002 but began to experience neck injuries related to his brutal running style the following year. He played through the pain for several more seasons, though was noticeably less effective, until retiring after 2007. His 680 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the 2001 season are the most by a true fullback in the 21st century and are likely to remain records as the position took on a primarily blocking role, then began to be phased out completely by the late '10s.
  • Alan Ameche was drafted #3 overall in 1955 by the Baltimore Colts after a Heisman-winning career at Wisconsin. Nicknamed "The Iron Horse", Ameche led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns in his rookie year, a performance that inspired the creation of the first widely-recognized "Rookie of the Year" awards for the NFLnote . He earned Pro Bowl selections in his first four seasons and scored the game-winning touchdown in the 1958 Championship, "The Greatest Game Ever Played". Unfortunately, an Achilles injury ended his career in 1960, ensuring he was one of very few members of the '50s All-Decade Team to not reach the Hall of Fame. Like a number of Colts from this era, Ameche entered into the fast food business after his career ended; he died of a heart attack in 1988 at age 55.
  • Jamal Anderson was a hero for the Atlanta Falcons during the best season in the franchise's often difficult history. A seventh round pick in 1994 out of Utah, the former juco transfer became the team's starting RB by his third season and emerged as a dominant force in 1998, amassing over 1,800 rushing yards on a then-record 410 carriesnote  and 2,100 yards from scrimmage while leading the team to a 14-2 record; while those numbers would normally be enough to win the year's rushing title, Anderson was up against Terrell Davis, and the Falcons lost to his Broncos in the Super Bowl. An injury the following season slowed his production, and after another solid year, a knee injury ended his career in 2001. Despite the relative brevity of his career, Anderson remains a legend in Atlanta due to his "Dirty Bird" celebration dance, giving the Falcons a nickname that endures today.
  • Mike Anderson had an extremely unique NFL career. After joining the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school and serving several deployments overseas before being discharged as a lance corporal, Anderson enrolled in junior college and eventually Utah. Despite being one of the most dominant college RBs of the 1990s, the 26-year-old was viewed as already past his prime at the game's most punishing position and fell all the way to the sixth round of the 2000 Draftnote . He landed with the Denver Broncos as the third string, but injuries ahead of him on the depth chart cleared the way for him to become the feature back in Mike Shanahan's offense. His dominant performance made him the lowest drafted player to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. While subsequent injury problems soon proved draftniks to be correct in predicting that he would have a short NFL career, making him something of a One-Hit Wonder, he did post one more 1,000 yard season in Denver in 2005 before retiring after two seasons with the Ravens.
  • Ottis Anderson was drafted #6 overall in 1979 out of Miami by the St. Louis Cardinals, where he won Offensive Rookie of the Year and became the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Despite being one of the lone bright spots on the team's roster, age and injuries lessened his productivity after two Pro Bowl seasons, and Anderson was traded to the Giants in the middle of the 1986 season. Once there, he experienced a great revival, being named Comeback Player of the Year after regaining the starting position in 1989 and winning Super Bowl MVP in XXV (his 13th season in the league). He retired after 1992.
  • Atiim "Tiki" Barber" was a three-time Pro Bowler who played ten seasons with the New York Giants after they drafted him in the second round in 1997 out of Virginia. He became a star in the early '00s, setting multiple franchise records and coming very close to breaking Marshall Faulk's single-season yards from scrimmage record in 2005. However, he was likely more famous for his interactions with the media, an entity he expressed interest in joining rather than being the subject of. Barber openly criticized his teammates (especially coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning) and blamed them for the Giants' inability to win a Super Bowl. After retiring in his prime following 2006 and signing a lucrative deal with NBC Sports and Today, Barber earned a press box seat to the next Super Bowl and got to interview its winners... the New York Giants. Tiki lost his Today gig after a highly-publicized divorce where he left his pregnant wife for a young NBC intern; he attempted an NFL comeback afterwards but came up short. His abbreviated career and post-retirement controversies likely cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame (not to mention caused vocal boos from Giants fans when he was added to the team's Ring of Honor). Tiki's identical twin Ronde, the Blue Oni to Tiki's Red, also had a very successful career in the NFL as a defensive back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; see his entry in the "Defensive and Special Teams Players" page.
  • Cliff Battles signed with the newly-formed Boston Braves out of the small West Virginia Wesleyan in 1932. He immediately broke out as the league's leading rusher in his rookie season, became the first player to run for over 200 yards in a single game, and claimed the career rushing record by 1937, when the team moved to Washington, added Sammy Baugh, and won a championship. The star player asked his team owner, the infamous George Preston Marshall, for a raise from the $3,000 a year he had been paid since his rookie year; Marshall refused, and Battles chose to retire instead, entering into coaching and leaving many to wonder whether Washington would have won even more championships in the Baugh era if Marshall hadn't been such a cheapskate. Battles later served in the Marines during World War II, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, and died in 1981.
  • Greg Bell was drafted #26 overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1984 out of Notre Dame and had a Pro Bowl rookie year, but his production quickly declined until he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the middle of his fourth season. Behind their dominant o-line, he quickly ascended to being one of the most dominant runners of his time, leading the NFL in rushing TDs in back-to-back seasons and winning Comeback Player of the Year. At that time, no one had earned that title multiple times and not eventually entered the Hall of Fame, so Bell attempted a hold-out; the Rams didn't blink, sent him across town to the Raiders, and continued to lead in rushing production without him. The Raiders had a backfield with Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, and Napoleon McCallum, so Bell barely saw the field and retired that year.
  • Le'Veon Bell was drafted in the second round out of Michigan State by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. He soon broke out as one of the league's leading dual-threat backs, racking up rushing and receiving yards, earning three Pro Bowl noms, and setting many franchise records even while facing repeated injuries and suspensions for marijuana use that took him out of many games. After leading the league in carries in 2017, Bell was placed on the franchise tag; he chose to sit out the entire season to protest not being signed to a more lucrative contract and was let go the next season. He signed with the New York Jets for a deal closer to what he had hoped for, but his production plummeted, and he was off the team in less than two years, joining the Chiefs for a far smaller contract; he is currently a free agent.
  • Jerome Bettis, aka "The Bus", was a six-time Pro Bowler known for his big size, blistering speed, and bigger personality who most famously played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Originally drafted #10 overall by the L.A. Rams in 1993 after a very productive stint at Notre Dame, Bettis saw immediate success and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. When the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995 and adopted a more pass-heavy offense, his numbers dropped, and he requested a trade. His numbers immediately jumped back to his previous levels, winning him Comeback Player of the Year in 1996, and he played another decade in Pittsburgh. After winning Super Bowl XL (hosted in his native Detroit; yes, The Bus Came Back), Bettis retired and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
  • Rocky Bleier was a part of the Steelers '70s dynasty and one of the most inspiring stories in NFL history. A 16th round pick out of Notre Dame in 1968, Bleier spent his rookie season primarily as a special teamer before being drafted by the U.S. Army and was later shipped out to Vietnam. While on patrol, his platoon was ambushed and his right leg was greatly wounded from a grenade explosion. He spent several months undergoing surgeries and recovering in Tokyo, with doctors saying that he wouldn’t be able to walk again, let alone play football. Rather than give up, Bleier taught himself to walk again and returned to training camp for the Steelers after being discharged in 1970, spending the next several years working his way back on to the roster. Despite playing through constant pain and being waived on several occasions, his effort and determination landed him on the starting lineup in 1974, where he played to be a critical role in winning four Super Bowls. Although he was primarily used as a blocker for Franco Harris, he also proved to be a capable rusher; in 1976, Harris and Bleier became the second RB duo in league history to each rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. During this time, Bleier wrote an autobiography, titled Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story, that was later adapted into a TV movie in 1980. He retired that same year and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroic Army service.
  • LeGarrette Blount was an undrafted free agent who started his pro career in 2010 after his college tenure at Oregon was derailed by multiple suspensions for character issues. A promising rookie year with the Buccaneers, his production fell off, and he bounced around the NFL for a few more years. His career looked like it might be over before he was picked up (for a second time) by the New England Patriots in the middle of the 2014 season, where he became a key part of their Super Bowl run. Blount continued to put up big performances in the playoffs, earning many Patriot postseason records, and he led the NFL in regular season rushing TDs in 2016 on the way to winning a second ring. The next year, he signed with the Eagles and won a third ring with them after defeating his former team. He retired after one more year with the Lions.
  • John Brockington had one of the best starts of any RB career. Picked #9 overall out of Ohio State by the Green Bay Packers in 1971, the power back won Offensive Rookie of the Year and became the first player to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. Unfortunately, a coaching change and the typical wear and tear reduced his productivity after that stretch; he was cut after the first game of 1977 and retired after spending the rest of the season with the Chiefs.
  • Jim Brown is one of the greatest football players of all time. Considered the prototypical power back, he broke school records at Syracuse before being drafted #6 overall in 1957 by the Cleveland Browns.note  During his nine-year career, Brown broke nearly every rushing record at that time, led the league in rushing yards eight times (still more than any other RB) and rushing TDs five times, and won one championship and three MVP awards (including one in both his rookie and final season, the only player to accomplish this).note  His massive size and strength often matched (and sometime exceeded) that of the would-be defenders on the opposing team, making attempted blocks a regular No-Sell. He was the first RB to amass over 10,000 career yards and remains the only one to average more than 100 yards per game. He held the rushing title for two decades before being passed by Walter Payton, is still eleventh overall for rushing yards, and remains the Browns' all-time leading rusher. If he hadn't retired before the age of 30 at the top of his game to pursue a film career, he would almost certainly still be a top five rushing yards leader, likely #1. During the height of his movie fame, Brown starred in action films like The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra, 100 Rifles, and Blaxploitation films like Three the Hard Way; later works like The Running Man, Original Gangstas, Any Given Sunday, and Mars Attacks! call back to either his football career or his blaxploitation roles. Brown was himself portrayed by Aldis Hodge in One Night in Miami..., a film that highlights his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, where he used his status as one of the most famous black men in America in the 1960s to call attention to issues of racial inequality. Brown had several legal issues during and after his playing career involving assault and battery charges, culminating in three months of jail time in 2002. He was still a first ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame, had his #32 retired by the Browns, and, since his time in prison, has mostly rehabilitated his image as one of the game's elder statesmen.
  • Larry Brown was initially little more than an afterthought when he was drafted by Washington in the eighth round in 1969 out of Kansas State. However, coach Vince Lombardi noticed in training camp that Brown had a delayed reaction to the snap count and realized that he had a hearing impairment; after receiving an earpiece, his reaction time became near-instant, unlocking his potential in time for his rookie debut. Brown was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, led the league in rushing in 1970, won both league MVP and the AP's first Offensive Player of the Year award in 1972 on the way to leading Washington's "Over the Hill Gang" to a Super Bowl appearance, and led the NFL in TDs in '73. Injuries greatly shortened his career, and he was out of the NFL after 1976.
  • Earnest Byner was a successful multi-threat back drafted in the tenth round out of East Carolina by the Cleveland Browns in 1984. He earned two Pro Bowl nods and won a Super Bowl while with Washington (1989-91), returned to the Browns, followed them to Baltimore, gained a front office position there in '98, won another Super Bowl, was placed in the team's Ring of Honor, and coached for several other NFL teams. An impressive career by any metric. Just be careful mentioning his name and "The Fumble" anywhere around the Cleveland area...
  • Ernie Caddel led the Detroit Lions to their first championship in 1935 while leading the NFL in all-purpose yards and rushing TDs. Nicknamed "the Blond Antelope" for his good looks, the Stanford grad retired after just six seasons to start a car dealership and remained a local celebrity for decades before his death in 1992.
  • Earl Campbell was a star for the Houston Oilers, the #1 overall pick in the 1978 Draft after a Heisman-winning career at Texas, and one of the best power backs in NFL history. Nicknamed "The Tyler Rose"note , he immediately broke out as a star, winning Offensive Player of the Year in his first three seasons and league MVP in his second. Campbell was known (and feared) for his punishing running style: defenders were often run over, knocked down, or knocked out trying to tackle him thanks to his large, almost tree trunk-like legs that were the source of his speed and power—even now, short running backs that use powerful legs to their advantage are compared to him. He's also known for coining the name of the famous "Luv Ya Blue" era of the late '70s Oilers after a hard-fought victory over the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in 1978. The Oilers began to decline after the firing of coach Bum Phillips, leading Campbell to demand a trade to join his old coach with the New Orleans Saints in the middle of the 1984 season. The Saints didn't have a clear place for him in their offense, however, and he retired relatively early after the next season. Despite his shortened career, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, had his #34 retired by the Oilers/Titans, and made the NFL 100th Anniversary Team, a testament to how much he dominated the game. Amazingly, he accomplished all this while suffering from spinal stenosis, which wasn't diagnosed until after his playing career ended. After retirement, he underwent five back operations, was forced to use a wheelchair, developed an addiction to painkillers, beat that addiction, had five more operations, and got out of the wheelchair.
  • Tony Canadeo was a Hall of Fame multi-threat player for the '40s Green Bay Packers, who drafted him in the ninth round in 1941 out of Gonzaga (the same year the school shuttered its football program for good). The "Gray Ghost" was one of the most versatile players ever, serving multiple positions on both sides of the ball; he was most consistently an RB but was the team's primary passer in 1943, played multiple roles on defense, and was also a kicker and punter. Canadeo missed most of Green Bay's '44 championship season and all of the following year due to his service in WWII, but he continued to play for the Pack until retiring after 1952 and remained closely connected to it for the rest of his life, serving as a broadcaster for their games and sitting on its executive committee until his death in 2003. His #3 was retired by the Packers.
  • Billy Cannon was the #1 overall pick in 1960 by the Rams after a Heisman-winning career at LSU, but he never played for them. Instead, after he was offered a contract by the Houston Oilers that would make him the highest-paid football player ever at the time, Cannon elected to join the brand new AFL; his victory in a subsequent lawsuit from the Rams was critical in ensuring the nascent league's survival. He proved a worthy investment in the short-term, helping the Oilers win the first two AFL Championships (still the franchise's only titles) and leading the league in rushing in 1961.note  Injuries and conflicts with management led to Cannon being traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he was converted to tight end and won a third AFL Championship in 1967 before losing Super Bowl II. He retired from football after spending the 1970 season with the Chiefs (his sole year in the NFL proper) and launched a career as a dentist. Unfortunately, his post-football life was full of controversy, as money issues caused by gambling debts and failed investments led to him spending a few years in prison for a major counterfeiting scheme; ironically, he managed to turn his life around after his release by becoming a prison dentist. Cannon passed away in 2018.
  • Rick Casares was a FB most famous for his tenure with the Chicago Bears, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 1954 out of Florida. After sitting out the 1954 season for military obligations, he made an immediate impact in his rookie season by going to his first of five consecutive Pro Bowls and in 1956, he led the league in rushing yards and TDs. Though his production began to decline due to injuries, he helped the Bears win the NFL Championship in 1963 and retired in 1966 after disappointing single-season stints in Washington and Miami. He passed away in 2013 from a variety of health issues and has yet to be inducted in Canton, possibly due to alledged involvement in the gambling and point shaving scandals that led to the suspensions of Alex Karras and Paul Hornung.
  • Larry Centers was a FB most famous for his tenure with the Arizona Cardinals, who drafted him in the 5th round in 1990 out of Stephen F. Austin. During his tenure with the Cardinals, he went to two Pro Bowls and set the then-single-season record for most receptions by a RB with 101 in 1995. He was released in 1999 by the Cardinals, finishing as the team's leader in receptions at the time. From 1999-2000, he played for Washington and helped them win their first division title since 1991. In 2001, he signed with the Bills, going to his third and final Pro Bowl and surpassed Ronnie Harmon for the most receiving yards by a non-receiver. In 2003, he signed with the Patriots, helping them win Super Bowl XXXVIII. He retired after the Super Bowl with the 7th most receptions in league history, and his 827 receptions remain the most by any RB.
  • Jamaal Charles was an electric rusher for the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him in the third round in 2008 out of Texas. After initially splitting carries with Larry Johnson, Charles exploded as one of the NFL's most exciting offensive weapons, leading the league in rushing yards and TDs in 2013, notching four Pro Bowl nods, and becoming the franchise's all-time leading rusher. An ACL injury unfortunately derailed his career in 2015, and he retired after 2018 following brief stints in Denver and Jacksonville where he rarely saw the field. In a way, this trajectory turned out to be beneficial; his career yards-per-attempt average of 5.4 is second among RBs behind only Marion Motley and is the most of any RB with over 1,000 attempts.
  • Roger Craig was a multi-threat for the San Francisco 49ers during their '80s dynasty. A second-round pick out of Nebraska in 1982, Craig lined up as both a halfback and fullback while also serving as an extremely capable receiver; he was the first player ever to both rush and receive for 1,000 yards in a single season in 1985 (actually leading the NFL in catches) and won Offensive Player of the Year in 1988. However, his performance began to decline in 1990, culminating in an incredibly costly fumble in the NFC Championship that cost the Niners a chance at a Super Bowl threepeat. He was subsequently let go and retired in 1993 after brief stints with the Raiders and Vikings; he has since been named a finalist for the Hall of Fame multiple times but has yet to be inducted.
  • Larry Csonkanote  was the star fullback of the "perfect" 1972 Dolphins. Drafted #8 overall by the Dolphins in 1968 out of Syracuse, "Zonk" became greatly feared by opponents for his powerful, bruising playstyle, as he regularly knocked down and even knocked out opponents during his runs. His physical playstyle gave him a distinctive appearance, with a broad and very crooked nose set atop an excellent Porn Stache. He was also known for his close friendship with Jim Kiick, another back drafted in the fifth round the same year out of Wyoming whose speed complemented Zonk on the field and whose fun-loving ways complemented him off of it; their wild partying and other escapades earned them the nickname "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in the media. Csonka won Super Bowl MVP for VIII and was one of several Dolphins stars, including Kiick, to leave the team for a lucrative contract with the WFL's Memphis Southmen in 1975. He returned to the NFL the next year after the WFL folded, signing with the New York Giants before returning to Miami for One Last Job in 1979 and winning Comeback Player of the Year (Kiick attempted to come back to the NFL, too, but rarely saw play once separated from Csonka). Csonka had his #39 retired by the Dolphins and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. Kiick passed away in 2020.
  • Sam "Bam" Cunningham was drafted #11 overall by the New England Patriots in 1973 after a stellar career at USC that played a major role in the racial integration of college football. Over his decade-long career, Cunningham earned one Pro Bowl selection and became the franchise's all-time leading rusher, a record he still holds decades after his retirement. He is a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame. His younger brother Randall achieved NFL fame as a dynamic QB with the Eagles. He passed away in 2021.
  • Ernie Davis never actually played a snap in the NFL, but his name and legacy looms large in the league as one of the greatest tragedies in football history. In 1961, Davis became the first black player to win the Heisman as a dominant halfback at Syracuse. "The Elmira Express" was selected #1 overall in the 1962 Draft by Washington, making him the first black player honored with the top pick. However, the team only drafted Davis because the federal government threatened to revoke their stadium lease if they didn't sign at least one black player, something they had adamantly refused to do for decades. He refused to play for such a racist organization and demanded a trade, which he received to the Cleveland Browns, where he would be in a perfect position to play with and perhaps succeed his Syracuse predecessor, the great Jim Brown.note  Unfortunately, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and died before ever taking the field. His death was treated as a national tragedy, with both houses of Congress eulogizing him and President Kennedy sending a message to be read at his funeral. Despite never playing for them, the Browns retired his #62. Davis' story is featured in the sports biopic The Express, where he is portrayed by Rob Brown.
  • Terrell Davis was a sixth round pick out of Georgia in the 1995 Draft by the Denver Broncos who broke out as one of the league's leading running backs, boosting coach Mike Shanahan's reputation for training stud runners. The quality portion of his career only lasted for four years before a devastating knee injury, but during those years he was widely regarded as unstoppable. As one of the focal points of the Broncos' '90s Super Bowl years, Davis went to three consecutive Pro Bowls, won Offensive Player of the Year in '96 and '98 (when he led the league in rushing touchdowns), and was named MVP in '98 (when he also led the league in rushing yards, becoming only the fourth player to rush for 2,000+ yards in the regular season; counting the playoffs, he had the most rushing yards for any RB in a single year). In the Broncos' first of two consecutive Super Bowl wins, he was the game MVP despite (or perhaps because of) playing through an intense migraine that left him unable to see straight and still lining up in order to give the illusion that Denver wasn't solely relying on Elway's passing attack. His lack of longevity left him out of Hall of Fame consideration for over a decade before finally getting inducted in 2017.
  • Joe Delaney played for the Kansas City Chiefs who selected him in the second round in 1981 out of Northwestern State. He rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie, averaging a then-team record 4.9 YPC, and was named to the Pro Bowl. In the summer of 1983, Delaney witnessed three children drowning in a pond near his hometown. Despite his own inability to swim, he jumped in and rescued one of the children before drowning while trying to save the others. His Heroic Sacrifice earned him the Presidential Citizens Medal from Ronald Reagan, his #37 has been unofficially retired by the Chiefs, and he is enshrined the team's Ring of Honor.
  • Eric Dickerson is the NFL's single-season rushing leader, holding the record since 1984. After being drafted #2 overall out of SMU by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, he exploded onto the scene, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and setting the rookie rushing yards record (1,808) which stands to this day. He set the single-season rushing yards record (2,105) the next year and won Offensive Player of the Year in 1986, the same season he set the record for most rushing yards in a playoff game (248). The very next year, following a contract dispute with the Rams, Dickerson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts during the strike-shortened 1987 season in what is, to this day, one of the largest trades in NFL history in terms of assets moved.note  He rushed for over 1,000 yards in just 8 games with the Colts during the strike-shortened season, taking them to their first playoff appearance since the move to Indy. Dickerson had several more productive years with the team (despite being widely maligned by many of its fans due to perceptions of him being a "diva") and retired in 1993 after two seasons with the Raiders and Falcons, sitting behind only Walter Payton in career rushing yards at that time. He was selected to the Pro Bowl six times, led the league in rushing four times (and rushing TDs once), had his #29 retired by the Rams, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Dickerson also had one of the most distinctive looks in NFL history, as he famously wore prescription goggles while playing because of his myopia. He currently serves as an analyst for FS1, but has recently admitted to health struggles and suspects he may have CTE.
  • Corey Dillon began his career with the Cincinnati Bengals and finished it with the New England Patriots. Drafted in the second round (#43) in 1997 out of Washington, he quickly became a force in the Bengals backfield. In a game against Tennessee in 1997, he rushed 39 times for 246 yards and 4 TDs, breaking Jim Brown's single game rushing yards record for a rookie. His 1,129 yards that season also remains a Bengals franchise record. In 2000, he set the then-record for single game rushing yards with 278, breaking the previous mark of 275 set by Walter Payton over two decades priornote . He was traded to the Patriots in 2004 and became a major piece in the team's third Super Bowl championship that season. He retired after 2006.
  • Tony Dorsett spent nearly his entire career as a star with the Dallas Cowboys. Drafted #2 overall in 1977 following a Heisman and National Championship winning season at Pittsburgh, Dorsett told the expansion Seattle Seahawks (who originally held the pick) that he would not play for them if selected. This prompted Dallas, a perennial playoff team, to trade up for him. The move paid immediate dividends, as in his first year he rushed for over 1,000 yards, scored 13 touchdowns, won Offensive Rookie of Year, and led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl XII victory. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in eight of his first nine seasons (the only exception being the strike-shortened 1982 season where he still led the league). He is one of only two players (Derrick Henry being the other, see below) to accomplish a 99-yard run. Dorsett was traded to the Broncos in 1988 after two years of declining performance; he improved slightly in Denver but retired before the next season due to injury problems. He is also one of only two players in league history (along with Marcus Allen, see above) to win a Heisman, a college national championship, a Super Bowl, and be enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Sadly, he has struggled with CTE and related memory issues in retirement.
  • Bill Dudley was a halfback, defensive back, punter, kicker, and return specialist throughout the '40s and '50s. A star halfback from Virginia, he was drafted #1 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1942. "Bullet Bill" made an immediate impact in Pittsburgh, leading the NFL in rushing yards and guiding the Steelers to their first winning season. Dudley enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after the season ended and didn’t return to football until the final month of the 1945 season, after which he had an MVP 1946 season when he led the NFL in rushing yards, punt returns, and interceptions. However, his relationship with head coach Jock Sutherland had greatly deteriorated, and he forced a trade to the Detroit Lions in 1947. He spent three years in Detroit, leading the team in scoring all three seasons, before being traded to Washington in 1950, where he again led the team in scoring three times before retiring in 1953. For decades, he was the only player known to have scored touchdowns in six different ways (rushing, receiving, kickoff return, punt return, interception return, fumble recovery). He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1966 and died after a stroke in 2010.
  • Warrick Dunn was a very good back who was perhaps even better known for his quality off-field character. Just two days after his 18th birthday, his single mother, an off-duty police officer, was murdered, and Dunn became the legal guardian of his five younger siblings while attending Florida State, where he still became the then-leading rusher in program history. Dunn was drafted #12 overall in 1997 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite being quite undersized (listed at 5'9", 187 lbs). He won Offensive Rookie of the Year, earned two Pro Bowl nods, and ran for over 1,000 twice in his five years in Tampa, pairing well with bruising power runner Mike Alstott (see above) in a tandem backfield. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent in 2002, making another Pro Bowl and being named Walter Payton Man of the year in 2004 while rushing for over 1,000 yards three times in six seasons. He returned for a final season in Tampa in 2008, going over 10,000 rushing yards for his career before retiring. He continues to be extremely active in charitable efforts, including establishing a program that provides homes to single-parent families. He also owns a minority stake in the Falcons, who placed him in their Ring of Honor.
  • Austin Ekeler is one of the great UDFA success stories of the current NFL. Widely overlooked by NFL scouts at D-II Western Colorado due both to the program and his small size, he was signed by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017. He quickly emerged as one of the NFL's most prolific scorers thanks to his dual-threat use as both a runner and receiver, leading the NFL in total TDs in 2021 and '22.
  • Ezekiel Elliott has been the star RB for the Dallas Cowboys since he was drafted #4 overall in 2016. Already renowned for his role in winning a college national championship at Ohio State, Elliott led the league in rushing yards in his rookie season and helped to popularize the Bare Your Midriff trend for RBs in the late 2010s. A suspension related to a domestic violence investigation interrupted his second season, but he again led the league in rushing the following year and has remained one of the NFL's more prominent rushers.
  • Marshall Faulk was a first-ballot Hall of Famer best known for his time as one of the key members of the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. Originally drafted #2 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1994 out of San Diego State, he was traded to the Rams after his fifth season when he demanded a new contract. A well-rounded back capable of carrying the ball, catching passes, and pass blocking, he was an incredible fit in the Rams' wide-open passing attack offense. In the Rams' Super Bowl-winning season of 1999, Faulk became only the 2nd player in NFL history to have a 1,000/1,000 rushing yards/receiving yards season.note  He tied Earl Campbell's record by winning Offensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons (1999-2001) and won league MVP in 2000 after setting a then-record for single season TDs (he'd lead the NFL again the following year), and he was featured on the cover of Madden NFL 2003. He retired in 2006, had his #28 retired by the Rams, and moved into a career as an analyst.
  • Beattie Feathers was the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Following a stellar career at Tennessee, he signed with the Chicago Bears in 1934, joining a backfield that already featured Hall of Famers Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. Feathers outperformed both of those legends that season, leading the NFL with 1,004 rushing yards and eight touchdowns (plus another 174 yards receiving, in an era where the forward pass was relatively rare). To give an idea of how impressive this was, no other player would rush for 1,000 yards in a season until Steve Van Buren in 1947; the fact that he did so in just 11 games, averaging 8.44 yards per attempt (still the single-season record), made it even more ground-breaking. Unfortunately, he never came close to repeating this accomplishment, as a shoulder injury late in his rookie season required him to wear a brace the rest of his career that greatly limited his mobility; his rushing numbers over his next six seasons combined amounted to fewer than 1,000 yards. After three more middling seasons with the Bears, he bounced around the Dodgers and the Packers before retiring in 1940, finishing his career as one of the NFL's first prominent examples of a One-Hit Wonder.
  • Chuck Foreman, nicknamed "The Spin Doctor" for his elusiveness, was one of the NFL's first great pass-catching backs. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings #13 overall in 1973 out of Miami (FL), Foreman gave the Purple People Eaters a potent offensive weapon. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, made the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons, led the NFL in TDs in '74 and '76, and helped the Vikings visit three Super Bowls. Injuries ultimately derailed his career, and he retired after spending 1980 with the Patriots.
  • Arian Foster went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009 to the Houston Texans but had a major breakthrough season in his second year, leading the league in rushing yards and total TDs (he led the NFL in the latter category again in 2012). While Foster set multiple all-time franchise records, earned four Pro Bowl nods, and played a key role in the Texans' first successful seasons, he quickly became more famous for his eccentric personality, which manifested on the field in his "Namaste" bow TD celebrations and off the field in his love of conspiracies. He retired after spending 2016 with the Dolphins and is currently pursuing a music career under the name "Bobby Feeno".
  • John "Frenchy" Fuqua played for the multiple Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. The eleventh round pick out of the HBCU Morgan State in 1969 was productive for several seasons. However, he is best known as the intended receiver of a last-ditch pass attempt by Terry Bradshaw during their 1972 playoff match against the Raiders before he was tackled by Raiders safety Jack Tatum; the deflected ball was caught by Franco Harris, resulting in the "Immaculate Reception".note  Outside of this play, Fuqua was best known for having a flashy dress sense that would put even Cam Newton to shame,note  and he played with the Steelers through two Super Bowl victories before retiring in 1976.
  • Eddie George was a workhorse back who spent most of his career with the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him #14 overall in 1996 after a Heisman-winning career at Ohio State. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and a major catalyst in helping Tennessee reach Super Bowl XXXIV. He rushed for 1,000 yards every season he played for Tennessee except for 2001 and carried the ball over 300 times every year. George and Jim Brown are the only running backs to rush for 10,000 yards without missing a start, and his 130 consecutive starts are second only to Walter Payton's 170. That streak was broken when he was let go from Tennessee in 2004 after struggling with toe and ankle injuries and declining performance. He played one disappointing season for the Cowboys and officially retired in 2006. His #27 was retired by the Titans, and he was inducted into their Ring of Honor.
  • Frank Gifford was a star player for the New York Giants. The #11 overall pick out of USC in 1952, Gifford won most publications' MVP awards in the Giants' 1956 Championship season,note  contributing as a halfback, a "flanker" (an early term for a wide receiver), a defensive back, and even as a passer. He retired from football in 1964 and entered an extremely successful broadcasting career that arguably outshone his playing career. He reported for numerous sports and TV programs, including the Olympic Games, and commented from the broadcast booth on Monday Night Football from 1971-97. He served as a color commentator in Super Bowl I, then returned to the Big Game's booth nearly two decades later for four more with ABC. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his playing career in 1977 and awarded its Radio-Television Award for his broadcasting achievements in 1995. While working at ABC, Gifford met and married Kathie Lee Johnson, co-host of The Morning Show with Regis Philbin and 23 years his junior, a few years before her show went national. Gifford, long a notorious womanizer, lost most of his TV jobs and mostly retreated from public life following a major scandal in which a tabloid paid a woman to seduce and take pictures of him in 1997. Gifford died in 2015, and his #16 is retired by the Giants.
  • Chester "Cookie" Gilchrist was among the most successful pro football players to never go to college. Gilchrist signed with the Browns in 1953 as a junior in high school, violating NFL rules; when Paul Brown failed to get the NFL to grant an exception, Gilchrist went to Canada, where he won a Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1957. He returned to the States in 1962 to sign with the AFL's Buffalo Bills when they failed to sign their draft choice, Ernie Davis (who ironically went to the Browns, see above). While Davis died before ever playing for the NFL, Gilchrist immediately became the AFL's MVP, becoming its first 1,000-yard rusher and setting the league's record for single-season touchdowns. Gilchrist won a championship with Buffalo in 1964 and played a few more years with the Broncos and Dolphins before retiring after 1967. Cookie was well-known for his strong moral and personal standards, famously leading a successful boycott of the 1964 All-Star Game to get it moved from the strictly segregationist New Orleans; he also refused entry into the Canadian Hall of Fame and the Bills' Wall of Honor during his life due to feeling like he was never paid well enough for his talents. He passed away in 2011.
  • Marshall Goldberg was a two-way FB drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in the 2nd round in 1939 out of Pitt. He established himself as one of the Cardinals' leaders, playing well as a triple-threat back and earning a Pro Bowl in 1941 after leading the NFL in interceptions and kickoff returns. His career was briefly halted in 1943 when he joined the U.S. Navy to serve in World War II, but returned to the Cardinals in 1946 in time to join their "Million Dollar Backfield" that won the 1947 NFL Championship and made another appearance in 1948, after which he retired. He was inducted to the Cardinals Hall of Honor in 2006, several months after he passed away, and his #99 was retired by the team (though it was later unretired for J.J. Watt).
  • Frank Gore is a well-traveled RB renowned for his longevity in one of football's most punishing positions. Ironically, his NFL career was almost over before it even started, as he tore the ACL in each knee while in college at Miami. After the second tear, he considered quitting football but was talked out of it by his position coach. Despite his talent and production when healthy, Gore dropped to the 3rd round of the 2005 Draft, where he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers. After splitting time as a rookie, he took over as starter in his second season and rattled off four straight 1,000+ rushing yard seasons twice during his decade with the team. Despite coming off of one of those 1,000 yard seasons, the 49ers allowed him to leave in free agency, believing that he was on the downside of his career at 31 years old. He remained a very capable journeyman, signing with the Colts, Dolphins, and Bills, where he became the fourth player in NFL history to rush for more than 15,000 yards and the oldest to rush for over 100 yards in a game at age 36 (breaking the record previous held by John Riggins) and passed Barry Sanders to move into third place on the league's all-time rushing list. In 2020, he signed a one-year contract with the Jets where he continued to break records including most games played by a RB (241), oldest player to rush for over 500 yards in a season (37), and most consecutive seasons with at least 500 yards rushing (16, having done so in every year of his career). After not being signed in 2021, Gore signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the 49ers.
  • Harold "Red" Grange, aka "The Galloping Ghost", was a halfback and defensive back for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s. A major college star at Illinois, Grange was one of the first true "superstars" in the neophyte NFL. As a college senior, he was one of the first athletes to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and his signing by the Bears helped to popularize and legitimize the league at a time when the American sports scene was still heavily dominated by baseball. That's not to say his signing came without controversy—he joined the Bears just weeks after finishing his college season, which was met with scorn by a public that generally looked down on pro football and believed it should be played only by unpaid amateurs; the NFL passed a rule the following year to prevent anyone else from doing so again (for what it's worth, Grange got paid so little to play football that he still had to deliver ice during the off-season). After his rookie year, Grange left the NFL when he and his agent decided to make their own pro league, the first incarnation of the AFL; he starred in his own team, the New York Yankees, for two years. An injury led him to "retire" for a year before he returned... to the Bears, where he would win two championships and lead the league in TDs in 1932. Without its star, the first AFL folded not long after. Grange retired from football in 1934, was elected into both the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame as a charter member, had his #77 retired by the Bears, and died from Parkinson's in 1991.
  • Ahman Green is the Green Bay Packers' all-time rushing yards leader. Initially drafted by the Seahawks in the third round in 1998 out of Nebraska, Green saw little playing time for the Seahawks and was traded to Green Bay in 2000, where he immediately broke out with four straight Pro Bowl seasons. In 2003, Green became just the second NFL RB (after Tony Dorsett) to record a run of 98+ yards when he scored a touchdown on a 98-yard run in the final game of the regular season. Green spent 2007-08 with the Texans before returning to the Packers for one more season, where he just edged out Jim Taylor (see below) for the franchise rushing record. After a few years in the CFL, he retired after 2011 and is now part of the Packers Hall of Fame.
  • Todd Gurley had an impactful NFL career that blazed bright but burned out fast. Drafted #10 overall in 2015 out of Georgia as the first RB off the board, Gurley won Offensive Rookie of the Year with the St. Louis Rams before their move to Los Angeles. In Sean McVay's first year at the helm in 2017, Gurley broke out as a key part of the Rams' revival, amassing over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, leading the league in TDs, and winning Offensive Player of the Year. Gurley was granted a historic contract and was the NFL's total TD leader again the following year in the Rams' run at the Super Bowl, only for a knee injury in the NFC Championship to severely diminish his (and the team's) offensive capabilities, contributing to their loss in the Big Game. Subsequent inspections of Gurley's knee revealed that he had arthritis in the joint, and his production was never the same; the Rams released him the following season still owing him millions, and he played one more disappointing year with the Falcons before calling it a career.
  • Joe Guyon was a Native American T and HB during the early years of the NFL who spent most of his career playing alongside fellow Native American Jim Thorpe, whom he was teammates with at Carlisle Indian School. While Guyon was a highly talented and versatile player, his accomplishments were often overshadowed by Thorpe's popularity. He eventually made a name for himself in 1927, his final season, when he was a key component in the New York Giants winning the NFL Championship. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1966 and passed away in 1971.

     H-M 
  • Franco Harris was the legendary star back of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty. A #13 overall pick out of Penn State, Harris is best known for his famous "Immaculate Reception", often considered to be the most memorable play in NFL history, in which he caught a deflected ball for a game-winning touchdown in a 1972 playoff match against the Raiders. This was the first playoff touchdown in the Steelers' forty-year history and brought them their first postseason victory, completely turning around the fortunes of what is now one of the greatest franchises in the NFL—and it was just his rookie season. Harris had many, many other memorable moments in his career: he won Offensive Rookie of the Year, played with the Steelers through four Super Bowl wins (including winning MVP for Super Bowl IX, the first African-American to win the honor, and notching the record for most rushing yards in Super Bowl history), led the NFL in TDs in 1976, garnered a vocal fanbase called "Franco's Italian Army"note , and was selected to nine consecutive Pro Bowls. He retired in 1983 after a forgettable year with the Seahawks, coming just short of breaking Jim Brown's career rushing record, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first eligible year. He died suddenly in 2022 on the week of the 50th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and just days before the Steelers were set to retire his #32 jersey, making him only the third Steeler to receive such an honor.
  • Abner Haynes was originally drafted by the Steelers in the 5th round in 1960 out of North Texas but opted to sign for the AFL's Dallas Texans instead. He quickly broke out as arguably the biggest star of the AFL's first season and of the Texans iteration of the future Kansas City Chiefs franchise, being named not just the fledging league's first Rookie of the Year but its MVP after leading the league in rushing yards and TDs. During his tenure with the Texans/Chiefs, he was named a four-time All-Star, claimed two more rushing TD titles, won the AFL Championship in 1962, and was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1964. He was traded to the Broncos in 1965 and finished his career with brief stops with the Dolphins and Jets before retiring in 1967. His #28 is retired by the Chiefs.
  • Garrison Hearst was drafted #3 overall by the Phoenix Cardinals in 1993 after a Heisman-finalist career at Georgia, but initially saw some difficulty translating his college success to the pros. Even after putting up a fairly solid season in Arizona in '95 that saw him be named co-Comeback Player of the Year, he was cut before the next season. He spent a year in Cincinnati, and then bounced back in a major way with the San Francisco 49ers, even breaking some franchise season rushing records in '98. Hearst's strong showing resulted in him being featured on the cover of some versions of Madden NFL 99, the first athlete to be given that treatment. It turned out to also be the first instance of the legendary "Madden Curse", as he suffered a horrific ankle injury in the playoffs just days after he was selected. Complications from surgery led to necrosis in his foot, normally considered a career-ending condition. He endured rehab for over two years before returning to the field and putting up a very solid showing, winning Comeback Player of the Year a second timenote . Hearst played a final 2004 season in Denver before retiring from football.
  • Derrick Henry is a star power back for the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2016 after a Heisman-winning career at Alabama (and, before that, setting the all-time career rushing record for high school football). Listed at 6'3" 245 lbs, "King" Henry is larger than many linebackers and has a bruising, battering ram rushing style which makes him extremely difficult to tackle. His success as a power runner is especially notable as the NFL in The New '10s saw offenses shift towards being much more pass heavy, with teams using smaller and speedier backs who often double as receivers. He is one of two players in NFL history to pull of a 99-yard run (the other being Tony Dorsett, see above). He led the league in rushing in 2019 and 2020, joining a list of exclusively Hall of Fame players to do so in back-to-back years; in the latter season, he became only the eighth to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season and won Offensive Player of the Year.
  • Craig "Ironhead" Heyward was a FB who was drafted #24 overall in 1988 out of Pitt by the New Orleans Saints, who primarily used him as a blocker. After spending 1993 with the Bears, he joined the Atlanta Falcons, going to a Pro Bowl in 1995 with a 1,000 yard season (the last by a FB). He retired in 1998 after disappointing stints with the Rams and Colts due to being diagnosed with a chordoma. During his playing career, he received attention for his endorsement of Zest, which led to the luffa becoming a household fixture. He died from brain cancer in 2006. His sons, Cameron and Connor, currently play with the Steelers.
  • Calvin Hill was one of them most successful Ivy League athletes in the league's history. Drafted #24 overall in 1969 out of Yale by the Dallas Cowboys, he immediately broke out as one of the NFL's standout backs, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and four Pro Bowl nods. He was one of the most high-profile players to leave the NFL for the WFL in 1974, which turned out to be a poor decision when he got injured and that league folded. He bounced around a few more NFL teams before retiring after 1981. Somewhat overshadowed by his son Grant, a basketball Hall of Famer with the Duke Blue Devils and multiple NBA teams.
  • Clarke Hinkle was Jack-of-All-Trades fullback/linebacker/kicker/punter for the '30s Green Bay Packers. Hinkle signed with the Packers in 1932 out of Bucknell and quickly broke out as one of the best players in the young league, frequently leading the league in scoring and being named an All-Pro seven times. He famously developed a friendly rivalry with his Bears' counterpart on both sides of the ball, Bronko Nagurski. Hinkle's career was cut short in 1941 when he enlisted in the Coast Guard for World War II; he still retired as the young NFL's career rushing leader. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1964 and passed away in 1988.
  • Priest Holmes was a star with the 2000s Kansas City Chiefs, though he initially signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent out of Texas (where he had been overshadowed by Ricky Williams, see below) in 1997. In his second year, he greatly exceeded his draft position by rushing for over 1,000 yards, but he was supplanted as the starter in 2000 by Jamal Lewis (see below), winning a Super Bowl ring as a second stringer. He signed with the Chiefs in 2001 on an inexpensive contract and proceeded to become one of the NFL's best running backs, rushing for 1,400+ yards every year from 2001-03 and being named to the Pro Bowl all three seasons. He led the NFL in rushing yards in 2001 and rushing/total TDs in 2002-03, being named Offensive Player of the Year in '02 and breaking the single-season rushing and total TD records in '03; while these have since been surpassed, his streak of 38 games with 50+ rushing yards compiled in this period may be unbeatable. Injuries caused his career to decline after that, leading to his retirement in 2007 after a freak neck injury. He holds the records for most career rushing yards and TDs by an undrafted player and was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2014.
  • Paul Hornung was a Hall of Fame halfback (as well as kicker, punter, fullback, safety, and sometimes quarterback) of the Green Bay Packers during their '60s dynasty. He won the Heisman Trophy in college, becoming the only player to ever win it from a losing team (his Notre Dame team went 2-8 that year), and was selected by Green Bay #1 overall in 1957. The "Golden Boy" won the first AP NFL MVP award in 1961 and won five championships, including Super Bowl I. His versatility at multiple scoring positions helped him set the record for most single-season points scored in 1960 (176), a record that stood for 46 years until it was finally passed by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.note  In a more negative light, Hornung was one of two players suspended for the 1963 season, Alex Karras (in the "Defensive Linemen" folder of the "Defensive and Special Teams" page) being the other, when it was discovered that they were illegally betting on NFL games. He was reinstated for 1964 after intense lobbying from head coach Vince Lombardi, only to retire two years later after playing hurt with a pinched neck nerve for most of the Packers' first Super Bowl season, although he successfully hit a 52 yard fair catch kick, which remains the longest successful attempt. The annual college football award for the "most versatile" player is named after him. Hornung passed away in 2020.
  • Mark Ingram Jr. (son of former player Mark Ingram Sr.) was drafted #28 overall by the New Orleans Saints in 2011 after winning the Heisman at Alabama. Ingram earned three Pro Bowl nods as a reliable back for the team, particularly after being paired with Alvin Kamara (see above), while becoming the franchise leader in rushing TDs. Ingram signed with the Ravens in 2019 and briefly with the Texans in 2021 before returning to the Saints in the middle of the season, allowing him to become the franchise leader in rushing yards as well.
  • Bo Jackson was one of the most highly anticipated and marketed athletes ever. Coming off a Heisman-winning run at Auburn, he played for the Los Angeles Raiders in the late '80s. He also played in Major League Baseball for the Kansas City Royals; baseball was his preferred sport, but he was so good at football he was permitted to be a part-time player and became a league-leading rusher despite missing a full quarter of games every year. Unfortunately, he was tackled hard and suffered a major injury to his hip in a playoff game against the Bengals in 1990, which ended his football career after only four seasons. Still, he is arguably the best American two-sport athlete in history (one could make a case for Jim Thorpe or Babe Zaharias). He eventually had a hip replacement and played Major League Baseball again, though without much of the speed that had made him such an asset. After all of this, he's still probably best remembered for being absolutely unstoppable in Tecmo Super Bowl.
    • Interestingly, despite his all-star status, Jackson shows up fairly often on lists of all-time NFL draft busts. After his final year of college play, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the #1 overall pick in 1986, even though Jackson still wanted to play a final season of college baseball and flat out told the Bucs that he had no interest in playing football at that time. Regardless, the Bucs flew him out for a meeting on their dime, telling him that it would not break any NCAA regulations to do so. The aftermath cost Jackson any further amateur eligibility, with the obvious hope being that he would sign with the Bucs because now he had no other choice. Instead, he declined to sign any contract whatsoever, choosing instead to sign for far less money to play pro baseball, meaning the Bucs spent the most valuable pick in the draft and got nothing in return. The next year, Jackson was drafted again after his rights reverted and was fully prepared to sit out again, but Raiders owner Al Davis offered him "full-time" pay for a "part-time" deal where he would be allowed to play only in games following the end of the baseball season. The Raiders only made the playoffs once with this arrangement and then immediately lost their superstar to injury.
  • Steven Jackson most famously played for the St. Louis Rams, who drafted him #24 overall in 2004 out of Oregon State. He didn't see much action his rookie year, as he spent most of the season recovering from an injury suffered in college. In 2005, he was named the starter to replace the aging Marshall Faulk (see above), at which point he became one of the few bright spots on a team that never reached the playoffs. He rushed for 1,000+ yards every season from 2005-12, including over 1,500 in 2006 (a season he also posted over 800 receiving yards), and was named to three Pro Bowls. In 2013, he signed with Atlanta for two unimpressive seasons and finished his career in 2015 after a year on New England's bench. He ran for over 10,000 career yards and holds the Rams' franchise rushing record.
  • Josh Jacobs was drafted by the then-Oakland Raiders #24 overall in 2019. Though his production in college at Alabama had been somewhat limited by injury, he immediately emerged as a productive RB for the Raiders as they moved to Las Vegas. In 2022, he responded to not being given the fifth-year option on his contract by posting his best season, leading the NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.
  • Edgerrin James most famously played for the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him #4 overall out of Miami in 1999. Some analysts were critical of the Colts for selecting him over reigning Heisman winner Ricky Williams (see below), but James silenced the critics by leading the league in rushing yards and total touchdowns and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. He continued to put up great numbers with the Colts, making four Pro Bowls during his tenure. In 2006, he signed with Arizona (just missing winning a Super Bowl with Indy, though the Colts gave him a ring anyways) and had 1,000+ yards in his first two seasons. His production dropped sharply in 2008, but played a big part in the Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl that season. He played one more unimpressive season in Seattle and retired in 2011. He ran over 12,000 career yards, holds the Colts franchise records for rushing yards and TDs, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020.
  • Chris Johnson was a three-time Pro Bowler who most famously played for the Tennessee Titans. Despite coming out of a smaller school at East Carolina, he shot up to a first round position in the 2008 Draft thanks to a break-out senior season and a then-record breaking 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine. In his rookie season with the Titans, he split carries with fellow back LenDale White, forming a duo that gained the nickname "Smash and Dash" for White's power and Johnson's speed. Johnson took the lead in his sophomore season, which was one of the best ever for a RB. He became the sixth ever to rush for over 2,000 yards, all while also receiving for another 503, setting the current record for single-season total yards from scrimmage. His feat earned him the nickname "CJ2K" and the Offensive Player of the Year award. He continued to put up 1,000+ yard performances for the next four seasons, but his productivity was never enough to help the Titans get to the playoffs and he was released in 2014. After a mediocre year with the Jets, Johnson was injured in a drive-by shooting that also killed one of his friends. He recovered from the injury and nearly had a comeback year with the Cardinals before a broken leg ended his season prematurely. He retired in 2018.
  • John Henry Johnson was a fullback who played for 14 years during the '50s and '60s. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round in 1953 out of Arizona State but opted to play with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL instead. He returned to the NFL a year later and spent 3 seasons apiece with the San Francisco 49ers (where he was a member of the "Million Dollar Backfield") and Detroit Lions, where he gained fame for his highly vicious blocking abilitiesnote . Johnson was traded back to the Steelers in 1960. Despite being at the ripe old age of 30, he went through a major Career Resurrection in Pittsburgh, where he became one of the premier runners of the NFL. In 1964, he rushed for 200 yards in a single game at age 34 and finished the season with over 1,000 rushing yards at age 35, both league records for production that late in a back's career. He played his last season with the Houston Oilers in 1966 before announcing his retirement, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1987, and died in 2011.
  • Daryl Johnston played his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys. Drafted in the 2nd round in 1989 out of Syracuse, he earned the nickname "Moose" from his fellow teammates due to his immense stature compared to the rest of the RB corps, as he stood at 6'2" and weighed 242 lbs. He helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in the '90s and was named to two Pro Bowls in 1993-94. He was the main reason for the NFL creating the FB position in the Pro Bowl, as blocking FBs like him had little chance of making it over the flashier RBs. He started 149 consecutive games from 1989-97 before a neck injury ultimately derailed his career, causing his early retirement in 1999, and was a major piece behind Emmitt Smith's (see below) rushing yards record. After retiring, he entered into a career in broadcasting, currently serving with Fox as well as serving as director of player personnel with the Dallas Renegades of the reborn XFL and USFL.
  • Thomas Jones was a RB most famous for his tenures with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets. Originally drafted by the Cardinals #7 overall in 2000 out of Virginia, he initially struggled with injuries and was traded to the Buccaneers in 2003, putting up average stats. In 2004, he signed with the Bears and began to break out, as he got his first of five straight 1,000 seasons in 2005 and helped the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI. In 2007, he was traded to the Jets, where he made his only Pro Bowl in 2008 and had his best year stats-wise in 2009. He retired in 2011 after two seasons with the Chiefs. One of the most productive runners in NFL history with over 10,000 career rushing yards, has been nominated but not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame. He has since dabbled in acting, with roles in Straight Outta Compton and Luke Cage.
  • Maurice Jones-Drew was a Pintsized Powerhouse most famous for his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Listed at 5'7" (and that being rather generous), he fell to the 2nd round of the 2006 Draft despite a highly productive college career at UCLA and exceptional Combine performance. Despite his size, he proved to be a fierce power runner and supplanted the Jags' prior talented RB, Fred Taylor (see below). MJD made three Pro Bowls and led the league in rushing in 2011 before injuries and contract disputes derailed his career. He retired with the Jags after spending 2014 with the Raiders. He currently serves as an analyst for NFL Network.
  • Kyle Juszczyknote  is a fullback for the San Francisco 49ers and is one of the last at his position to see regular use outside of blocking. Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 4th round in 2013 out of Harvard, he has been a five-time Pro Bowler and would likely have that many All-Pro nods as well if the league had not stopped including the dying position on its All-Pro teams in 2015. He joined the 49ers in 2017 and became an important part of Kyle Shanahan's creative offense, most regularly being used as a receiver. He became the first Harvard alum to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl, doing so in LIV. In 2021, he signed a record five-year, $27 million deal for a fullback, this in spite of the fact that most teams don't even have a true fullback on their roster anymore.
  • Alvin Kamara was drafted in the third round in 2017 out of Tennessee by the New Orleans Saints. He soon filled a unique role in coach Sean Payton's offense; while veteran Mark Ingram Jr. (see above) put up the majority of the team's rushing yards, Kamara was extremely prolific as a secondary back and gadget player, putting up even more receiving yards than rushing yards, serving on special teams as a productive returner, and joining with Ingram to become the first RB duo in league history to both put up over 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Kamara won Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in every season of his career. In 2020, he led the league in TDs and became only the second player ever to put up six rushing TDs in a single game and the first since Ernie Nevers (see below) did so over 90 years before him.note 
  • Leroy Kelly was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the eighth round in 1964 out of HBCU Morgan State. After spending his first two years as a backup, winning a championship in his rookie season, Kelly was given the tall order of replacing the legendary Jim Brown following his abrupt retirement in 1965. He quickly proved himself a worthy replacement, rushing for 1,000 yards three years in a row and leading the NFL in rushing yards twice and rushing touchdowns three times while being named All-Pro all three seasons. He continued to put up strong numbers for the rest of the decade, helping the Browns reach back-to-back NFL Championship appearances. Kelly struggled with knee injuries towards the end of his career, being cut after 1973, after which he spent one year with the WFL’s Chicago Fire before retiring. The six-time Pro Bowler was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
  • John "Shipwreck" Kelly was a successful back in the early NFL (leading the league in receptions and receiving TDs in 1933) but is here because he was one of only a few player-owners in league history; he purchased the Brooklyn Dodgers while playing for them. While the Dodgers eventually folded, Kelly had a long and successful business career prior to his passing in 1986.
  • John Kuhn was a fullback for the Green Bay Packers, although he began his career as an undrafted free agent in 2005 out of D-II Shippensburg with the Pittsburgh Steelers.note  In an era where the fullback position is facing extinction, Kuhn became a folk hero in Green Bay and a true Ensemble Dark Horse for the Packers after arriving in 2007. As a blocker and special teams player, he was directly responsible for countless highlight-reel moments and was instrumental in the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl season, particularly as a runner, where he emerged as a near-unstoppable short-yardage specialist (leading to fans cheering “KUUUUUUHN” in 3rd and short situationsnote ). After spending his last two years in the NFL with the Saints, Kuhn signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the Packers.
  • Alphonse "Tuffy" Leemans was one of the first major stars for the New York Giants. Drafted during the 2nd round in 1936 out of George Washingtonnote , he made a major splash his rookie season after leading the NFL in rushing yards and yards per game. In addition to being a capable runner, he also proved to be a viable passer, throwing 25 TDs in his career, and an extremely lethal safety on defense. He was named All-Pro every season of his career and was so popular in New York that in the final game of the 1941 season, the Giants held “Tuffy Leemans Day” to celebrate their star player (which infamously coincided with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor). Leemans attempted to enlist in the military afterwards but was rejected on several occasions, instead playing two more seasons before retiring in 1943, after which his #4 was retired by the Giants. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1978 and died a year later from a heart attack.
  • Jamal Lewis was a star runner for the Baltimore Ravens, which drafted him #5 overall in 2000 out of Tennessee. He became the team's primary rusher in his rookie season and was a key component of their Super Bowl XXXV win. In 2003, Lewis won Offensive Player of the Year after putting up over 2,000 rushing yards and breaking the single-game rushing recordnote . Unfortunately, a brief prison sentence for cocaine distribution after the 2004 season derailed his career. He signed with Cleveland in 2007, but his performance continued to decline. He was released after 2009, didn't sign with another team, and has struggled with his health and finances following his retirement.
  • Keith Lincoln was a five-time AFL All-Star best known for his time with the San Diego Chargers, which drafted him in the second round in 1961 out of Washington State.note  Lincoln's overall play was solid, but his performance in the 1963 AFL Championship Game sealed his spot in football history when he compiled 329 yards from scrimmage,note  leading the Chargers to their sole league title with the greatest running back performance in a pro-level championship. After a few years with the Bills, he retired with the Bolts after 1968, became part of the team's Hall of Fame, and died in 2019.
  • Floyd Little was drafted #6 overall by the Denver Broncos in 1967 out of Syracuse, where he was viewed as the Spiritual Successor to prior Orangemen RBs Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Little became the first-ever first round pick to sign with the Denver Broncos in their eighth year of existence, being compelled to sign with what was widely seen as the worst team in pro football due to the AFL and NFL sharing the draft for the first time. He thus gained the nickname "The Franchise", as his presence helped to ensure the team could still attract enough fans to not fold or move cities even as they continued to flounder. While the Broncos still never reached the playoffs during Little's career (Denver did not achieve its first winning season until 1973), he enjoyed individual success, earning five Pro Bowl selections and leading the league in rushing yards in 1971 and rushing TDs in 1973. The Broncos retired his #44 when he retired after 1975, and he was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. He passed away in 2021. A bit of trivia: Chadwick Boseman's first feature film credit was his One-Scene Wonder portrayal of Little in the Ernie Davis biopic The Express.
  • Marshawn Lynch was a power back most famous for his time with the Seattle Seahawks. Selected #12 overall in 2007 by the Buffalo Bills out of Cal, his first four seasons were marred by injury and a suspension for misdemeanor firearm possession. He was traded to Seattle in 2010 and broke out as one of the league's premier backs, helping Seattle win the franchise's first Super Bowl, making five Pro Bowls, and being named to the 2010s All-Decade Team. A quintessential Lightning Bruiser, he earned the nickname "The Beast" thanks to his aggressive running style; when at his most dominant, it was known throughout the league as "going into Beast Mode." His biggest career highlight came in a 2011 playoff game against the defending champion Saints: As he broke 9 tackles on a 67-yard TD run, the reaction from the fans at the stadium set off a local seismograph, registering as a small earthquake, entering NFL lore as the "Beast Quake". Known as The Quiet One as far as media interaction goes (famously repeating "I'm just here so I don't get fined" at one press conference), Lynch still stood out as one of the league's more colorful characters. He had a notorious Sweet Tooth, to the point where his love for Skittlesnote  reached Memetic Mutation status (at the Seahawks' home stadium, the "Beast Mode Burger" is always sold with a bag of Skittles on the side). He led the league in TDs in 2014 but announced his retirement the following year in typical Lynch fashion, with a cryptic tweet showing a picture of his cleats hanging on a wire, a play on the phrase "hanging up the cleats." It proved to be a 10-Minute Retirement, as he returned in 2017 with his hometown team, the Raiders. He played reasonably well but missed the last half of the 2018 season due to injury and retired again the following offseason. During the final week of the 2019 season, the Seahawks, assured of a playoff berth but down to one healthy RB due to a rash of injuries and facing a key matchup with the Niners for the NFC West title, signed Lynch for One Last Job. He played through their playoff run, contributing four touchdowns as a short-yardage and goal line back. He hasn't been back in football since that season but remains in the spotlight as a frequent celebrity spokesman and an analyst for Amazon's NFL coverage. He's also an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry and one of the ever-growing list of sports celebrities to have invested in American soccer teams, joining the ownership group of Oakland Roots SC, a team in the second-tier USL Championship.
  • Curtis Martin was a five-time Pro Bowler who ranks in the Top 5 in career rushing attempts and Top 10 in rushing yards. A third-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh for the New England Patriots in 1995, Martin won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Once a free agent, he followed coach Bill Parcells to the New York Jets in 1998, where he played for the majority of his career before retiring in 2006, at which point the Jets retired his #28. Alongside Barry Sanders, Martin is one of the only running backs in NFL history to amass 10 straight 1,000+ rushing yard seasons dating to their rookie season. He also broke the record for oldest person to win the league rushing title (31 years old) in 2004. Off the field, Martin had a reputation as a real Nice Guy, an attitude best encapsulated in an extremely sincere Hall of Fame induction speech, in which he admitted to never really loving football while he played the sport and instead spoke mostly of his gratitude for his mother and coaches for helping him survive a violent childhood.
  • Ollie Matson was one of the NFL’s biggest stars during the 1950s. Drafted by the Chicago Cardinals #3 overall in 1952 out of the now-defunct program at San Francisco, Matson won silver and bronze track medals in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games before winning All-Rookie honors in the NFL. After spending 1953 serving in the U.S. Army, Matson exploded as one of the league's most dynamic and versatile runners despite playing on some very abysmal Cardinals teams. He earned six Pro Bowl nods with the Cardinals before being traded to the Rams in 1959 in what was, at the time, the largest trade in league history, with the Rams giving up 8 players and a draft pick in exchange for Matson, hoping his presence alone would return them to championship contention; instead, their performance plummeted as well.note . He spent the last 8 years of his career with the Rams, Lions, and Eagles before retiring in 1966. Despite his teams' lack of success, he was still inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Matson died from dementia complications in 2011.
  • George McAfee was a Jack-of-All-Trades back drafted #2 overall in 1940 by the Chicago Bears out of Duke. An excellent return specialist and defensive back in addition to his tailback role, the versatile player soon became a favorite of George Halas and helped take the team to three championships in the '40s. The prime of his career (1943-5) was interrupted by his WWII Navy service, but he was still inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 and his #5 was retired by the Bears. He briefly served as a referee after retiring in 1950 before entering the oil business. McAfee died in 2009 under controversial circumstances, drinking chemicals that weren't properly locked up in his assisted living home while struggling with dementia.
  • Deuce McAllister became a cult hero for the New Orleans Saints after they drafted him #23 overall out of Ole Miss in 2001, as he became the franchise's all-time leading rusher (since surpassed by Mark Ingram, see above) and earned two Pro Bowl nods. After being cut due to cap issues and declining performance after 2008, McAllister sat out of the NFL for a full year, only to sign back onto the Saints roster for 2010 for minimal pay. While he did not see the field that season, being given a roster spot and a role as team captain meant he could claim a ring when the franchise proceeded to win its first Super Bowl. He retired immediately afterward and was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.
  • Christian McCaffrey was drafted #8 overall in 2017 by the Carolina Panthers out of Stanford. A dual threat as both a runner and receiver, McCaffrey set the record for receptions by a RB in his second season with 107 . The following year, he became only the third player in league history with a 1,000/1,000 rushing/receiving yard season (while breaking his own receptions record) and led the league in TDs. Despite an overall stagnation in RB salaries around the league, McCaffrey agreed to a new deal with the Panthers during the 2020 offseason that made him the highest paid RB in league history, though he struggled with injuries in the following years and was traded to the 49ers in the middle of the 2022 season. He is also the son of former Denver Broncos WR Ed McCaffrey, a fellow Stanford product who won two Super Bowls with the team in the late '90s.
  • LeSean McCoy is the all-time leading rusher for the Philadelphia Eagles, who drafted him in the second round out of Pitt in 2009. McCoy broke out as a major star, leading the league in rushing/total TDs in 2011 and rushing yards in '13. Conflicts with coach Chip Kelly contributed to him being traded to the Buffalo Bills in 2015, where he picked up the last three of his total six Pro Bowls nods. He rounded out his career with one-year stops with the Chiefs and Buccaneers, winning two Super Bowl rings despite rarely leaving the bench, and retired in 2021 after signing a ceremonial contract with the Eagles.
  • Hugh McElhenny was a Hall of Fame all-purpose back who excelled as a halfback, receiver, and return specialist. Drafted #9 overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 1952 out of Washington, McElhenny amassed over 1,700 all-purpose yards during his rookie season, immediately becoming a key part of the Niners' "Million Dollar Backfield". McElhenny was highly revered as one of the most elusive players in the NFL, making him one of the league's biggest stars—the frequent comparisons of his fame to Elvis Presley's earned him the nickname "the King". He was drafted by the expansion Vikings in 1961 and bounced around the Giants and Lions before retiring in 1964; his #39 was retired by the Niners. He died in 2022.
  • Willis McGahee is a prime example of a player overcoming a significant college injury to have a successful NFL career. While in college at Miami, he had a monster 2002 season and was projected as a sure-fire top five draft pick. However, during the BCS National Championship game, McGahee suffered a devastating knee injury (which was replayed several times during the nationally televised broadcast) tearing all three major knee ligaments. Still, he declared for the 2003 Draft despite being projected as a mid-round pick due to the injury and was surprisingly selected #23 overall by the Buffalo Bills. He sat out his entire rookie season while recovering, then returned and paid off Buffalo's gamble with two straight 1,000+ rushing yard seasons. The Bills traded him to the Ravens in 2007 after he made disparaging remarks about Buffalo and supported the proposal to move the team to Toronto. He made his first Pro Bowl in Baltimore but then suffered a string of injuries leading to his release in 2011. He signed with Denver, making another Pro Bowl in his first season there as the primary piece of the Tim Tebow-led offense, but again fell to injuries his next season. After one more season with the Browns, he retired.
  • John McNally, better known as Johnny Blood, was a halfback who played for six teams over 17 years (1925-41), most famously for the Green Bay Packers, which he helped win four championships in the early '30s. McNally had an off-field reputation for heavy drinking, womanizing, and dramatic stunts that became the stuff of many a legend and Tall Tale.note  He later became coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he became infamous for being one of the only coaches in NFL history that had to be looked after and rounded up by the players rather than the other way around. McNally was a charter member of the Hall of Fame. He died from a stroke in 1982.
  • Lydell Mitchell was a second round pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1972. He was a key part of the team's offense, leading the NFL in receptions twice, but his tenure ended acrimoniously when he accused Colts owner Robert Irsay of racial discrimination during a contract dispute. Mitchell was traded out of town and was out of the league in 1980.note 
  • Lenny Moore was a Hall of Fame halfback and seven-time Pro Bowler who played for the Baltimore Colts in the '50s and '60s. Moore won Rookie of the Year after being drafted #9 overall out of Penn State in 1956 and quickly developed a reputation as one of the league's toughest players, leading the NFL in touchdowns in his second season. After helping the Colts to win two Championships, Moore won MVP and Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1964 for playing through appendicitis and scoring a then-record 20 TDs the year after a knee injury cost him his starting position. He was also an incredibly versatile player; he often lined up as a receiver and is the only NFL player ever to score more than 40 rushing and receiving touchdowns. He retired in 1967, and his #24 was retired by the Colts.
  • Eugene "Mercury" Morris was another star back for the "perfect" '72 Dolphins, which drafted him in the third round in 1969 out of West Texas Statenote . With a name that reflected his quick and elusive playing style, Morris joined star fullback Larry Csonka (see above) to become the first rushing tandem to put up 1,000 yards apiece during that 14-0 season; Morris also led the league in rushing touchdowns that year. However, he didn't see the sustained, Hall of Fame-worthy success of his partner due to injuries that shortened his playing career, though that earlier end gave him one of the better average yards-per-attempt numbers in NFL history. During his playing career, Morris co-starred in the Blaxploitation film The Black Six with several other NFL players. After his retirement in 1976, Morris saw jail time for cocaine trafficking in the '80s but has stayed out of trouble since.
  • Marion Motley was a two-way RB/LB who played for the Cleveland Browns. A few months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Motley and defensive end Bill Willis were hired to play for the Cleveland Browns in the inaugural 1946 season of the All-America Football Conference by Paul Brown, who had coached Motley during his stint in the Navy during WWII. The two became the first black professional football players since 1933, breaking the informal color barrier that had existed in the sport for over a decade.note  Motley soon stood out as one of the greatest all-around football players ever, a big man with blistering speed who could play every position he was asked to better than almost anybody. Despite facing intense racism on the field, he was still unanimously voted All-Pro in 1950, the Browns' first season in the NFL, in which they won their fifth consecutive championship with him at the lead. Knee trouble hurt his productivity in subsequent seasons, mostly keeping him off the field, which turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise—when left the Browns in 1953 and retired for good in 1955 after attempting to come back as a linebacker, he held a record yards-per-carry average of 5.7 that has never been matched by another running back, having put up more rushing yards than any back at the time save Steve Van Buren despite only having five strong years. Motley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968 but struggled after his career ended and was unable to find work in the NFL as a coach, even with the Browns, something he attributed to continued racial discrimination. He died of cancer in 1999.

     N-Z 
  • Bronko Nagurski was a two-way player who played fullback, linebacker, and tackle for eight seasons with the '30s Chicago Bears, signing with the team out of Minnesota in 1930. An extremely powerful man, Nagurski was renowned for being a nearly immovable Stone Wall who even fellow greats just bounced off of; there's a (probably apocryphal) story of him going on a touchdown run in which he broke four tackles without losing speed, ran full-force into Wrigley Field's brick wall behind the goal post hard enough to crack it, and said in the next huddle "That last guy hit me awfully hard." During and after his football career, Nagurski became a very successful pro wrestler who laid claim to numerous Heavyweight Championships. In 1943, six years after he retired from football, the Bears called the 36-year-old back for One Last Job due to having a shortage of players because of WWII—Nagurski helped the Bears win the NFL Championship that season. He was a charter member of the Hall of Fame, had his #3 retired by the Bears, and is the namesake of college football's most prestigious award for defensive players. He passed away in 1990.
  • "Big Jim" Nance posted the most productive rushing season in the AFL. Drafted in the fourth round by the Bears in 1965 out of Syracuse, Nance elected to go to the Boston Patriots (who took him in the 19th round). After a poor rookie season, he ran for a then-record 1,458 yards and won league MVP. He posted a few more productive seasons, took a 10-Minute Retirement in 1972, and played a few more years for the Jets and the WFL before retiring from play after 1975. He died of a heart attack in 1992 at 49 years old and was posthumously inducted into the Patriot Hall of Fame.
  • Lorenzo Neal was a long-tenured and highly acclaimed blocking fullback. Despite having negligible offensive production (he only exceeded 100 rushing yards in two of his sixteen seasons), Neal blocked for a 1,000-yard RB in eleven straight seasons (1997-2007), a feat made more impressive considering that he bounced around nine different teams after the Saints drafted him in the fourth round out of Fresno State in 1993. The four-time Pro Bowler and All-Decade Team member experienced his most stable and successful stretch late in his career with the San Diego Chargers (2003-07), where he notably cleared the way for LaDainian Tomlinson's record-shattering MVP season. By his retirement in 2009, Neal had racked up the most games of any RB in NFL history, a record only narrowly passed by Frank Gore a decade later.
  • Ernie Nevers, like Red Grange, was one of the first major stars in the early history of the NFL, being such a big name at the time from his success as a college star at Stanford that the Duluth Eskimos rebranded themselves as "Ernie Nevers and his Eskimos" when they signed him in 1926. Before and during his time with the NFL, Nevers also saw play as a pitcher for the MLB's St. Louis Browns. He played and coached for two years with the Eskimos before sitting out in 1928 to nurse a back injury. He returned to football a year later with the Chicago Cardinals, where he played three more years before retiring. His most notable performance came on Thanksgiving Day in 1929, when he set the single-game record for most points scored at 40 (6 touchdowns and 4 PATs), which currently remains the oldest standing record in league history. Despite his short career, he was a first team All-Pro every year he played and was part of the Hall of Fame’s charter class. Nevers passed away in 1976.
  • Robert Newhouse played his whole career for the Dallas Cowboys. Drafted in the 2nd round out of Houston in 1972, he made the unselfish switch to fullback to better help the team as a rookie. He was considered undersized for the position at 5'10" and 209 lbs, but he had massive 44-inch thighs; tackling him was likened to tackling a fire hydrant, earning him the nicknames "The House" and "The Human Bowling Ball". This Ensemble Dark Horse also played a key role in helping the Cowboys win Super Bowl XII, completing a pass to Golden Richards (the first touchdown pass by an African-American player in the Big Game). He retired after 1983 and passed away in 2014 from heart disease.
  • Christian Okoye, nicknamed "The Nigerian Nightmare", played for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late '80s/early '90s. As his nickname suggests, Okoye was born in Nigeria and did not play football in his youth. A star track and field athlete, he won numerous titles in the shot put, discus, and hammer throw. After Nigeria passed him over for selection to their Olympic team, he tried out for the football team at Azusa Pacific, a small NAIA school in Southern California. At 6'1", 260 lbs, he had the size of a lineman, but his blazing 4.45 40-yard dash speed convinced the coaches to try him out at running back, where he excelled on his way to setting multiple NAIA and school records. Despite his success, he was not initially selected for any of the college all-star games after his final season and was only added to the Senior Bowl as an injury replacement where he set the still-standing bowl record by scoring four touchdowns. The Chiefs selected him in the 2nd round of the 1987 Draft. Okoye played well in limited action despite battling injuries in his first two seasons, then broke out in his third, leading the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, being named AFC Offensive Player of the Year and selected to his first Pro Bowl. Knee injuries slowed him down over the next several seasons, though he did manage one more 1,000+ yard season before ultimately ending his career early in 1992. He remains something of a cult hero to Chiefs fans and, along with Bo Jackson (see above), is known for being a virtually untacklable Game-Breaker in Tecmo Bowl.
  • Walter Payton was the offensive star for the Chicago Bears in the '70s and '80s. Nicknamed "Sweetness" for his Nice Guy persona and unexpectedly soft and gentle voice, Payton was drafted #4 overall out of the HBCU Jackson State in 1975. When he retired after 13 seasons, he had shattered Jim Brown's record for most career rushing yards by a running back with 16,726 (only since surpassed by Emmitt Smith), having only missed a single game in his career during his rookie season and setting a standing RB record of 170 consecutive starts. Payton was known for refusing to deliberately run out of bounds, bringing back the practice of stiff-arming would-be tacklers, and defeating many goal-line stands by leaping up and over piles of linemen. These abilities helped him win MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, and Man of the Year in 1977; a season where he led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns. He was also a versatile player; he retired in 1987 with the record for the most receptions for a non-receiver (since passed as receiving has become much more common) and lined up as a passer more than any other non-QB in the modern era, even holding the record for most non-QB touchdown passes since the merger. He infamously did not score a touchdown in his sole Super Bowl appearance; his prowess ensured he was double- and triple-teamed every play. Payton won a first-ballot induction to Canton and had his #34 retired by the Bears. He died in 1999 due to a rare liver disease, becoming a spokesman for organ donation in his final months (his disease had progressed too far for a transplant); the league's Man of the Year Award for off-field humanitarian work was subsequently renamed in his honor.
  • Don Perkins was an early star for the Dallas Cowboys. Signed by the expansion team in 1960 out of New Mexico, he sat out a year to recover from an injury before joining the franchise and serving as one of its few bright spots in the lean early years, earning six Pro Bowl nods. Perkins made use of his on-field success to push for change off the field, speaking out against the discrimination he faced as a Black man in Texas and successfully campaigning for the Cowboys to desegregate their housing arrangements. He retired still at the peak of his performance in 1968 and was later enshrined in the team's Ring of Honor.
  • Joe "The Jet" Perry was one of the great football stars of the '50s and a trailblazer for African-American players in the league. After playing one year of football at Compton Junior College, he enlisted in the Navy during WWII. He was recruited by the San Francisco 49ers in 1948 while playing for his naval base, joining the then-AAFC team as its first African-American player and becoming part of their “Million Dollar Backfield”. Perry was listed as a fullback but played more like a modern halfback due to his smaller size, incredible speed, and great elusiveness while running up the middle; he regularly led the AAFC in rushing stats and continued to do so when the Niners joined the NFL. He was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, briefly held the record for most career rushing yardsnote , and was the first black player to be honored as league MVP in 1954. Perry played in the AAFC and NFL for 16 years, a massive stretch for a running back. After a brief stint in Baltimore, he retired in 1963 with the 49ers (which retired his #34), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and died in 2011.
  • Adrian Peterson is best known for his dominant tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, which drafted him #7 overall out of Oklahoma in 2007. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year after setting a slew of records, including most yards rushed in a single game (296), most yards rushing in the first eight games of a season (1,036), and most 200-yard rushing games for a rookie (2). He only continued to improve in following years, leading the NFL in rushing yards in his second season and total/rushing TDs in his third. In 2012, he fell eight yards short of tying the single-season record for rushing yards after tearing his ACL the year before (an injury that typically takes at least a year to recover from). After this season, which some considered one of the most impressive ever for a running back, he was chosen as the league's MVP. Peterson had become one of the most respected figures in the league, to the point of being featured on the cover of Madden NFL 25; it was thus sudden and unexpected when he was indicted for child abuse in 2014 after disciplining his son with a tree branch to cause injury. With the NFL already dealing with heavy criticism of its handling of domestic abuse cases (such as with Ray Rice), the Vikings deactivated him within days. Although he accepted a plea deal that kept him out of jail in exchange for probation and community service, the NFL suspended him for the remainder of the season, stating that he had failed to show proper remorse for his actions. Peterson was reinstated in 2015, where he again led the league in yards and rushing touchdowns, but suffered a torn meniscus the next year that took him out for most of the season. During the 2017 season, he was released from the Vikings, signed with the Saints, and was traded to the Cardinals. He has since continued to bounce around the league and is currently a free agent.
  • Brian Piccolo was a FB for the Chicago Bears in the late '60s. Despite leading the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns as a senior at Wake Forest, he was considered too small to play fullback professionally (5'11", 195 lbs) and went undrafted in 1965. Still, he was signed by the Bears, making their "taxi squad" (a precursor to practice squads) as a rookie and then the main roster the following year where he contributed as a special teamer. When star RB Gale Sayers was lost for the season due to injury, Piccolo assumed the starting role and had his best statistical season as a pro. Later, they played in the backfield at the same time with Piccolo at FB and Sayers at RB. They became close friends and eventually roommates on the road, during an era where hotel room assignments were otherwise still segregated. Sadly, Piccolo died from cancer in 1970 at the age of 26; his #41 was subsequently retired by the Bears. His and Sayers' friendship was featured in Brian's Song, a popular made-for-TV movie that debuted in 1971 with James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers.
  • Fritz Pollard was a truly groundbreaking NFL player, even though he played for teams that few today have even heard of. He was a Genius Bruiser, a chemistry student at Brown who became the school's first black football player and college football's first black All-American. Fritz was one of only two black athletes in the inaugural season of the American Professional Football Association and helped lead his team, the Akron Pros, to the first ever league championship.note  The following season, Pollard was promoted to co-head coach of the team while remaining as a player, technically making him the league's first black head coach.note  The APFA renamed itself the National Football League the following season. Pollard played for numerous teams in the nascent league over the next several years before he and the NFL's other nine black players were all removed in 1926. He spent the next several years coaching all-black barnstorming teams before moving on to a career in publishing and producing. Pollard was inducted into Canton in 2005, twenty years after his death, for his contributions to both pioneering the league and paving the way for generations of black football players.
  • Clinton Portis was a notable and interesting running back throughout the 2000s. A second round pick in 2002 out of Miami by the Denver Broncos, Portis was one of many backs in Mike Shanahan's series of 1,000 yard rushers. He exploded onto the scene, rushing for over 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons at 5.5 yards per carry, an NFL record for that span. Following his second season, he was traded to Washington in exchange for Pro Bowl CB Champ Bailey (see below), one of the rare "elite player for elite player" trades in recent NFL history. While still productive, his stats fall across the board (particularly his YPC, dropping to 3.8) in his first year with Washington. He still ran for 1,200+ yards in four of his first five years with Washington, but injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the final two seasons of his career. Beyond his on-field production, Portis was known for the bizarre outfits he wore to press conferences and interviews, looking something like a cross between a prop comic and a pro wrestler with a healthy dose of Rummage Sale RejectBehold! Following his retirement, Portis admitted to playing through at least 10 concussions, joining a lawsuit against the NFL over the league's concussion handling. Five years after his retirement, he was forced to declare bankruptcy due to poor money management.
  • John Riggins, nicknamed "the Diesel" for his semi-truck running style (or simply "Riggo"), was a Hall of Fame power back most famous for his time in Washington in the '70s and '80s. Originally drafted by the New York Jets #6 overall in 1971 out of Kansas, Riggins made the move to Washington in 1976, where he won Comeback Player of the Year in 1976 and Super Bowl MVP in XVII (1982) after setting a record for most carries in the Big Game. Known for his incredible longevity for a running back at 15 seasons, he was in some ways a late bloomer; in 1983, at age 34, he set a single-season rushing TD record (24) that stood for over a decade. The next year, he became the oldest player to ever rush for more than 1,200 yards, carry the ball 300+ times, and have 10+ touchdowns. In 1985, his final year, he became the then-oldest player to ever have 100+ rushing yards in a game (since surpassed by Frank Gore). Bizarrely, he was only selected to one Pro Bowl, which may have had to do with his off-field persona: Riggo was famous for his eccentric personality that veered from Fratbro to Elective Mute, his various wild hairstyles, and a tendency to go Off the Grid (Joe Gibbs once had to go out into the wilderness to find him after he sat out the 1980 season over a contract dispute). He had a modest acting career following his retirement in 1985.
  • George Rogers was the #1 overall pick in 1981, going to the New Orleans Saints after a Heisman-winning RB career at South Carolina. In his first year in the NFL, Rogers won Offensive Rookie of the Year after leading the entire league in rushing yards, becoming a rare bright spot for the destitute franchise. However, his individual skills weren't enough to break the team's long losing streak, and he never saw that level of success in New Orleans again; he checked into rehab for cocaine addiction that offseason and his production declined. He had a solid comeback after being traded to Washington in 1987, leading the league in TDs in 1986 and winning Super Bowl XXII before deciding to retire after just seven years in the pros due to nagging injuries. He continued to have cocaine-related legal issues after football, leaving some to wonder whether he could have had a longer/better pro career if he hadn't struggled with addiction or been saddled on such a bad team.
  • Barry Sanders currently sits fourth on the all-time rushing list. Drafted #3 overall by the Detroit Lions in 1989 after winning the Heisman at Oklahoma State, Sanders is unquestionably one of the greatest players in that team's history, if not the greatest ever (especially in recent memory). In a game that often focuses on size, strength, and durability, the 5'8" Sanders relied on speed, elusiveness, and incredible athleticism. Thus, despite frequently being the smallest man on the field, he often produced mind-blowing plays that made him seem impossible to stop or tackle. When he was active, it was an oft-repeated cliché that fans could watch him run for a loss and come away convinced that he was the greatest running back of all time. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year in '89, Offensive Player of the Year in '94 and '97, and League MVP in '97, spent four seasons as the league's rushing yards leader and two as the total TD leader, recorded the most games with over 150 rushing yards (25), and made the Pro Bowl every season of his career. His immense success and accolades are all the more notable because of the length of his career—he retired suddenly in 1999 when he was in striking distance of the all-time rushing yardage record.note  He didn't retire because of old age or health issues—he later confessed that he was just tired of playing for such a perennially losing organization.note  Despite the shorter length of his career, Sanders was a first-ballot inductee to the Hall of Fame and had his #20 retired by the Lions.
  • Orban "Spec" Sanders was drafted by Washington #6 overall in 1942 out of Texas but skipped out on the NFL to enlist in the Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific theater before being discharged in 1945 and finishing his college degree. A year later, Sanders, now 28 years old, signed with the New York Yankees of the upstart AAFC and cemented himself as one of the league’s superstars. He led the AAFC in rushing yards in consecutive seasons, including a record-breaking 1947 season where he rushed for 1,432 yards and 18 touchdowns while also throwing for 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns, guiding the Yankees to consecutive championship appearances in the process. Injuries limited Sanders to just 9 games in 1948, after which he underwent knee surgery and decided to retire. His retirement was short lived, though, as he signed with the NFL’s New York Yanks a year later but was limited to playing DB due to his lingering knee issues; he hauled in a then-record 13 interceptions and earned a Pro Bowl appearance before retiring for good at the end of the season. He passed away in 2003.
  • Gale Sayers was a legendary halfback and return specialist for the Chicago Bears in the late '60s and early '70s. A decorated track athlete from Kansas nicknamed "the Kansas Comet", Sayers played with incredible speed and was a dominant ball carrier despite having a longer and lankier frame more like that of a wide receiver. Drafted by both the Bears (#4 overall) of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs (#5) of the AFL in 1965, he chose to play for Chicago. He won Rookie of the Year after setting the NFL rookie single-season TD record with 22 total touchdowns, a record which still stands today; to give you a bigger idea of the enormity of the achievement, it was the single-season record for all players at the time. He also tied the single-game TD record during that year, with six in one game (only the third player to do so). After several dominant seasons, including one where he led the league in rushing yards, he badly injured his right knee. He returned to lead the league in rushing again, winning Comeback Player of the Year, only to badly injure his left knee the following season. As reconstructive knee surgery was much more primitive during his era, he was never able to return to form despite several more comeback attempts. He retired at 28, had his #40 retired by the Bears, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at age 34, the youngest person ever to be so honored.note  His 30.6 yard average for kickoff returns is the best in league history. The aforementioned Brian's Song was adapted from his autobiography. He passed away in 2020.
  • O. J. Simpson was one of the greatest running backs in NFL history whose 1973 season might be the best ever for the position, but that's likely not what you know him for. See his entry in National Football League Notorious Figures.
  • Billy Sims was the #1 overall pick of the 1980 Draft coming off a Heisman-winning career at Oklahoma. Sims provided a rare glimmer of hope to the long-suffering Detroit Lions: he rushed for three touchdowns in his first game (a first in NFL history), led the league in total TDs, and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. He earned three Pro Bowls in the Motor City, helped break the Lions' twelve-year playoff drought, and earned the nickname "Kung Fu Billy Sims" when he memorably delivered a Diving Kick to an Oilers defender. Unfortunately, he suffered a Career-Ending Injury to his knee in 1984 and spent several years in financial ruin due to a number of failed business ventures, though he has since stabilized by lending his name to a fairly successful BBQ fast-service chain. A decade after Sims was drafted, the Lions selected the great Barry Sanders (see above), who wore Sims' #20 in tribute.
  • Frank Sinkwich was the #1 overall pick in 1943 after a Heisman-winning RB career at Georgia, going to the Detroit Lions after a winless season. Like most great young players of his era, he enlisted in the military to fight in World War II; however, the multi-threat back got a medical discharge from the Marines for flat feet and got to play two seasons for the Lions, turning the franchise back around and winning MVP in 1944 while playing against generally weak competition. However, he was drafted back into the armed forces the following year, mostly to keep playing football for the Merchant Marine and Air Force. A Game-Breaking Injury sustained there hampered his play greatly, and he never returned to the NFL, instead putting up a few middling years in the AAFC before retiring in 1947. Sinkwich passed away in 1990.
  • Emmitt Smith is the all-time leading rusher in NFL history (18,355 yards), the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (164), and the only running back ever to score over 1,000 points.note  He spent 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted him #17 overall out of Florida in 1990, before ending his career with two years with the Cardinals. As one of the Cowboys' "Triplets" that helped lead them to three Super Bowl victories, his offensive dominance cannot be understated. In the 1993 season alone, he won the Super Bowl, was awarded the season and Super Bowl MVP, and led the league in rushing yards, the only player to ever do all four in the same season. That only scratches the surface of his accomplishments: he also won Offensive Rookie of the Year, was named to eight Pro Bowls, and led the league in rushing yards four times and total TDs thrice. He wasn't known for being particularly big, strong, or fast, instead relying on his phenomenal vision to predict where the holes in the defense would be. His records seem safe for the time being, as the ground game and star RBs in particular have become less and less important to NFL offenses; the active leading rusher and scorer (Adrian Peterson, above) is 3,000+ yards and 40+ TDs behind him and near the end of his career, and no one else is even close. Unsurprisingly, Smith was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Fun fact: he also won Season 3 of Dancing with the Stars.
  • Ken Strong was a Hall of Fame Jack-of-All-Trades RB throughout the '30s and considered one of the most versatile players in NFL history. A multi-sport star at NYU, he excelled in both baseball and football; after graduating in 1929, he took up minor league baseball while simultaneously starring for the NFL's Staten Island Stapletons, playing as a RB, QB, and K while earning two All-Pros. A wrist injury brought his baseball career to an end in 1932, after which he took to the NFL full-time, signing with the New York Giants a year later after the Stapletons folded. He earned two more All-Pros and won a championship with the Giants, but a salary dispute led to him leaving the team for the New York Yankees of the second AFL in 1936; after that league folded, he returned to the Giants in 1939, where he was used almost strictly as a kicker, before stomach ulcers led to him retiring that offseason. He came out of retirement in 1944 due to the Giants suffering player shortages from World War II, once again assuming a kicking role before retiring for good after 1947. Strong's #50 was later retired by the Giants, and he died of a heart attack in 1979.
  • Fred Taylor was a star as a college player at Florida and carried that fame to nearby Jacksonville after the Jaguars drafted him #9 overall in 1998. Despite rushing for over 1,000 yards as a rookie and posting many more such seasons in the years that followed, Taylor gained the disparaging nickname "Fragile Fred" for his constant injury issues, which caused a general lack of consistency and ensured he only earned one Pro Bowl nom. Despite that reputation, however, he proved his toughness by keeping his job with the Jags for 11 seasons, becoming the franchise's all-time rushing leader before leaving for two reserve seasons in New England, finally retiring in 2010. Taylor has the most career rushing yards of any eligible player not enshrined in Canton, though he is honored in Jacksonville's "Pride of the Jaguars".
  • Jim Taylor was the tough-as-nails Hall of Fame fullback for the '60s champion Green Bay Packers. Drafted in the second round (#15 overall) in 1958 out of LSU, he developed a reputation as one of the game's grittiest players, frequently playing through truly nasty injuries and illness while dishing out relentless trash-talk to his opponents. Paired with the "Golden Boy" halfback Paul Hornung (see above), Taylor was the powerful "Thunder" to Hornung's speedy "Lightning". However, he also developed a reputation as the league's second-best power fullback, since his career largely overlapped with that of Jim Brown. Taylor did successfully claim the season rushing yards title in 1962, the only year of Brown's career where he did not, and won league MVP for his efforts. He missed out on a chance at a fifth championship in Green Bay when he left to play with the New Orleans Saints in their inaugural season. His return to his home state wasn't as successful as his time in Wisconsin, and he retired after one yearnote . Taylor passed away in 2018.
  • Thurman Thomas was one of the dominant backs of the early '90s as an excellent rusher and receiver in the Buffalo Bills' K-Gun offense, where he became the only player in NFL history to lead the league in yards from scrimmage for four straight seasons. A teammate of Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State (Thomas was a year ahead of Sanders), he was drafted in the second round in 1988. He was a key part of the Bills' four consecutive visits to the Super Bowl. Infamously, a few weeks after winning MVP in 1991, Thomas missed the first series of Super Bowl XXVI after losing his helmet on the sideline, kicking off the first of three straight Super Bowls where he put up poor performances; his showing in his first Super Bowl, on the other hand, would have likely won him game MVP had Scott Norwood's final kick not sailed wide right. After a single season with the Dolphins in 2000, Thomas signed a ceremonial contract with the Bills and retired; he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 and had his #34 retired by the Bills.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson was one of the greater running backs of the '00s. The Heisman finalist from TCU was drafted by the San Diego Chargers #5 overall in 2001 and soon helped to revive the trend of RBs also being reliable pass catchers. He even saw some time as a passer himself in halfback option plays, throwing more touchdowns than any non-QB in the modern era save Walter Payton. Tomlinson set the current single-season TD record (31) and won MVP (and Offensive Player of the Year and Walter Payton Man of the Year) in 2006, his first of two seasons as the league's rushing leader.note  Some believed that he had a chance to break Emmitt Smith's rushing record, but injuries and a couple of down years put an end to that. Regardless, when he retired after playing two years with the Jets and signing a ceremonial contract to return to the Chargers in 2012, "L.T." ranked high in most rushing stats, including being behind only Smith in career rushing TDs. The Chargers retired his #21, and he entered the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He currently serves as an analyst for NFL Network.
  • Charley Trippi was among the last of the triple threat backs who excelled at offense, defense, and special teams. A highly popular college athlete at Georgia, Trippi was a major figure in the bidding wars between the NFL and AAFC. The Chicago Cardinals drafted him as the #1 pick in 1945 as a “future selection”note , but he also received offers from the AAFC's New York Yankees. Upon graduating in 1947, he signed with the Cardinals after they offered him the richest contract in league history at the time, worth $100,000. The Cardinals won the NFL Championship in his rookie season, still the franchise's only league title earned via a championship gamenote . Trippi became the ultimate Swiss Army knife player throughout his career, playing as a halfback, quarterback, receiver, defensive back, punter, and return specialist. He led the NFL in all-purpose yards twice in his career and finished it as the only player to collect 1,000 yards passing, rushing, and receiving. He retired in 1955 after a hit in the preseason left him with several fractures in his face. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1968 and remained vary active well into his nineties, became only the Pro Hall's second member to live past 100 years after Ace Parker; he passed away in October 2022, less than two months before what would have been his 101st birthday.
  • Steve Van Buren was a Honduran-American halfback for the Philadelphia Eagles who played for eight seasons during the 1940s. Nicknamed "Wham Bam Van", "Moving Van", "Blockbuster Van Buren", and "Supersonic Steve", Van Buren was the #5 overall pick in 1944 out of LSU and arguably the greatest running back of his era, setting the career records for rushing yards and touchdowns, leading in both categories over four different seasons, taking the Eagles to back-to-back championships, and retiring with the career rushing record. He was the first Eagle to be inducted into the Hall of Fame (an honor he accepted with a four sentence speech) and still holds the Eagles' franchise records for rushing touchdowns. He passed away in 2012.
  • Doak Walker was drafted #3 overall in 1949 by the New York Bulldogs after an immensely successful college career at SMU (he is the namesake for the most prestigious award for college running backs). The rights for the multi-talented halfback were almost immediately traded to the Detroit Lions for their #2 pick, QB John Rauch, after Walker decided to play one more season in college.note  Walker joined the Lions in 1950 (reuniting with high school teammate and best friend Bobby Layne) and briefly became the league's leading scorer as the hybrid player ran, passed, kicked, and punted the Lions to two championship titles and was selected to five Pro Bowls. He left pro football in 1955 after just six seasons, not because he was injured, but because he stood to make far more money with his various businesses and endorsements; the Lions retired his #22 before the season even ended. He was drawn back to football in 1967 to coach for the Continental Football League's Akron Vulcans, which collapsed when its owner was revealed to be a con artist; Walker paid out of pocket to keep the team afloat through the season. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, somewhat controversially—even though his productivity had been historic, he played fewer games than any Hall of Famer outside those of the 1920s and '30s. Walker was paralyzed in 1998 after a skiing accident and died from the complications later that year.
  • Herschel Walker is one of the most unique figures in the history of pro sports, and he left a big footprint in the NFL despite seeing his greatest success outside of it. He became one of the greatest players in college football history in his three years at Georgia, winning the Heisman in his junior yearnote . Rather than play out his senior season, as was a requirement at the time to enter the NFL Draft, Walker decided to enter pro football early by joining the new USFL in its inaugural 1983 season and signing with the New York Generals. He led the nascent league in rushing the first season and utterly dominated in his third, breaking pro football's all-time season record for rushing yards with a whopping 2,411, more than 300 yards over the still-standing NFL record set by Eric Dickerson the year before.note  Though the USFL collapsed after that season, Walker's rights had already been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He couldn't replicate his record productivity against the NFL's higher level of competition, but he still performed well and was viewed as one of the league's leading running backs. He became the centerpiece of the largest trade in NFL history—the Vikings traded away five players and eight draft picks effectively just for him in the middle of the 1989 season.note  If that seems like an obvious mistake, it was—those picks were critical in building the Cowboys' '90s dynasty, most significantly allowing them to draft Emmitt Smith as his replacement. While the Cowboys started on the road to three Super Bowl victories, Walker's production with the Vikings never matched his previous heights. He left Minnesota in '92, put up his only post-Dallas 1,000+ yard season in Philly, and played one miserable year with the Giants. Ironically, he did finally return to Dallas in '96 to finish his NFL career with the Cowboys... the year they stopped winning Super Bowls. Walker was also known for the extreme and unique workout regime he developed in high school. Rather than lifting weights, he performed—and reportedly continues to perform—thousands of push-ups and sit-ups each day. He is also a tremendously versatile athlete, having danced with the Fort Worth Ballet during his time in Dallas, competed in the '92 Olympic bobsled races while with the Eagles, and won multiple mixed martial arts matches in his late forties.
  • Curt Warner (not to be confused with Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner) had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history, breaking onto the scene with the Seattle Seahawks in 1983 after being drafted #3 overall out of Penn State. The rookie helped lead the franchise to their first playoff run and sole AFC Championship game appearance, and he would have led the entire league in rushing were it not for the player drafted directly before him, Eric Dickerson, having the best rookie RB season the league has ever seen. A torn ACL knocked him out for his second season, but he still managed to recover to have several more Pro Bowl seasons before retiring in 1990 after a year with the Rams. The Seahawks enshrined him in their Ring of Honor, commemorating his role in making the team contenders for the first time in franchise history.
  • Ricky Watters entered the NFL in 1991 as a second round pick after a distinguished college career at Notre Dame, where he was a key contributor to the 1988 team that won the Fighting Irish's last national championship to date. After missing his rookie season to injury, "Running" Watters became one of the NFL's most versatile backs, running for more than 1,000 yards seven times and catching 60 passes three times over 10 seasons spent with the San Francisco 49ers (with whom he won Super Bowl XXIX in 1995), Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks. Despite the consistency of his performance, Watters has yet to reach the Hall of Fame, reaching only the semifinal round of voting in 2020 and 2022.
  • Byron "Whizzer" White was one of the NFL's first star players. After graduating from Colorado, he was taken on by the Pittsburgh Football Pirates (they weren't the Steelers yet) in 1938 as the #4 overall pick. During his rookie season, he was the most highly-paid player in the NFL... until he dropped football to take up a Rhodes Scholarship. After coming back from Oxford, he played two years (1940-41) in Detroit, where he had a contract for the then-obscene sum of $15,000 (about a quarter of a million in today's dollars, still well below the minimum annual salary for a modern player). In 1941, White joined the Navy for WWII and never played pro football again; after the war he went to Yale Law School, became Deputy Attorney General in 1961, and was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1962, where he served until 1993. Nevertheless, he kept up his relationship with football (for instance, when interviewing a prospective law clerk, the conversation inevitably revolved around football rather than legal issues). The annual NFLPA community service/humanitarian award was named after him until 2018. (Interesting trivia: one recipient of the award, Michael McCrary, was the plaintiff in a major Supreme Court casenote  about whether it was acceptable for private secondary schools to deny black students admission based on race. The Court found for McCrary, but ironically White dissented—not because he agreed with the schools' racial politics, but because he was afraid that the contrary ruling would be bad for private groups and institutions intended to advance the interests of Blacks and other minorities.) White passed away in 2002.
  • James White was drafted out of Wisconsin by the New England Patriots in the 4th Round in 2014. After a quiet rookie year, he broke out in the next two seasons when lead back Dion Lewis missed many games on the injured list. While his rushing numbers don't jump off the page, his versatility in the passing game meant that he racked up plenty of receiving yards and touchdowns in third-down or game-deciding situations, and his skill in blitz pick-up made him an integral blocker in New England's passing offense. He made his greatest impact in Super Bowl LI, where he was the game's leading receiver (his rushing attempts limited by the Patriots' need for a 25-point comeback) and scored 3 TDs. His prolific receiving and scoring set records: the most receiving yards and receptions in a Super Bowl by a RB and the most points scored by any individual player, as well as the first overtime TD scored in the Big Game that sealed the victory. His stellar performance, without which New England would have assuredly lost, had many commentators, players, and fans believing he (not Tom Brady) should have been named MVP. Nicknamed "Sweet Feet" by fandom, he was a beloved member of the late Patriots dynasty for his unerring knack for making important plays in big moments. He played in two more Super Bowls, winning one, and retired in 2022 after spending most of the previous season out with a hip injury.
  • DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were the Carolina Panthers' dual-headed rushing threat for nearly a decade. Williams was drafted #27 overall in 2006 out of Memphis, Stewart #13 overall out of Oregon in 2008. Despite eating into each other's numbers during their tenure, Williams led the NFL in rushing TDs in 2008 and earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2009. Williams was cut from the team in 2015, which actually benefitted both players; Williams signed with the Steelers and led the NFL in rushing TDs, while Stewart stayed on with Carolina during their run to the Super Bowl appearance and picked up his sole Pro Bowl nod. Williams retired after 2016, attempted a pro wrestling career and later competed on The Amazing Race; Stewart holds most of the Panthers' franchise rushing records and retired with the team after spending 2018 with the Giants.
  • Ricky Williams was a Heisman winner at Texas and a heavily-hyped player when he was drafted in 1999. In an especially notable case, Mike Ditka, then coach of the New Orleans Saints, traded away all of his team's draft picks, plus another two high picks for the next year, to ensure he could take him #5 overall (an event immortalized by this infamous cover of ESPN The Magazine featuring Ditka and Williams in a photo shoot dressed as a bride and groom). As a player, he rushed at about what you would expect for a good rookie RB, i.e. not nearly well enough to carry a bad team on his back alone. The Saints went 3-13, with few options for improving in the Draft for the next year, which was enough to end Ditka's coaching career. Williams put up consecutive 1,000 yard seasons the next two years before he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he immediately became a dynamic, unstoppable force—until he suddenly retired in 2004 when it was revealed he had tested positive for marijuana, just a few months after being featured on the cover of NFL Street. After he retired, he spent a year Walking the Earth to "find himself", which included living in a tent in the Australian outback and working for a holistic medicine college in California. He unretired in 2005, played solidly for a season, tested positive for marijuana a third time, jumped to the Canadian Football League in 2006, missed most of the 2007 season, played in one game before a hard stomp to the chest ended his season, played for the Dolphins again through 2010, put up one last year for the Ravens in 2011, then retired.
  • Claude "Buddy" Young, nicknamed the "Bronze Bullet", was one of the first Black players in the NFL during the late '40s reintegration period, the first African-American hired by the NFL to an executive position, and, at a generous 5'4", one of the shortest people to ever play pro football. A track and football star in college at Illinois and during his military service in WWII, Young signed with the AAFC's New York Yankees before making the jump to the NFL's New York Yanks (no direct relation) after that league folded, then had his rights sold to the Dallas Texans after that team collapsed. After the Texans also collapsed, he landed with the Baltimore Colts, where his speed and elusiveness made him a threat as a runner, receiver, and returner and his effervescent personality made him a beloved figure amongst fans and teammates. He retired from play after 1955 and continued to blaze trails behind-the-scenes, becoming the NFL's Director of Player Relations by 1966; his #22 was retired by the Colts in recognition of his contributions to the game. Young died in a car crash in 1983.
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Wide Receivers

     A-G 
  • Davante Adams was a second round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers out of Fresno State in 2014. After a relatively slow start, Adams broke out in 2016 en route to establishing himself as one of the best receivers in the league, becoming Aaron Rodgers' primary target in the late '10s/early '20s, leading the league in receiving TDs in 2020, and earning Pro Bowl nods every year since 2017. His success is all the more impressive when accounting for the lack of a true WR2 threat on the Packers in his peak years, meaning his strong performances usually come while being doubled up by opposing defenses. Ahead of the 2022 season, Adams negotiated a trade to the Raiders, stating that it had always been his ultimate dream to play for his childhood team and to reunite with his college QB and best friend Derek Carr; while Adams performed well (again leading the NFL in receiving TDs), the team did not, and Carr was cut by the end of Adams' first season in Vegas.
  • Lance Alworth was drafted at #8 overall out of Arkansas by the 49ers in 1962, but he instead chose to sign with the San Diego Chargers, who picked up his rights from the Raiders after they drafted him at #9. Alworth became one of the biggest stars of the nascent (and more pass-friendly) AFL and was a real Game-Breaker with San Diego, passing early receiving yard milestones at a speed that has yet to be surpassed by another NFL player, putting up five games with over 200 receiving yards (a record only tied by Calvin Johnson), and leading the league in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns thrice. His graceful running style won him the nickname... "Bambi". He won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys at the end of his career, retired in 1972, had his #19 retired by the Chargers, and became the first AFL player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
  • Willie Lee "Flipper" Anderson was a second-round pick out of UCLA by the L.A. Rams in 1988 whose So Okay, It's Average career probably wouldn't stand out in the annals of NFL history were it not for a single game in his second year in which he put up 336 receiving yards. This has stood as the single-game record for over three decades, with only all-time elite receivers like Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones putting up 300+ yard games since. This game was a nearly complete aberration; Anderson was not the top receiver for the Rams and put up over a third of his catches for the entire season in just this single showing.note  Anderson was off the team after '94 and spent the next three years bouncing around the league as a reserve player, eventually receiving a Super Bowl ring for sitting on the Broncos' bench in '97 before retiring from football.
  • Morris "Red" Badgro was a two-way end in the late '20s and '30s. A multi-sport star at USC, Badgro signed with the NFL's New York Yankees in 1927 but left football after the Yankees folded a year later, instead playing two seasons with the MLB's St. Louis Browns. After he finished the 1930 season with the Browns, Badgro decided to return to football with the New York Giants that same month, quickly earning a starting role and becoming one of the top ends in football. In addition to being a strong blocker and tackler, he was also one of the league's better receivers, leading the NFL in receptions in 1934note  and catching the first TD pass in NFL Championship history. The four time All-Pro retired in 1935, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1981, and died in 1998.
  • Alyn Beals led the AAFC in receiving TDs in each of the league's four seasons while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Beals was drafted out of Santa Clara in 1943 but not signed by the NFL; he landed a spot on the Niners thanks to their first HC, Buck Shaw, being his coach in college. His performance helped ensure the Niners would make the move to the NFL, though he didn't perform well there once they made the move and was cut two years later. He died in 1993.
  • Odell Beckham Jr. made his name with the New York Giants, who drafted him #12 overall out of LSU in 2014. He exploded onto the scene as a rookie during a Sunday Night Football game against the division rival Cowboys when he made what is widely considered one of, if not the, greatest catches of all time, diving backwards with a full extension of his right hand using only three fingers while being interfered with by a defender; the pose was replicated on the next year's Madden NFL cover. Over his first three seasons, Beckham broke a number of records, including being the fastest player to reach 250 receptions and 4,000 receiving yards. While he is an overall very effective receiver, his main claim to fame (to the point of his detractors saying it's the only reason he's famous) remain his highlight reel-type catches.note  Early in his career, "OBJ" was known for sporting classic "over-the-top diva" personality often associated with his position and for complaining openly to the media about team issues. In his second contract, he wanted to be paid "QB money" in the range of about $10 million more per season than the highest paid WRs make; he became the highest paid WR at the time in his second contract but still settled for far less than QB money. He is also known for his distinctive hair, which features bleached platinum blond curls up top, and for being extremely emotional on the field. His fans see this as him being "passionate", while his detractors tend to see "spoiled".note  The Giants dealt him to the Browns in 2019, where injuries and a decline in output led to him being cut during the 2021 season. He subsequently signed with the Rams, where he won a ring as a key part of their Super Bowl run (though tore an ACL in the game itself). He is currently a free agent.
  • Jim Benton was a second round pick by the Cleveland Rams in 1938 out of Arkansas, establishing himself as one of their first stars and a top flight receiver. He spent all but one year of his career with the Rams, briefly joining the Bears in 1943 and winning a championship while the Rams temporarily suspended operations. Once they returned the following year, he rejoined the team and later paired with Bob Waterfield to form a high powered offense that won the 1945 Championship. He was named All-Pro in '45 and '46 after leading the NFL in receiving yards both years. His best performance came on Thanksgiving in 1945, when he hauled in 303 yards against the Lions, which stood as the single game record for over four decades. He retired in 1947 and passed away in 2001.
  • Raymond Berry has one of the great Cinderella stories of NFL history. A split end drafted in the twentieth round in 1954 by the Baltimore Colts, Berry was considered a long shot to even make the team. He had caught only 33 passes while playing for the run-heavy SMU. Worse, he had numerous health issues that directly affected his ability to run (he had bruised nerves in his lower back that caused one leg to be shorter than the other), catch (he had terrible eyesight), and take hits (he was very skinny). Berry overcame all of those obstacles (with the help of a back brace and new contact lenses) to become the only Hall of Famer from his draft class, teaming up with QB Johnny Unitas to regularly lead the league in reception stats and take the Colts to two championships over 13 seasons. When he retired, he held the then-career records for receptions and receiving yards. After his playing career, he coached wide receivers for numerous teams before being hired as the head coach for the New England Patriots from 1984-89 and leading the team to its first ever Super Bowl appearance. His #82 is retired by the Colts.
  • Fred Biletnikoff was one of the top receivers of his day. Selected #11 overall in the 1965 AFL Draft out of Florida State by the Oakland Raiders, he played for the team for 14 seasons, was selected to four Pro Bowls, and set numerous receiving records (all since broken, as he played in an era where the run was used far more than the pass). Biletnikoff won MVP for Super Bowl XI off of just four catches for 79 yards, one indicator of just how much the position has evolved. He was released after 1978, played one year in the CFL, and spent the next 26 years as an assistant coach. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988 and is also the namesake for the most prestigious award for wide receivers in college football.
  • Anquan Boldin was one of the most physical receivers of the 21st century, excelling as a catch-and-run tackle breaker while playing 14 seasons with four teams. Originally a QB, he converted to WR in college at Florida State. He had a dominant final season but ran an extremely poor 4.71 40 time at the Combine, resulting in a 2nd round drafting in 2003 by the Arizona Cardinals (who had already selected another WR in the 1st round). Boldin broke out right away, setting a rookie record with 217 receiving yards in his very first NFL game and another for receptions in a season with 101note . The team drafted Larry Fitzgerald (see below) the following year, and the two paired up to be one of the most dominant WR tandems in NFL history, leading the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl appearance following 2008. In 2010, seeking a higher paying contract than Arizona was willing to give after extending Fitzgerald, Boldin was traded to the Baltimore Ravens, where he was the leading receiver of their Super Bowl XLVII-winning team. He spent three more productive seasons with the 49ers, then had a final less-stellar year with the Lions before retiring. Boldin made three Pro Bowls and finished in the top 10 all-time for receptions and the top 15 all-time for receiving yards.
  • Cliff Branch played his entire 14-year NFL career with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, who drafted him in the fourth round out of Colorado in 1972. A 100-meter sprinter as well as football player in college, Branch was a member of all three of the franchise's Super Bowl-winning teams, was selected to four Pro Bowls from 1974-77, and caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns in an era that was much more difficult for receivers. Long considered an Award Snub for the Hall of Fame prior to his death in 2019, Branch was finally selected for Canton in 2022.
  • Tim Brown was a Hall of Famer who played for the Raiders for 16 seasons, tied for third most games played by a wide receiver. After a Heisman-winning college career at Notre Dame, he was picked #6 overall by the L.A. Raiders in 1988 and put up nine Pro Bowl seasons before and after the team's return to Oakland. Brown had an acrimonious relationship with team owner Al Davis that became more public after he became the last L.A.-era player to leave the team in 2004. Though he played out his final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under former coach Jon Gruden, Brown remained very much beloved by the Raider Nation—when he scored his landmark 100th (and final) receiving touchdown at an away game in Oakland, he received a standing ovation from the home crowd. After that season, Brown signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the Raiders. He remains in the top ten in most career receiving numbers; he was also an adept punt returner and ranks in the top ten in most return statistics as well.
  • Troy Brown was drafted in the 8th round in 1993 by the New England Patriots out of Marshall. The first seven years of his career were generally unspectacular, mostly spent on special teams, but he was never cut and eventually became a full-time starter in 2000 as a slot receiver. He helped New England win three Super Bowls and made a single Pro Bowl in 2001. He became known as "Mr. Patriot" by fans for his willingness to play in any role to help the team; besides being a prolific special teamer, he also sometimes played defensive back, usually covering the slot receiver.note  He retired in 2008 after a 15-year career and was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame by fan vote. He is currently the only player in NFL history to have at least 550 receptions, 250 punt returns, and an interception. He now serves as the receivers/returners coach for his former team.
  • Isaac Bruce was a Hall of Famer who most famously played for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams. A second round pick by the Rams in 1994 out of Memphis State, Bruce became the leading receiver in "The Greatest Show on Turf" after the Rams moved to St. Louis. He retired in 2009 after a brief stint with the 49ers, during which he became only the second player after Jerry Rice to surpass 15,000 receiving yards (he is now #5 all-time). Bruce remains in the top ten of most career receiving statistics, and his #80 was retired by the Rams.
  • Ken Burrough was a star receiver for the Houston Oilers in the '70s. Originally drafted in 1970 by the Saints out of HBCU Texas Southern at #10 overall, an injury-riddled rookie year caused New Orleans to trade him to Houston, at which point he broke out as one of the league's biggest receiving threats before his retirement after 1981. However, Burrough is likely most notable as the last NFL player to wear #00, having been grandfathered in after the league banned the practice in '73.
  • Lee Harold Carmichael was drafted in the seventh round out of Southern by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1971. The HBCU grad stands out (quite literally) as the tallest WR in NFL history; few players of his stature (6'8") go in as a wideout rather than a tight end. Carmichael's height and dynamic playstyle made him the focal point of the '70s Eagles offense that reached Super Bowl XV, and he led the league in receptions and receiving yards in 1973. He retired after spending 1984 with the Cowboys and was later hired to the Eagles office. After several decades of waiting, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame's Centennial Class in 2020.
  • Cris Carter was an eight-time Pro Bowler who played in the NFL for 16 seasons. His career got off to a very rocky start. After setting school records at Ohio State, Carter lost his eligibility to play his senior season when he secretly signed with a sports agent. He narrowly avoided jail time for wire fraud and was forced to enter the 1987 Supplemental Draft, where he was selected in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He put up solid performances during his three seasons in Philly, but his struggles with drug addiction led coach Buddy Ryan to trade him to the Minnesota Vikings as a wake-up call; Carter attributes this intervention to saving his football career and his life, as the Vikings organization had a robust rehab program. Carter got clean and became Minnesota's star receiver through the '90s, later helping to mentor future Vikings superstar Randy Moss, though he never secured a Super Bowl championship. After a single season in Miami in 2002, he retired behind only Jerry Rice in most career receiving records. He still remains in the top ten for many career receiving records, and his #80 was retired by the Vikings. After retirement, Carter became an analyst infamous for his hot takes. Despite most expecting him to get a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, Carter waited seven years into his eligibility to be inducted into Canton. His older brother Butch was a player and head coach in the NBA, and his son Duron has had a tumultuous journeyman career in the CFL.
  • Wes Chandler was a key part of the San Diego Chargers' Air Coryell offense of the early '80s. Drafted #3 overall by the Saints out of Florida in 1978, Chandler was traded to the Chargers in 1981 and set the current record for receiving yards per game the following year (129); had that season not been cut short by strike, Chandler's year might be in consideration for the best ever seen at the position. He put up several more solid years in San Diego before being cut after 1987; he played four unimpressive games with the 49ers that season before deciding to retire, just missing out on a Super Bowl ring.
  • Ja'Marr Chase was drafted #5 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021 and immediately produced arguably the greatest rookie receiving season in NFL history. Reunited with his LSU teammate, QB Joe Burrow, Chase quickly set about breaking multiple franchise receiving records. While he ultimately couldn't surpass Bill Groman's legendary rookie receiving yards production in the regular season, he shattered the standing postseason record as a key component in the Bengals' unexpected Super Bowl run and won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
  • Dwight Clark was drafted in the tenth round in 1979 out of Clemson by the San Francisco 49ers. The low drafted pick had several standout seasons early in his career, including leading the league in receptions in the strike-shortened 1982 season. However, he is most well known for being the recipient of "The Catch", one of the most famous plays in football history in which he caught the game-winning touchdown from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC Championship with a high-flying leap in the back of the end zone. This moment is widely celebrated as the turning point in Niners history that led to their '80s dynasty, and while his numbers declined as SF assembled more talented receivers, the team still retired his #87 after he retired in 1987. Clark continued to work in the 49ers front office for many years, eventually becoming their GM in 1998 before going to serve in the same role for the revived Cleveland Browns from 1999-2001 (a decision he later heavily regretted). In 2017, Clark was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and died a year later at 61 years old; the 49ers built a statue of his iconic Catch outside their stadium to honor his passing.
  • Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, better known collectively as the Marks Brothers, were a dominant receiving duo for the '80s Miami Dolphins. Dan Marino's two favorite targets put up gaudy numbers for their time. Thanks to the rocket launcher arm of their passer, Clayton went from an obscure eighth round pick out of Louisville in 1983 to posting a then-record 18 receiving TDs in '84 (still third best ever); "Super" Duper was likewise a little known name in 1982 when he was drafted in the second round out of now-FCS Northwestern State. Clayton again led the NFL in receiving TDs in '88 and holds the franchise career records for receptions and TDs; Duper holds the franchise record for receiving yards. Clayton retired after spending 1993 with the Packers; Duper retired in 1992 but briefly attempted a comeback with Miami's arena team. Both are enshrined in the Dolphins' Honor Roll.
  • Marques Colston is the New Orleans Saints' all-time leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Drafted in the seventh round out of FCS Hofstra in 2006, Colston quickly asserted himself as one of Drew Brees' primary targets throughout his ten-year career. However, despite his success earning him a spot in the Saints Hall of Fame, Colston never received a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod.
  • Victor Cruz had one of the greatest arrivals into the NFL in the league's history. An undrafted player out of UMass, he barely saw the field and wasn't even targeted with the football in his technical "rookie" season in 2010 due to dealing with a hamstring injury. When he was given a shot in his second year, Cruz became an instant legend for the New York Giants, coming out of nowhere to accumulate over 1,500 yardsnote  and play a key role in the Giants' campaign to the Super Bowl. While not technically a One-Hit Wonder, as he had two more solid years in New York, he never quite lived up to that initial promise and his performance soon trailed off due to continued injury issues, leading to him being out of the NFL after 2016. Still, his legacy with the Giants lives on, in no small part due to his salsa-dancing TD celebration.
  • Isaac Curtis started his career as a RB and track star at Cal in the early '70s, becoming renowned for his world-class speed, but transferred to San Diego State as a senior, where offensive guru Don Coryell moved him to WR to take advantage of his quickness and spread opposing defenses. Despite playing just one season at WR, his trailblazing speed was enough to entice the Cincinnati Bengals into drafting him #15 overall in 1973. He began his career with four straight Pro Bowls, as his insane speed made covering him a nightmare for opposing defenders, who often resorted to the bump-and-run to limit his effectiveness downfield. This prompted the NFL to adopt the "Isaac Curtis Rule", limiting contact between receivers and D Bs, which would later be expanded into the "Mel Blount Rule" that same decade. He retired in 1984 holding all of the team's receiving records and was inducted to their Ring of Honor in 2022.
  • Stefon Diggs currently plays for the Buffalo Bills. He started out with the Minnesota Vikings as a fifth round pick from Maryland in 2015 and, despite his low draft position, broke out in his rookie season as a major talent. In the 2017 playoffs, Diggs was the recipient of the "Minneapolis Miracle", scoring a 61-yard game-winning touchdown as time expired, a first in NFL playoff history. Diggs successfully pushed for a trade to the Bills in 2020 and became even more productive in Buffalo, leading the league in receptions and receiving yards. His younger brother Trevon has become an NFL star on the opposite side of the ball as a Pro Bowl corner for the Dallas Cowboys.note 
  • LaVern Dilweg was a two-way end most famous for his tenure with the Green Bay Packers. While studying law at Marquette, he played football for the Milwaukee Badgers in 1926. After graduating in 1927, he set up his law practice in Green Bay, playing football in the morning and practicing law in the afternoon. He retired in 1934 and was considered by many to be the best all-around end outside of his successor Don Hutson (see below). During his career, he won three championships from 1929-31 and was named consensus All-Pro five consecutive years from 1927-31, with three being unanimous. After his retirement, he continued practicing law and dabbled in politics, serving one term in the US House of Representatives from 1943-45. He died in 1968 after a lengthy illness, just two days after the Ice Bowl Game.
  • Julian Edelman was drafted in the seventh round in 2009 by the New England Patriots out of Kent State, where he was an option quarterback. The 5'10" player was on the shorter side for a modern NFL wide receiver, and his regular season stats don't exactly leap off the page compared to others at the position. However, as the sidekick to Tom Brady for the majority of his career, Edelman naturally saw a great deal of play time in the playoffs, where he developed a reputation as a particularly scrappy Pint-Sized Powerhouse who made critical catches at the most important moments. He comes in behind only Jerry Rice for post-season receiving yards and receptions and was named the MVP for Super Bowl LIII. After being sidelined from injuries for most of the 2020 season, Edelman retired with the Patriots.
  • Henry Ellard was a highly productive Long Runner receiver in the '80s and '90s. Drafted in 1983's second round out of Fresno State by the Los Angeles Rams, he put up 11 strong years for that franchise (leading the league in receiving yards in 1988) and continued to put up great numbers as a veteran for his last five season in Washington. He retired behind only Jerry Rice and James Lofton in career receiving yards, but he has fallen sharply down those rankings in subsequent years as the passing game has evolved and has never even been named a finalist for the Hall of Fame.
  • Mike Evans was drafted #7 overall in 2014 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Texas A&Mnote  and immediately broke out as one of the league's most talented and consistent receivers. Evans is the only WR in NFL history to post 1,000+ receiving yards in each of his first nine seasons, breaking the six-season mark previously held only by Randy Moss (among other "youngest player ever" records). Despite this, Evans largely remained out of the spotlight due to playing with the consistently underperforming Bucs... until Tom Brady came to town in 2020, at which point he became a key part of their Super Bowl run.
  • Tom Fears was a split end who played his entire career with the Los Angeles Rams, who drafted him in the 11th round in 1945 out of UCLA, becoming the first Mexican-born player to be drafted. He led the league in receptions each of his first three seasons, including breaking the then-records for receptions in 1949-50 and being named first team All-Pro for the latter. He led the Rams to a championship in 1951, retired in 1956, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970. He later became the first HC in franchise history for the New Orleans Saints, which also made him the first Latino coach in the NFL. He died from Alzheimer's complications in 2000.
  • Larry Fitzgerald played for the Arizona Cardinals his entire career and is generally considered one of the best receivers of all time. After being drafted #3 overall out of Pittsburgh in 2004, Fitzgerald was selected to eleven Pro Bowls, led the league in receiving touchdowns in two consecutive seasons (2008-09) and in receptions in two seasons over a decade apart from each other (2005, 2016), and posted the most receiving yards ever in a single postseason (546) in 2008, taking the franchise to their sole Super Bowl appearance and winning him a spot on the next season's Madden NFL cover. He would probably be the biggest threat to Jerry Rice's records if not for several seasons stuck with horrendous quarterback play in Arizona hurting his statistics and his willingness to block for his teammates rather than go for every catch. He has still reached #2 in receptions, receiving yards, and games played for a wide receiver and cracked the top 10 in receiving TDs. He was so ridiculously consistent and available for the team that he holds the unique stat of having more career defensive tackles than dropped passes.note  His loyalty to the long-suffering Cardinals franchise and his exceptionally generous and soft-spoken nature has made him practically a saint in Arizona. Fitz essentially retired as a free agent after 2020 and has begun a TV career, though he has refrained from making an official statement in case he feels the desire to play again.
  • Irving Fryar was drafted at #1 overall in 1984, going to the New England Patriots out of Nebraska.note  Fryar played in the NFL for 17 seasons, tied for the third-most games played at his position, but doesn't rank high on many career stat sheets due to being a late bloomer; four of his five Pro Bowl seasons came after he turned 30 while playing for teams other than the one that spent such high draft capital on him. Fryar experienced numerous off-field legal issues during and after his time in football and saw jail time for fraud after his retirement.
  • Joey Galloway had one of the more unique career trajectories of any NFL receiver. Drafted #8 overall by the Seattle Seahawks out of Ohio State in 1995, the speedster set rookie franchise records and was highly productive for a largely mediocre franchise. He was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in 2000 for picks (one of which would be used for Shaun Alexander), but injuries and the Cowboys' own struggles likewise hurt his production. He was again traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004 and had a late career resurgence, but once again the team failed to produce much with his talents. He retired after 2010 following shorter stints with three other teams. Despite his talent and Long Runner consistency placing him fairly high on many career stat sheets, the journeyman's lack of a dependable team/QB through most of that long career ensured that he was never even selected to a Pro Bowl, making him one of the most successful players ever with such a distinction.
  • Bill Groman has held the rookie receiving yards record (1,473 yards) for the combined NFL-AFL since his 1960 debut, a truly remarkable feat considering that he played a 14-game season, came out of total obscurity, and has likewise largely been forgotten to fans save for whenever his record comes close to being challenged. Groman played football for the tiny Heidelberg College and was totally overlooked by NFL scouts after graduating in 1958. He taught middle school science for a few years before a fellow teacher noticed his talent during a game of catch and recommended him to his former college teammate and head coach of the new AFL's Houston Oilers, Lou Rymkus. Groman became QB George Blanda's favorite target, led the AFL in touchdowns the following year, and was a key component to the Oilers winning the first two AFL Championships. However, his remarkable career was tragically cut short when, during the second title game, he received a Career-Ending Injury to his knee that robbed him of his former explosiveness; he hopped around the benches of the Broncos and Bills (earning two more AFL titles with the latter despite rarely seeing the field) and retired after 1965. Groman passed away in 2020.

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  • Marvin Harrison spent most of his career as Peyton Manning's go-to guy with the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted him in the first round in 1996 out of Syracuse. His production blossomed with Manning, and his pairing with fellow perennial Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne (drafted #30 overall in 2001 out of Miami) formed the most dominant WR duo of the 2000s. Harrison set a (since-surpassed) record for most receptions in a season in 2002 and was tracking to compete for some of Jerry Rice's career records before his career was derailed by injuries. After 13 years with the Colts, he retired in 2008 following a shooting incident outside a Philadelphia business which he owned that resulted in the death of a man. The controversy surrounding this incident may have contributed to his initial exclusion from the Hall of Fame (as the body of work over his career should have made his case immediately), but in 2016, his third year of eligibility, he was finally inducted. Wayne retired the same year after having quietly sat out the prior season and has since moved into coaching. His son, Marvin Jr., currently plays WR at Ohio State.
  • Bob Hayes is the only person in history to win an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring. Hayes first rose to fame as a track star in the early '60s, setting world records and winning gold medals in the 100m and 4 × 100m relay at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games while playing football at the HBCU Florida A&M (President Lyndon Johnson had to personally call his football coach to let him rest for the Olympics). The Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the seventh round that same year, hoping that the Fastest Man Alive would still be willing to play football once he was done with school. When he joined the team in 1965, "Bullet Bob" became a key part of the offense, helping to raise the young and struggling expansion team to championship caliber while leading the league in touchdown catches in his first two seasons. The league first began adopting zone defenses in part to cover Hayes and the other speedy receivers who followed in his fleet footsteps. His production declined in his later years, though not before the Cowboys won Super Bowl VI. Hayes was traded to the 49ers in 1975 and subsequently released. His relatively short high-production window and legal problems, including a prison sentence for drugs after his playing career, kept Hayes out of the Hall of Fame until 2009, seven years after his death from cancer.note 
  • Charley Hennigan was one of the first players for the Houston Oilers, going undrafted in 1960 after playing at Northwestern State.note  He immediately took advantage of the AFL's more open passing game, earning five All-Star appearances while winning two championships with the Oilers. He led the AFL in receiving yards twice, with his 1,764 yards in 1961 standing as the single-season record for 34 years, and led the league in receptions in 1964 with 101, becoming the second player to surpass the 100 reception milestone. Hennigan retired in 1966 and still holds many of the Oilers/Titans single season records, but his career's brevity has largely kept him from Hall of Fame consideration. He passed away in 2017.
  • Harlon Hill had one of the NFL's most electrifying debuts. A 15th-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears in 1954 out of the obscure North Alabama, he set multiple franchise records by leading the entire league in touchdowns in his first two seasons. Hill even won the first Jim Thorpe Award (an MVP-precursor that was voted on by players) in his second year, when he led the Bears to a championship appearance. Unfortunately, injuries began to slow his performance, and while he became the first pro athlete to recover from a surgical repair of an Achilles tear, he retired after spending 1962 with the Steelers and Lions. Hill still holds multiple franchise receiving records and is the namesake of the trophy awarded to the best player in D-II college football. He passed away in 2013.
  • Tyreek Hill, nicknamed "Cheetah" for his blistering speed, became a star with the Kansas City Chiefs. Hill's selection in the fifth round of the 2016 Draft made him a subject of controversy before his career even started—Hill had been dismissed from the Oklahoma State program after a domestic violence arrest and spent the last year of his college career at the obscure D-II University of West Alabama.note  Originally used mainly as a return specialist, Hill was shifted to a full-time receiver role after a breakout rookie season. The 5'10" player has made the Pro Bowl every season since and made the 2010s All-Decade Team as a punt returner. In 2022, he was traded to the Dolphins for a sizable haul of picks, becoming the highest-paid WR in the league.
  • Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch was an end for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s. The #5 overall pick in the 1945 Draft during his military service, Hirsch was meant to go to the Cleveland Rams but announced that he planned to go back to college after being discharged, thereby missing out on the Rams' Championship-winning season; instead, he led the College All-Star team to an upset victory over that same team in that year's College All-Star Game. Although the war ended in 1945, Hirsch wasn't discharged from the Marines until almost a year later; he changed his plans and signed with the AAFC's Chicago Rockets, only to leave in 1949 amidst a pay dispute and follow the Rams to L.A., where he'd play for the next nine years. He went to three Pro Bowls and put up great performances, especially in a 1951 season where he helped lead the Rams to another Championship while setting single-season receiving records that stood until the regular season was lengthened decades later. However, he was best known for doing all that while having a bizarre running style for someone whose literal job was to run. His legs twisted his feet outward as he ran in a manner contemporary press described as resembling a "whirlwind" or "demented duck". Hirsch never tried to "fix" the gait that gave him his nickname, partially because it made his routes difficult for defenses to read but mostly because "Anything's better than 'Elroy'." Playing in the Hollywood market proved beneficial for the handsome football player with a marketable name—Hirsch starred As Himself in a Crazylegs biopic about his college years and spun that into a movie career.note  After retiring from play, Hirsch served as GM for the Rams for a few years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2004.
  • Torry Holt was best known for his tenure with the St. Louis Rams from 1999-2008. Drafted #6 overall in 1999 out of NC State, he quickly inserted himself in the lineup and helped lead the Rams to their first Super Bowl win in his rookie season as part of the "Greatest Show on Turf". He put up 1,300+ receiving yards every season from 2000-05 (still the only player with such a streak), led the league in the category in 2000 and 2003, and became the fastest receiver to reach 10,000 career yards (since passed by Julio Jones). He was released by the Rams in 2009, having made seven Pro Bowls during his tenure. He played a subpar season with the Jaguars, struggled with injuries, and officially retired with the Rams in 2012; he has since been awaiting a call to Canton.
  • DeAndre Hopkins, aka "Nuk", is among the premier receivers of the '10s. Hopkins became a star for the Houston Texans after they drafted him #27 overall in 2013 out of Clemson; he was selected to four Pro Bowls and led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2017. Despite being one of the league's best players, Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in 2020 for a few middling draft picks and a running back, a widely-panned move that contributed to the Texans firing coach/GM Bill O'Brien early the next season when Hopkins remained extremely productive with the Cardinals and the Texans cratered. With the Cardinals, Hopkins negotiated a contract extension that briefly made him the highest-paid non-QB in league history and continued his Pro Bowl-caliber performance. In 2022, he was suspended for 6 games for using a PED.
  • Joe Horn had one of the more unique Cinderella stories in NFL history. After not playing a down of football for two years out of high school, Horn played at the tiny Itawamba Community College in Mississippi before sending tapes of himself working out to various teams. He lucked out and was signed to the short-lived Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL's failed American expansion in 1995. While his performance there got him a fifth round draft selection by the Chiefs, he mainly played special teams in Kansas City before signing with the New Orleans Saints in 2000. Horn had an unexpected breakout season, earning his first of four Pro Bowl selections in a year that coincided with the Saints' first-ever playoff victory. After a forgettable 2007 with the Falcons, he signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the Saints and was inducted into their franchise Hall of Fame. Despite his accomplishments, he may be best known for his 2003 TD celebration in which he pulled a cell phone from the padding around the goal post. It was one of several such celebrations in the league at the time which led to stricter rules and the NFL developing a reputation as the "No Fun League". Horn's son Jaycee Horn, a defensive back, was a 2021 first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers.
  • Billy Howton was, in terms of catches and yardage, the best receiver of the 1950s, but remains mostly anonymous due to playing almost his entire career for terrible teams that became dominant forces soon after he left. Drafted in the second round (#15 overall) by the Green Bay Packers in 1952 out of Rice, Howton often led the league in receiving yards and TDs. However, the Packers were generally terrible throughout this period, with Howton's stellar but often inconsequential play as a catcher their sole strong suit in an era where defenses had fewer limitations and ends were also required to block. After the Packers posted the franchise's only one-win season in 1958, new coach Vince Lombardi traded Howton to Cleveland in one of the first steps of his rebuild. Howton saw his sole winning season with the Browns, but it was a down year by their standards. He considered retirement (which would have also meant stepping down as the second president of the NFLPA) but was drawn back to football by the chance to play in his home state with the new Dallas Cowboys, where he was once again one of the few bright spots on a bad team. Howton retired in 1963 after breaking Don Hutson's career records for receptions and receiving yards that had stood for two decades; he has never even been named a finalist for the Hall of Fame.
  • Chuck Hughes was a relatively obscure receiver for the Eagles and Lions in the late '60s and early '70s but is notable as the only player in NFL history to die during a game. Drafted in the 4th round by the Eagles in 1967 out of Texas Western (now UTEP) where he still holds a number of school records, he played primarily special teams before his trade to the Lions in 1970. In a 1971 game against Chicago, Hughes was running back to the huddle after a play with 1:02 remaining in the game when he suddenly dropped to the ground clutching his chest. Medical staffs from both teams assisted him until an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital where was pronounced dead from coronary thrombosis. (The teams finished the game and only got news of his death after.)note 
  • Don Hutson was the Trope Maker for wide receivers, being credited with inventing the very concept as well as the fundamentals of the position (such as running pre-planned routes, most of which are still used today). He played for the Green Bay Packers from 1935-45 (leading them to three championships) and was decades ahead of his time, playing in an era where teams relied primarily on running backs and passes were usually only thrown out of desperation; the term "wide receiver" didn't even exist yet (he was called a "split end"). As such, the man was essentially a human cheat code, and it cannot be overstated how unprepared the league was for him. Initially thought too scrawny to play at the NFL level, he silenced all critics on the first play of his first game, in which he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass. He set dominant single-season and career records in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, some of which stood for nearly fifty years and might still stand had the league not lengthened the regular season.note  His era also had "single-platoon" teams (before players were assigned to offense, defense, or special teams), so he also played as a defensive end (intercepting 23 passes in his final four seasons) and placekicker (where he scored 193 points over his career). His 17 TDs in 1942 stood as the record for over forty years, and his record of scoring 29 points in a single quarter (four touchdowns, five extra-point kicks) might never be broken. His most unbreakable records, however, are his meta-season ones: most seasons leading the league in receiving touchdowns, catches, receiving yards, and points scorednote  and most consecutive seasons leading the league in those categoriesnote . These are all considered virtually unbreakable due to there being too much parity among modern wide receivers to lead the league more than a season or two (kicker Stephen Gostkowski currently ties his record of five seasons leading the league in scoring, but his were non-consecutive). The "Alabama Antelope" remains the only receiver to officially be named MVP, winning it in back-to-back seasons in 1941-42. His #14 is retired by the Packers, and he was a charter member of the Hall of Fame. Hutson passed away in 1997.note 
  • Michael Irvin was one of "The Triplets" of the '90s Dallas Cowboy dynasty with Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. The #11 overall draft pick out of Miami in 1988, "The Playmaker" was arguably the game's best wide receiver from 1991-96, putting up huge numbers with the run-heavy Cowboys. Irvin didn't have as great a reputation off-field. Besides his massive ego (which he could at least back up on the field), he struggled with a cocaine addiction that led to a five-game suspension in 1996, and he infamously once stabbed offensive lineman Everett McIver in the neck with a pair of scissors while fighting over a barber's chair at training camp. His career ended due to a horrific neck injury in Philadelphia in 1999 where, in a remarkable act of poor sportsmanship, Eagles fans booed as he was carted off the field. Despite his off-field issues, Irvin was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007. He currently serves as an analyst for NFL Network.
  • DeSean Jackson has been one of the NFL's most prominent deep threats since being drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008 out of Cal. Despite some troubles on and off the field,note  Jackson's blazing speed made him dangerous both as a receiver (where he has set the NFL career record for receiving TDs over 60 yards) and a returner (where he helped the Eagles achieve the "New Miracle at the Meadowlands" comeback in 2010 with the only game-winning punt return TD in NFL history), and he made three Pro Bowls in Philly. Since 2014, he has played for six different teams (including a second stint with the Eagles).
  • Justin Jefferson was drafted #22 overall in 2020 by the Minnesota Vikings. Fresh from a dominant performance at LSU that helped the school claim a national title, Jefferson continued to put up massive numbers, breaking the post-merger rookie receiving yards record. Said record would be broken the very next year by LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase, but Jefferson's performance only continued to improve; in his short career, he has already set a number of "fastest to" receiving records and led the league in receiving yards and receptions in 2022.
  • Andre Johnson played 14 seasons with the Houston Texans, who drafted him #3 overall in 2003 out of Miami. Johnson set almost all of the new franchise's standing receiving records, was selected to seven Pro Bowls, and twice led the league in receptions ('06, '08) and receiving yards ('08-'09). Johnson was traded away to the Colts in 2015. Following a short tenure with the Titans the following year, he retired after signing a ceremonial contract with the Texans.
  • Calvin Johnson was considered the top wide receiver of the late '00s and early '10s, with a freakish combination of size and speed that made him almost impossible to cover. Drafted #2 overall by the Detroit Lions out of Georgia Tech in 2007, Johnson was 6'5" and 238 lb, which is nearly as large as many tight ends and earned him the nickname "Megatron". However, Johnson also boasted a blistering 4.35-second 40-yard dash timenote , which, combined with his jumping ability and massive hands, made him a walking Unblockable Attack at times, able to routinely come down with receptions over two and sometimes even three defenders. Johnson regularly led the league in passing stats and set several records, and though critics noted that playing for the woeful Lions gave him more opportunities for receptions (since teams tend to pass more when they're trying to come from behind and run the ball more when they've got a lead), his talent was undeniable. During the Lions' winless 2008 season, he co-led the league in touchdowns. In 2012, he broke Jerry Rice's single-season record for receiving yards with one game left to go and fell just short of becoming the first to ever record 2,000 receiving yards in a season, ultimately landing at 1,964.note  The following year, he set the record for most receiving yards in a regular four-quarter game (329)note  and tied Lance Alworth's long-standing record for most 200+ yard receiving games. Johnson retired after 2015, despite only being 30 years old, ostensibly due to the immense punishment that his body absorbed throughout his career; he later admitted that, like Barry Sanders before him, he was just tired of suffering through said punishment for a Lions team that wasn't contending for the playoffs. Despite a shortened career, Johnson earned a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, making him the second-youngest Canton inductee ever behind only Gale Sayers.
  • Chad Johnson played ten years with the Cincinnati Bengals after being drafted in the second round out of Oregon State in 2001. Johnson was one of the most productive wide receivers of the '00s, setting most of the Bengals receiving records and leading the league in receiving yards in 2006. His impressive on-field talents were almost completely eclipsed by his ability to capture media attention. A classic "diva" receiver, Johnson showed a clear savvy for marketing his own brand, from his Motor Mouth barrage of one-liners that made him a fixture of Mic'd Up features, his extravagant touchdown celebrationsnote , his early adoption and use of Twitter, and, most famously, legally changing his name to Chad Ochocinco so the name on his jersey matched his #85. Ochocinco was traded to the Patriots in 2011, where his performance severely plummeted. He was released after that season, changed his name back to Johnson, and signed with the Dolphins, hoping for a career resurrection. Instead, Johnson was released during the preseason after he was arrested for a domestic battery charge against his wife of a single month; the meeting where head coach Joe Philbin informed Johnson of this release was infamously recorded for the HBO documentary series Hard Knocks. Johnson played another two years in the CFL and even played one game in a Mexican pro league in 2017 before hanging up his helmet. He was the cover player for NFL Street 3.
  • Keyshawn Johnson was the last wide receiver to be drafted as the #1 overall pick, going to the New York Jets in 1996 out of USC. While he had a solid 11-year career, being selected to three Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, Johnson's high draft selection is now looked back on as a pretty poor decision, as he was picked ahead of numerous Hall of Famers in one of the strongest receiver drafts ever, including Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. After retirement, Johnson moved into a career as an analyst and radio host.
  • Charlie Joiner is a Hall of Famer who played 18 seasons in the NFL, putting up a then-record for longevity at the receiver position, and was the last AFL player to retire. A fourth round pick out of HBCU Grambling State in 1969 by the Houston Oilers, his career had a slow start, going through Houston and Cincinnati without particularly standing out. The third team was the charm for Joiner, as he made his first Pro Bowl after joining the San Diego Chargers in 1976. The later hiring of Don Coryell fully unlocked Joiner's potential, as he became one of Dan Fouts' primary targets. Joiner retired after 1986, briefly holding the career record for receiving yards before being passed by Steve Largent. He spent the next several decades as an assistant coach before fully retiring in 2012.
  • Homer Jones was a 20th round pick by the New York Giants out of the HBCU Texas Southern in 1963. Jones soon broke out as one of the league's speediest players, led the NFL in TDs in 1967, and put up two Pro Bowl seasons prior to being traded to the Browns shortly before knee injuries ended his career in 1971. To this day, his 22.3 yards per catch remains the career record among eligible receivers. However, Jones' biggest impact on American football was his invention (or, at the very least, popularizing) of spiking the football into the ground as a touchdown celebration, a tradition that very much endures to this day.
  • Quintorris Lopez "Julio" Jones began his career with the Atlanta Falcons, who traded a massive haul of draft picks (including two 1st rounders) to the Browns in order to take him #6 overall out of Alabama in 2011, one of the largest trades for a non-QB prospect ever. The investment proved well worth it, as he broke out as one of the most productive receivers in NFL history. In 2015, Jones amassed 1,871 yards, the second highest single-season total in NFL history (behind only the aforementioned Calvin Johnson). He again led the league in 2018, currently holds the record for highest average receiving yards per game (91.9 as of 2022), and holds a plethora of "fastest to..." career milestone receiving statistics. Following changes in the Falcons front office and coaching staff and a down year due to injuries in 2020, Jones was traded to the Titans, likewise failed to return to his earlier performance, and is currently with the Buccaneers.
  • Cooper Kupp posted one of the greatest single-season performances in NFL history in 2021, particularly when his playoff output is factored in. Drafted in the third round in 2017 by the Los Angeles Rams out of Eastern Washington, where he had been a four-time FCS All-American, Kupp posted several solid showings in his first few years despite his seasons often being cut short by injury. In 2021, with the arrival of Matthew Stafford at QB, Kupp suddenly transformed into the Offensive Player of the Year. While he was unable to surpass fellow Stafford WR Calvin Johnson's regular season receiving yards record (see above) even with one extra game, he came very closenote , led the league in every major receiving category, and did surpass the NFL WR record for single-season yards-from-scrimmage (1,965). Additionally, while Johnson's record was somewhat a testament to the lack of other receiving talent on his team (which went just 4-12 that year), Kupp was part of a much better Rams squad that reached the playoffs. He truly exploded in the playoffs, coming behind only Larry Fitzgerald in single-postseason receiving yards, becoming the first receiver ever to amass more than 2,000 yards in a combined regular and postseasonnote , and winning Super Bowl MVP after securing the Rams' first Lombardi in Los Angeles.
  • Steve Largent was the Seattle Seahawks' first true superstar and the dominant receiver of his era. A fourth-round pick out of Tulsa in 1976 by the Oilers, Largent was quickly traded to the new Seahawks expansion team; he would play there for 13 years, during which he was selected to seven Pro Bowls and led the league in receiving yards twice. Largent was fairly small and not particularly fast, but he had incredibly sure hands and could read pass defenses with such supernatural accuracy that he gained the nickname "Yoda". He retired in 1989 with almost every career receiving record on the books, though other players came along only a few years later to break all of them. The Seahawks retired his #80, though Largent let Jerry Rice (the current holder of his former records) wear it when he played for the Seahawks in his final active year. After football, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, right in the middle of his first of four terms as a US Representative from Oklahoma. He retired from politics after narrowly losing the election for state governor in 2002.
  • Dante Lavelli, better known by his nickname "Gluefingers", was a Hall of Fame end for the Cleveland Browns. He only briefly saw playing time in college at Ohio State before a broken leg ended his season; the following year, he was drafted into the army to serve in WWII, where his division was involved in the D-Day invasions and the Battle of the Bulge. Upon returning to the States, Lavelli got an opportunity to try out for the Browns in the new AAFC; he made the cut, and his catching prowess made him a key part of the Browns' dominance of the AAFC and later the NFL. Late in his career, Lavelli became one of the founders of the NFLPA, with the union having its first meetings in his basement. He retired after 1956, remained active as a coach and scout for several more years, and died in 2009.
  • James Lofton was a Hall of Famer drafted #6 overall out of Stanford in 1978 by the Green Bay Packers. A track and field star in college, Lofton immediately broke out as one of the league's leading receivers. After the Packers traded him away in 1987, he continued to put up great numbers as a journeyman, playing with the Raiders, Bills (where he appeared in three Super Bowls and earned his eighth and final Pro Bowl selection), Rams, and Eagles before finally retiring after 1993 and entering into coaching. Lofton played 16 seasons and briefly held the career receiving yards record before being passed by Jerry Rice.

     M-Z 
  • Brandon Marshall was a well-travelled six-time Pro Bowler who began his career with the Denver Broncos, who drafted him in the 4th round in 2006 out of UCF. After becoming a starter in his second year, he put up 1,000+ receiving in 8 of 9 seasons while playing for the Broncos, Dolphins, Bears, and Jets, making him the first NFL player to have a 1,000+ yard season with four different teams. In a 2009 loss in Denver, he set the current record for most receptions in a game with 21, . In 2011, he announced that he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (which could explain some of the legal troubles that plagued his early career) and often wore green cleats to promote mental health awareness. He finished out his career with two unimpressive years with the Giants and Seahawks, retiring after 2018 as likely the most productive receiver to never reach the playoffs, and entered a career as an analyst. Not to be confused with a similarly-named linebacker who also played much of his career with the Broncos.
  • Don Maynard was the first player signed by the New York Titans/Jets and was the most prolific receiver of his era. A ninth round pick in 1957 out of Texas Westernnote  by the New York Giants, Maynard stayed in school for a year before joining the Giants in 1958. He washed out of the NFL after that season, though he did see action in the Giants' overtime loss to the Colts in the NFL championship game—the first of two pivotal games in NFL history in which he saw action. After playing in the CFL for a year, he was brought back to New York in 1960 by Sammy Baugh, who was serving as the first head coach of the AFL's New York Titans and had coached against Maynard in college. Maynard excelled in the more pass-friendly AFL, and his production reached new peaks when he became Joe Namath's favorite target, helping him to set numerous passing records and leading the AFL in receiving TDs in '65. Maynard was injured and served as a decoy in the second pivotal game in league history in which he played, the Jets' famous Super Bowl III upset of the Colts. Even still, he became the first receiver to pass 10,000 career receiving yards and held the record in yards and receptions for nearly two decades after his retirement in 1974 following short and forgettable stints with the Cardinals and the WFL. He was also known for disdaining chin straps, instead wearing a unique helmet that rested on his prominent cheekbones. Maynard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, his #13 was retired by the Jets, and he died in 2022.
  • Tommy McDonald was a Hall of Fame wideout during the '60s, drafted in the the third round in 1957 out of Oklahoma by the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite his miniscule frame at 5'9" and 176 lbs., he earned five straight Pro Bowls with the Eagles, leading the NFL in receiving yards once and receiving TDs twice, and won a championship in 1960. He was traded to the Cowboys in '64 and spent the rest of his career as a journeyman, earning his last Pro Bowl with the Rams in '65 before retiring in '68 after stints with the Falcons and Browns. Off the field, he was known to be an exceptionally fun and charismatic person, putting together one of the funniest Hall of Fame speeches in history, dancing to songs he played off a radio, tossing around his bust, and joking around with the audience. He died in 2018.
  • Wayne Millner was a two-way end drafted by Boston during the 8th round in 1936 out of Notre Dame. He was a key component in the team’s championship years when they moved to Washington, playing well as a receiver in addition to excelling as a blocker and tackler on both sides of the ball. His career statistics are unimpressive by modern standards, but he came up with big plays in crucial moments, most notably hauling in a then-postseason record 187 yards and 2 touchdowns during Washington's first championship win in 1937. After 1941, he was shipped off to the Navy during World War II, missing the next several seasons before returning for one last year in 1945. After his playing career, he spent the next decade as an assistant for several pro and college teams, even taking over as interim coach of the Eagles in 1951. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1968 and died from a heart attack in 1976.
  • Bobby Mitchell started his career as a HB and return specialist with the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him in the seventh round in 1958 out of Illinois. Paired with Jim Brown, Cleveland had dominant ground game with Mitchell as a runner. However, the team had a chance to potentially upgrade their offense when Washington drafted Ernie Davis (see above under "Running Backs") as the #1 pick in 1962. When Davis refused to become the first African-American player for the last NFL team to racially integrate, Washington traded him to Cleveland in exchange for Mitchell and another player, making Mitchell their first black player. Davis tragically died before ever playing for the Browns; Mitchell, who played as a flanker in Washington's system, broke out as a major star, leading the league in catches and receiving yards in his first year playing for the team that had traditionally represented the Jim Crow South, a tremendous symbolic victory for the Civil Rights Movement. Mitchell retired from playing after 1968 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he stayed employed by Washington in their front office for decades. When he retired in 2003, he expressed frustration for how many times he had been passed over for promotion, missing the chance to become the league's first black GM. After his death in 2020, which coincided with both the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and the organization's efforts to reform by changing their name and disowning their racist legacy, Washington finally retired his #49 (for decades an honor only held by Sammy Baugh).
  • Art Monk was a critical component of coach Joe Gibbs' three-time Super Bowl run with Washington. Drafted #18 overall out of Syracuse in 1980, Monk regularly ranked as one of the top receivers in the league - recording five 1,000-yard seasons and a then-record 106 catches in 1984 - and briefly held the record for most career receptions before being passed by Jerry Rice. He retired after 1995 following brief stints with the Jets and Eagles and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • Herman Moore was the star receiver of the Detroit Lions during their run of success in the 1990s. Drafted #10 overall in 1991 out of Virginia, Moore led the NFL in receptions twice during his 11 seasons with the team and is enshrined in the Pride of the Lions.
  • Stanley Morgan was one of the NFL's most renowned "deep threats", holding the career record for yards per catch (19.2) among receivers with over 500 catches. Drafted #25 overall in 1977 out of Tennessee by the New England Patriots, Morgan led the league in receiving TDs in '79, earned four Pro Bowl selections, played in Super Bowl XX, and became the Pats' franchise leader in receiving yards before he retired after spending 1990 with the Colts. Despite this individual success, Morgan has never garnered serious Hall of Fame consideration due to playing on mostly mediocre teams during his tenure.
  • Johnny Morris is the Bears’ all-time leader in receiving yards, despite last taking a snap in 1967. They drafted him in the 12th round in 1958 out of UC Santa Barbara,note  originally playing as a running back and earning a Pro Bowl in 1960 before switching to wide receiver. He put up solid, if unspectacular numbers for a few years before having a massive ‘64 season when he led the NFL in all major receiving categories and earned the lone All-Pro of his career. That same year, he became a sportscaster for CBS, starting a near-three decade career in broadcasting for the Bears, during which time he popularized the use of the telestrator during broadcasts. He retired from broadcasting in 1991.
  • Randy Moss was a well-traveled wide receiver considered one of the greatest to play the position, having held the distinction of being the top target for the two then-highest scoring teams of all time (the 1998 Vikings and the 2007 Patriots). He is second only to Jerry Rice in receiving touchdowns, making him perhaps the most successful receiver to never win a Super Bowl. A first round pick by the Minnesota Vikings out of Marshall in 1998, Moss immediately broke out, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year after not only breaking the rookie receiving TD record but leading the entire league in that category. His incredible athleticism earned widespread acclaim; even years after his retirement, a DB who surrenders a catch despite fully covering their opponent is still referred to as being "Mossed". He likewise became a tremendous star off the field and was featured on the covers of the first three NFL 2K video games. However, Moss was also well known as a loose cannon; the Vikings were only able to draft him at all due to legal issues causing his draft stock to slide, and in Minnesota alone he openly admitted to coasting during games, tested positive for marijuana, hit a traffic cop with his car, and fake mooned the fans in Green Bay after scoring a touchdownnote , which contributed to him being traded away to Oakland in 2005. After a mostly disappointing stint in the Bay Area, Moss's personality mellowed somewhat when he joined the New England Patriots in 2007. His play did not—Moss became a crucial part of the Pats' 16-0 season, and caught a season record of 23 touchdowns. In 2010, he was part of a bizarre rollercoaster of trades/releases/signings that saw him traded back to Minnesota... for all of one month, after which he was waived and picked up by the Titans. He retired before the next season began, only to unretire a little over a year later to play his final season for the 49ers in 2012, once again reaching the Super Bowl only to fall just short of grabbing a ring. He was voted into the Hall of Fame at his first chance in 2018, joining Largent and Rice as the only modern-era WRs to be inducted in their first year of eligibility, and has moved into a career as an analyst.
  • Muhsin Muhammad II was one of the first stars of the Carolina Panthers, who took him in the second round in 1996 out of Michigan State (where he played under Nick Saban). He led the league in receptions in 2000, then led it in reciving yards and TDs in '04, making two Pro Bowls and being named an All-Pro. During that span, he paired with Steve Smith (see below) to give the Panthers one of the more dominant WR duos in the league. He was part of their Super Bowl XXXVIII team in a losing effort, but did set a Super Bowl record with an 85-yard reception. Despite a dominant '04 season, he was not retained by the Panthers and moved on to the Chicago Bears as a free agent. He was the leading receiver on their Super Bowl XLI team but again lost in the big game. After three years with the Bears, he returned to the Panthers, briefly becoming their all-time leading receiver (since surpassed by Smith) and surpassing 10,000 career receiving yards, beforing retiring after 2009. His son, Muhsin III, is currently a WR at Texas A&M.
  • Terrell Owens sits in the top five for most of the all-time receiving stats but is most known for defining the "diva" receiver archetype for the 21st century with his elaborate touchdown celebrations and often egotistical attitude. "T.O." was drafted in the third round in 1998 out of FCS Chattanooga by the San Francisco 49ers and played there for eight seasons before bouncing around to four other teams (the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, the Buffalo Bills, and the Cincinnati Bengals). With every team, his personal behavior often overshadowed his immense talent, as he alienated just about every quarterback that played with him by openly discussing interpersonal conflict or criticism with the press: In San Francisco, he questioned Jeff Garcia's sexuality; in Philly, he feuded with Donovan McNabb, blaming him for the team's loss in Super Bowl XXXIX (in which Owens put up a great performance on a still-broken leg);note  in Dallas, he accused Tony Romo of conspiring to keep him out of the offense—and Romo was the first QB who actually tolerated his antics! He didn't do too much damage in Buffalo, but that's mostly because he was gone after one year, and had a solid final season in Cincy before he was cut due to injury at the end of 2010 and had stints in some smaller leagues. He was passed over for Canton in his first two years on the ballot, seemingly just for how many feathers he ruffled during his playing career, but got in alongside Moss in 2018 following significant fan and media outcry. In classic T.O. fashion, he refused to attend the induction ceremony and opted to host his own. He has remained in solid shape in retirement; as of 2022, at 48-years-old, he's still catching footballs in the Fan Controlled Football indoor league.
  • Drew Pearson played for the Dallas Cowboys his entire career. Going undrafted out of Tulsa in 1973, he was originally a special teams player until injuries promoted him to the number one option. He was named to three Pro Bowls in his career and had two 1,000+ yard seasons but was most known for his clutch gene and postseason heroics; he helped the Cowboys reach three Super Bowls (winning Super Bowl XII) with multiple touchdowns in the final minutes of playoff games, including being the recipient of the first Hail Mary pass. He was forced to retire before the 1984 season due to a liver injury sustained in a car crash that also killed his brother. Although he was a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team, his abbreviated career kept him from Hall of Fame consideration until he was finally inducted in 2021. While his #88 was not retired by the Cowboys, it is typically reserved for the team's top receiver, being won by names like Michael Irvin, Dez Bryant, and Ceedee Lamb.
  • Pete Pihos was a Hall of Fame two-way end for the Philadelphia Eagles during their dominant run in the late '40s. A star out of Indiana, Pihos was picked in the fifth round in 1945—he would have gone much higher had he not been serving in World War II for the past year, where he earned multiple medals for battlefield bravery and a Field Promotion to second lieutenant. When Pihos did start playing for the Eagles in 1947, he immediately elevated their offense and helped bring them to Championship appearances in his first three seasons, winning the latter two. He regularly led the league in receiving stats and made the Pro Bowl every year after it started in 1950. Pihos retired in 1955 and died in 2011 after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
  • Art Powell started his career as a DB at San Jose State, drafted in the 11th round in 1959 by the Eagles. He played effectively as a return specialist but was released the following preseason, after which he joined the upstart AFL's New York Titans. Now playing WR, he took advantage of the AFL's more open passing rules to lead the league in receiving yards and TDs once each. The Titans' financial woes led to him leaving for the Oakland Raiders in '63, where he led the AFL in receiving yards and TDs again while earning the first of four straight Pro Bowls. Following brief stints with the Bills and Vikings, Powell retired in '68 as the AFL's third all-time leading receiver but has received little attention for HOF induction. He died in 2015.
  • Ahmad Rashād was drafted #4 overall in 1972 by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Oregon, where he turned out to be a bit of a bust for the organization; he was traded to Buffalo after two seasons, where injuries led him to bounce around several teams before landing with the Minnesota Vikings in 1976. He finally lived up to his draft potential in Minnesota, earning four Pro Bowl selections and being the recipient of the memorable "Miracle at the Met" game-winning catch. Rashād retired after 1982 and entered into a prolific career as a TV host and broadcaster (mainly for the NBA rather than his own pro sport). Outside of the sports and broadcasting world, he was married from 1985 to 2001 to Phylicia Ayers-Allen, best known as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Shownote  and from 2007-13 was married to Sale Johnson, ex-wife of Johnson & Johnson heir and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.
  • Andre Reed was a star receiver of the Buffalo Bills in the franchise's peak in the late '80s and '90s. Drafted in the fourth round in 1985 out of D-II Kutztown, Reed played for the Bills for 15 seasons and earned seven Pro Bowl nods while contributing to their dominant offense that brought the team to four straight Super Bowl appearances (including catching three TDs in their 35-point comeback against the Oilers in the 1992 Wild Card round). He retired after a single forgettable season in Washington in 2000. Reed wasn't inducted into Canton until 2014.
  • Pete Retzlaff started his career as a 22nd round pick out of South Dakota State. He was cut by his original team, served two years in the Army, landed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1956, and set almost every team receiving record over the following decade (only a few of which have since been passed). The five-time Pro Bowler also served a stint as NFLPA president, later served as the Eagles GM, and had his #44 retired by the franchise.
  • Jerry Rice is the current all-time leader in receiving yards, all-purpose yardsnote , catches, and touchdowns, and the only wide receiver to score over 1,000 points in his career—basically, if there's a record held by a receiver, chances are he holds it. He most famously played for the San Francisco 49ers during their dominant years, serving as the main target for Joe Montana and Steve Young. After the Niners drafted him #16 overall out of HBCU Mississippi Valley State in 1985,note  he became the franchise's all-time leading scorer (again, the only receiver with such a distinction), won three Super Bowl rings (including one Super Bowl MVP), led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns in six seasons (notably setting multiple single-season receiving records in 1995 that lasted for well over a decade), and won Offensive Player of the Year twice ('87, '93). Rice left for Oakland in 2001, where he put up one more Pro Bowl-worthy season, and spent a final year in Seattle. He was going to try to play for Denver in 2005 but was not guaranteed a spot among the top three receivers, so he retired instead at the age of 42. Rice ultimately played for 20 years, making him the only NFL receiver to play over the age of 40, let alone have a 1,000+ yard season and play in a Super Bowl at that age; because he was rarely injured, he held the record for most games played by a position player for more than a decade after his retirementnote . He was selected to 13 Pro Bowls (the most ever for a wide receiver), had his #80 retired by the Niners, and, unsurprisingly, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.note  Rice is among the most common non-quarterback candidates for the "Greatest of All Time" title, with many arguing he deserves it full-stop due to the dominance of his records and the sheer athleticism required to play the position so well for so long. NFL.com placed him at #1 on their list of 100 greatest NFL players.
  • Andre Rison was a long-tenured journeyman whose on-field success through the '90s and various tabloid-friendly issues made him one of the archetypes of the "diva" receiver. Drafted #22 overall by the Colts in 1989 out of Michigan State, he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons after his rookie season. "Bad Moon" Rison's production exploded in Atlanta, where he earned four Pro Bowl nods and led the league in receiving touchdowns in '93. His residence in Atlanta also brought him into a long-term relationship with Lisa Left Eye Lopes of TLC; their relationship was highly volatile, and Rison's name made national headlines when Lopes was charged with first-degree arson in 1994 after she burned down their house while attempting to set fire to his shoes. This may have contributed to Rison leaving town the next year, though drama continued to follow him to Cleveland (feuded with fans upset about the team's impending move to Baltimore), Jacksonville (was cut mid-season after feuding with the QB), Green Bay (bounced back and contributed to their Super Bowl XXXI victory), Kansas City (actually stuck around for a few years, earned a final Pro Bowl nod, and attempted to rehab his image by leaning into a "Spider-Man" nickname), and Oakland. He retired after 2000, only to return to play in the CFL in 2004-05, earning a Grey Cup win before hanging up the cleats.
  • Kyle Rote was the #1 overall pick of the 1951 Draft out of SMU, where he was a Heisman runner-up as a halfback. Rote went to the New York Giants, where he played for eleven seasons mainly as a receiver. He was selected to four Pro Bowls, was a key part of their 1956 Championship win and three subsequent appearances, and retired in 1961 with most of the franchise's receiving records (all since broken). Rote was arguably more famous for his work off the field. He spearheaded the players' labor movement, becoming the first president of the NFLPA. After his retirement, like teammate Frank Gifford, he became a successful broadcaster and was paired with Curt Gowdy as commentator for three early Super Bowls on NBC. Rote passed away in 2002.
  • Sterling Sharpe was drafted #7 overall out of South Carolina in 1988 by the Green Bay Packers. He became a favorite receiving target for QB Don Majkowski and later Brett Favre, quickly proving to be the best receiver on the roster and one of the best in the league. In seven years, he made five Pro Bowls, led the league in receiving TDs twice and receptions thrice (breaking several then-records in the latter category), and broke the Packers' franchise records for career receptions and receiving yards (although most of these were later broken by Donald Driver). Unfortunately, seven years was all he got; his career was cut short by a severe neck injury in 1994 that revealed an underlying condition which made returning to play impossible. Sharpe's brother, tight end Shannon Sharpe (see below), has credited Sterling with helping him become the player he was, called him the best player in his family, and even gave Sterling his first Super Bowl ring (which, ironically, he won by defeating the Packers) since he never won one himself.
  • Del Shofner played DB at Baylor when he was drafted #11 overall by the Los Angeles Rams in 1957. After one season on defense, the Rams moved him to split end on offense to replace Elroy Hirsch, a decision that made an immediate impact when he immediately led the NFL in receiving yards and was a Pro Bowler in consecutive seasons before a leg injury caused his production to drop significantly in 1960. Believing that he had lost a step, the Rams traded him to the New York Giants, where he paired up with QB Y.A. Tittle and returned to his All-Pro form, posting three straight 1,000-yard seasons (the first Giant to even post one) and helping the Giants appear in the NFL Championship game each year. His play declined again afterwards, and he retired in 1967. Despite all of the success he had, earning five All-Pros and a spot on the '60s All-Decade team, he remains one of the more puzzling exclusions from the Hall of Fame, having never even been a finalist for induction. He died in 2020.
  • Jimmy Smith was drafted in the 2nd round in 1992 out of the HBCU Jackson State by the Dallas Cowboys. He won two Super Bowls with the team, initially playing mainly in special teams and buried deep in the depth chart. However, he missed all of the 1993 season after the Cowboys' coaches and doctors failed to properly diagnose and treat his appendicitis, resulting in multiple surgeries, a near-fatal infection, an ileostomy, and the Cowboys trying to cut his pay and insurance. He was let go after refusing to take a pay cut and sat out the 1994 season before getting a tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995. With the Jaguars, he became a dominant force on the field, as he became their #1 receiver over the next decade and helped them become a perennial playoff contender in the late '90s and early 2000s. Eventually, lingering medical issues and legal troubles started to creep up, including a four game substance abuse suspension in 2003. He retired in 2006 as the Jaguars all-time leader in receptions, receiving touchdowns, and yards. However, his legal troubles continued to follow him long after his career was over, including a stint in prison in 2013.
  • Rod Smith was, by many statistical metrics, the most successful undrafted wide receiver in NFL history. The Missouri Southern product set multiple records in his D-II conference, which was enough to get him a spot on the Denver Broncos roster in 1994. He made his way to a starting role by his third season and became a central part of the offense that brought Denver back-to-back Super Bowl victories. By the time of his retirement after 2007, the three-time Pro Bowler had become the Broncos' franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and likewise led all undrafted players in league history in those categories (only since passed in receptions by fellow Bronco Wes Welker). He is enshrined in the Broncos Ring of Honor.
  • Steve Smith Sr. played from 2001-16, most notably for the Carolina Panthers, who drafted him in the third round out of Utah. While his numbers themselves were impressive (he currently ranks 8th all-time in receiving yards and 9th in all-purpose yardage), Smith is perhaps best known for putting them up despite standing only 5'9" in an era where many top receivers are 6' to 6'4" and sometimes even taller. He was nonetheless extremely strong and physical for his size, often taking on larger defenders in collisions and winning, not to mention very fast. A well-known trash talker, he was infamous in his younger days for having a Hair-Trigger Temper and often got into trouble for fighting with his own teammates in practices. After he lost almost all of the 2004 season to a broken leg, Smith won Comeback Player of the Year in 2005 after earning the receiving "triple crown" of leading the NFL in receptions, yards, and TDs. He mellowed out in his 30s... a bit. After his release in 2014 by the Panthers, who were undergoing a youth movement, Smith played three more years for the Baltimore Ravens.note  His retirement letter sent to the commissioner read thus: "Dear Commissioner Goodell: This is to notify you that as of today, I, Steve Smith Sr., will no longer be antagonizing defensive backs." He currently serves as an analyst on the NFL Network.
  • Mac Speedie was an end for the early Cleveland Browns and a key part of their dominance of the AAFC and NFL. A struggle with Perthes disease (a disorder where the head of the femur dies, causing hip deformity) in his youth left Speedie with a unique shambling gait that made him particularly difficult for defenders to read, helping him to excel at route running. After a college career at Utah, Speedie was drafted in the fifteenth round by the Lions in 1942 but played for an Army team through WWII. After the end of his service, he signed with the new Browns of the AAFC, leading the league in receptions in all four of its seasons and in receiving yards in two of them and playing a critical role in their string of championships; his career average of over 800 receiving yards a season was not matched for decades. However, he also had an acrimonious relationship with coach Paul Brown due in part to his sense of humor.note  Their relationship soured even more after Speedie jumped his contract with the Browns to play for more money in Canada in 1953, where he continued to play well in the twilight of his career before suffering a Career-Ending Injury in 1955. He then entered into coaching, putting up a less-than-stellar record as head coach of the Denver Broncos in the early '60s. Despite his numbers matching or exceeding most of his peers (including fellow Browns end Dante Lavelli, see above) who made it into the Hall of Fame, Speedie was not inducted into Canton until 2020 with the Hall's Centennial Class, well after his death in 1993; many, including Browns QB Otto Graham, posited that this was because Paul Brown, known for holding a grudge, saw to it personally that he wasn't honored during either of their lifetimes.
  • Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were both drafted in 1974 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. They never put up the same kind of numbers that some other dominant receivers of the era did (as being on the same team interfered with their individual stats to an extent), but they were integral parts of the '70s Steelers' Super Bowl dynasty. Swann, the #21 overall pick out of USC, played one of the best games of his career during Super Bowl X, becoming the first wide receiver to be named the Big Game's MVP. Stallworth, a fourth-round pick out of the much smaller HBCU Alabama A&M, may be best known for his even more dominant performance in Super Bowl XIV. Despite his smaller draft stock, his career lasted five years longer than Swann's, and he won Comeback Player of the Year in 1984 after putting up his best numbers without Swann's competition for targets. Both made the Hall of Fame, Stallworth one year after Swann. After football, Swann entered politics and ran for Pennsylvania governor in 2006, and Stallworth became a minority owner of his former team.
  • Charley Taylor was picked #3 overall out of Arizona State in 1964 by Washington. Originally a dependable RB, he was switched to WR in 1966 and led the league in receptions in 1966-67. During his career, he made eight Pro Bowls and briefly became the record holder for career receptions in 1975 before retiring two years later. After his retirement, he was named a scout for the team and became its WR coach in 1981, helping Washington win three Super Bowls. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984 and retired from coaching in 1993, ending a 30-year tenure with Washington. He passed away in 2022.
  • Hugh "Bones" Taylor was originally an All-American basketball player at Tulane before serving in the Navy during World War II. He was discharged in 1946, he played a year of college football at Oklahoma City, and went undrafted in 1947. The lanky 6'4" end was then signed by Washington, where he put up 212 receiving yards and 4 TDs in his first pro game, setting records for most receiving yards in both a season openernote  and a rookie debutnote . He immediately became one of Sammy Baugh's favorite targets, appearing in two Pro Bowls and setting many of the team's receiving records before retiring in 1954. He spent a decade as an assistant coach, most notably serving as the Houston Oilers HC in 1965. He died in 1992.
  • Lionel Taylor was a record-shattering receiver in the early AFL, leading the league in receptions for five of its first six seasons and becoming the first pro player to amass 100 catches in a single season. After going undrafted out of the tiny New Mexico Highlands in 1959, Taylor played a single year with the Bears as a linebacker before going to the new AFL's Denver Broncos and switching to his preferred role as a receiver. Unfortunately, for all his individual success, the Broncos were generally abysmal during Taylor's career, and after a decline in performance in 1966, he left for the Oilers for two more seasons before retiring and entering a lengthy assistant coaching career. He was an inaugural member of the Broncos Ring of Honor.
  • Michael Thomas was picked in the second round out of Ohio State in 2016 by the New Orleans Saints and got off to arguably the greatest career start of anyone at his position. While he had a solid rookie season, he truly emerged in his second, becoming a regular Pro Bowl selection and receptions leader. In 2019, Thomas led the league in receiving yards, set a new league record for receptions in a season (149), and was named Offensive Player of the Year.note  While he took a major step back after an ankle injury and some locker room drama knocked him out of half of 2020 and all of 2021, Thomas has the all-time record for receptions through his first four seasons and earned the nickname "Can't Guard Mike" for his skill at contested catches.
  • Gaynell Tinsley was an end drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in the second-round out of LSU in 1937 and serves as a case of What Could Have Been had he remained healthy. He made an immediate impact, leading the league in receiving yards in his rookie year (aided largely by a then-record 97-yard catch) and led the league the league in receptions the following year, tying Don Hutson's record from two seasons prior and breaking his record for longest reception with then-record 98-yard TD catch (still the longest in Cardinals history), achieving all this while coaching Louisiana College. After taking the 1939 season off to coach high school football and play minor league baseball, he returned to the Cards in 1940, but his career was cut short by a torn ligament. At the time of his retirement, he ranked fourth in career receptions and was named a member of the 1930s All-Decade team despite only playing three seasons. He returned to the collegiate ranks, serving as HC of his alma mater from 1948-54 and was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1956 before passing away in 2002.
  • Jaylen Waddle was drafted #6 overall in 2021 by the Miami Dolphins, reuniting him with college QB Tua Tagovailoa from Alabama. While his production in college had been somewhat limited by injuries, Waddle quickly broke out as a star in Miami, setting a rookie record for receptions (104). However, he is perhaps most notable for his TD celebration, a penguin waddle through the end zone that quickly became popular with Miami fans.
  • Hines Ward played with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 14 seasons. A third-round pick out of Georgia in 1998, Ward was selected to four Pro Bowls, won Super Bowl MVP after their victory in XL, and set many receiving records for the teamnote . He did all this while missing an ACL in his left knee; he lost it in a childhood bicycle accident, and it wasn't discovered until he left college. He was also, somewhat unusually for the position, a widely feared blocker; his propensity for blind-side hits, including one infamous (but legal) block that broke rookie LB Keith Rivers' jaw and ended his season, led to the league passing a rule to make such blocks illegal. The son of a Korean mother and an African-American father, Ward is one of the most accomplished Asian-American players in the history of the sport and has been an active advocate both for opening the sport up to players of Asian descent, who currently comprise fewer than 2% of active players, and for increased social acceptance of foreign and multiracial youth in Korea. Non-football fans may better recognize him for winning Season 12 of Dancing with the Stars and successfully outrunning the exploding football field in his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises. He entered coaching after retiring from play and is currently slated to be a head coach in XFL's San Antonio Brahmas.
  • Paul Warfield was a Hall of Famer and eight-time Pro Bowler. An Ohio native who attended Ohio State and was drafted #11 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 1964, Warfield helped the Browns win an NFL Championship and appear in two more during his first six seasons. Warfield then became part of one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history when the Browns, fresh off two consecutive Championship appearances and seeking a new quarterback that would get them back on top, traded their home-state hero star receiver to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a first round pick. The Browns picked QB Mike Phipps, who turned out to be a bust, and the team ultimately paid for this foolish decision by never appearing in a championship game again. Warfield, meanwhile, got to play for the Dolphins during their perfect season and win two Super Bowls. Warfield eventually left the NFL with a few other Dolphins players in pursuit of a promised higher salary with the World Football League, only for that organization to fold almost immediately, and spent the last few years of his pro career back with the Browns before retiring in 1977.
  • Gene Washington was a star receiver of the early '70s in a number of respects. Drafted #16 overall in 1969 by the San Francisco 49ers out of nearby Stanford, Washington hit the ground running, earning Pro Bowl nods in his first four seasons, leading the league in receiving yards in his second year, and leading in receiving TDs in his fourth. His performance played a major role in breaking the Niners' 12-year playoff drought and making them serious contenders. Taking advantage of his relative proximity to Hollywood, Washington built off of his on-field fame to launch a simultaneous acting career, starring in The Black Six and appearing in several other TV shows and Blaxploitation movies. His on-field production began to decline around the same time, but he remained a capable player until retiring after 1977; he returned for one more season with the Lions in 1969. Washington would later serve as the NFL's director of football operations from 1994 to 2009. Fun fact: Two years before Washington entered the league, the Vikings drafted a first round receiver also named Gene Washington; the two both made the Pro Bowl in 1969-70.
  • Wes Welker was a five-time Pro Bowler who defined the modern "shifty, undersized slot receiver" role. Listed at 5'9" and 185 lbs and running a sub-par 4.65 40-yard dash at the Combine, Welker went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2004 despite a highly productive college career. He caught on with the Miami Dolphins, where he initially stood out as a return specialist before earning a role on offense. In 2007, entering the final year of his rookie contract, the New England Patriots traded a 2nd round pick to Miami for Welker.note  Welker broke out with the Patriots, leading the league in receptions three times over the next five seasons, though the Pats fell short in each of their Super Bowl appearances with Welker on the roster. He moved on to the Denver Broncos in 2013, joining fellow free agent acquisition Peyton Manning as the team put up a record-setting offensive performance, though once again lost in the Super Bowl. In the years since Welker's rise to dominance, a number of "Welker Clone" style slot receivers started getting opportunities throughout the league, including his successor in that role with the Patriots in Julian Edelman (see above)note . He retired as a player in 2015 after a single weak year with the Rams and subsequently moved into coaching; he leads all undrafted players in career receptions and holds multiple franchise records in both Miami and New England.
  • Billy Wilson was a dominant receiver of the 1950s, playing his whole career with the San Francisco 49ers after they drafted him in the second round out of San Jose State in 1950. Over his decade-long career, Wilson earned six Pro Bowl nods and led the league in receptions thrice, finishing his career second in all-time catches and at least in the top ten in most other receiving stats. He has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and passed away in 2009.

Tight Ends

     Tight Ends 
  • Dave Casper (nicknamed "The Ghost" by his teammates) doesn't quite have the numbers you'd expect from a star tight end in today's passing league, but he permanently etched his name into NFL lore due to his involvement in a number of key plays with the '70s Oakland Raiders. An OT at Notre Dame before the Raiders drafted him in the second round in 1974, Casper was moved from special teams to the starting TE position in 1976 and had a breakout season as both a fearsome blocker and the team's leading receiver, helping take Oakland to their first Super Bowl victory. In subsequent years, Casper became known as the featured player in the famed "Ghost to the Post" pass from Ken Stabler in the 1977 Divisional Playoff game and also recovered the infamous "Holy Roller" fumble for a touchdown the following year. Casper retired with the (now Los Angeles) Raiders in 1984 after brief stints with the Oilers and Vikings. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
  • Todd Christensen was drafted in 1978 in the 2nd round by the Dallas Cowboys out of BYU, where he was originally a fullback. He was injured in the preseason, missed all of his rookie year, and was cut after he didn't want to become a tight end. He was signed by the Giants in 1979, only played a single game before being waived, and then signed with the Oakland Raiders, at first playing mainly on special teams as a long snapper before he finally agreed to play TE. He put up unspectacular numbers in his first three seasons at the position before breaking out in 1982 and becoming one of the NFL's most dominant receiving TEs, leading the league in receptions twice. (His 95 catches in 1986 stood as the record for most catches by a tight end until 1994, when it was broken by Ben Coates.) He was named to 5 straight Pro Bowls from 1983-87 and won two Super Bowls with the Raiders. He retired after an injury-riddled 1988. Off the field, he was known as another Raider eccentric; the son of a college professor, he would often play up the expectations of him being a Dumb Jock by peppering his speech with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness and allusions to poetry, only to joke that he didn't understand anything he just said. After his playing career, he became a broadcaster for various networks before passing away from complications during liver transplant surgery in 2013.
  • Ben Coates was an out-of-nowhere prospect drafted by the New England Patriots in the 5th round in 1991 out of HBCU Livingstone. His first two years were largely unspectacular, but he broke out in his third year with the arrival of Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells. From 1993-98, he had over 50 catches a season, including a record-breaking 1994 campaign that saw him catch 96 passes (since broken by Tony Gonzalez) and helped New England make Super Bowl XXXI. After a disappointing 1999 campaign, the five-time Pro Bowler played one last year in Baltimore, picking up a ring from Super Bowl XXXV. He was inducted to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • Vernon Davis was a greatly hyped workout prospect out of Maryland when he was drafted #6 overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006. While initially perceived as somewhat of a diva (being the target of Mike Singletary's infamous "cannot win with them" post-game tirade), Davis was a key part of the Niners' recovery from their 2000s struggles, co-leading the NFL in receiving TDs in 2009 and being the recipient of the game-winning "Catch III" in the 2011-12 playoffs. After over a decade in S.F., Davis was traded during the 2015 season to Denver (where he picked up a Super Bowl ring primarily as a blocker) and spent a few more seasons in Washington before retiring after 2019.
  • Mike Ditka, while most famous for his run as head coach of the Chicago Bears (detailed here), had an all-time-great career as a tight end in the '60s and early '70s. Drafted #5 overall in 1961 by the Bears out of Pittsburgh, he burst onto the scene by setting multiple NFL rookie TE records that still stand to this day, including receiving yards (1,076), TD receptions (12), and yards per reception (19.2), and being named Rookie of the Year. He started every game in his six seasons with the Bears, earning the nickname "Iron Mike", and won a pre-merger NFL title in 1963. However, he could not agree to new contract with owner George Halas following 1966 and instead signed a deal with the Oilers, who held his AFL rights after they drafted him #8 overall.note  He was traded to the Eagles just days before the AFL/NFL merger became official. Injuries plagued Ditka in Philly, and he was traded after two seasons to the Dallas Cowboys, where he spent the final four seasons of his career primarily as a backup, though he started every game in his final season in which the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl (VI). Overall, Ditka was named to five Pro Bowls, was named All-Pro six times, had his #89 retired by the Bears, was named to the NFL's 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary Teams, and became the first tight end to enter the Hall of Fame.
  • Antonio Gates spent his entire career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers and was one of the most dominant TEs ever. He is also notable as one of the few NFL players (let alone stars) who never played college football; he was an undersized power forward for a Kent State basketball team that made an NCAA regional final in 2002, and was signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2003. He was released by the Chargers in 2018, as they had drafted his presumptive successor, wasn't picked up by another team, and appeared ready to slip quietly into retirement to wait for his inevitable Hall of Fame nomination. Then said successor—and said successor's backup—suffered season-ending injuries in training camp, prompting the Chargers to call the 38-year-old Gates back up for One Last Job. He didn't catch on with another team in 2019 and after that season made his retirement official, signing a ceremonial contract to retire as a Charger. Gates made the Pro Bowl eight times and was named All-Pro five times. He and Tony Gonzalez (see below) were the tight ends on the NFL All-Decade Team for the 2000s; Gates broke Gonzalez' record for the most career touchdown catches by a TE. Gates had the longest NFL career of any player who never played college football.note 
  • Tony Gonzalez is the current holder of all the tight end receiving records except for career TDs (Gates), as well as the first TE to amass over 1,000 receptions. Gonzalez played college basketball at Cal, and his talent in that sport translated to him revolutionizing the tight end's role as a pass catcher. He spent twelve years with the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him #13 overall in 1997, and ended his career with five more seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, retiring after 2013. He was voted to 14 Pro Bowls, the most ever for a tight end and tied for second-most for a player at any position, and missed only two games in his 17 seasons, bringing him one game short of Jason Witten for most regular season games played by a TE. Despite his immense talent, he also only won a single playoff game, having to wait until his penultimate season to do so, and never played in a Super Bowl. He has worked mainly as an analyst for several major TV networks since his retirement (currently with Prime Video) while occasionally dabbling in acting. He was inducted into Canton in his first year of eligibility.
  • Jimmy Graham initially made his name with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him in the third round in 2010. Yet another former college basketball player, Graham played four years of basketball at Miami before playing football for one year.note  He led the NFL in most major receiving categories early in 2013, earning him an Offensive Player of the Month award, the first TE in the history of that award (dating back to 1986) to win it. He was the center of a controversy during the 2014 offseason after the Saints applied the "franchise tag"note  to him as a tight end. Graham, whose athleticism allows him to play split out wide as a wide receiver quite often, argued that he should get the wide receiver franchise tag instead, a difference of about $5 million. This was despite Graham being drafted as a tight end, listed on the roster as a tight end, accepting a Pro Bowl invitation as a tight end, and having tight end in his Twitter handle. The case went to court where the judge ruled in favor of the NFL. (The Saints struck a deal with Graham later in offseason anyway, making it a moot point other than for precedent.) Following a trade the next season, Graham has played for Seattle, Green Bay, and Chicago.
  • Rob Gronkowski, also known simply as "Gronk", played for the New England Patriots for nine seasons and was one-half of the "Boston TE Party" before Aaron Hernandez was released. A second-round pick in 2010 out of Arizona, Gronkowski is considered by many to be the greatest tight end of all time; he holds many of the per game/per season records for the position, is the only TE to lead the league in receiving touchdowns in a single season, and is the only TE to be featured on a Madden NFL cover. Known for his unusual size—6'6" and around 250 lbsnote —he could go up for passes that other players can't get their hands on, block elite defensive ends, and shrug off tackles. A forearm injury in 2013 led him to don a bulky arm brace for several seasons; already considered The Lancer (or The Dragon) to Tom Brady, this cyborg-like appearance led many to compare the massive Gronk to Darth Vader (and helped him win Comeback Player of the Year in 2014). His retirement in 2019 to deal with his injuries and mental healthnote  ensured that he wouldn't claim many of the career TE records he was on track to shatter, but that retirement proved temporary, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a deal with the Pats for his rights in 2020, reuniting him with Brady on the way to a fourth Super Bowl win before re-retiring after 2021. Off-field, Gronk was known for his hard-partying ways. He is the second-youngest of the five Gronkowski brothers (Gordie Jr., Dan, Chris, and Glenn), all of which played football in college and had brief careers in the NFL. He also dabbled in professional wrestling during his first retirement, appearing at WrestleMania 36 and coming away with the WWE 24/7 Championship.
  • Leon Hart was a massive college star who set multiple records as a Heisman-winning end at Notre Dame in the late '40s, where he won three championships. The Detroit Lions drafted him with the #1 overall pick in 1950, and while the term "tight" end wasn't then in use for ends who played next to the other linemen and were equally skilled at blocking and catching (since that was generally the expectation), he was the first end to be chosen with the first overall pick and is sometimes considered the only tight end with that honor.note  Hart made up for this investment, as he played a key role in helping the Lions also win three championships (still their last). While his receiving stats hardly compare to today's standards, he primarily served as a blocker on both sides of the ball, a role he excelled at: he was the last player to be named All-Pro on both offense and defense. Hart retired after his last championship in 1957 and died in 2002.
  • Steve Jordan was the most successful TE in Minnesota Vikings history. Drafted in the seventh round in 1982 out of Brown, Jordan set many still-standing TE records for the franchise and earned six Pro Bowl nods before his retirement after 1994 and was later inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor. His son Cameron would later go on to great success with the Saints as a DE.
  • Travis Kelce has played for the Kansas City Chiefs since 2013, when they drafted him in the third round out of Cincinnati, and has emerged as one of greatest to ever play the position.note  The younger brother of Eagles center Jason Kelce (who he faced off against in Super Bowl LVII; see below), Travis shares his elder sibling's Boisterous Bruiser personality, and has backed up his confident swagger with excellent receiving ability, eight straight Pro Bowl appearances, and six consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons, the latter a record for his position. Kelce has been the number one target for Patrick Mahomes since his NFL emergence, with his receiving ability serving as a critical part of the Chiefs' dominance in the AFC and victory in Super Bowl LIV. In 2020, Kelce set the single-season record for receiving yards by a TE, and he has set a number of "fastest to" marks that set him on a current pace to compete for many career TE records- and that's despite playing one snap in his first season due to injury.
  • George Kittle plays for the San Francisco 49ers, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2017 out of Iowa. Known for his prolific skill, Cavalier Competitor attitude, Motor Mouth banter, and unique sense of humor, Kittle set the TE record for single season receiving yards on an otherwise floundering Niners team in 2018 (since passed by Travis Kelce), and he was critical to their turnaround run to a Super Bowl appearance the following year. In 2020, he signed the largest contract for a tight end in NFL history, though he has struggled with injuries ever since.
  • John Mackey played for the Baltimore Colts from 1963-71. In college at Syracuse, he took #88 for his jersey after he was told he had the potential to be "twice as good" as a fellow Syracuse alum, #44 Jim Brown. Knee injuries ended his career after ten seasons, but he was still selected to five Pro Bowls, caught a critical record-setting pass in Super Bowl V, and became the second tight end to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Mackey was the president of the NFLPA immediately after the NFL-AFL merger and led player strikes and lawsuits that provided increased benefits for players, most notably expanding player's opportunities to pursue free agency. The NFLPA repaid Mackey later in his life. When he began to exhibit signs of dementia in his sixties, likely due to the effects of CTE, the union and the NFL responded with "the #88 rule", which provides financial aid for former players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. Mackey died in 2011.
  • Greg Olsen was a late first round pick for the Chicago Bears out of Miami (FL) in 2007 but established himself as one of the best tight ends of the 2010s after being traded to the Carolina Panthers in 2011. He earned three straight Pro Bowl nods from 2014-16 while becoming the first NFL TE to notch three straight 1,000-yard seasons and serving as a key offensive weapon on the Panthers' 2015 Super Bowl run. Olsen retired after spending 2020 in Seattle, signing a ceremonial contract with Carolina. He went straight into broadcasting, immediately finding success as a color commentator and being elevated to FOX's #1 broadcast team after his first year in the booth following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.
  • Marcus Pollard was best known for his time with the Indianapolis Colts where he served as one of early-career Peyton Manning's favorite targets after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1995. While the aforementioned Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Jimmy Graham are more famous for it, Pollard is the Trope Maker for converted basketball players making the jump to become NFL tight ends. Pollard played power forward for the tiny Bradley in Illinois, a school which last played football in 1970, more than a year before he was born. After a few years in Detroit, Seattle, and Atlanta, Pollard retired in 2008 and currently works in the front office of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also was a competitor on The Amazing Race.
  • Charlie Sanders was a star tight end for the Detroit Lions, who drafted him in the third round in 1968 out of Minnesota. By modern standards for receiving TEs, his career was fairly pedestrian, never amassing more than 750 yards in a season during his ten-year career. By the standards of his day, however, this dependable blocker that also provided a receiving threat was a star for a franchise that was otherwise largely in decline; he was named to seven Pro Bowls and even inducted into the Hall of Fame, a testament to how much the position has evolved.
  • Shannon Sharpe was a Hall of Famer who spent most of his career with the Denver Broncos, who drafted him in the seventh round in 1990 after a solid career at the D-II HBCU Savannah State, and was one of their greatest weapons during their two Super Bowl years. He joined the Ravens for a two-year stint, where he won another Super Bowl ring, before returning to Denver for another two seasons before retiring with the records for TE receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns (all since surpassed by Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten). He was also very well-known for his trash talking and on-field antics. Following his retirement, he joined CBS Sports as an analyst for nearly a decade. As of 2016, he joined Skip Bayless on the Fox Sports 1 "hot take" show, Undisputed. He is the younger brother of WR Sterling Sharpe (see entry under Wide Receivers).
  • Jeremy Shockey was drafted #14 overall by the New York Giants in 2002 out of Miami, where he was the leading pass catcher for their 2001 BCS National Championship winning team. Shockey exploded onto the NFL scene, racking up 894 yards, the most by a rookie TE since the mergernote  and was a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year. His distinctive look (long blonde hair and numerous arm tattoos) coupled with his performance (four Pro Bowls in his first five seasons) made him a fan favorite and landed him on the cover of NFL Street 2. However, he was also very brash and vocal with the media, making homophobic comments and often openly criticizing teammates and coaches (especially head coach Tom Coughlin). Late in 2007, he suffered a season-ending broken fibula and was not on the field for the Giants' upset victory over the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Shockey held out of minicamp the following offseason while seeking a trade, with the Giants ultimately shipping him to New Orleans. He continued to play well when healthy, being part of the team's Super Bowl XLIV victory, but battled injuries before being released in 2011. Shockey was linked to the Saints "Bountygate" scandal with it rumored that he was the source who leaked the team's bounty system to the media, with Warren Sapp (then employed by NFL Network) outright stating that he was the "snitch" on Twitter; Shockey denies the allegation. He spent one final season in Carolina before retiring.
  • Jackie Smith was drafted in the tenth round in 1963 out of the obscure Northwestern Louisiana State (now just Northwestern State, an FCS school) by the St. Louis Cardinals. He was one of the most notable tight ends of his era despite playing for a generally poor team for 15 years, setting a position record for career receiving yards that stood for over a decade. However, he is likely most famous for one of his final plays; after retiring in 1977, Tom Landry convinced Smith to return to the Dallas Cowboys for one last season. The old veteran finally got to play for a successful franchise and was a key part of the team's #1 offense in 1978 that took them to Super Bowl XIII, his first championship appearance. Unfortunately, Smith dropped a potential touchdown pass in the Cowboys' eventual loss in the Big Game that could have made the difference in its outcome, something that hung over his head for years; many believe that his induction in the Hall of Fame in 1994 was overdue and delayed just from the results of this one play.note 
  • Jerry Smith played 13 seasons in Washington after being picked in the ninth round out of Arizona State in 1965. He was one of the premier tight ends of his era, was selected to two Pro Bowls, and set a record for most touchdowns by a TE that stood for over two decades. He was also one of the most prominent gay players in the league's history, though his sexual orientation was something he kept private up until his death from AIDS in 1986. Many analysts and former teammates have argued that Smith would be in the Hall of Fame were it not for a would-be touchdown pass in Super Bowl VII that bounced off the crossbar barely a year before the goalposts were moved behind the end zone, which would have helped Washington tie and potentially beat the undefeated Dolphins; others have argued that he should be in the Hall already for his achievements and that he has only been excluded because of his early death and his sexuality.note 
  • Kellen Winslow Sr. was an acclaimed player for the '80s San Diego Chargers. Drafted #13 overall in 1979 out of Missouri, he helped to pioneer the "joker" archetype for the position; able to act as a wide receiver just as well as he could block or run drag routes, he led the league in receptions in two consecutive seasons. Winslow is perhaps most famous for his performance in the "Epic in Miami", one of the greatest games in NFL history. He played through multiple injuries in scorching heat, not only catching 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown but also blocking a potential game-winning field goal by his fingertips, sending the game into overtime and allowing the Chargers to win. A knee injury greatly shortened his productivity and career to just nine seasons, but he retired holding several TE records and was still inducted into Canton. Unfortunately, Winslow is likely better known by modern NFL fans for the criminal behavior of his son, Kellen Winslow II.
  • Jason Witten is best known for being the Dallas Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. The Cowboys drafted Witten in the third round out of Tennessee in 2003, and he became a franchise mainstay. Witten trails only Tony Gonzalez in career receptions and receiving yards by a TE in NFL history, set a record for most catches by a TE in a season (since surpassed by the Eagles' Zach Ertz), and currently holds the record for most consecutive starts at the position. He broke that streak when he initially retired after 2017 and was thrust immediately into the Monday Night Football booth by ESPN, who were looking to replicate the success CBS was having with Witten's former Cowboys teammate, Tony Romo. After drawing near-unanimous negative reviews as a commentator (with most criticism calling him dull and humdrum), Witten left ESPN and returned to the Cowboys for 2019, then the Raiders in 2020. He signed a ceremonial contract in 2021 to retire as a Cowboy, this time for good.

Offensive Linemen

     A-L 
  • Ki Aldrich was a center/linebacker and the #1 overall pick in 1939, going to the Chicago Cardinals out of TCU. Aldrich is best known as the first lineman (and still the only center) to be drafted with the top pick; he was also the first #1 pick to not be a tremendous bust. He played well on both sides of the ball, though never well enough to overcome the Cards' misfortunes; his prospects picked up when he was traded to Washington, where he was reunited with former college teammate Sammy Baugh and helped the team win a championship in 1942, right before he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He returned to football in 1945, retired in 1947, and died in 1983.
  • Larry Allen was a massive guard best known for his time with the Dallas Cowboys. A fantastic run blocker drafted in the second round in 1994 out of D-II Sonoma State, Allen paved the way for some of Emmitt Smith's greatest seasons and helped the Cowboys secure their third Super Bowl win in the '90s. He was renowned for his strength, with an official bench press of over 700 lbs and a squat of over 900. He made 11 Pro Bowls over 14 seasons and is one of the few players to be named to multiple All-Decade teams (1990s and 2000s). He's also famous for a play in his 1994 rookie season where he made a touchdown-saving tackle on Saints LB Darion Conner following an interception (keeping in mind that linemen aren't exactly known for their speed). After finishing his career with two seasons with the 49ers, Allen retired after 2007 and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
  • Matt Birk was a center who most famously played for the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted him in the sixth round out of Harvard in 1998. After two seasons as a backup, Birk started every game from 2000-03, missed the last four games in 2004 and all of 2005 due to injuries, and then never missed a game for the rest of his career. He made the Pro Bowl six times, all with the Vikings. In 2009, he signed with the Ravens and retired following 2012 after winning Super Bowl XLVII.
  • Tony Boselli was an OT and the first draft pick in Jacksonville Jaguars history, being selected #2 overall out of USC in 1995. Boselli immediately proved a good choice, breaking out as one of the league's best offensive linemen, earning five Pro Bowl selections and being a key part of the Jags' early run of success, including two AFC Championship Game appearances. Injuries led to his production declining by the turn of the century, and the Jags let him go in 2002 as the first pick of the Houston Texans' expansion draft; he sat on injured reserve the full season and retired after its end. Despite a short 91-game career, Boselli still remains the most accomplished player in the struggling Jaguars' history, he was the first player from the franchise to be selected for the Hall of Fame, making the cut in 2022, and is the only Jaguar to have his number (#71) retired.
  • Bob Brown was a Hall of Fame OT drafted #2 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964 out of Nebraska.note  A massive player at 6'4" and nearly 300 lbs, he was nicknamed "The Boomer" for beating up on opposing defenders and being nigh impossible to get past on the line. He spent 10 years in the NFL with the Eagles, Rams, and Raiders, earning eight All-Pro selections and appearing on the '60s All-Decade team before retiring in '73.
  • Lomas Brown was an OT best known for his tenure with the Detroit Lions, who drafted him #6 overall in 1985 out of Florida. During his time in Detroit, he made seven Pro Bowls from 1990-96, started 163 of 164 games, and was a major piece in the Lions rushing attack led by Barry Sanders. He proceeded to become a journeyman the remainder of his career, eventually winning a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers after 2002 before ending his 18-year career. Years after his retirement, he drew heavy criticism when he claimed to have intentionally missed a block in an attempt to get struggling starting QB Scott Mitchell injured during the '94 season. If true, it worked, as Mitchell injured a hand and the Lions made the playoffs under backup QB Dave Krieg. (Mitchell himself believes that Brown lied to increase his standing at ESPN.)
  • Ray Brown was a G/T for five teams over a 20-year career and holds the distinction of being the oldest non-QB, non-specialist to play in an NFL game at age 43 in his final season. Originally an 8th round pick out of Arkansas State by the Cardinals in 1986, where he was primarily a backup, he would later become a starter for Washington during their early-'90s success. Though he missed their Super Bowl XXVI win due to an elbow injury that took him out the whole season, he became a regular starter at guard over the next four seasons before moving onto the 49ers as a free agent. He made his only career Pro Bowl there in 2001 before finishing his career with Detroit and a second stint in Washington. He moved into coaching after his playing career.
  • Roosevelt "Rosey" Brown was an OT for the New York Giants during the '50s and early '60s. Brown was one of the most famous "draft steals" in NFL history: he was drafted in the twenty-seventh round in 1953 as the #321 overall pick out of the HBCU Morgan State, yet only missed four games in his 13 seasons with the Giants, was selected to nine Pro Bowls, and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1975. He continued to work with the Giants as a coach and scout after he retired from play, ultimately working over fifty years for the team before passing away in 2004.
  • Jim Covert was a Hall of Fame OT drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1983 out of Pittsburgh. "Jimbo" was the main cog behind the Bears' dominant rushing attack of the '80s, was named to two Pro Bowls, and helped the team lead the league in rushing for four straight years from '83-'86 and win Super Bowl XX. He retired in 1991 after having back surgery.
  • Lou Creekmur was a Hall of Fame lineman for the Detroit Lions. He was drafted by the Eagles in the 26th round in 1948 out of William & Mary when he was available but it was publicly known he was going to play two more years of college to make up for his military service. The Lions acquired him in 1950, starting a streak of nine seasons where he never missed a game, earned eight Pro Bowl nods, and served as a cornerstone of the team's three-time champion dynasty. He passed away in 2009.
  • Dermontti Dawson was a Hall of Fame center (and long snapper) drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round in 1988 out of Kentucky. While known as a friendly figure off the field, he was one of the most dominant forces ever to play the center position on it, earning the nickname "Dirt" for the number of players he drove into it. After collecting seven Pro Bowl nods, he retired after 2000.
  • Joe DeLamielleure was a six-time Pro-Bowl guard drafted by the Buffalo Bills #26 overall in 1973 out of Michigan State. "Joe D" made an immediate impact as part of the Bills' "Electric Company" o-line that helped O.J. Simpson became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards en route to winning the MVP. He was traded to the Browns in 1980, where he once again made an immediate impact by blocking for his second MVP in Brian Sipe, becoming the first player to have blocked for both a 2,000+ yard rusher and a 4,000+ yard passer. After spending 1985 back with the Bills, he retired and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.
  • Dan Dierdorf was an OT drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round in 1971 out of Michigan. He became a full-time starter by his second season and quickly became renowned as one of the league's best offensive lineman, earning five straight Pro Bowls from 1974-78 and being named the NFL's Offensive Lineman of the Year three straight years from 1976-78, anchoring a line that gave up the fewest sacks all three years. A knee injury forced him to sit out most of 1979 before he returned in 1980, earning one more Pro Bowl before retiring in 1983 to move into a lengthy broadcasting career that included twelve years and three Super Bowls as a commentator paired with Al Michaels. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1996 for his playing career and later given its Radio-Television Award for his broadcasting work in 2008.
  • Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a guard currently playing for the New York Jets, is one of the more interesting figures in today's NFL. The Montreal-area native didn't even play football until he was 14, and stayed in his hometown to enter McGill University's medical school straight out of CEGEP.note  While practicing only once a week due to his medical studies, he was All-Canadian in his final two seasons of football at McGill, and was named the top lineman in Canadian university football in his last. Duvernay-Tardif went to the Kansas City Chiefs in the sixth round in 2014 and became a starter in 2015, while continuing his medical studies during offseasons until receiving his M.D. in 2018. (He does not plan to start a residency until retiring from football.) During the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, he returned to Montreal to work as an orderly in a care home, and became the first player to opt out of the 2020 season, choosing to stay at home as a front-line worker during the pandemic. His decision was recognized at the end of that year by Sports Illustrated when it named him as one of five "Activist Athletes" who shared its annual award for Sportsperson of the Year, and also by media on his side of the border when he shared the Lou Marsh Trophy for Canada's top athlete with rising soccer superstar Alphonso Davies.
  • Albert "Turk" Edwards was a Hall of Fame two-way lineman (most frequently an OT) who signed with the expansion Boston Braves out of Washington State in 1932. Edwards was a star player and helped the team win their 1937 championship after their move to Washington, but he is likely best known for how his playing career ended: After calling the pre-game coin toss in a 1940 game, he pivoted back to his sideline, but his cleats caught in the grass and his knee gave out. Not only is Edwards the only player known to have been injured during the coin toss, it turned out to be a Career-Ending Injury. He stayed on with the team's staff, even serving as their head coach from 1946-48 before retiring from football after his first winning season. He passed away in 1974 after a long illness.
  • Gover "Ox" Emerson was one of the NFL's top linemen during the '30s, signing with the Portsmouth Spartans (now Detroit Lions) out of Texas in 1931. The five time All-Pro paved the way for one of the league's top rushing attacks, led by Hall of Fame QB Dutch Clark, appearing in the league's first playoff game and winning a championship in 1935. Their 1936 team set the single season record for rushing yards with 2,885, a record that stood until it was broken by the undefeated Miami Dolphins in '72. Emerson retired in 1938 after spending a year as a player-coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers and went into a lengthy career as a college coach before passing away in 1998. Despite being a unanimous All-Pro throughout his career, he has regularly been overlooked for Hall of Fame consideration.
  • Alan Faneca was an offensive guard most famous for his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him #26 overall in 1998 out of LSU. Faneca was diagnosed with epilepsy in his youth, which nearly ended his football career in high school, but went on to become one of the most dominant linemen of his era. He was named All-Pro eight times, made nine Pro Bowls, was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, and was a starter for the Steelers' Super Bowl XL win. After short stints with the Jets and Cardinals, he retired after 2010 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021. In support of former players, especially linemen, who struggle with weight-related health issues in retirement, Faneca famously lost over 100 pounds and began running marathons to raise awareness.
  • Dan Fortmann was an offensive and defensive guard for the Chicago Bears. Fortmann was his high school valedictorian and a straight-A pre-med student at Colgate when he was drafted in 1936 at the age of 19, the youngest ever draftee at the time. Fortmann played few games in his first four seasons because he was going to medical school at the University of Chicago, something Bears' owner-coach George Halas helped pay for on the condition that he would eventually return to play for the team. Fortmann saw football as a means to an end, but he appreciated Halas' trust in his abilities so much that, when he finished his classes, he led the Bears to three championships in his remaining four years of play. This short burst of incredible productivity was enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame's third class. After retiring from football and serving in WWII, he became the team physician for the L.A. Rams before becoming Chief of Staff at an L.A. hospital and died in 1995 after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
  • Frank "Gunner" Gatski was a Hall of Fame center for the original Cleveland Browns. The son of a West Virginia coal miner whose college stints at Marshall and Auburn were split by his military service in WWII, the 25-year-old Gatski went undrafted in 1946 but became the rock of the Cleveland teams that dominated the AAFC and NFL. Gatski was so dependable and durable that he was often the only center Paul Brown kept on the roster. He won seven championships with the Browns and an eighth in his final season with the Lions in 1957. He died in 2005.
  • Forrest Gregg was a Hall of Fame OT who played for 16 years and was a key component in Vince Lombardi's '60s Packers team. He played a then-record 188 consecutive games, and Lombardi once called him "the finest player I ever coached." After being selected to nine Pro Bowls and winning three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls with the Packers, Gregg won one more Super Bowl with the Cowboys in his final playing year, making him one of four players to win six NFL championships. He subsequently went into coaching, with stints as HC with the Cleveland Browns (1975-77, winning Coach of the Year in his second season) and Cincinnati Bengals (1980-83, where he coached the team to a Super Bowl in 1981 and put up what is still the best win percentage in franchise history) before he returned to Green Bay to replace former teammate Bart Starr as coach. Like Starr, Gregg failed to revive the Packers to the heights they had reached with him as a player and soon left the NFL to coach at his alma mater, SMU, the year after the NCAA gave their football program the infamous "death penalty" (making him the first Super Bowl HC to have a losing career record). He died of complications of Parkinson's in 2019.
  • Russ Grimm was a Hall of Fame lineman for the '80s Washington dynasty and the recognized leader of their "Hogs" offensive line. A third round pick out of Pittsburgh in 1981, Grimm was an adaptable player who could play every position on the line (most often going at guard). His unit helped Washington win three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks by setting up a powerful ground game, and he earned four Pro Bowl selections. He retired in 1991 after battling injuries for several years and went straight into coaching and served as a successful o-line coach for several teams, including winning another ring in Pittsburgh.note  He retired from coaching after 2017.
  • John Hannah was a left guard for the New England Patriots for 13 seasons. Drafted #4 overall in 1973 out of Alabama, Hannah became the franchise's first great player—he went to nine Pro Bowls, was the first inductee in the team's Hall of Fame, had his #73 retired by the Pats, and was inducted into Canton in 1999.
  • Mel Hein was an offensive and defensive center and linebacker who played for the New York Giants in the '30s and '40s. Nicknamed "Old Indestructible", Hein played for 15 seasons, a long time for a lineman in the modern game and a near eternity for that era, while dealing and receiving hits for all sixty minutes of every game. He won two NFL Championships and appeared in five more with the Giants. Hein was the first recipient of the Joe F. Carr Trophy, the NFL's first MVP award, a truly remarkable feat considering he is still the only center ever to receive such an honor. Hein was part of the Hall of Fame's charter class and had his #7 retired by the Giants. He died of stomach cancer in 1992.
  • Pete Henry was an offensive/defensive tackle (and sometimes player-coach) who played for the Canton Bulldogs, New York Giants, and Pottsville Maroons in the 1920s. A Lightning Bruiser renowned for his size and speed, Henry was one of the league's first star players. He died at in 1952 at age 54 of gangrene-induced sepsis and was posthumously enshrined in the Hall of Fame's charter class.
  • Gene Hickerson was a guard for the Cleveland Browns. Drafted in the seventh round in 1957 out of Ole Miss, he played a major role in the success of the Browns' string of dominant rushers (Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, and Leroy Kelly) over his 15-year career in Cleveland. Hickerson's accomplishments went mostly overlooked until the year before his death in 2008, when the Hall of Fame finally inducted him; Brown, Mitchell, and Kelly memorably pushed Hickerson, terminally ill with Alzheimer's disease, in his wheelchair onto the stage so he could lead them one last time.
  • Winston Hill was a dominant OT for the New York Jets, who drafted him in the eleventh round in 1963 out of HBCU Texas Southern. Hill was one of the AFL's best o-linemen, playing both the right and left side of the line, and a key contributor to the Jets' sole championship title. He claimed eight All-Star/Pro Bowl nods before he retired after spending 1977 with the Rams. He died in 2016 and was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020.
  • Chris Hinton was an exceptionally gifted OT in his 13-year career, sealing him a spot in the Indianapolis Colts' Ring of Honor. However, his career is best remembered for the circumstances by which he joined the Colts; after being drafted fourth overall out of Northwestern in 1983 by the Broncos, Hinton was immediately traded to secure John Elway. Hinton was traded again for a #1 overall QB in 1990, going to the Falcons in exchange for the pick that the Colts used on Jeff George. He put up the last of his seven Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta and retired after a stint with the Falcons.
  • Cal Hubbard was a offensive and defensive center who played for the New York Giants (1927-28, '36) and Green Bay Packers (1929-33, '35). Though many "all-time" lists place him as an OT and Curly Lambeau placed him on the line in most games, Hubbard also helped to pioneer the linebacker position in college at Centenary and Geneva Colleges. In his second year of pro play, Hubbard began umpiring for minor league baseball games, earning him the nickname "the Big Umpire". When he retired from football, he immediately moved into officiating MLB games, where he brought the football mindset of set positions to baseball by creating a system that gave specific duties to different officials, laying the foundation for the modern MLB's system. As a result, Hubbard is the only person to be in both the Baseball and Pro Football Hall of Fame—he was part of the latter's charter class. Hubbard died from cancer in 1977.
  • Kent Hull was the center for the Buffalo Bills early '90s dynasty, landing with the team after first going undrafted out of Mississippi State and playing for the USFL's New Jersey Generals. After helping pave the way for Herschel Walker's record-shattering USFL performances, Hull landed in Buffalo and was a key part of their K-Gun offense, blocking for Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas and helping the team reach four straight Super Bowls. The three-time Pro Bowler retired after 1996 and died in in 2011 from liver disease; the Bills have him in their Wall of Honor.
  • Steve Hutchinson is considered one of the greatest guards to have ever played the game, making seven Pro Bowls, earning five first-team All-Pro nods, and was named a member of the 2000s All-Decade team. Drafted #17 overall out of Michigan by the Seattle Seahawks in 2001, he paired with fellow Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones (see below) to give Seattle one of the league's best offensive lines during the early '00s and paved the way for Shaun Alexander's run of dominance, culminating with the team's first Super Bowl appearance after 2005. The following offseason, Hutchinson was part of one of the most controversial and bizarre free agent deals in NFL history when the Minnesota Vikings used a "Poison Pill" provision to force the Seahawks to release him from the transition tag.note  Due to the controversy surrounding the signings, the NFL banned the future use of such provisions. Hutchinson retired after spending 2012 with the Titans and entered the Hall of Fame in 2020.
  • Tunch Ilkin was a tackle who became the first Turkish-born player in the NFL. Drafted in the 6th round in 1980 out of Indiana State by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he made two Pro Bowls in 1988-89 and retired after playing 1993 with the Packers. He moved on to call Steelers games locally until 2020, when he was forced to retire. He died in 2021 after a battle with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) and is set to be inducted into the Steelers Hall of Honor.
  • Bob Johnson was the Cincinnati Bengals' first ever draft pick and, at #2 overall, the highest drafted center of the Super Bowl era. The Tennessee product played for the team from 1968-79 and was the last member of the original Bengals roster to retire; the Bengals' retired his #54.
  • Stan Jones was a Hall of Famer for the Chicago Bears during the '50s and '60s. Initially a tackle at Maryland, he was considerably undersized in school at 6'1" and under 200 lbs and began regular weight training to help improve his physicality and conditioning, one of the first players to do so. By the time he was drafted in the fifth round by the Bears in 1953, he had significantly improved his weight to nearly 250 lbs and was switched to guard in 1955, where he made the first of seven straight Pro Bowls. Towards the end of his career, he started playing both ways before moving fully to DT in 1963, the same year the Bears won the NFL Championship. He played his final year with Washington in 1966, after which he spent the next few decades as a defensive assistant and strength and conditioning coach across the NFL. He died in 2010.
  • Walter Jones is widely regarded as one of the best left tackles to ever play the game. A Hall of Famer, he was drafted #6 overall out of Florida State by the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 and played there for 11 years. He was selected for the Pro Bowl nine times, was only called for holding nine times in his career, and was a major contributor to the dominant o-line performance that led Shaun Alexander to dominance as a running back. The team retired his #71 after his retirement in 2009.
  • Jason Kelce is the starting center for the Philadelphia Eagles, drafted in the sixth round (#191 overall) in 2011 out of Cincinnati, where his younger brother Travis (in the "Tight Ends" folder) was one of his teammates for two seasons. Jason has been starting center ever since, despite lacking "true NFL size", making him the lineman equivalent of a Pint-Size Powerhouse at roughly 6'2½"/190cm. He has been instrumental in solidifying the Eagles' offensive line during several playoff runs and is a five-time Pro Bowler/first-team All-Pro. In the locker room, he's particularly known for his penchant for fiery, impassioned (sometimes impromptu) speeches. Non-teammates best remember him for his performance in the Eagles' Super Bowl parade, where he spent the length of the event gallivanting up and down the parade route dressed in bright and colorful mummer regalia, singing and dancing, before delivering a blistering, profanity laden speech at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even a local brewery took notice, crafting an IPA using his name and parade likeness, with his blessingnote . He returned to the Super Bowl five years later, where he faced off against his brother.
  • Mike Kenn, the 13th overall draft pick in 1978 out of Michigan, spent his entire 17-year NFL career as a tackle for the Atlanta Falcons. Like his linemate, center Jeff van Note (see below), he combined excellence with durability - missing only ten of a possible 261 non-strike games and starting in every game he played - and was selected for the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons (1980-84) and named first-team All-Pro thrice despite playing for mostly forgettable Falcons teams that reached the playoffs only four times. Large for his time at 6'7" and about 275 pounds, Kenn demonstrated both great strength and skill as a pass protector; he played the entire 1980 season without committing a penalty and anchored an o-line that allowed just 31 sacks in 1991, fewest in club history. Also like Van Note, Kenn served as president of the NFLPA from 1989-96. However, Kenn has not won induction to the Hall of Fame as of 2022, likely held back by the mediocrity of the Falcons during his career.
  • Walt Kiesling was a two-way lineman for several teamsnote  during the late ‘20s and ‘30s. One of the largest players of his era, he matched his intimidating size with a strong knowledge of the game and surprising speed. He played 13 years in the NFL, earning three All-Pros during this time, before he finished his playing career in 1938. Towards the end of his career, he also served as a line coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates (they renamed themselves the Steelers in 1940), a position he held for the next two decades (aside from a four year stint in Green Bay), even serving as head coach on a few occasions, albeit to very middling success. He stepped away from coaching in 1957 due to his declining health, ultimately passing away in 1962. He was posthumously inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1966.
  • Frank "Bruiser" Kinard was a two-way tackle drafted by the Dodgers in the third round of 1938 out of Ole Miss. Despite his short size for a lineman (6’1”, 195 lbs.), his quickness and mobility made him a fearsome blocker on offense and a bruising tackler on defense. He played seven years in Brooklyn, starting in all but 2 games and being named All-Pro every year before enlisting in the Navy after the 1944 season. After he was discharged a year later, he signed with the New York Yankees of the AAFC, where he earned his last All-Pro before retiring in 1947. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1971 and died in 1985 from Alzheimer’s complications.
  • Jerry Kramer was an offensive guard and placekicker for the '60s Green Bay Packers dynasty. Drafted in the fourth round out of Idaho in 1958, Kramer was a Farm Boy whose childhood was marked with enough injuries to make him a certified Cosmic Plaything. These include a) being Impaled with Extreme Prejudice by a giant wood shard that barely missed his spine and left splinters inside his body, and b) having his shotgun explode while hunting, badly mangling his right hand and forearm, causing lasting nerve damage, and adding some buckshot to the mix in his organs as well. Kramer managed to play through near-constant pain and frequent injuries and surgeries with little complaint and was a core part of the Packers' five championship wins. He retired after 11 seasons and three Pro Bowl selections and was commonly held up as one of the biggest snubs from Hall of Fame induction, being named a finalist ten times before finally making it in 2018 at age 82.
  • Bob Kuechenberg was a guard who spent 14 years with the Miami Dolphins, helping them to four Super Bowl appearances and back-to-back victories in 1973-74. Initially a 1969 fourth round draft pick by the Eagles out of Notre Dame, he failed to even make the team and signed with Miami as a free agent the following year. Once there, he won six Pro Bowl nods while serving as a key part of offenses as diverse as Miami's running attack of the early 1970s and the passing game led by a young Dan Marino, whose first season in 1983 was Kuechenberg's last. Kuechenberg, who died in 2019, has been a frequent finalist for Hall of Fame consideration but has not been selected as of 2022.
  • Larry Little and Jim Langer were a pair of undrafted players who both wound up in the Hall of Fame after serving on the Miami Dolphins' line in the 1970s. Little began his career in 1967 by signing as an undrafted free agent out of Bethune-Cookman by the Chargers. The guard was traded to Miami in 1969, where Langer joined him at center after being signed out of South Dakota State. The two were key contributors to the team's bruising running attack, helping the Dolphins win two Super Bowls (including their undefeated season) and going to five and six Pro Bowls respectively. Little retired in 1980; his brother, David, was a LB for the Steelers from 1981-92. Langer was cut from the Dolphins in '79 but played two more years in Minnesota; he died in 2019.
  • Al Lolotai was a guard who only spent a single season in the NFL but is notable for being the first player of Polynesian descent to play in the league. Undrafted out of Weber Junior College (now Weber State) in 1945, the Samoan-born Lolotai signed with Washington, a team otherwise entirely segregated under notoriously racist owner George Preston Marshall. He then signed with the Los Angeles Dons of the more racially diverse AAFC and spent four seasons there playing both offense and defense.

     M-Z 
  • Tom Mack was a Hall of Fame o-lineman for the Los Angeles Rams from 1966 (when they drafted him #2 overall out of Michigan) to 1978. In that span, he never missed a game, putting up 184 straight starts and being named to 11 Pro Bowls.
  • Bruce Matthews was an o-lineman for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, which drafted him #9 overall out of USC in 1983. He is widely regarded as one of the best in history, as his record streak of 14 consecutive Pro Bowls (tied for second all-time) will attest. He was incredibly durable, playing 244 consecutive starts (a record for an o-lineman and the fourth longest streak for any player), and versatile, getting named an All-Pro at tackle, guard, and center. He is part of the Matthews dynasty; brother of Clay Matthews II (formerly a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns), uncle to Clay Matthews III (found below under "Linebackers"), and father to Kevin and Jake Matthews (Kevin a journeyman center and Jake a tackle for the Atlanta Falcons). He retired from play in 2001 and transitioned into coaching. The Titans retired his #74, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • Kevin Mawae was a Hall of Fame center best known for his time with New York Jets. Drafted in the second round in 1994 out of LSU by Seattle, he primarily played right guard in his first two seasons before moving to center. He signed with the Jets in 1998 and made six Pro Bowls from 1999-2004. He signed with Tennessee in 2006 and made two more Pro Bowls before retiring in 2010. He also served as the President of the NFLPA from 2008-12 and was a major force in the 2011 NFL Lockout and the negotiations of the CBA. He currently serves as an assistant offensive line coach for the Colts.
  • Mike McCormack was a Hall of Famer who spent nearly half a century in prominent positions in all levels of the NFL. A third round pick out of Kansas in 1951, he initially went to the New York Yanks but was conscripted to serve in the Korean War after his rookie season; by the time he returned to the States two years later, the team had ceased to exist. He was picked up by the Cleveland Browns, who organized a sizable trade with the Baltimore Colts for his rights. He played nine All-Pro seasons while seeing action on both sides of the ball, most prominently as one of the league's most proficient o-linemen, and contributed to two championship titles. He then entered into a long coaching career that included mostly unimpressive stints as HC for the Eagles (1973-75) and Colts (1980-81). After his second HC firing, he moved into third career as an exec, becoming the GM for the Seattle Seahawks in 1982; he wound up returning to the sidelines that season after HC Jack Patera was fired during the player strike, and wound up posting the only winning coaching record of his career as interim HC. McCormack was fired as GM after 1989 but was hired by the Carolina Panthers ownership group as a consultant, eventually becoming their first GM and President before retiring after 1997. He passed away in 2013.
  • Randall McDaniel was a Hall of Fame guard. Drafted #19 overall in 1988 out of Arizona State by the Minnesota Vikings, McDaniel played twelve years for the team and a final two in Tampa. He was selected to twelve consecutive Pro Bowls, only missing out in his first and final years of play. McDaniel scored a single touchdown in Tampa at the age of 36, making him the oldest NFL player to score their first.
  • Mike Michalske was among the most prolific two-way linemen of the early NFL. The Penn State product joined the New York Yankees in 1926, earning acclaim as the best guard in the NFL. "Iron Mike" joined the Green Bay Packers in 1929, where he won three championships before a back injury forced his retirement in 1937, after which he entered into coaching. The five time All-Pro was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1964 and died in 1983.
  • Ron Mix was a Hall of Fame OT who played most of his career in the AFL with the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers. Mix was drafted #10 overall in 1960 out of USC by the Colts but opted to stay in his home state to join the brand new AFL, where he dominated and earned eight All-Star nominations. During one of those All-Star trips after the 1964 season, Mix notably became the first white AFL player to cross the color line and agree to boycott the game as long as it was hosted in the strictly segregationist New Orleans, an action that helped convince the league to move it to Houston. Nicknamed "The Intellectual Assassin", Mix attended law school throughout his pro football career and entered a career as a lawyer after his retirement following 1969 (though he returned for one more season in 1971 with the Raiders, mainly so that the Chargers could pick up a few draft picks in a trade).note 
  • Mike Munchak was a dominant guard drafted #8 overall in 1982 out of Penn State by the Houston Oilers, an organization he would serve in some capacity for the next 32 years. Munchak visited the Pro Bowl nine times during his twelve seasons as a player, than immediately transitioned into coaching for the team when he retired from play after the Oiler's turbulent 1993 season; the organization retired his #63 almost immediately. He followed the team as Jeff Fisher's o-line coach during its transformation into the Tennessee Titans and eventually replaced Fisher as head coach in 2011. He produced middling results as HC and was fired after 2013 when he refused to fire most of his staff; he has since served as an o-line coach for the Steelers and Broncos. Munchak was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2001 for his playing career.
  • Anthony Muñoz was an 11-time Pro Bowler considered by many to be the greatest offensive lineman of the modern era. The USC product was ranked #12 on NFL Network's Top 100 Greatest Players list, the highest of all offensive linemen. Muñoz played almost his entire 13-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals after they drafted him #3 overall in 1980note ; in that franchise's 50+ year history, he remains the only Bengal enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which he reached in his first eligible year. Due to an injury from his playing days, his pinky finger now bends outward at a 90-degree angle.
  • George Musso was a two-way lineman and one of the largest players of the '30s, standing at 6'2" and weighing close to 270 lbs. A triple-sport athlete at now-D-III Millikin, his size made him particularly dominant in football. He had a successful tryout with the Chicago Bears in 1933 and became a regular starter by his second season, later switching to guard and earning three Pro Bowls while winning four titles. He retired in 1944, was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1982, and died in 2000.note 
  • Tom Nalen was a Long Runner center for the Denver Broncos from 1994-2008 (though he missed all of his final season). Drafted in the seventh round out of Boston College, the five-time Pro Bowler led an o-line nicknamed "the Orange Hush" that produced ten 1,000+ yard rushers, including Terrell Davis' MVP-winning 2,000-yard season, and helped win two Super Bowls. However, despite his accomplishments rivaling those of many o-linemen enshrined in Canton, his name has often been ignored by the Hall of Fame's selection committee, though it does sit in the Broncos' Ring of Honor.
  • The Nesser Brothers were the original football family, consisting of six brothers (John, Phil, Ted, Fred, Al, and Frank) out of twelve total siblingsnote  that spent most of their careers as two-way linemen for the Columbus Panhandles. The brothers were all boilermakers for the Pennsylvania Railroad company who practiced football during their lunch breaks, eventually catching the attention of one of their coworkers, Joe Carr, who established a football team, the Columbus Panhandles, with the Nessers as the main attraction. The Panhandles would become one of the most popular and successful travelling teams in the nation, primarily due to the Nessers being among the best football players of the time, with Columbus joining the NFL as charter members in 1920. Most of the Nessers stayed in Columbus after joining the league, later being joined in 1921 by Ted’s son Charles, marking the only time in NFL history that a father and son played on the same team. Four of the brothers (John, Phil, Ted, and Fred) retired after 1921, with 46-year old John being the oldest player in league history until he was surpassed by George Blanda more than five decades later. Frank spent the rest of his career in Columbus before retiring in 1926, while Al went on to have the most successful career of the brothers, winning championships with the Akron Pros and New York Giants and being named All-Pro once before retiring in 1931. While none of the brothers have earned induction to Canton, the Hall of Fame has a display commemorating their success and contributions to the league.
  • Nate Newton was a six-time Pro Bowl guard who most famously played with the Dallas Cowboys for 13 seasons through their '90s dynasty. Newton protected Troy Aikman's left side and was the face of the "Great Wall of Dallas", a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who paved the way for Emmitt Smith's record-breaking rushing career. Newton played 16 total seasons in the NFL, made more impressive considering that he initially went undrafted out of the HBCU Florida A&M, didn't make the final roster in Washington, and was seriously injured in a car accident the day he was cut. After a few years in the USFL, Newton was swiped up by the Cowboys after that league folded. The immense lineman weighed well in excess of 300 pounds at a time when the league average was in the high 200s and gained the nickname "The Kitchen" because he was even bigger than Bears' defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry (see below). Newton retired in 1999 after a year with the Panthers; his history of legal issues caught up with him, leading to a year in prison for drug trafficking.
  • Uche Nwaneri was a guard who played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted him in the 5th round out of Purdue in 2007. After seven seasons in Jacksonville, he signed with the Cowboys in 2014, but was cut before the season and retired. After retiring, he started a successful You Tube channel where he was known as The Observant Lineman until his death in 2022 from an apparent heart attack.
  • Bart Oates was a center most famous for his time with the New York Giants in the late '80s and early '90s. Undrafted out of BYU, he initially signed with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL and won two of that league's championships. When the USFL folded, he signed with the Giants as a 27-year-old NFL rookie and started 125 consecutive games while being part of their two Super Bowl winning teams of that era. He moved onto the 49ers as part of the league's first ever free agency class and won another Super Bowl there. A knee injury ultimately ended his career at age 37 and, despite his accolades including five Pro Bowl trips, he has never made it past the semi-finalist stage of the Hall of Fame. He famously earned his law degree while an active player and voiced himself in an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force where he was Carl's favorite player.
  • Jonathan Ogden was the first ever draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, who selected him #4 overall in 1996 out of UCLA. Ogden made the Pro Bowl eleven times before his retirement after 2007. Standing at over 6'9", he is the tallest player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. While he used his massive frame to devastating effect during plays, he was something of a Gentle Giant between them, frequently seen smiling and joking with other players. Interesting footnote: Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome had to convince Ravens owner Art Modell to allow him to select Ogden as Modell preferred Nebraska RB Lawrence Phillips.
  • Shaun O'Hara was a center for the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants after going undrafted out of Rutgers in 2000. He entered the starting lineup in his second season and played well enough to earn a free agent contract in New York in 2004. However, his first season was cut short as a case of athlete's foot developed into a severe staph infection that put his foot (and career) at risk. (This, along with a few other prominent cases of infection around the same time, led to major improvements in cleanliness standards in team facilities around the league.) After recovering, he developed into a three-time Pro Bowler and was a captain for their Super Bowl XLII winning team. He retired following an injury plagued 2010 season and currently serves as an analyst on NFL Network.
  • Michael Oher was an OT for the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Carolina Panthers. A first round pick in 2009 out of Ole Miss, he had a solid if unspectacular NFL career (though he did win a Super Bowl with the Ravens and visited another with the Panthers) but is best known as the main subject of the 2006 Michael Lewis book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film the year he joined the NFL.
  • Jim Otto was an original star for the Oakland Raiders, drafted in the second round in their inaugural season out of Miami (FL). The center amassed nine All-Star and three Pro-Bowl nods through his 15-year Hall of Fame career. His physical style of play took its toll, however; Otto underwent dozens of operations during his career due to injuries, which riddled his body with chronic pain and caused numerous life-risking infections. He has been a prominent advocate for better health care and protections for the players that came after him.
  • Orlando Pace was the #1 overall pick in 1997 after not allowing a sack in his final two college seasons at Ohio State and finishing 4th in Heisman voting, unheard of for an offensive lineman in the modern era. He was as big a part of the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" success as anyone, keeping Kurt Warner upright and opening running lanes for Marshall Faulk. After seven Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl win, Pace spent the final year of his career in Chicago before retiring in 2009. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2016.
  • Jim Parker played tackle and guard for the Baltimore Colts for 11 years. Drafted #8 overall in 1957 from Ohio State, Parker quickly became one of the most renowned blockers in the league while protecting Johnny Unitas, being selected to eight Pro Bowls and helping the Colts to win two championships. Parker was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, had his #77 retired by the Colts, and was the first full-time offensive lineman to be enshrined in Canton; he passed away in 2005.
  • Jason Peters is a Long Runner who has played nearly two decades in the NFL as one of its premier tackles, though he didn't even know how to play the position when he entered the league as an undrafted tight end out of Arkansas in 2004. After initially signing with the Buffalo Bills and learning the new position, he emerged in 2007 as a regular All-Pro. Peters was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009 and played there for the next twelve seasons, earning a Super Bowl LII ring despite his 2017 season being cut short by a knee injury that likewise ended his run of nine Pro Bowl appearances. After being released by Philly after 2020, he has continued to bounce around the league with stints in Chicago and Dallas.
  • Marvin Powell was a tackle drafted #4 overall in 1977 out of USC by the New York Jets. The five-time Pro Bowler served a tenure as the NFLPA president, retired in 1987 after two years with the Buccaneers, and died in 2022.
  • Jim Ringo was a Hall of Fame center drafted in the seventh round out of Syracuse in 1953 by the Green Bay Packers. Very small for his position (just 211 pounds wen drafted) but exceptionally quick, intelligent, and dedicated, Ringo posted a then-record 182 straight games in his 15-year career. He earned seven Pro Bowl nods with the Packers and helped take Green Bay to their first two championships of the Lombardi era, only to be traded to the Eagles in 1964, where he put up three more Pro Bowl appearances before retiring after 1967. He then entered coaching; like fellow '60s Packer Hall of Famers Forrest Gregg and Bart Starr, the results of this stage of his career were less than stellar. He passed away in 2007.
  • Willie Roaf was a tackle who spent the majority of his career with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him #8 overall in 1993 out of Louisiana Tech. Nicknamed "Nasty" for his physical playstyle, he played with the Saints until 2001. He was then traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002, lasting there until he retired in 2005. He made the Pro Bowl an impressive 11 times, from 1994-2000 and again from 2002-05. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.
  • Chris Samuels was an OT who spent his entire 10-year career with Washington, who drafted him #3 overall in 2000 out of Alabama. During his career, he went to six Pro Bowls and became a major contributor for the team's rushing attack. He retired in 2010 due to a spinal stenosis injury and was named to Washington's Ring of Honor in 2019; he would later be featured on The Real Housewives of the Potomac for four seasons.
  • Jesse Sapolu was an interior lineman who spent his entire 14-year career with the 49ers after they drafted him in the 11th round in 1983 out of Hawaii. While there were other Polynesian players in the NFL before him, the Samoan-descended Sapolu was the first to reach immense success, winning four Super Bowls and being named to two Pro Bowls as both a guard and center. Following his playing career, he co-founded the Polynesian Pro Football Hall of Fame and is active in Polynesian youth football programs.
  • Jeff Saturday was a center best known for snapping to and protecting Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts. Saturday went undrafted out of North Carolina in 1998 and failed to make the final team with the Baltimore Ravens. After a year working at an electronics store, Saturday landed a tryout with the Colts and established himself as one of the league's premier linemen, being selected to five Pro Bowls in Indy as a key support to Manning's '00s passing dominance. He picked up a sixth Pro Bowl selection with the Packers in 2012, giving him one last chance to snap to Manning (now with the Broncos) in the Pro Bowl before he retired. After several years as an analyst and high school football coach, Saturday was hired to be the Colts' interim head coach in the middle of the 2022 season, making him the first NFL HC in the Super Bowl era to have no prior coaching experience at the college or pro levels;note  his tenure likely explains why this was the case, as he went 1-7, with one of those losses involving surrendering a record 33-point lead.
  • Dick Schafrath was a popular figure in Ohio sports, politics, and culture. A national champion at Ohio State, the left tackle/guard was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the second round in 1959 and went on to earn seven Pro Bowl nods in a 13-year career. For all his success on the gridiron, "The Mule" was perhaps equally notable for his stubborn nature that manifested in numerous off-field demonstrations of his endurance for the sake of bets and dares, including once wrestling a bear, running 60 miles, and canoeing across Lake Erie. After his retirement, he later entered politics and served as a State Senator from 1987-2000. He passed away in 2021.
  • Mark Schlereth was initially a guard for Washington drafted in the 10th round out of Idaho in 1989. He became a valuable contributor to the "Hogs" dominant o-line, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 1991 and helping the team win Super Bowl XXVI that same season, becoming the first Alaskan-born athlete to win a Super Bowl. In 1995, he signed with the Denver Broncos, winning two more Super Bowls and earning another Pro Bowl nod in 1998 while blocking for John Elway and Terrell Davis. He retired in 2000 due to injury issues — he had 29 surgeries over his career, 20 for his knees alone (15 left, 5 right). He is perhaps best known for his nickname Stink, which he got due to his habit of urinating in his uniform while sitting on the bench. He later entered into a minor career as a TV actor and currently serves as a commentator for Fox.
  • Billy Shaw was a guard who played for the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the second round in 1961 out of Georgia Tech, his entire career. He became a major contributor quickly, earning eight consecutive AFL All-Star Game nods from 1962-69 and helping the Bills win back-to-back AFL Championships in 1964-65. He retired in 1969 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, becoming the only inductee to never play in the NFL. During his enshrinement speech, he forgot to mention his wife and had to apologize on stage.
  • Will Shields was a Hall of Fame guard for the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him in the third round in 1993 out of Nebraska, for 14 seasons. He was aptly named; in that time, Shields was selected to twelve consecutive Pro Bowls while leading a line that paved running lanes for dominant backs like Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, and Larry Johnson.
  • Duke Slater was a two-way lineman during the 1920s and an early pioneer for African-American players as the league's first black lineman. He spent ten years playing with the Rock Island Independents and Chicago Cardinalsnote  while earning six All-Pros and receiving praise for being near unstoppable on both sides of the line, with opponents constantly double teaming him due to his immense strength and arm reach. He played all 60 minutes in every game he appeared in and only missed one game in his career, not because of injury, but because the team that was hosting them, the Kansas City Blues, did not allow black players in their stadium. Slater was the only black player in the NFL in 1927 and 1929. He retired from playing in 1931; a few years later, the NFL unofficially banned black players, after which Slater helped to assemble and occasionally coach all-black teams. During his playing career, Slater also studied law at Iowa, earning his degree in 1928 and later becoming the second black lawyer to be elected to a Chicago court in 1948. Slater was the only black player elected to the charter class of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and was a finalist for the inaugural class of the Pro Hall in 1963. However, Slater was ultimately left out of Canton, died of cancer in 1966, and wouldn’t be inducted until 2020 as part of its Centennial Class.
  • Jackie Slater was an OT for the L.A. Rams from 1976-95. A 3rd round pick out of HBCU Jackson State (where he was a teammate of Walter Payton), he didn't become a starter until his fourth season but quickly became a fixture on the Rams line for the next 15 years. At the peak of his career, the Rams o-line was arguably the most dominant in the NFL, particularly in regards to enabling the team's run game; Eric Dickerson shattered records with Slater and company clearing the way, and even after his departure, relatively obscure Ram RBs like Charles White, Greg Bell, and Cleveland Gary continued to lead the NFL in rushing TDs. A seven-time Pro Bowler, Slater set the record for most seasons played by a position player for a single team at 20 (since tied by Darrell Green with Washington), had his #78 retired by the Rams, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He is the father of Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater.
  • Gus Sonnenberg was one of the smallest lineman in NFL history, standing at a whopping 5'6" and 176 lbs. Despite his short size, the Detroit product managed to be a perennial All-Pro as a tackle (and kicker) throughout the '20s, playing with five (all-defunct) teams between 1923 and 1930, most notably winning a championship with the Providence Steam Roller in 1928. That same year, he made his debut in professional wrestling and was one of the biggest draws in the Boston area, creating the "flying tackle" move and holding the heavyweight title from January 1929 to December 1930. He remained one of the sport's biggest attractions, briefly reclaiming the championship title in 1939, before enlisting in the Navy a few years later to serve in World War II. He died from leukemia in 1944 and was posthumously inducted to the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.
  • Bob St. Clair played OT for the San Francisco 49ers for eleven seasons after being drafted in the third round in 1953. He was selected to five Pro Bowls and inducted into the Hall of Fame but was better known by fans and teammates for his various personal eccentricities, which earned him the nickname "The Geek". A San Francisco native, St. Clair was A Hero to His Hometown and one of the only NFL players to literally play at the same home field in high school, college, and his entire pro careernote . He was even voted mayor of the neighboring Daly City and served his term while still an active player. His #79 was retired by the 49ers before he passed away in 2015.
  • Dick Stanfel was a guard drafted in the second round by the Detroit Lions out of San Francisco in 1951. A knee injury delayed his pro career by a year, but it did little to hurt his on field production, earning two All-Pros and anchoring the Lions offense that appeared in three straight championships. He was traded to Washington in '56, where he earned three more All-Pros despite playing on some lackluster teams, but repeated injuries led to his early retirement in 1958. After his retirement, Stanfel spent three decades as an o-line coach across the NFL, most notably serving as an interim head coach for the 1980 Saints and winning a Super Bowl with the Bears during the '80s. He died in 2015 and was posthumously inducted to the Hall of Fame a year later.
  • Dwight Stephenson was a center for the Miami Dolphins, who drafted him in the second round in 1980 out of Alabama. With Stephenson as its captain, the Dolphins o-line allowed the fewest sacks in the league for six straight seasons, paving the way for Dan Marino's early record-breaking passing performances. While the five-time Pro Bowler's time in the NFL was cut short by a Career-Ending Injury to his knee in 1987, he was still widely recognized as the best center of the '80s and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
  • Mark Stepnoski was the C for the Dallas Cowboys dynasty in the early-mid '90s after they drafted him in the third round in 1989 out of Pittsburgh. Despite an All-American college career, he fell in the draft due to being extremely undersized for the position, weighing in at 265 lbs. Still, he earned the starting job by the end of his rookie season and played well between much larger guards in Mark Tuinei and Nate Newton (see above), 50 and 70 pounds heavier than Stepnoski, respectively. He won two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, earned three All-Pro nods, and was selected to five Pro Bowls as well as being named to the NFL's '90s All-Decade team. In 1994, following the institution of the salary cap, he became the first big name Cowboy to leave the team via nascent free agency and moved onto the Houston Oilers. In 1999, he returned to the Cowboys and retired in 2001. Since then, he has become one of the leading ex-player advocates of marijuana legalization and is something of a Conspiracy Theorist, likely contributing to exclusion from the Hall of Fame.
  • Korey Stringer was an OT for the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted him #24 overall in 1995 out of Ohio State and made the Pro Bowl in 2000. In 2001, he tragically died from complications related to heat stroke during the Vikings training camp. His death brought about changes in how NFL teams conduct their practices, as many teams now train in lighter color uniforms with water and shade being made readily available. His death also led to greater criticism of teams pressuring their players to bulk up to more than 300 lbs. The Vikings inducted him into their Ring of Honor and retired his #77.
  • Joe Stydahar was a Hall of Fame two-way tackle who made his name with the "Monsters of the Midway" Chicago Bears in the 1940s. Massive for his era at 6'4", Stydahar was drafted #6 overall out of West Virginia in 1936. He was a key part of three championship seasons in Chicago, though he missed 1933-34 due to WWII service in the Navy. He retired from playing after 1946 and immediately entered coaching, eventually being named HC of the Los Angeles Rams in 1950. He immediately found success in L.A., organizing a three-end offense in his first year that still leads the NFL in single-season points-per-game (38.8) and winning the championship the following year. However, his incredibly promising HC career was derailed just one game into the following season due to conflicts with his assistant Hamp Pool, forcing him to resign and cede control; he put up two abysmal seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, then later returned as an assistant with the Bears. He passed away in 1977.
  • Joe Thomas was an OT who spent his entire career with the Cleveland Browns. Drafted #3 overall in 2007 out of Wisconsin, Thomas played every single offensive snap from his first game in 2007 until suffering a season-ending torn triceps during the 2017 season (an NFL record 10,363 snaps), something that likely had something to do with the team's 0-16 record that year. He then surprised everybody by deciding to retire, leaving behind an immense legacy, most notably as one of only 5 players in NFL history to be named to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. Despite his immense talent and individual successes, the Browns were the worst team in the league over the span of his career, never making the playoffs. Thomas nonetheless embraced Cleveland, making the area his full-time home, and he got his often-expressed wish of playing his entire career as a Brown and doing his part in turning them into a contender (even if team management couldn't help him out). He currently serves as an analyst for NFL Network.
  • Mick Tingelhoff was a center who spent his entire career with the Minnesota Vikings, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1962 out of Nebraska. During his career, he made six Pro Bowls from 1964-69 and played in (and lost) four Super Bowls. He started 240 consecutive games over 17 seasons, second most at the time of his retirement in 1978, only behind his teammate Jim Marshall's 270. The Vikings retired his #53 and placed him in their Ring of Honor, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015 after a 32-year wait. He died in 2021.
  • George Trafton was a Hall of Fame two-way C and LB who spent his entire playing career with the Chicago Bears. He played at Notre Dame but was kicked off the team after they found out he previously played professionally under a fake name. He signed with the Bears in 1920, where he was the first center to snap the ball one-handed (partially out of necessity, since he was missing his left index finger) while also proving to be a monstrous hitter on defense, earning recognition as one of the league's top linemen and possibly its most hated player. Trafton's aggressive and "dirty" playstyle made him disliked across every city in the NFL, with Rock Island and Green Bay in particular despising him; his rookie campaign saw him run out of Rock Island after he injured four of their players in the same game. He retired in 1932 having won two championships with the Bears, later spending several years in the '40s as a line coach for the Packers and Rams before moving to the CFL as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1951-53. Outside of the NFL, he spent a couple years as a boxer and opened his own gym during the '30s. He passed away in 1971.
  • Clyde "Bulldog" Turner was a Hall of Fame two-way player best known as a center, though he was also an excellent linebacker who led the league in interceptions in 1942. Drafted #7 overall by the Chicago Bears in 1940 out of the tiny Hardin-Simmons, Turner led the dominant o-line that took the "Monsters of the Midway" to four championships in the '40s. He made seven first-team All-Pro selections before his retirement after 1952, at which point the Bears retired his #66 and he transitioned into coaching. Turner served as the head coach of the New York Titans in 1962, a year wrought with off-field issues as the owner ran out of cash; he was let go when the team was bought-out and renamed the Jets. Turner passed away in 1998.
  • Gene Upshaw was a guard drafted #7 overall by the Oakland Raiders in 1967 out of HBCU Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). The Hall of Famer played for the Raiders for 15 seasons and made six Pro Bowls with his effective and gritty style of play. Renowned for his durability, Upshaw started his career with 231 straight starts, a record yet to be surpassed by any player. After his retirement, Upshaw became the sometimes controversial executive director of the NFL Players Association, leading the union during the failed 1987 strike and remaining in the position until his sudden death from pancreatic cancer in 2008.
  • Jeff Van Note was a center drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the eleventh round in 1969 out of Kentucky. Despite his low draft stock, the mustachioed lineman was one of the few consistent stars on a Falcons franchise that otherwise largely struggled during his 18-year career with the team, missing only four out of 250 possible games. He made six Pro Bowl appearances, briefly served as NFLPA president, was enshrined in the Falcons Ring of Honor, and spent several years as the Falcons' color commentator after his retirement.
  • Alejandro Villanueva is an OT who emerged in 2017 as one of the most unlikely NFL stars. How unlikely? For starters, he's a Spanish military brat, born in Mississippi while his naval officer father was assigned with NATO. His father's military career took him to Rhode Island, back to Spain, and then to NATO headquarters in Belgium, where he attended a US-run high school for NATO brats and was first exposed to American football. From there, he went to West Point, where he played three different positions (DE, OT, and WR) and grew to 6'9" (2.06 m for metric folks). Villanueva took a commission in the U.S. Army and joined the Army Rangers, serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan and earning a Bronze Star. He attended an NFL regional combine during a 2014 leave period and was signed by the Eagles, with the Army giving him its blessing to put his military career on hold. The Eagles signed him as an defensive end but cut him in training camp. The Steelers signed him little more than a week later, switching him to the O-line. He made the main roster in 2015, working his way to a starting role and two Pro Bowl berths, but he made his biggest headlines during the 2017 national anthem protests. Before one game that season in Chicago, the Steelers decided not to take the field during the anthem in an attempt to avoid controversy; however, due to a misunderstanding, he went out to the middle of the tunnel during the anthem instead of being with his teammates in the locker room. While he got some criticism, his action led to his jersey briefly becoming the league's biggest seller. He retired after spending 2021 with the Ravens.
  • Mike Webster was the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their heyday years of the "Steel Curtain" in the 1970s. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster was only a fifth round pick out of Wisconsin in the 1974 Draft, but he helped make the Steelers' offense as durable as their defense and was selected to nine Pro Bowls over a 17-year career. After his retirement, Webster began suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression, and such intense pain that he at times used a taser to get himself to sleep. Eventually, he filed a disability claim with the NFL, claiming his time in the league led to his disabilities. After being evaluated by Webster's and the NFL's own doctors, the claim was upheld, and he began to receive disability payments until his death in 2002. It was the first time the NFL admitted that league play could result in disability, though this was not made public until over a decade later. After Webster's death, an examination of his brain found that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that had only been previously linked to boxers and jockeys. Further studies of other NFL players who suffered from cognitive disability, severe mental illness, and suicidal depression led to more discoveries of CTE. The public outcry that followed forced the NFL to re-evaluate its policies regarding head trauma, and they are still trying to save face as more facts continue to come to light showing how long and how diligently the league tried to deflect the problem (in some government hearings, the league was compared to the cigarette industry and the tactics it used). The film Concussion is in part a dramatization of Webster's story, from the point of view from the doctor who discovered his CTE.note 
  • Trent Williams has been one of the most dominant o-linemen since he was drafted #4 overall by Washington in 2010. The Oklahoma product has made the Pro Bowl every season starting in 2012 due to his exceptional talent and unique speed and mobility... well, almost every season. In 2019, he sat out the season in order to force a trade, having blamed the team's medical staff for failing to recognize and treat a potentially life-threatening sarcoma on his scalp for six years. He was eventually sent to the San Francisco 49ers the following year and has continued to cement his reputation as one of the best to ever play the position.
  • Rayfield Wright, nicknamed "Big Cat" for his exceptional footwork, was a Hall of Fame OT for the Dallas Cowboys. Drafted in the seventh round in 1967 out of the small Fort Valley State, Wright's contributions helped the 'Boys reach five Super Bowls and win two in his 13 seasons with the team, during which was chosen for the Pro Bowl in six straight years. He died in 2022.
  • Andrew Whitworth is an OT known for his longevity and respected reputation on and off the field. A second round pick out of LSU in 2006, "Big Whit" spent the first eleven seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals before going to the Los Angeles Rams in 2017. He picked up four Pro Bowl noms, served as a dependable part of the line that took the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances, and garnered acclaim for his charitable works. In the 2021-22 postseason, a few days after being named Walter Payton Man of the Year, the 40-year-old white-bearded tackle became the oldest lineman to both play in and win a Super Bowl, ironically against his former team from Cincy, before deciding to retire on top and go into television analysis.note 
  • Steve Wisniewski, a.k.a. "The Wiz", was a guard who played his entire 13-year career with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, accumulating eight Pro-Bowl nods with the team after they drafted him in the second round in 1989 out of Penn State. Part of a large football family, as his brother and nephew both played in the NFL (the latter winning two Super Bowls with the Eagles and Chiefs).
  • Marshal Yanda was a guard who played for the Baltimore Ravens after being picked in the third round out of Iowa in 2007. Despite such accolades as making six consecutive Pro Bowls from 2011-16 (he suffered a broken ankle and missed most of 2017, breaking the streak) and being widely considered the best active player at his position, he didn't get much popular attention until 2019 when, with QB Lamar Jackson, the Ravens had a breakout year with a record-setting running attack. Yanda, as the centerpiece of the offensive line that supported said running attack, finally got some time in the spotlight before he opted to retire early in 2020.
  • Ron Yary was a Hall of Fame tackle and the #1 overall pick of the 1968 Draft, going to the Minnesota Vikings with a pick they had secured by trading Fran Tarkenton to the Giants the year before. The USC product was a key part of the Vikings' four-time Super Bowl-losing team (ironically protecting a returned Tarkenton for most of his tenure), missing only two games in his career from a broken ankle. Yary was selected to seven Pro Bowls and retired in 1982 after a year with the Rams.
  • Gary Zimmerman was a Hall of Fame OT from the '80s and '90s. After initially going to the USFL out of Oregon, his rights were acquired by the Minnesota Vikings in 1986 following the league's collapse. After an incident where his criticism of his teammates was made public by the media, he vowed to never speak to the press again. He carried that philosophy with him when he signed with the Denver Broncos, where he helped the franchise win their first Super Bowl before retiring after 1997; the rest of the Broncos' o-line took up his media silence as a tradition until the NFL mandated press availability several years later.
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