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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.

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 page.

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Individuals in folders are listed alphabetically, by last name.


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     Jim Thorpe 
  • No list of great football players can be complete without Jim Thorpe, or Wa-Tho-Huk in his native Sac and Fox language. He was an athlete who defies categorization and as such requires his own category. He was known in his lifetime as "the greatest athlete in the world", a title given to him by the King of Sweden for his landslide victories in the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon (doing so after having his shoes stolen and having to compete in mismatched shoes he found in the trash). He lived up to the name and might just be the most versatile athlete in history; despite his Olympic success and fame in track and field, his participation in the sport was limited due to the many other sports which he played.note  In his life, he competed in major league baseball, professional basketball, and even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing competition. However, football was always his greatest love after playing for Pop Warner's famed team at Carlisle Indian School. His participation helped the sport's popularity immensely, and he was the biggest draw in professional football for several years after he started playing in 1913. He simultaneously coached (at a time when teams were coached by fellow players) and played both back (before quarterback and running back were separate entities and before players were separated into offensive and defensive units) and kicker/punter (once sealing a championship game by kicking a wind-assisted 95-yard punt). He led the Canton Bulldogs to three Ohio League championships and made them one of the first financially stable teams in the country. This brought 13 other teams to meet in Canton in 1920 and form the American Professional Football Association, which eventually became the NFL. Thorpe was appointed the league's president in its first year (though this was largely just a title, as he spent most of that year playing for the Bulldogs). He lost the title after that season to Joseph Carr, left the Bulldogs soon after, and began a career as a journeyman, playing and coaching for five more NFL teams (including the Oorang Indians, which were little more than a travelling circus of Native American football players sponsored by a dog kennel owner) before retiring in 1928 at age 41.
    • Sadly, Thorpe would struggle to hold down a non-sports job; after retiring, he would take whatever job was offered him, whether it be playing native chiefs in Westerns, working security, or digging ditches. By the 1950s, Thorpe was essentially penniless, having given much of his money away to his people, and he passed away from heart failure in 1953. Almost as famous as his remarkable accomplishments in life is the undignified treatment of his body in death. In exchange for a free memorial for her husband (and, allegedly, money), Jim's wife Patricia accepted a deal to have him interred in the small Pennsylvania town of Mauch Chauk, a place Thorpe had never been to. The town renamed itself "Jim Thorpe" in a transparent bid to bring in tourists and refused to permit Thorpe's son to reclaim his remains and have them returned to his homeland. Thorpe was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member, which is only fitting—his play in Canton is the main reason the Hall was built there in the first place.

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Offensive Players

     Quarterbacks 

     Running Backs (A-L) 
  • Shaun Alexander was a running back who played for the Seattle Seahawks through the '00s. A first round pick in 2000 out of Alabama, Alexander put up a series of 1,000 yard rushing seasons starting in his second year, culminating in a truly spectacular 2005 season where he broke the single-season touchdown record and won league MVP (the first Seahawk to do so). Unfortunately, Alexander's solid career remains 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, Alexander 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.
  • Marcus Allen was a running back for the Raiders and Chiefs for 16 seasons through the '80s and '90s. Drafted #10 overall in 1982 by the Raiders after a Heisman and national championship winning season at USC, Allen immediately led the league in rushing touchdowns during the strike-shortened season and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year. Following the 1984 season, Allen led the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory over Washington, setting records for longest rush in a Super Bowl and total rushing yards (both since broken). Allen's relationship with the Raiders, particularly 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 new, higher-paying contract with the Raiders. Davis allegedly threatened Allen, then ordered his coaches to drastically cut Allen's playing time in an effort to "devalue" him. In 1993, Allen took advantage of the NFL's new free agency system to leave the Raiders, signing with hated division rival Kansas City. Allen immediately rebounded, leading the league in rushing touchdowns once again while winning Comeback Player of the Year. Allen played effectively for five more seasons, until retiring at the ripe age (especially by running back standards) of 37. Allen 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 Trophy, a college national championship, a Super Bowl, and be enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
  • Atiim "Tiki" Barber" was a three-time Pro Bowl running back who played ten seasons with the New York Giants after they drafted him in the second round in 1997 out of Virginia. Barber 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 Barber 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 the 2006 season and signing a lucrative deal with both 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 vocal boos 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 below.
  • Le'Veon Bell was a running back drafted in the second round out of Michigan State by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. Bell 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. Bell 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.
  • Jerome Bettis, aka "The Bus", was a six-time Pro Bowl running back 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, Bettis' numbers dropped, and he requested a trade. His numbers immediately jumped back to his previous levels, winning him Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1996. 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.
  • Jim Brown is one of the greatest football players of all time. Considered the prototypical power back, Brown 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 running back), and won one championship and three MVP awards (including one in both his rookie and final season, the only player to accomplish this).note  He was the first running back to amass over 10,000 career yards and remains the only one to average more than 100 yards per game. 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 be a top five rushing yards leader, likely #1—even with a somewhat truncated career, he's still eleventh overall for rushing yards and the Browns' all-time leading rusher. 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, and Any Given Sunday call back to either his football career or his blaxploitation roles. Because of his massive size and appearance (he was as large as most linemen during his career), he more often played a linebacker or defensive coach in his film roles than his actual position as a running backnote . He was himself portrayed by Aldis Hodge in One Night In Miami, a film that highlights Brown's 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 picked by Washington in the eighth round of the 1969 Draft out of Kansas State. 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, Brown's 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, and won both league MVP and the AP's first Offensive Player of the Year awards in 1972 on the way to leading Washington's "Over the Hill Gang" to a Super Bowl appearance. Injuries greatly shortened Brown's career, and he was out of the NFL after 1976.
  • Earl Campbell was a star running back 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 , Campbell 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 would often get run over, knocked down, or knocked out trying to tackle him. Campbell was also famous for his large, almost tree trunk-like legs that were the source of his speed (an often overlooked facet of his game) 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 namesake of the "Luv Ya Blue" era that the Oilers were famous for, after a victory over the Miami 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 Campbell 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.
  • Roger Craig was a multi-threat running back 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 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 the 1968 Draft 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 MVP for Super Bowl 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. Csonka 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.
  • Terrell Davis was a running back for the Denver Broncos. A sixth round pick out of Georgia in the 1995 Draft, Davis 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 Davis' career only lasted for four years before a devastating knee injury. However, 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 won league MVP in 1998 (when he led the league in rushing yards). 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 in as part of the class of 2017.
  • 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 as a rookie, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and setting the record for most rushing yards by a rookie (1,808) which still stands to this day. He set the single-season rushing yards record (2,105) the 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. (It involved three teams—the Rams, Colts, and Bills—trading four players and five 1st or 2nd round draft choices.) Dickerson rushed for over 1,000 yards in just 8 games with the Colts during the strike-shortened season, had several more productive years with the team, and retired in 1993 after two seasons with the Raiders and Falcons. Dickerson was selected to the Pro Bowl six times, led the league in rushing four times, won Offensive Player of the Year in 1986, had his #29 retired by the Rams, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He famously wore prescription goggles while playing because of his myopia. He currently serves as an analyst for FS1.
  • Corey Dillon was a running back who 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 the Tennessee Oilers 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 prior.note  He was traded to the Patriots in 2004 and became a major piece in the team's third Super Bowl championship that season. He continued to show his dominance in 2005 and 2006, retiring at the end of the 2006 season after rushing for a career 11,241 yards.
  • Tony Dorsett was a running back who spent nearly his entire career 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 Dorsett. The move paid immediate dividends, as Dorsett rushed for over 1,000 yards, scored 13 touchdowns, won Offensive Rookie of Year, and led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos. Dorsett 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 in rushing. Dorsett is one of only two players (Derrick Henry being the other, see below) to accomplish a 99-yard rush. 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 Trophy, a college national championship, a Super Bowl, and be enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Sadly, Dorsett 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, being named All-Pro after he led the NFL in rushing yards and guided the Steelers to their first winning season. Dudley enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after the season ended and wouldn’t return to football until the final month of the 1945 season, after which he had his best season in 1946 when he led the NFL in rushing yards, punt returns, and interceptions. Despite being named league MVP, Dudley’s 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. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1966 and passed away from a stroke in 2010.
  • Marshall Faulk was a first-ballot Hall of Fame running back best known for his time as one of the key members of the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams around the turn of the millennium. Originally drafted #2 overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1994 out of San Diego State, Faulk was traded to the Rams after his fifth season when he demanded a new contract. Faulk, a well-rounded back capable of carrying the ball, catching passes, and pass blocking, 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. (The first being Roger Craig in 1985, since accomplished a third time by Christian McCaffrey in 2019.) He tied Earl Campbell's record by winning Offensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons, as well as winning League MVP in 2000. He retired in 2006, had his #28 retired by the Rams, and moved into a career as an analyst.
  • Frank Gifford was a Hall of Fame player for the New York Giants and a major star on the field; a #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 outshown 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 1971-1997. 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.
  • Frank Gore is a well-traveled running back renowned for his longevity in one of football's most punishing positions. Ironically, his NFL career was almost over before it even started, as Gore 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, Gore 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 Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills, where he became the fourth player in NFL history to rush for more than 15,000 yards, became the oldest RB 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 New York Jets where he continued to break records including most games played by a RB, 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).
  • 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, Grange 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—Grange 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; Grange 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. 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,l and passed away from Parkinson's in 1991.
  • Franco Harris and John "Frenchy" Fuqua were running backs for the multiple Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. They are best known for their involvement in the famous "Immaculate Reception", often considered to be the most memorable play in NFL history. Fuqua, an eleventh round pick out of the HBCU Morgan State in 1969, was the intended receiver of a last-ditch pass attempt by Terry Bradshaw during their 1972 playoff match against the Oakland Raiders, but he was tackled by Raiders safety Jack Tatum. The ball bounced off of one of the two players and was scooped up by Harris, a rookie #13 overall pick out of Penn State, who ran it in for a game-winning touchdown that brought the Steelers their first postseason victory in the team's forty-year history, turning around the fortunes of what is now one of the greatest franchises in the NFL.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. Harris, by far the more successful of the two, won Offensive Rookie of the Year, would play with the Steelers through four Super Bowl wins (including winning MVP for Super Bowl IX, the first African-American to win the honor), was selected to nine consecutive Pro Bowls, retired in 1983 after a very forgettable year with the Seahawks, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first eligible year.
  • Garrison Hearst was drafted #3 overall by the Phoenix Cardinals in 1993 after a Heisman-finalist career at Georgia. Hearst 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 in San Francisco, even breaking some 49ers 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 Hearst 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 two-time Pro Bowl running back for the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2016 after a Heisman-winning career at Alabama. Listed at 6'3", 245, "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 had seen offenses shift towards being more pass heavy, with teams using speedier backs to run passing routes as well as run the ball. 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, finishing the season with a monster stretch of games that continued into the first two rounds of the playoffsnote . He again led the league in rushing in 2020, joining a list of exclusively Hall of Fame players to do so in back-to-back years and becoming only the eighth to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season; he won Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts.
  • 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 Associated Press NFL MVP award in 1961 and would win five championships, including Super Bowl I. Hornung's 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) being the other, when it was discovered that they were illegally betting on NFL games. Hornung was reinstated for 1964 after intense lobbying from head coach Vince Lombardi. The annual college football award for the "most versatile" player is named after him. Hornung passed away in 2020.
  • Bo Jackson was one of the most highly anticipated and marketed athletes ever. Coming off a Heisman-winning run at Auburn, he played running back 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. In his final year of college play, he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the #1 overall pick, 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 Jackson 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.
  • Chris Johnson was a three-time Pro Bowl running back who most famously played for the Tennessee Titans. Despite coming out of a smaller school at East Carolina, Johnson 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, Johnson 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 arguably one of the best ever for a running back. 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. Johnson's 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 Arizona Cardinals before a broken leg ended his season prematurely. Johnson retired in 2018.
  • John Henry Johnson was a fullback who played for 14 years during the '50s and '60s. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 1953 Draft out of Arizona State, but Johnson 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, Johnson 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 passed away in 2011.
  • Alvin Kamara was drafted in the third round in 2017 out of Tennessee by the New Orleans Saints. Kamara soon filled a unique role in coach Sean Payton's offense; while veteran Mark Ingram 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 running back 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, Kamara 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 
  • John Kuhn was a fullback for the Green Bay Packers, although he began his career as an undrafted free agent in 2005 out of Division 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 Darkhorse 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.
  • Jamal Lewis was drafted #5 overall by the Baltimore Ravens 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 . Lewis signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2007, but his performance soon declined; he was released after the 2009 season and didn't sign with another team. Lewis served a prison sentence for selling cocaine between the 2004 and 2005 seasons and has struggled with his health and finances following his retirement.
  • Marshawn Lynch is a halfback who made his name with the Seattle Seahawks. After being drafted #12 overall out of California by the Buffalo Bills in 2007, injuries and a suspension for misdemeanor gun possession slowed his productivity, and he was traded to Seattle in 2010. There he suddenly vaulted to top-3 status at his position. A quintessential Lightning Bruiser at his position, Lynch could run by and power through defenders with equal ease with an aggressive running style that earned him the nickname "The Beast" (when he does this, it's known throughout the league as "going into Beast Mode.") His biggest career highlight came in a 2011 playoff game against the defending champion New Orleans Saints: As he broke 6 tackles on a nearly 70 yard TD run, the reaction of the fans at the stadium set off a local seismograph, registering as a small earthquake. Known as The Quiet One as far as media interaction goes, Lynch is an obvious introvert who genuinely doesn't seem to like fame or spotlight, making him somewhat an anomaly among pro athletes. He also has a notorious Sweet Tooth, to the point where his love for Skittlesnote  reached Memetic Mutation status (at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks' home stadium, the "Beast Mode Burger" is always sold with a bag of Skittles on the side). He announced his retirement after the 2015 season 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 decided to come back after sitting out in 2016. His hometown team, the Raiders, made a trade with the Seahawks to sign him out of retirement. Lynch did reasonably well in The Town but lost the last half of the 2018 season to a groin injury. He was then out of football again until the last week of the 2019 regular season, when the Seahawks, assured of a playoff berth but down to one healthy tailback due to a rash of injuries and facing a key matchup with the Niners for the NFC West title, signed him back for that game and their playoff run. Lynch hasn't been back in football since that season, but is open to a return. He's become an entrepreneur in California's legalized cannabis industry, and in 2021 became 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.

     Running Backs (M-Z) 
  • Curtis Martin was a five-time Pro Bowl running back 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. 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.
  • Christian McCaffrey is a running back for the Carolina Panthers, who drafted him #8 overall out of Stanford in 2017. A dual threat as both a runner and receiver, McCaffrey set the record for receptions by a running back in his second season with 107 and then became only the third player in league history with a 1,000/1,000 rushing/receiving yard season in his third year (while also breaking his own receptions record). 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. He is also the son of former Denver Broncos WR Ed McCaffrey, who won two Super Bowls with the team in the late '90s.
  • 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". McElhenny 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.
  • John McNally, better known as Johnny Blood, was a halfback who played for six teams over 17 years (1925-1941) but most famously played for the Green Bay Packers, where 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 Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • 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. 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 career-best 19 touchdowns 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 running 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, Morris 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. After his retirement in 1976, Morris would see jail time for cocaine trafficking in the '80s.
  • Marion Motley was a two-way running back/linebacker 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, Motley 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 Motley's productivity in subsequent seasons, mostly keeping him off the field, which turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise—when he retired for good in 1955, he held a record yards-per-carry average of 5.7 that has never been matched by another running back. Despite eventually being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Motley 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. Motley died of cancer in 1999.
  • Bronko Nagurski was a two-way player who played fullback, linebacker, and tackle for eight seasons with the '30s Chicago Bears. An extremely powerful man, Nagurski was renowned for being a nearly immovable Stone Wall who even fellow greats would just bounce 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 Pro Football 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.
  • Ernie Nevers was a fullback who played during the 1920s. Like Red Grange, he 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 the 1928 season 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.
  • Christian Okoye, nicknamed "The Nigerian Nightmare", was a running back 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, Okoye won numerous titles in the shot put, discus, and hammer throw events. After Nigeria passed him over for selection to their Olympic team, Okoye tried out for the football team at Azusa Pacific, a small NAIA school in Southern California. At 6'1", 260 lbs, Okoye 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. Despite playing at a lower-level college and having only started playing at 23, 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 being selected to his first Pro Bowl. Knee injuries slowed Okoye over the next several seasons, though he did manage one more 1,000+ yard season, before ultimately ending his career early in 1992. Okoye is still 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 a running back who played for the Chicago Bears in the '70s and '80s. Nicknamed "Sweetness" for his Nice Guy persona, Payton was drafted #4 overall out of the HBCU Jackson State in 1975. When he retired after 13 seasons, he held the record for most rushing yards by a running back (only since surpassed by Emmitt Smith), having only missed a single game in his career during his rookie season. He was known for refusing to deliberately run out of bounds, bringing back the practice of stiff-arming would-be tacklers, and for his ability to leap up and over piles of linemen to land on his back, defeating many goal-line stands; these abilities helped him win MVP in 1977 in a season where he led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns. Payton 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.
  • 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, Perry 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 offense known as the “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 was the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, briefly held the record for most career rushing yards, 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, Perry retired in 1963 with the 49ers (which retired his #34), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and passed away in 2011.
  • Adrian Peterson is a running back best known for his long tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. After being drafted #7 overall by the Vikings out of Oklahoma in 2007, Peterson set a slew of records during his rookie season, 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)—not surprisingly, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year. 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 seasons ever for a running back, he was chosen as the league's MVP, the first running back to win the award since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Peterson had become one of the most respected figures in the league; it was thus a sudden and unexpected Shocking Swerve when Peterson 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 Peterson had failed to show proper remorse for his actions. He was reinstated for the 2015 season, 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, Peterson was released from the Vikings, signed with the Saints, and was traded to the Cardinals. He then played two seasons in Washington and one in Detroit and currently remains a free agent.
  • Brian Piccolo was a fullback 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 running back 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. Sayers and Piccolo became close friends and eventually roommates on the road, during an era where hotel room assignments were otherwise still segregated. Sadly, Piccolo passed away from cancer in 1970 at the age of 26; his #41 was subsequently retired by the Bears. He 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. Pollard 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. Pollard 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 the running 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, Portis 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, Portis' 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 professional 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, Portis was forced to declare bankruptcy due to poor money management.
  • John Riggins, nicknamed "the Diesel" or simply "Riggo", was a Hall of Fame power running back most famous for his time in Washington in the '70s and '80s. Originally drafted by the NY Jets #6 overall in 1971 out of Kansas, Riggins would make the move to Washington in 1976, where he would win a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP. Known for his incredible longevity for a running back at 15 seasons, he became the oldest player to ever rush for more than 1,200 yards, carry the ball 300+ times, and have 10+ touchdowns, doing so at the age of 35. In his final year at age 36, he became the (then) oldest player to ever have 100+ rushing yards in a game (since surpassed by Frank Gore). Riggo also became famous for his fun-loving Fratbro personality and his wild hairstyle and had a modest acting career following his retirement in 1985.
  • 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 Sanders run for a loss and come away convinced that he was the greatest running back of all time. Sanders 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, recorded the most games with over 150 rushing yards, 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 was just tired of playing for such a perennially losing organization. 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.
  • 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, Sayers 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. 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, Sayers 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, Sayers 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. Incidentally, the aforementioned Brian's Song was adapted from his autobiography. Sayers 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), tied Earl Campbell as season leader in rushing TDs, and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Sims 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, Sims suffered a Game-Breaking Injury to his knee in 1984 that ended his playing career, and he 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 drafted the great Barry Sanders (see above), who wore Sims' number in tribute to the player.
  • 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 Arizona 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. 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, considering the active leading rusher (Frank Gore) is over 3,500 yards away, the active leading scorer (Adrian Peterson) is over 50 touchdowns away, and both are nearing the end of their careers. Unsurprisingly, Smith was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Fun fact: he also won Season 3 of Dancing with the Stars.
  • 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, Taylor 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, Taylor 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. Taylor 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. Thomas, a teammate of Barry Sanders at OK State (Thomas was a year ahead of Sanders), won league MVP in 1991. That year was also the Bills' and Thomas's first of four consecutive visits to the Super Bowl, all four of which they lost. Infamously, Thomas missed the first series of Super Bowl XXVI after losing his helmet on the sideline. After a single season with the Miami 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 running backs 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 winning MVP 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 New York Jets and signing a ceremonial contract to return to the Chargers in 2012, "L.T." ranked high in most rushing stats, including being only second overall behind Smith in career rushing touchdowns. The Chargers retired his #21, and he entered the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • 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 the 1945 Draft as a “future selection”note , but he also received offers from the AAFC's New York Yankees. Upon graduating in 1947, Trippi 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. Trippi becoming 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 is currently its oldest living member at age 99.
  • 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 out of LSU in 1944 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, and taking the Eagles to back-to-back championships. 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 the 1949 Draft by the New York Bulldogs after an immensely successful college career at SMU (Walker 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. This proved to be a terrible decision, as Rauch never secured the starting position and the Bulldogs/Yanks would fold after the 1951 season. Walker, meanwhile, 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. Walker became one of the league's most famous stars and was selected to five Pro Bowls before 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 would be 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 tragic skiing accident and died a few months later.
  • Herschel Walker is one of the most unique figures in the history of professional sports, and he left a big footprint in the NFL despite seeing his greatest success outside of it. Walker 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 professional football early by joining the new USFL in its inaugural 1983 season and signing with the New York Generals. Walker led the nascent league in rushing the first season and utterly dominated in his third, breaking professional 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. Walker couldn't replicate his record productivity against the NFL's higher level of competition, but he still performed extremely well and was viewed as one of the league's leading running backs. Walker was seen as so valuable that 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 a tremendous athlete, as exemplified by the extreme and unique workout regime he developed in high school. Rather than lifting weights, Walker 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.
  • 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, White 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, the US joined World War II, and White joined the Navy. He 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 and not 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.
  • Ricky Williams was a Heisman winner at Texas and one of the most heavily-hyped players 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 draft 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 wasn't completely mediocre—he rushed at about what you would expect for a good rookie running back, 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. 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 for the 2006 season, 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, one last year for the Ravens in 2011, then retired.

     Wide Receivers 
  • Don Hutson was the Trope Maker for wide receivers, being credited with inventing the very concept of a dedicated receiver as well as the fundamentals of the position (such as running pre-planned routes, most of which are still used today). He 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. He played for the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to 1945 (leading them to three championships). 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 single-season and career records in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns that stood for nearly fifty years, and might still stand had the league not lengthened the regular season (he played in 10- and 12-game seasons). 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 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 records: most seasons leading the league in catches/receiving yards/receiving touchdowns/points scorednote  and most consecutive seasons leading the league in the same 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 Hutson's record of five seasons leading the league in scoring and may yet beat it, but his were non-consecutive). The "Alabama Antelope" won two consecutive MVP awards in 1941-2, had his #14 retired by the Packers, and was a charter member of the Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1997.note 

  • Lance Alworth played for the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys. Though he was drafted at #8 overall out of Arkansas by the San Francisco 49ers in 1962, Alworth became one of the biggest stars of the nascent (and more pass-friendly) AFL when he chose to sign with the Chargers, who picked up his rights from the Raiders after they drafted him at #9. He 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 and putting up five games with over 200 receiving yards (a record only tied by Calvin Johnson). His graceful running style won him the nickname... "Bambi". He won a Super Bowl with the 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.
  • Odell Beckham Jr.note  currently plays for the Cleveland Browns after making his name with the New York Giants, who drafted him #12 overall out of LSU in 2014. Beckham exploding onto the NFL scene as a rookie when, during a Sunday Night Football game against the division rival Dallas Cowboys, 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 Cowboys defender. Over his first three seasons, Beckham broke a number of NFL 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  Unlike many of his contemporary great receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, AJ Green, etc.), Beckham has a classic "over-the-top" personality of past WR greats like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Chad Johnson. Like those players, Beckham has been known to complain 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 would become the highest paid WR at the time in his second contract but still settled for far less than QB money. OBJ 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 Beckham being "passionate", while his detractors see more of a "spoiled child".note  The Giants dealt him to Cleveland in 2019, where he became one of Baker Mayfield's prime targets.
  • Raymond Berry has one of the great Cinderella stories of NFL history. A split end selected in the twentieth round of the 1954 Draft 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 football team. 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 a Hall of Fame receiver, teaming up with quarterback Johnny Unitas to lead the Colts to two championships over 13 seasons with the team. When he retired, he held the then-record 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, which he led to the team's 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, Biletnikoff 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. Biletnikoff was released after the 1978 season, 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. He is also the namesake for the most prestigious award for wide receivers in college football.
  • 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 in Notre Dame, Brown 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 Brown 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. Brown retired after that season and signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the Raiders. Brown 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.
  • 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, 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 San Francisco 49ers, had his #80 retired by the Rams, and remains in the top ten of most career receiving statistics.
  • 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. Carter 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. Carter 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, Carter retired behind only Jerry Rice in most career receiving records. He currently remains fourth in all-time receiving touchdowns and sixth for all-time receptions, and his #80 was retired by the Vikings. After retirement, Carter became a long-running broadcaster infamous for his hot takes. Despite most expecting a first-ballot induction for Carter 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.
  • 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 on the way to his first Pro Bowl.
  • Julian Edelman was picked in the seventh round of the 2009 Draft 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 awarded the MVP award for Super Bowl LIII. After being sidelined from injuries for most of the 2020 season, Edelman retired with the Patriots.
  • Larry Fitzgerald has played for the Arizona Cardinals his entire career and is generally considered one of the best receivers of all time. Since being drafted #3 overall out of Pittsburgh in 2004, Fitzgerald has been selected to eleven Pro Bowls, led the league in receiving touchdowns in two consecutive seasons (2008-9), and led the league in receptions in two seasons over a decade apart from each other (2005, 2016). 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 has been so ridiculously consistent and available for the team that he holds the unique stat of having more career defensive tackles than dropped passesnote . His loyalty to the long-suffering Cardinals franchise and his exceptionally generous and soft-spoken nature has made him practically a saint in Arizona.
  • Irving Fryar was the second wide receiver ever drafted at #1 overall, going to the New England Patriots in the 1984 Draft out of Nebraska. Fryar played in the NFL for 17 seasons, tied for the third-most games played at his position, but doesn't rank highly on many career stat sheets mainly because he was a late bloomer; four of his five Pro Bowl seasons came after he turned 30 while he was 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.
  • Marvin Harrison spent most of his career as Peyton Manning's go-to guy with the Indianapolis Colts, who selected him in the first round of the 1996 Draft out of Syracuse. He set the record for most receptions in a season and was tracking to compete for some of Jerry Rice's career records before his career was derailed by injuries towards the end. 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.
  • Tyreek Hill, nicknamed "Cheetah" for his blistering speed, is a receiver for 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 in the obscure Division II University of West Alabamanote . 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.
  • Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch was an end for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s. The #5 overall pick in the 1945 Draft after completing his military service, Hirsch was meant to go to the Cleveland Rams but decided instead to go back to college, thereby missing out on the Rams' Championship-winning season; he would, however, lead the College All-Star team to a victory over that same team in that year's College All-Star Game. After finishing school, Hirsch signed with the AAFC's Chicago Rockets, only to leave the team in 1949 amidst a pay dispute and follow the Rams to L.A., where he'd play for the next nine years. Hirsch went to three Pro Bowls and put up great career numbers, especially in a 1951 season where he helped lead the Rams to another Championship while setting receiving records that would stand 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 brief movie career. After retiring from play, Hirsch served as general manager for the Rams for a few years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2004.
  • DeAndre Hopkins, aka "Nuk", is among the premier receivers of the '10s. Hopkins became a star for the Houston Texans after they selected him late in the first round of the 2013 Draft 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 made him the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history and continued his Pro Bowl-caliber performance.
  • 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 1991-1996, putting up huge numbers with the run-heavy Cowboys. Irvin didn't have as great a reputation off-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.
  • 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 (2006, 2008) and receiving yards (2008, 2009). 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"/1.96 m and 238 lb/108 kg, which is nearly as large as many tight ends and earned him the Fan 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 the 2015 season, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and put up two Pro Bowl seasons prior to being traded to the Browns shortly before knee injuries ended his career in 1971. However, Jones left a massive impact on American football in one key respect: he invented (or, at the very least, popularized) the practice of spiking the football into the ground as a touchdown celebration, a tradition that very much endures to this day.
  • Quintorris Lopez "Julio" Jones plays for the Atlanta Falcons, which traded a massive haul of draft picks (including two 1st round picks) to the Cleveland Browns in order to draft him #6 overall out of Alabama in 2011, one of the largest trades for a non-QB prospect in recent NFL history. In 2015, Jones amassed 1,871 yards, the second highest 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, and holds a plethora of "fastest to..." career milestone receiving statistics.
  • Steve Largent was a fourth-round pick out of Tulsa for the 1976 Seattle Seahawks expansion team and became the first true superstar of the new franchise. He played 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 like a book. He retired with almost every career receiving record on the books; it was his bad luck that Jerry Rice came along only a few years behind to break almost every single one.note  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.
  • Art Monk was drafted #18 overall by Washington out of Syracuse in 1980 and was a critical component of coach Joe Gibbs' three-time Super Bowl run with the team. Monk regularly ranked as one of the top receivers in the league and briefly held the record for most career receptions before being passed by Jerry Rice. He retired after the 1995 season following brief stints with the Jets and Eagles and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • 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 as a star, not only breaking the rookie receiving TD record but leading the entire league, a feat that won him Offensive Rookie of the Year. His incredible athleticism earned widespread acclaim; even years after his retirement, a receiver's impressive catch making a defensive back look foolish is called being "Mossed". 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, setting the current record for most receiving touchdowns ever in a single season. 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 Tennessee Titans. He retired before the next season began, only to unretire a little over a year later to play his final season for the San Francisco 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. He now works as an analyst for ESPN, where he gets to display his distinctive West Virginian drawl.
  • 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 school 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; 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 couldn't land a spot on another team. 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.
  • 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 passing statistics and made the Pro Bowl every year after it started in 1950. Pihos retired in 1955 and passed away in 2011 after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
  • 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; after they drafted him#16 overall out of HBCU Mississippi Valley State in 1985, he became the team'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, and won two Offensive Player of the Year awards. 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 he would not have been guaranteed a spot among the top three wide receivers, so he retired instead at the age of 42. Rice 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 at that age; because he was rarely injured, he currently holds the record for most games played by a position playernote . 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. Rice is among the most common non-quarterback candidates for the "Greatest of All Time" title, with many arguing he deserves the GOAT title 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.
  • 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 deep in the depth chart. However, he missed all of the 1993 season after the team coaches and doctors failed to properly diagnose and treat his appendicitis, resulting in multiple surgeries, a near-fatal infection, an lleostomy, 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 Jacksonville become a perennial playoff contender in the late '90s. He continued to be a dominant force for the team in the 2000s, although 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.
  • Steve Smith Sr. played from 2001-2016, most notably playing 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 up those numbers 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. 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.
  • 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 the best numbers of his career without his 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.
  • 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 step back in 2020 after an ankle injury and some locker room drama, Thomas has the all-time record for receptions through his first four seasons and has earned the nickname "Can't Guard Mike" for his skill at contested catches.
  • Hines Ward played with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 14 seasons and currently works as an assistant coach for the New York Jets. Ward, a third-round pick out of Georgia in 1998 (the same draft as Moss), was selected to four Pro Bowls, won Super Bowl MVP after their victory in Super Bowl XI, 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 linebacker 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 descentnote  and for increased social acceptance of foreign and multiracial youth in Korea. Fun fact: he also won Season 12 of Dancing with the Stars.
  • 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 years with the team. Warfield then became part of one of the most lopsided trades in League 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 quarterback 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 in Ohio with the Browns before retiring in 1977.
  • 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 team 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 St. Louis Rams and subsequently moved into coaching.
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     Tight Ends 
  • Mike Ditka, while most famous for his run as head coach of the Chicago Bears (detailed on the Non-Player Figures page), had an all-time great caliber 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 as a rookie, setting multiple league rookie records for a tight end which still stand to this day including receiving yards (1,076), TD receptions (12), and yards per reception (19.2) while 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 the '66 season and instead signed a deal with the Houston 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 Philadelphia, 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 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 Chargers and is one of the most dominant players ever at the tight end position. 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 tight end. Gates had the longest NFL career of any player who never played college football; while the career of Garo Yepremian (in the "Kickers and Punters" folder) spanned the same number of years, Gates played in more NFL seasons.
  • Tony Gonzalez is the current holder of all the tight end receiving records except for career TDs (Gates), as well as the first tight end to amass over 1,000 receptions. Like Gates, Gonzalez played college basketball (at California), but unlike Gates also played football for the Golden Bears. He spent twelve years with the Chiefs, who drafted him #13 overall in 1997, and ended his career with five years in Atlanta, retiring after the 2013 season. He was voted to 14 Pro Bowls, the most ever for a tight end (and tied for the most for a player at any position). He has worked mainly as an analyst for several major TV networks since his retirement and 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 the 2013 season, earning him an Offensive Player of the Month award, the first tight end 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 and Green Bay and currently plays for the Chicago Bears
  • 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. Gronkowski, a second-round pick by the Pats in 2010 out of Arizona, 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 and is the only tight end to lead the league in receiving touchdowns in a single season. He is known for his unusual size—at 6'6" and around 250 lbsnote  he can 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 massive arm brace for several seasons; already considered The Lancer to Tom Brady, this cyborg-like appearance led many to compare the massive Gronk to Darth Vader. His retirement in 2019 to deal with his injuries and mental healthnote  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. Off-field, Gronk was known for his hard-partying ways, although he's done less of that over the years. 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 retirement, appearing at WrestleMania 36 and coming away with the WWE 24/7 Championship.
  • Travis Kelce has been a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs since 2013, when they drafted him in the third round out of Cincinnati. The younger brother of the Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce (see below), Travis shares his elder sibling's Boisterous Bruiser personality, and has backed up his confident swagger with excellent receiving ability, six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, and five consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons, the latter a record for the position. In 2020, Kelce set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.
  • George Kittle plays for the San Francisco 49ers, who picked him in the fifth round of the 2017 Draft out of Iowa. Kittle is seen by some as the Spiritual Successor to Gronk due to both his prolific skill at the position and his Cavalier Competitor attitude, though he has distinguished himself somewhat with his unique sense of humor and Motor Mouth banter. In 2018, Kittle set the tight end record for single season receiving yards on an otherwise floundering Niners team (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.
  • John Mackey played for the Baltimore Colts from 1963-1971. 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 ever tight end to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Mackey was the president of the NFLPA immediately after the NFL-AFL merger and lead 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.
  • 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 University in Illinois, a school which last played football in the 1970 season, 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.
  • Shannon Sharpe is considered one of the greatest receiving tight ends of all time. He spent most of his career with the Denver Broncos, who picked him in the seventh round of the 1990 Draft after a solid career at the Division II HBCU Savannah State, and was one of their featured weapons during their two Super Bowl years. He joined the Ravens for a two-year stint, during which he won another Super Bowl ring, before returning to Denver for another two seasons before retiring with the records for tight end 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.
    • When Shannon was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he stated that his big brother Sterling Sharpe was the better player. Sterling's seven-year career as a wide receiver with the Green Bay Packers started with him being drafted #7 overall out of South Carolina in 1988 but was cut short by a severe neck injury in 1994 that revealed an underlying condition that made returning to play impossible. In that time, he made five Pro Bowls and led the league in receiving TDs twice and receptions thrice.
  • 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, a rare accomplishment for a tight end. 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. Shockey was, however, very brash and vocal with the media, making homophobic comments and often openly criticizing teammates and coaches (especially head coach Tom Coughlin). Late in the 2007 season, 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. Seeking a trade, Shockey did not participate in the Giants celebratory events and held out of minicamp the following offseason, with the Giants ultimately shipping him to New Orleans ahead of the 2008 season. He continued to play well when healthy, being part of the team's Super Bowl XLIV victory, but battled injuries throughout his three years with the Saints and was released in 2011. He spent one final season in Carolina before retiring. Shockey is 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.
  • 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 tight end 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 Miami 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 tight end for the '80s San Diego Chargers. Drafted #13 overall in 1979 out of Missouri, Winslow 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. Winslow 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 tight end 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 following the 2017 season 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 the 2019 season, then the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020. Once the 2020 league year ends in March 2021, he plans to sign a ceremonial contract to retire as a Cowboy, this time for good. Witten has been linked to several assistant coaching positions in both the NFL and college.

     Offensive Linemen 
  • William "Pudge" Heffelfinger was an All-American guard at Yale in the late 1800s and is considered the first ever professional football player. In the 1960s, a page from an 1892 accounting ledger for the Allegheny Athletic Association was found and showed a payment of $500 to Heffelfinger to play for the team. (About $13,000 in today's money.) He played only two games before taking a job as a college head coach.

  • Larry Allen was a massive guard best known for his time with the Dallas Cowboys. A fantastic run blocker out of Division 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 1990s. Allen made 11 Pro Bowls over 14 seasons and is one of the few players to be named to multiple All-Decade teams, appearing on both the 1990s and 2000s teams. After finishing his career with the San Francisco 49ers, Allen was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
  • Tony Boselli was an offensive tackle 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 lineman, earning five Pro Bowl selections, and being a key part of the Jags' early run of success. 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 his short career, Boselli still remains the most accomplished player in the struggling Jaguars' history and remains in frequent Hall of Fame consideration.
  • Roosevelt "Rosey" Brown was an offensive tackle 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 of the 1953 Draft as the #321 overall pick out of the HBCU Morgan State, yet would only miss 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.
  • Dan Dierdorf was an offensive tackle drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals #43 overall 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 1976-1978, anchoring a line that gave up the fewest sacks all three years. A knee injury forced him to sit out most of the 1979 season before he returned in 1980, earning one more Pro Bowl before retiring in 1983 to move into a lengthy broadcasting career. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1996.
  • Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive guard for the Kansas City Chiefs, 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.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 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.
  • 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 on the team. This short burst of incredible productivity was enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame's third ever 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 passed away in 1995 after a long battle with Alzheimer's.
  • Forrest Gregg was an offensive tackle for 16 years and 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 brief stints as head coach at Cleveland (where he won Coach of the Year in his second season) and Cincinnati (where he coached the team to a Super Bowl in 1981) before he returned to Green Bay to replace former teammate Bart Starr as coach. Like Starr, Gregg failed to revive the team to the heights it 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". He died of complications of Parkinson's in 2019.
  • John Hannah was a left guard for the New England Patriots for 13 seasons. Picked #4 overall in the 1973 Draft 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 Pro Football 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 Pro Football Hall of Fame's charter class.
  • Cal Hubbard was a offensive and defensive center who played for the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers in the late '20s and early '30s. Though many "all-time" lists place him as an offensive tackle and Curly Lambeau placed him on the line in most games, Hubbard also helped to pioneer the linebacker position in college. In his second year of professional 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 passed away from cancer in 1977.
  • 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 Famer 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 the 2005 season. 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 the 2012 season with the Titans and entered the Hall of Fame in 2020.
  • 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 for the team for 11 years. He was selected for the Pro Bowl nine times and was a major contributor to the dominant offensive line performance that led Shaun Alexander to dominance as a running back. The team retired his #71.
  • Jason Kelce is the starting center for the Philadelphia Eagles, selected in the sixth round (#191 overall) of the 2011 Draft 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 four-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 blessing.note 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bruce Matthews was an offensive 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 14 consecutive Pro Bowls (an NFL record) 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.
  • Randall McDaniel was a Hall of Fame guard. Drafted #19 overall in 1988 out of Arizona State by the 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.
  • 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.
  • Nate Newton was a six-time Pro Bowl guard who most famously played with the Cowboys for 13 seasons through their '90s dynasty, protecting Troy Aikman's left side. Newton, out of the HBCU Florida A&M, played 16 total seasons in the NFL, made more impressive considering that he initially went undrafted, didn't make the cut out of training camp 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.
  • Jonathan Ogden was the first ever draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, who selected him #4 overall in 1996 out of UCLA. An 11-time Pro Bowler, Ogden is considered one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time. 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.
  • Michael Oher was an offensive tackle 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) 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.
  • Orlando Pace is another name mentioned among the greatest offensive linemen of all time. He 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 else, 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.
  • 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 electronic 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.
  • Duke Slater was a two-way lineman during the 1920s and an early pioneer for African-American players in the NFL. 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, would 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 would help assemble and occasionally coach all-black teams. During his playing career, Slater also studied law at the University of 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 Football 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 offensive tackle for the L.A. Rams from 1976-1995. 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. 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 (see below).
  • Bob St. Clair played offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers for eleven seasons after being drafted in the third round in 1953. Though he was selected to five Pro Bowls and inducted into the Hall of Fame, he 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.
  • Joe Thomas is an offensive tackle 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, 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. Unfortunately, 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 once. 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 the team into a contender (even if the team's management couldn't help him out).
  • Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto were offensive linemen for the Oakland Raiders in the '60s and '70s. Both players played for the Oakland Raiders for 15 seasons, made several Pro Bowls with their effective and gritty style of play, and were inducted to the Hall of Fame. Both players continued to be active in the NFL player community in different ways after their retirement. Upshaw was the often 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. Otto underwent dozens of operations during his playing career due to injuries he received as a center, which riddled his body with chronic pain and caused numerous life-risking infections. While he doesn't regret playing in the slightest, he has been a prominent advocate for better health care and protections for the players that came after him.
  • Alejandro Villanueva is an offensive tackle with the Steelers who emerged in 2017 as one of the most unlikely NFL stars of recent decades. 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 then 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 (defensive end, offensive tackle, and finally wide receiver) 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 remained on the practice squad that season and made the main roster in 2015. He was mediocre at best in his first season but got far better in his second, becoming the anchor of their line. His improvement continued in 2017 as he earned a starting Pro Bowl berth (admittedly aided by the injury to Joe Thomas, seeing that the two played in the same division). Villanueva made his biggest headlines, however, during the 2017 national anthem protests. Before their game that season at the Chicago Bears, 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 a small bit of criticism, his action led to his jersey briefly becoming the league's biggest seller.
  • 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 would at times use 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, although that 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 
  • 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 6 consecutive Pro Bowls from 2011-2016 (he suffered a broken ankle and missed most of 2017, breaking the streak), placing well in various lists and rankings, and being widely considered the best active player at his position, he didn't get much popular attention until the 2019 season. With quarterback 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.

Defensive Players

     Defensive Linemen 
  • Lyle Alzado was a defensive end who played for three teams during his 15-year career but, in many respects, was the epitome of a Raider despite only playing with the team for his last four seasons.note  Alzado channeled an intense anger borne from a difficult childhood into his intimidating and violent play. This made him very effective on the field—he earned three All-Pro honors and two Pro Bowl selections and was a key component of the Raiders' Super Bowl XVIII win before he retired in 1985. Like his predecessor John Matuszak (see below), Alzado's distinctive appearance and attitude (coupled with playing in the Los Angeles market) helped him launch a fairly successful acting career in film, TV, and commercials. Sadly, also like Matuszak, Alzado died young; not long after a failed comeback attempt with the Raiders in 1990, Alzado was diagnosed with brain cancer, one of many health issues that he attributed to his long-time use of anabolic steroids. He passed away in 1992.
  • Doug Atkins was a defensive end who played most of his career with the Chicago Bears. Drafted by the dominant Cleveland Browns #11 overall in 1953 out of Tennessee, the 6'8" giant was traded to the Chicago Bears two years later, where he developed speed to match his size, became an annual Pro Bowler, and contributed to the team's 1963 championship. Atkins was one of the first great defensive specialists, with his size (big for even the modern NFL but downright enormous at the time) making him perfectly suited for batting down throws or practically stepping over offensive linemen. Atkins played a few more seasons with the Saints in the late '60s before retiring in 1969.note  He passed away in 2015.
  • Joey and Nick Bosa are sibling defensive ends who play for the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Both brothers were Top 5 draft picksnote  after star turns at Ohio State and both won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Joey was signed to the highest ever contract for a defensive player in 2020, while Nick helped bring his team to a Super Bowl appearance in his rookie year. The Bosa Brothers are part of an extensive football family—their father John was a first round pick in 1987, though his career turned out to be a bust, and their family tree includes multiple other NFL players.
  • Buck Buchanan was a defensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him #1 overall in the 1963 AFL Draft out of the HBCU Grambling State.note  Buchanan towered over many of his contemporaries at 6'7". His dominating play brought him to six straight All-Star games before the merger and two Pro Bowls after it, and he helped lead the Chiefs to their Super Bowl IV victory. Buchanan retired in 1975, had his #86 retired by the Chiefs, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990; tragically, he was diagnosed with lung cancer only a week before his induction and passed away in 1992. The award for best defensive player in FCS college football is named after him.
  • Terry Crews started out his career in Hollywood as a defensive end/linebacker for the L.A. Rams, who drafted him in the eleventh round in 1991 out of Western Michigan. Crews saw relatively little actual game-time during his fairly unremarkable journeyman career and supplemented his income by commissioning portraits for his teammates. He retired from football in 1997 and entered the film industry not long afterwards.
  • Willie Davis was a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Green Bay Packers during their '60s dynasty. Davis was a 15th round draft pick in 1958 out of Grambling State, initially going to Cleveland before being traded to Green Bay in 1960. Davis soon became the captain of the team's fearsome five-time championship defense, and while sacks and tackles were not counted in his era, most agree that he was one of the most productive and dangerous defensive players ever. Perhaps even more important to the team's success, however, was his widely-recognized leadership role in facilitating the team's racial integration. Davis earned five Pro Bowl selections before his retirement in 1969 while simultaneously earning a master's in business; he went on to be an extremely successful businessman before he passed away in 2020.
  • Aaron Donald is a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams. Significantly undersized for the position (listed "officially" at 6'1", 282 lb), Donald received little NFL attention despite a dominant college career at Pitt. That all changed when he put up one of the greatest Senior Bowl performances (both in practices and the game) of all time, destroying opposing offensive linemen from every level of the sport. He followed it up with a monster Combine performance that propelled him into high 1st round consideration. After the Rams drafted him #13 overall in 2014, he has rewarded them by putting up Pro Bowl-worthy performances every season since, his strength, skill, and size allowing him to both slip around and power through offensive linemen even when double- or triple-teamed. Donald won Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year thrice in 2017, 2018, and 2020.
  • Art Donovan was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who most famously played for the '50s Baltimore Colts. Nicknamed "the Bulldog", Donovan served four years with the U.S. Marines in the Pacific during WWII before he returned home, finished college at Boston College, and was drafted in the twenty-second round of the 1947 Draft by the first iteration of the Colts. In his first three seasons, Donovan played for three different teams that folded the year they hired him: the Colts, the New York Yanks, and the Dallas Texans. Donovan was eventually picked up by the second iteration of his original team, where he was selected to five Pro Bowls, won two championships, and had his #70 retired after he finished his playing career in 1971. Beyond his dominant presence on the gridiron, Donovan was most well known for being an extremely jovial and humorous person. He was a frequent and popular guest on David Letterman's shows, where Dave would frequently let him tell long and hilarious stories about his time playing football. Donovan passed away in 2013.
  • Richard Dent was a defensive end who most famously played for the '80s Chicago Bears, who drafted him in the eighth round in 1983 out of HBCU Tennessee State. Dent proved to be a major draft steal, as he formed a core component of the stifling defense that brought Chicago a Super Bowl in 1985; Dent led the league in sacks that year and won Super Bowl MVP for his dominating performance. Despite frequently clashing with the Bears' coaching staff, Dent spent twelve nonconsecutive seasons in Chicago.note  He retired in 1997 as the #3 official all-time sack leader and still sits in the top ten of that metric. He was inducted into Canton in 2011.
  • Myles Garrett is a defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and the #1 overall pick in the 2017 Draft coming out of Texas A&M. Injuries kept Garrett sidelined for much of his rookie season, in which the Browns went winless, but he came back strong in his second year and broke out as one of the league's best defensive players. Garrett's promising career ground to a halt in the middle of the 2019 season when he got into an altercation with Steelers QB Mason Rudolph at the end of the game, ripping off Rudolph's helmet and bashing his unprotected head with it in a display of aggression that flew in the face of his persona as one of football's more introverted and thoughtful stars.note  Garrett was suspended indefinitely for the incident and was reinstated only during the subsequent offseason, making his suspension the second-longest in NFL history for an on-field incident and the longest to be issued without any priors. Garrett has mostly rebounded from this incident, returning to his prior defensive dominance and even being put forward as the Browns' nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his humanitarian work.
  • Bill Goldberg, prior to becoming a multi-time heavyweight champion professional wrestler, was an NFL defensive tackle. Drafted in the 11th round in 1990 by the LA Rams out of Georgia, he spent two seasons in LA without playing in a game. He moved onto the Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football (a precursor to NFL Europe), winning a World Bowl title. He then joined the Atlanta Falcons for three seasons as a backup and special teams player. While rehabbing an abdominal injury that ended his football career, Goldberg got into powerlifting and mixed martial arts, where he was spotted by WCW legends Sting and Lex Luger, who encouraged him to try wrestling.
  • Joe Greene was a legendary defensive tackle for the '70s Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him #4 overall in 1969 out of North Texas, the team's first draft pick of the Chuck Noll era.note  Greene made an immediate impact as the most acclaimed defensive talent of the '70s, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year before moving on to become a ten-time Pro Bowler, the first player to win Defensive Player of the Year twice (1972, 1974), and the cornerstone of the "Steel Curtain" defense that brought Pittsburgh four Super Bowl wins. The fact that he was called "Mean" Joe Greene tells you all you need to know about his on-the-field ruthlessness, though he was known as a much more personable Gentle Giant off of it. He retired in 1981 and won a first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame; he worked for several more years as an assistant coach, then took a front office position with the Steelers, earning two more rings before fully retiring in 2013. His #75 is one of two numbers to be retired by the organization. However, he's probably best known for the "Hey Kid, Catch!" Coca-Cola commercial.
  • Bill Hewitt was one of those "60 Minute Men" who played both ends of the ball (even leading the league in receptions in 1934) for the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles in the '30s after a college career at Michigan. Hewitt stubbornly refused to wear a helmet until it became a requirement in his final season of the game, believing it slowed his famed reaction time that earned him six First-Team All Pro selections. After he retired in 1939, Hewitt became one of a few older football vets to return to the NFL during the player shortage of WWII; he played the 1943 season with the "Steagles", the fusion of the Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. Hewitt was tragically killed in a car crash a few years after that season; he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971 and had his #56 retired by the Bears.
  • Claude Humphrey was a defensive end drafted #3 overall by the Atlanta Falcons out of HBCU Tennessee State in 1968 and played for them through 1978. He was selected for the Pro Bowl six times, going consecutively from 1970-1974, and once again in 1977. He finished out his career with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1979-1981, where he would play in Super Bowl XV. During the game, he was involved in an incident where he picked a penalty flag and threw it back at the referee after being called for roughing the passer. Because he played before sacks were recorded as an official stat, he unofficially has 126.5 sacks and helped pave the way for pass rushing linemen like Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan, and Reggie White. He was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 on the senior ballet.
  • Ed "Too Tall" Jones was a defensive end and the #1 overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1974 Draft. Notably, he's the last #1 overall pick to date to have come from an HBCU (Tennessee State in his case), as well as the last to have come from a school outside of the current Division I FBS.note  A franchise cornerstone during their 1970s dynasty, Jones received his nickname because, at 6'9", he was considered to be "too tall" to play football and started college on a basketball scholarship before focusing on football full time. Jones famously took a two-year break in the middle of his football career to pursue boxing, which resulted in improved play when he returned. He retired in 1989 after 15 (non-consecutive) seasons with the 'Boys.
  • Deacon Jones, nicknamed the "Secretary of Defense", was a defensive end who most famously played for the Los Angeles Rams as part of their "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line. A major draft steal, Jones was picked in the fourteenth round in 1961 out of the HBCU Mississippi Valley State (the school that produced Jerry Rice a generation later). Considered one of the greatest pass rushers ever, he coined the term 'sack' in its current usage (as in "tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage").note  Jones' Signature Move, the "Head Slap", involved whacking the opposing lineman in the head with his forearm and running around him while he was dazed; it was so effective that the NFL eventually outlawed it. Jones retired in 1974 after a few seasons in San Diego and Washington and is believed by many NFL historians to have put up more sacks than any prior player (173.5) and the third-most ever; however, all these sacks are unofficial, as they all occurred before the NFL started going over its records to make it an official stat in 1982. Jones was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and had his #75 retired by the Rams. A month after his death in 2013, the NFL announced the creation of an official yearly award for the league lead in sacks—named, of course, after Deacon Jones.
  • Alex Karras was a defensive tackle who played for the Detroit Lions, who drafted him #10 overall in 1958 following a college career at Iowa that saw him finish as runner-up for the Heisman. While he was selected to four Pro Bowls during his football career, he is likely best known for his acting career; Karras' oddball sense of humor was memorably captured in Paper Lion, George Plimpton's non-fiction book about trying out for the Lions, and he played himself in the film adaptation while he still played for the team. Karras spun that off into appearances on late night talk shows and, after his retirement in 1970, memorable film and TV roles like the dad on Webster and Mongo in Blazing Saddles. His aggressive play and a gambling scandal that led to his suspension kept Karras out of Hall of Fame consideration until after he passed away in 2012; he was posthumously inducted into the Hall's Centennial Class in 2020.
  • Cortez Kennedy was a defensive tackle who played for the Seattle Seahawks for eleven seasons after being drafted #3 overall out of Miami in 1990. He is best known for being selected as the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year in a season where Seattle went 2-14, by far the worst performance by any team whose player has been so honored. The Seahawks retired his #96 and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Kennedy died of heart failure in 2017.
  • Bob Lilly, aka "Mr. Cowboy", was the first NFL draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys in 1961.note  A cornerstone of the "Doomsday Defense" as a defensive tackle, the TCU product missed only one game over the course of his 14-year career. He famously threw his helmet half the length of the field when Dallas lost Super Bowl V on the last play, although they won Super Bowl VI the next year. Lilly was selected 1st team All-Pro seven times and the Pro Bowl eleven times, and he became the first Cowboy inducted into the Hall of Fame, being selected in his first year of eligibility.
  • Gene Lipscomb, also known as "Big Daddy", was a defensive lineman for the Rams, Colts, and Steelers in the '50s and early '60s. Lipscomb enlisted in the Marines out of high school instead of going to college and played for the football team at his base. His tremendous size (estimated 6'9'' and nearly 300 pounds) regardless attracted the attention of local scouts. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the L.A. Rams in 1953, then traded to the Baltimore Colts in 1956, where he helped lead the team to two consecutive championships. He was traded again to the Steelers towards the end of his career, which was tragically cut short by a heroin overdose during the 1963 off-season. This, combined with a lack of dependable stats for defensive players from his era, has kept him out of the Hall of Fame, though many argue that he is one of the most deserving players of the pre-Super Bowl era for that honor; he was the only finalist for the NFL's 100th Anniversary team from his era to not be enshrined in Canton.
  • Howie Long was a Hall of Fame defensive end for the Los Angeles Raiders. Drafted in the second round out of Villanova in 1981, the year before the Raiders left Oakland, Long made eight Pro Bowl selections and one Super Bowl win as the leader of the Raiders' strong defense. He retired after the 1993 season and spun his success in the L.A. market into a brief career in action films, including a notable supporting role in Broken Arrow (where his death scene became the Trope Namer for the "Howie Scream", a popular Stock Scream) and the starring role in Firestorm (a Box Office Bomb that ended the idea of him as a leading man). He saw much more lasting success as an analyst for Fox, joining the network's foray into sports in the early '90s as the Straight Man to Terry Bradshaw's wilder antics, a role he's kept to this day.
  • Gino Marchetti was a defensive end and offensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts during their dominant run in the '50s and was possibly the greatest defensive player of that decade. A gritty working-class guy, Gino was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and basically defined the image of the mid-century American football player. The New York Yanks drafted Marchetti #14 overall in 1952 out of San Francisconote  with the first pick of the second round, but the team folded soon after. He landed with the Dallas Texans, who likewise collapsed; their assets wound up with the new Colts, who won two championships with Marchetti on the line. Marchetti was selected to eleven straight Pro Bowls in Baltimore and was a recipient of the AP's "Most Outstanding Player" award in 1958note . After retiring in 1966, he started a pretty successful fast food chain called "Gino's" that had hundreds of locations in the mid-Atlantic before being bought out by Roy Rogers. Marchetti was inducted to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, had his #89 retired by the Colts, and passed away in 2019.
  • Jim Marshall was a defensive end who most famously played for the Minnesota Vikings throughout the '60s and '70s as a member of their elite "Purple People Eater" defensive line (along with Alan Page, see below). Marshall's path to the NFL was relatively unique. He dropped out of Ohio State before his senior year in 1959, a common practice today for promising young stars seeking to go pro and start making a living. At that time, however, that decision left him ineligible to join the NFL for another year. He signed with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders instead, was traded to the Cleveland Browns the next season (a rare CFL-NFL trade), and joined the expansion Vikings the next year. A two-time Pro Bowler, Marshall played for all four of the Vikings Super Bowl-losing teams during that era. He retired with the career record for fumbles recovered with 30 (since passed by Rod Woodson), played a record 20 seasons as a defensive player (since tied by Darrell Green and Junior Seau), held the longest start streak in league history at 270note , and was the final member of the original 1961 expansion Vikings to retire, after which the Vikings retired his #70. On a more infamous note, Marshall is responsible for one of the all-time NFL bloopers, known as the "Wrong Way Run", where he returned a recovered fumble to his own end zone, resulting in a safety.note  Despite all of those records, he remains left out of the Hall of Fame, likely because voters can't look past that blunder.
  • John Matuszak was a defensive end who most famously played for the Raiders in the late '70s and early '80s. Matuszak was drafted #1 overall in 1973 by the Houston Oilers out of Tampa (which stopped playing football at the end of the 1974 season) but was traded away after only one season when he attempted to also play for the WFL's Houston Texans. Matuszak bounced around a number of teams due to his hard-partying ways making him an at-times unreliable player whose performance didn't reflect his draft position. He was on his way to becoming one of the greatest draft busts of all time until he landed with the Raiders, a team that fit his personality to a tee, and he contributed to two of the team's Super Bowl victories. Matuszak retired in 1982 after ten seasons and transitioned into a fairly prolific acting career, most famously playing Sloth in The Goonies. Tragically, he died of a drug overdose in 1989.
  • Steve "Mongo" McMichael was perhaps the most successful professional football player to move into a career in pro wrestling. A defensive tackle drafted in the 3rd round in 1980 by the New England Patriots out of Texas, he was released after one season and joined the Chicago Bears for the next 13 seasons. He was a starter on their legendary 1985 Super Bowl winning team, made the Pro Bowl twice, and retired with 95 sacks—second most in Bears historynote  and third most (officially) for a full-time DT in NFL historynote . McMichael quickly moved into professional wrestling with both WWF and WCW in the late '90s, briefly winning a championship title, and later served as a color announcer and referee.
  • Merlin Olsen was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played his entire 15-year career with the Rams. Olsen made an immediate impact upon his arrival in L.A. from Utah State in 1962, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The next season, he became, along with Deacon Jones, part of the Rams' original "Fearsome Foursome". Olsen made eight All-Pro teams and 14 consecutive Pro Bowls (the latter a league record). Also like Jones, he made the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team, had his #74 retired by the Rams, and made the league's All-Decade Teams for both the 1960s and 1970s. After his retirement, he became a successful NFL broadcaster, serving as NBC's lead NFL color commentator through the late '80s. He also enjoyed notable success as an actor, playing a major supporting role in Little House on the Prairie and the lead in Father Murphy, and also spent many years as the commercial spokesman for FTD Flowers. Olsen died of cancer in 2010.
  • Alan Page was a fearsome defensive tackle who most famously played for the Minnesota Vikings as part of their "Purple People Eater" defensive line. Drafted at #15 overall in 1967 out of Notre Dame, Page was selected to nine Pro Bowls, was the first recipient of the AP's Defensive Player of the Year award and the first defensive player to win a MVP award (both in 1971) and, in his 15 years as a lineman, blocked an impressive 15 field goal attempts and recorded 148.5 sacks, an unofficial record for a defensive tackle.note  After a stint with the Bears, Page retired from football in 1981 and earned an induction into Canton and the retirement of his #88 by the Vikings. He then became a prominent attorney and sat on the Minnesota Supreme Court for more than 20 years (1993–2015), leaving only because he had reached the state's mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. For this service, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018, the same year the NFLPA renamed their annual community service award after him.
  • Julius Peppers was a defensive end selected #2 overall in 2002 by his home state Carolina Panthers out of North Carolina. A freakish athlete at 6'7" and 290 lbs, Peppers not only played football in college but also walked on to the powerhouse UNC basketball team and even put up a double-double performance in the NCAA Tournament in 2001. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2002 and made the Pro Bowl five times with the Panthers. Entering a rebuilding phase, the Panthers opted to let Peppers walk during free agency in 2010, where he signed a six-year deal with the Chicago Bears. He earned three more trips to the Pro Bowl with Chicago but was released after his fourth season saw declining returns. Peppers moved to division rival Green Bay for three years, where he rebounded to earn another Pro Bowl nod. In 2017, he returned to Carolina and entered a multi-way tie as the oldest player to register a double-digit sack season at age 37. He retired after one more season with the Panthers, ending his 17-year career with 159.5 sacks, fourth most in NFL history, as well as the only player in NFL history to record over 100 sacks and intercept 10 passes.
  • William Perry was a defensive tackle for the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears. The Big Guy in a league full of big guys, Perry weighed in at well over 300 pounds throughout his time in the league. His size made him an instant celebrity after he was drafted #22 overall out of Clemson in 1985 and earned him the popular nickname "The Refrigerator" (often shortened to "Fridge"), though he was more commonly called "The Biscuit" by his teammates (as in "one biscuit shy of 350 pounds"). Perry's size was also creatively used by coach Mike Ditka in other ways—he was sometimes run at fullback, where he would pound through the offensive line like a wrecking ball to grab some extra yards, something he famously accomplished for a touchdown in Super Bowl XX. Perry retired in 1994 after a brief stint with the Eagles and found some success in professional wrestling, even being inducted into the "celebrity" wing of the WWE Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Perry has spent the last decade struggling with debt, alcoholism, and major health issues.
  • John Randle was a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings in the '90s. Undrafted out of college in 1990 due to his smaller stature and Division II school (Texas A&M–Kingsville), Randle quickly asserted himself as a talented and vocal defensive opponent, recording double-digit sacks in five seasons and leading the league in sacks in 1997. Randle was instantly recognizable by his distinctive eye black, which he applied all around his eyes like Tribal Face Paint. Randle had a fierce rivalry with division rival Brett Favre, who he sacked more than any other quarterback; this was notably joked about in a Nike commercial where Randle chased down and barbecued a chicken wearing a Favre jersey, which got the company and Randle in some hot water with PETA. After a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks, he retired in 2004 having recorded more official sacks than any other defensive tackle.note  Randle was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
  • Busari "B.J." Raji was a defensive tackle drafted #9 overall out of Boston College by the Green Bay Packers in 2009. After being hampered by injury in his rookie season, he became the anchor of the Green Bay defensive line in 2010. In the 2010 NFC Championship game, Raji famously intercepted a pass from Chicago Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, becoming the heaviest player in NFL history to score a post-season touchdown (his touchdown dance remains a popular meme to this day). Though his primary role was on the defense, he proved to be a versatile player and was occasionally put in at fullback on offensive schemes to assist with run blocking due to his size and mobility and, in one 2011 game, actually carried the ball for a touchdown. He retired ahead of the 2016 season due to family obligations and concerns about the repeated head injuries that are common in the sport. At the time of his retirement, Raji indicated that he might return to the NFL a few years down the road, but five seasons later, he has made no further mention of doing so.
  • Warren Sapp was a defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who selected him #12 overall in 1995 out of Miami.note  He, along with fellow 1995 first round pick Derrick Brooks (see below), helped to turn Tampa from a league bottom feeder into a Super Bowl champion. Sapp worked as one of the most disruptive—and noisiest—defensive linemen of the '90s, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1999. He later developed a reputation for being brash and unsportsmanlike, picking fights with other players, coaches, and referees on a regular basis (fittingly, he spent his last few years with the Raiders), and he has struggled with legal trouble and bankruptcy since retiring from play. Still, the seven-time Pro Bowler retired with the second most sacks by a defensive tackle in league history, had his #99 retired by Tampa Bay, and was a first ballot Hall of Famer.
  • Lee Roy Selmon was a defensive end drafted #1 overall out of Oklahoma in 1976 as the first ever pick of the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Through his nine-year career, Selmon was practically the only bright spot on the historically terrible team—it was no coincidence that he was awarded Defensive Player of the Year after their first winning season in 1979, nor that the team had two consecutive 2-14 seasons after he retired early in 1984 due to a back injury. His nickname was literally "The Gentle Giant". Selmon went to six consecutive Pro Bowls and, despite his relatively short career, had his #63 retired by the Buccaneers, and was inducted into Canton.
  • Bubba Smith was a successful defensive end and the #1 overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft out of Michigan State, going to the Baltimore Colts. While he wasn't quite as individually successful in the pros as he was in college, he helped the Colts win a Championship in 1968 and a Super Bowl in 1970. After brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Oilers, Smith retired after the 1976 season and became an actor who would be best known for appearing in the Police Academy series of movies. Smith died in 2011 at age 66; autopsies revealed he had numerous health issues, including advanced CTE.
  • Bruce Smith is the all-time leading sack specialist of the NFL—he holds the career sack record with 200 quarterback sacks, a truly tremendous number when considering that only 42 players have even recorded half that number, even unofficially, and only Reggie White's 198 count is even within twenty sacks of the record.note  He was drafted #1 overall in 1985 by the Buffalo Bills after a stellar showing as a defensive end at Virginia Tech, where he earned the nickname "The Sack Man". Over his 19-year career, he was a major contributor for the '90s Bills during their run as 4-in-a-row Super Bowl runner-ups, won Defensive Player of the Year twice (1990, 1996), and was voted to eleven Pro Bowls. Smith retired in 2003 after a brief stint in Washington, had his #78 retired by the Bills, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • Ernie Stautner was a defensive tackle (and sometimes offensive lineman) for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the '50s and early '60s. Pittsburgh picked him in the 2nd round of the 1950 Draft out of Boston College, even though he was considered too undersized to be a successful lineman at 6'1" and 230 pounds. What Stautner lacked in size, however, he made up for with his aggressiveness, tenacity, and a drive to win that the Steelers had severely lacked throughout their early history. He became one of the best defensive tackles of his era, earning nine Pro Bowls and five All-Pros throughout his 14-year career with the Steelers, during which time he only missed six games while playing through a plethora of injuries, including cracked ribs and even a couple of broken shoulders.note  Although the Steelers never made the playoffs during his career, they built themselves a reputation as a team that played bruising defensive football in large part due to Stautner's leadership. He retired after the 1963 season, with his number 70 being the first (and, for decades, only) to be officially retired by the Steelers shortly afterwards. He would go on to spend the next three decades as a defensive coach for several teams, most notably as a defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys and their “Doomsday” defenses from the late '60s to the early '80s. In the '90s, he saw success as a head coach in the Arena Football League and World League of American Football, leading the Frankfurt Galaxy to a championship in the latter league. Stautner was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and passed away in 2006 from complications with Alzheimer's.
  • Michael Strahan was a defensive lineman for the New York Giants, who drafted him in the second round in 1993 out of the HBCU Texas Southern. He owns the single-season sack record, putting up 22.5 in 2001 on the way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. Despite being a seven-time Pro Bowler, a Hall of Famer, and having his #92 retired by the Giants, he may be more famous in the popular consciousness for being "the TV host with the enormous gap in his front teeth" than he is for his stellar football career. After retiring in 2007 after the Giants' first upset Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, Strahan spun off his on-field success in one of America's premier media markets into one of the most prolific TV host careers of the 21st century. He joined the analyst team for FOX's NFL coverage, though he has been frequently moved around in part to accommodate his growing list of non-football live TV shows. First, he co-hosted the morning television talk show Live! alongside Kelly Ripa, replacing long-time co-host Regis Philbin from 2012 to 2016. He left (amid rumors of friction on the set) to become co-anchor of ABC's Good Morning America. Also in 2016, he became host of the current version of the Pyramid game show. In 2018, he became co-host of a daytime GMA spinoff, now known as Strahan, Sara and Keke, while still cohosting GMA.
  • Ndamukong Suh is a defensive end drafted #2 overall in 2010 by the Detroit Lions after a highly decorated college career at Nebraska. Suh immediately played an integral role at helping revive the long-struggling franchise, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year. While Suh's aggressive playstyle also resulted in numerous penalties and suspensions, he briefly became the highest-paid defensive player in league history when he was picked up by the Miami Dolphins in 2015 after his rookie contract expired. He later hopped from Miami to the L.A. Rams (where he played in his first Super Bowl) and currently plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (where he won his first as a core part of a powerhouse defense). Suh has earned five Pro Bowl selections and a place on the 2010s All-Decade Team.
  • Jason Taylor was a prominent defensive end and weakside linebacker. A third round pick out of Akron by the Miami Dolphins in 1997, Taylor played eleven seasons in Miami before he was traded to Washington; he returned to Miami after one season, signed with the New York Jets the next year, and again bounced back to Miami to retire. During that span, Taylor set the league record for fumble return touchdowns and ranked high on the lists for sacks and forced fumbles. He was selected to six Pro Bowls, won Defensive Player of the Year in 2006, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • J.J. Watt is one of the most feared and respected defensive linemen in NFL history. Drafted #11 overall out of Wisconsin in 2011 by the Houston Texans, Watt won Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first five seasons (2012, 2014, 2015), and his presence helped to finally elevate the young team to playoff contention. A rare dual threat at his position, his ability to both sack the quarterback and bat down passes at the line of scrimmage earned him the nickname "J.J. Swat". In 2012, he notched a 15 sack/15 passes defended season, an astonishing feat for a defensive lineman. In 2014, he started lining up on offense and caught three touchdown passesnote . However, he's since become something of a Glass Cannon—he missed all but three games in 2016 after offseason back surgery and then suffered a season-ending broken leg in 2017. Watt nonetheless stayed busy in 2017—following the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Houston, Watt started a relief drive with $100,000 of his own money. By the time it ended, it had raised $37 million. Those charitable efforts earned him the league's Walter Payton Man of the Year award, as well as a share of Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year honors alongside Houston Astros superstar José Altuve. Watt has since become renowned as one of the league's leading philanthropists, regularly donating his time and money to victims of disasters, tragedies, and poverty in and around Texas. Upon reaching the end of his contract in 2021, Watt asked to be released by the Texans, departing Houston and signing with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent.
    • J.J. is the oldest of three brothers who play in the NFL. Youngest brother T.J. Watt is a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he has also seen Pro Bowl-caliber success. Middle brother Derek Watt played fullback for the Chargers before he also moved to the Steelers. All three brothers attended Wisconsin in college, and the three co-hosted an Ultimate Tag game show for FOX.
  • Randy White, aka "The Manster", was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who was picked #2 overall out of Maryland in the 1975 Draft, the first of many great picks for the Dallas Cowboys that year. White was probably the best player on the "Doomsday II" defense that won Super Bowl XII (where White was co-MVP) and carried the Cowboys for years afterward. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls before he retired in 1988.
  • Reggie White, the feared "Minister of Defense", played as defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers from the late '80s through the early 2000s. He is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players to ever play the game; he was a key member of the 1997 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl-winning team, won Defensive Player of the Year honors twice (1987, 1998note ), and went to 13 consecutive Pro Bowls. His high-profile move from the Eagles to the Packers in 1993 after the NFLPA successfully bargained for unrestricted free agency sent shockwaves through the league and marked a turning point in player mobility. White briefly held the NFL career sack record with 198 sacks, but Bruce Smith passed him two years after his retirement. He likely would still hold that record had he not started his professional career playing for the Memphis Showboats of the USFL so he could stay in his native Tennessee (having also played college ball at UT); he recorded 23.5 sacks there before that league folded. Don't feel too bad for him; the next most sacks recorded by a single player is 160, with no active player really even close to moving him further down the list. An ordained minister, he was an actual Bad Ass Preacher. White retired in 2001 but died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest only four years later; he was posthumously voted first ballot into the Hall of Fame and had his #92 retired by both the Eagles and Packers, the only player to have his number retired by multiple teams.note 
  • Vince Wilfork was a massive defensive tackle most famous for his time with the New England Patriots who selected him #21 overall out of Miami (where he won a BCS national championship) in 2004. Listed at 325 lbs but believed to have played at a much heavier weightnote , Wilfork was perhaps the best true "nose tackle" of the 21st century. His individual stats look rather pedestrian for a player with his accolades (including just 16 sacks in his 13 year career) but only because his role was to tie up multiple blockers at once with his massive size to help other linemen to exploit weaknesses. In 11 seasons with the Patriots, Wilfork won two Super Bowls, was named to five Pro Bowls, and earned four All-Pro nods. He retired after two final years with the Houston Texans.
  • Bill Willis was a defensive end who, along with RB Marion Motley (see above), helped to break the color barrier in professional football when he was recruited to play for the Cleveland Browns by his former coach at Ohio State, Paul Brown. In his eight years with the team, Willis helped win five consecutive championships (four in the AAFC, one in the NFL) and was selected to three Pro Bowls. Willis retired early to accept a better paying job working as Cleveland's municipal assistant recreation commissioner and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2007.
  • Jack Youngblood was a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams through the '70s and early '80s. Drafted #20 overall out of Florida in 1971, Youngblood quickly asserted himself as one of the league's toughest players, earning seven Pro Bowl selections, but he established himself as a true NFL legend in the 1979 playoffs when he broke his fibula in the divisional round... and returned to the field, played in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl on a broken leg without missing practice for three weeks, and topped it off by playing in the pointless Pro Bowl the week after losing the Super Bowl. Most of Youngblood's career came before the NFL started recognizing sacks as a statistic, but most experts agree that he had delivered more than any player other than prior Rams great Deacon Jones when he retired in 1984 and would still sit in the top five today were they counted. Youngblood continued to demonstrate his love for the game for many years: he went straight into the Rams front office, served as the NFL's liason to the Arena Football League, ventured into broadcasting, had his #85 retired by the Rams, and eventually landed a spot in the Hall of Fame.

     Linebackers 
  • Chuck Bednarik was a starter at both offensive center and linebacker, drafted #1 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles out of Penn in 1949, for whom he played for his entire career, choosing to do so during a time when the one-platoon system had long been phased out of football at all organized levels. As a result, he became known as the last of the "60-Minute Men", as, not only was he on the field for all 60 minutes of every game, but #60 proceeded to earn numerous Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for his dominant play at both positionsnote  throughout his career. He won two NFL Championships with the Eagles, one in 1949 during his rookie season, and again in 1960 against the rising force of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers; in fact, his tackle of Jim Taylor as time ran out sealed the game for the Birds, handing Lombardi his only-ever playoff loss as a head coach. After his retirement following the 1962 season, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, had his number retired by the Eagles, and was named to both the 1950s All-Decade and the 75th Anniversary All-Time Two-Way teams. He would spend the next several decades loudly criticizing modern players who couldn't stay on the field for more than a few minutes at a time. His numbersnote  might not pop out compared to other Hall of Fame-caliber players, but his impact on the gridiron was very much felt in more ways than one. A blue-collar Pennsylvanian to the bone, his nickname was "Concrete Charlie", which came from his business of selling concrete during the offseason and not actually from his reputation of being one of the most devastating tacklers of all time, though Bednarik was certainly, as sportswriter Hugh Brown famously remarked, "as hard as the concrete he sells."
  • Derrick Brooks was a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who selected him #28 overall in 1995 out of Florida State. He, along with fellow 1995 first round pick Warren Sapp (see above), helped to turn Tampa from a league bottom-feeder into a Super Bowl champion. Brooks is heralded as one of the greatest coverage linebackers in league history making him a perfect fit in the Bucs "Tampa 2" defense. He was also a sure-fire tackler, retiring as the league's all-time leader in tackles (since surpassed by Ray Lewis, see below). He was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, the same year he led the Bucs to the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. Brooks, an 11-time Pro Bowler, was induced into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, had his #55 retired by the Buccaneers, and became president and part-owner of Tampa's winning arena football team during its final years. Since 2014, he has served the NFL office as an appeals Officer.
  • Dick Butkus was a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears who set the gold standard for the position. Drafted #3 overall out of Illinois in 1965, Butkus was by far the greatest linebacker of the era and is in the running for the best ever. He won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1969 and 1970 and once made a Sports Illustrated cover as "The Most Feared Man in the Game". He had incredible speed, strength, and instinct, and was greatly feared for always "playing angry"; fellow defensive legend Deacon Jones once noted that "every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital." He retired somewhat early in 1973 due to injury problems from his aggressive playing style, but he held the (now-passed) record for fumble recoveries and likely would be a leader in many more stats had the NFL recorded them during his era. Butkus was still inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and had his #51 retired by the Bears. Bet you aren't making fun of his name now, right?
  • London Fletcher was a linebacker known best for his consistent durability, having played a position-record 215 consecutive starts over his 16-year career in St. Louis, Buffalo, and Washington and putting up the second most career tackles in league history despite going undrafted when entering the league in 1998 out of the Division III John Carroll University.
  • Kevin Greene was a Hall of Fame linebacker/defensive end and the #3 all-time sack leader at 160. The Auburn product was picked in only the fifth round of the 1985 Draft by the L.A. Rams. After eight seasons in L.A., Greene later played for the Pittsburgh Steelersnote , Carolina Panthersnote , and San Francisco 49ersnote . He was well known for his flowing blond hair, big personality, and passing resemblance to Hulk Hogan; he indeed pursued a professional wrestling career for a time until the NFL began prohibiting active players from doing so. Greene retired in 1999 after 15 seasons in the NFL. He later served as a linebackers coach for the Packers and Jets, finally winning a Super Bowl ring with the former; his most crucial moment in said Super Bowl was a Rousing Speech he famously gave to Clay Matthews, after which Matthews would go on to make a game-changing play (see Matthews' entry). He passed away in 2020.
  • Charles Haley was a Hall of Fame linebacker/defensive end who played for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys in the late '80s/early '90s. Initially a fourth round pick out of FCS James Madison, he became the first player in league history with five Super Bowl ringsnote  (a feat later surpassed by Tom Brady) and holds the Super Bowl record for sacks. Known as a disruptive player in both senses of the word: he wreaked havoc against opponents on the field and would go on destructive tirades against his own team in the locker room (he was later diagnosed, unsurprisingly, with bipolar disorder).
  • Jack Ham and Jack Lambert were the outside and middle linebackers for the '70s Pittsburgh Steelers. Working behind the famed Steel Curtain defensive line, both Jacks won four Super Bowls, and were selected to multiple Pro Bowls (eight and nine apiece). Ham, a second round pick out of Penn State in 1971, was known as one of the most intelligent players at the position and had one of the best birth names imaginable for a football player, though his most popular nickname was not "Jack Hammer", as you might expect, but "Dobre Shunka", a Polish phrase meaning "good ham". Lambert, a second round pick out of Kent State in 1974, won Defensive Rookie of the Year and followed it with Defensive Player of the Year in 1976, becoming the first linebacker to win the award. He was one of the scariest-looking players ever, largely due to his toothless snarl—he lost his front four teeth in a high school basketball injury and didn't wear his dentures while playing. His ugly mug was one of the last things many players saw before they were buried in turf. Both players were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.
  • James Harrison is a hard-hitting outside linebacker who made his name during a long career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. An undrafted prospect out of Kent State in 2002, he worked his way up to become one of the most dominating defenders in the league, even winning the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. He spent most of his career playing for the Steelers, with whom he won two Super Bowls. He once held the record for the longest play in Super Bowl history—during Super Bowl XLIII, he picked off a pass from Kurt Warner on his own goal line and ran it back 100 yards to score a touchdown. After signing with division rival the Bengals in 2013note , he was released and retired, but he came back to the Steelers after one of their linebackers was lost for the season to injury. His continued high level of play since then in a position known for high wear and tear, has earned him the nickname "The Ageless One". However, he's probably best known for his frequent instances of "Foot-In-Mouth Disease"; among other things, he's called out Ben Roethlisberger over the Super Bowl XLV loss and called league commissioner Roger Goodell a homophobic slur in response to getting fined for hits that were against new NFL safety rules against helmet-to-helmet contact. Shortly before the end of the 2017 season, the Steelers released him again, with the Pats picking him up for their postseason run four days later, after which Harrison retired again, apparently for good.
  • Ted Hendricks was a Hall of Fame linebacker and defensive end who played for the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders (plus a year with the Packers in between). Picked in the second round (#15 overall) out of Miami, Hendricks' tall and gangly 6'7'' frame, fairly unique for a player at his position, earned him the nickname "The Stork". He won four Super Bowls, one with the Colts and three with the Raiders, and was selected to eight Pro Bowls before he retired in 1983 after 15 seasons. Fun fact: Hendricks was the first Guatemalan-born player in the NFL.
  • Chuck Howley was a linebacker and six-time Pro Bowler who played for the Dallas Cowboys for 13 seasons. Howley was drafted #7 overall out of West Virginia by the Chicago Bears in 1958, but his career seemed finished when he sustained a devastating knee injury the summer after his rookie season. After spending a year away from the NFL, Howley decided to give football another shot with the new Cowboys team and became one of the franchise's first great players. Howley is most famous, however, for being the MVP of Super Bowl V, where he put up two interceptions and forced a fumble. This is notable for two reasons: not only was he the first ever defensive player to receive the honor, the Cowboys lost the game, making him the only MVP to play for the Big Game's losing team. Thankfully, he managed to win a ring the next year and retired two seasons afterwards. Though he is enshrined in the Cowboys Ring of Honor, Howley remains high on many lists of great players still not enshrined in Canton.
  • Sam Huff was a working-class son of a West Virginian coal miner when he was drafted in the third round out of WVU by the New York Giants in 1956. Originally a defensive lineman, Huff struggled in training camp and nearly flew back home before Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi caught him in the airport. Defensive coordinator Tom Landry likewise saw greatness in Huff and repositioned him as a middle linebacker, retooling the defensive scheme to fit his skill set and creating the 4-3 defense in the process. Huff excelled and became the first rookie at his position to start in a Championship game, which the Giants won. The Giants' success propelled Huff to celebrity status; he became the first NFL player featured on the cover of Time and one of the first athletes to be mic'd during play for a documentary film. Huff visited five more Championship games with the Giants, who lost all five; tellingly, immediately after the team traded him away to Washington in 1964, they put up their first losing season in over a decade and entered a playoff drought that lasted even longer. He retired in '68 but was lured back the next year by Lombardi after he became Washington's head coach. He helped to bring the long-struggling franchise a winning season as a player-coach before retiring for good. Huff was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
  • Luke Kuechlynote  was a middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers. Picked #9 overall out of Boston College in the 2011 Draft, Kuechly immediately established himself as one of the league's preeminent defensive players, leading the league in tackles in his first year and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. He became the youngest Defensive Player of the Year ever in his second season and visited the Pro Bowl every following year. Kuechly retired after the 2019 season at age 28, citing difficulties with injury and pain, though he remained with the Panthers organization as a scout.
  • Willie Lanier was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. A second-round pick out of HBCU Morgan State in the 1967 Draft, Lanier was given the exceptionally badass nickname "Contact" for his aggressive playing style. He dealt out so many head-first tackles that he was made to wear a specially modified helmet with extra padding on the outside to protect other players from injury, though his violent playstyle clashed noticably with his soft and thoughtful speech off the field. He retired in 1977 and had his #68 retired by the Chiefs.
  • Mo Lewis was a three-time Pro Bowler for the Jets and one of the better linebackers in team history before his retirement in 2003. His notoriety, however, comes from a single play: a monster hit in the early 2001 season against Patriots starting QB Drew Bledsoe. The hit caused Bledsoe internal bleeding, forcing the Patriots to turn to Bledsoe's backup, an untested second-year player they had drafted in the 6th round. His name: Tom Brady.
  • Ray Lewis was a dominating linebacker and the face of the Baltimore Ravens from the team's inception in 1996 (when they drafted him #26 overall out of Miami with their second ever pick) until his retirement in 2012. Widely considered one of the best defensive players of all time, he was known as a complete and cerebral defender and holds the current record for total career tackles (1,568). Infamously, Lewis was caught in the center of a murder trial in 2000 after a fight broke out between a group of Lewis' friends and another group of people at a Super Bowl party. Two people from the other group were stabbed to death. Lewis was arrested and indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges and gave a misleading statement to police on the morning after the killings, initially claiming he was not at the scene. Additionally, pieces of evidence, including the allegedly blood-stained suit that Lewis was wearing the night of the murders, went missing. Lewis' attorneys eventually negotiated a plea agreement with the District Attorney where his charges were dismissed in exchange for his testimony against his friends. Lewis was ultimately charged only with obstruction of justice and sentenced to 12 months probation.note  Lewis' involvement in the case was elevated by the fact that it played out while he was having one of the best seasons of his career—he won his first of two Defensive Player of the Year awards and Super Bowls in the following months and wasn't allowed to say "I'm Going to Disney World" despite being named Super Bowl MVP so as to not upset the Moral Guardians.note  Lewis' reputation largely survived this incident; he remained extremely popular for his on-field play, was on the cover of Madden NFL just a few years later, and became known almost as much for his Shatner-esque style of answering interview questions as his prior legal troubles and on-field play. Lewis was voted to 13 Pro Bowls (the most ever for a linebacker), retired in 2013 after winning his second Super Bowl with the Ravens, and entered Canton at his first chance in 2018.
  • Khalil Mack is a pass rushing linebacker for the Chicago Bears. After primarily playing quarterback in high school, Mack tore his patellar tendon. He switched to linebacker for his senior year and dominated, but his lack of experience at the position led to him getting only one FBS scholarship—the State University of New York at Buffalo, not exactly a powerhouse school. After a college career setting virtually every school and several NCAA records for a defensive player (including career tackles for loss and forced fumbles), Mack was selected with the #5 overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2014. He quickly became one of the league's best defenders, winning Defensive Player of the Year in his third season. During the final year of his rookie contract, Mack staged a lengthy offseason holdout seeking to become one of the highest paid defensive players in football. The Raiders were unwilling to offer him such a contract (and according to some sources, could not). Reluctantly, the team listened to trade offers, and the Bears offered the most (two 1st round draft picks and an exchange of lower round picks). Chicago immediately gave Mack the contract he was seeking, making him the highest paid defensive player at the time.
  • Clay Matthews III, also known as "The Predator", "The Claymaker", and "Thor", is a linebacker who made his name with the Green Bay Packers, who picked him #26 overall in 2009 out of USC. Matthews established himself as one of the most dominating defenders in the NFL after just two years in the league. He was named for several rookie accolades and finished a narrow second in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. Clay is perhaps best known for his performance in Super Bowl XLV, where he forced a game-changing fumble at the start of the fourth quarter in what is often called the best play of the game. After 10 seasons in Green Bay, he signed with the Rams for the 2019 season and is currently a free agent. He, along with his brother and cousins, are third-generation NFL players and part of a vast football family that has included his grandfather Clay Sr. (linebacker, 49ers), his father Clay Jr. (linebacker, Browns and Falcons) and his uncle Bruce (Hall of Fame offensive lineman, Oilers and Titans). His younger brother Casey was a linebacker for the Eagles. His cousins Kevin and Jake are lineman: Kevin for the Titans (where his father was the offensive line coach) and Panthers, and Jake for the Falcons, where he was drafted #6 overall in 2014 (Clay and Jake played a thrilling Monday Night Game against each other that year).
  • Von Miller is a pass-rushing linebacker who has played for the Denver Broncos since they drafted him #2 overall out of Texas A&M in 2011. Miller was immediately productive in Denver, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Over the following decade, he set many Broncos franchise records for sacks and won Super Bowl MVP for his dominating performance in Super Bowl 50, where he completely smothered the Carolina Panthers' explosive offense and strip-sacked Cam Newton twice.
  • Ray Nitschke was a hard-hitting Hall of Fame linebacker who spent his entire 15-year career with the Green Bay Packers. While arriving in Green Bay in 1958 from Illinois, he didn't become a full-time starter until 1962. Once he secured a starting spot, he became the centerpiece of a Packers defense that won four NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls (the team also won an NFL title when he was still a spot starter). While he played in only one Pro Bowl, he made All-Pro teams seven times in all, made both the All-Decade Team for the 1960s and the 75th Anniversary Team, and had his #66 retired by the Packers. Nitschke also dabbled in acting, appearing in Head during his career and the original version of The Longest Yard after his retirement in 1972. He passed away from a heart attack in 1998.
  • Joe Schmidt was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the '50s Detroit Lions. A seventh round pick out of Pitt in 1953, Schmidt was a key part of the Lions' final two Championship wins, was selected to ten consecutive Pro Bowls, and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1960 and 1963. After retiring from the game in 1965, Schmidt immediately became an assistant coach and was promoted to head coach the following year; his 1970 season as coach was the last double-digit winning season the Lions would have for the next two decades. He resigned in 1972 after having served the Lions organization for twenty years; his #56 is retired by the Lions.
  • Tiaina "Junior" Seau was a twelve-time Pro Bowler linebacker who played in the league for twenty years. Drafted #5 overall out of USC by the San Diego Chargers in 1990, Seau became one of the most respected players in the league, being selected to twelve Pro Bowls through his long career and winning league's Man of the Year award in 1994. Seau played twelve years in San Diego, then played three injury-riddled seasons with the Dolphins before emotionally announcing his retirement... then signed with the New England Patriots four days later. Seau experienced a Career Resurrection with the team and was an important part of their 16-0 2007 season. He retired in 2010 with several successful business ventures, numerous TV deals, and a seemingly guaranteed first ballot Hall of Fame spot. It thus came as a complete shock to the football world when Seau died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest just two years after his retirement from the game. Seau had suffered from intense insomnia for many years, and the unusual nature of his suicide led many, including his family, to believe that he wanted his brain to be inspected for signs of trauma. His brain tissue was inspected by numerous neuropathologists who each determined that he showed clear signs of CTE. Seau's death helped motivate many of the calls for improved player safety and protection through the rest of the decade. His #55 was retired by the Chargers, and he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, becoming the first player of Polynesian and Samoan descent to receive that honor.
  • Ryan Shazier was a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him #15 overall out of Ohio State in 2014. Highly athletic for a linebacker, Shazier was a two-time Pro Bowl selection but is unfortunately most notable for the career-ending injury he suffered during his fourth season in the league. While making a head-on tackle, Shazier's back crumpled awkwardly and was unable to move his legs after the hit. He was rushed to a hospital and underwent spinal stabilization surgery, and while he regained his ability to walk and initially planned to work his way back into the NFL, the severity of the injury effectively ended his football career. He announced his retirement in 2020, nearly three years after suffering the injury, and moved into broadcasting.
  • Mike Singletary was a Hall of Fame middle linebacker drafted by the Chicago Bears in the second round in 1981 out of Baylor. Known for his intensity (particularly his wild eyes), Singletary led the vaunted 1985 Super Bowl winning defense, which is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest defenses of all time. Singletary was named Defensive Player of the Year twice (1985, 1988), voted to 10 Pro Bowls, and was selected to the 1980s All-Decade Team. He would later briefly become the equally intense (though much less successful) head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the late '00s.
  • Lawrence Taylor played his whole career as the linebacker for the New York Giants, who drafted him at #2 overall out of North Carolina in 1981, and is frequently considered a candidate for the greatest defensive player of all time; some have argued him to be the greatest non-QB, and more than a few have claimed him to be the overall greatest football player ever. The two-tight end offensive set was invented just because of this guy. He was the first player to win Defensive Player of the Year thrice (1981, 1982, 1986), was selected to ten Pro Bowls, and received the MVP award for his performance in the 1986 season, becoming only the second (and still most recent) defensive player after Alan Page to do so. He's also the player who laid out a gigantic hit on Washington QB Joe Theismann that broke his leg and ended his pro career.note  After his retirement in 1993, the Giants immediately retired his #56. L.T. then pursued an acting career, appearing in Any Given Sunday, The Sopranos, The Waterboy, Shaft (2000), and Blitz: The League. He was selected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. However, his post-retirement life has sadly also been marred with numerous scandals, controversies, and prison sentences due to his struggles with drug abuse and his patronizing of a 16-year-old prostitute.
  • Derrick Thomas was an edge-rushing linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. Drafted #4 overall in 1989 out of Alabama, Thomas found immediate success, registering ten sacks as a rookie and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In his second season, he led the league with 20 sacks, including setting the single-game record by sacking Seattle's Dave Krieg seven times in one game.note . Thomas made the Pro Bowl nine times in his 11-year career, which was tragically cut short when Thomas was paralyzed in a car accident while driving recklessly in a snowstorm. Less than a month later, Thomas died from a pulmonary embolism related to his injuries from the crash. Thomas was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, had his #58 retired, and still holds the Chiefs career records for sacks, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries.
  • Brian Urlacher was the Bald of Awesome middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears during the '00s. He was drafted #9 overall by the Bears in 2000 after a stellar collegiate career at New Mexico, where he starred on both offense and defense, including both linebacker and safety on defense, as well as a kick returner. He found immediate NFL success, won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, and led his Bears team to the Super Bowl in 2006 (which they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts). Urlacher was named to the Pro Bowl 8 times and was named to the 2000s All-Decade team. He continued the strong tradition in Chicago of successful middle linebackers, following in the footsteps of Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus before him. Also like Singletary and Butkus, Urlacher went into the Hall of Fame on his first try.
  • DeMarcus Ware was a pass rushing linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos. The Cowboys drafted him #11 overall in 2005 out of the relatively obscure Troy University (becoming the school's first ever 1st round pick). He led the league in sacks twice and is one of only a few players to notch a 20-sack season. (He somewhat controversially did not win Defensive Player of the Year that season, finishing a close second to the aforementioned James Harrison.) After setting the Cowboys' career sack record, he moved on to Denver in 2014 as a free agent where he finally won a Super Bowl. He signed a ceremonial contract to retire with the Cowboys after the 2016 season.

     Defensive Backs 
  • Herb Adderley was a Hall of Fame cornerback who most famously played for the Green Bay Packers during their '60s dynasty. Drafted #12 overall in 1961 out of Michigan State, Adderley primarily played halfback in college but was switched to defense after his first season, as the Packers already had two future Hall of Famers in Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the offensive backfield. Adderley's adaptability kept the Packers dominant on both sides of the ball; he was named to five Pro Bowls at the position while the Packers won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Adderley requested a trade after the departure of coach Vince Lombardi and received it in 1970, moving to the Dallas Cowboys, where he remained critical to their "Doomsday Defense" that won Super Bowl VI, making him one of four players to win six NFL titles. Adderley retired after the 1972 season rather than be traded again. He passed away in 2020.
  • Champ Bailey was a dominant corner of the '00s. A dual-threat quarterback in high school, he primarily played corner during his college career at Georgia but also saw time on offense as a receiver, running back, and gadget QB. After being drafted #7 overall by Washington in 1999, he started every game in his five years with the team, making the Pro Bowl four times. After the expiration of his rookie contract, Washington placed the Franchise Tag on Bailey, who refused to practice or play until he received a long-term deal. He was traded to Denver in exchange for RB Clinton Portis (see above), one of the rare "elite player for elite player" trades in recent NFL history. Bailey continued his run of dominance with Denver over the next 10 seasons, including a year where he led the league with 10 interceptions. The 12-time Pro Bowler (an NFL record for a defensive back) and member of the 2000s All-Decade team was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • Jamael "Ronde" Barber was a defensive back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 16 seasons. The identical twin brother to the running back Tiki Barber (see above), and like his twin a UVA product, Ronde was much more calm and collected than his outspoken sibling and never dominated the headlines the way Tiki could with the New York Giants in America's largest media market. However, Ronde arguably had more on-field success—unlike Tiki, Ronde won a Super Bowl with the Bucs, was selected to two more Pro Bowls and the 2000s All-Decade Team, and played for many more years, even setting the record for most consecutive starts by a defensive back before he retired in 2012. A flexible back, Ronde is the only player to record a combined 25+ sacks and 45+ interceptions in his career and holds many of the Buccaneers' defensive back franchise records.
  • Eric Berry was a prolific safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him #5 overall out of Tennessee in 2010. Berry's play brought him five Pro Bowl selections and secured him a place on the 2010s All-Decade Team. However, he is perhaps even more famous for being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma during the 2014 season, successfully beating the cancer over the offseason, and coming back the next year without missing a step and winning Comeback Player of the Year. Berry became the highest-paid safety in the league in 2017, right before an Achilles injury ended his career.
  • Mel Blount was a Hall of Fame cornerback who played 14 seasons for the dominant Steelers teams of the '70s, which drafted him in the third round in 1970 out of the HBCU Southern University. He is considered one of the best defensive backs of all time and led the league in interceptions in 1975, the year he became the first corner to win Defensive Player of the Year. His ruthless and aggressive style of play was so effective that he inspired the "Mel Blount Rule", which limited how a defender could play on a receiver, making passing much easier and heralding the beginning of the pass-oriented era of the NFL that remains to this day. Many analysts have noted that this actually made the game even easier for Blount's team—the year after it was enacted, Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw saw a massive spike in his passing yards and touchdown passes on the way to the team's fourth Super Bowl. When not wearing a helmet, Blount was well-known for rocking a sweet cowboy hat.
  • Willie Brown was a first-ballot Hall of Fame cornerback who most famously played for the Oakland Raiders. After initially going undrafted coming out of the HBCU Grambling State, Brown managed to get signed to the Denver Broncos, where he worked his way into a starting position in his 1963 rookie season. Brown played for the Broncos for four seasons and the Raiders for twelve. He is most famous for his iconic interception and touchdown in Super Bowl XI, which was the longest return for a touchdown in the Big Game's history for nearly three decades. Scored at the twilight of his career, NFL Films captured the perfect heroic angle of "Old Man Willie" sprinting towards the camera—that piece of film likely inspired more kids of the '70s and '80s to play football than any other single shot.
  • Jack Butler was a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the ‘50s. His career got off to a very unusual start, since Butler didn't play football until he went to college at St. Bonaventure, where he wandered on to their football team out of curiosity, playing as a receiver and not starting any games until his senior year. After going undrafted in 1951, Butler landed a tryout with the Steelers on the recommendation of one of the school's pastors, who happened to be Steelers owner Art Rooney's brother. Butler initially made the roster as a backup receiver, but an injury to a starting cornerback early in the season led to him being moved to that position. He held on to the spot for the rest of his career, recording 52 interceptions while earning 4 Pro Bowls and 3 All-Pros before a freak knee injury ended his career midway through the 1959 season. After his playing career ended, Butler served as a scouting director for the BLESTOnote  scouting combine from 1963 up until his retirement in 2007, helping shape the Combine process that's still used today. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, a year before he passed away.
  • Jack Christiansen played safety for the Detroit Lions during the height of the franchise's success in the '50s. A sixth round pick out of Colorado A&M (now Colorado State) in 1951, Christiansen led the league in interceptions for several seasons and was also one of the league's greatest return specialists; he set many league records in both during his and remains a top five all-time punt returner despite playing only a relatively short eight years. Christiansen spent the next 25 years as a college and pro coach, including a brief stint as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, before passing away from cancer in 1986.
  • Nick Collins was a three-time Pro Bowl safety and a massive case of What Could Have Been. The Green Bay Packers surprised analysts when they drafted him in the second round in 2005 out of the BCS Bethune-Cookman, but Collins quickly proved himself worthy of the trust the Packers had placed in him, putting up great numbers in his rookie season. Collins' most famous play came in Super Bowl XLV when he intercepted a pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and ran it back for a touchdown. Sadly, Collins' career was abruptly cut short in Week 2 of the 2011 season after he sustained a herniated disc in his neck when a routine play went horribly wrong; he underwent surgery and had no long-term impairments but was unable to play again due to the risk of compounding the damage if he were to be injured again. It's believed that, had he not been injured, he would likely have had a Hall of Fame-worthy career and could have proved to be one of the best safeties of his era.note 
  • Brian Dawkins was a Hall of Fame safety and nine-time Pro Bowler who played in the NFL for 16 years, most prominently with the Philadelphia Eagles, which drafted him in the second round in 1996 out of Clemson. Nicknamed "Weapon X" for his relentless on-field aggression, which contrasted so much from his off-field persona that it appeared like an alter-ego to those who knew him. Dawkins fully embraced the moniker; for some time while with the Eagles, he owned two lockers, one of which was labeled "Weapon X" and was full to the brim with Wolverine merchandise. His #20 was retired by the Eagles after his retirement in 2008.
  • Kenny Easley was a Hall of Fame corner for the Seattle Seahawks. He had one of the shortest careers of any Hall of Fame member in the modern era, only playing seven seasons with the Seahawks after they drafted him #4 overall out of UCLA in 1981. He made the most of that time, visiting five Pro Bowls and winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1984. Easley was the Seahawks' player rep during the 1987 strike, and his many off-field responsibilities in that position led to a decline in performance and clashes with management that led the team to trade him away after the season. Medical tests taken during the trade process revealed that Easley had a severe kidney disease, which ended his football career. Easley blamed this disease on an overuse of Advil distributed by the Seahawks, which, combined with the surrounding drama of the strike and the team's lack of support during his transplant surgery, led him to cut all ties with the team for many years until they were bought out by Paul Allen; the team later retired his #45.
  • Darrell Green was a cornerback that played for twenty years with the Washington team, who drafted him in the first round in 1983 out of D-II Texas A&I (now Texas A&M–Kingsville). A self-proclaimed "itty-bitty guy", Green was positively tiny for an NFL player at 5'9'' but made up for it with blistering speed, which he jokingly attributed to the Tootsie Roll candy bar that he kept in his sock. Nicknamed "the Ageless Wonder" in the '90s for putting up great seasons year after year, Green holds the record for the most games played by a defensive player. He was selected to seven Pro Bowls, helped his team win two Super Bowls, holds most defensive back records in Washington, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first eligible year.
  • Cliff Harris was a safety for the '70s Dallas Cowboys and one of the greater undrafted free agent success stories in NFL history. Coming out of the tiny Ouachita Baptist in his native Arkansas, Harris managed to get signed to Dallas and beat out several drafted players in training camp. He would go on to earn six Pro Bowl selections with the team as one of the league's premier safeties before retiring after the 1979 season, not because his body was done, but rather because he stood to make much more money in the oil industry. His early retirement kept him out of Canton until 2020.
  • Rodney Harrison was a hard-hitting safety for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots (with whom he won two Super Bowl rings) from 1994-2008. A fifth round pick out of the obscure FCS school Western Illinois, he became the first player in NFL history to record 30 sacks and 30 interceptions. Fun fact: he was the guy who injured Trent Green, the quarterback whom Kurt Warner was backing up. Second fun fact: He was also the guy holding David Tyree's right arm, forcing him to catch the ball against his helmet in Super Bowl XLII.
  • Lester Hayes was a cornerback who played ten seasons with the Raiders. A fifth-round pick in the 1977 Draft out of Texas A&M, Hayes earned the Embarrassing Nickname "Lester the Molester" for his bump-and-run coverage of receivers and his prominent use of Stickum, an adhesive material players that players used to be allowed to use to improve their grip—Hayes slathered it all over his arms and uniform, becoming a giant sticky mess on the field. In 1980, Hayes led the league in interceptions, won Defensive Player of the Year, and helped lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl win; Stickum was promptly banned the following season, ensuring future players would, at worst, merely attempt to sneak a small amount on their gloves. Hayes remained a Pro Bowl corner, but his interception numbers noticeably dropped after the ban, which is probably the reason he hasn't been inducted into Canton.
  • Paul Krause was a safety who holds the record for most career interceptions (81). Krause was drafted out of Iowa in the second round in 1964 by Washington but was traded away to the Minnesota Vikings after just four seasons. Krause played in Minnesota the next 12 years, eventually breaking Emlen Tunnell's interception record shortly before retiring in 1979. Due to the evolution of passing offenses and increased restrictions on defensive pass interference since then, Krause's record is generally considered safely out of reach, with only one player in the 21st century (Rod Woodson) even collecting 70 picks. Krause was selected to eight Pro Bowls during his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
  • Dick "Night Train" Lane was a cornerback who played for the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, and Detroit Lions for 14 seasons during the '50s and '60s. Lane had one of the more unique player entries into the NFL. He had played football at his junior college and in the army but was not scouted or recruited by the league. While working at an airplane factory near the Rams' front office, he simply walked in with a scrapbook of his honors from playing on his army team and asked for a tryout. Lane picked up the nickname "Night Train" from the then-chart-topping blues song. Though he admitted that there were racial implications to the name that he was initially uncomfortable with, he eventually embraced it because it was simply too cool a nickname to pass on. The locomotive part of the name definitely suited him, as he became one of the league's most hard-hitting and feared tacklers. His Signature Move, a grab targeted at the neck and face mask called "the Night Train Necktie", proved so effective—not to mention dangerous—that it was eventually banned by the league. Lane wasn't just a physical force—he led the league in interceptions in two seasons and remains #4 all-time. Lane's final years in the NFL were clouded by tragedy; he was the seventh husband of blues legend Dinah Washington and discovered her body after she died of an overdose in their sixth month of marriage. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, he powerfully spoke out against the NFL's treatment of African-Americans as "stepchildren" who remained barred from positions as coaches, managers, and quarterbacks. Lane passed away from a heart attack in 2002.
  • Ronnie Lott is perhaps the greatest all-around defensive back ever. He won four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers in the '80s, who drafted him #8 overall out of USC in 1981; in his ten seasons with the team, he played every position in the defensive backfield and was a Pro Bowler at all three, being selected to ten in total. He led the league in interceptions twice, once with the Niners and again five years later in his first year with the L.A. Raiders. He famously amputated part of his left pinkie rather than opt for surgery that would have sidelined him for a season, a rather low-stakes Real Life example of a Life-or-Limb Decision. After a brief stint with the Jets and an even briefer one with the Chiefs, Lott signed back with the Niners in order to retire with the team in 1995. He was voted to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and the Niners retired his #42.
  • John Lynch was a Hall of Fame safety with Tampa Bay and later Denver. Lynch played both baseball and football while in college at Stanford and was drafted by Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins in their inaugural season (actually throwing the first pitch in the organization's history). When legendary head coach Bill Walsh took over as head coach at Stanford, he called Lynch and convinced him to return to football. Lynch struggled initially after being drafted in the third round by Tampa in 1993, relegated to mostly backup and special teams roles. However, when Tony Dungy took over as coach, Lynch made for a perfect fit in the "Tampa 2" defense and quickly became a star, being selected to nine Pro Bowls. Lynch went into broadcasting after his playing career ended in 2008. Surprisingly, he was hired as the General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 despite having no front office experience; perhaps even more surprisingly, unlike many similar "flashy" hires, Lynch helped to quickly turn the franchise back into Super Bowl contenders.
  • Tyrann Mathieu is currently a free safety for the Kansas City Chiefs. A Heisman finalist in college at LSU, Mathieu gained the Fan Nickname "The Honey Badger" for his scrappy playstyle at the cornerback position. His stock dropped after he was dismissed from the team due to breaking the school's drug policy, resulting in him being drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 after over a year out of football. Mathieu played well for the team, signed with the 2018 season with the Houston Texans after refusing to take a pay cut, then signed with the Chiefs, becoming a key part of their Super Bowl roster. He was named to the 2010s All-Decade Team.
  • Troy Polamalu was a hard-hitting safety who spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him #16 overall out of USC in 2003. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, was selected to eight Pro Bowls, and was well-known as a game-changer—the seasons he missed due to injury were often ones where the Steelers stayed home during the postseason. He's also well-known for his very long hair (out of respect for his Samoan ancestry), which led to a very prolific endorsement deal with Head and Shoulders shampoo and got him in trouble with officials every once in a while.note  He's also well-liked among Orthodox Christians for being one of very few Eastern Orthodox high-profile figures to display and discuss his faith publicly; if you paid close attention, you would notice he makes the Sign of the Cross up-down-right-left before plays, as opposed to the western style of up-down-left-right. Polamalu retired in 2014, was briefly the head of player relations for the short-lived Alliance of American Football, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
  • Ed Reed was a free safety who played primarily with the Baltimore Ravens, who drafted him in the first round out of Miami in 2002. Reed was best known for his ability to read most quarterbacks like a book due to spending countless hours studying film (a common saying associated with him was that "70 percent of the earth is covered by water, the other 30 is covered by Ed Reed"). This helped him lead the league in interceptions in three seasons, win Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, and secure the league's record for return yards. He notably made a NFL record 107 yard interception return for a touchdown versus the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008. This is especially notable since the previous record, 106 yards, was also held by Ed Reed. After being cut by the Ravens following their 2012 Super Bowl victory, Reed split 2013 playing for the Texans and Jets before retiring. Reed was selected to nine Pro Bowls during his career and was inducted to the Hall of Fame at his first chance in 2019.
  • Mel Renfro was a standout running back and track star at Oregon when Tom Landry picked him in the second round of the 1964 Draft... to play safety. Renfro's athleticism and speed made him a key component in the Dallas Cowboys' Doomsday Defense; he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first ten seasons and led the league in interceptions in 1969. He retired after the 1977 season, having won two Super Bowl rings in Dallas, and moved into a coaching career. He was inducted into Canton in 1996.
  • Darrelle Revis was a cornerback who was drafted #14 overall in 2007 out of Pitt by the New York Jets. Known as "Revis Island" because of his ability to singlehandedly cover even the best wide receivers, Revis was the crown jewel of Rex Ryan's Jets defense. During his peak years, teams would often not even bother throwing the ball towards his side of the field because they knew the receiver would be too well covered. In 2009, he managed to hold seven different Pro Bowl receiversnote  to under 35 receiving yards. He missed the 2012 season due to injuries; he was subsequently traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before signing with the New England Patriots the following year. He won Super Bowl XLIX with the Patriots, then signed back with the Jets in 2015 after New England chose not to pick up his option. Revis was released from the Jets in 2017 due to his declining play as a result of his injuries and age and retired in 2018 after signing a ceremonial contract with the Jets.
  • Ken Riley is one of the biggest and most bizarre examples of a No Respect Guy in the history of defensive players and arguably the entire NFL. After a very successful career as a quarterback at the HBCU Florida A&M, Riley wasn't selected until the sixth round of the 1969 Draft. Upon joining his new team, Riley was switched off of quarterback to play cornerback, a still-common experience for black QBs at the time. Riley made the most of it by becoming dominant at the position, setting many franchise records over his 15 seasons with the team before retiring fourth overall in all-time career interceptions. Bizarrely, despite still being tied for fifth most interceptions in NFL history, Riley was not selected to a single Pro Bowl during his career, nor inducted into the Hall of Fame despite having more interceptions than 29 other backs that have been enshrined in Canton. Though his Pro Bowl exclusion is almost entirely inexplicable, his exclusion from Canton can be summed up by one simple fact: he played in Cincinnatinote . Despite constant petition by teammates, opponents, and statheads, Riley died of a heart attack in 2020 before he could be honored for his football accomplishments with a gold jacket and bronze bust in the Hall.
  • Deion Sanders was a very skilled and popular cornerback. Picked at #5 out of Florida State by the Atlanta Falcons in the historically strong 1989 Draft, Sanders garnered the nickname "Prime Time", becoming known for craving the spotlight and for frequently taunting opponents by high-stepping into the end zone. In 1994, Sanders signed with the San Francisco 49ers; the team won the Super Bowl that year, and Sanders won Defensive Player of the Year. Sanders traded on his high stock after that season for a lucrative deal with the Dallas Cowboys, where he won another Super Bowl. Sanders was so fast that he could usually make up for getting burned by catching up to receivers during the time the ball took to get there, and he was widely recognized as "shutting down" his side of the field—that is, he was so skilled that opposing teams just wouldn't bother throwing to the guy he was covering. He was also a dangerous punt returner and set the record for defensive and return touchdownsnote . He occasionally played wide receiver for the Cowboys, mostly due to Michael Irvin's drug habits, and over his career scored touchdowns in six different ways (kickoff return, punt return, interception return, fumble recovery, receiving and rushing), making him one of only two men to score in all six ways (along with Bill Dudley who played in the '40s and '50s). In addition to his versatility on the gridiron, Sanders, like Bo Jackson, also played in the MLB and had a perfectly decent, albeit unspectacular, career as a journeyman outfielder. So far, he is the only person to play in both the Super Bowl and World Series due to playing for the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 World Series. He also released a critically-panned Vanity Project rap album Prime Time on MC Hammer's record label at the height of his career. After less successful runs in Washington and Baltimore, Sanders retired in 2005 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. In 2020, he became head coach at the HBCU Jackson State.
  • Richard Sherman is a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers who originally made his name with the Seattle Seahawks, as part of their Super Bowl winning "Legion of Boom" secondary (considered one of the greatest in NFL history). A Stanford-educated Genius Bruiser, Sherman is known to be one of the most outspoken players in the league, especially in terms of vocally dissing rival players and media with serious trash talk. After the Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship Game thanks to Sherman tipping the ball into an interception in the end zone, his fiery postgame interview in which he dissed Niners wide receiver Michael Crabtree (the intended target of the aforementioned intercepted pass) and boasted of being "THE BEST CORNER IN THE GAME!" gained him even more attention. Due to a combination of injuries and declining play, Sherman was let go by Seattle and signed with former hated rival San Francisco in 2017. Sherman made clear that his animosity toward the 49ers wasn't toward the actual organization but to its former head coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Sherman in college at Stanford.note  Sherman recovered from the injuries and returned to Pro Bowl form during his stint with the 49ers.
  • Sean Taylor was a safety for Washington known primarily for his freakish athleticism and for being one of the most vicious tacklers in the league, frequently separating footballs and helmets from offensive players by way of sheer force. Drafted #5 overall in 2004 out of Miami, his early career, as is the case for a lot of players of his temperament, was fraught with personal foul penalties and a legal issue here and there. By 2007, however, it seemed he had gotten his head on straight. Known as a soft-spoken family man off the field and an intimidating enforcer on it, he was on his way to an All-Pro performance when an injury cut his season short. After returning home to Miami to recover from his injury, he was the victim of an attempted burglary and shot in the leg while trying to protect his girlfriend and 18-month-old daughter. He later died from his injuries, aged 24, without having achieved the peak of his potential, becoming perhaps one of the greatest and saddest examples of What Could Have Been in NFL history.note  To this day, many defensive backs will wear #21 (or #26/#36, his collegiate and NFL rookie numbers, respectively) out of respect for Taylor.
  • Earl Thomas is a seven-time Pro Bowl free safety drafted #14 overall out of Texas by the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. Thomas became a key component of the Seahawks' dominant, Super Bowl-winning secondary, "the Legion of Boom". However, he was also known as an often volatile locker room presence who clashed with coaches and teammates. In 2018, Thomas memorably flipped the bird toward coach Pete Carroll as he was carted off the field after a season-ending leg injury and was subsequently cut from the team. He signed with the Ravens the next season but was cut the following offseason after he exhibited a number of behavior issues during training campnote ; he currently remains a free agent.
  • Charles Tillman, nicknamed "Peanut", was a corner who played nearly his entire 13-year career with the Chicago Bears after they selected him in the 2nd round of the 2003 Draft out of Louisiana. A two-time Pro Bowler and 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year award winner, Tillman is best known as one of the greatest ever at forcing fumbles. Utilizing what has become known as the "Peanut Punch", he ranks 6th all time with 44 career forced fumbles and is the only non-pass rusher in the top 10 of that category. Following his NFL career, Tillman moved into a career as an FBI agent, qualifying just one day before his 37th birthday, which is the FBI age cut-off for new agents.
  • Pat Tillman was a safety for the Arizona Cardinals. A seventh-round pick in the 1998 Draft, Tillman played well for the team for four years, developing a reputation as a scrappy hometown hero due to having played in college for Arizona State, who leased their stadium to the Cardinals. Then 9/11 happened. Tillman made national headlines when he turned down $3 million from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin, a gesture that was widely seen as an admirable and selfless example of Patriotic Fervor. Tillman was killed in action in 2004 while deployed in Afghanistan and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Meritorious Service Medal after his death was initially reported as a Heroic Sacrifice in a fight against enemy combatants. However, it was determined after his burial that Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire.note  The Cardinals, Arizona State, and the NFL as a whole all took steps to honor and commemorate Tillman's death; the Cardinals inducted Tillman into their Ring of Honor, retired his #40, and erected a memorial statue of him outside of their new stadium.
  • Emlen Tunnell was a legendary defensive back of the 1950s. Tunnell's college career, which started at Toledo, was interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII, where he received a medal after he saved the lives of two of his shipmates. After he returned from the war, he transferred to Iowa, finishing college there, and became the first African-American player to be signed to the New York Giants in 1948. He became one of the team's star players and a critical part of their championship-winning "umbrella defense" for eleven years, setting franchise records that persist today, being selected to eight Pro Bowls, and setting a then-record for interceptions that has only been passed by one other player, Paul Krause. In the twilight of his career, Tunnell was recruited by the Giants' former offensive coordinator, Vince Lombardi, to join him in Green Bay in order to mentor younger defensive players. Tunnell won his second championship and visited his ninth Pro Bowl with the Packers before retiring from play and returning to the Giants, where he became one of the league's first African-American coaches. Tunnell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967, once again a trailblazer: he was both the first black player and first defensive back to be enshrined in Canton. He continued to work with the Giants until he died of a heart attack in 1975 during a team practice.
  • Roy Williams was a safety for the Dallas Cowboys from 2002-2008. Drafted #8 overall in 2002 out of Oklahoma, he made an immediate impact, as he became known as a vicious hitter and violent tackler, making the Pro Bowl from 2003-2008. Despite his successes, he has become better known for his excessive use of the "horse collar tackle" and is seen as the namesake for the rule banning the use of the tackle across football, becoming the first player suspended for breaking the rule in 2007. Other "player safety" rule changes, particularly those protecting defenseless receivers and banning defenders from leading with the crown of the helmet when tackling, effectively neutered Williams's playstyle soon after. Following his time with the Cowboys, he played two unimpressive seasons in Cincinnati. Unfortunately for Williams, he was one of the last "headhunter" safeties in football and, despite his six straight Pro Bowl seasons, is rarely talked about among his era's great players as that playstyle has been Condemned by History.
  • Larry Wilson was a free safety for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1960s. Picked in the seventh round of the 1960 Draft out of Utah, where he had played running back, Wilson was shifted to the safety because of his smaller stature. He turned out to be one of the few bright spots for the Cardinals during their time in Missouri, as he excelled at his new position and made eight Pro Bowls. Renowned for his toughness, Wilson once caught an interception with casts on both hands due to having broken wrists and helped to pioneer the safety blitz as an effective defensive play. After a 13-year career, he had his #8 retired by the Cardinals and was inducted into Canton in his first year of eligibility as one of only a handful of Hall of Famers to never visit the playoffs. He spent the next thirty years working for the Cardinals office, including a stint as the team's GM in the '80s. Wilson passed away in 2020.
  • Charles Woodson was a cornerback (and eventual safety) with a penchant for returning interceptions for touchdowns. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders #4 overall out of Michigan in 1998 after being the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophynote , winning the honor over Peyton Manning. Woodson won Defensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons. Woodson was famously involved in the so-called "Tuck Rule Game", the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs in which Woodson's strip-sack of Tom Bradynote  was overturned by the then-unknown "tuck rule"note . He suffered a series of injuries that led the Raiders to choose not to re-sign him following the 2005 season, and he signed with the Green Bay Packers in 2006 for what was supposed to be the twilight of his career. Instead, he returned to being one of the NFL's most dominating corners, intercepting 28 passes in his first four seasons as a Packer (he had 17 in eight years as a Raider), 8 of which he returned for touchdowns. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 when he intercepted 9 passes and returned for 3 touchdowns (both career highs) and in 2010 was the team captain and defensive play caller for the Packers' playoff run that culminated in a Super Bowl XLV victory. After 2012, he signed back with the Raiders for what was actually the twilight of his career, through he remained a dominant safety. Woodson announced his retirement after the 2015 season and earned a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.
  • Rod Woodson was an eleven-time Pro Bowl cornerback and safety for 17 seasons and holds the league record for fumble recoveries (32) and pick-sixes (12). Drafted #10 overall out of Purdue by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987, Woodson played his first ten years in the Steel City, picking up Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. That was the same year Woodson and eight other players successful sued the NFL into implementing unrestricted free agency, something that helped him negotiate a contract that made him the highest paid defensive back in the league at the time and that also ensured he moved to plenty of other teams in the second half of his career. After a brief stint with the 49ers, he joined the Baltimore Ravens and helped lead them to their first Super Bowl victory. He retired in 2003 after another brief stint in the Bay Area, this time with the Raiders, as only the third player in league history to record more than 70 interceptions. He followed it up with a few years of coaching and a first ballot induction into Canton.

Special Teams

     Kickers and Punters 
  • Morten Andersen was a placekicker for five teams during his career and is the NFL's all-time leader in games played (382), retiring at the age of 47. He is best known for his tenures with the New Orleans Saints (where he played his first 13 seasons after being drafted in the fourth round in 1982) and Atlanta Falcons (two stints for eight seasons in all); more than a decade after his last game in 2007, he's still the all-time scoring leader for both teams.note  The "Great Dane" first came to the US as an exchange student; he joined the high school team on a whim, kicked for one year, got a scholarship to Michigan State, and the rest was history. In New Orleans, Andersen garnered an unlikely cult following, with 16,000 of his posters being sold in the city in 1983 alone and a novelty song he recorded with Saints punter Brian Hansen became a local radio hit in 1985. He played in Super Bowl XXXIII with the Falcons (see Gary Anderson's entry below for how he got there), who rehired him in 2006 after a year out of the NFL, allowing him to secure the longevity record and briefly become the league's all-time leading scorer. He became the second full-time placekicker to make it to Canton in 2017.
  • Gary Anderson was, in many ways, the reflection of Morten Andersen, even beyond their similar last names. Like Morten, the South African Gary came to the United States as a teenager. They both joined the league the same year, with Anderson signing with the Steelers out of Syracuse. They both played their first 13 seasons with their first teams, during which they became their respective franchises' all-time leading scorers, though by the late '90s, Gary led Morten in most stats. Anderson played brief stints for the Eagles and 49ers before landing with the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, where he recorded the league's first ever perfect regular season for a kicker, scoring on every field goal and PAT attemptnote  and helping the Vikings to a 15-1 season, all at age 39. When the Vikings made the NFC Championship that year against Andersen's Falcons, they were the clear Super Bowl favorites and were leading by 7 when Anderson missed his only kick of the year: a 39-yard field goal in an domed stadium with no wind interference. Morten later landed a similar kick in overtime, bringing the Falcons to the Super Bowl and crushing the dreams of thousands of Minnesotans. Anderson still beat George Blanda's all-time scoring record in 2000, but the missed kick shook him and he was out of the league in 2004 after a brief stint with the Titans; Andersen endured and eventually beat his record a few years later. Anderson's missed kick remains one of the great What Could Have Been moments in NFL history—had he made it, the team would have almost certainly made the Super Bowl and secured Gary the place in the Hall of Fame currently held by Morten.
  • Darren Bennett is the Trope Codifier for the increasing number of Australian punters in American football, several of whom have made it all the way to the NFL. Although he wasn't the first Aussie, or even the first Aussie punter, to play in the league, he was the first to have an extended NFL career. Bennett started out playing Australian Rules Football, making it to the sport's top tier, the Australian Football League, before trying out with the San Diego Chargers while on his honeymoon in 1993. The Chargers signed him to their practice squad and kept him there for a year before sending him to NFL Europe for the summer of 1995. Upon his return, he became the Chargers' regular punter and earned the first of his two All-Pro selections. He is most notable for introducing the so-called "drop punt" to American football. He was also known for being considerably larger than most specialist kickers (6-5, 235, or 1.96 m, 107 kg) and not shying away from contact on special teams (not surprising when you consider his Aussie rules background)—during his rookie season, he knocked an opposing punt returner cold. Bennett was named as the punter on the 1990s All-Decade Team and remained one of the league's top punters until retiring in 2005 (ending his career with the Vikings).
    • Bennett's success inspired Nathan Chapman to attempt to convert from Aussie rules to the NFL near the end of Bennett's career. Chapman couldn't crack the league, but established his NFL legacy by founding Prokick Australia, an academy to convert Aussie rules players to gridiron punters. Five Prokick alumni were NFL punters in 2019. On top of that, about a fourth of NCAA Division I schools (both FBS and FCS) had Prokick alums on their rosters in that same season. Not to mention that Aussies won the Ray Guy Award for the top college punter six times in a seven-year span from 2013 to 2019, with the last of these, Kentucky's Max Duffy, having previously been an AFL player.
  • Rob Bironas was a placekicker who most famously played for the Tennessee Titans. After going undrafted out of Georgia Southern in 2001, Bironas played in the Arena ranks for several years before making the Titans roster in 2005. Bironas is most famous for being the only kicker to score eight field goals in a single game in 2007 (his sole Pro Bowl year). He was released by the Titans after the 2013 season. During the 2014 offseason, he married one of Terry Bradshaw's daughters and was considering retirement when he unexpectedly died in a car accident while driving under the influence.
  • John Carney was a journeyman placekicker renowned for his exceptional longevity—in a 24-year NFL career that started with him going undrafted out of Notre Dame, Carney played for seven teams, most prominently the San Diego Chargers (1990-2000) and New Orleans Saints (2001-6, 2009-10)note . The fifth highest scorer in league history, Carney still holds multiple kicking records (including most games with 4+ and 5+ field goals). Carney was behind one of the most heartbreaking missed kicks in NFL history while with the Saints: a PAT after the River City Relay, an incredibly improbable last-second touchdown that involved three lateral passes, which would have tied the game if Carney hadn't sailed the ball wide right. Despite that completely anomalous flub, Carney gained a lot of cred in New Orleans, especially after he landed a game-winning kick soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. A few years after he left the Big Easy, the 45-year-old kicker was brought back to replace Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley after he was suspended due to Adderall use; Carney filled in admirably, was kept on as a "kicking consultant" for the team after Hartley's return, and stayed with the team as they won their first Super Bowl. Before he retired in 2010, Carney was the last active player from the '80s and the only player other than George Blanda to play in four separate decades.
  • Tom Dempsey was a journeyman placekicker who played for five teamsnote  after going undrafted in 1968 after playing at Palomar, a California community college. In 1970, Dempsey set the record for the longest field goal in NFL history when he sunk a 63-yard game-winning kick for the Saints, a tremendous feat that broke the previous record by over seven yards. Dempsey's kick was the only successful 60+ yard field goal for over a decade and one of only four in the 20th century. His record stood for over four decades, only being tied by three others during that time span before it was finally edged out by Matt Prater in 2013 (see below). What makes Dempsey's kicking career truly exceptional, however, was the fact that he did every kick with no toes—Dempsey was born without toes or fingers on his right limbs and wore a modified shoe with a flat square toe on his kicking foot. Sports scientists have debated for decades whether this gave Dempsey an advantage, and the NFL added a rule in 1977 requiring that kickers not wear shoes with modified surfaces because of him. Dempsey passed away in 2020 from COVID-19.
  • Jeff Feagles was a punter for 22 seasons after entering the league undrafted out of Miami in 1988, during which he never missed a single game despite playing for five different teamsnote . Besides giving him the record for all-time punts and punting yards, Feagles' consistency and longevity gave him the longest streak of consecutive games played in NFL history (40 games longer than Brett Favre, though as a punter Feagles can't claim Favre's record for most games as a starter) and the fourth-most games from any player.
  • Pete Gogolak was a Hungarian-born placekicker who immigrated to the U.S. when his family fled the 1956 Revolution. After he was selected out of Cornell in the twelfth round of the 1964 AFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, Gogolak became a lead figure in the adaptation of European soccer-style placekicking in American football. He also accidentally became one of the most important people in NFL history when the NFL's New York Giants lured him away from the Bills, breaking an unwritten rule that neither league would steal the other league's players. The Gogolak trade triggered a bidding war between NFL and AFL teams, as each rushed to grab players they previously thought were unattainable. Both leagues soon realized the fight would be costly and counterproductive for both leagues, so they instead began discussing a merger. Gogolak became the Giants' all-time leading scorer before he retired in 1974, though that total (646 points) is more an indicator of how short most Giants' kickers' careers have been.
    • The same year one NFL team acquired one Gogolak through a trade, another acquired his younger brother Charlie Gogolak, also an Ivy League product (out of Princeton), through the draft. The Washington team may have been too hasty in this effort—they drafted Charlie #6 overall, the highest any kicker has ever been picked. Charlie wasn't a bad kicker, but he also didn't match his brother's football success or the expectations of his draft placement; he was cut by Washington after just three seasons and only played three more with the Patriots. Charlie did come out the victor in a memorable 1966 face-off between Washington and New York that saw both brothers take the field quite often—the final score was 72-41, the highest scoring game in league history that also set the record for most PATs in a single game.
  • Stephen Gostkowski is a placekicker for the Tennessee Titans who played for the New England Patriots for 14 seasons. A fourth round pick out of Memphis in the 2006 Draft—fairly high for a kicker—to replace the great Adam Vinatieri, Gostkowski more than made up for the investment by setting records for fastest player to reach the milestones of 500 and 1,000 points, becoming the franchise's highest scorer by 2014, and assisting them in winning their last three Super Bowls. He currently ranks as the second-most accurate kicker with a career over ten years.
  • Robbie Gould is a placekicker for the San Francisco 49ers who currently ranks as the most accurate kicker with a career over ten years in NFL history.note  He started his career as a walk-on (not offered a scholarship) for Penn State and went undrafted in 2005. He first signed with the New England Patriots, who already had future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri (see below) at the position. He was released during the preseason, signed by the Vikings, then again released less than a month later. He worked for a construction company back home in Pennsylvania before being signed by the Bears in 2005. He made 26 field goals in a row during the 2006 season, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, and would later be made the highest-paid kicker in the NFL. After 11 seasons with the Bears, which saw him become the team's all-time leading scorer, he was controversially released just prior to the start of the 2016 regular season. He caught on mid-season with the Giants (who were coming out of the Josh Brown debacle) and made every field goal he attempted. He signed with the 49ers in 2017 and had the most accurate two-season run of any kicker in league history, making 72 of 75 field goals attempted during the 2017-18 seasons. (If you count his 10 games in 2016 with the Giants, this was the most accurate three-season run of any kicker in history.) The Bears, meanwhile, cycled through numerous kickers and had the least accurate FG percentage of any team in the league in that span. His last name rhymes with "gold", leading to the phrase "Good as Gould" being used by some broadcasters.
  • Lou Groza, nicknamed The Toe, was a kicker and offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns during their run of dominance in the 1950s and '60s. He left Ohio State to serve in the US Army in World War II and was offered a contract while still enlisted by legendary Browns coach Paul Brown. He played both positions at a high level throughout the 1950s, but his ability to consistently score field goals from over 40 yards made the Browns an offensive threat that other teams struggled to catch up with. Groza won "NFL Player of the Year" (a precursor award to league MVP) in 1954, a unique achievement for either a offensive tackle or a kicker. After a 10-Minute Retirement in 1960 due to back problems, he was begged to return as a pure kicker by new Browns owner Art Modell in 1961. Groza played seven more seasons, won another NFL Championship (bringing his career total to four), and retired at the ripe (even by modern standards) old age of 44. He remains the Browns' all-time leading scorer, and his #76 is officially retired by the organization. He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame; when it's stressed that Jan Stenerud (see below) was the first (and for a long while only) pure specialist inducted into the Hall of Fame, Groza (along with George Blanda in the "Quarterbacks" page) is the reason why. The NCAA annual award for the nation's best kicker bears his name. Groza died of a heart attack in 2000.
  • Ray Guy is considered the best punter in the history of the NFL. He played his entire 13-year career with the Raiders, who famously picked him in the first round of the 1973 Draftnote  out of Southern Miss, an obscenely high position for a specialistnote . He proved worth the investment—he became known as a punter who could win games for his team, which won three Super Bowls with him on the roster. His punts were so good that there were rumors his balls were full of heliumnote . Part of the reason he was such a good punter was his control over the ball—he could make it hang in the air to ensure the opposing team couldn't return it or cause it to land near the sidelines where it was hard for the other team to retrieve. His skill as a punter didn't actually translate into great statistics, however, and for literal decades he was denied entry into the Hall of Fame before he finally got elected to it in 2014. The annual award for the best punter in college football is named for him.
  • Jason Hanson was a placekicker drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round out of Washington State in 1992. While this is fairly high for a kicker, the Lions got a great return for that investment: Hanson played for the Lions for 21 years, the longest any player has played for a single team, and scored over 2,000 points for the franchise, also the only player to pass that mark for one team. Hanson also holds the league records for most 40+ field goals and is #4 in all-time scoring.
  • Sebastian Janikowski, aka "Seabass", was a kicker who played most of his career with the Oakland Raiders. The son of a Polish soccer player who emigrated to the United States when Sebastian was a teenager, Janikowkski showed great kicking talent at Florida State. The Raiders picked him in the first round of the 2000 Draftnote , just like they had for punter Ray Guy in the 1970s. He remains the last kicker or punter to be drafted that high, though not because he was a bust by any stretch—he played for the team for 18 years, becoming its all-time leading scorer and setting a few kicking records.
  • Nate Kaeding was one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. He spent 8 years of his career playing for the San Diego Chargers, who drafted him fairly high for a kicker in the third round of the 2004 Draft out of Iowa. After missing a game winning field goal in a playoff game in his rookie season, Kaeding became known for having an unfortunate habit of missing important kicks in the playoffs. Whether he's solely to blame for the Chargers' playoff woes is up for debate, but he did miss potential game-winners in 2006 and 2009; when he left the team in 2011, he was the most accurate kicker in the league at the time (87%) but was 8-for-15 (53.3%) in the playoffs. He retired after one terrible year as a backup with the Dolphins where he missed two out of three kicks.
  • Chris Kluwe, a punter who played for the Minnesota Vikings (succeeding the aforementioned Darren Bennett in that role), is known as much for his off-field actions as he is his on-field performance. Known as One of Us, the UCLA product was a long time fan of tabletop games, comic books, and World of Warcraft (even going by the Twitter handle ChrisWarcaft). Chris gained some notoriety in 2012 when he authored an open letter to a Maryland politician who had urged the Baltimore Ravens owner to silence Ravens' linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of the legalization of gay marriage in the United States. Kluwe's letter, laced with profanity, supported Brendon's free speech while memorably pointing out that the legalization of gay marriage would not turn him into a "lustful cockmonster" (the full letter is here). His outspoken activism on what the league considered political issues probably ended his NFL career: he was a good punter, but not so good that teams were likely to accept all the baggage that he brought with him. He was cut by the Vikings in 2013, then by the Oakland Raiders shortly before the regular season that same year. Since then, he has become a prominent speaker on many issues, including gay marriage and legalization of marijuana, and once wrote a humor column for the sports website Deadspin.
  • Shane Lechler is a punter considered by many the modern era's answer to Ray Guy. Lechler was a member of two teams in his 18 seasons in the NFL, the Oakland Raiders (which drafted him in the fifth round in 2000 out of Texas A&M) and the Houston Texans (which signed him in 2013). In that time, he made more punts than any player save Jeff Feagles (1,444), broke the overall career record for punting average (47.6 yards), and came the closest ever to beating Sammy Baugh's single-season record in 2009 (51.1).
  • Chester Marcol was a placekicker for the Green Bay Packers, who selected him in the second round of the 1972 draft out of the small Hillsdale College. Marcol led the league in scoring in his rookie season, winning a few publications' "NFC Rookie of the Year" honors, and was selected to two Pro Bowls. He is most known for a play he made in overtime of the Packers' 1980 season opener against the Chicago Bears in which he recovered a blocked field goal and successfully turned it into a game-winning touchdown (the only touchdown scored by either team in that game). Unfortunately, his promising career was derailed by a cocaine addiction he developed during the 1980 off-season (he was actually high while making said famous play), which ultimately resulted in him being cut from the Packers just one month later. He was subsequently signed by the Houston Oilers as a last-minute emergency replacement for their injured kicker, but would play only a single game for them; that game would be the final game of Marcol's career. After an initially difficult post-football life, culminating in a suicide attempt in 1986, he eventually got sober and became an addiction counselor.
  • Pat McAfee was a punter for the Indianapolis Colts, who chose him out of West Virginia in the seventh round of the 2009 Draft. He put up a good performance in Indy from 2009 to 2016 before retiring early to launch a career as an analyst and radio host. His off-field contributions to the position may be more significant than his on-field success; his boisterous Yinzer persona and various anticsnote  drew media attention to the position while he played, and his energetic and comedic analysis lends more credit to special teams than most of his less exuberant peers. His show has rather quickly become a sought after platform for players seeking a friendly environment; notably, the normally private Aaron Rodgers called in for weekly long-form interviews throughout his 2020 MVP season. Much like Rob Gronkowski, McAfee has also dabbled in wrestlingnote  (and is actually signed to a part-time WWE contract), putting up a surprisingly impressive performance in a 2020 loss to Adam Cole at NXT TakeOver XXX, and going on to main-event TakeOver: WarGames as an ally of the heel Kings of NXT faction. Sports Illustrated said he was "cutting promos at a level as elite as any of the industry’s top stars." He went on to be named by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter as wrestling's Rookie of the Year for 2020.
  • Mark Moseley was most famously the sole kicking specialist to receive the MVP award (as noted above, Lou Groza received the award in 1954, but he also played offensive tackle). Moseley's NFL career had a rocky start; he was drafted in the fourteenth round by the Eagles in 1970 out of Stephen F. Austin (then NAIA, now FCS), played for a single season before being released, played another two years with the Houston Oilers, and then spent two years out of the league before being signed to Washington's team. This was a pretty good investment—he remains the leading scorer for that organization. Moseley won the award in Washington during their 1982 Super Bowl-winning season, which was shortened to just nine games due to a player's strike. Moseley made 20 of his 21 field goal attempts, a single-season record at the time that now isn't even close to a kicker's best season but at the time amounted to the single-season record for most points scored by a kicker. Moseley was the last "straight-on" kicker to play in the NFL, since soccer-style instep kicking was already being popularized when he first entered the league; this may have had something to do with him winning the MVP. Moseley retired in 1986 after a brief stint with the Cleveland Browns and went into the fast food industry, playing a major role in the expansion of the Five Guys burger franchise.
  • Scott Norwood is infamously known among the general public for missing a 47-yard field goal that sailed wide right in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXV, giving the Bills the first of its four Super Bowl losses. Had the kick made it, the team would have won the game. However, at the time, only half of 40+ yard field goals on grass were successfully made, and Norwood, a turf kicker, just wasn't good at kicking them (he was one for five throughout his career); in fact, the kick in question would have been a personal record had he made it. Despite this, Norwood surpassed O.J. Simpson as the Bills' all-time leading scorernote . Norwood played with the Bills for one more season before his release. He was the basis for the character Scott Wood in the 1998 film Buffalo 66.
  • Cody Parkey is a Pro Bowl kicker currently with the Cleveland Browns who has played for five different teamsnote  since joining the league out of Auburn in 2014. Parkey ranks among the most accurate placekickers in NFL history but will always be known as the kicker behind the "Double Doink", a potential game-winning kick for the Chicago Bears in the 2018 season's NFC Wild Card playoff game that missed and bounced off of both the left upright and crossbar. The miss wasn't even Parkey's fault (the ball had been tipped by a defensive player), but it still cost him his job with the Bears after he gave several interviews about it without the team's permission.
  • Matt Prater is a placekicker out of UCF who most famously played for the Denver Broncos and the Detroit Lions. Undrafted in 2006, Prater has developed a reputation as a long-range specialist, having kicked more field goals from over 50 yards than any kicker in NFL history. He holds the current record for the longest successful field goal in NFL history, a 64-yard smash made in the high elevation of Denver. After Prater was cut by the Broncos in 2014 following a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, he was picked up by Detroit, where he proved he could continue to make such long kicks in a denser atmosphere. With the Lions, he made 14 consecutive kicks from over 50 yards, another league record.
  • Jan Stenerud was a true trailblazer in the kicking world. If Pete Gogolak is the Ur-Example of soccer-style placekicking, Stenerud may be its Trope Maker and is certainly its Trope Codifier. The Norwegian, who came to the U.S. on a ski jumping scholarship to Montana State, first played football as a junior and made an immediate impact, being named a small-college All-American as a senior. Stenerud joined the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, where he played for the first 13 of his 19 pro seasons and demonstrated once and for all the effectiveness of soccer-style kicking, connecting on 70% of his field goals in his first three seasons in an era when average FG accuracy was just a little north of 50%. A three-time All-AFL performer and seven-time All-Pro after the merger, his #3 was retired by the Chiefs, and he became the first "pure" kicking specialist to enter the Hall of Fame in 1991.
  • Justin Tucker is the placekicker for the Baltimore Ravens and currently ranks as the most accurate kicker in NFL history. He went undrafted out of Texas in 2012 but joined the Ravens and won the kicking job out of training camp in a year that the Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XLVII. During his first seven seasons with the defensive-oriented Ravens, Tucker became an "offensive weapon" in a way few other kickers are. He can reliably make field goals out to 60 yardsnote  and his kickoffs frequently end in touchbacks, preventing return opportunities.
  • Tom Tupa was a punter who spent 16 seasons in the NFL with seven different teams, was named to one Pro Bowl, and won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers in 2002. However, he is most notable for being one of the last two-position players in NFL history and for being part of a draft record which is unlikely to broken any time soon. A three-sport star athlete in high school, Tupa was recruited as a quarterback and punter to Ohio State, serving mainly in the latter role but being named the starting quarterback for his senior season. He was selected by the (then) Phoenix Cardinals in the third round (#68 overall) of the 1988 Draft as a QB. He was the first quarterback selected in that draft, the latest that the first QB has gone off the board in the draft since the merger.note  After spending most of his first three seasons on the bench playing only in spot duty, Tupa was named starting quarterback in 1991, though struggled to a 4-7 record as he threw just six touchdowns to 13 interceptions with 52% completion. After another season as a backup QB in Indianapolis, he signed with Cleveland and moved back into a full-time punting role in addition to holding for kicks. It was in this role where he put his former QB skills to work as one of the league's best fake punt/kick/extra point specialists, throwing for multiple first downs and two-point conversions after the team lined up in the punt/kick formation. Tupa retired after his final season in 2004.
  • Mike Vanderjagt is another kicker famous for his accuracy, having once held the record for most accurate placekicker in NFL history (he's since been surpassed) and secured the first ever truly perfect season when he made every field goal and PAT attempt in both the 2003 regular season and playoffs. The Toronto-area native and West Virginia product got his start in the CFL in 1993, played in the Arena Football League for a few years, then joined the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. He became the rare kicker to gain media attention, though less for his stellar play than his infamous feud with Peyton Manning, who once referred to him as "our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off" after Vanderjagt criticized him and Tony Dungy on a radio interview for not fostering a winning culture. After Adam Vinatieri replaced him in Indianapolis in 2005, he ended his NFL career with a rather dismal season in Dallas.
  • Adam Vinatieri is known as one of, if not the, best kickers in league history, holding the record for most points scored (2,673), most postseason points scored (238), and most field goals made (599). Undrafted in 1996 out of FCS South Dakota State, he played for New England (1996-2005) during their first three Super Bowl wins and Indianapolis (2006-2019) during their one Super Bowl win. During the 2015 season, Vinatieri became the first player ever to score 1,000 points with two different teams. While he is not the most accurate placekicker, he is well known for having it when it counts—not only does he hold the record for overtime field goals (12), he helped the Patriots win their first two Super Bowls with game-winning do-or-die field goals, provided a game-winning field goal (though not at the last second) in a third, and won a fourth Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts. Vinatieri is currently a free agent, having sat out the 2020 season after being cut by the Colts—if he does not secure a position on a third team, he will be the last '90s-era player to retire. If he does land another spot, he is well within kicking distance of surpassing Morten Andersen's record for most games played by a football player.
  • Garo Yepremian was the highest-scoring player of the 1970s, though he was better known both then and now as the NFL's resident Funny Foreigner. Yepremian had one of the most unique paths to the NFL ever. Born in Cyprus to Armenian parents, he lived in London in his youth before moving to the U.S. with his brother Krikor, who earned a soccer scholarship at Indiana. Unlike his brother, Garo was ineligible for the NCAA due to having briefly played in a soccer league in England, but he was interested in American football after catching a game and got a successful tryout with the Detroit Lions with Krikor acting as his agent. Yepremian's lack of cultural context led to numerous funny misunderstandingsnote  and Malaproper speechnote  which, paired with his physical appearance as a short (5'7") and Prematurely Bald man, made him a media favorite. After two seasons in Detroit, Yepremian served a year in The Vietnam War; when he returned, he was not resigned by the Lions and played in the Continental Football League for a year before being picked up by the Miami Dolphins. He was a key player in the Dolphins' early '70s run of dominance, including their perfect '72 season (though his flubbed response to a blocked field goal attempt in the final minutes of Super Bowl VII, known as "Garo's Gaffe", nearly cost them that record). Yepremian kicked for the Dolphins through most of the decade before spending his last few seasons in New Orleans and Tampa Bay. He retired after the 1981 season with the longest career of any NFL player who did not play football in college (a distinction now held by Antonio Gates, in the "Tight Ends" folder)note  and passed away in 2015.

     Return Specialists and Gunners 
  • Josh Cribbs played quarterback in college at Kent State, but after going undrafted in 2005, he shifted to a return specialist when he signed with the Cleveland Browns. Cribbs made the best of that situation by becoming one of the best ever at the position; he ranks third in career return attempts and yards and is tied for first in total kick return touchdowns. After eight years with the Browns (during which he also lined up as a receiver and wildcat running back), Cribbs spent a season apiece with the Jets and Colts before retiring in 2014.
  • Steve Gleason was a special teams ace who spent seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints in the early-mid 2000s. He went undrafted out of Washington State in 2000, was cut by the Colts in the preseason, and caught on with the Saints. Gleason's most famous moment came during the home opener of the 2006 season, the Saints' first home game in the Superdome in almost two full years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He blocked a punt which was recovered for a touchdown, launching the Saints' most successful season in franchise history up to that point, culminating with their first NFC Championship Game appearance. Sadly, Gleason was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) after his playing career ended. He became a major advocate for those afflicted with the disease, earning a Congressional Gold Medal for his efforts. He was immortalized with a statue outside of the Superdome depicting his famous punt block, as well as being presented with a Super Bowl ring following the Saints' first ever championship in 2010 for his contributions to the organization.
  • Dante Hall, nicknamed "the Human Joystick" and "X-Factor", was an electrifying return specialist in the early 2000s most notable for his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, who picked him in the fifth round out of Texas A&M in 2000. Whereas most other elite return specialists utilize straight line speed to shoot through gaps in coverage, Hall used his elite agility and lateral quickness to dodge would-be tacklers, often moving well backwards from where he fielded the ball until finally breaking away from the coverage. From '02-'04, Hall scored 9 combined kickoff and punt return touchdowns, made the Pro Bowl twice, and was selected to the 2000s All-Decade team as both a punt and kick returner. He retired in 2008 after an unremarkable stint with the St. Louis Rams
  • Devin Hester is one of the most decorated return specialists of all time. He holds the all-time record for return touchdowns at 20, passing Deion Sanders (see above under "Defensive Backs") in 2014, who had mentored him since his college years.note  He began his career with the Chicago Bears, who drafted him out of Miami as a second round cornerback in 2006. Besides serving as a returner, Hester also played wide receiver, earning him the nickname "Anytime" in reference to Sanders' nickname "Prime Time". He is also the only player to return the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl for a touchdown, doing so in his rookie season in Super Bowl XLI; the Bears unfortunately lost that matchup, and Hester never returned to the Big Game. After setting multiple franchise records in Chicago, Hester signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, with whom he broke the all-time record. He played one last season with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016; after he was cut by the team when they failed to make the playoffs, he joined the Seattle Seahawks for their playoff run before retiring. He's also famous for being the sole recipient of a 100 speed rating (on a usual 1-99 scale) in Madden NFL 08.
  • Desmond Howard is the only special teams player to win Super Bowl MVP. After an electric Heisman-winning career at Michigan, Howard was drafted #4 overall by Washington in 1992 as a wide receiver and return specialist. After three years in Washington and one in Jacksonville, Howard moved to the Green Bay Packers in 1996, where he was moved almost entirely off of receiver, where he had been generally unremarkable, to focus on returns. That season was potentially the best ever seen at the return position—Howard set a dominant single-season record for punt return yards (875, which remains nearly 200 yards ahead of the runner-up) and capped it off with a 99-yard kick return touchdown in the Super Bowl that sealed the win for the Packers and won Howard the aforementioned MVP. Howard signed with Oakland the next season, returned to the Packers in '99 before being cut midseason for declining performance, and spent the rest of his career with the Detroit Lions before retiring in 2002. He currently serves as a co-host of ESPN College Gameday.
  • Billy "White Shoes" Johnson was a kick return specialist and receiver who played 14 non-consecutive seasons in the NFL, most famously with the '70s Houston Oilers, who selected him in the fifteenth round of the 1974 Draft out of Division III Widener. Johnson is widely credited with popularizing the touchdown celebration (most famously with his "Funky Chicken" dance). He is the only member of the 75th Anniversary team that is not enshrined in Canton—such is the way of the return specialist.
  • Jacoby Jones was a return specialist and wide receiver who most famously played for the Baltimore Ravens, which drafted him in the third round in 2007 out of the HBCU Lane. Jones had two stand-out moments in the Ravens' 2012 season, first catching a crucial game-tying 70-yard touchdown in the double-overtime "Mile High Miracle" division playoff, then returning the second half kickoff in Super Bowl XLVII for a 108-yard touchdown, the longest play in Super Bowl history, sealing a place in NFL history despite otherwise being a serviceable One Season Wonder. Side note: He was also the player Steelers' coach Mike Tomlin "accidentally" blocked during a likely touchdown run, earning him one of the biggest fines for a coach in league history.
  • Eric Metcalf was a return specialist, running back, and wide receiver who played for numerous teams in the '90s and early '00s. Drafted #13 overall in 1989 out of Texas by the Cleveland Browns, Metcalf was productive on both offense and returns, racking up over 7,000 yards at both in his six seasons with the Browns and six seasons with five other teamsnote . He sits behind only his contemporary Brian Mitchell in career punt returns and held the record for punt return touchdowns until he was passed by Devin Hester.
  • Brian Mitchell was a return specialist in the '90s and early '00s and the holder of virtually every non-touchdown return record in league history, including career kickoff return attempts and yards, punt return attempts and yards, and most games with 100+ and 200+ all-purpose yardage totals. Mitchell is second all-time in special teams touchdowns behind Devin Hester and is second all-time behind only Jerry Rice in total all-purpose yards. Mitchell spent the first ten seasons of his career in Washington, who drafted him in the fifth round in 1990 out of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as just Louisiana), before finishing with shorter stints with the Eagles and Giants and retiring in 2003 to enter a career in radio.
  • Vince Papale was primarily a special teamer for the Philadelphia Eagles in the late '70s, best known for his unusual route to the NFL. A scholarship track athlete at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University (which does not field a football team), he moved into a career as a teacher and bartender while playing for a semi-pro flag football league. His standout performance earned him a position with the Philadelphia Bell of the upstart World Football League from '74-'75. After the WFL folded, his performance earned him a meeting and private workout with Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil, who offered Papale a spot on the team. He made his NFL debut at age 30, the oldest rookie in NFL history who did not play collegiately.note  Nominally a wide receiver, he only caught one pass but contributed on special teams for all four seasons in which he played. He was voted a special teams captain in '78-'79 and was named as the team's "Man of the Year" (a precursor to the nominees for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award) for his charitable work. Papale unfortunately suffered a career-ending shoulder injury in 1979, a year before the team would make their first Super Bowl appearance, and moved into a broadcasting career. He was named to the Eagles 75th anniversary team as a special teamer. The movie Invincible was made about his life, in which he is portrayed by Mark Wahlbergnote .
  • Cordarrelle Patterson is a return specialist, wide receiver, running back, and occasional wildcat quarterback who is tied for first in league history with eight kickoff return touchdowns and ranks second, behind only the aforementioned Gale Sayers, in kickoff return average at 29.9 yards per return. Drafted #29 overall in 2013 out of Tennessee by the Minnesota Vikings, Patterson has never played to that level as a receiver but has been named to the Pro Bowl three times as a return specialist. After joining the Patriots in 2018, he started to line up at RB more frequently and continued this trend when he joined the Bears the following year. His 6.3 yards per carry over that span is the best in the league for a non-QB. In 2021, he signed with Atlanta.
  • Allen Rossum was a return specialist in the '00s who ranks behind only Brian Mitchell in career kickoff returns and yards. A journeyman out of Notre Dame who played for six teamsnote , Rossum is also the only player to score a kickoff return touchdown for five different teams.
  • Matthew Slater is a special teams ace for the Patriots, having been part of their three Super Bowl wins during the 2010s. Slater typically plays in all four phases of special teams (kickoff coverage, kickoff return blocking, punt coverage, and punt return blocking) and has earned eight Pro Bowl nods in his career (a record for a pure special teams player). Matthew, a UCLA product, is the son of Hall of Fame Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater (see above).
  • Darren Sproles was a return specialist and running back who collected more all-purpose yards than any other player in the 21st century. Beginning his career with the San Diego Chargers, who drafted him out of Kansas State in the fifth round in 2005 as a third-string backup behind LaDainian Tomlinson, Sproles originally saw game time only on special teams, establishing his skill as a returner even as he began to get playing time on the offense. Sproles signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2011, where he set the current record for most all-purpose yards in a single season (2,696)note . Sproles finished off his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, signing with them in 2014 and winning a Super Bowl ring before retiring after the 2019 season with the fifth most all-purpose yards in league history. He now works in the Eagles' front office.
  • Steve Tasker essentially defined the modern position of "gunner" (see the "Special Teams" folder of the main American football page for a description of the position). While he began his career with the Houston Oilers, who drafted him in the ninth round out of Northwestern in 1985, he played his final 12 seasons with the Buffalo Bills during their dominance of the AFC in the early '90s. While technically listed as a wide receiver, Tasker stood out for his tackling ability on special teams—standing at only 5'9", Tasker's ferocity would often take opponents by surprise and result in costly fumbles. Tasker's skills as a gunner led to a change in NFL rules, requiring the punting team's gunners to stay in bounds or incur a 15-yard penaltynote . At times, punt return teams put three blockers on him to try to slow him down (normally, one or two blockers are used in that role). He made the Pro Bowl as a special teams player seven times, blocked a punt in a Super Bowl, and was named the Pro Bowl MVP in 1993; in that game, he made four special teams tackles, recovered a fumble, and blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Tasker retired in 1997; despite the advocacy of his teammates and many football historians, he has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.


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