The Premier Players of College Football will be called onto one of the biggest stages in sports when teams select their picks for the 2019 NFL Draft. At a minimum, all of them are hoping for picks that will immediately have an impact on team performance. At best, each team wants an athlete that can impact the game like our Top-25 players to ever play in the National Football League:
25 – Rod Woodson
Woodson is the NFL leader in interception returns for touchdowns. He is a player who seemed to have a sixth sense of where and when to cut when on an interception return, proving to be a spark for the Pittsburgh Steelers every time he got his hands on the football. An 11-time Pro Bowl player and six-time All-Pro, Woodson scored on 12 interception returns and sits third overall in terms of total interceptions. Woodson is a player quarterbacks never felt comfortable throwing against as he was able to use his physicality to get to the ball before the receiver on countless occasions.
24 – Deion Sanders
As loud and brash as he was supremely talented, Deion Sanders is the best cover corner in the history of the NFL and one of the premier players of all time. The two-time Super Bowl winner was an eight-time Pro Bowler, and he won the award for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994. Sanders retired second all-time in both career interception return yards and career interceptions returned for touchdowns. Ironically, Sanders had the talent to lead in both the categories, but he was so good at his job of locking down a receiver that quarterbacks barely threw the ball in his direction for fear of the interception.
23 – Otto Graham
Graham was the best player football had ever seen before the NFL existed.
Graham took the Browns to league championship games every year between 1946 and 1955 and won seven of those contests. With Graham under center, the Browns posted an almost unbelievable record of 114-20-4, including going 9-3 in the playoffs. Perhaps most astonishing, Graham still holds records for the most average yards per pass attempt (8.98) and the record for career winning percentage by a starting quarterback at almost 83-percent.
22 – Randy Moss
Moss may have been the most uncoverable receiver in the history of the NFL. While other players used their route running and cunning to get open, Moss used his freakish speed and 6-foot-4 inch frame (with a 51 inch vertical) to merely be better than any defensive back trying to cover him.
Moss caught 17 touchdown passes as a rookie as the Minnesota Vikings went 15-1. He then bookended his career with a 23 touchdown season, breaking a Jerry Rice record no less, as the Patriots completed the first ever 16-game undefeated regular season. Moss finished his career with over 15,000 yards receiving and 156 touchdowns in the premier league in the sport.
21 – Marshall Faulk
Faulk was the first true hybrid running back/wide receiver who played the running back position. Without his powerful ability on the ground and out of the backfield the Greatest Show on Turf would never have been so successful. While he never led the league in rushing, Faulk had the hands of a wide receiver. He finished his career with 6,875 yards catching the ball and had more than 19,000 total yards from scrimmage to his name. A seven-time Pro Bowl player and a three-time All-Pro, Faulk won the MVP in 2000 when he had 2,189 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns.
20 – Dick Butkus
The greatest middle linebacker in the history of the game, Dick Butkus had a name that basically meant his only career choice was to be an NFL defensive star and one of the premier players of all time. Playing nine seasons in the NFL when middle linebacker was a brutal and dangerous position to play, Butkus struck fear in the hearts of both quarterbacks and wide receivers as he was known for his punishing hits. He was named to the Pro Bowl every year from 1965 to 1972, and he showed his versatility as a player by finishing his career with 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries.
19 – Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers is a player who has always had to fight through some level of adversity. After going the JuCo route and only getting a scholarship to Cal when the head coach was watching another player, the nation had to suffer on draft day as Rodgers sat in the green room until the24th pick of the 2005 draft. Rodgers landed in Green Bay and was able to learn from the great for three seasons before taking over the team. He is a two time NFL MVP, a one-time Super Bowl Champion and Super Bowl MVP, and a seven-time Pro Bowl choice at the quarterback position. At 35 years old and with a new head coach to invigorate his career, Rodgers has plenty of time to climb this list.
18 – Gale Sayers
Sayers is an anomaly on this list of players with long, storied careers in the NFL. The Kansas Comet played just 68 career games in the premier league of football, playing in only six seasons from 1965 to 1971. What we did see of Sayers though was enough to list him this high on a list of the greatest players of all-time. During his rookie season, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns in 14 games. In one game on a rainy afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers, Sayers scored six touchdowns as he outclassed everyone else on the field. A gliding, smooth, and burning runner, Sayers is an NFL Hall of Famer even with his short career arc.
17 – Bruce Smith
The only player in the history of the league with 200 career sacks, Bruce Smith, was an absolute force to be reckoned with from the defensive end position. His 200 sacks is a record that may stand forever, with no current player within range and few feeling the need to play for the extended amount of time at the NFL level that would be required to break the mark. Smith played for 19 seasons in the NFL, recording 10 or more sacks in 13 of those years. An 11-time Pro Bowler, Smith was savvy, quick, and powerful at the point of attack.
16 – Deacon Jones
Jones is the player that invented the whole concept of sacking a quarterback. Before Jones, a quarterback tackle was recorded as simply that, a tackle. To get a feel for Jones’ place in the pantheon of NFL defensive ends people have had to rewatch old game footage to come up with his totals. Jones has been credited with 173.5 sacks during his career, enough for third on the all-time list and a number that would have put him top of the pile when he retired. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder, was a physical freak in the 19060s, perhaps showing how he was able to record 21.5 and 22 sack seasons in just 14 games each in 1967 and 1968.
15 – Emmitt Smith
Smith is sometimes overlooked on this type of list because he wasn’t the flashiest back in the league even when at his pomp. Smith may not have been as naturally gifted athletically as some on this list, but his toughness and physicality as a runner made him stand out. He always got stronger as the game wore on, using his incredible endurance to work through games and pound the rock in the fourth quarter. He retired with 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns, both the most of any back in NFL history.
14 – Brett Favre
Favre may have become something of a comedic figure because of how the end of his career played out, but at his peak, he was the most feared quarterback in the game. Taken with the 33rd overall pick of the 1991 NFL Draft, Favre was soon traded up to Green Bay where he embarked on a Hall of Fame career. Favre was at his best in the mid-90s, when he led the Packers to a pair of Super Bowls, winning in 1996, and when he was named the NFL MVP for three consecutive years between 1995 and 1997. His tough as nails reputation and gunslinger attitude made Favre a legend in his own time.
13 – Johnny Unitas
Unitas was one of the first star quarterbacks the NFL had ever seen, and he is undoubtedly one of the premier players of all time. Playing from 1956-73, Unitas retired as a quarterback legend. The 10-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro just seemed to have a feel for the game and how offensive systems worked that no one before him had managed. One of only four players to win three NFL MVP awards, Unitas led his Baltimore Colts to an NFL Championship game win in 1958 that is widely considered as the game that created interest in professional football.
12 – Joe Greene
“Mean” Joe Greene is on the shortlist for the title of best defensive lineman in the history of professional football. Greene was the best player on the Steelers “Steel Curtain” defense that basically ruled the NFL for six years in the 1970s. That team won four Super Bowl rings in those six years, with the 6-foot-4, 280 pound Greene simply proving too powerful to offensive linemen to contain on a play by play basis. The 10-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro was also named Defensive Player of the Year on two occasions.
11 – Drew Brees
Drew Brees is the forgotten man of the current era of quarterbacking.
Overlooked in favor of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, the former Purdue Boilermaker has done nothing other than excel in the Bayou. A 12-time Pro Bowl player, Brees began his career in San Diego before almost joining the Miami Dolphins when hitting free agency. Instead, he signed with the Saints, and the match has been perfect. Brees is the fastest quarterback in history to hit the 60,000 and 70,000-yard plateaus, and he has shown no signs of decline as he chases several Peyton Manning records.
10 – John Elway
Elway took an interesting path to the NFL. A two-sport star at Stanford, he spent a year in the New York Yankees system before becoming the No. 1 pick of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts entering the premier league of football. Elway, though, never played a down for the Colts. He was instead traded to Denver, a city he would make his own as he played for 16 seasons with the Broncos. Elway led the Broncos to five Super Bowls, winning two, including being named the MVP of the final game of his career in Super Bowl XXXIII. The nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro was an athletic player who could beat defenses with his scrambling or his laser of an arm.
9 – Walter Payton
The Chicago Bears picked a franchise changing running back with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft when claiming the rights to Walter “Sweetness” Payton. Payton was a stunning runner with a bruising style that belied his ability to quickly change direction when needed. He was a back who would never run out of bounds on his own accord, instead lowering his helmet to initiate contact with whichever defender was in his way. Playing all but one game of his 13 year NFL career, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns.
8 – Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders was must-see TV throughout the 1990s. After tearing the college game apart as a member of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Sanders was drafted into the league by the Detriot Lions and was a star from day one.
Sanders was the most elusive, difficult to tackle, and flat our electric player in the history of the NFL. He was a powerful back, one blessed with a jump cut that didn’t even look human, and he consistently ran for 1,000-yard seasons despite playing behind what would graciously be called a poor offensive line. Sanders became the first back in the history of the NFL to produce five 1,500 seasons.
7 – Lawrence Taylor
Taylor had a presence about his play that was terrifying. The linebacker won most battles with opposition quarterbacks before he even stepped on the field, such was the fear that he projected thanks to his pass rushing skill.
Taylor was one of the first defensive players that coaches had to scheme their offenses around. Joe Gibbs of the division rival Washington Redskins would employ a two running back formation against the New York Giants just to give his quarterback an extra blocker and hopefully have time to deliver the ball.
6 – Reggie White
Reggie White was the ultimate example of a player who could flip that switch on game day and became an absolute wrecking ball on the field.
The “Minster of Defense” was a deeply devout and religious man, but come Sunday he would morph into the greatest defensive end the league has ever seen. The 13-time Pro Bowl selection, 13-time All-Pro choice, and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, White ranks second on the NFL sack list win 198 quarterback takedowns in 232 career games.
5 – Joe Montana
A player who went a perfect 4-0 in his Super Bowl appearances, Montana first flashed signs of greatness while leading Notre Dame to a college football national championship. After falling to the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft, Joe Cool was selected with the 82nd pick by the San Francisco 49ers. Montana is a playoff legend, with three Super Bowl MVPs and the highest all-time Super Bowl QB rating (cumulative) of 127.8. The five-time All-Pro was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 200.
4 – Jim Brown
Watching old highlight footage of Jim Brown is like watching a grown man playing against high school players. Brown was a 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back playing in the late 50s and early 60s. This meant that not only was he bigger than all the other skill position players, but that he was often bigger than the offensive linemen blocking and the defensive linemen trying to tackle him. Brown was a freak, too fast for the defensive front seven and too strong for the defensive backfield. He won the rushing title in eight out of his nine NFL seasons and owned every rushing record that mattered when he ended his career.
3 – Peyton Manning
Manning holds a plethora of NFL records after a long career that saw him win two Super Bowl rings and cement his name as one of the premier players to ever lace up a pair of cleats. His 71,940 passing yards, 539 touchdown passes, and 186 regular season wins are all NFL records. A five-time NFL MVP, Manning is the only starting quarterback to lead two different franchises (Indianapolis Colts & Denver Broncos) to Super Bowl wins. A 14 time Pro Bowler, Manning had legendary battles through the years with arch nemesis Tom Brady and his career numbers would have been even better had he played in an ear without a second dominant quarterback.
2 – Jerry Rice
An unheralded draft pick out of Mississippi Valley State in 1985, Rice fell to the middle of the first round because of a perceived lack of speed despite starring for the Delta Devils. The rest of the NFL’s loss was the San Francisco 49ers gain as Rice forged incredible partnerships with quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Rice was the king of the West Coast offense, with his sure hands and game speed allowing him to pick up yards after the catch at a rate never seen before. Rice finished his 20-year career with three Super Bowl rings, 197 touchdowns, and a mark of 22,985 yards receiving that will never be matched.
1 – Tom Brady
Brady may have made it to No. 1 on this list without his record sixth Super Bowl win last February. That sixth ring, though, seals the deal and makes Brady the best player in the history of the league before he has even retired.
A four-time Super Bowl MVP, Brady is always at his best in the biggest games. The 199th overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft was the seventh quarterback off of the board behind names such as Tee Martin and Spergon Wynn. Brady is a 14 time Pro Bowler, a three-time league MVP, and has set a postseason record with 30 wins. He also is showing few signs of slowing down as he continues to play in the NFL into his 40s.