The sports geek in my thrives on articles, lists, programs, and shows that focus on counting down the top 10s, 50s, and 100s on anything sports-related. I always enjoy watching NFL Network’s annual NFL Top 100 players countdown, which ranks the 100 best players in the league based on the input of their peers. I don’t always agree with the show, but I revel in watching it.
I think a lot of people have forgotten that the whole modern idea of the NFL Top 100 started with The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players, which aired on NFL Network back in 2010. Again, I didn’t always agree with the list, but I respected the time and effort it took to produce such a product. I’ve tried several times to write my own version for both the NFL and NBA, but I’ve never been able to come up with a list I feel comfortable with or life gets in the way and I have to table the idea for another four or five months.
Given how much time I’ve spent looking through the history of the game, I was thrilled when NFL Network announced it would be producing a new list for celebrating 100 years of NFL football. The NFL 100 All-Time Team will consist of 100 players and ten coaches. It premiers on Friday, November 22nd at 8 pm.
With that in mind, I started thinking about what current players would rank amongst the top 100 of all-time. It’s a very nitpicky, selective process. I think you’ll be surprised by how few, or how many depending on how you look at it, of the game’s current players fall inside the top 100. It’s also interesting to note that, of the players I selected, only one was featured on the original top 100 list from 2010.
Active top 100 members
Tom Brady QB, New England Patriots (2000-present)
Predicted ranking: #1
Brady is the only active player in the NFL who was featured in the original top 100 that premiered in 2010. He was ranked 21st and was the seventh quarterback to appear on the list. Since 2010, Brady has won three more Super Bowls. He now has a record six Lombardi trophies to his name. He’s also been to the big game nine times.
Brady has the fourth-highest quarterback rating in league history. He ranks fourth in career passing attempts, fourth in passing yards, and third in passing touchdowns. He might not own the career statistical records when he retires, but that won’t tarnish his legacy as the greatest of all-time.
Drew Brees QB, San Diego Chargers (2001-2005), New Orleans Saints (2006-present)
Predicted ranking: #25-35 range
It’s criminal that Brees has never won an MVP. He’s won a Super Bowl, was the 2004 Comeback Player of the Year, and has been the Offensive Player of the Year twice. His career and individual season numbers are ridiculous. Brees has led the league in completions six times, completion percentage five times, passing yards seven times, passing touchdowns four times, and quarterback rating twice. There have been 11 instances of quarterbacks throwing for over 5,000 yards in a season. Brees accounts for five of those instances.
Brees has the third-highest passer rating in NFL history. He holds the career records for completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and passing yards per game. Before the end of the 2019 season, he will surpass Peyton Manning for the most passing touchdowns in history. His lack of MVPs does hurt him, but I can say confidently that Brees is one of the ten best quarterbacks to ever play.
Aaron Rodgers QB, Green Bay Packers (2005-present)
Predicted ranking: #60-70 range
I’m not as much of a Rodgers hype man as some other football writers. I don’t believe he’s a top ten quarterback in league history. That being said, Rodgers does have two MVPs and a Super Bowl ring to his name. He has the highest passer rating in league history and has only thrown for double-digit interceptions twice in his 11 seasons as a starter. He needs some higher career totals to move up the list more, but that will come with time.
Adrian Peterson RB, Minnesota Vikings (2007-2016), New Orleans Saints (2017), Arizona Cardinals (2017), Washington Redskins (2018-present)
Predicted ranking: #30-40 range
Peterson ranks eighth all-time in rushing yards, just 17th in rushing attempts, sixth in rushing yards per game, and is tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns. He was the league’s MVP in 2012 when he averaged 131.1 rushing yards per game and finished with the second-most single-season rushing yards in history. Peterson has led the NFL in rushing yards three times, rushing yards per game four times, and rushing touchdowns twice.
At this point, Peterson is one of the ten greatest running backs in league history. His ranking on the new top 100 should reflect that.
Antonio Gates TE, San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (2003-2018, Free Agent)
Predicted ranking: #70-80 range
This might be the end of the road for Gates. The 39-year-old tight end is currently a free agent and a return to the Chargers doesn’t seem imminent. However, the former undrafted free agent has built quite the legacy during his time in the NFL. From 2004-2011 Gates went to eight consecutive Pro Bowls and was a First Team All-Pro three straight times from 2004-2006. The career Charger ranks 17th all-time in receptions, 28th in receiving yards, and sixth in receiving touchdowns.
Gate’s 955 receptions rank third all-time amongst tight ends, trailing only Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten. If he plays one more season, Gates could cross the 12,000 receiving yards mark. He currently has 11,841, which only trails Gonzalez and Witten among tight ends. Gates doesn’t trail any tight end in touchdowns though. His 116 receiving touchdowns are five more than Gonzalez’s previous record of 111.
Jason Witten TE, Dallas Cowboys (2003-2017, present)
Predicted ranking: #75-85 range
Witten has returned to the Cowboys after a failed stint in the broadcast booth. While he wasn’t a good broadcaster, Witten is one of the greatest football players ever. His career numbers dwarf those of most wide receivers. The career Cowboy has gone to 11 Pro Bowl and was able to carve out two First Team All-Pro selections during an era of dominant tight ends. He ranks fourth all-time in receptions, 21st in receiving yards, and 47th in receiving touchdowns.
The only tight end who has more receptions than Witten’s 1,152 is Tony Gonzalez with 1,325. Of the 14 players with at least 1,000 receptions, Gonzalez and Witten are the only tight ends. Witten’s 12,448 receiving yards also rank second all-time by a tight end. His 68 touchdowns might seem more pedestrian, but they rank fifth all-time amongst tight ends.
Larry Fitzgerald WR, Arizona Cardinals (2004-present)
Predicted ranking: #40-50 range
2010 was Larry Legend’s seventh season in the NFL. Since then, he has played eight more years in the league and is headed into his 16th overall season. The career Cardinal has made a career out of surviving with subpar quarterbacks like he did with Josh Rosen this past season. When paired with competent passers, like Carson Palmer and Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald has thrived. He’s been to 11 Pro Bowls and has led the NFL in receptions and receiving touchdowns twice apiece.
In terms of career numbers, Fitzgerald stands among the elite of the elite. His 1,303 receptions rank third all-time, only trailing Gonzalez and Jerry Rice. Larry Legend also has 16,279 career receiving yards, which ranks second to Rice’s 22,895. Fitzgerald is only the second player in league history to reach the 16,000 receiving yards mark. To round out his résumé, Fitzgerald has 116 receiving touchdowns. That ties him with Gates for the sixth-most in history.
J.J. Watt DE, Houston Texans (2011-present)
Predicted ranking: #40-60 range
Watt will probably be my most controversial selection. He’s only had five prime seasons during his eight-year career, but he accomplished so much during that time. Watt is one of two players with three Defensive Player of the Year awards and he was almost the league MVP back in 2014.
Watt has 92 sacks, which ranks just 44th all-time. However, he’s led the NFL in sacks twice and is the only player in league history with two seasons of 20 sacks or more. His dominance is undeniable, but it’s hard to place him without seeing how he’ll play in his 30s.
In the discussion, but not top 100
There are a handful of other players who I think at least deserve to in the conversation for the top 100. Some of them might even move onto the list by the end of their careers. However, most of these players are already veterans and will likely finish as ordinary Hall of Famers rather than top 100 members.
It’s too soon to include players like Patrick Mahomes. With that in mind, I found 16 players in the NFL that I thought should at least be mentioned in some way. Six of them are offensive players, nine are defensive, and one is on special teams. I’m not saying all of these guys are worthy of being in the top 100, I’m simply saying their names would come up at least once in the discussion.
There are two other quarterbacks that I included in the thought process for creating this article. You’ll probably roll your eyes at the names Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Again, I’m not saying these guys are worthy of the top 100, but their names should come up in any legitimate discussion that is set on producing a true top 100 list.
Three quarterbacks were ranked in slots 90 to 100 on the original The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players. They were Warner (90), Fran Tarkenton (91), and Joe Namath (100). Warner won two MVPs, Tarkenton won one as well, and Namath was the AP AFL Player of the Year twice.
Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, is seventh all-time in completions, sixth in passing yards, and seventh in passing touchdowns. Rivers, who has been to eight Pro Bowls, ranks eighth, eighth, and sixth in those respective categories. Historically though, neither Rivers nor Roethlisberger can knock off Namath, Tarkenton, or Warner.
The NFL has a lot of great, young running backs. While I hope to see players like Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and Todd Gurley in gold jackets someday, it’s just too soon to consider them for this list. You may have been surprised to see that Frank Gore did not crack the top 100 though. Gore is currently fourth all-time in rushing yards with 14,748. He leads Peterson by 1,430 yards and is only trailing Barry Sanders (15,269), Walter Payton (16,726), and Emmitt Smith (18,355).
While that might seem like a great reason to put Gore in the top 100, the man he passed to reach fourth place was not on the original The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players. The players in fifth, seventh, 13th, and 15th through 20th do not appear on the original list. So, yards alone are not enough to make the top 100. Gore also doesn’t have the accolades and rushing touchdowns (77) to garner a top 100 bid. He will be a Hall of Fame player, but, at a glance, he isn’t in my top 100 players of all-time.
Only three active wide receivers have the credentials to be considered for the top 100. There’s Antonio Brown, Fitzgerald, and Julio Jones. Brandon Marshall is also impressive, but I’m not even sure if he’ll make the Hall of Fame, let alone the top 100. Brown is only 31 years old and Jones is just 30. They still have plenty of games left to play, but they’ve already established impressive legacies.
Brown has put together one of the best six-year stretches by a wide receiver in NFL history. As a result, he was in the MVP conversation in 2017 and has been a First Team All-Pro the same number of times as Randy Moss. Meanwhile, Jones has led the league in receiving yards per game three times. However, neither receiver has the career numbers to be amongst the top 100 players of all-time yet.
Since Joe Thomas retired, there hasn’t been an offensive lineman I’d consider for the top 100. The closest player in the league right now is Dallas Cowboys guard, Zack Martin. Martin has been a First or Second Team All-Pro in each of his five seasons in the NFL. He’s still in the infancy of his career when compared to linemen who are actually in the top 100. Martin has promise, but we’ll need to check in on him five to seven years down the line.
The biggest and most controversial snub from my rankings has to be Aaron Donald. The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle has been a First Team All-Pro four consecutive times and has been the Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons.
My brain tells me Donald should be in the top 100, but some part of me feels it’s too early. A big part of a player’s career is how long he was able to sustain his greatness and his career totals. Donald has been great for four years, but that feels very short. It probably sounds hypocritical considering Watt has only had five prime seasons, but Watt also has the career statistics of some ten to 12-year veterans. Donald will enter the top 100 maybe as soon as the end of this coming season, but it’s too early for him right now.
Besides Donald, three other pass rushers crossed my mind. The oldest of the three is Terrell Suggs. The longtime Baltimore Raven was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and has the 13th most sacks in NFL history. While Suggs has shown incredible consistency, he hasn’t had the extended peak you’d look for in a top 100 player. He’s only been a First Team All-Pro once. In comparison, the lowest-ranked linebacker on the original top 100, Derrick Brooks, was a First Team All-Pro five times and also won a Defensive Player of the Year award.
The other outside linebackers I considered are Khalil Mack and Von Miller. Mack has already won a Defensive Player of the Year award and Miller is one of the best defenders in the league without one. However, Mack is just four years into his prime and five years into his career. It’s too soon for him to make the top 100.
Miller has a stronger case since he’s eight years into his NFL journey and has 98 sacks. He can’t trump someone like DeMarcus Ware though. Ware finished his career with 138.5 sacks. He was only halfway through his career when the original top 100 premiered. Kevin Greene had been retired for over a decade though. The 2016 Hall of Fame inductee recorded 160 sacks during his career, the third-most in league history. He wasn’t featured on The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players.
Two inside/middle linebackers are in the middle of building Hall of Fame resumes. Luke Kuechly in Carolina and Bobby Wagner in Seattle will both be inducted into Canton someday. They aren’t top 100 players yet though. Even though Kuechly has a Defensive Player of the Year award and five First Team All-Pro selections, his career production still pales in comparison to someone like Derrick Brooks.
Wagner is going to suffer a lot in these discussions because he hasn’t been a Defensive Player of the Year. He, along with Miller, are the most deserving active players in the league to have never won the award. Not being a DPOY though makes it impossible for Wagner to surpass someone like Brian Urlacher at the moment. While Wagner might be the better player, Urlacher has a key award that signifies some of the best defenders in history. He also has career totals in tackles and sacks that dwarf Wagner’s current totals. Urlacher wasn’t included on the original top 100.
While Kuechly and Wagner are both trending upward in the all-time ranks, I’m not sure they’re better than someone like Patrick Willis. I watched Willis a lot growing up because I was mesmerized by how he played. I don’t see the same thing when I watch Kuechly and Wagner. Willis might be hurt by his short career, but I’d still put him in the top 100 over Kuechly and Wagner at the moment.
The two cornerbacks everyone will think belong in the top 100 are Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. However, The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players did not include Champ Bailey or Charles Woodson. Bailey was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and has been to more Pro Bowls than any other cornerback in history. Woodson will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and he’s a former Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also tied for the fifth-most interceptions in NFL history with 65.
Darrelle Revis’ stardom was in its infancy when the original top 100 came out. Those are three cornerbacks I’d take over Peterson and Sherman. Because Sherman’s peak was so short, I find it hard to believe he will crack anyone’s top 100. Peterson, on the other hand, has a chance. He just has to get past this suspension he’ll be serving this season and continue playing at a Pro Bowl level.
The safety with the best career resume in the NFL right now is Earl Thomas. He really can’t begin to compete for the top 100 though. On the original list, Ed Reed ranked 88th. Brian Dawkins and Troy Polamalu weren’t even ranked. I’m not going to put Thomas in that class of safeties yet.
Adam Vinatieri is one of the greatest kickers of all-time. He’s scored 2,600 points in his career, more than any other player in NFL history. While I’m all for kickers and special teamers being in the Hall of Fame, I can’t bring myself to move another player off of a top 100 list for one. Namath was the lowest-ranked player on NFL Network’s original countdown. I can’t imagine replacing him with a kicker.
Significant recent retirements
Three players that I would include in my top 100 discussion announced their retirements from the NFL after the 2018 season ended. I didn’t want to gloss over their accomplishments simply because they recently retired, so I’ll write about each briefly.
Marshawn Lynch RB, Buffalo Bills (2007-2010), Seattle Seahawks (2010-2015), Oakland Raiders (2017-2018)
Predicted ranking: Unranked
For me, Lynch is a Hall of Famer. He authored one of the most iconic runs ever and was a key part on the Seahawks Super Bowl team. That being said, there are plenty of Hall of Fame running backs who don’t qualify for the top 100. Without an MVP or ridiculous career stats, Lynch is at a severe disadvantage.
Rob Gronkowski TE, New England Patriots (2010-2018)
Predicted ranking: #60-70 range
Along with Gates and Witten, I believe Gronkowski deserves a spot on the new top 100. While he wasn’t able to amass historic career numbers, Gronk played an essential role in the Patriots dynasty. He has the ninth-most receiving yards and second-most receiving touchdowns in postseason history. I’d never call Gronkowski the greatest tight end of all-time, that title is reserved for Tony Gonzalez, I would say he’s the most physically dominant because of his sheer size and strength.
Julius Peppers DE, Carolina Panthers (2002-2009, 2017-2018) Chicago Bears (2010-2013), Green Bay Packers (2014-2016)
Predicted ranking: #85-95 range
Like several other players mentioned in this article, Peppers was in the middle of his career when the original top 100 show aired. It’s pretty clear now that Peppers at least deserves high consideration for the new list. I think he is a top 100 player. He has the fourth-most sacks in league history to go along with nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro selections of various merit. At 6-7, 295 lbs., Peppers was also one of the most physically freakish athletes in the game’s history.