Some NFL players are so much more than the basic sum of their parts.
They are not mere cogs in The Machine, doing their job, punching in and out while carrying a lunch pail. They are the genuine difference-makers, the tone-setters, the memorable faces of the franchise, and the people who inherently make the uniforms they wear iconic by default.
No matter how long an NFL team has actually been around, they’ve had at least one great player. It’d be impossible not to. Everyone has had that one superstar who was a bright magnet of charisma and someone who never shied away from the spotlight — either from the opposing team or fans. Everyone has had that player who made folks fall in love with their team.
The following list takes a look at the finest player in franchise history for all 32 NFL teams. It takes into account individual accomplishments, peer comparisons, influence on their team and city, and how well their skills translated to the tests of time. If you’re even a casual pro football observer, you will undoubtedly guess some of the more obvious selections, while others had more of a back-and-forth.
Let’s break it down.
Also check out:
- The best head coach in franchise history for all 32 NFL teams.
- The best running back in franchise history for all 32 NFL teams.
- The best wide receiver in franchise history for all 32 NFL teams.
- The best quarterback in franchise history for all 32 NFL teams.
After 17 seasons with the Cardinals, Fitzgerald finished second all-time in career receiving yards (17,492) and receptions (1,432), and sixth all-time in receiving touchdowns (121). The 11-time Pro Bowler will walk into Canton in 2026 as a no-doubt First-Ballot Hall of Famer.
With all due respect to the prolific Matt Ryan, the 2010s Falcons era — arguably the best in team history — will be remembered far more for Jones’ exploits. A seven-time Pro Bowler and a fixture on various All-Pro teams, Jones was a matchup nightmare for every cornerback every single Sunday. Receivers with his unique blend of speed, strength, and grace don’t grow on trees.
Lewis was one of two Hall of Famers (Jonathan Ogden) the Ravens selected in their first-ever draft. And over the course of 17 years manning the middle of Baltimore’s defense, he became the heart and soul of the franchise. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year and seven-time First-Team All-Pro, Lewis is in the conversation for the best defender in pro football history.
The list of accolades for Smith never ends. Eleven Pro Bowls. Eight First-Team All-Pro selections. Two Defensive Player of the Year Awards. A selection to the NFL’s 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Team and the 100th Anniversary All-Time Team. Oh, and he’s also the only player to ever record 200 career sacks. No big deal, though.
Before running well became a prerequisite to being a star NFL quarterback, Cam Newton was the one who set the standard. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton more than lived up to the hype in almost a decade with Carolina. The talented dual-threat remains the only player in franchise history to win an Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP award, and that 2015 MVP campaign is one of the finest in NFL lore. The Panthers’ four playoff appearances with Newton at the helm are as much as the rest of the expansion franchise’s history combined.
The NFL’s charter franchise has had many great running backs star out of its backfield, but none compare to the incandescent Walter Payton. A nine-time Pro Bowler, five-time First-Team All-Pro, and 1977 MVP, Payton retired as the NFL’s then-leading rusher. He was the catalyst behind the organization’s lone Super Bowl victory and remains a quintessential example of playing hard and tough with poise for many football fans to this day.
Munoz played 13 seasons for the Bengals. He made the Pro Bowl 11 times and was a First-Team All-Pro on nine occasions. He was the anchor for a Cincinnati squad that played in two Super Bowls during the 1980s. It’d be hard to blink if someone professed he was the greatest offensive lineman of all time.
A three-time MVP, eight-time Pro Bowler, and eight-time rushing leader (!), Brown squeezed every last drop out of his time with the Browns. He was a true Superstar Running Back before they became en vogue.
To say Smith was more a byproduct of the Cowboys’ “Great Wall” offensive line of the 1990s would be foolish. If he wasn’t a special talent, he doesn’t finish as the NFL’s all-time rushing yards (18,355) and touchdowns (164) leader. There are many super players in Cowboys lore, but Smith was inarguably the most successful on an individual and team level.
One of the original poster boys for athletic quarterbacks with giant arms, Elway took the Broncos to five Super Bowls and won two. A nine-time Pro Bowler and the 1987 MVP, Elway was the face of the Broncos during his playing tenure and their most successful era. He remains the face of the organization as its president of football operations to this day.
Sanders never had a team in Detroit that matched his exceptional abilities, but it didn’t matter. A cavalcade of defenders often met Sanders in the backfield, and he’d turn the play into a backbreaking gain anyway. He made a living out of turning nothing into the extraordinary. In a decade with the Lions, Sanders qualified for 10 Pro Bowls and 10 different First or Second-Team All-Pro selections. If not for a perceived “early” retirement in 1998, he would’ve likely even (temporarily) possessed the all-time rushing yards record.
For a franchise with as rich of a tradition as the Packers, this wasn’t an easy choice. But I’ll roll with perhaps the most efficient quarterback ever and a four-time MVP any day. Rodgers deserves his flowers for what he achieved in Green Bay. He will be regularly discussed as one of the top signal callers of all time in the decades to come.
Before a host of injuries began robbing him of his athletic gifts, Watt was well on his way to becoming the best defender of all time. Even now, his four-year stretch of excellent from 2012 to 2015 — where he amassed 69 sacks and three Defensive Player of the Year Awards — might be the most dominant a pass rusher’s ever been. At his absolute peak, Watt was downright unblockable. At his worst, he was still a monster off the edge.
A cerebral processor, Manning not only defined Colts’ football for a decade-plus, he was the arguable final stage of the “statue quarterback.” A four-time MVP (with the Colts), Manning qualified for 11 Pro Bowls with Indianapolis and was a five-time First-Team All-Pro in an era littered with superb signal callers. When all is said and done, he might go down as the greatest No. 1 overall pick ever.
Because of unfortunate injury luck, Boselli only played seven seasons with the Jaguars. And yet, he was still the commanding blindside protector for an expansion franchise that won four playoff games in its first four years. A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro, Boselli was every bit the “prototypical” left tackle and shined brightly even in a short time.
Is this too early? Not a chance. Mahomes has been so exceptional during his first half-decade in the NFL that he’s cemented himself as one of the best signal callers the sport’s ever seen. The man hasn’t even turned 27 and already has two Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVPs. Never mind being the best player the Chiefs have ever had because Mahomes is on track to be the GOAT.
The late Upshaw wasn’t the most outspoken player on the brash Raiders of the 1970s, but that was never his game. The offensive line stalwart let his game do the talking, humbling defensive front seven opponents on a weekly basis as perhaps the finest pulling guard ever. A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro, Upshaw’s resume speaks for itself.
Seau nearly started his NFL career in then-San Diego with 12 consecutive Pro Bowls. By the time he hit his veteran stride, he was a perennial First-Team All-Pro patrolling the middle of the field with a trademark relentlessness. No other player could be more befitting of a “Mr. Charger” label than the Hall of Famer.
With all due respect to greats like Merlin Olsen and Kurt Warner, Donald has so dominant as a Ram that he makes their accomplishments pale in comparison. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donald’s reign of terror from the inside almost singlehandedly reignited NFL teams’ interest in investing in defensive tackle pressure. At just the age of 32, Donald could be in a position for the most distinguished defender in history by the time he hangs his shoulder pads up.
Marino is easily the best NFL player to never win a Super Bowl, but it didn’t come for lack of trying. The gunslinger from Pittsburgh turned the Dolphins into a South Florida phenomenon as a nine-time Pro Bowler, five-time single-season passing yards leader, three-time single-season touchdown-pass leader, and three-time First-Team All-Pro. Marino didn’t win a championship, but his arm and famously lightning-quick release still set hapless defenses on fire for 18 years.
The Vikings of the mid-20th century never become the “Purple People Eaters” without Page, er, eating space in the middle of their defense. (Oh, that’s what that means!) Page was a nine-time Pro Bowler, and his 148.5 career sacks rank seventh all-time. For what it’s worth, he has the most sacks ever for a defensive tackle.
Was there any doubt? I’m not even sure where to start with Brady on the Patriots. There are 14 Pro Bowl selections. The three MVP honors. The six combined First and Second-Team All-Pro nods and the six Super Bowl wins. Oh, and he also holds every meaningful passing record ever. To some, Brady is football’s GOAT, not just the Patriots. It’s almost silly to attempt a convincing argument otherwise.
Brees went from a promising upstart for the Chargers to an all-time franchise luminary in New Orleans. A 12-time Pro Bowler with the Saints, the future Hall of Famer brought the franchise its only championship and is justifiably viewed as perhaps the most accurate quarterback ever. The only man ahead of Brees in all-time completion percentage is Joe Burrow — and he’s only been around for three seasons.
More than anyone, Taylor personified intimidation and fear in a football player. A tornado off the Giants’ defensive edge, Taylor wreaked havoc and devastation everywhere he stepped in between the lines. A no-doubt First Ballot of Famer, he more than earned his place on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team.
They didn’t call it “Revis Island” because he treated receivers to a relaxing tropical vacation. The quintessential shutdown corner, Revis took the top receiving matchup every Sunday and controlled one side of the field by himself. Seven Pro Bowl selections and four First-Team All-Honors don’t do perhaps the best lockdown corner the sport’s ever had proper justice.
A literal throwback, Bednarik might have been the NFL’s last true “two-way” player. A 10-time First-Team All-Pro, Bednarik did it while playing center and linebacker for the majority of his career. These days, there’s a college football award named after him, given to the annual best defensive player. They, unironically, do not make athletes like Bednarik anymore.
The key cog of the “Steel Curtain,” it’s appropriate that Green was Chuck Noll’s first-ever draft pick in 1969. Greene went on to 10 Pro Bowl selections and two Defensive Player of the Awards and was the one real constant en route to four Pittsburgh Super Bowl championships in the 1970s.
A flawless picture of consistency, no one in NFL history has ever produced like the legendary Rice. A 12-time Pro Bowler in San Francisco, Rice had just four seasons with less than 1,000 receiving yards and averaged 13 touchdowns per season (read: averaged) during his first 11 years as a 49er. He holds every relevant receiving record ever, and it’s difficult to see anyone ever surpassing him.
A stalwart during Mike Holmgren’s Seattle tenure, Jones quickly distinguished himself as a technician with fantastic athleticism. In 180 career starts over 12 seasons, the nine-time Pro Bowler allowed just 23 sacks and was penalized for holding in only nine instances.
The face and leading pioneer of the Cover 2 defense, Brooks was a one-man, well-oiled defensive machine. The 11-time Pro Bowler is third all-time in tackles (1,300), and he was no slouch in coverage either. His 25 career interceptions were emblematic of an off-ball linebacker with a penchant for a big play whenever he dropped back.
Moon didn’t play in the NFL until his mid-20s, and it didn’t matter. A prolific passer with elite processing, he twice led the league in passing yards and was a nine-time Pro Bowler. On a better team, he might have even won that elusive Super Bowl. But a lack of a championship doesn’t diminish his accomplishments.
Contrary to popular belief stemming from Dan Snyder’s incompetence, the Commanders once had a vibrant tradition of excellence. And Green was at the forefront. A seven-time Pro Bowler and four-time First-Team All-Pro, Green helmed one side of the Washington boundary for an astonishing two decades. His 54 interceptions are the most in franchise history, as are his 258 career starts.