In the 104-year history of the NFL, several of the game’s iconic players have stood the test of the time. One of those players is former Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 80. Butkus’ football career, which ended in 1973, remains one of the most decorated in league history.
Many who saw Butkus play consider him to be not only the best linebacker NFL history, but one of the best players in league annals. It’s not hard to make Butkus’ case, as he dominated his position like few others have. Despite having a relatively short nine-year career, Butkus received just about every accolade a player can earn. A first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Butkus was also a member of two All-Decade teams and was part of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team in 2019.
Is Butkus the greatest linebacker in NFL history? We decided to find out by ranking each of the league’s 25 greatest players. Before we dive in, here was the criteria that went into making the list.
- Individual success/accolades won
- Dominance during his era
- Longevity and career milestones achieved
- Enduring impact/legacy
- Team success/championships won
- Ranking relative to his position
Without further ado, here’s the list of the greatest 25 players in NFL history:
25. Emlem Tunnell, DB (1948-1961): A pioneer in several respects, Tunnell became the first Black player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. A longtime Giant who helped New York win the 1956 NFL title, Tunnell retired after the 1962 season as the NFL’s career leader with 79 interceptions and 1,282 interception return yards. His 158 consecutive games played was also an NFL record.
24. Don Hutson, WR (1935-1945): A player decades ahead of his time, Hudson was the NFL’s first prolific wideout. Called an “end” in those days, Hudson led the NFL in receiving seven times, receptions eight times and touchdown catches on nine occasions. A multiple league MVP, Hudson led the Packers to three championships and is the first player in NFL history to record a 1,000-yard receiving season. His 99 career touchdowns is still the 11th-highest total in NFL history despite playing his final game in 1945.
23. Tony Gonzalez, TE (1997-2013): Gonzalez enjoyed a remarkable run of consistent excellence during his 17-year career. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl at age 23 in 1999 and his last in 2013 at age 37. In between, Gonzalez was selected to 12 other Pro Bowls while becoming the most prolific tight end in NFL history. He is third all time in receptions, sixth in career receiving yards and eighth in career touchdown receptions.
22. Gale Sayers, RB (1965-1971): Sayers packed a lot into a short career. The “Kansas Comet” amassed 9,435 combined net yards and scored 336 points in 68 games with the Chicago Bears. Along with being one of the greatest running backs in history, Sayers retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards. As a rookie in 1965, the graceful Sayers scored 20 touchdowns (in just 14 games) that included a single-game record six scores against the 49ers.
21. Rod Woodson, DB (1987-2003): One of the greatest athletes who has ever played in the NFL, Woodson excelled during his 17-year career as a cornerback, safety and returner. The NFL’s DPOY in 1993, Woodson made history two years later by becoming the first athlete in a major American professional sport to return to play in the same season after undergoing major knee surgery. Five years after that, Woodson played an integral role on the Ravens‘ historically dominant defense that led Baltimore to its first Super Bowl win. Woodson then reached the Super Bowl with a third team — the Raiders — two years later after leading the NFL in interceptions at age 37.
20. Alan Page, DT (1967-1981): Along with anchoring the Vikings‘ legendary “Purple People Eater” defense, Page owns the distinction as the first defensive player to win NFL MVP. A Pro Bowler each year from 1968-76, Page amassed 148.5 career sacks, an unheard of number for a defensive tackle. Page’s dominance helped the Vikings win three NFC titles and an NFL crown in 1969. He finished his career with three extremely solid seasons with the Bears, recording three sacks in his final game.
19. Anthony Munoz, LT (1980-1992): The greatest left tackle in NFL history, Munoz earned 11 straight Pro Bowl nods and was an All-Pro in nine of his 13 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. A pillar on the Bengals’ first two Super Bowl teams, Munoz’s pass protection helped both Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason win league MVPs.
18. Emmitt Smith, RB (1990-2004): The small but strong running back was the engine behind the Cowboys‘ 1990s dynasty. From 1991-95, Smith won four rushing titles, league and Super Bowl MVPs and three Super Bowls. Smith continued to churn out 1,000-yard seasons after the Cowboys’ championship years and remains the NFL’s all-time career leader with 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns.
17. John Elway, QB (1993-98): Elway’s greatness can be measured in the fact that he carried the Broncos to three Super Bowls over a four-year span in the late ’80s. Denver was woefully overmatched in those games, but Elway ended his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins once the Broncos built a championship-caliber team around him. He won Super Bowl MVP honors in his final game.
16. Randy Moss, WR (1998-2010, 2012): Moss’ nickname, “The Freak,” was fitting as he possessed talents that at times appeared to be otherworldly. Moss burst onto the scene as a rookie by catching 17 touchdowns for the 15-1 Vikings. Nine years later, Moss enjoyed an historic partnership with Tom Brady that included both players setting individual records (Brady with 50 touchdown passes, Moss with 23 touchdown catches) for the NFL’s only undefeated team in a 16-game regular season. Moss is second all-time behind Rice in career touchdown catches and is fourth all-time in receiving yards.
15. Joe Greene, DT (1969-1981): The backbone of the Steelers‘ 1970s dynasty, “Mean Joe” won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1972 and in 1974. In ’74, Green spearheaded the Steelers’ first of four Super Bowl wins during the decade. In Super Bowl IX, he intercepted Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton and recovered a critical fumble as Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense shut out Minnesota’s offense. Greene was so dominant that the NFL outlawed his stunt alignment that made him nearly impossible for interior linemen to block.
14. Aaron Donald, DT (2014-present): If someone was to make a case for Donald as the greatest defensive player in league history, they wouldn’t get an argument here. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donald was an All-Pro each year from 2015-22 and has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his nine seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. Donald’s sheer will helped the Rams come back to defeat the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI.
13. Ray Lewis, LB (1996-2012): A throwback player, Lewis’ intensity and mastery of his position led the Ravens to two Super Bowl titles. He was the best player on the Ravens’ historically great 2000 defense that allowed just six points in three playoff games. In 17 seasons, Lewis racked up over 2,000 tackles, 31 interceptions, 41.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries.
12. Dan Marino, QB (1983-1999): Widely regarded as the greatest pure passer the NFL has ever seen. During his 17-year career (all with the Dolphins), Marino won five passing titles and led the NFL in touchdown passes three straight seasons from 1984-86. His 1984 season is one for the ages. That season, Marino set then-NFL records with 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns while leading Miami to the Super Bowl. Marino, whose career accolades also includes winning Comeback Player of the Year in 1994, retired as the NFL’s all-time career leader in passing yards and touchdown passes.
11. Johnny Unitas, QB (1956-1973): The NFL’s best quarterback during the league’s first 50 years. “Johnny U” led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and ’59 and a Super Bowl title in 1970. He was the winning quarterback in what many consider the greatest game in NFL history: the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and Giants that was the first overtime contest in league history. His record of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass stood from 1960 until Drew Brees passed him in 2012.
10. Joe Montana, QB (1979-1994): The QB who held the mantle as the greatest of all time before Tom Brady came along. “Cool Joe” was the first three-time Super Bowl MVP while leading the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins during the 1980s. Montana was brilliant in big games; he threw zero interceptions in four Super Bowls while recording some of the greatest individual efforts in Super Bowl history. Montana solidified his status as an all-time legend after leading the 49ers’ iconic, 92-yard game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII.
9. Dick Butkus, LB (1965-73): The word legend is often used loosely in sports, but not in Butkus’ situation. The Chicago Bears iconic linebacker struck fear into opposing offenses throughout his nine-year playing career. A ferocious tackler, Butkus was also impeccable in pass coverage. He picked off at least one pass every year of his career and pulled down five passes during his standout rookie season.
8. Barry Sanders, RB (1989-1998): Unless you saw him play, it’s hard to describe the experience of watching Barry Sanders on the football field. The former Detroit Lions star ran with a style that wasn’t seen before and hasn’t been seen since. A wizard with the football, Sanders made the impossible look routine. He often turned what appeared to be five-yard losses into long runs that are now played on loops at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sanders parlayed his unique running style into a decorated career that included four rushing titles and 15,259 career rushing yards in 10 seasons.
7. Reggie White, DE (1985-1998, 2000): The “Minister of Defense” compiled a Hall of Fame career with both the Eagles and Packers. Along with being a menacing pass rusher, White made history when he became the first star player to sign with a new team in free agency after joining the Packers in 1993. Three years later, White hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy after recording three sacks in Green Bay’s first Super Bowl win in 29 years.
6. Lawrence Taylor, LB (1981-1993): Taylor was so dominant as a rookie that he won both Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Five years later, Taylor won league MVP while leading the Giants to their first Super Bowl title. Taylor’s ferocious pass rush revolutionized the game while making left tackle one of the league’s most important positions.
5. Peyton Manning, QB (1998-2015): If Brady is Jack Nicklaus, Manning is Arnold Palmer in this epic QB rivalry. Brady has more titles, but Manning has his own unique legacy that includes a record five league MVPs as well as being the first starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different clubs. And like Palmer did with golf, Manning has served as a significant ambassador for the NFL, but during his playing and in retirement.
4. Walter Payton, RB (1975-1987): How good was “Sweetness?” So good that there is a legitimate argument to be made regarding whether or not he is the greatest running back in NFL history. He’s without question the greatest back since the 1970 merger. Quite possibly the most fearless player of all time, Payton routinely took on eight-man fronts for mediocre Bears teams. When the Bears finally became competitive later in his career, Payton led them to a championship after gaining over 2,000 all-purpose yards for the Super Bowl XX champions. Along with his running prowess, Payton was an exceptional blocker, receiver and overall football player.
3. Jim Brown, RB (1957-1965): It’s hard to quantify how dominant Brown was during his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He is on the short list of athletes who towered over the competition, a list that also includes Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wilt Chamberlain, Cheryl Miller, Serena Williams, Jesse Owens and Michael Phelps. Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and carried the Browns to their last league title in 1964. His career yards-per-game average of 104.3 yards remains the highest total of any player in NFL history.
2. Jerry Rice, WR (1985-04): Rice belongs on any Mount Rushmore regarding the NFL’s all-time greatest players. His list of NFL records spans longer than a football field. A three-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, Rice caught his record eighth career Super Bowl touchdown with the Raiders at age 40. His career tally of 22,895 receiving yards is over 5,000 yards more than the second-closest wideout, Larry Fitzgerald. In 1987, Rice caught 22 touchdowns — a record that stood for 20 years — despite playing in only 12 games.
1. Tom Brady, QB (2000-2022): It’s hard to pinpoint when Brady ended the argument as the NFL’s greatest player. He firmly entered the conversation after leading the Patriots from behind against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Brady entered “arguably the greatest” territory after he and the Patriots pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history against Atlanta. His last two titles — especially his final one with the Buccaneers at age 43 — cemented his legacy as the greatest winner and player the sport has ever seen.