It’s no secret that the NFL is home to some of the greatest players ever to grace football. Quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers…no matter where you happen to play, if your talent is transcendent, you’ll be recognised by both the NFL itself and by the players, who will venerate you until your dying day and beyond. We don’t have anywhere near enough space to recognise every single great NFL player, as there have been far too many to mention, but let’s take a look at some of the greatest NFL players who ever took the field.

Santonio Holmes

Holmes’ name sometimes doesn’t get mentioned among the true greats of the sport, and we think that’s absolutely criminal. He was the Super Bowl MVP back in 2009, a performance he ascribes to a “quiet calmness that was ready to just burst” whenever his team needed it to. His career is extremely solid, and although he’s had his fair share of problems off the pitch, we think Holmes deserves to be recognised alongside the true greats of the sport.

Walter Payton

Commonly known as “Sweetness”, Walter Payton managed to stick with the Chicago Bears for the entirety of his NFL career, playing with the team between 1975 and 1987. In that time, he managed to score the overall NFL MVP award in 1977, score the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1970s Team award, and carry his team to victory countless times. Payton is also well-known for his off-pitch charitable efforts and his friendly demeanour, which is apparently what led to him being called “Sweetness”.

Tom Brady

Undeniably, Tom Brady is the most iconic NFL player to ever have taken the field. Despite announcing his retirement earlier in 2022, Brady eventually reneged on this announcement, taking the field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and explaining that he had “unfinished business” with the team. This officially makes Brady the oldest quarterback ever to take the field in the NFL, but we’re betting that he still gives the youngsters a run for their money.

Jerry Rice

Considered to be one of the NFL’s greatest wide receivers ever, Rice once described himself with typical humility, saying that he doesn’t believe he’s “such a natural” and that he works hard for his ability. Rice is best-known for his time with the SF 49ers, and if there’s a record for receiving in the NFL, Rice almost certainly holds it, such is his incredible talent. If you were putting together an all-star NFL team, Rice would need to be your wide receiver.

Peyton Manning

If you need an indication of just how great Peyton Manning is as a player, consider this: he’s the only player in NFL history to have won the MVP award five times, achieving this incredible accolade two consecutive years in a row twice (2003 and 2004, followed by 2008 and 2009, with a final award coming in 2013). Manning’s intellect is well-known by his peers; IQ is one of the most important stats when it comes to NFL football, and Manning’s analytical approach to the game is well-documented.   

Dick Butkus

We’re going old-school for this one. Dick Butkus’ professional career hit its peak between 1965 and 1973, when he took the field for the Chicago Bears. That’s where he earned the moniker “The Monster of the Midway”, a name that would cause his opponents to quake in terror. As a middle linebacker, Butkus wasn’t just a violent brute, despite what his name might have you believe; he was also a high-IQ player who knew when to apply just the right degree of skill to make a play happen.

Lawrence Taylor

Earning the nickname “L.T.”, a simple way to refer to his name, Taylor is one of the sport’s greatest ever linebackers, putting him alongside Butkus in our imaginary Hall of Fame. His run with the Giants between 1981 and 1993 had to be seen to be believed, but Taylor did more than just succeed on the field; his innovative approach and style led to a change in the way NFL players took on defence, as well as how linebackers interacted with the rest of their team.

Joe Montana

Boasting the most non-intercepted Super Bowl throws (a staggering 127 throws), Montana’s nicknames – The Comeback Kid and Cool Joe – are well-earned. Montana is well-known for keeping a cool head even when things look dicey, and he’s also won the NFL MVP award twice, showing that his teams have always valued him. He’s best-known for his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, and he’s inarguably one of that team’s most iconic players.

Jim Brown

Again, we’re going all the way back into the annals of history for this one. Jim Brown played for the Cleveland Browns back in 1957, ending his professional career in 1965. That means he stuck with a single team all the way through his tenure with the NFL, which isn’t as rare as you might think; somehow, the NFL seems to inspire more team loyalty than many other franchises do. As a running back, Brown destroyed many of the records held by people who had played his position prior to his auspicious debut.

Reggie White

When you’re talking about NFL defenders, you simply can’t ignore the efforts of Reggie White. He played across 15 NFL seasons in the 80s and 90s, and his slate is one of the most varied in the NFL; he’s played for the Philly Eagles, the Carolina Panthers, and the Packers. White had the speed, the presence, and the raw strength to block any ball that came his way, earning him the Defensive Player of the Year award from the NFL not once, but twice.