Who is the greatest NFL player to ever wear their uniform number? We run down the best of the best, from 00-99.
00 – Jim Otto, C, Oakland (1960-74)
Double Zero was history’s only All-AFL center. That’s right — Otto was named All-AFL in all 10 years of the league’s existence. The last of the original Raiders, Otto participated in nine AFL All-Star Games and in the first three AFC-NFC Pro Bowls. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
1 – Warren Moon, QB, Houston (1984-93), Minnesota (1994-96), Seattle (1997-98), Kansas City (1999-2000)
A nine-time Pro Bowler (and a five-time Grey Cup champion in his six seasons in Canada), Moon threw for 70,553 yards and 435 TDs in 23 seasons as a professional QB. The 1990 Offensive Player of the Year was the first African-American quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2 – Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta (2008-present)
Matty Ice is the biggest star at a little-used number. Ryan was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008 and has made three Pro Bowls. He’s led the Falcons to the playoffs four times in his eight seasons and guided Atlanta to the NFC Championship Game in 2012.
3 – Bronko Nagurski, FB, Chicago (1930-37, 1943)
We delve deep into the NFL archives for the greatest No. 3. Nagurski came straight out of central casting for the nascent NFL, combining size, determination and toughness into one terrifying package. He was a three-time NFL champion, a four-time first-team All-Pro and a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4 – Brett Favre, QB, Atlanta (1991), Green Bay (1992-2007), N.Y. Jets (2008), Minnesota (2009-10)
The game’s ultimate gunslinger, Favre rewrote the NFL record book during 20 remarkable seasons under center. At the time of his retirement, the 11-time Pro Bowler held NFL records for passing yards and touchdowns (since broken). He still holds the records for attempts, completions and consecutive starts, among other milestones.
5 – Paul Hornung, HB/PK, Green Bay (1957-62, 1964-66)
The Golden Boy was one of history’s most versatile players and was a key contributor on four NFL Championship teams. Hornung scored 176 points in only 12 games in 1960 (15 TDs, 15 FG, 41 XP), setting a record that stood until LaDainian Tomlinson broke it in a 16-game season in 2006.
6 – Kevin Butler, K, Chicago (1985-95), Arizona (1996-97)
Not exactly an embarrassment of riches at No. 6, where Butler edges out Jay Cutler. In 11 seasons in Chicago, Butler became the Bears’ all-time leading scorer with 1,116 points (broken by Robbie Gould in 2015). He set a rookie record with 144 points for the legendary 1985 Bears.
7 – John Elway, QB, Denver (1983-98)
The face of the Broncos franchise since 1983, Elway was a nine-time Pro Bowler who capped his career with two Super Bowl wins in his final two seasons. He’s one of only two players to score rushing touchdowns in four different Super Bowls (along with Thurman Thomas).
8 – Steve Young, QB, Tampa Bay (1985-86), San Francisco (1987-99)
Young excelled in one of the most unenviable tasks in sports — replacing a legend, in this case Joe Montana. Young picked up where Joe Cool left off in San Francisco, earning two MVP awards, winning a record six NFL passer rating titles and leading San Francisco to victory in Super Bowl XXIX, in which he threw a record six touchdown passes.
9 – Sonny Jurgensen, QB, Philadephia (1957-63), Washington (1964-74)
Hall of Famer Jurgensen barely nudges out future Hall of Famer Drew Brees on the strength of these comments from Vince Lombardi: “He may be the best the league has ever seen. He’s the best I have ever seen. If we would have had Sonny Jurgensen in Green Bay, we’d have never lost a game.” Jurgensen’s career passer rating (82.6) was among the best of the league’s “deadball” era (pre-1978).
10 – Fran Tarkenton, QB, Minnesota (1961-66), N.Y. Giants (1967-71), Minnesota (1972-78)
Fran the Man was known for his scrambling, and he did amass 3,674 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 675 carries. But he was also a prolific passer, piling up 47,003 yards (a record at his retirement) and leading the league in completions in three of his last four seasons.
11 – Norm Van Brocklin, QB, L.A. Rams (1949-57), Philadelphia (1958-60)
The Dutchman still holds the single-game record for passing yards (554), but he was far from a one-hit wonder. Van Brocklin led the NFL in yards per attempt four times in a five-year period, and his 10.1 YPA in 1954 is the fourth-best figure in NFL history.
12 – Tom Brady, QB, New England (2000-present)
A compelling case can be made that Brady is the best player ever at the most important position in team sports. Brady has won 77.1 percent of his career regular-season starts; has won a record 22 playoff games, including a record-tying four Super Bowls; and is in the top five in virtually every meaningful passing category.
13 – Dan Marino, QB, Miami (1983-99)
Marino took the NFL by storm from his rookie season onward and helped transform the league into the pass-happy outfit we enjoy today. He led the NFL in yards and completions in four of his first six seasons, including a 5,084-yard, 48-TD campaign in 1984 that shattered existing single-season records.
14 – Dan Fouts, QB, San Diego (1973-87)
With Fouts at the helm, Air Coryell, the innovative passing offense of coach Don Coryell, truly took flight. Fouts’ Chargers led the league in passing yards an NFL record six consecutive years from 1978 to 1983 and again in 1985 and also led the league in total offense in each of those seasons. Fouts was the first player in history to throw for 4,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
15 – Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay (1956-71)
Yes, the Packers dynasty was built around a strong ground game, but Starr was far more than a game manager. Starr led the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating four times apiece, and he excelled at protecting the football and limiting turnovers. Oh, and there’s that 9–1 postseason record, with five NFL championships in six years.
16 – Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco (1979-92), Kansas City (1993-94)
Another candidate for greatest of all time, Joe Cool came to epitomize the quarterback position as the league became entrenched as the most popular sport in the country. Montana led the NFL in completion percentage five times and won four Super Bowls, posting an 11-to-0 TD-to-interception ratio in the big game.
17 – Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego (2004-present)
Rivers is underappreciated in his own time, laboring in a relatively small market for a mediocre franchise. But Rivers’ numbers compare favorably to those of any of his peers. He’s thrown for 4,000-plus yards in seven of the last eight seasons and is eighth all-time in passer rating.
18 – Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis (1998-2011), Denver (2012-15)
Only some puzzling postseason struggles prevent Peyton from being a slam-dunk choice as the greatest quarterback in history (although he did win two Super Bowl rings). He’s tops all-time in passing yards (71,940) and TD passes (539), and he made 14 Pro Bowls.
19 – Johnny Unitas, QB, Baltimore (1956-72), San Diego (1973)
Johnny U was the man under center as the NFL came of age. Unitas wasn’t the most physically gifted quarterback, but he was incomparably tough and competitive, as he displayed in the Colts’ 23–17 win over the Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship, aka the Greatest Game Ever Played. Unitas finished with 40,239 passing yards and 290 TD passes.
20 – Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit (1989-98)
Sanders, author of the greatest individual season by a running back in college football history, continued to dominate at the next level, averaging better than 1,500 yards rushing per season with a dazzling combination of quickness and elusiveness. Sanders — like Jim Brown before him — enhanced his legend by retiring at the peak of his powers.
21 – Deion Sanders, CB, Atlanta Falcons (1989-93), San Francisco (1994), Dallas (1995-99), Washington (2000), Baltimore (2004-05)
Arguably the greatest cover corner in history, Sanders was an eight-time Pro Bowler who recorded 53 interceptions (nine of them returned for scores) despite rarely being challenged by opposing quarterbacks. Sanders also excelled as a return man with nine career TDs via kick or punt return.
22 – Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas (1990-2002), Arizona (2003-04)
The NFL’s all-time rushing leader compiled mind-boggling stats that will likely never be equaled — 4,409 attempts, 18,355 yards, 164 rushing TDs. Smith led the league in rushing yards four times and was part of three Super Bowl-winning Dallas teams.
23 – Troy Vincent, DB, Miami (1992-95), Philadelphia (1996-2003), Buffalo (2004-06), Washington (2006)
Vincent was a five-time Pro Bowler who compiled 47 career interceptions. He was also one of football’s greatest leaders, serving as a team captain for the last 13 seasons of his career. He’s currently the NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations.
24 – Champ Bailey, CB, Washington (1999-2003), Denver (2004-13)
Bailey spent his 15-year career taking away one side of the field from opposing quarterbacks. He posted 52 career interceptions and forced 25 fumbles, and he was selected to 12 Pro Bowls in his career, the most ever for a cornerback.
25 – Fred Biletnikoff, WR, Oakland (1965-78)
The sure-handed Biletnikoff was a six-time Pro Bowler who moved the sticks for the Oakland Raiders for 14 productive seasons and had 76 career TD catches. The annual award for college football’s top receiver is named in his honor.
26 – Rod Woodson, DB, Pittsburgh (1987-96), San Francisco (1997), Baltimore (1998-2001), Oakland (2002-03)
Woodson can stake a claim as history’s greatest defensive back. His 71 career interceptions rank third all time, and he holds the NFL record for interceptions returned for touchdowns (12). Woodson was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 and made 11 Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
27 – Steve Atwater, S, Denver (1989-98), N.Y. Jets (1999)
Atwater is one of the more glaring current omissions from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The hard-hitting safety was nicknamed the “Smiling Assassin” for his bone-rattling hits. He had 1,180 career tackles and 24 interceptions and made eight Pro Bowls.
28 – Marshall Faulk, RB, Indianapolis (1994-98), St. Louis (1999-2005)
Faulk established the blueprint for dual-threat running backs, amassing 19,154 yards from scrimmage and 136 touchdowns. In 1999, playing for the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis, he joined Roger Craig as the only players with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in a single season, compiling 2,429 yards from scrimmage.
29 – Eric Dickerson, RB, L.A. Rams (1983-87), Indianapolis (1987-91), L.A. Raiders (1992), Atlanta (1993)
Dickerson took the NFL by storm, setting rookie records for rushing attempts (390), yards (1,808) and touchdowns (18). He topped himself the following season with 2,105 rushing yards, an NFL record that still stands. Dickerson, who led the NFL in rushing four times, finished with 13,259 career yards and 96 total touchdowns.