Top 10 NFL players

A panel of ESPN NFL experts determines's Top 10 NFL players of all time.

Updated: September 5, 2005, 1:07 PM ET

Editor's note: Last preseason, with Jerry Rice entering his 20th season we decided it was time to determine's greatest all-time NFL player. This ranking was compiled using top 10 lists from a panel of ESPN NFL experts. The voters were: John Clayton (JC), Len Pasquarelli (LP), Sean Salisbury (SS), Mark Schlereth (MS), Joe Theismann (JT), Randy Mueller (RM), Sal Paolantonio (SP), Greg Garber (GG), Merril Hoge (MH), Peter Lawrence-Riddell (PLR) and James C. Black (JB).

Players received 10 points for a first-place vote, nine points for second and so on down to one point for a 10th-place vote.

Top 10 NFL players
Player/Voter JC LP SS MS JT RM SP GG MH PLR JB Total
1. Jim Brown 10 9 10 9 9 9 8 10 9 10 9 102
2. Jerry Rice 8 10 4 6 5 6 7 7 -- 9 10 72
3. J. Montana 6 7 8 -- 7 7 10 -- 7 7 6 65
4. W. Payton 2 6 7 8 8 5 5 4 10 5 -- 60
5. L. Taylor 7 5 6 7 -- 8 -- 8 -- 6 8 55
6. J. Unitas 9 8 5 -- -- -- -- 9 -- 8 7 46
7. John Elway -- -- 9 10 6 10 1 -- 8 1 -- 45
8. D. Butkus 4 -- -- -- -- 4 9 2 2 3 4 28
9. R. White -- 2 -- 5 -- -- -- -- -- 4 5 16
10t. S. Baugh 5 -- -- -- 10 -- -- -- -- -- -- 15
10t. D. Jones -- -- 3 -- -- -- 6 3 -- -- 3 15
Others receiving votes (points): Anthony Munoz (12), Jack Lambert (10), Dan Marino (9), Jim Parker (8), Dick "Night Train" Lane (7), Ray Lewis (7), Mel Blount (6), Barry Sanders (5), Mike Webster (4), Deion Sanders (4), Rod Woodson (4), Ronnie Lott (3), Bart Starr (2), Bob Lilly (2), Emmitt Smith (1), Joe Greene (1)

Tim Duncan
1. RB Jim Brown -- Cleveland Browns, 1957-1965
Forty years after his shocking retirement at the peak of his career, and now only seventh on the all-time rushing list, Brown still ranks as the standard against which all other running backs are measured. In only nine seasons, and playing largely with a 12-game schedule, he rushed for 12,312 yards. His 5.2-yard average remains the best among the game's top 20 all-time rushers. An awesome combination of brute force inside the tackles, absolutely punished tacklers, but still could outrun defenders in the secondary.
-- Len Pasquarelli

Jerry Rice
2. WR Jerry Rice -- 49ers, Raiders, 1985 -- present
Everyone knows the numbers that Jerry Rice has put up -- among them NFL records in touchdowns (205), receptions (1,519) and receiving yards (22,466). But what set Rice apart was his work ethic. Rice's work ethic was, and still is at 41, unparalleled and that's a major reason why he's one of the greatest players in the history of the NFL. He not only made big catches in the games that didn't matter, he also made them when the games mattered. -- Sean Salisbury

Joe Montana
3. QB Joe Montana -- 49ers, Chiefs, 1979-1994
I've heard it all. I've heard that Joe Montana was the product of a system and that he couldn't have thrived anywhere else. I've heard that Montana wasn't even the best quarterback of his system. My reply to the critics is simple -- look at the rings on his fingers! Montana might not have been the prototypical quarterback, but he found ways to win and was arguably the best fourth-quarter quarterback in the history of the game. If I had to start a team with a proven winner, it would probably start with Montana.
-- Sean Salisbury

Walter Payton
4. RB Walter Payton -- Bears, 1975-1987
In 13 seasons, many of them played with a subpar Bears team, the man known as "Sweetness" missed just one start. What he missed even more rarely was any kind of crease through which he could slither. It is difficult to define Payton's style, because he was a rare amalgam of a runner, a guy who could rip through linebackers but also avoid taking the tough hit with subtle and deft cuts. He carried 3,838 times in his career and there were probably only a handful of attempts where he didn't finish the run, or bleed every ounce of yardage possible out of the hole he was provided.
-- Len Pasquarelli

Lawrence Taylor
5. LB Lawrence Taylor -- Giants, 1981-1993
He recorded 132.5 career sacks in 13 seasons with the New York Giants - a quaint number by today's standards set by Bruce Smith and Reggie White - but don't let the numbers fool you. Lawrence Taylor revolutionized the art of sacking the quarterback. He was a 6-foot-3, 250-pound outside linebacker with scintillating speed and power. "He is completely reckless," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once said of his former charge. "I have never seen a player sell out so completely to make a play."
-- Greg Garber

Johnny Unitas
6. QB Johnny Unitas -- Colts, Chargers, 1956-1973
Although not blessed with the strongest arm, Unitas, in his trademark black, high-top cleats, redefined the quarterback position. Long before Joe Montana, he was the master of the two-minute drill, and his performance in the 1958 overtime NFL title game remains legendary. Had a great feel for reading defenses, for when to go up top with the long ball, when to audible out of a play. Remarkably, he no longer rates, according to the NFL system, among the top 20 passers of all-time. But his skills, uncanny accuracy, and unfailing attention to detail supercede statistics, as does his toughness.
-- Len Pasquarelli

John Elway
7. QB John Elway -- Broncos, 1983-1998
Never in my life have I seen a quarterback consistently carry a team like John Elway could. I'm not talking about carrying a team for a few games or half a season when someone went down. I'm talking about carrying a team with only himself as a viable Super Bowl team three times. That's what Elway did in the 1980's. He didn't have flashy offensive players to go with him and he didn't have great defenses. He simply found ways to win through his great mind and fabulous athleticism.
-- Mark Schlereth

Dick Butkus
8. LB Dick Butkus -- Bears, 1965-1973
Dick Butkus epitomized what the National Football League is all about. It's contact. It's hustle. It's intimidation. Nobody did that better than Butkus. His weekly highlights of bone-jarring tackles came at a time when the NFL was just selling itself to a budding television audience. He would line up behind his defensive linemen and chase down and punish anyone carrying the ball. After Ray Lewis ends his career, maybe Lewis will knock Butkus out of the top 10 because he is a better athlete and has healthier knees. No one, though, will take away the memories of a defender who taught generations of fans the right way to play football.
-- John Clayton

Reggie White
9. DL Reggie White -- Eagles, Packers, Panthers, 1985-1998, 2000
Some people forget that he spent the early part of his career with the Memphis franchise of the USFL, or his career sack total, 198, would be significantly higher. His "hump" move, which probably generated more than half his sacks, was the trademark that has now been often copied. For as many sacks as he got as an upfield rusher, he probably got almost as many moving down inside to tackle on third down. A relentless rusher but, especially early in his career, also a force versus the run. Helped to resurrect the Green Bay franchise when he signed with the Packers as a free agent.
-- Len Pasquarelli

Sammy Baugh
10t. QB Sammy Baugh -- Redskins, 1937-1952
So often, the greats of the past are forgotten because their highlights can't be easily seen on TV. Sammy Baugh can't be forgotten. He was a passing quarterback in a running era. His nickname said it all -- "Slinging" Sammy Baugh. Baugh and Otto Graham were the pocket passers of their era. Baugh played 16 seasons. He was among the greatest punters of all-time. He played some defense. But he was known for his throwing. Whether it's Baugh or Graham, those names can't be totally forgotten when new greats enter the Hall of Fame. Baugh was good enough he could have done well in this era. As it stands, he threw for 21,886 yards and 187 touchdowns.
-- John Clayton

Deacon Jones
10t. DL Deacon Jones -- Rams, Chargers, Redskins, 1961-1974
Hate is a strong word. But Deacon Jones often used it to describe what was stirring in his heart and soul as he attacked the quarterback. He did not dislike the quarterback. No, that was not quite strong enough. After all, this was the man who invented the head slap. On TV all the time now, they talk about "difference makers." Deacon Jones, who put the fear in the Fearsome Foursome, was the first difference maker. He registered 173½ sacks in just 14 years. Now, that's making a difference.
--Sal Paolantonio