Tyler Forness | September 4th, 2019
When it comes to creating the ultimate 53 man roster, there are a lot of factors that need to be considered. Not only are eras different with athleticism and talent, how the game was played is drastically different from decade to decade. In the 1970’s, it wasn’t abnormal for a quarterback to throw more interceptions than touchdowns, while in today’s NFL, that would get you replaced pretty quick. The goal of this list is to put together a 53 man roster of the best players, regardless of era, to ever play the great game.
In order to construct such a team, we need to define the outline of its construction. The best way to do so is to try and build a team whose style can cross generations of the game.
Players will be judged on four major elements: stats, dominance in their era, impact on the game, and longevity. Stats are one of those elements that are way over valued. While they do mean a great deal, they don’t always tell the whole story. For example: Calvin Johnson set an NFL record with 1964 receiving yards, but only had 5 touchdowns. In that season, Johnson was brought down at the one yard line 5 times. Touchdown numbers, among other stats, can be deceiving.
On offense, we will be constructing the roster using a standard set of 21 personnel. Throughout the course of history, this has been the most utilized base offense, whether it be the West Coast or a pro set style, and evolving into today’s hybrid offenses with zone blocking schemes.
Quarterback: Tom Brady (Starter), John Elway, Dan Marino
This is a position that will likely be the most debated on this list. Of the best quarterbacks to ever play, I have seen lists with as many as seven guys to be number one on the list. Arguments can easily be made for guys like Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Brett Favre, but at the end of the day, these three individuals stood above the rest.
Tom Brady is far and away the most successful quarterback to every play. Having ended half of his seasons in the Super Bowl (including winning the game in a third of them), Tom Brady also boasts a 3.02:1 touchdown:interception ratio and holds fifty four NFL records, including most wins (including playoffs) at 237 and most touchdowns at 590.
John Elway and Dan Marino were the two best quarterbacks from the famed 1983 draft class, and two of the best to ever play the game. John and Dan are two of the best ever to maximize the talent around them, with John taking teams to three Super Bowls with little talent around him and Dan continuously putting up massive numbers while his best skill players were Mark Clayton and Mark “Super” Duper. The traits and success that these two have are the reason why they are the two backups for this team.
Running Back: Walter Payton (Starter), Barry Sanders, Jim Brown
One of the toughest parts about constructing this list is the running back position. There are a lot of great running backs. Guys like Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson and Marshall Faulk aren’t on the list because the guys that are were incredibly dominant in their era.
Walter Payton is considered the best running back of all time, so much so that Barry Sanders famously said that he retired because he “didn’t want to break Walter Payton’s rushing record.” Not only did Payton amass over 16,000 rushing yards in his 13 seasons, he also had 4,500 yards receiving and threw for 8 touchdowns. He was the first real all purpose back in an era where most running backs were built like John Riggins.
Barry Sanders and Jim Brown were both the best running back of their time. Barry was the original human joystick being able to turn any negative play into a touchdown. He is the only running back in the history of the NFL to average 1,500 rushing yards per season, and the first since Jim Brown to average 5 yards per carry in a career.
While his career was short lived, his impact was felt for years. Jim Brown is considered among many, just like Walter Payton, to be the best to ever play. In an era where offensive lineman couldn’t use their hands to block and the forward pass was still in its relative infancy, Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry, which was astronomical for the era.
Fullback: Lorenzo Neal (Starter)
Fullback is a relatively general term when it comes to the history of the NFL
Wide Receiver: Jerry Rice (Starter), Cris Carter (Starter), Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Wes Welker
The first four receivers are blatantly obvious to anyone who has watched football any extended period of time, so I won’t delve into them much. Cris Carter gets the nod as the starter over Randy Moss because of his consistency, the best hands of all time, and his dominance in the mid 1990’s, amassing a then record 122 receptions in back to back seasons. The real surprise to most is Wes Welker, but he shouldn’t a surprise.
Welker, not only revolutionized playing in the slot, but was the best to ever do it. In his first six seasons, he amassed over 100 catches five times, and 903 receptions in a 12 year career. If you are going to build a team, there isn’t anybody better to play in the slot.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski (Starter), Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates
The first two tight ends are absolute locks, but how they are ordered is up for debate. For me, it’s clear that Gronkowski was the best ever. Although Gonzalez had a longer career, Gronkowski was arguably the most dominant pass catcher outside of Randy Moss in the history of the National Football. In just 9 seasons, Rob caught an astounding 79 touchdowns in just 115 career games, a touchdown rate of 0.68/game. Like Moss, teams were planning their defensive strategy to stop Gronkowski.
The argument for Gonzalez, however, was incredibly strong. Being the start of the basketball player turned tight end trend, Tony was a model of consistency, amassing 60 or more catches in 15 straight seasons for a total of 1325, the most ever for a tight end.
Gonzalez also paved the way for guys like Antonio Gates to get a chance in the NFL. For years, Gates was one of the best ever in the red zone, as he was able to use his skills from being a power forward at Kent State to box out defenders in the end zone to catch touchdowns.
Offensive LIne: Anthony Munoz (Starting LT), Larry Allen (Starting LG), Bruce Matthews (Starting C), Forrest Gregg (Starting RG), Orlando Pace (Starting RT), Ron Yary (T), Mick Tinglehoff (G), Mike Webster (C), Jonathan Ogden (T)
There isn’t a whole lot to talk about with the offensive line, except that these guys were all dominant at their positions, similar to what Quenton Nelson did during his rookie year, but for an entire career. The one that is most impressive is Bruce Matthews, who, for 19 seasons with the Oilers and Titans, was a pro bowler at tackle, guard and center, a feat that will likely never be accomplished again.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri
This is an easy one, as Adam Vinatieri is the most clutch kicker of all time, with 28 game winning field goals in the last minute of regulation and overtime, including kicks in the Tuck Rule game, Super Bowl 36 and 38. His accuracy ranking is a tad low, as he is tied for 16th all time at 84.35 percent, but he has experienced some of his best years in the back half of his career with only 1 of the last 9 seasons with less than 80 percent accuracy, along with his best ever season in 2014 missing only 1 kick in his 81 attempts.
Return Specialist: Devin Hester
The biggest lock on the list is Devin Hester, who is the leader in return touchdowns for a career with 20 kick and punt return touchdowns, including one in Super Bowl 41). He also is the only player in NFL history to have six return touchdowns in one season. Although he couldn’t get any traction as a receiver or a running back, Hester’s incredible vision and speed made him a threat to score anytime he touched the football.
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