Taking into account skills, accolades, fandom, and other credibilities, here are the greatest players that have previously served as or continue to represent the face of their organization.
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald (2004-Current)
Kicking off the list with the Cards, Arizona’s feature superstar is none other than current veteran wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald. Even after rotating through a laundry list of Cardinals quarterbacks, Fitz is second in the league for all-time receiving yards, just behind legendary Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice. Not to mention, Fitzgerald has as much skill as he does class, making him one of the greatest role models in professional sports.
Atlanta Falcons: Tommy Nobis (1966-1976)
Often referred to among Atlanta fans as “Mr. Falcon”, Tommy Nobis was the OG Atlanta Falcon. After the franchise was inaugurated in 1965, Nobis became the first player to be drafted. As a rookie linebacker, he led the league with 294 tackles and was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1996. From 1966 to 1976, Nobis dominated the middle of the field and commanded both fear and respect across the league.
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis (1996-2013)
As one of the best defenders in NFL history and a textbook inside linebacker, Ray Lewis is one of the few no-brainers on this list. Alongside the rest of the Ravens’ elite defense between 1999 and 2011, Lewis and company ranked in the top six defenses 10 times. Lewis capped his impressive 17-season career with a 2013 Super Bowl win over the favored San Francisco 49ers.
Buffalo Bills: Bruce Smith (1985-2003)
With the all-time NFL record of 200 quarterback sacks, Bruce Smith was one of the most agile and menacing defenders to ever take the field. As the 1985 No. 1 overall draft pick, Smith carried the Bills to new heights in the franchise’s history. Throughout his 18-year career, Smith grossed a myriad of accolades, twice being named the Defense Player of the Year and earning eight First-Team All-Pro honors.
Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith (2001-2017)
Having only recently retired in 2017, Steve Smith’s electric performance is still fresh in the minds of Carolina fans. The wideout’s career is highlighted by a grand total of 836 catches, 67 touchdowns, 12,197 yards, and a particularly definitive mockery of the Bears’ secondary in 2005 (scoring two touchdowns and racking up 218 yards).
Chicago Bears: Walter Payton (1975-1987)
Nicknamed “Sweetness,” for his smooth and seemingly effortless playing style, Walter Payton is the undisputed pick for a franchise with the most players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Payton holds the NFL record for most yards run in a single game (275) and held the record for most career rushing yards for 18 years.
Cincinnati Bengals: Anthony Muñoz (1980-1992)
Anthony Muñoz is the only player to have ever worn the Cincinnati stripes and make it to the Hall of Fame. The Bengals’ left tackle dominated his position throughout the 1980s and was a nine-time First-Team All-Pro.
Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown (1957-1965)
Often contested as one of the greatest players to ever grace the sport, Jim Brown easily takes the top spot for the team sharing his last name. The running back’s ruthless play style and athleticism was nearly unstoppable. He averaged 104.3 rushing yards per game – the only player in NFL history to average over 100 rushing yards per game.
Dallas Cowboys: Roger Staubach (1969-1979)
Though it’s a tough contest with Emmitt Smith and Bob Lilly also serving as qualified candidates, Roger Staubach is ultimately the featured star for America’s team. Under the moniker “Roger Dodger,” the Cowboy and Hall of Famer ranks first in the team’s record for career completed passes (1,685), most passing yards (22,700), most passing touchdowns (153), and highest passer rating (83.5).
Denver Broncos: John Elway (1983-1998)
John Elway is undeniably one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. In four of his first five seasons in Denver, he led the team to the playoffs – something it had only ever managed three times since the franchise was founded in 1960. On top of that, with the help of Terrell Owens, Elway hoisted the long-time abysmal Broncos from the embarrassment of the AFC to back-to-back Super Bowl champions.
Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders (1989-1998)
Without the help of any reliable quarterbacks, Sanders carried the Lions with his rare agile playing style that was not recommended let alone teachable. Nevertheless, with sheer talent and willpower, Sanders mastered his own technique that earned him the third-most all-time rushing yards (15,269). What’s more is that Sanders has 1,306 more yards of 10 seasons than anyone else in the league’s history.
Green Bay Packers: Reggie White (1985-2000)
Often regarded as one of the greatest defensive ends in football, Reggie White was a force to be reckoned with for the Packers. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the year twice, and helped the Packers seal a win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 31 with a game-ending sack.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt (2011-Current)
One of the greatest defensive players of this era, JJ Watt deserves the top spot for the Houston Texans for his intensity and record numbers. Of the 12 players that have accumulated double-digit sacks, Watt is the only one to have done so twice. Alongside Lawrence Taylor, the first-round draft pick stands with one of the all-time greats as a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning (1998-2015)
Peyton’s hyped entry into the NFL sparked new life in Indianapolis where his presence forever transformed the Colts’ franchise. In 2007, he led the team to its second Super Bowl win since 1971 and earned five All-Pro top spots before relocating to Denver. He was so loved in Indianapolis that the stadium had prepared a “thank you” video upon his return as a Bronco during a 2013 season regular-season game.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Fred Taylor (1998-2010)
Prior to spending his final two seasons in New England, Fred Taylor enjoyed a stellar career as a Jaguar between 1998 and 2008. He is the Jags’ all-time leading rusher with 11,271 yards. As skilled as he is a model leader, coaches and teammates extolled Taylor for being one of the hardest-working players in the locker room and a class act off the field.
Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Thomas (1989-1999)
Derrick Thomas spent the entirety of his 11-year career with the Chiefs, making a name for himself as one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler and holds the record for most sacks in a single game (7). During the Chiefs’ 1999 post-season, Thomas was involved in a severe car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Just 16 days later, he died from cardiac arrest. If not for this tragic incident, who knows what other achievements and records Thomas would have set. In 2009 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Los Angeles Chargers: Junior Seau (1990-2009)
Before the team moved to Los Angeles, Junior Seau made history with the formerly known San Diego Chargers. In 1992, he helped the Chargers become the first 0-4 team to slip into the playoffs. He was also a major contributor to the team’s first and only Super Bowl appearance in 1994. Despite the Bolts losing, Seau was a disruptive force on the field, responsible for nine solo tackles, two assisted tackles, and a sack.
Los Angeles Rams: Deacon Jones (1961-1974)
Founder of the term “sack”, Deacon Jones narrowly prevails over Merlin Olsen of the Fearsome Foursome purely due to his sacking rampages and for revolutionizing the defensive end position. With an unofficial 173.5 sacks, Jones rightfully earned the nickname, “Secretary of Defense.” He was even described by the Los Angeles Times as the “most valuable Ram of all time.”
Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino (1983-1999)
Dan Marino is another easy pick here. Following his career from the 1980s into the 90s, Marino was regarded as one of the most preeminent passers in the NFL. After retiring at the end of the 1999 season, he led the league in passing yardage and touchdowns. Even with today’s higher standards, he still holds his own at fifth overall for passing yards.
Minnesota Vikings: Fran Tarkenton (1961-1978)
Despite spearheading the Vikings into four Super Bowls, Minnesota’s first-ever franchise quarterback never got the chance to hold the Lombardi trophy. Regardless, Tarkenton was a commendable QB. He ended his career with 3,674 rushing yards, the most ever for any quarterback.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady (2000-Current)
For many, Tom Brady is the first Patriot to come to mind. The six-time Super Bowl champ is one of the greatest, if not the greatest quarterback and player the NFL has witnessed. In playoff numbers, he easily surpasses even the best names, and aside from Peyton Manning, has twice as many postseason passing yards. Brady will forever be one of the most legendary faces of the Pats’ organization and the entire league.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees (2001-Current)
Like Manning’s arrival into Indianapolis, Drew Brees’ entry into New Orleans elevated the Saints to a new pinnacle. Prior to acquiring No. 9, the Saints had a meager single playoff win in 29 years. After picking him up in 2006, they jumped to eight playoff wins. Now with 547, Brees leads the NFL in all-time touchdown passes.
New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993)
The revolutionary edge rusher who made sacks an official NFL stat category in 1982 is often the frontrunner in discussions about the greatest defensive player of all time. For opposing offenses, Taylor was their kryptonite, but for the New York Giants, he was the key to stashing two more Super Bowl titles.
New York Jets: Joe Namath (1965-1977)
Though his numbers are subpar by today’s standards, Joe Namath, or “Broadway Joe”, did pioneer a Jets AFL championship in 1968 and a Super Bowl victory in 1970, thus earning him the top spot on this list.
Oakland Raiders: Gene Upshaw (1967-1981)
The anchor of the famed early-1970s Raiders’ offensive line, Gene Upshaw was a good leader and a fierce competitor. He was the primary force that surged the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins. On his own, Upshaw also made 11 playoff teams and five All-Pro teams.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brian Dawkins (1996-2011)
The Eagles’ 1996 second-round draft pick certainly embodied the franchise’s motto “Fly Eagles, fly!” based on the way he winged through the field, pummeling opponents. Brian Dawkins spent 13 years in Philly, and though he never sported the teal jersey long enough to accompany his beloved team to the Super Bowl, he was voted into the Hall of Fame just one day before the Eagles won their first championship title.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Joe Greene (1969-1981)
“Mean” Joe Green trailblazed a new era in the Steelers’ defense. Green was the cornerstone of the infamous Steel Curtain, which steered the franchise away from its pitiful track record and onto a course for greatness. With Green and company, the Steelers won four Super Bowl championships and in 1976 alone forced five shutout while allowing a minuscule 22 points scored in the last eight games of the regular season.
San Francisco 49ers: Jerry Rice (1985-2004)
He’s widely considered the greatest offensive player of all time and for good reason. Jerry Rice set records every which way, including total receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895), all-purpose yards (23,546), and touchdown receptions (197), just to name a few. He dwarfs the numbers of offensive players in today’s day and age, making Rice one of the most prolific wide receivers to ever take the field.
Seattle Seahawks: Steve Largent (1976-1989)
Smaller and slower than the average wideout, Steve Largent was an underdog, but proved that he was not to be underestimated throughout his 14-year career in Seattle. Piling 100 touchdown catches on top of 13,019 yards, he was the long-time face of the Seahawks and one of the pilots that engineered four Seattle playoff appearances between 1983 to 1988.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Brooks (1995-2008)
Alongside Warren Sapp and John Lynch, Derrick Brooks was part of the most superior defense in Bucs’ history. Of the nine defensive touchdowns scored during the 2002 season, Brooks produced five. He ended his 14-year long career with Tampa on a Super Bowl win that was secured by Brooks’s own 44-yard pick-six.
Tennessee Titans: Bruce Matthews (1983-2001)
Both an Oiler and Titan, Bruce Matthews played more games than any other offensive linemen throughout his lengthy 19-year career. He bounced between positions, from tackle to center to guard, all the while earning First-Team All-Pro honors for multiple positions.
Washington Redskins: Darrell Green (1983-2002)
As a former sprinter who once competed against Olympic track athlete Carl Lewis, Darrell Green was one of the speediest cornerbacks in NFL history. He spent 20 years in Washington as a Redskin, appearing in more games than any other NFL defender.