All Time 53 Man NFL Roster

Sometimes when I am bored, I make football lists or rosters in my head (what is the all-time Steelers team, what is the current all-NFC South team, what is the all-time Hispanic team, etc.). Of all the whimsical thought experiments in which I have engaged, the one with the most decisions and revisions has been my all time 53 man NFL roster (with coaching staff).

The purpose of building an all time 53 man NFL roster is not to simply pluck the best 53 players out of history. If I did that, I’d end up with an unbalanced roster, with as many as seven quarterbacks. Having seven Hall of Fame passers would be nice, but it’s completely unnecessary. The important thing to me is depth, which means I value versatility from the players on the roster. Yes, Jan Stenerud was a great kicker, but why put him on the team when I can have Gino Cappelletti kick, return kickoffs and punts, take handoffs, and catch passes? You get the idea. I will make exceptions for most starters, but I want most of my backups to contribute in more than one area.

Having read the comments sections in some popular sports sites, I feel that it is necessary to make the following disclaimer: Players will be picked, in large part, based on how they performed in their respective eras. Danny Fortmann was one of the great interior offensive linemen of his generation, but it would be insane to posit that he could be plucked out of 1941 and be a star guard today at 6’0” and 210 pounds. That’s smaller than RG3.

I’m probably not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know. Instead, I’m simply going to provide my rationale for building the team that I built. There are millions of NFL fans in the world, and I don’t expect anyone else’s roster to look exactly like mine – and that’s a good thing, I believe. Maybe you’ll agree with a lot of what I have to say; maybe you’ll disagree with everything I have to say. Either way, if we go about it the right way, we can all be enriched by the discussion. Without further ado.

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Peyton Manning – Five time MVP. Seven time first team All Pro. Fourteen time Pro Bowl selection. Statistically the greatest quarterback of all time. He has played with stellar offensive teammates and mediocre offensive teammates, and he has thrived with both. He has a reputation as a choker in the playoffs because, like most quarterbacks, his play drops off against better competition (the Montanas and Starrs of the world are the anomalies). With this team around him, I can’t see him choking.

Steve Young – Two time MVP. Three time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. Aside from Manning, no quarterback has ever had as dominant of a statistical run as Young did between 1991 and 1998. Throw in preternatural scrambling ability, and you have possibly the most gifted quarterback ever to play. It seems odd to select two quarterbacks known for coming up short in the playoffs, but I’m an odd guy.

Halfback

Jim Brown – Three time MVP (which is insane for a running back). Eight time first team All Pro. Nine time Pro Bowler. In his nine seasons in the league, he led the NFL in rushing eight times. He finished his career averaging over 104 yards per game, and he was undoubtedly the most dominant pure runner in football history. Similar to watching prime-LeBron James, Brown was too fast for the bigger players and too strong for the smaller players. His unwillingness to block means he comes off the field on third downs.

Walter Payton – One time MVP. Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. If Brown was the most dominant running back of all time, Payton was the most well-rounded. He ran with fury and blocked with power. He was reported as having the best hands on his team (as well as being the best tackler and kicker, for what that’s worth) and played a big role in the passing game before it became the norm for halfbacks. Only the 1982 strike stopped him from posting eleven straight seasons with 1500+ yards from scrimmage.

Gale Sayers – Five time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. I wanted a scat back on the roster, so it came down to a tossup between Sayers and Barry Sanders. Ultimately, Sayers’ contributions on special teams, as well as his lack of negative runs, won him the spot. Looking at his stats through a modern lens doesn’t do justice to the player. He was viewed by most as the best back in the league for his first five years, and many historians consider him the most talented back in league history. His 30.6 yard kick return average is still a record. We’d have to coach him to secure the ball when he runs, but I doubt that would be much of an issue.

Fullback

Bronko Nagurski (DL, LB) – Four time AP1. At a time when linemen weighed about 220 pounds, the 226 pound Nagurski completely dominated the game on the ground. Stats from the time are spotty, so turning to hagiography is necessary. He was viewed as a bruising runner and a punishing blocker. He was named to All Pro teams as a running back, defensive lineman, and offensive tackle, making him the only player ever to achieve the feat at three separate positions (not including kicker).

Wide Receiver

Jerry Rice – Ten time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. The career leader in every important receiving category. Precise route runner with deceptive speed and great hands. His work ethic is legendary and contributed significantly to his ability to play at a high level for nearly two decades. If you only include the numbers he put up during and after his age 30 season, he would still rank ninth in receptions, eleventh in receiving yards, and seventh in receiving touchdowns.

Don Hutson (DB) – Eight time AP1. Four time Pro Bowler. Led the NFL in receptions a record eight times and in yards a record six times. He essentially invented the wide receiver position as it exists today. When he retired he had more than double the catches, yards, and touchdowns of the next closest receiver. He was also second all-time in interceptions at the time he retired. It would be dishonest not to note that he played in a barely integrated league and had his best statistical seasons when many starters were overseas fighting in WW2.

Lance Alworth – One time AFL MVP. Six time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. If Rice and Hutson are my two all-around receivers, Alworth is the first of my two deep threats. Playing in the 1960s (albeit against AFL defenses), Bambi produced seven straight thousand yard seasons, including one 1600+ effort. He may have the best statistical peak of any wide receiver in league history.

Randy Moss – Four time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. Had a reputation for taking plays off, but when he wanted to he could completely take over a game. His blazing speed made even the best pursuit angles all but useless. There have been twelve seasons in which a wide receiver caught 17 or more touchdown passes. Moss accounts for three of them, including his record 23 TD season. With the emergence of several big, fast receivers lately, we tend to forget that Moss was hands-down more dominant than any current wide out.

Raymond Berry – Three time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. This begins the possession receiver section of the team. It may seem like a curious choice, given Berry’s relative dearth of gaudy stats, but few receivers commanded the same level of respect from their peers. He only broke a thousand yards once and ten touchdowns twice, but he could catch anything and achieved incredible separation on routes. His timing with Johnny Unitas was legendary, and he is generally credited with inventing the timing route.

Michael Irvin – One time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. Dallas was not a pass-happy team in the 90s, and Irvin’s stats are evidence of that. However, no one who saw him play could honestly deny his greatness. He was among the greatest ever at fighting for the ball, which made him a viable deep threat in addition to his possession receiving ability. Emmitt Smith vultured copious touchdowns from him, so he only scored ten once, and he finished his career with a paltry 65 scores. However, many of Smith’s one yard scoring plunges were made possible by incredible plays from Irvin.

Tight End

Rob Gronkowski – Two time AP1. Three time Pro Bowler. There are several Hall of Fame tight ends who have put up more impressive career numbers, but Gronk – despite only starting 54 career games – has already entered the top ten in touchdowns among all tight ends. He is the best offensive player in football when healthy, and he is one of the few active players to make the squad.

Mike Ditka – Two time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. The first truly great tight end in league history, Ditka changed the way the position was played. Who knows what kind of gaudy stats he may have put up if had had gone to play for the AFL’s Oilers, who drafted him in 1961, instead of the Bears. As it is, he still scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 43 receiving scores. Possibly more than any other receiver in history, the stats alone don’t tell the whole story of his greatness.

Tony Gonzalez – Six time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. The most statistically dominant tight end of all time, he brought a new form of athleticism to the game – one which he used to dominate defenses. He played with remarkable consistency for over fifteen years, despite not having a true receiving threat to draw coverage away until he got to Atlanta (in his 13th season).

Tackle

Anthony Muñoz – Nine time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. In case you missed it, in his 13 year career, he was named the best tackle in the NFL nine times! He blended incredible strength with nimble feet, all but neutralizing the man lining up across from him on any given play. He is considered by many to be the greatest offensive lineman of all time.

Forrest Gregg (G) – Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The best of Vince Lombardi’s stable of incredible linemen, Gregg earned All Pro nods at both tackle (6 times) and guard (once). In addition to the five titles he won in Green Bay, he won another with Dallas, making him one of just three players to ever win six NFL championships. Lombardi, who coached his share of Hall of Fame players, called Gregg the best player he ever coached.

Cal Hubbard (DL) – Four time AP1. Hubbard weighed in over 250 pounds in an era when 200 pound linemen were the standard. He was arguably the most powerful blocker of his era, and he was named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. On the other side of the ball, he just happened to be one of the top defensive tackles in the league too. He’ll back up our starting tackles on both sides of the ball.

Guard

John Hannah – Seven time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. He has been referred to as the greatest lineman of all time, and he is never ranked outside the top three by any respectable football analyst. He was a ferocious blocker at the point of attack, and, despite his stature, he was fast and agile. His athletic prowess made him a terror at the second level for linebackers and defensive backs. One of the first true maulers in the modern era.

Jim Parker (T) – Eight time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Was named to four All Pro teams at both guard and tackle, so he and Gregg can switch back and forth if the coach is feeling squirrelly. He protected Johnny Unitas’ blindside; grainy footage shows this behemoth neutralizing pass rushers. This was in an era when linemen had to block defenders with their elbows.

Bruce Matthews (T, C) – Seven time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. Not dominant enough to start at guard or center, but good enough at both positions to make All Pro teams at each. He made his first and last All Pro teams twelve years apart, his last at the age of 39, which is amazing. He was dominant at all three positions on the interior line, but he started and excelled at all five line positions.

Center

Dwight Stephenson – Four time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. I think of him as the Gale Sayers of offensive linemen (with Tony Boselli as the runner up). His career was brief, but it was clear when he played that he was the class of his position. Dan Marino’s quick release undoubtedly played a huge role, but Stephenson was also instrumental in the Dolphins allowing the fewest sacks in the league for a record six consecutive seasons.

Chuck Bednarik (LB) – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Concrete Charlie was the NFL’s last 60 minute man, starting at center and middle linebacker. Was so dominant on offense that he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a lineman (a rare feat). On defense, his monster hits literally changed the scope of some opponents’ careers (see Gifford, Frank). Bednarik will provide depth on both side of the ball.

DEFENSE

End

Reggie White (DT) – Eight time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. Possibly the most dominant defensive lineman of all time. He gained at least eight sacks in each of his first fourteen years in the NFL before recording only 5.5 in his final season (at 39 years old). This includes a remarkable 21 sacks in twelve games in the strike shortened 1987 season. During his time with the Eagles, he took down passers 124 times in 121 games, a rate that we’ve yet to see matched over such a long period of time. White also shares the Super Bowl record for sacks (3) with Darnell Dockett.

Deacon Jones – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Jones played before sacks were officially recorded, which is a shame since he is the man credited with inventing the term. So devastating was his head slap maneuver that the NFL had to institute rules to disallow it. That didn’t slow him down, as he is credited with 173.5 sacks by John Turney’s unofficial list.

Bruce Smith (DT) – Eight time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Smith is the all-time leader in sacks, a remarkable feat considering the amount of time he spent playing end in a 3-4 scheme. Even if you think his Washington years artificially inflate his career totals, you can’t deny the dominance of thirteen double digit sack seasons. Smith also picked up 1075 tackles in his career, a total uncommon for his position.

Gino Marchetti – Seven time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Marchetti played so long ago that Turney doesn’t even have sack data for him, but some historians have estimated that he may have totaled as many as thirty sacks in a single season. He was hailed as the greatest end of all time by the Pro Football Hall of Fame (in 1972), and offensive innovator Sid Gillman once quipped that attempting to run a play to his side of the field is a waste of a down.

J.J. Watt (DT) – Three time AP1. Three time Pro Bowler. He’s only played four seasons so far, but three of those have been among the greatest by any defensive player in history. At 25 he is already the best player at any position in football. We often take for granted the brilliance of once in a lifetime players when we see them in person, so I beg you to cherish the time you get to spend watching him play. If you want details, go read Pro Football Focus. Just know that he may go down as the greatest defensive player ever to live.

Tackle

Alan Page – One time MVP. Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The first of only two defenders ever to earn the league MVP award, Page was a force of nature on the interior line. Undersized even for his era, he made up for it with speed, strength, and brains. The Turney sack list credits him with 148.5 sacks as a DT. He was the best player on one of the greatest sustained defenses in NFL history, and he did it all while studying for law school in his spare time (I’d say that worked out pretty well too).

Joe Greene – Five time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. On a dynasty full of Hall of Famers and near-Hall of Famers, Greene was the greatest of them all. Most historians agree that his play allowed Lambert, Ham, and Blount to reach the levels they did. He simply used his brute strength to overpower even the best opponents (Mick Tingelhoff’s failures against Greene were one of the biggest things keeping him from Canton for so long).

Bob Lilly – Seven time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. He certainly didn’t look like a man who could throw Pro Bowl guards out of his way and chase down running backs from behind, but Lilly could do that and more. I have him in a four-way tie as the greatest defensive tackle of all time. Despite sometimes being triple teamed, Lilly was able to use his instincts and uncanny agility to wreck offensive game plans.

Merlin Olsen – Five time AP1. Fourteen time Pro Bowler. Olsen was not flashy, but his ability to command at least one extra blocker allowed teammate Deacon Jones to feast on quarterbacks. A man of remarkable power, he was able to effectively nullify the opposing rushing attack. His fourteen Pro Bowls (back when they meant something) is still a record.

Outside Linebacker

Lawrence Taylor – One time MVP. Eight time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. Taylor was the second and last defensive player to earn the NFL MVP award. He specialized in destroying quarterbacks, and his aggressive pass rushing revolutionized the way the linebacker position was played. He was so unblockable that he forced Joe Gibbs (who had the unfortunate luck to face LT and Reggie White twice apiece each year) to invent new offensive formations and schemes to counteract him. He wasn’t asked to cover very often, but when he was his speed and fluidity allowed him to stay in stride with the best tight ends and backs of the day.

Bobby Bell (DE, G) – Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. When people discuss Bo Jackson, Calvin Johnson, and Jim Brown as athletic marvels, I always wonder why they don’t add Bell to the conversation. He is one of the most versatile athletes in football history. He was an all-state quarterback in high school before going on to become one of the few interior linemen ever named a Heisman finalist. He played a hybrid DE-OLB in Hank Stram’s innovative defense and excelled rushing the passer, dropping in coverage, and stuffing the run. He was a vital part of a unit that helped legitimize the AFL, and he may be the most underrated player ever.

Derrick Brooks – Five time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Possibly the greatest cover linebacker of all time, he was (in my opinion) the best player on the best pass defense in history. While he could cover like a safety, he could also stuff the run better than almost anyone of his generation outside of Ray Lewis. When Michael Vick took the league by storm, the Bucs were the only team that consistently stifled the talented runner. Brooks was the biggest part of that.

Jack Ham – Six time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Ham’s incredible instincts allowed him to diagnose plays better than almost any other linebacker ever to play. He was sound against the run but really made his mark as the league’s first great cover linebacker. In fact, he may challenge Brooks as the top cover backer of all time.

Inside Linebacker

Ray Lewis – Seven time AP1. Thirteen time Pro Bowler. Lewis’ ability to make plays sideline to sideline in unrivaled in football history. While many linebackers rack up high tackle totals by happenstance, Lewis earned his tackles from a combination of uncanny play recognition, great block shedding ability, and a killer instinct. Throw in tremendous skills in coverage and a decent blitz repertoire, and you’re left with maybe the best middle linebacker ever.

Dick Butkus – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. A punishing tackler whose reckless style took years off his career. He is perhaps the most feared man ever to patrol the middle of the field. On top of bone jarring hits, Butkus was particularly adept at stripping ball carriers. His limitations in coverage keep him from starting, but he is the number one backup and also starts when we run a 3-4 scheme.

Willie Lanier – Three time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. Because the media is weird and slightly racist, Lanier was often referred to as the black Dick Butkus. Given Lanier’s otherworldly ability, it would have been fair to call Butkus the white Willie Lanier. His biggest claim to fame was using the crown of his helmet to punish those he tackled.

Jack Lambert – Six time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. Lambert was more than just an intimidating face (although the pre-play look he gave QBs is legendary). He was a pivotal player on one of the greatest defensive dynasties in the game’s history. Like his partner Jack Ham, Lambert excelled in pass coverage as the prototype MLB in what is now called the Tampa 2 defense.

Cornerback

Night Train Lane – Three time AP1. Seven time Pro Bowler. The first of two cornerbacks who inspired rules changes because of their aggressive play, the Night Train is generally considered the greatest cornerback in NFL history. Some may argue his aggressive style wouldn’t work in today’s game, but the rule changes that were designed to slow him down didn’t do the trick; I think he could manage to adapt. He was more than just a feared tackler, as his 14 interceptions in his twelve game rookie season are still a record.

Deion Sanders (WR) – Six time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. In 1996, Sanders started eight games at wide receiver for the Cowboys and was on pace for 72 receptions for 950 yards. Not out of this world, but pretty good for a guy who happened to be the best cornerback in the league at the time. Sanders is perhaps the greatest pure cover corner ever to play, blending world class speed with underrated strength. His tackling left many wanting, but I have a roster full of other guys who can do that. Prime Time just needs to shut down receivers and return picks for touchdowns. He will also share kick return responsibilities with Sayers, Woodson, Haynes, and Wood.

Mel Blount – Two time AP1. Five time Pro Bowler. Another player whose rough style prompted the league to change to more passing-friendly rules. He was excellent in run support, as all corners had to be in his day, and he was among the best ever in coverage. Despite rule changes that limited his strengths, he still made several Pro Bowls and an All Pro first team afterwards. At 6’3”, he often towered over receivers and used his rare strength to overpower them.

Rod Woodson (S) – Six time AP1. Eleven time Pro Bowler. Perhaps the greatest zone coverage cornerback in football history (a strength that served him well when he switched to safety), Woodson also excelled in man coverage and run support. He was a dangerous returner, which also translated well to interceptions. He returned his 71 picks for nearly 1500 yards and a record twelve touchdowns.

Mike Haynes – Two time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. A standout player for both the Patriots and Raiders, Haynes is viewed by some as the best all-around corner of all time. His ability to play both man and zone coverage, as well as provide run support, earned him that distinction (there’s a reason that, even in his prime, Nnamdi Asomugha was still compared to Haynes). In addition to shutting down receivers, Haynes was also a stellar kick and punt returner.

Willie Brown – Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The first in a long line of great Raiders cornerbacks, he is a member of both the AFL All Time Team (with the Broncos and Raiders) and the NFL 1970s team. A college linebacker, he wasn’t afraid to lay the lumber on anyone with the ball. With his superior strength and aggressive style, he was an early influence on the way bump and run coverage was played.

Free Safety

Ronnie Lott (CB) – Six time AP1. Ten time Pro Bowler. Known as one of the hardest hitting safeties of all time, Lott’s brutal hits could change the way offenses played (ask Ickey Woods and Mark Bavaro). He wasn’t just an enforcer; he made four Pro Bowls and an All Pro first team as a cover corner before ever switching to safety.  Lott adds to the beautiful controlled chaos that is our secondary.

Ed Reed – Five time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. The exemplary ball hawk of the modern era, Reed seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. He combined preternatural instincts with remarkable speed and agility to make quarterbacks think twice about throwing deep. Once the ball was in his hands, he was always looking to make a big play. He was usually successful, gaining a record 1590 yards on interception returns and throwing in seven scores for good measure.

Willie Wood – Five time AP1. Eight time Pro Bowler. One of the cornerstones of Lombardi’s championship teams, Wood patrolled the deep field better than anyone else in his era. A safety with the versatility to cover like a corner gives this defense many schematic options. His ability as a punt returner is a bonus.

Strong Safety

Ken Houston – Two time AP1. Twelve time Pro Bowler. The final starter in my unfairly talented secondary, Houston was a massive safety with a nose for the ball and nearly unparalleled ability to score after turnovers. His five return touchdowns in 1971 (four interceptions, one fumble) were a single season record until Devin Hester reached six in 2006.

Jim Thorpe (RB, K, P) – One time AP1. Thorpe’s athletic prime was nearly a decade before the American Professional Football Association (later named the National Football League) was founded, so he was an aging star by the time the NFL proper even existed. Regardless, he earned an All Pro nod at tailback at the age of 36. Prior to the foundation of the NFL (in 1920), Thorpe led the Canton Bulldogs to three titles in four years (1916-17, 1919). He was a feared runner and kick returner, and he is said to have demoralized defenders with his blocking. He was such a talented defensive back that the college award for secondary player of the year bears his name. He was an accomplished kicker and punter as well. Perhaps his most important contribution to the NFL was the fact that his mere presence lent the young league some needed credibility. It is hard to separate the man from the apotheosis of the man, and I’m okay with that in Thorpe’s case. His athletic accomplishments speak for themselves, and his election as the NFL’s first president speaks to the respect he had among other players.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker

Lou Groza (T, DL) – Four time AP1. Nine time Pro Bowler. There’s a reason the college award for kicking is named the Lou Groza Award. Groza led the NFL in field goal rate five times, and his era adjusted accuracy is among the best ever. He also happened to be a stud left tackle, protecting Otto Graham and clearing lanes for both Marion Motley and Jim Brown. He was a solid defensive lineman as well and will serve as great depth in the area. Fun fact: Groza starred in thirteen title games in his long career.

Punter

Sammy Baugh (QB, DB) – Four time AP1. Six time Pro Bowler. He may not have been the most efficient QB of his era (Sid Luckman was), but the workload he took on changed the way quarterbacks contributed to their teams. Adjusted for era, he is the most accurate passer in history, which led to him leading the league in passer rating a record six times (tied with Steve Young). He even retired as the all-time touchdown leader. At his retirement, he ranked fifth all time in defensive interceptions. His talent in the secondary will give the team great depth. His 51.4 yards per punt in 1940 is still an NFL record (the caveat is that teams used to punt on third down in order to win the field position battle, and he benefited from a lot of long rolls).

Kick and Punt Returners

Gale Sayers, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Mike Haynes, Willie Wood, and Jim Thorpe. Sayers will be the primary returner, but if you want to kick away from him you’ll have to kick it to some of the greatest return men the game has known. I’d recommend just kicking that bad boy out of bounds.

Special Teamers

With Payton, Nagurski, and Bednarik lending their efforts to blocking and covering on special teams, our offense is well represented. It is our defense, however, that will field the bulk of our cover units. Starters and backups alike will rotate in and out of service. My only concrete rule: Sanders will not be tackling anyone, and Bell will always play on the front line on kickoff returns.

STAFF

Head Coach

Vince Lombardi – Ten years. Five championships. 62 games over .500 (.738 record). He turned a one win team into a perennial powerhouse, winning a championship in half the years he coached. Lombardi’s most famous contribution to Xs and Os is his use of the power sweep to run roughshod over defenses. However, long before Mike Shanahan got famous for his blocking schemes, Lombardi used similar schemes and actually wrote a book the detailed zone blocking (the posthumous Vince Lombardi on Football). He was the consummate team builder who both led and loved his players, and his desire to feature minority players as leaders was far ahead of its time. There’s a reason Super Bowl champions hold up the Lombardi Trophy.

Offensive Coordinator

Bill Walsh – Ten years. Three championships. 33 games over .500 (.609 record). The term West Coast Offense may have been pejorative, but it is now the most common offense in professional football. Walsh revolutionized offensive football with his focus on stretching the field both horizontally and vertically with safe, well timed routes. However, he also laid the foundation for the 49ers dynasty by creating a defense that allowed fewer than 300 points every season from 1981-1997. Rather than labeling him an offensive genius, I think it’s safe to simply call him a football genius. His treatise on coaching (and really leadership in general), Finding the Winning Edge, has been described as the Bible for football coaches and even one of the greatest leadership books ever written.

Defensive Coordinator

Bill Belichick – Twenty years. Four championships. 102 games over .500 (.659 record). His innovative hybrid defenses and astute game planning have earned him six rings as either a coordinator or head coach. His game plans as a coordinator under Bill Parcells consistently stifled Joe Montana in the playoffs and neutralized the K-Gun offense in the Super Bowl. His defense also stopped both the Greatest Show on Turf and early career Peyton Manning. When rule changed made winning with defense harder to accomplish, he focused on offense and led the only team ever to surpass 500 points four times. In the history of football, there are three coaching game plans that ended up in the Hall of Fame. Two of those, over a decade apart, belong to Belichick.

There will be snubs

In putting together my roster, I had to make some cuts that really hurt me to execute. I will use this space to give a non-exhaustive shout out list.

The most difficult decision I faced was choosing between Berry and Kellen Winslow Sr. as my final receiver. Winslow was probably a more dominant player and could provide better blocking, but I ultimately went with the man who retired as the all time leader in both receptions and receiving yards.

Ted Hendricks is one of the most cerebral linebackers ever to play, and he may have been the best kick blocker in football history. It pains me to leave him off the team.

Barry Sanders may be the greatest pure scat back of all time; Marshall Faulk may be the greatest receiving back of all time; Eric Dickerson may be the second best pure runner of all time – I am sad to be without them.

Emmitt Smith was never flashy, but he was possibly the greatest ever at taking what the defense gave him; with an offensive line like this, that is a valuable skill. I lament his exclusion from the team.

Joe Montana is my personal favorite quarterback and was the perfect trigger man to execute Bill Walsh’s offense. He is one of the few passers in history whose numbers actually improved in the playoffs. I think cutting him hurt the most.

Every great offensive lineman ever. From early stars like Mel Hein to current greats like Joe Thomas. They already barely get the credit they deserve. I’m sorry to all of you.

Doug Atkins was one of the most feared defensive linemen in the league’s history. At 6’8” and 275 pounds in the 1950s, he dwarfed opposing linemen. Legend has it that tackles refused to hold him because they were afraid to make him mad. I wish I had more room on the team for this behemoth.

Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey effectively neutralized an entire side of the football field, all while usually tracking number one receivers. The fact that a shutdown corner can even exist in today’s pass friendly era is incredible. The fact that these two were able to do it consistently for several years tells me they belong in the discussion with the all-time greats.

Tom Landry’s defensive schemes changed the landscape of pro football and became the norm for most teams in the league. Joe Gibbs’ ability to create offensive game plans to maximize the effectiveness of relative average-to-good players is one of the more underrated coaching narratives in history. Paul Brown revolutionized nearly every aspect of running a football team – from scouting and drafting to Xs and Os (he invented the QB draw, sort of) – and his influence is palpable in today’s game. It was difficult to leave off any of these innovative minds.

  • Andrew Healy

    Fun read. Only two big snubs bugged me. I feel like Barry Sanders has to go ahead of both Walter Payton and Sayers. Definitely Sayers. And I don’t feel like Mike Haynes was in Revis’s class. Not a knock on Haynes, but how long would he have clearly held the CB championship belt? Revis had it for longer at a minimum. I’d put Revis ahead of Rod Woodson, even.

    Like the WR list a lot and was happy to see Derrick Brooks on there.

    • Bryan Frye

      Thanks for reading, Andrew. I told Adam on Twitter that you could probably make your own all time 53 and have almost no overlap with mine, given how many fantastic players there have been in the league’s history (and, in Thorpe’s case, preceding league history). Barry Sanders is one of the guys I went back and forth on the most, and if I were looking for just a pure scatback, he’d be my guy for sure. A few things went into my decision to go for Sayers over Sanders: first, Sayers was an incredible return man, and possibly the greatest ever; and second, when I have close choices to make for things like this, I tend to go with the older guy (possibly because I got my BS in history and I love old stuff). Because I value versatility on this hypothetical team with limited roster space, there is no chance of Barry supplanting Walter Payton. Payton was just too good at everything, and he would give you so much flexibility with what you could run. You could have a split backfield with him and Brown, line him up at FB in the I formation on the next play, kick him out to the slot after that, and then bring him in to the wing like a third TE, all in the same no huddle drive. Plus, I think Payton would be a nightmare on kickoff and kick return teams.

      Revis is another interesting case. I thought about him more than almost any other active player, but I once again opted to go for the older guy. I think if we are only playing a few seasons of in-their-prime football, then Revis is the clearly superior player, but there is something to be said for a guy who makes Pro Bowls ten years apart, with two different teams, and earns AP1 nods at 31 and 32. I think Haynes’ contributions on special teams are important, but I also think Revis would be able to help on ST too. He’s been pretty invisible in the return game as a pro (because it’s not important for him to be good at that, at all), but he was a decent punt returner at Pitt. As I mentioned in the snubs section, I think the fact that a shutdown corner can even exist in today’s passing environment is pretty crazy.

      I would never have an all time team that didn’t feature Derrick Brooks. He was my favorite player during my formative years, so I may be biased.

  • Brian Mucha

    J.J. Watt????? Could end up going down as best D player ever you wrote…You lose credibility with this one Sir..Most overrated player ever, maybe..Texans did fine without him this year..Every defensive player on this list is better than Watt who shouldnt even be on this list..

    • Thanks for reading. It’s always refreshing to receive intelligent, unbiased, well-reasoned feedback.

  • Steve

    Decent list, who would agree with all of them, but 2 big ones that stand out for me are that I’m not persuaded of Ed Reed, and I think Willie Roaf belongs. I might waste a special teams roster spot on Billy Johnson, but I’m sure you thought of him. I totally get your Sayers/Sanders problem, for my money the 2 best ever, but really, on this list, you’d only want one. Brian, I am with JJ Watt being a potential all time great and he’d be on my 53 man roster. Might even line him up at TE for fun.

    • Who would you take out to put in Roaf, and who would you use to replace Reed?

      I can’t put Roaf over Munoz or Gregg, but I could see him over Hubbard as a pure OL. But then I’d also lose a HOF defensive lineman. Lots of tough choices when making a list like this.

      There are many great options at safety, too. I like Reed better, but you could pick his active comp in Earl Thomas. Or you could go old school with Emlen Tunnell, Jack Christiansen, Jimmy Patton, Johnny Robinson, or Larry Wilson, Paul Krause, Bobby Dillon, or Yale Lary. You could go with one of Reed’s contemporaries in Brian Dawkins or Troy Polamalu. Or an under the radar guy like Deron Cherry. Or a disgusting serial rapist like Darren Sharper, if you like controversy.

      What are your thoughts?

  • Steve

    I don’t know who I’d take out to get Roaf in. Maybe it’s just one of those roster squeezes that can’t be helped. With an All Star defense, I’d go with Polamalu instead of Reed. He could be uber aggressive, line up anywhere, and let the rest of the D deal with any resulting coverage issues. Can you imagine him not worrying about other coverage assignments?

    • Polamalu would be a ton of fun to watch on any defense. I’ve always been more partial to centerfielder types, but I can definitely see the benefit of having an unpredictable wildcard type guy instead.