NFL's best at every offensive position: Jim Brown the GOAT at RB

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Friday, May 19, 2023

Editor's note: This article was originally published Aug. 2, 2022. Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who was judged by a panel of50 experts, reporters and analysts as the greatest running back of all time, died Friday at age 87.

Quarterback Tom Brady was retired during the 2022 NFL offseason for just 40 days before opting to return for a 23rd season that could (maybe?) be his last, tight end Rob Gronkowski recently decided to hang them up, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald inked a massive contract extension this summer to make him the game's highest-paid non-QB after also considering retirement. It all got us thinking about where these legends of the game stack up all time at their respective positions.

We asked 50 experts, reporters and analysts to name the NFL's greatest player of all time at every position. The goal was to narrow the field to just one GOAT at quarterback, wide receiver, edge rusher, cornerback and even kicker. We're starting here with seven offensive positions, and check out who made it for defense and special teams.

After we tallied the ballots and crowned each offensive position's best player of all time, our voters weighed in and explained their decisions. Plus, Jeff Legwold broke down why each GOAT was chosen, and ESPN Stats & Information dove into the numbers to pick out key stats to know. Let's start at quarterback, which shouldn't surprise many.

Jump to:

QB | RB| WR| TE| OT| G| C

See: GOAT at every defensive position

Quarterback: Tom Brady

Voting results: Brady earned 44 of 50 votes (88%)

Career: New England (2000-2019); Tampa Bay (2020-present)

Pro Bowl selections: 15

Career stats: 318 games, 84,520 passing yards, 624 passing TDs, 203 INTs

Why he's the GOAT quarterback: Brady is a seven-time Super Bowl winner in 10 trips, a three-time NFL MVP and already the league's career record holder in passing attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns. His teams have won fewer than 10 games in a season just once in his career, and that was two decades ago (2002). And in his playoff starts, his teams have a 35-12 record. -- Jeff Legwold

Stat to know:Brady is the only NFL QB with more than 200 career wins. He has 243, more wins than four current NFL franchises (Ravens at 233, Panthers at 205, Jaguars at 180 and Texans at 139).

What our voters said

The seven championships are at the top of Brady's résumé. But let's not forget he has mastered the traits of high-level quarterback play. That's the repetitive mechanics, the processing both pre- and post-snap, and the ability to throw with accuracy and location. Brady is the model of greatness at the position, and he has done this for over 20 years on the game's biggest stages.-- Matt Bowen, NFL analyst

If having an NFL-record seven Super Bowl titles wasn't enough to consider Brady the GOAT, consider he has also thrown for the most touchdowns and yards in league history. He's the only player selected to 15 Pro Bowls, and you could argue he has a Hall of Fame résumé in two different decades. Brady was named to the All-Decade Team in both the 2000s and 2010s.-- Evan Kaplan, Stats & Information

The statistics speak for themselves. So does the longevity. For me, it's how even on his worst day, even in the most adverse situations -- a snowstorm, a cut throwing hand, being down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI -- Brady has always found a way to pull out one or two more plays than everyone else.-- Jenna Laine, Buccaneers reporter

While football is the ultimate team sport, Brady has separated himself from the rest by virtue of seven Super Bowl wins. That's borderline unfathomable. And while longevity does not always equate to greatness, it is Brady's sustained longevity that is beyond comprehension. There are elements of his game that have somehow seemingly gotten better with each season that has passed. This was an easy choice for me.--Field Yates, NFL analyst

The runners-up

  • Joe Montana (four votes):Sal Paolantonio, host of NFL Matchup, says he voted for Montana over Brady because "he was 4-0 in the Super Bowl with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Tough to beat perfection at the championship level." Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez also argues that Montana is the top QB ever, pointing to "four Lombardi trophies in nine years when rules benefited the defense and the promise that no game was truly out of reach with Montana at the helm."
  • Peyton Manning (two votes):"Manning changed how we look at a QB's ability to run an offense on the field in real time," says NFL analyst Louis Riddick. "He ran everything at the line of scrimmage, and no QB in the history of football made defensive coordinators question themselves from a schematic/tactical standpoint the way in which Manning did." NFL reporter Jeremy Fowler also voted for Manning, saying, "He was the game's first five-time MVP winner, changed how NFL offenses are run and won 67.6% of his games over his career. And throwing for 55 touchdowns in 2013 -- two years removed from late-career neck surgery -- lives in league folklore."

Running back: Jim Brown

Voting results: Brown earned 23 of 50 votes (46%)

Career: Cleveland (1957-1965)

Hall of Fame: 1971

Pro Bowl selections: 9

Career stats: 118 games, 2,359 carries, 12,312 rushing yards, 106 rushing TDs, 20 receiving TDs

Why he's the GOAT running back: Brown was 29 years old when his final season began in 1965 and stunned many when he retired after that season. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry over his career, was the league MVP three times and was chosen for the Pro Bowl every year of his career. Brown retired as the league's all-time leading rusher and scored three touchdowns in his final game -- the 1966 Pro Bowl.-- Legwold

Stat to know:Brown led the NFL in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons in the league. No other running back in NFL history has led the league in rushing more than four times.

What our voters said

In nine NFL seasons, Brown led the league in rushing eight times, scrimmage yards six times and total TDs five times, winning MVP in 33% of his career seasons. In an era in which everyone ran the ball more than they threw, defenses still couldn't slow down Brown.-- Michael Proia, Stats & Information

No running back in NFL history did more in less time than Brown. He still owns the NFL record for rushing yards per game (104.3), and although he retired after only nine seasons, he never missed a game.-- Kevin Seifert, Vikings reporter

Brown was a first-team All-Pro in eight seasons and three-time MVP winner. Such a decade of complete dominance remains untouched.-- Jake Trotter, Browns reporter

The runners-up

  • Barry Sanders (14 votes):Lions reporter Eric Woodyard leaned toward Detroit's famed running back, suggesting voters should "just type in Barry Sanders highlights on YouTube, sit back and enjoy." NFL writer Seth Wickersham argued for Sanders, too, saying, "There has never been another player who could be 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, retreating, surrounded by five defenders closing fast, blockers on the ground and rendered useless, and not only be capable of finding an escape out of it and scoring a touchdown but doing it so often that fans came to expect it."
  • Walter Payton (six votes):Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson went with Sweetness in what he called "the hardest vote for any position." So why Payton? "He got my vote over Smith because his receiving skills made him a more compete back, and his longevity gave him the edge over Sanders and Brown," he says.
  • Emmitt Smith (three votes): "Durability. No player was as productive or as durable as Smith," says NFL insider Dianna Russini. "Eleven straight 1,000-yard seasons."
  • Also receiving votes: Marshall Faulk (two),Eric Dickerson (one), LaDainian Tomlinson (one)

Wide receiver: Jerry Rice

Voting results: Rice earned 45 of 50 votes (90%)

Career: San Francisco (1985-2000); Oakland (2001-2004); Seattle (2004)

Hall of Fame: 2010

Pro Bowl selections: 13

Career stats: 303 games, 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, 197 receiving TDs, 10 rushing TDs

Why he's the GOAT wide receiver: Rice led the league in receiving yards six times and receiving touchdowns six times. Even in these pass-happy times, with all of the numbers that receivers pile up each year, Rice is still the league's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. But he was at his best in the biggest moments. He played in 29 playoff games and had 22 TD receptions in those games, including eight in Super Bowls (three titles in four appearances). -- Legwold

Stat to know: Rice is one of two receivers to win the receiving triple crown (led NFL in catches, yards and TDs), Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP in his career (Cooper Kupp is the other).

What our voters said

He's the no-brainer of all no-brainers. Rice could've stopped playing after 11 years (he wound up playing 20), and his receiving yardage total still would've been good enough for third on the all-time list (16,377). To paraphrase Bill Parcells, he went to Canton on roller skates.-- Rich Cimini, Jets reporter

Rice has over 5,000 receiving yards more than the next wide receiver on the all-time list, but it's when you parse through those 22,895 career yards that you find what makes him the GOAT. He has the most 1,000-yard receiving seasons with 14 (including 11 straight), notched 2,245 receiving yards in the playoffs (the most all time) and topped 1,200 receiving yards at age 40.-- Courtney Cronin, Bears reporter

The 13,394 receiving yards that Rice recorded from age 30 to 41 would rank as the 16th most in NFL history by itself. And as it stands, his 22,895 career receiving yards is a record that will likely never be broken. The length of his prime and his skill level at its peak make him the unquestioned GOAT receiver.-- Marcel Louis-Jacques, Dolphins reporter

To be considered one of the greatest of all time, a player at any position should offer elite production with enduring longevity -- but nobody at any position can touch Rice's combination of the two. Sure, Rice holds every significant receiving record in league history and repeatedly performed well on the Super Bowl stage, but consider that when other greats were long since retired, he was still producing like one of the best wideouts in the game.-- Nick Wagoner, 49ers reporter

The runners-up

  • Randy Moss (four votes):"Only the best of all time could have his last name turned into a verb," says ESPN Stats & Information's Evan Kaplan, referring to the phraseYou got Mossed. "No NFL player has ever had more receiving touchdowns in their first four seasons, and his 23 TD catches in 2007 are the most in a single season in league history." NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid says Moss "completely transcended the position" and that "there wasn't a player at the position who struck more fear in defenses than Moss."
  • Also receiving votes:Don Hutson (one)

Tight end:Rob Gronkowski

Voting results:Gronkowski earned 23 of 50 votes (46%)

Career: New England (2010-2018); Tampa Bay (2020-2021)

Pro Bowl selections: 5

Career stats: 143 games, 621 receptions, 9,286 receiving yards, 92 receiving TDs

Why he's the GOAT tight end: It's easy to forget now that Gronkowski entered the NFL with questions after back troubles in college, but he blossomed quickly in his time with Tom Brady in the Patriots' offense. A tough player along the line of scrimmage with elite footwork and hands in the passing game, he led the league in touchdown catches in 2011 with 17 and had four seasons in which he averaged at least 15 yards per reception. Gronk also had at least one touchdown catch in 15 of 22 playoff games over his career. He retired for a second time this summer. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Gronkowski had three seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches, the most among tight ends all time.

What our voters said

The GOAT tight end has to be equally devastating as a blocker and pass-catcher, which helped eliminate a good portion of the candidates. But that defines Gronk well. And Patriots coach Bill Belichick often says the greats play their best in the biggest moments; Gronkowski's 1,163 receiving yards in the playoffs are easily the most by a tight end in NFL history.-- Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter

No tight end has combined physical blocking and touchdown production at the level that Gronkowski did in his 11 seasons. His size and ability to adjust to the ball made him almost impossible to defend down the field. At times he looked like a runaway freight train. Not only did Gronk stretch the field vertically, but he also won battles against safeties and held up against defensive ends in the run game, something rarely seen by tight ends in 2022.-- Dianna Russini, NFL insider

His impact goes beyond his career stat line. Gronkowski established himself as the most dominant tight end in NFL history because of his ability to catch, consistently make plays in the clutch and be a feared blocker.-- Josh Weinfuss, Cardinals reporter

The runners-up

  • Tony Gonzalez (21 votes):NFL reporter Dan Graziano says, "Gonzalez ranks third all time in receptions, sixth in receiving yards and eighth in receiving touchdowns among all players. If the modern tight end is a supercharged wide receiver, Gonzalez deserves credit as the guy who's already inhabiting a wide receiver neighborhood on these all-time lists." What really makes him stand apart from the rest? Bills reporter Alaina Getzenberg points to "the sustained success over his 17-year career, surpassing 900 receiving yards in nine seasons."
  • Kellen Winslow (two votes):"Winslow helped transform the tight end position," saysNFL analyst Mike Tannenbaum. "His traits transcend any era, and he would have been a great player in any generation."
  • Also receiving votes: Mike Ditka (one), Antonio Gates (one), Ozzie Newsome (one),Shannon Sharpe (one)

Offensive tackle: Anthony Munoz

Voting results:Munoz earned 27 of 50 votes (54%)

Career: Cincinnati (1980-1992)

Hall of Fame: 1998

Pro Bowl selections: 11

Career stats: 185 games, 184 starts

Why he's the GOAT offensive tackle:Munoz was named to the NFL's 100th anniversary team, the 75th anniversary team and the 1980s All-Decade team, all after having three surgeries on his knees in his college career. He was an All-Pro in 11 consecutive seasons.Munoz had incredible traits and almost unfailing consistency at an elite level. -- Legwold

Stat to know:From 1981 to '90, the Bengals' offense ranked in the top 10 in scoring seven times and in the top 10 in yards nine times, thanks in part to Munoz's protection at left tackle.

What our voters said

Munoz has long been considered one of the best offensive linemen to play the game. In 2000, he was voted to the NFL All-Time Team by the Hall of Fame selection committee, and former Bengals tight end Bob Trumpy told NFL Network that Munoz "absolutely devastated defensive ends in this league."-- Ben Baby, Bengals reporter

It's pretty simple for me: He was as dominant a player at his position as there has been in the NFL. A mauler with the feet of a dancer, he could overpower guys or beat them with his mobility. Munoz is the standard against which all offensive tackles are measured.-- Michael DiRocco, Jaguars reporter

He dominated his era with a staggering nine first-team All-Pro selections. And he's arguably the most identifiable icon from the Bengals' 1981 and 1989 Super Bowl teams, which is rare air for an offensive lineman. He just set the bar too high for all the other elite candidates who followed.-- Mike Triplett, Saints reporter

The runners-up

  • Jonathan Ogden (10 votes):"Imagine you step to the line of scrimmage and the man across from you is 6-foot-9, 345 pounds and smiling. That's what Ogden's opponents bore witness to for 12 seasons," says Dolphins reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques. Rams reporter Sarah Barshop also picked Ogden here, saying, "Ogden was one of the linemen who showed just how important it is to protect a quarterback's blind side. And he was consistent, making the Pro Bowl every year of his career except for his rookie season."
  • Orlando Pace (four votes):The 6-foot-7 blindside protector for the Greatest Show on Turf "boasted a rare combination of mobility and finishing strength," according toNFL draft analyst Todd McShay. "Twenty-five years ago when he entered the NFL, nobody at his size could move like Pace."
  • Walter Jones (three votes):Giants reporter Jordan Raanan acknowledges that Jones perhaps flew under the radar but had a terrific "combination of run- and pass-blocking dominance that was unmatched."
  • Also receiving votes: Jackie Slater (two), Forrest Gregg (one), Willie Roaf (one), Joe Thomas (one), Gary Zimmerman (one)

Offensive guard: Larry Allen

Voting results: Allen earned 21 of 50 votes (42%)

Career: Dallas (1994-2005); San Francisco (2006-2007)

Hall of Fame: 2013

Pro Bowl selections: 11

Career stats: 203 games, 197 starts

Why he's the GOAT offensive guard: Allen once said his mission on the field was "to make the other guy quit.'' Mission accomplished, as his combination of power and mobility launched many of Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith's greatest runs. Over his career, Allen started 121 games at left guard, 45 at right guard, 20 at left tackle and 11 at right tackle. And there are many who worked for the Cowboys who say they were there when Allen's legendary 705-pound bench press happened. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Allen was part of a Cowboys offensive line that helped Smith rush for a then-Cowboys single-season record 1,773 rushing yards in 1995 (since has been topped by DeMarco Murray's 1,845 yards in 2014).

What our voters said

He could dominate the interior defensive line while also getting to the second level to get linebackers and defensive backs. Perhaps most impressive was his tracking down of Saints 250-pound linebacker Darion Conner to prevent a Troy Aikman interception-return touchdown.-- Todd Archer, Cowboys reporter

No offensive lineman better encapsulates the 1990s than Allen, and no offensive guard better highlights what elite play at the position means than the 11-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro. Allen was the perfect combination of brute strength, agility, poise and violence at the point of attack. He's the prototype by which I evaluate offensive guard play.-- Matt Miller, NFL draft analyst

Allen was so physically dominant that it was no secret that he punished opposing defenders to tears during the course of a game. Tears. Enough said.-- Chris Mortensen, NFL insider

The runners-up

  • John Hannah (nine votes):Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz picked Hannah here because he "was named All-Pro for 10 consecutive years and anchored the 1978 Patriots' offensive line that set an NFL record for total rushing yards (since broken by the 2019 Ravens)." Analytics writer Seth Walder looked at those All-Pro nods in comparison to Allen. "Hannah was an All-Pro in 10 of 13 seasons, while Allen was in seven of 14."
  • Gene Upshaw (eight votes):"It is tough to classify offensive linemen of different eras because of the differences in size and speed of both the player and their opponents, but Upshaw transcended those differences," says Falcons reporter Michael Rothstein.
  • Also receiving votes: Bruce Matthews (three), Alan Faneca (two), Steve Hutchinson (two), Randall McDaniel (two), Jim Parker (two), Jerry Kramer (one)

Center: Mike Webster

Voting results: Webster earned 15 of 50 votes (30%)

Career: Pittsburgh (1974-1988); Kansas City (1989-1990)

Hall of Fame: 1997

Pro Bowl selections: 9

Career stats: 245 games, 217 starts

Why he's the GOAT center:In his first two NFL seasons, Webster split time at center with Ray Mansfield, but he started the final game of the 1975 season and didn't miss a start after that until 1986, when he suffered an elbow injury. A team captain in the Steelers' dynasty that won four Super Bowls, Webster died in 2002 at age 50. -- Legwold

Stat to know:Webster was a first-team All-Pro five times over six seasons from 1978 to '83.

What our voters said

I gave the edge to Webster thanks to a perfect blend of championship titles, individual achievement and longevity. He is the only offensive lineman in NFL history with four Super Bowl rings and at least four first-team All-Pro selections. Iron Mike made 150 consecutive starts and had the most games played in Steelers history (220) until Ben Roethlisberger passed him.-- Doug Clawson, Stats & Information

It's hard to find a more complete resume than that of Webster, who became synonymous with Pittsburgh's excellence during the Steel Curtain era. His consistency was impressive, and Webster was the total package.-- Jeremy Fowler, NFL reporter

An offense's success and continuity depend greatly on the center position, which is usually overlooked. But Webster excelled at run- and pass-blocking and was the linchpin of the Steelers' offensive line due to his excellent play strength and quickness.-- Eric Moody, fantasy writer

The runners-up

  • Jim Otto (13 votes):"Otto was one of three players to play in every one of his team's 140 games during the AFL's 10-year run (1960-69)," says ESPN Stats & Information's John Parolin. "And the only AFL/NFL players with more consecutive Pro Bowls than Otto's 12 straight are Bruce Matthews (14), Merlin Olsen (14) and Reggie White (13)."
  • Chuck Bednarik (11 votes):"Maybe I let Bednarik's full body of work factor in too heavily when I voted for him as the GOAT center," admits Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor. "A two-way player, Bednarik was an All-Pro selection at both center and linebacker."
  • Also receiving votes: Dermontti Dawson (five), Dwight Stephenson (five), Mel Hein (one)

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