Last year, at the end of Black History Month, I put together my list of the 51 best players in pro football history from HBCUs — Historically Black colleges and universities — and while it was an interesting exercise, there were four reasons I wanted to do it again.
First, I wanted to get it done BEFORE the end of Black History Month. While the end of the season and the start of free-agency and draft prep pushed this project to the side, it could also be said that there’s never been a more important and relevant time to feature the contributions that Black players, coaches, and executives have made to the game. You can ask Brian Flores about that.
Second, there’s one thing I have at my disposal now that I did not have a year ago — Pro Football Reference now has sack totals going back to 1960, which brings a lot of defensive players from Historically Black colleges and universities into sharper focus.
Third, when looking back at last year’s list, there are some guys I just got wrong — players I underrated, and I wanted to correct that.
Finally, the HCBU Legacy Bowl will be played this Saturday, featuring the best HBCU talent right now. Steve Wyche and Bucky Brooks from the NFL Network will be calling the game, and Steve had his own Top 10 — an estimable list that had be re-thinking my own.
There is no way to really come up with a precise Top 10 list of the top players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Still, my list is 🔥🔥🔥🔥. @BCFHOF @HBCULegacyBowl pic.twitter.com/q9nJMRQx4I
— Steve Wyche (@wyche89) February 16, 2022
So, without further ado, here’s Volume 2 of my 51 greatest players from HBCUs in pro football history.
For a very long time, most major college football programs wanted nothing to do with Black players. Although UCLA boasted a backfield of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Jackie Robinson (yes, that Jackie Robinson) in the late 1930s, that was the exception.
In 1959, Alabama was set to play Penn State in the Liberty Bowl. But Alabama’s Board of Trustees threatened to boycott the game because Penn State had an integrated team. As late as 1970, when the Crimson Tide played USC, Alabama’s team had no Black players. Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant had allowed seven Black players to try out in 1967, but none made the team. As Bryant later said, neither the administrators nor the fan base would stand for an integrated team.
Sadly, this was par for the course in certain conferences. Some Southern schools had signed Black players, but even in 1966, although half the schools in the SEC (the Southeastern Conference) and SWC (the now-defunct Southwest Conference) had integrated their student bodies, there still were no Black players in either league. The SWC finally broke its ban when SMU and Baylor began recruiting Black players, but the SEC held out.
That changed after the Alabama-USC game, a 42-21 win for the Trojans in which USC running back Sam Cunningham ran up and down Alabama’s defense, and USC’s long-integrated team beat the daylights out of Bryant’s white team in general. In the end, for competitive reasons alone, those who had blocked Bryant’s calls for integration had to back down.
But before that, in the absence of opportunity at those major programs, Black players in the South found different ways to succeed. HBCUs, some of which had been playing football since the late 19th century, were able to bring in some of the greatest football talent ever seen.
While the major Southern programs insisted on institutional racism, HBCUs were able to recruit and benefit from the talents of athletes such as these:
The all-time leader in career receptions, receiving yards and career touchdowns (Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State). The player with the most sacks in a single season (Michael Strahan, Texas Southern). The only man to ever win both a Super Bowl ring and an Olympic gold medal (Bob Hayes, Florida A&M). And the namesake for the NFL’s most prestigious honor (Walter Payton, Jackson State).
Nearly 10 percent of the players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame came from HBCUs, which is an amazing number given the relatively low number of those players who were allowed to break into the NFL after their college successes, given the NFL’s own institutional racism. The NFL banned Black players from 1934 through 1946, and as late as the 1950s, a number of NFL teams wouldn’t even send scouts to HBCUs, even though all teams were well aware of the talent available.
In 1959, Black players accounted for about 12 percent of NFL rosters. What opened the floodgates was the formation of the American Football League in 1960. The new league had no such ban or quota, and its teams signed the best players regardless of color. Still, per historian Charles K. Ross, of the 173 Black players who played in the NFL between 1946 and 1962, only 42 came from historically Black schools. And from 1946 through 1960, no player from an HBCU was selected higher than the fourth round.
In 1963, the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs became the first professional football team to select a player with the No. 1 overall pick when they drafted defensive lineman Junious “Buck” Buchanan from Grambling State. The NFL did not see fit to select Buchanan until the New York Giants picked him with the 256th overall selection in the 19th round.
As the AFL grew and became fully competitive with the NFL, the older, more established league finally had to realize that its own racism was keeping it from some of the best football talent. It was a long road from that 12 percent to today, when Black players compose over 70 percent of NFL rosters — and goodness knows there’s still a long way to go when it comes to the coaching and administrative sides of things — but it was the HBCUs who held, fostered and perfected so much Hall of Fame talent while the bigger and more established schools turned away players of color. The HBCUs built the bridge Black players needed, and the list of players who competed at those schools because they had no other options is truly transcendent from a talent perspective.
With all that in mind, Touchdown Wire ranks the 51 best players in pro football history who attended historically Black colleges and universities. If you’re not familiar with the history, prepare to be amazed at the names.
San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000
Oakland Raiders, 2001-2004
Seattle Seahawks, 2004
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2010 class. Selected with the 16th overall pick in the first round of the 1985 draft. 13-time Pro Bowler, 10-time All-Pro. 1987 PFWA NFL MVP, Super Bowl XXIII MVP, 1993 AP Offensive Player of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1980s and All-1990s first teams, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
By the time Rice was eligible for the NFL draft, most pro scouting departments had finally eschewed the monumentally stupid practice of ignoring players from HBCUs. So Rice was coveted by several teams, including the Cowboys (who were ahead of the game in that department, as you’ll see on this list) and the 49ers. Bill Walsh had watched Rice do his thing for Mississippi Valley State on a hotel room television the night before his 49ers were set to play the Houston Oilers on Oct. 21, 1984, and that’s all it took. Rice had set NCAA marks for receptions (102) and receiving yards (1,450) in 1983, and broke both records in 1984 with 112 and 1,845. He also had 27 touchdowns in 1984.
In the end, Walsh traded with the Patriots to jump ahead of Dallas and select Rice, which worked out pretty well.
Rice is the greatest and most productive receiver in NFL history by an unbreakably crushing margin, and if you were to argue that he’s the best player in NFL history, you wouldn’t get much pushback. Rice finished his career with 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. He added 87 rushing attempts for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns. Rice also had 151 receptions for 2,245 yards and 22 touchdowns in the postseason. Rice led the NFL in receptions twice, receiving yards six times and receiving touchdowns six times.
Chicago Bears, 1975-1987
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1993 class. Selected with the fourth overall pick in the first round of the 1975 draft. 9-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro. 1977 AP NFL MVP, 1977 AP Offensive Player of the Year, 1977 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, 1985 Newspaper Enterprise Association NFL MVP, 1985 NFL Bert Bell Award (Player of the Year), Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s and All-1980s first teams, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Payton received no offers from SEC schools despite his status as a high school star in Mississippi, which was par for the course at the time. Instead, he signed on with Jackson State, where he played with Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile. He gained 3,600 yards and scored 63 touchdowns on the ground over three seasons. After he was selected fourth overall in the 1975 draft, Payton ran eight times for zero yards in his first NFL game.
Suffice to say, things got a lot better from there. Despite a lack of talent around him or in front of him for his first few seasons, Payton gained over 1,000 yards every year from 1976 through 1981. In 1977, he led the league with 1,852 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns on 339 carries. That same season, he set the NFL single-game record against the Vikings with 275 rushing yards — and he did so despite a 101-degree fever and the flu. That record stood for 23 years.
In 1984, Payton broke Jim Brown’s career record of 12,312 rushing yards, and Payton held the honor until Emmitt Smith broke Payton’s mark of 16,726 yards in 2002. As is the case with Jerry Rice, it’s not difficult to state a compelling case for Payton as the greatest player in NFL history.
Los Angeles Rams, 1961-1971
San Diego Chargers, 1972-1973
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1980 class. Selected with the 186th overall pick in the 14th round of the 1961 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Jones moves up from fifth on my first list to third here, thanks to more official sack totals. At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Jones was one of the first archetypes of the modern defensive end, with his size, strength, aggression, speed around the turn and ability to bull-rush blockers right out of the picture. The most infamous purveyor of the now-illegal head slap (“I didn’t invent it, but I perfected it,” he was fond of saying) and the inventor of the term “sack” for quarterback takedowns, Jones totaled 173.5 sacks in his career. To this day, only Bruce Smith and Reggie White have more career sacks.
Jones led the NFL in sacks in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, and 1969, and the only thing that kept him from doing so in six straight seasons was the fact that George Andre of the Cowboys tallied 18.5 sacks to Jones’s 16.0 in 1966. Regardless, Jones’ total of 115.5 sacks from 1964 through 1969, in 14-game seasons against generally run-heavy offenses, is one of the most incredible sustained periods of excellence, regardless of position, pro football has ever seen.
Amazingly, Jones almost didn’t get his chance. South Carolina State revoked Jones’ scholarship after he participated in a civil rights protest, and Mississippi Valley State took him in. Were it not from a tip to the Rams from Bill Nunn, the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier who annually selected the All-Black College Football Team and later stocked the Steelers rosters of the 1970s with Hall of Fame HBCU talent, Jones may have slipped through the cracks.
Oakland Raiders, 1968-1981
Los Angeles Raiders, 1982
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1989 class. Selected with the 80th overall pick in the third round of the 1968 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Shell is on a very short list of the best offensive tackles in pro football history, and he also holds the distinction of being the second Black head coach in NFL annals — and the first in the modern era. (Fritz Pollard coached the Akron Pros in 1921 and 1925). From 1971 through 1973, Shell was part of a Raiders offensive line that included four future Hall of Famers — Shell at left tackle, Gene Upshaw at left guard, Jim Otto at center and Bob Brown at right tackle. But it was Shell, among the ultimate combinations of technician and mauler, who set the tone.
Los Angeles Rams, 1976-1994
St. Louis Rams, 1995
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2001 class. Selected with the 86th overall pick in the third round of the 1976 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler.
Slater played at Jackson State with Walter Payton and Robert Brazile, and although his talent was obvious as he entered the NFL, it took three seasons before he was named a full-time starter. When that finally happened in 1979, the Rams made their first Super Bowl — XIII against the Steelers. Though Los Angeles lost that game, Slater shut out Pittsburgh defensive end L.C. Greenwood in the sack column. Greenwood came into that game with five sacks in three other Super Bowls, including four of Roger Staubach in Super Bowl X.
As a pro, Slater broke the NFL record for the most seasons with one team (20), and he blocked for seven running backs who gained at least 1,000 yards in a season.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1967-1977
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1986 class. Selected with the 50th overall pick in the second round of the 1967 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Before Lanier, it was considered gospel in pro football that Black players simply weren’t intelligent enough to play certain positions — specifically quarterback and middle linebacker, the shot-callers on both sides of the ball. Over an 11-year career in which he became one of the AFL’s and NFL’s most formidable tacklers and intercepted 27 passes for 440 return yards and two touchdowns, Lanier destroyed that myth. He recorded seven tackles and an interception in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl IV win over the Minnesota Vikings, and he easily could have been named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Cincinnati Bengals, 1969-1983
Selected with the 135th overall pick in the sixth round of the 1969 draft. One-time All-Pro.
Riley has the most interceptions of any player on this list with 65 in the regular season, and he added three more in seven postseason games. His regular-season mark ties him for fifth all-time in NFL history with Charles Woodson (a Hall of Famer) behind only Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Rod Woodson and Dick “Night Train” Lane — all Hall of Famers. Not only is Riley the only top-five interception artist who isn’t in Canton, he somehow was named to just one Pro Bowl roster, and no All-Pro teams, in his career. Riley finally broke that logjam in his final season of 1983, when he picked off eight passes for 89 return yards and two touchdowns … at age 36. He’s also one of 26 cornerbacks in pro football history to play in at least 200 games.
Cleveland Browns, 1958-1959
Green Bay Packers, 1960, 1969
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1981 class. Selected with the 181st overall pick in the 15th round of the 1956 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s Team.
We could start and end Davis’ credentials for the top 10 on this list with the fact that he’s supposedly the only player Vince Lombardi never yelled at. You want more? Sure. The Browns selected Davis in the 1956 draft, but he didn’t play until 1958 due to military commitments. Cleveland traded Davis to Green Bay in 1960, which really got the ball rolling for the future Hall of Famer. He had been a bit player under Paul Brown, but Lombardi immediately saw what Davis could be and talked Davis out of going into teaching because he didn’t want to play in what he called “the NFL’s Siberia.”
Official sack totals don’t yet cover Davis’ first two seasons in 1958 and 1959, but he’s now credited with 99.5 regular-season sacks, and 5.5 in the postseason, including 1.5 in Super Bowl I, and 3.0 in Super Bowl II. Davis was the focal point of a series of defenses that led the Packers to five NFL titles and wins in the first two Super Bowls. Packers center Bill Curry once called Davis “the finest combination of leader and player that I ever saw.”
San Diego Chargers, 1967-1968
Miami Dolphins, 1969-1980
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1993 class. Undrafted free agent. 5-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team.
Little was a three-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player as an offensive and defensive lineman. But he went undrafted in both the NFL and AFL, and after getting interest from the Chargers, Dolphins and Colts, he signed with San Diego because the Chargers were offering the biggest signing bonus — $750! San Diego traded Little to the Dolphins in 1969, which marked his first of five Pro Bowl selections. By the early 1970s, a Dolphins offensive line filled with undrafted players and castoffs from other teams was ready to be the force multiplier for the NFL’s best rushing attack and one of the key cogs in the only undefeated season in NFL history in 1972.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1970-1983
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1989 class. Selected with the 53rd overall pick in the third round of the 1975 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. 1975 AP Defensive Player of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1980s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
A general rule of player evaluation: If the NFL creates a rule to lessen your effectiveness, and that rule is named for you over time, you were probably pretty good at your job. That was the case for Blount, whose ability to erase and intimidate receivers with aggressive (to say the least) press coverage all over the field was a hallmark of Pittsburgh’s legendary defenses of the 1970s.
The Mel Blount Rule, enacted in 1978, decreed that defenders can only make contact with receivers within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage. It created a serious uptick in offensive production, but it didn’t stop Blount from picking off 22 regular-season passes and two more in the postseason from 1978 on. In total, Blount had 57 regular-season picks and four more in the postseason, including a league-leading 11 in 1975.
Denver Broncos, 1990-1999
Baltimore Ravens, 2000-2001
Denver Broncos, 2002-2003
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2011 class. Selected with the 192nd overall pick in the seventh round of the 1990 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 4-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1990s first team.
Though greats like John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow had already freed the tight end position from the realms of “yeah, he blocks a lot and catches a few passes,” Sharpe was also one of the first tight ends in NFL history who could legitimately line up at the “Y iso” position — the primary receiver detached from the formation — and nuke defenders all over the field.
Despite his success in college, Sharpe wasn’t considered a great prospect when he left Savannah State. In a conceit that would be considered hilarious today, he was thought of as too big to be a receiver and too small to be a true tight end. Survey says? Oops. By the time his career was over, Sharpe had set the all-time records for a tight end in receptions (815), receiving yards (10,060) and receiving touchdowns (62). He was also the first tight end to pass 10,000 receiving yards.
As Newsome once said of Sharpe when Newsome was the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager: “I think he’s a threat when he’s on the field. He has to be double-teamed. He’s a great route-runner. He’s proven that he can make the big plays. That’s what separates him. He’s a threat.”
Few truer words have ever been spoken, and Newsome would certainly know.
Houston Oilers, 1995-1996
Tennessee Oilers, 1997-1998
Tennessee Titans, 1999-2005
Baltimore Ravens, 2006-2007
Selected with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1995 draft. 3-time Pro Bowler. 2003 AP NFL MVP (Co-MVP with Peyton Manning).
The University of Florida offered McNair a scholarship to play running back, but McNair wanted to play quarterback, which is why he chose Division I-AA Alcorn State instead — also the preferred college of longtime Packers receiver Donald Driver and current Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. McNair threw for over 15,000 yards in college, and as a senior he totaled 6,281 combined yards (5,377 passing yards and 904 rushing yards) and was responsible for 56 touchdowns. He won the Walter Payton Award as the top I-AA player and finished third in the 1994 Heisman Trophy voting behind Rashaan Salaam and Ki-Jana Carter.
The Houston Oilers selected McNair with the third overall pick in the 1995 draft, and despite the fact that he was the quarterback in a bunch of run-first offenses, he finished sixth in passing attempts (4,544), fifth in completions (2,733), fifth in passing yards (31,304) and tied for sixth in passing touchdowns (174) in his era. McNair’s banner year was 2003, when he led the league in yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt and passer rating. He also was named Co-MVP with Peyton Manning that season. McNair’s Titans also were famously one yard away from a chance to tie the St. Louis Rams on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV.
Denver Broncos, 1963-1966
Oakland Raiders, 1967-1978
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1984 class. Undrafted free agent. 9-time Pro Bowler, 5-time All-Pro. AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s first team, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
The Houston Oilers signed Brown out of Grambling as an undrafted free agent but cut him in training camp, which has to go down as one of the more remarkable personnel blunders in American Football League history. Instead, Brown was signed by the Denver Broncos, for whom he amassed 15 interceptions over four seasons.
But it was the trade to the Oakland Raiders before the 1967 season that formed a perfect marriage between player and scheme. Brown was one of the best bump-and-run cornerbacks in AFL or NFL history, and the Raiders of the time were as aggressive with that particular technique as any team you’ll see in any era of pro football. Over 12 years with the Raiders, he grabbed 39 regular-season interceptions for 277 return yards and two touchdowns, adding seven more interceptions for 96 return yards and three more touchdowns in 17 postseason games. Brown’s best-known play came in the Raiders’ win in Super Bowl XI — a 75-yard pick-six of Fran Tarkenton that iced Oakland’s 32-14 win.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1963-1975
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1990 class. Selected with the first overall pick of the 1963 AFL draft. Selected with the 256th overall pick in the 19th round of the 1963 NFL draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 4-time All-Pro. AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s second team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
In 1967, the Oakland Raiders selected Texas A&M-Kingsville offensive guard Gene Upshaw with the 17th overall pick in the draft. The primary reason for this, legend tells us, is that the Raiders had no answer for one Junious “Buck” Buchanan, who kept pummeling Oakland’s quarterbacks in their preferred “bombs-away” offense. At 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, Buchanan was a nightmare for all opposing offensive linemen as an occasional defensive end and primary defensive tackle.
Buchanan is credited with 16 batted passes in the 1967 season alone. He also had 70.5 regular-season sacks, adding 3.5 in the postseason, but Buchanan was about more than sacks. The first Black college player selected with the first overall pick in any professional football league, Buchanan was one of the most dominant players of his era.
Houston Oilers, 1967-1972
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1986 class. Selected with the 214th overall pick in the ninth round of the 1967 draft. 12-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Nobody on this list has more Pro Bowl nods than Houston, who was selected for that honor every season from 1968 to 1979. He had to endure some lean years with the Oilers early on, but that didn’t diminish his effectiveness — in 1971, for example, Houston picked off nine passes for 220 return yards and matched his team’s win total (four) in interception return touchdowns.
A fine punt and kick returner as well, Houston was an early version of the modern do-it-all safety who could play the strong and free positions with equal effectiveness. Houston finished his career with 49 regular-season interceptions for 898 return yards and nine touchdowns, adding one more pick in five postseason games.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1966-1978
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2008 class. Undrafted free agent. 5-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro.
Thomas was one of the primary catalysts of the great Chiefs defenses of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he was also one of many players from HBCUs given to head coach Hank Stram by Lloyd C.A. Wells, the newspaperman and member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage who was the first full-time Black scout in any pro football league. Wells brought Thomas, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan and Otis Taylor (all four are on this list) and many more to the Chiefs. Now that Bill Nunn is in the Hall of Fame, Wells needs to be next.
In any event, Thomas totaled 58 interceptions for 937 return yards and five return touchdowns in his great career, including a league-leading 12 picks for 214 yards and two return touchdowns in 1974. He added five more interceptions in the postseason, including four in the Chiefs’ 1969 Super Bowl run. A longtime assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach after his playing career was over, Thomas last coached for the Chiefs in 2018. He was the coach tasked to hold the Atlanta Falcons together in 2007 in the infamous aftermath of the Bobby Petrino “era.”
New York Giants, 1993-2007
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2014 class. Selected with the 40th overall pick in the second round of the 1993 draft. 7-time Pro Bowler, 4-time All-Pro. 2001 AP Defensive Player of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2000s first team.
Lightly regarded as a high-school prospect because he spent most of his childhood in Germany (his father was an Army major who once beat Ken Norton in a boxing match), Strahan played just one year of American high-school football and received a scholarship offer from Texas Southern. He set a school record with 41.5 sacks, and was named to the Black College Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Giants got a steal with Strahan in the second round; he had by far the most sacks in his era with 141.5 (Simeon Rice, Jason Taylor, John Randle and Bruce Smith finished behind him), and he added 9.5 more sacks in 10 postseason games, including two Super Bowls and one Super Bowl win. Strahan also holds the single-season sack record (now tied with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt) with 22.5 in 2001 — in that season, he also led the NFL in forced fumbles with six and tackles for loss with 24. He led the NFL in sacks once again in 2003 with 18.5, and that was another season in which he also led the league in tackles for loss with 23.
Chicago Bears, 1983-1993
San Francisco 49ers, 1994
Chicago Bears, 1995
Indianapolis Colts, 1996
Philadelphia Eagles, 1997
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2011 class. Selected with the 203rd overall pick in the eighth round of the 1983 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler, 1-time All-Pro. Super Bowl XX MVP.
Dent was a great player throughout his career, but his 1985 season stands out as one of the single greatest seasons any defensive end has ever had. In the Bears’ Super Bowl year, Dent had two interceptions with a pick-six, a league-high seven forced fumbles and a league-high 17 sacks. He then helped to define one of the greatest defensive seasons a team has ever enjoyed with six more sacks in three postseason games in which Chicago pitched shutouts in the divisional round against the Giants and in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams, and leveled the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.
Dent finished that all-time season off with a Super Bowl MVP award. In that game, he had 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a deflected pass. Not bad for a guy who had to sit through 202 draft picks in 1983 to hear his name called in the eighth round — which doesn’t even exist anymore.
New York Giants, 1953-1965
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1975 class. Selected with the 322nd overall pick in the 27th round of the 1953 draft. 9-time Pro Bowler, 6-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1950s Team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
A prodigy from the word “go,” Brown found himself advancing a few grades in school very early.
“I was always a big boy,” Brown told the New York Times in 1964. “When I was 6, my mother put me in school and I took a test. I must have passed it because they put me in third grade. No first grade and no second grade. That meant I graduated from high school when I was 15 and from college at 19. When I played my first game for the Giants, in 1953, I was still 19.”
When he did hit the NFL after making Bill Nunn’s All-America Grid Team (Giants owner Wellington Mara told his front office to select Brown based solely on the linked article), he then became the team’s ultimate road grader and pass protector. Vince Lombardi, who knew as much or more about offensive line play as any coach who has ever plied his trade, put it succinctly:
“When you think of great tackles in professional football, you must think of Rosey Brown.”
Phoenix Cardinals, 1991-1993
Arizona Cardinals, 1994-2000
St. Louis Rams, 2001-2004
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2014 class. Selected with the 59th overall pick in the third round of the 1991 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro. 1991 NFL All-Rookie Team, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1990s second team.
Williams was not offered a scholarship to any college, went to Southern to focus on academics and only started playing football again in his junior year. But after bagging 18 interceptions in two seasons, he found himself on the Cardinals’ radar — for better or worse.
On a series of Cardinals defenses that spent far more time in the bottom five than the top five in yards and points allowed, Williams was the longtime exception to the rule of mediocrity. Among defensive backs who played every year from 1991 through 2000, Williams led the NFL in interceptions with 46, ahead of Rod Woodson, Eugene Robinson, Deion Sanders (who admittedly wasn’t targeted enough to come up with more picks) and Eric Allen.
The Cardinals traded Williams to the Rams on the first day of the 2001 draft for second- and fourth-round picks. He eventually switched to free safety and picked off 18 more regular-season passes in four seasons. In the 2001 postseason, Williams picked off Brett Favre twice for touchdowns in the divisional round and intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass late in the NFC Championship game against the Eagles to ensure the Rams’ trip to Super Bowl XXXVI.
Williams finished his career with an incredible 14 defensive touchdowns — 12 on interceptions and two on fumbles. He’s on a very short list of the best defensive backs who could play any position required in his era.
Cleveland Browns, 1946-1953
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1968 class. Undrafted free agent. 1-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1940s Team, NFL 100 All-Time Team.
Appropriately, Motley grew up in Canton, Ohio. After high school, he joined the Navy in 1944 and played on a service team coached by Paul Brown. When the war was over, Brown, who very much wanted to break pro football’s shameful boycott of Black players that began in 1934, signed Motley (who was working at a steel mill) and defensive lineman Bill Willis to play on his new Cleveland Browns team in the All-America Football Conference. The Browns won all four AAFC titles before joining the NFL along with the Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers.
Injuries ended Motley’s NFL career early, and though he wanted to be a coach after his playing career was over, he ran into predictable resistance. Nonetheless, he was one of the most dominant running backs in NFL history in a short space, gaining 4,720 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns on just 828 carries. His yards-per-carry average of 5.7 is a record that still stands. He was also a force as a linebacker — fellow Hall of Fame running back Joe Perry once called Motley the “greatest all-around football player there ever was,” and renowned historian Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman believed Motley to be the best player in pro football history.
Dallas Cowboys, 1981-1989
New York Giants, 1990-1991
New York Giants/Cleveland Browns, 1992
Cleveland Browns, 1993
Undrafted free agent. 4-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro. 1981 NFL All-Rookie Team.
Walls hasn’t made the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his 61 interceptions over 14 seasons, but at least one of his former coaches has no issue endorsing Walls for a bust in Canton.
“Everson did it in a different system — a lot of man-to-man coverage in Dallas,” this coach said. “When I had him at the Giants, he played safety and called signals for us. Played corner and safety for me at Cleveland. He’s a very versatile player.”
“So Everson, I think he’s a good football player. Other guys might test better on an athletic test, but in terms of seeing the ball, route recognition, key plays in big games, awareness, all those kind of things, Everson is near the top of my list in that group. I loved coaching Everson. He’s a really good guy to coach.”
Given the years and locations, you may have already surmised that the coach in question is former Giants defensive coordinator and Browns head coach Bill Belichick. Walls also played for Tom Landry, who pretty much invented modern defense, for Jimmy Johnson in Walls’ last and Johnson’s first year in Dallas, and the great Eddie Robinson at Grambling (not to mention Giants head coach Bill Parcells), so it’s safe to say that he had quite the lineup of coaches to impress, and he always did.
Was it impressive that Cowboys second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs had 11 interceptions in 2021? Absolutely. The last player to grab that many picks in a season was Walls in 1981 — and Walls did it in his rookie season. Walls also led the league with seven picks in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he hed the league again with nine picks in 1985. During the years of Walls’ career, only Ronnie Lott had more interceptions than Walls’ 57 (with four more in the postseason). A walk-on at Grambling, Walls eventually earned a scholarship and transcended the “too slow” label NFL scouts had put on him, which led to his undrafted status.
Houston Oilers, 1969-1971
Houston Oilers/Cincinnati Bengals, 1972
Cincinnati Bengals, 1973-1975
San Diego Chargers, 1976-1986
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1996 class. Selected with the 93rd overall pick of the fourth round in the 1969 AFL draft. 3-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro.
When Joiner retired after the 1986 season, he did so with the most receptions (750), receiving yards (12,146) and games played (239) of any receiver in NFL history. Of course, Joiner retired after Jerry Rice’s second NFL season, and most records are made to be broken … but there’s little doubt that Joiner was one of the best receivers of his — or any other — era.
Joiner didn’t play high school football until his junior year, but he did so well enough to receive a scholarship offer from the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling, and caught passes from James Harris when he was there.
Incredibly, Joiner started his NFL career as a defensive back — the switch to receiver was made after Joiner had his block knocked off by Broncos running back Floyd Little in Joiner’s rookie season. He caught just seven passes for 77 yards in 1969 and had just 82 catches for 1,480 yards and 12 touchdowns over nearly four seasons with the Oilers. Traded to the Bengals in 1972, Joiner had similarly anonymous numbers through four seasons — 82 catches for 1,463 yards and six touchdowns, though he did set a franchise record with 200 yards against the Browns in 1975.
But when the Bengals traded him to the Chargers before the 1976 season, Joiner proved to be a perfect part of Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” passing game, and it was in San Diego over 11 seasons that he caught 586 passes for 9,203 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Sometimes, all it takes is the right home.
Dallas Cowboys, 1967
Los Angeles Rams, 1968-1972
San Diego Chargers, 1973-1975
Cincinnati Bengals, 1976-1977
Undrafted free agent. 3-time Pro Bowler.
Official sack totals bumped this player up a bit. It took a while for Lander McCoy Bacon to find his home in pro football, and it clearly wasn’t going to be in Texas. Bacon tried out for the Houston Oilers in 1964 but was released when it was discovered that he had not graduated from Jackson State. After a few cups of coffee in the Continental Football League, Bacon landed on the Cowboys’ practice squad in 1967. But he wasn’t a great fit, as he was a “pin your ears back” pass rusher, and Dallas’ flex defense demanded more discipline. Dallas traded him to the Rams in 1968 for a fifth-round pick, and Bacon saw some time on the “Fearsome Foursome” front due to injuries to defensive tackle Roger Brown (also on this list) and end Lamar Lundy’s retirement.
Bacon played at a Pro Bowl level for the Rams in 1971 and 1972, kicking inside at times when Los Angeles featured a three-DE speed-rush package. But in 1973, the Rams traded Bacon and running back Bob Thomas to the Chargers for quarterback John Hadl. Among the reasons for the trade was that new head coach Chuck Knox thought Bacon didn’t play the run well enough, which is like trading in your Ferrari for a used pickup truck because your Ferrari won’t tow anything.
But it was after Bacon was traded to the Bengals for receiver Charlie Joiner that he really went off at a historic level. In 1976, Bacon was unofficially credited with 21.5 sacks, which would have been the NFL record if official until Mark Gastineau had 22 sacks in 1984. He also had a total of 35.5 sacks for Washington from 1978-1980, when he was 36, 37, and 38 years old, and he finished his career with 130.5 quarterback takedowns.
Atlanta Falcons, 1968-1978
Philadelphia Eagles, 1979-1981
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2014 class. Selected with the third overall pick in the first round of the 1968 draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. 1968 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Another player who gets a bump on this list with official sack totals. Humphrey had the dual misfortune of playing his prime years with a series of mostly poor Falcons teams — though he was a key part of the “Grits Blitz” defense that terrorized every opposing quarterback it faced in 1977 — and the fact that he retired the year before sack totals became official. He may be most famous for getting called for roughing the passer with the Eagles in Super Bowl XV, picking up the flag and throwing it at official Ben Dreith.
Of course, that’s not why Humphrey eventually made the Hall of Fame — we now know that he totaled 130.0 sacks over 13 seasons, including double-digit sacks in his first four seasons, and in five of his first six.
Detroit Lions, 1967-1977
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1992 class. Selected with the fourth overall pick of the first round in the 1975 draft. 7-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. 1967 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s Team.
We might put Barney on this list just because he was cool enough to hang out with Marvin Gaye when the legendary singer was recording the seminal “What’s Going On” album — Barney and teammate Mel Farr can be heard on the title track. Of course, there are many more reasons he’s here.
From 1967 through 1977, only Vikings safety Paul Krause had more interceptions than Barney’s 56. Barney tied with Kansas City’s Emmitt Thomas for second over that time ahead of Ken Houston, Jake Scott, Mel Renfro and Ken Riley. Barney had an especially impressive rookie season, in which he led the NFL with 10 interceptions for 232 return yards and three touchdowns. Barney returned his first target for a touchdown in his first NFL game, and that pass was thrown by Bart Starr. In his final game of the 1967 season, he picked off three passes from Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp in a period of 10 clock minutes and returned one 71 yards for a touchdown.
No fluke, Barney had seven picks in 1970, eight in 1971 and seven more in 1972. A dominant return man as well, Barney also ran the ball five times for 45 yards and punted 113 times for a 35.5-yard average in his career.
Detroit Lions, 1960-1966
Los Angeles Rams, 1967-1969
Selected with the 42nd overall pick of the fourth round in the 1960 draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
From 1960 through 1965, the Detroit Lions set the pro football record with a sack in 76 straight games with a dominant front seven that included Brown, Alex Karras, Wayne Walker and Joe Schmidt. If you include postseason games, the 1970s Cowboys defenses that included Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Jethro Pugh — two more players on this list — also had at least one quarterback takedown in 76 straight games.
But we’re talking specifically about Roger Brown here. Best known for his performance in the 1962 “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” against the Packers — in which he sacked Bart Starr seven times, including once for a safety — Brown played on more than one historically great defensive line. When Rosey Grier lost the rest of his career to a torn Achilles tendon in 1966, Rams head coach George Allen was desperate to keep the legendary “Fearsome Foursome” front four together and traded for Brown in exchange for first-, second-, and third-round draft picks.
Brown could hit his weight with any defensive lineman in the NFL during his estimable career, as his 79.0 sacks over 10 seasons proves.
New York Jets, 1963-1976
Los Angeles Rams, 1977
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2020 class. Selected with the 145th overall pick in the 11th round of the 1963 NFL draft. 8-time Pro Bowler. AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s second team.
A high school tennis champion who played both sides of the line at Texas Southern, Hill was selected by the Baltimore Colts in the 11th round of the 1963 NFL draft but chose instead to sign with the AFL’s New York Jets as an undrafted free agent. The irony of that was likely not lost on the Colts when, at the end of the 1968 season, Hill did a great deal to hold Baltimore’s all-time defense at bay in Super Bowl III as the Jets pulled one of the biggest upsets in sports history. An excellent pass protector with light feet (perhaps from his tennis days?) Hill was also perfectly capable of gashing opposing defensive lines with pure power, as he frequently did to the Colts’ usually amazing front in that Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1978-1982
Selected with the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 1978 draft. 1978 NFL All-Rookie Team, Super Bowl XXII MVP.
Williams moves up from 47th on my first list, and while he’s on most HBCU Top 10s, I’m not comfortable putting him there, despite his clear historical impact.
Why? Because Williams’ legacy is a complicated one, as is the case for every Black quarterback who plied his trade before NFL teams pulled their heads out regarding that particular subject. He was one of the primary reasons the Buccaneers went from losing their first 26 games as a franchise in 1976 and 1977 to nearly winning the NFC Championship Game against the Rams near the end of the 1979 season, but even as his efficiency increased in 1980 and 1981, he was about to find a schism in what the team thought he was worth.
Williams had been paid $120,000 per season, the lowest salary for any starting quarterback in the league, and less money than most backups were making. After the 1982 season, Williams asked for a raise to $600,000 per year, and team owner Hugh Culverhouse refused to move from his offer of $400,000. Williams responded by leaving the team and signing with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.
Joe Gibbs, who was Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 1978 and was tasked by head coach John McKay to study Williams out of college, put this in his scouting report:
“Douglas is a natural leader with a confident and commanding presence … very well-coached by Eddie Robinson. Knows the game and has a real desire to learn more … just has what it takes for guys to want to follow him … ideal composure for a quarterback. Has a big-time arm with perfect passing mechanics from head to toe … back foot is consistent and perpendicular to hips on every throw with a fluid release. Makes all the throws. Can really throw it deep with touch and accuracy … was a pitching prospect … Has very rare arm strength and overall talent … Douglas will have one of the strongest arms in the league from the day he’s drafted. Great person. Professors spoke highly of his classroom preparedness. Attentive student that likes to sit in the front of the classroom. Currently a student teacher in Monroe and wants to coach in the future. Hard worker. Very academic, studious … takes lots of notes and processes information very quickly. Team-oriented and mentally tough … really football smart and extremely prepared. Just very impressive.”
So, it should not have come as much of a surprise that when Williams returned to the NFL in 1986, it was with Gibbs’ team — first as a backup to Jay Schroeder, and then as the starter in time for his historic performance in Super Bowl XXII. Not only did Williams become the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, he was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter of a 42-10 rout. Williams completed 41 of 84 passes for 666 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions in the 1987 postseason.
Williams played in the NFL through the 1989 season, finishing his career with 100 touchdown passes and 89 interceptions, but we’re left with a whole lot of what might have been had Williams not been lowballed by his first team and had he not lost several years of NFL time as a result.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-1987
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2020 class. Undrafted free agent. 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro.
The Steelers’ 1974 draft haul, which produced four Hall of Famers (Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster) and is rightly considered the greatest single draft in NFL history, is actually even better than you think it was if you include the addition of undrafted free agent Donnie Shell. That’s five Hall of Famers in one rookie haul, kids. Not bad at all.
Shell finished his career with 51 regular-season interceptions, tied for 16th all-time, and he added two more in 19 postseason games. Undrafted despite his All-America and All-Conference honors, he was yet another player directed to the Steelers through the auspices of super-scout Bill Nunn, who had the ultimate bead on HBCU players. Like Nunn, Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020 — an honor in Nunn’s case that took far too long.
Houston Oilers, 1968-1983
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2003 class. Selected with the 77th overall pick in the third round of the 1968 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler.
Bethea jumps from 45th to 30th in this list, and he should have been higher even before sack totals strengthened his case.
The Houston Oilers and New England Patriots were the first NFL teams to switch to a full-time base 3-4 defense, and both did so in the mid-1970s. Houston head coach Bum Phillips had tried to run the 3-4 as San Diego’s defensive coordinator in the late 1960s, but head coach Sid Gillman didn’t believe in it. But in 1975, when Bum got his first head coaching job, he was going to run his defense — which he had already done as Gillman’s defensive coordinator in Houston the year before — and he needed a table-setter. It didn’t take Phillips long to realize that he had that guy in Bethea, who set a career high with 16 sacks in 1973 on a 1-13 Oilers squad. Bethea finished his career with 105 regular-season sacks, and seven more in the postseason. Had be been more of a traditional 4-3 end, his disruption totals may well have been far higher.
As the right defensive end in that 3-4, Bethea was just about unblockable in conjunction with nose guard Curley Culp and outside linebacker Robert Brazile. He finally made the Hall of Fame in 2003.
Cincinnati Bengals, 1970-1977
Buffalo Bills, 1982
Selected with the 163rd overall pick in the seventh round of the 1970 draft. 8-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro. ‘
Imagine you’re a quarterback facing the Bengals in any season from 1970 through 1977. At right cornerback is Ken Riley (also on this list), and at left cornerback is Lemar Parrish. That’s 112 combined career interceptions for nine touchdowns in just the regular season, so you might be better off checking to a run play most of the time.
A running back and dynamite punt returner in college, Parrish took the latter skill with him to the NFL, with five return touchdowns in his pro career. But it was as a defensive back that Parrish would really leave his mark. From 1970 through 1982, only Mel Blount, Riley and Jake Scott had more interceptions, and Parrish added four interception return touchdowns and three fumble return touchdowns to his resume. In 1979 and 1980, at the ages of 32 and 33, he totaled 16 interceptions for Washington.
Cleveland Browns, 1964-1973
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1994 class. Selected with the 110th overall pick in the eighth round of the 1964 draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro. 1968 NFL Bert Bell Award (Player of the Year), Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1960s Team.
Jim Brown was an impossible act to follow, but Kelly did his level best for the Browns following Brown’s retirement after the 1965 season at the age of 30.
From 1964 through 1973, no back in either the NFL or AFL had more attempts (1,727), rushing yards, (7,274) or rushing touchdowns (74) than Kelly. He led both leagues in attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in both 1967 and 1968, and was No. 1 in yards per carry in 1966 and 1967. Kelly also led pro football in rushing touchdowns in 1966, and he returned 94 punts for 990 yards and 3 touchdowns, and 76 kickoffs for 1,784 yards in his career.
Dallas Cowboys, 1965-1974
San Francisco 49ers, 1975
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2009 class. Selected with the 88th overall pick in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL draft. Selected with the 105th overall pick in the 14th round of the 1964 AFL draft. 3-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
Before he became one of the NFL’s best vertical receivers, Hayes was one of the world’s most prominent track stars — he tied the world record of 9.2 seconds in the 100-yard dash in 1962, became the first person to break the six-second mark in the 60-yard dash, and set several records and won two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics despite running on a chewed-up track on borrowed spikes.
The Cowboys had already selected him in the 1964 draft before the Olympics. His effect on enemy defenses was immediate — in his first two NFL seasons, Hayes caught 110 passes for 2,235 yards and 25 touchdowns. Hayes is sometimes credited with the advent of both the zone defense and the advancement of bump-and-run coverage to try and contain him. He never had another 1,000-yard season after those first two (though he had 998 yards in 1968), but he averaged a league-high 26.1 yards per catch in 1970, and 24.0 yards per catch in 1971. He was also a dynamic punt and kick returner.
Not just a straight-line speedster, Hayes developed outstanding route awareness and a Gumby-like catch radius to make him one of the most imposing receivers in NFL history from a Peak Value perspective. If you’ve never seen Hayes at his best, think of Tyreek Hill playing in the 1960s, and that’s a pretty good approximation.
New York Giants, 1976-1988
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2006 class. Selected with the 105th overall pick in the first round of the 1976 draft. 9-time Pro Bowler. 1976 NFL All-Rookie Team.
At South Carolina State, Carson became the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player to win consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honors, and he recorded 117 tackles and 17 sacks in 1975 for a defense that posted six shutouts and also included future Hall of Fame Steelers defensive back Donnie Shell (also on this list).
For the Giants, Carson became one of the most important parts of one of the greatest defenses of his era, in a linebacker corps with Brian Kelley, Brad Van Pelt and Lawrence Taylor. In his career, Carson had 11 interceptions for 212 return yards and 19 sacks. It took him far too long to make the Hall of Fame, but Bill Belichick, the Giants’ defensive coordinator from 1985-1990, later said Carson was the best linebacker he ever coached.
Oakland Raiders, 1966
Denver Broncos, 1967-1971
Denver Broncos/Cleveland Browns, 1972
Undrafted free agent. 3-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro. AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s second team.
The Broncos never had a winning record in the years Jackson did his thing, and his career was shortened by a 1971 knee injury. As such, he may have been doomed to relative obscurity were it not for the efforts of the legendary Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman, who often said that at his peak, Jackson might have been the greatest pass rusher he’d ever seen. And as you may know, Dr. Z had seen a lot.
As they say, tape don’t lie.
Jackson finished his career with just 45 sacks, but 34 of those came in his peak time between 1968 and 1970. Jackson did that without a ton of talent around him. If you ask anybody who was around in that era, they’d tell you that under different circumstances, Jackson would be a more well-known name and quite possibly a Hall of Famer.
Los Angeles Rams, 1968
Philadelphia Eagles, 1969-1972
Los Angeles Rams, 1973-1977
New England Patriots, 1978-1981
Minnesota Vikings, 1982
Seattle Seahawks, 1983
Selected with the 323rd overall pick in the 12th round of the 1968 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro.
The Rams didn’t know what they had with the 323rd overall pick in 1968 — Jackson didn’t catch a single pass for them in his rookie season, and they traded him to the Eagles before the 1969 season, in which Jackson caught 65 passes for a league-leading 1,116 yards and nine touchdowns. Jackson also led the NFL in receptions (62) and receiving yards (1,048) in 1972, his final year in Philly. The Eagles then traded Jackson back to the Rams for quarterback Roman Gabriel, who then led his new team in attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns.
But it was a pretty good deal for the Rams as well. Jackson led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1973 and proved to be the most prolific receiver of the decade.
From 1970 through 1979, no other receiver had more receptions (432), receiving yards (7,724) or receiving touchdowns (61) than Jackson. He added 24 catches for 548 yards and five touchdowns in 14 postseason games. A longtime college and NFL coach after his playing career, Jackson wound up coaching at his alma mater in 2014 and 2015.
Philadelphia Eagles, 1971-1983
Dallas Cowboys, 1984
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2020 class. Selected with the 161st overall pick in the seventh round of the 1975 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler. 1980 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s second team.
A walk-on at Southern, Carmichael starred in football, track and basketball with a 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame he used to physically dominate opposing defensive backs. That extended to his NFL career — his battles with 5-foot-9, 170-pound Washington cornerback Pat Fischer were fairly legendary — and he led the NFL with 67 receptions for 1,116 yards in his third season of 1973. Carmichael never again amassed “black type” numbers in his career, but that was more about the fact that the Eagles struggled to find consistent quarterback play through much of the decade until Ron Jaworski found himself in the latter part of the decade and Sid Gillman started to run the Eagles’ passing game behind the scenes.
In the Eagles’ first Super Bowl season of 1980, Carmichael caught 48 passes for 815 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 13 catches for 174 yards and another touchdown in the postseason. In that same season, he set what was then the NFL record with a catch in 127 consecutive games.
Dallas Cowboys, 1974-1989
Selected with the first overall pick in the first round of the 1974 draft. 3-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro. 1974 NFL All-Rookie Team.
One of two players on this list to be selected with the first overall pick in either an AFL or NFL draft (Junious “Buck” Buchanan was the other, selected first overall by the Chiefs in the 1963 AFL draft), Jones received his nickname during his first practice at Tennessee State when a teammate posited that his football pants didn’t fit and he was “too tall to play football.”
That didn’t seem to affect Jones’ future. He put up 106 career regular-season sacks, and he added 12 sacks in 20 postseason games. Jones left the Cowboys in 1979 to attempt a professional boxing career and returned to the team in 1980.
Los Angeles Rams, 1972-1982
Selected with the 355th overall pick in the 14th round of the 1976 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro.
Per the research of Pro Football Journal’s John Turney, in the decade Brooks started for the Rams (1972-1981), Los Angeles allowed the fewest yards in the NFL, allowed the second-fewest rushing yards, sacked the quarterback the most, allowed the second-fewest points, allowed the fewest passing yards, allowed the third-best defensive passer rating, allowed the second-fewest rushing touchdowns, and picked off the fifth-most passes. Brooks was a big part of that, with his 74.5 regular-season sacks and three postseason takedowns.
In 1976, Brooks put up 14.5 sacks in a 14-game season — an unofficial record for Rams defensive tackles that stood until some guy named Aaron Donald broke it in 2018 with 20.5. If you want to see Brooks demolish John Hannah, one of the best guards in NFL history, in the 1980 season, you can do so here.
Indianapolis Colts, 2003-2016
Selected with the 138th overall pick in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro.
The most recent HBCU player on this list (current Saints left tackle and Arkansas-Pine Bluff alum Terron Armstead barely missed the cut, as did Colts linebacker and South Carolina State alum Darius Leonard), Mathis combined with Dwight Freeney to make the Colts’ pass rush of the 2000s and early 2010s a major problem for opposing quarterbacks. Mathis set an NCAA I-AA record with 20 sacks during his senior season, and after a three-sack total in his rookie campaign, Mathis hit the ground running with 22 sacks in the next two seasons.
Mathis finished his career with 123 regular-season sacks, which ranks fourth from 2003 through 2016 behind only DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers. Mathis added 6.5 more sacks in 18 postseason games and 11 postseason starts. Perhaps his most amazing feat was putting up 19.5 sacks and forcing 10 fumbles — both league highs — at age 32 in 2013. Mathis leads all 32-year-old players in sacks; Michael Strahan (also on this list) finished second with 18.5 a decade before.
Dallas Cowboys, 1986-1998
Carolina Panthers, 1999
Undrafted free agent. 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
Newton was known primarily for his fondness for Stubbs sandwiches and keeping candy bars in his socks for in-game snacking, but comedy aside, he was one of the best guards of his era. At 6-foot-3 and a listed weight of 318 pounds (yeah, right) Newton tried football with Washington of the NFL in 1984 and the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL before signing a contract with the Cowboys in 1986. It wasn’t until Jimmy Johnson became the Cowboys’ head coach in 1989 that Newton really found his stride — first at right tackle and then at left guard when Erik Williams proved to be even better at Newton’s old position. Thus became the “Great Wall of Dallas,” one of the NFL’s best-ever offensive lines.
Though he struggled with his weight throughout his career, he was also a physically imposing player capable of forklifting and cockroach-clicking anybody in front of him. Only Larry Allen has been to more Pro Bowls (10) among Dallas offensive linemen in franchise history.
Dallas Cowboys, 1967-1979
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2006 class. Selected with the 182nd overall pick in the seventh round of the 1967 draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s first team.
The Cowboys’ scouting departments, which were the first to use computers in 1960s and cast a wide net back when most teams didn’t, have not been given the credit they deserved in reaching out to great HBCU players, but the fact that there are Cowboys draft picks all over this list tells the story.
Wright, another such player, went to Fort Valley State to play basketball (at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, he was going to be tough in the paint). Eventually, head football coach Stan Lomax encouraged Wright to quit his summer job at a mill to prepare for football. Lomax tried Wright just about everywhere on the field — free safety, tight end, defensive end and punter.
Wright started just four games with the Cowboys in his first three seasons, though he did catch two passes for 27 yards total in 1968 and 1969. But a strong performance against Deacon Jones in Week 10 of the 1969 season cemented his starting status at right tackle in 1970. Through the 1970s, he was a rock in an offense that spent more time in the top three in yards gained and points scored than not, and Wright was the best offensive lineman on Cowboys teams that played in five Super Bowls and won two of them.
As Hall of Fame Vikings defensive end Carl Eller once said, “Having an all-day fight with Rayfield Wright definitely is not my idea of a pleasant Sunday afternoon.”
“He was absolutely the best,” another Hall of Famer, former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, said of Wright’s excellence. “Rayfield was a big, strong guy that was able to transfer his size and strength from tight end to tackle. He also had such quick feet that he was able to deal with some of the faster defensive ends and even the linebacker blitzes. If he got beat, I don’t remember it.”
That’s two Hall of Famers with strong words about Rayfield Wright, who deserves his own bust in Canton.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1965-1975
Selected with the 29th overall pick in the fourth round of the 1965 AFL draft. Selected with the 203rd overall pick in the 15th round of the 1965 NFL draft. 3-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
Taylor is best known for the 46-yard touchdown reception he took in from Len Dawson to sock things away for the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV against the Vikings, but he was also one of the first prototypes of the modern receiver with his size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), physical nature, downfield acceleration and ability to win at the catch point. During his career, Taylor ranked fifth in receptions (410; tied with Lance Alworth, who’s in the Hall of Fame), sixth in receiving yards (7,306; more than Don Maynard, who’s in the Hall of Fame), and tied for sixth in touchdowns (49; also more than Maynard, who was considered the pre-eminent deep threat of his era). If you get the idea that we’re stanning for Taylor to get his bust in Canton, you are absolutely correct.
Dallas Cowboys, 1965-1978
Selected with the 145th overall pick in the 11th round of the 1965 draft.
Pugh had a great career with the Cowboys, and his peak was something else: He had 96.5 sacks in the regular season, 8.5 in the postseason, and 15.5 sacks in 1968. You would have to go quite a ways to find a ton of defensive tackles, especially in the 14-game era, who can boast such numbers. Pugh’s career total of 95.5 puts him sixth all-time in Cowboys history, and the only reason he was never voted to a Pro Bowl is that he had to deal with the recognition given to Bob Lilly at the start of his career, and Randy White at the end of his career.
Philadelphia Eagles, 1976-1983
Cleveland Browns, 1984-1989
Phoenix Cardinals, 1990
Selected with the 191st overall pick in the seventh round of the 1976 draft.
Credited with 96 sacks during his career, including 15.5 in 1979 and nine more in 15 postseason games, Hairston preceded Reggie White as the mainstay of the Eagles’ defensive line before moving on to Cleveland and Phoenix. He never made a Pro Bowl, and he was justifiably unhappy about his 1979 snub.
His former head coach with the Browns, Marty Schottenheimer, gave Hairston his first coaching opportunity as the Chiefs’ defensive line coach in 1995. Hairston joined the St. Louis Rams staff in 1997 and won a Super Bowl ring two years later.
Dallas Cowboys. 1991-2000
Baltimore Ravens, 2001
Selected with the 70th overall pick in the third round of the 1991 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
Were it not for a 1994 car accident in which he suffered a torn ACL and PCL, as well as thumb and rib injuries, Williams would probably be in the Hall of Fame. He was certainly on the track. Grades kept him out of Division I, so he went with Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, instead. A high school defensive lineman, Williams moved to left offensive tackle in college and was dominant enough to help the Marauders to the 1990 NAIA national championship in an offense that averaged 492 yards and 54.8 points per game, setting an NAIA record with 592 points.
Williams started just three games in his rookie year with the Cowboys. In his second season, he shut Reggie White out from a sack perspective — in a year when White posted 14 sacks for the Eagles — and that was that. Williams became the only Cowboys offensive lineman ever to win the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award. Dallas inserted Williams at right tackle, moved Nate Newton to left guard, and that was the final piece in the “Great Wall of Dallas” line of the 1990s, one of the greatest front fives in NFL history.
Williams was never quite the same after the accident, but in his prime? Hoo boy. As analyst and former Packers scout Bryan Broaddus wrote on the Cowboys’ official site in 2012:
In my career in Green Bay with Reggie White, I never witnessed a tackle that dominated him the way that Erik Williams did. White hated playing him and for good reason because one-on-one, Williams got in White’s head and took him out of the game. It even got to the point that we knew that someone other than Reggie was going to have to make plays against the Cowboys because he wasn’t. There is something to be said about a player that physically destroyed Reggie White’s will to compete. I never thought I would see it, but I did, and there many days where walking out of Texas Stadium, I wish I hadn’t.
Williams finished his career with the Ravens in 2001, and as great as he was, there’s always going to be an element of what might have been.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1969-1981
Selected with the 238th overall pick in the 10th round of the 1969 NFL draft. 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro. Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1970s second team.
Greenwood was one of the four pillars of the Steel Curtain defensive front, along with Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and Joe Greene. At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, Greenwood was the longest and lankiest of the four, and his specialty was pressure from the edge. Greenwood finished his career with 73.5 regular-season quarterback takedowns, and he saved his best for the biggest games — he batted down two Fran Tarkenton passes in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl IX win over the Vikings and sacked Roger Staubach four times when the Steelers beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl X. In 18 postseason games, including four Super Bowls, Greenwood had 12.5 sacks.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1988-1997
Carolina Panthers, 1998
Selected with the 150th overall pick in the sixth round of the 1987 draft. 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro.
One of the most intimidating defensive players of his era, Lloyd was drafted by the Steelers after he won three All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) nods, three team Defensive MVP awards and the SIAC Player of the Year award in his senior season.
In the 1990s, Lloyd was a big part of the resurgence of Pittsburgh’s defense — the “Blitzburgh” teams under defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. The linebacker group was especially great with Lloyd, Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland (who weighed 270 pounds and moved like he weighed 240) and Chad Brown. In every season from 1992 through 1996, the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in points allowed.
Lloyd finished his career with 791 total tackles, 11 interceptions for 189 return yards, 35 forced fumbles and 54.5 sacks. He picked up three more sacks in nine playoff games.
Kansas City Chiefs, 1983-1993
Los Angeles Raiders, 1994
Oakland Raiders, 1995-1998
Selected with the 61st overall pick in the third round of the 1983 draft. 4-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro.
A 6-foot-2, 198-pound cornerback with 4.4 speed, Lewis finished his NFL career with 42 interceptions for 403 yards and one return touchdown. He was also responsible for 12½ sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries for 30 yards and one touchdown. He also blocked 10 career punts. Lewis probably would have had far more interceptions — he tied for seventh during his career — if he had been targeted more often, but after his first few years in the league, opposing quarterbacks knew better than to do that.
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1974-1987
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2002 class. Selected with the 82nd overall pick in the fourth round of the 1974 draft. 3-time Pro Bowler, one-time All-Pro. 1984 NFL PFWA Comeback Player of the Year.
One of the four Hall of Famers selected by the Steelers in the 1974 draft, Stallworth famously wound up in Pittsburgh in part because the Steelers refused to share Stallworth’s college films with other teams — which led to the standardization of tape sharing. Whoops. In any event, Stallworth finished his career with 537 receptions for 8723 yards and 63 touchdowns, adding 57 more catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns in 18 postseason games, including some of the most acrobatic catches in Super Bowl history. Stallworth ranks in the top seven in his era in each of those categories even without the playoff numbers, so the occasional argument that his stats don’t merit a bust in Canton doesn’t hold much water.
How stacked with talent is this top 51? Here are the players I studied who didn’t make the cut. Not easy decisions to make.
OLB Robert Brazile, Jackson State
WR Jimmy Smith, Jackson State
CB George Atkinson, Morris Brown
LB Isiah Robertson, Southern University
OT Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
WR Donald Driver, Alcorn State
OT Howard Ballard, Alabama A&M
WR John Gilliam, South Carolina State
OG/OT Herbert Scott, Virginia Union University
OL Henry Lawrence, Florida A&M
DB Antoine Bethea, Howard University
RB Rickey Young, Jackson State
DE/DT Julius Adams, Texas Southern
DE Verlon Biggs, Jackson State
CB Rashean Mathis, Bethune-Cookman
WR Ken Burrough, Texas Southern
OT Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
DE Hugh Douglas, Central State
HB/DB Clem Daniels, Prairie View A&M
CB Johnny Sample, Maryland-Eastern Shore
DE Len Ford, Morgan State
WR John Taylor, Delaware State
CB Ashley Ambrose, Mississippi Valley State
RB/LB Tank Younger, Grambling State
DT Ernie Ladd, Grambling State
DB Jim Kearney, Prairie View A&M
TE Raymond Chester, Morgan State
RB Emerson Boozer, Maryland-Eastern Shore
WR Jake Reed, Grambling State
WR Homer Jones, Texas Southern
QB James Harris, Grambling State
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Tennessee State
DE/DT Jim Lee Hunt, Prairie View A&M
WR Sammy White, Grambling State
DB James Hunter, Grambling State
RB Willie Galimore, Florida A&M
CB Robert James, Fisk University
TE Ben Coates, Livingstone College
The 101 greatest nicknames in football history