We understand this is a Packers site, but we enjoy and respect NFL history as a whole. So we figure our research and perspective can be applied to both Packers content and NFL-wide pieces. We believe it’s important to understand the context of this league beyond just Green Bay.
Does this objective list differ from your preconceived notions?
To be clear, we wanted to take the guesswork out of the debates over what players have been the most statistically dominant all-time in NFL history. This is a metric, detailed below, that not many people have used to evaluate the most statistically dominant players in NFL history — but we think it clearly speaks volumes.
It is a straight-to-the-point metric, one that transcends eras and continually tells us who really has dominated their competition with the most consistency.
Most NFL fans have an idea as to who are the most statistically dominant handful of offensive players in NFL history. They have their reasons, sometimes biased, sometimes based on fandom, often times influenced by statistics amassed, individual awards won and championship teams that they were on.
But most NFL fans would leave some of the best ever players off of their all-time lists. It’s human nature to disregard the greats that came decades before we were born… but that doesn’t make it okay.
We aren’t saying these are the “best” offensive players in NFL history or the most athletic. This isn’t a list that’s ranking the “greatest” offensive players in NFL history in an exact order. A lot more goes into being “great” than statistics. These are simply the most statistically dominant players to ever do it.
However, certainly all of the “best” or “greatest” offensive players in NFL history, no matter what metric you use or opinion you have, can be found below.
We focused on the simple stats (nothing complicated) to come to this conclusion. Is it absolutely perfect? Is it iron-clad? No, but it sure is a hell a lot more accurate than most people’s feelings on the matter.
Just because a player amasses a fantastical number of raw statistics over a course of many years, it doesn’t mean he was necessarily statistically dominant. This metric measures football players by their literal peaks of dominance in their careers.
Because of this, some guys are much higher or lower than many would have thought.
There may be some surprises here, but remember, this isn’t our opinion. So don’t argue the results. Argue the philosophy behind the results, if you will, but ask yourself: shouldn’t leading the NFL in major statistical areas be rewarded? Shouldn’t that stand for something?
It just makes sense to us. So, here’s the all-time list.
(Accurate heading into the 2020 NFL season)
The Most Statistically Dominant Players in NFL History:
For WRs the five categories we included: Rec, Rec Yards, Rec TDs, Yards/Rec, Total TDs
For RBs the five categories we included: Rush Att, Rush Yards, Rush TDs, Yards/Rush, Total TDs
For QBs the five categories we included: Comp %, Pass Yards, Pass TDs, Int %, Rating
This dates back to 1932 as that is the year the NFL began official statistical recording. These players are listed in order by the times they’ve led the NFL in a major statistical category all-time:
1. Don Hutson, WR: 33 times leading NFL. (GB)
2. Jim Brown, FB: 26 times leading NFL. (CLE)
3. Sammy Baugh, QB: 22 times leading NFL. (WAS)
4. Drew Brees, QB: 18 times leading NFL. (NO)
5. Steve Young, QB: 17 times leading NFL. (SF)
6. Jerry Rice, WR: 16 times leading NFL. (SF)
7. Steve Van Buren: 15 times leading NFL. (PHI)
8. Emmitt Smith, RB: 14 times leading NFL. (DAL)
8. Johnny Unitas, QB: 14 times leading NFL. (BAL)
8. Tom Brady, QB: 14 times leading NFL. (NE)
11. Arnie Herber, QB: 13 times leading NFL. (GB)
12. Peyton Manning, QB: 12 times leading NFL. (IND)
12. Ken Anderson, QB: 12 times leading NFL. (CIN)
14. OJ Simpson, RB: 11 times leading NFL. (BUF)
14. Sid Luckman, QB: 11 times leading NFL. (CHI)
14. Bart Starr, QB: 11 times leading NFL. (GB)
14. Leroy Kelly, RB: 11 times leading NFL. (CLE)
18. Joe Montana, QB: 10 times leading NFL. (SF)
18. Sonny Jurgensen, QB: 10 times leading NFL. (PHI)
20. Raymond Berry, WR: 9 times leading NFL. (BAL)
20. Dan Marino, QB: 9 times leading NFL. (MIA)
20. Kurt Warner, QB: 9 times leading NFL. (STL)
20. Otto Graham, QB: 9 times leading NFL. (CLE)
20. John Brodie, QB: 9 times leading NFL. (SF)
25. Barry Sanders, RB: 8 times leading NFL. (DET)
25. Walter Payton, RB: 8 times leading NFL. (CHI)
25. Earl Campbell, RB: 8 times leading NFL. (HOU)
25. Eric Dickerson, RB: 8 times leading NFL. (LAR)
25. Bill Paschal, RB: 8 times leading NFL. (NYG)
25. Y.A. Tittle, QB: 8 times leading NFL. (NYG)
31. Brett Favre, QB: 7 times leading NFL. (GB)
31. Dan Fouts, QB: 7 times leading NFL. (SD)
31. Ed Danowski, QB: 7 times leading NFL. (NYG)
31. Adrian Peterson, RB: 7 times leading NFL. (MIN)
31. Jim Taylor, FB: 7 times leading NFL. (GB)
31. Lenny Moore, RB: 7 times leading NFL (BAL)
37. Randy Moss, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (MIN)
37. Sterling Sharpe, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (GB)
37. Elroy Hirsch, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (LAR)
37. Tom Fears, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (LAR)
37. Pete Pihos, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (PHI)
37. Warren Wells, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (OAK)
37. Harlon Hill, WR: 6 times leading NFL. (CHI)
37. Marshall Faulk, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (STL)
37. L. Tomlinson, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (SD)
37. Shaun Alexander, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (SEA)
37. Joe Perry, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (SF)
37. Rick Casares, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (CHI)
37. Cliff Battles, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (BOS)
37. Arian Foster, RB: 6 times leading NFL. (HOU)
37. Aaron Rodgers, QB: 6 times leading NFL. (GB)
Look at the 51 iconic names on the above list. It’s without a doubt the collection of the best offensive players in NFL history. As you can see, each player was given a primary team they played for attached to their name.
If you scan through these 51 names it’s hard to argue that this metric is flawed. It really is a collection of many of the best offensive players to ever play in the NFL. So if this metric brings together many of the “best” to ever play, then surely it also tells us who is the most dominant (or was the most dominant over their specific era).
It is one of the only ways to judge players all-time, too. Sid Luckman didn’t play at the same time as Brett Favre, so we can’t compare them or their stats. We can only compare how they dominated their peers — statistically speaking.
Performing Well In Other Leagues:
A few names not on this list, or not as high as they could have been, are:
Otto Graham (21 times leading the his league, including NFL and AAFC stats), Len Dawson (18 times leading the AFL, one time leading the NFL) and Lance Alworth (13 times leading the AFL). Joe Perry would have 10 times leading his league if his AAFC stats were included. Mac Speedie led the NFL once in a major statistical category, but would have six such times if his AAFC stats were included. Cookie Gilchrist led the AFL in a major category nine times, Jim Nance led the AFL six times. If AFL stats were included Tobin Rote would also have six times leading his league.
Some all-time great players left off this list due to playing before statistics were accurately kept (1920-1931): Jim Thorpe, Paddy Driscoll, Red Grange, Joe Guyon, Jimmy Conzelman, Ernie Nevers, Curly Lambeau, Guy Chamberlin, Lavie Dilweg, George Halas, Johnny Blood, Bill Hewitt and Bronko Nagurski. They deserve mention, at least.
The Green Bay Packers have seven players that spent all or the majority of their careers with the team in the top 51 all-time, the most of any franchise. That’s 14% of the all-time most statistically dominant players in NFL history.
The rest of the NFC North has seven players on the list combined. The Chicago Bears have four players on the list, the Minnesota Vikings have two and the Detroit Lions have one. The NFC North is responsible for 28% of the all-time statistically dominant players in NFL history.
The San Francisco 49ers have five players on this list. They’re, arguably, the best represented team on the list. It’s between them and the Packers.
The Rams’ franchise also has the second-best collection of statistically dominant talent as they have five players on the all-time top 51 list. Of course, that’s split between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Their highest ranked player is 20th, that’s why the 49ers’ collection of players seems more impressive to us.
The Colts’ franchise, split between Baltimore and Indianapolis, have three players represented.
The Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants also have three players each on the list.
Dallas and Oakland only have one player each on the all-time list. That would shock some people.
San Francisco is the only franchise with two players in the all-time top 10. Their four in the top 20 is also the most, Green Bay is second with three in the top 20.
Call This The ‘Honorable Mention’ to the All-Time Most Dominant List:
Some names you may have expected but missed the cut of six times leading the NFL in a major statistical category are:
Wide Receivers: Marvin Harrison (5), Antonio Brown (5), Jim Benton (5), Lionel Taylor (5), Cris Carter (4), Calvin Johnson (4), Bob Hayes (4), Torry Holt (4), Bobby Mitchell (4), Don Maynard (4), Larry Fitzgerald (4), Billy Howtwon (3), Terrell Owens (3), Steve Smith (3), Dante Lavelli (3), James Lofton (2), Perry Schwartz (2), Steve Largent (2), Paul Warfield (2), Fred Biletnikoff (2), Charlie Taylor (2), Michael Irvin (1), Tim Brown (1) and Lynn Swann (1).
Running Backs: Gale Sayers (5), Terrell Davis (5), Priest Holmes (5), Marcus Allen (5), Whizzer White (4), Marion Motley (4), Beattie Feathers (4), Dutch Clark (4), Edgerrin James (4), Clarke Hinkle (3), Ricky Williams (3), Jamaal Charles (3), Paul Hornung (2), Curtis Martin (2), Thurman Thomas (2), Billy Sims (2), Tony Dorsett (1), Hugh McElhenny (1) and Jerome Bettis (1).
Quarterbacks: Ken Stabler (5), Cecil Isbell (5), Roger Staubach (4), Fran Tarkenton (4), Philip Rivers (4), Bob Waterfield (4), Bobby Layne (4), Warren Moon (3), Jim Kelly (3), Norm Van Brocklin (3), Bob Griese (3), (Chad Pennington), Terry Bradshaw (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Troy Aikman (2) and John Elway (1).
There are other players that deserve mention here, but we figured we’d go with the biggest names to show the level of dominance it takes to make the all-time list.
However many would be shocked that wide receivers Charlie Joiner and John Stallworth never led the NFL in any category.
Kellen Winslow should be honored for leading the NFL in a major statistical category twice as a tight end, the most all-time. Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham also deserve mention as a tight ends for leading the NFL in a major statistical category once each. Something Mike Ditka, Antonio Gates, Dave Casper, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe and Jason Witten never accomplished.
It is quite shocking to see some of these names mentioned here and not included on the above list. But that’s history, sometimes a players’ reputation far exceeds their literal on-field accomplishments.
Our mission here is to separate what’s generally accepted and what the facts actually say when it comes to NFL history.
As far as active players that missed the cut are running back Todd Gurley, who has led the NFL in a major statistical area four times, the same goes for fellow runner Ezekiel Elliott. Wide receiver Julio Jones has done so three times. Of course, more players will have a chance to make this list at the season’s end and beyond. Michael Thomas has led the NFL three times. So have running backs Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones (three times each).
Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Saquon Barkley appear poised to jump up this list in the coming years, among others.
Interestingly, DeAndre Hopkins has only led the NFL in a major statistic once.
In this entirety of this article around 150 of the best offensive players in NFL history have been named, many of them ranked by statistical dominance.
Do the facts match your opinions? Or were some players’ reputations far bigger than their actual times leading the NFL in major statistical categories? If a player can’t lead the NFL in statistics, at least a few times, they surely can’t be remembered as one of the very best to ever play the game. It’s that simple. And that’s why this list is so interesting, it does mean something.
Would you have believed that Bart Starr would be ahead of Brett Favre on this list? Would you believe that Sterling Sharpe, in his injury-shortened career, equaled Randy Moss on the above countdown?
Interesting that Barry Sanders and his idol Walter Payton are tied. Also interesting that Kurt Warner and Dan Marino equaled each other.
Drew Brees is the highest ranked active player, he’s in some serious elite territory.
The Actual GOAT:
Don Hutson is the NFL’s all-time leader in leading the NFL in major statistical categories — by a wide margin. We’ve made the argument that he’s the Babe Ruth of the NFL. We’ve also made the argument that he is the most influential player in league history. After looking at this, he’s hard to argue against.
Is he the greatest player in NFL history that you previously knew very little about? Simply put, he deserves a hell of a lot more respect.
Take another look at the plethora of legendary names on that all-time top 50 list. Then look again at who’s on top.
The numbers, and we cannot stress this enough, cannot lie.
The Green Bay Packers have been incredibly blessed with high end offensive talent, particularly on both ends of the passing game, for their century-long history. I think everyone knew that, but this all-time list certainly drives that point home.
The San Francisco 49ers, in our opinion, is just as impressively represented on this all-time list.
Lets look at who is underrated and overrated based on the results of this ranking?
Most Underrated Players:
Steve Van Buren, Ken Anderson, Arnie Herber, Leroy Kelly, John Brodie, Bill Paschal, Ed Danowski, Lenny Moore and Arian Foster are our most underrated players after looking at this list. Van Buren doesn’t get any love, Anderson should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Kelly is overshadowed by Jim Brown’s legacy and Brodie is the forgotten man in San Francisco! Foster’s peak was higher than most realize.
However the most underrated player, by a ridiculous margin, is Don Hutson. He’s No. 1 all-time, by far, yet many NFL fans do not even know his name!
Most Overrated Players:
John Elway, by a mile-high margin. He led the NFL just once in a major category. Sheesh. Yet his legend would have you thinking quite differently. Tony Dorsett, Philip Rivers, Terrell Owens and we’re going to say it… Jerry Rice.
How in the hell could Rice be overrated? Well, his legend would have you think he was the NFL’s all-time greatest at leading the league in statistical categories. If you asked 100 people who led the NFL the most times in different stats, 90 of them might say Rice. Yet he’s sixth on the all-time list. Was he amazing? Yes. Is his legend slightly overrated? I’d also argue yes.
There’s a lot more meat on the bone with this list, perhaps we’ll dive a little further into this countdown.
Did anything on this list surprise you?
Argue away, football fans. We love the debates!