Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
A list of the greatest of all time at each NFL position is certain to generate plenty of debate, but Tom Brady and Jerry Rice have separated themselves as clear top options in their roles.
ESPN‘s staff held a survey of 50 experts, reporters and analysts naming the best at each position in NFL history. Brady was the runaway winner at quarterback with 44 votes, while Rice earned 45 votes as the best receiver ever.
There was more uncertainty at running back, but Jim Brown took the top spot with 23 votes. Rob Gronkowski was named the best tight end, while Anthony Munoz, Larry Allen and Mike Webster got the most votes at tackle, guard and center, respectively.
The defense and special teams positions will be named on Wednesday.
Rice received the most votes at any offensive position, only ceding four to Randy Moss and one to Don Hutson.
“He’s the no-brainer of all no-brainers,” ESPN’s Rich Cimini said. “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.”
Joe Montana (four votes) and Peyton Manning (two votes) were the only other nominees in the quarterback category, although most gave it to Brady with his seven Super Bowl titles.
As Evan Kaplan of ESPN Stats and Info noted, “you could argue he has a Hall of Fame resume in two different decades.” With two MVP awards and four championships in the first half of his career and then four titles and one more MVP in the second half, Brady has clearly been the most successful quarterback in league history.
There were more quality choices at running back, with the all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith only getting three votes. Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Marshall Faulk, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson all got consideration as well, but it was Brown who earned the most votes.
The former Cleveland Browns star was truly dominant in his era, leading the NFL in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons. He won three MVP awards, helping to separate himself from the field.
At tight end, there was a tough call between Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez, but voters narrowly gave the edge to the former New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers player. Injuries slowed down Gronk’s career, but he was still on four Super Bowl teams and was as good as anyone in history when he was on the field, both as a blocker and receiver.