Welcome to the third installment of Sportscasting’s 10-part series, “The 101 Greatest NFL Players by Uniform Number.”
For those just joining us, what we’re doing here is exactly what it sounds like. As there have been 101 NFL seasons played and 101 different numbers worn over that period of time (00, 0, 1-99), we’re simply naming the greatest player to wear each. And every Thursday from now until the start of the 2021 NFL season, which begins September 9, we’ll release a new portion of the list.
No. 20: Barry Sanders
The easy pick at No. 20 is Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who many believe is the greatest running back in NFL history. Taken with the third overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, with whom he spent his entire 10-year NFL career, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner racked up 15,269 rushing yards in 153 regular-season games, currently good for fourth on the all-time list, and 99 touchdowns (10th all-time).
Over the course of 10 seasons, Sanders was a 10-time Pro Bowler, a 10-time All-Pro selection, a four-time rushing yards leader, and is one of just eight running backs to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, running for 2,053 yards in 1997, the same year he was named NFL MVP.
No. 21: Deion Sanders
While we did look at LaDainian Tomlinson here, we’ll stick with the same last name as our previous selection as Deion Sanders is our pick at No. 21. Taken with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft out of Florida State by the Atlanta Falcons, “Prime Time” played 14 total seasons from 1989 to 2005, spending five years with the Falcons, one with the San Francisco 49ers, five with the Dallas Cowboys, a lone season in Washington, and two years with the Baltimore Ravens following a three-year retirement.
In 188 regular-season games, Sanders recorded 53 interceptions, nine of which he returned for a touchdown, made 512 tackles, and forced 10 fumbles. As a punt and kick returner, Deion racked up 5,722 yards and nine touchdowns and he also caught 60 passes for 784 yards and three touchdowns as a wide receiver. He was a two-time Super Bowl champion, an eight-time Pro Bowler, a 10-time All-Pro selection, and was named 1994 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
No. 22: Emmitt Smith
The easy call at No. 22 is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, who played 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before playing his final two years with the Arizona Cardinals. Taken with the 17th overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft out of Florida, the three-time Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl 28 MVP rushed for 18,355 yards in 226 regular-season games and scored 164 touchdowns on the ground, the most in NFL history, also adding 11 receiving touchdowns. Smith also ran for an additional 1,586 yards and 19 touchdowns in 17 postseason games.
Over the course of his 15-year career, Smith was an eight-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro selection, a four-time rushing yards leader, a three-time rushing touchdowns leader, and was named 1993 NFL MVP.
No. 23: Troy Vincent
No. 23 was one of the toughest calls we’ve had to make thus far as we seriously considered one of the NFL’s all-time greatest kick returners, Devin Hester, for this spot. In the end, however, we went with one of the league’s all-time great cover cornerbacks, Troy Vincent, who played 15 seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, and the squad now known as the Washington Football Team.
In 207 regular-season games, Vincent recorded 893 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 47 interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All-Pro selection, and was named the 2002 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
No. 24: Champ Bailey
Had Charles Woodson worn No. 24 his entire career, he would have been in serious consideration for this spot. But seeing as he wore No. 21 during his seven-year run with the Green Bay Packers, we’re going to go with Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, whose 12 Pro Bowl selections are still the most in NFL history at the corner position.
Taken with the seventh overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft by Washington, Bailey spent the first five years of his career in the nation’s capital and then played the final 10 years of his career with the Denver Broncos. In 215 regular-season games, he recorded 931 tackles, three sacks, and 52 interceptions, four of which he returned for touchdowns. In addition to his 12 Pro Bowl selections, Bailey was also a seven-time All-Pro selection and was the league leader in picks in 2006 with 10.
No. 25: Fred Biletnikoff
After wearing No. 14 for the first two years of his 14-year career with the Oakland Raiders, Hall of Fame wideout Fred Biletnikoff switched to No. 25 ahead of the 1967 season, the same season in which he led the Raiders to an AFL Championship and was named to the first of two AFL All-Star Games. He was also named a First-Team All-AFL selection in 1969.
But it’s not as if Biletnikoff only had success in the AFL as his success carried over into the NFL following the merger. He was a four-time Pro Bowler, led the league in receptions in 1971, was a First-Team All-Pro selection in 1972, and led the Raiders to a victory in Super Bowl 11 following the 1976 season, where he was named Super Bowl MVP. In 190 regular-season games, Biletnikoff caught 589 passes for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns.
No. 26: Rod Woodson
Considered by many to be the greatest defensive back in NFL history, Rod Woodson, who played both cornerback and safety over the course of his 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and Oakland Raiders, is our choice at No. 26.
In 238 regular-season games, Woodson recorded 1,158 tackles, 13.5 sacks, and 71 interceptions (third all-time), 12 of which he returned for touchdowns, the most in NFL history. He also scored two touchdowns as a punt returner, two as a kick returner, and one on a fumble recovery. Woodson was an 11-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro selection, the 1993 Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time interceptions leader, and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens following the 2000 season.
No. 27: Ken Houston
Eddie George and Steve Atwater were in consideration for our pick at No. 27, but we’ve decided to roll with Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston, who played six seasons with the Houston Oilers, who took him in the ninth round of the 1967 NFL draft, and then spent the final eight years of his career in Washington.
In 196 regular-season games, Houston recorded 49 interceptions, nine of which he returned for touchdowns, good for a tie for fifth on the all-time list. He was a two-time AFL All-Star, a 10-time Pro Bowler, and a 12-time All-Pro selection.
No. 28: Marshall Faulk
A number of great players have worn No. 28, including Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, and future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. But just edging those guys out is another Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk, who played five seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, who selected him with the second overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft, and seven seasons with the St. Louis Rams, with whom he won Super Bowl 34 as part of “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
In 176 regular-season games, Faulk rushed for 12,279 yards (12th all-time) and 100 touchdowns (tied for eighth all-time) and also caught 767 passes for 6,875 yards and 36 touchdowns, making him the only player in NFL history with 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro selection, and was named the 2000 NFL MVP.
No. 29: Eric Dickerson
Closing out our list today at No. 29 is Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who played 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Raiders, and Atlanta Falcons. Taken with the second overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft out of SMU, he rushed for 1,808 yards in his first season, an NFL rookie record, and followed up with a 2,105-yard season in 1984, which is still the greatest single-season total in NFL history.
In 146 regular-season games over the course of his career, Dickerson rushed for 13,259 yards (ninth all-time) and 90 touchdowns (tied for 13th all-time) and also caught 281 passes for 2,137 yards and six touchdowns. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, a five-time All-Pro selection, a four-time rushing yards leader, and led the league in rushing touchdowns in 1984 with 14.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference