Selecting an all-star team is something totally subjective, coloured by teams and players the selector has loved or hated, cheered or booed. No-one can argue with statistics, however, so, armed with the brief to compile an NFL dream team purely from players who sit atop a statistical category, I popped on my hoody, channeled my inner Bill Belichick and got to work.
Bart Starr 1956-1971
Category – Career playoff quarterback rating
The argument about the greatest passer to ever play rages on, with Tom Brady and Joe Montana inevitably forming the final two, and Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas in there somewhere. Bart Starr, however, won three NFL Championships and was then MVP as Green Bay Packers triumphed in Super Bowls I and II. His rating in the playoffs, when the NFL turns into a knockout competition, tops Montana, Brady et al.
Marion Motley 1946-1953, 1955
Career rushing average
In the modern game, the fullback position is barely an afterthought but old-school fans love the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust battering rams. A 16.5-stone beast at fullback and linebacker for Cleveland from 1946 to 1953, Motley led the Browns to four straight AAFC Championships then an NFL Championship. The bruising Motley retired with a 5.8-yard average per carry, a mark that still stands.
Emmitt Smith 1990-2004
Career rushing yards
A three-time Super Bowl champion and MVP of Super Bowl XXVIII with Dallas Cowboys, Smith eclipsed the record of arguably the greatest ever running back, Walter Payton, to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher on 27 October 2002. Like the quarterback position, though, Smith probably doesn’t feature in the debate between Payton, Jim Brown (aka Fireball in The Running Man) and the electrifying Barry Sanders.
Jerry Rice 1985-2004
Career receptions, TDs, yards
The GOAT. Try finding a statistical category in which Rice (13 Pro Bowls, three Super Bowl wins, Super Bowl XXIII MVP) isn’t top. Voted the greatest NFL player ever by NFL Network in 2010. With good reason.
Julio Jones 2011-
Career yards per game
How the game has changed. Jones, star of losing Super Bowl LI side Atlanta, tops this list, followed by Odell Beckham Jr, Calvin Johnson (retired 2015), AJ Green and Antonio Brown. Lance Alworth (13th) is the only pre-80s receiver in the top 15.
Tony Gonzalez 1997-2013
Career receiving yards (as a tight end)
College basketball player Gonzalez paved the way for the modern generation of pass-catching tight ends. A model of professionalism, T-Gon played for 17 years in the world’s most brutal sport, missing just two games.
Tackle Lomas Brown 1985-2002
Tackle Mike Kenn 1978-1994
Guard Kevin Mawae 1994-2009
Guard Bruce Matthews 1983-2001
Centre Mick Tingelhoff 1962-1978
Offensive linemen don’t get stats so this is the line made up of the five ironmen with the most games started in their career – over 1,200 starts between them.
Bruce Smith 1985-2003
The sack didn’t become an official stat until 1982 so the likes of Deacon Jones’s downing of passers goes undocumented. Bruce Smith was a quarterback’s nightmare for 19 seasons, racking up 200 sacks.
John Randle 1990-2003
Career sacks (as defensive tackle)
Randle tops the unofficial categories of best trash talking and most creative use of eye-black for his gameday look. He’s also the defensive tackle with the most sacks since 1982.
Reggie White 1985-2000
Career sacks (2nd)
Two sacks behind Bruce Smith in second place on the sack list, the Minister of Defense was the heart of Philadelphia’s fearsome unit under Buddy Ryan, before ‘God told him to move to Green Bay’, where he won a Super Bowl.
Kevin Greene 1985-1999
Career sacks (as linebacker)
No-one looked like they were having more fun when they smashed into an opposing passer than Greene, the linebacker with the most career sacks. The Hall of Famer is now passing that joy on as a coach at the New York Jets.
Jessie Tuggle 1987-2000
Tackles aren’t an official NFL statistic but according to Pro Football Reference, Tuggle, who spent all 14 years of his career as an Atlanta Falcon, racked up 1,640 of them. That includes back-to-back 200-tackle seasons from 1990 to 1991.
Ray Lewis 1996-2012
Career tackles (2nd)
The spirit of the intimidating Baltimore defense, Lewis preyed on ball-carriers from the middle of the field for 17 years. Voted Super Bowl MVP in 2000, Lewis won two Super Bowl rings and went to the Pro Bowl 13 times.
DeMarcus Ware 2005-2016
Career sacks (as linebacker, 2nd)
Nine-time Pro Bowler Ware led the NFL in sacks from 2011 to 2012 as a Cowboy. The linebacker moved to Denver in 2014 where he formed a devastating pass-rushing combo with Von Miller and won Super Bowl 50.
Rod Woodson 1987-2003
Career interception return yards
Woodson was a star cornerback for a decade with Pittsburgh, then switched positions to safety in 1999 with Baltimore and promptly led the league in interceptions, repeating the feat with Oakland three years later.
Ronnie Lott 1981-1994
Career playoff interceptions
Like Woodson, four-time Super Bowl champion and 10-time Pro Bowler Lott also made a successful swap from cornerback to safety, where he turned himself into a snot-bubbling hitter on Bill Walsh’s legendary San Francisco 49ers team.
Ed Reed 2002-2013
Career interception return yards
Reed was a defensive player who could make things happen with the ball in his hands. In 2004, he returned an interception for an NFL-record 106 yards then broke it by a yard four years later.
Asante Samuel 2003-2013
Career playoff interception touchdowns, yards
No-one in NFL history has returned the ball further (227 yards) or for more touchdowns in the playoffs (four) than Samuel. He won Super Bowls with New England in his first two seasons and was a runner-up in his last before moving to Philly.
Dan Bailey 2011-
Career field goal percentage
In his seventh season, Bailey has established himself as money when it comes to kicking field goals. The Dallas Cowboy is the leader in career field goal percentage, having hit 178 of his 198 attempts (89.9%).
Shane Lechler 2000-
Career yards per punt
Despite playing for 16 years with Oakland and currently with Houston Texans, the powerful-legged Lechler remains top of the punting pile when it comes to yards per kick – with 47.5 yards.
Gale Sayers 1965-1971
Career kick return average
One of the most electric players ever to grace the gridiron, Sayers led the NFL in rushing in two of his seven seasons with Chicago Bears. Forty-six years after he retired, his kick return average is still the benchmark.
Devin Hester 2006-2016
Career punt return touchdowns
There were questions over Chicago’s drafting of Hester in 2006. By Week 13 that year, he’d returned two kickoffs, three punts and a missed field goal for touchdowns, then became the first man to return the Super Bowl opening kickoff for a score.