There are a number of great players in the NFL. Some are so great that their level of excellence can only be heightened by their involvement in a championship team. But what of those without a championship on their resume? Should they be shirked for those with more jewelry? Is Julian Edelman better than Calvin Johnson because he has a ring to show for his effort? Most (I hope) would deny that claim, as football is a team game, and one or two great sailors can’t save a sinking ship.
I salute those who are willing to go above and beyond to help their team in whatever way they can. Those who have the most to show for it are highlighted in this Top 10 list. However, to make this list, a player has to have played at least five years in the NFL, along with never being a part of a team that kisses the Lombardi Trophy, whether as a back-up or a starter. The total number of Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections help, but aren’t entirely necessary, either. The list also looks at their chances of ever winning a championship within their NFL lifeline. The lower the chance, the more likely a player will be higher on this list. Oh, and they still have to be playing in the NFL at the time that I am writing this, hence the “Probably Won’t Get One.”
10. Philip Rivers (Quarterback. San Diego Chargers, 2004-Present.)
- 5x Pro Bowler.
- 36,655 passing yards (2nd in Chargers’ history behind Dan Fouts (43,040)).
- 252 passing touchdowns (2nd in Chargers’ history behind Dan Fouts (254)).
- 95.7 career passer rating (6th highest in NFL history).
- 139 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
The most impressive thing about Philip Rivers’ resume is that he didn’t start a single game during his first two seasons in the league. Once Drew Brees was traded to the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Rivers hasn’t relinquished a start in his entire career. He may be an eleven-year veteran, but 99% of his current stats were produced in a nine-year stretch.
One could argue that he had a good cast around him, and I can agree that having LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield certainly helps your case. However, Philip Rivers’ stats skyrocketed once Tomlinson’s stats started declining. Not to mention that Rivers has never had a true #1 wide receiver in his entire career, save maybe Vincent Jackson. Antonio Gates has been his only consistent elite target, and even he’s been in a decline for a couple years. One could also argue the strength of the division that Rivers is in. Over the past nine years (since Rivers assumed the starting position), the AFC West outside of the Chargers has posted a 183-249 record. This is also apparent with how dramatically Rivers’ quarterback rating drops in the postseason, which nosedives from 95.7 during the regular season to 85.2.
The thirty-three year-old quarterback still has some gas in the tank. However, I feel he’s never had a complete team around him to finish things where it matters. His offensive line has been sketchy or weak in certain areas for years (allowing 183 sacks in the last five seasons) and his defense has never lived up to its offense’s expectations (only four top ten defenses in Rivers’ tenure). He may be good enough to make his receivers great, but it’s astonishing to see how few names pop up in the 1,000 yard receiving club in the last nine years. Only Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, and Keenan Allen have had 1,000 yard receiving seasons with Philip Rivers as a starting quarterback.
Oh, and the Chargers’ rushing offense since LaDainian Tomlinson left? Averaging 20th in the league, so it’s kinda just him.
So, to check off the list, Philip Rivers has a shaky offensive line, an inconsistent defense, a poor rushing attack, and very few (one of which is declining) good weapons to throw to on offense. If this doesn’t change soon, he’ll have to get used to 8-8 finishes.
9. Larry Fitzgerald (Wide receiver. Arizona Cardinals, 2004-Present.)
- 8x Pro Bowler.
- 1x 1st-team All-Pro; 2x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 909 career receptions (19th highest in NFL history).
- 12,151 career receiving yards (21st highest in NFL history).
- 89 receiving touchdowns (12th highest in NFL history).
- 93 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
Before the 2012 season, Larry Fitzgerald was in the close-knit group of elite receivers in the NFL. Now-a-days, it’s hard to even put him in the top ten. He’s clearly declining and has been for a couple years, despite the acquisition of above-average quarterback Carson Palmer in 2013. Multiple reports surfaced that he wasn’t sure he would even be with the Cardinals this year, until he signed a restructured contract earlier in 2015. It wouldn’t be far off to predict that Fitzgerald signed his last contract with the Cardinals, assuming his performance doesn’t improve dramatically in the following seasons.
Fitzgerald had the good fortune of Kurt Warner throwing passes to him between 2005 and 2009. Even after Warner, Larry made four straight Pro Bowls (despite a dismal 2012 campaign) with John Skelton, Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, Max Hall, Ryan Lindley, and Carson Palmer as his starting quarterbacks. His numbers between the 2012-2014 seasons, however, dull in comparison to the rest of his career. Four seasons with double-digit touchdowns. Six seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards and eighty receptions.
Larry Fitzgerald was constantly breaking records for how fast he was reaching wide receiver milestones. Even faster than Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens. His talent is unquestionable. If his big numbers continued after the 2011 season, he may have been higher on this list.
Nevertheless, his team, as of right now, seems to be in good shape. An aggressive defense, an adequate quarterback, a decent receiving core, and back-to-back winning seasons have expectations high for Arizona. Fitzgerald may not be the player he once was, but he’s still wily enough to get through a defense. And at 32 years old (by the time the season starts), he’s got more time to win it all than the next receiver on this list.
8. Andre Johnson (Wide receiver. Houston Texans, 2003-2014; Indianapolis Colts, 2015-Present.)
- 7x Pro Bowler.
- 2x 1st-team All-Pro; 2x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 1,012 career receptions (9th highest in NFL history).
- 13,597 career receiving yards (12th highest in NFL history).
- 64 career receiving touchdowns (t-58th highest in NFL history).
- 120 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
Ladies and gentlemen, the starting quarterbacks for the Houston Texans during Andre Johnson’s time there:
David Carr. Tony Banks. Dave Ragone. Matt Schaub. Sage Rosenfels. T.J. Yates. Case Keenum. Ryan Mallett. Ryan Fitzpatrick.
You can see by the reflection of Johnson’s touchdown total how inadequate a majority of this group’s quarterbacks are. Some have had decent seasons (Schaub, Fitzpatrick), but are ultimately career back-ups at best. For Johnson to have accumulated 1,000 receptions and 13,000 receiving yards after years of instability at quarterback is astounding. The one stab against Johnson is that he’s never had a double-digit receiving touchdown season, even when his starting quarterback had a good season in terms of passing touchdowns.
Ladies and gentlemen, the number of Houston Texans receivers who have had at least 700 receiving yards in a single season:
Andre Johnson. DeAndre Hopkins. Owen Daniels. Kevin Walter.
And a list of Houston Texans receivers who have had double-digit receiving touchdown seasons:
So, not only has Andre Johnson never had a consistently good quarterback, but he’s never had a consistently good sidekick on the opposite side of the field to take pressure off of him. Then again, the Houston Texans have always had struggles with their offensive line, so one could argue that the quarterback simply never had time to release the ball before getting annihilated by the opposing team. Still, Johnson has 1,000 receptions to show for it.
One could also argue that Andre Johnson’s competition wasn’t exactly up to his standards. In the last twelve years, Rashean Mathis, Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Alterraun Verner, Mike Adams, and Vontae Davis are the only Pro Bowl defensive backs to play in his division. The Colts may have been known for Peyton Manning and his offense, but the defense wasn’t as intimidating. The Titans and Jaguars? They were lucky to have a winning season.
Speaking of the Colts, Johnson jumped ship after last season and signed with Indianapolis, where he will play with the emerging Andrew Luck and fellow newcomers Frank Gore and Trent Cole. Andre Johnson is 34 years-old. He still has a few years left, but will the Colts struggling defense be enough to catapult them to a championship before he retires? They have a better chance than most. Only time will tell.
7. Logan Mankins (Offensive Guard. New England Patriots, 2005-2013; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2014-Present.)
- 6x Pro Bowler.
- 1x 1st-team All-Pro; 4x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- Started every game played (146).
- 120 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
The least sexiest position in the NFL: Offensive Guard.
Due to its unattractive nature, there aren’t a lot of numbers to showcase how good an NFL offensive lineman really is. That’s why the approximate value system has helped me more in deciding Mankins’ place on this list than others. Not to mention the plethora of All-Pro teams and Pro Bowl selections.
Mankins was a constant on the Patriots’ offensive line between 2005 and 2013. During that time, only twice was Tom Brady sacked more than thirty times in a single season. Even more impressive than that, Logan Mankins’ one 1st-team All-Pro selection came after the 2010 season, where he only appeared in nine games. That’s amazing.
However great he may appear, was he perhaps just one of many great lineman for the New England Patriots? Matt Light, Dan Koppen, and Brian Waters (albeit for one season with the team) were all Pro Bowl players along the same offensive line. Still, he never lost his starting job, and he never relinquished his position, either.
Mankins was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the start of the 2014 season, and had his worst season as a starter (value-wise). It seems the Patriots sensed a sudden drop in production from the eleven-year pro, and shipped him out to plug in younger, fresher faces. The most ironic thing about Mankins’ placement on this list is that, had he stayed with the Patriots last year, he wouldn’t have even made the list. What’s done is done, and seeing that Tampa is currently rebuilding around Jameis Winston after a 2-14 2014 season, he may not even get a chance at the playoffs by the time he calls it quits.
6. Calvin Johnson (Wide receiver. Detroit Lions, 2007-Present.)
- 5x Pro Bowler.
- 3x 1st-team All-Pro; 1x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 643 career receptions (54th highest in NFL history).
- 10,405 career receiving yards (36th highest in NFL history).
- 74 career receiving touchdowns (t-30th highest in NFL history).
- NFL record for most receiving yards in a single season (1,964).
- 83 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
In 2008, the Detroit Lions went 0-16. They were the only team to lose every game in a sixteen-game schedule in NFL history. Their quarterbacks were Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, and Dan Orlovsky. None threw any more touchdowns than interceptions. None completed more than 56.7% of their passes. None threw more than an average 190 yards a game. The offensive line gave up 52 sacks. Kevin Smith ran for 976 yards (surprisingly decent). The defense had 28 total sacks and 4 total interceptions.
Calvin Johnson finished the season with 78 receptions, 1,331 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Shaun McDonald, who came in second in receiving, finished the season with 332 yards.
Johnson, other than Jason Hanson and perhaps Kevin Smith, was the only diamond in the pile of dirt that was the 2008 Detroit Lions. Teams knowing that Johnson was the only real threat tried to key in on him and yet he still had Pro Bowl-type numbers by season’s end.
Even after the 2008 season, Johnson remained the only real threat at wide receiver for a very long time. Fun fact: only Golden Tate has eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in a Lions uniform with Calvin Johnson on the same team, and that was just last year. The only other person who came close was the aforementioned Shaun McDonald, who finished the 2007 season with 943 receiving yards. Calvin Johnson is what Larry Fitzgerald used to be: an elite receiver that defenses needed to take note of at all times.
He can beat man coverage. He can beat zone coverage. He can beat double coverage. He can beat triple coverage. Calvin Johnson’s size and athleticism are a plague to defenses. He makes catches anywhere on the field. He makes impossible catches look simple. He makes a lot of cornerbacks look silly.
The worst part? Calvin Johnson is the youngest player on this list, turning 30 at the end of September. He’ll keep it going for a long time coming, barring injury.
If he’s so good, that must mean his team is bad, right? Yes and no. The Lions are actually one of the better teams in the NFL. However, they’re coming off a surprise 11-5 season with a new head coach and a fast, young defense. It will take at least another year for me to believe that the team is the real deal. Sometimes teams just have one good season out of nowhere, then plummet back to Earth, for whatever reason. The Lions don’t feel like an elite team to me, so I’m not entirely on-board with them making it far in the playoffs until I get some yearly consistency out of them. Not to mention, Matthew Stafford isn’t exactly elite, and benefits greatly from a good surrounding cast.
There’s plenty of time for Calvin to get a ring, but the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. I’d like to see them win that first game before they shoot for the moon and beyond.
5. Julius Peppers (Defensive End/Linebacker. Carolina Panthers, 2002-2009; Chicago Bears, 2010-2013; Green Bay Packers, 2014-Present.)
- 8x Pro Bowler.
- 3x First-team All-Pro; 3x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 125.5 career sacks (16th highest in NFL history).
- 11 career interceptions.
- 159 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
At 35 years-old, Julius Peppers is the oldest player on this list. By NFL standards, he’s basically ancient. That’s what makes his consistency so amazing.
In all but three seasons in his career, Julius Peppers led his team in sacks. He may not have the flashiest of numbers, but he only finished a season with less than seven sacks once in his entire career. Rarely does he have an “off year.”
Julius Peppers switched positions from Defensive End to Outside Linebacker last season for the Green Bay Packers and had a very successful season. Though, in terms of sack production, it was one of his lesser years, with only seven sacks by season’s end. Still, when you consider that Peppers has had eight double-digit sack seasons with two different teams in his career, you know you’re dealing with a special player.
Peppers is also one of few players on this list to actual make it to the Super Bowl. However, his team lost to the New England Patriots after a last second field goal by Adam Vinatieri. Now in his fourteenth season, Peppers has a second shot to make a deep run in the playoffs with his NFC favorite Green Bay Packers. Though, with his age and the height of competition within the NFC (Seahawks, Cardinals, Eagles, Lions), it’s not incredibly hard to imagine the Packers winning a championship anytime soon, but probably not within the range of Peppers’ expiration date. Though, of all the players on this list, he probably has the best chance. It just has to be done quick.
4. Adrian Peterson (Halfback. Minnesota Vikings, 2007-Present.)
- 2012 NFL MVP.
- 2012 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
- 6x Pro Bowler.
- 3x 1st-team All-Pro; 3x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 10,190 career rushing yards (28th highest in NFL history).
- 86 career rushing touchdowns (14th highest in NFL history).
- 5.0 career rushing yards per attempt (t-5th highest in NFL history).
- 98 average rushing yards per game (3rd highest in NFL history).
- 89 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
In 2012, Adrian Peterson came ten yards short of breaking the single-season record for rushing yards. He did it with a quarterback named Christian Ponder, who is now a back-up in Oakland, so you could probably assume the significance of this modern feat. He also did it after tearing his ACL late the season prior, so you could also probably assume that Adrian Peterson isn’t human.
The only two seasons in which Adrian Peterson did not make the Pro Bowl were in 2011, when he tore his ACL 3/4th of the way through the season, and in 2014, when he was suspended from the NFL stemming from a child abuse charge after the first week of the regular season. So, that would mean if Adrian Peterson were to play out about 95% of the season every year he was able to, he would probably make the Pro Bowl every year he was in the league. But in the case of 2014, that’s highly debatable.
Speaking of 2014, if he were to play out the entire season uninjured, his already significantly high numbers would be even higher. Adrian Peterson is an eight-year veteran with seven years to show for it. Without 2014, Adrian Peterson is averaging over 1,400 rushing yards a season, and one of those seasons was cut short by a torn ACL. Without 2014, he has scored double-digit rushing touchdowns in every single season as a pro. Adrian Peterson at his best is very similar to Calvin Johnson at his best: he becomes unstoppable.
His team, however, has yet to win a playoff game since Brett Favre retired for the thirteenth time. They have an interesting season ahead of them this year, with the aspiring Teddy Bridgewater and a young, but inconsistent defense leading the way. Adrian Peterson may have another shot at a deep playoff run. However, with nearly a year off from football and the typical trend of running backs retiring by their mid-thirties, will Adrian Peterson have enough left to overcome his body’s limitations? Not to mention, aside from the Bears, they have pretty stiff competition right within the division.
3. DeMarcus Ware (Linebacker/Defensive End. Dallas Cowboys, 2005-2013; Denver Broncos, 2014-Present.)
- 8x Pro Bowler.
- 4x 1st-team All-Pro; 3x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- 127 career sacks (14th highest in NFL history).
- 116 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
DeMarcus Ware has only missed the Pro Bowl twice in his career. Only his rookie year and an injury-riddled 2013 campaign stopped him from ten straight Pro Bowl appearances. Even with the 2013 season, Ware has never had a season with fewer than six sacks. Between 2007 and 2011, he accumulated 91.5 sacks. If he stopped there, he’d already be within the top 40 in career sacks. He averages about thirteen sacks a year, and is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in career sacks. It only took him eight years to do it.
What may be equally as impressive as his sack total is the number of games DeMarcus has missed throughout his career: three. Up until 2013, Ware had never missed a single game. Consistently tough and consistently penetrative. What more could you ask for?
It’s not like he had easy competition, either. Between 2005-2013, the Cowboys’ division rivals, aside from the Redskins, have winning records. The Giants have won two Super Bowls in that span. Not to mention, DeMarcus Ware has led his team in sacks for eight straight years spanning from 2005-2012. The only time as a Cowboy that he didn’t lead the team in sacks was due to, once again, injury.
The Denver Broncos made a huge splash in free agency last year, bringing in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, among others, to revamp their defense in a “win and win now” style of manner. Sure enough, as the season rolled on, the Broncos finished 12-4, but lost against the Colts in a one and done postseason appearance, making their offseason expenditures appear foolhardy.
An aging Peyton Manning and the Broncos no longer look as secure as AFC favorites as they used to. With a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, and a realigned offensive line, the Broncos seem to be in a rebuilding mode, one that probably won’t be as prolific as years past. DeMarcus Ware was productive in 2014, but he’s also 33 years-old and on the back end of his career. Unless Peyton Manning does a 180 and finishes what he started during the 2013 season, DeMarcus may not ever get to the Super Bowl, much less help win one.
2. Jared Allen (Defensive End/Linebacker. Kansas City Chiefs, 2004-2007; Minnesota Vikings, 2008-2013; Chicago Bears, 2014-Present.)
- 5x Pro Bowler.
- 4x 1st-team All-Pro.
- 134 career sacks (9th highest in NFL history).
- 4 career safeties (t-highest in NFL history).
- 119 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
In most NFL circles, Jared Allen is considered a lesser version of DeMarcus Ware. However, Jared Allen still has seven more sacks than Ware does. Jared Allen also came closer to breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5 with a 22 sack season in 2011. However way he does it, Allen has that knack of getting to the quarterback. After all, he’s the active leader in sacks in the NFL today.
Though, the offensive lines for the Bears, Packers, and Lions have all been shaky within the last ten years. Jared Allen isn’t exactly going up against Will Shields every year. Though, even as a Kansas City Chief, he was averaging about eleven sacks a year. It seems that no matter what outfit he has on, he always puts up big numbers. That is, until he became a Chicago Bear.
In 2014, Jared Allen totaled 5.5 sacks by the end of the year, a career-low. Now, in 2015, he’s changing to outside linebacker much like Julius Peppers a year before him. With John Fox holding the reins, there’s some confidence that this position switch could work out. Though, Jared Allen looks to be declining after an abysmal 2014 season. And at 33 years-old, he’s not likely to get much better.
Jared Allen makes it this high on the list not just for his shiny sack count, but because of the team he currently plays for. The Chicago Bears have finished the last two seasons at 8-8 and 5-11. With a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new special teams coordinator, and a quarterback whose inconsistency knows no bounds, the Chicago Bears are definitely rebuilding. With fewer weapons on offense and barely any turnaround on defense, the Bears should be hoping to not be last in their division, much less make the playoffs. The future looks grim from where I’m standing, and if Allen wanted to win a championship, he would jump ship as soon as possible.
1. Joe Thomas (Offensive Tackle. Cleveland Browns, 2007-Present.)
- 8x Pro Bowler.
- 5x 1st-team All-Pro; 2x 2nd-team All-Pro.
- Never missed a game (128).
- 85 career approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference).
If consistency is your fetish, Joe Thomas will leave you breathless.
He has never missed a single game in his career. He has never missed a Pro Bowl in his career. Only once was he not named an All-Pro. According to The Washington Post, he averages giving up about five sacks a year. He can run-block well and pass-block well. He isn’t always the best tackle in the NFL, but he’s always within the top 5.
He also plays in a division with the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals. All of which have had great, if not decent defenses in the past eight years.
He also apparently plays while hurt.
If Joe Thomas keeps up this pace, he’ll be an easy first ballot hall of famer. Hell, he might be the most decorated hall of famer in NFL history. The only issue? No Super Bowl titles. But should that be held against him? Certainly not. After all, look who he plays for.
Here is the Cleveland Browns’ record in the last eight years, from 2007 to 2014:
10-6. 4-12. 5-11. 5-11. 4-12. 5-11. 4-12. 7-9. An overall record of 44-84.
Joe Thomas is stuck in purgatory, no matter how hard he plays.
It’s almost sad to see such talent go to waste. The Cleveland Browns have a stout defense and are generally fair running the ball, too. But every year, somehow, they manage to slip through the cracks, hopelessly clawing to get themselves out. The main issue? Quarterback. The Cleveland Browns have not had a stable quarterback situation in a long time. Johnny Manziel has looked good during the preseason, but is he capable of carrying the weight of the Cleveland Browns’ modern failure on his back? Joe Thomas has his support, so he can rest easy that his left side will be secure.
Joe Thomas is 30 years-old. With as long as offensive linemen can last, he may be in the league for a very long time. Although, the Cleveland Browns haven’t had a winning season in a very long time, not since Thomas’ rookie season. It’s been even longer since they’ve won a playoff game, not since Cleveland moved to Baltimore. Of all the players on this list, Thomas is the name I think of first on the topic of great players without any chance of winning a championship. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way it goes sometimes.
If you have any names you’d like to add to this list or have an issue and want to tear my head off, do so in the comment section below. Thank you for reading.
Honorable mentions: Tony Romo. Steve Smith. Kevin Williams. Antonio Gates. Frank Gore. Roddy White.