13 Top Non-Quarterback Offensive Football Players

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

The main criterion for the following list was choosing talented offensive players who were also great champions. And because the NFL has become such a passing league, the greatest quarterbacks are not included here.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown was light-years ahead of his time. He also played in an age (1957 to 1965) when the running game was a big part of the offense. In nine pro seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times and totaled 12,312 yards, 106 rushing touchdowns, and 756 points. He was Rookie of the Year in 1957 and MVP three times, in 1957, 1958, and 1965.

What’s even more amazing about Jim Brown is the fact that he retired from football at age 30. He decided to become an actor and retired during the shooting of probably his most memorable movie, The Dirty Dozen.

When fans rank their top five players of all-time, Brown should be on everyone’s list. Two statistics set him apart: He never missed a game in nine seasons, and his 5.22 yards-per-carry average remains number one.

Earl Campbell

Earl Campbell won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas in 1977 and was an instant superstar when he joined the Houston Oilers the following season.

In his first pro season, Campbell won the rushing title, was named Rookie of the Year, and was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Campbell was a repeat winner of the MVP award in 1979, but his best season was in 1980, when he rushed for 1,934 yards — at the time the second-best single-season mark ever, behind only O.J. Simpson.

Dave Casper

Dave Casper started his college career at Notre Dame as an offensive tackle. Right off, playing that position at that school means that he was a tough, physical player. In 1972, when Casper switched to tight end in his junior season, he instantly became the best blocking tight end in college football. The only way defenders could stop him was to hold him when he tried to run a pass route.

He was a very reliable underneath receiver when he joined the Oakland Raiders in 1974. In his only Super Bowl appearance, Casper caught four passes, including one for a touchdown.

Mike Ditka and John Mackey

Among all the tight ends ever to play, Mike Ditka and John Mackey went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one-two. Mackey was faster and more of a breakaway threat than Ditka, but both were head and shoulders above every tight end over a 20-year period. Ditka didn’t miss a start for the Chicago Bears in his first 84 games, while Mackey missed only one game in his nine seasons with the Baltimore Colts and one with the San Diego Chargers.

Ditka burst onto the pro scene with 56 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in his rookie season — staggering numbers for a tight end. Ditka caught 75 passes in 1964, a season-high record for tight ends that stood until 1980 and the era of 16 games. Together, these two players caught 758 passes for 11,048 yards and scored 81 touchdowns.

Mackey averaged 15.8 yards per catch during his career; as a rookie in 1963, he averaged 30 yards on nine kick returns. He was such a scoring threat that, in 1966, he scored six touchdowns of 50 yards or more.

John Hannah

John Hannah was big, mean, athletic, and a steamroller — all perfect ingredients for one of the game’s finest all-around offensive linemen. When he came into the NFL in 1973, a first-round draft choice of the New England Patriots from the University of Alabama.

During his career, the Patriots were a few players and a little luck away from being a championship team. Hannah played in only one Super Bowl (and lost), but he was named All-Pro for ten consecutive seasons (1976 to 1985) and Offensive Lineman of the Year by the Players Association four times. In 13 seasons, he missed only 5 of 188 games due to injury.

Don Hutson

From 1935 to 1945, Green Bay Packer Don Hutson’s receptions and receiving totals were almost three times greater than his nearest competitor. In 1942, Hutson caught 74 passes, more than all receivers on the Detroit Lions combined; his 1,211 receiving yards were more than two NFL teams; and his 17 touchdown catches were more than six NFL teams.

Hutson lead the NFL in touchdown receptions in 9 of his 11 seasons. In his second game as a pro, he caught an 83-yard touchdown from quarterback Arnie Herber. Teams never double- and triple-teamed players until Hutson showed up on the scene.

Hutson, a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a two-way performer, playing at left end and in the secondary on defense. In his final four seasons, Hutson intercepted 23 passes. His record of 99 touchdown receptions stood for 44 seasons. And he was great until the bitter end, leading the NFL with 47 receptions in his final season.

Hugh McElhenny

On his first play as a pro with the San Francisco 49ers, Hugh McElhenny ran 40 yards for a touchdown. Some say that McElhenny was the greatest running back to ever catch a screen pass.

McElhenny played many of his 13 pro seasons in pain. He needed a steel plate in his shoe and pain-deadening shots in his right foot because of severed tendons that he had suffered as a child. When he retired after the 1964 season, he had played for four different teams and totaled 11,369 all-purpose yards. He was a true game-breaker; he could score from anywhere on the field via the run, the pass, or the kick return. He averaged 4.9 yards a carry in his first ten seasons, plus he had touchdowns of 94, 86, and 81 yards.

Jim Parker

Jim Parker was the first offensive lineman elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A first-round draft choice from Ohio State, Parker played both ways — offensive and defensive tackle — but Baltimore Colts coach Weeb Ewbank changed all that by starting him at only offensive tackle in 1957.

Parker’s gifts were immeasurable. He was a Pro Bowl player at tackle for four years when Ewbank was forced to shift him to left guard because of injuries to other players. Parker fit perfectly in that role and was named All-Pro at guard for four consecutive seasons. A knee injury ended Parker’s career in 1967.

Walter Payton

Mike Ditka, the great Chicago tight end and coach, called Walter Payton the most complete football player he had ever seen. He missed only one game in 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears.

Excluding his rookie year and his final season, when he no longer was the hub of Chicago’s offense, Payton touched the ball an average of 24 times a game for 119 yards, combining rushing and receiving gains. Payton is the NFL’s second-leading all-time rusher with 16,726 yards (Emmitt Smith is first).

In 10 of 13 seasons, Payton rushed for at least 1,200 yards. He needed arthroscopic surgery on both knees after the 1983 season, in which he gained 1,421 yards on those two gimpy knees. Tragically, he died in 1999 at age 45.

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears was a speedster with shake-and-bake moves — a dazzler in football pads. The only sad thing about Sayers is that two knee injuries shortened his career. Still, in basically a five-season career, he accomplished enough to gain entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot. In his first preseason game, he raced 93 yards with a kickoff and 77 yards on a punt return, and he also threw a 25-yard touchdown pass with his left (non-dominant) hand.

In basically 12 full games in 1965, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns and averaged 31.4 yards on kick returns and 14.9 yards per punt return. His 2,272 combined yards by a rookie still ranks second in NFL history. Sayers had only two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he did average 5 yards per carry and scored a touchdown one out of every 23.7 times he touched the ball.

Art Shell

Art Shell arrived with the Oakland Raiders as a third-round draft choice from tiny Maryland State–Eastern Shore in 1968, a year after Gene Upshaw. However, the two players eventually united to form the best guard/tackle combination in the history of the NFL. Shell became the starting left tackle in 1970 and was named to eight Pro Bowls in the 1970s. Shell and Upshaw worked as one, dominating their side of the offensive formation on run sweeps.

In Super Bowl XI, Shell virtually buried talented Minnesota defensive end Jim Marshall to help lead the Raiders to victory.

Shell later became one of the first African Americans to become an NFL head coach in the modern era. He owns a 56–52 record in his two stints as coach of the Raiders. He opened the door for other African American coaches like Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, and Lovie Smith.

Gene Upshaw

Before his untimely death in 2008, many fans knew Gene Upshaw as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, a title that translates into the leader of the players union. As leader of the union, he fought on the players’ behalf for better free agency terms, more money, and stronger benefits.

He was an Oakland Raiders captain for eight seasons, which is the same number of years this left guard was named to All-AFC or All-Pro teams.

Upshaw is the only player to start on championship teams in the old American Football League and in the NFL. The Raiders won the American Football League title in 1967 and then Super Bowls XI and XV, with Upshaw leading the way. All told, he played in 307 preseason, regular-season, and postseason games with the Raiders, 24 of them playoff games.