Ranking the 10 Most Underrated Players in NFL History (2024)

Highlights

  • Lorenzo Neal didn't get as much recognition as he deserved during his 16-year NFL career.
  • Willie Anderson is easily one of the greatest NFL players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Longtime Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will sadly be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

History can often be cruel and unforgiving. For a league that's over 100 years old, it’s impossible to give a comprehensive overview of the NFL without omitting some details. Fair or not, fans hear a simplified version of history that may involve some players getting the short end of the stick.

It’s only when doing a deeper dive that some players’ greatness is fully realized. These players may not have been the best of all time at their respective positions or won a Super Bowl, but they were high-level players who made a difference on the game as a whole.

Here's a look at the 10 most underrated players in NFL history.

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1 Lorenzo Neal

Neal was an outstanding blocker during his 16-year career

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Lorenzo Neal made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams during his 16-year career, but these accolades don’t fully underscore his value.

The 1993 fourth-round pick was arguably the greatest blocking fullback of all time, essentially providing the seven franchises for which he played with a sixth offensive lineman. It’s no coincidence that Neal’s presence led to career seasons for his running backs.

With the San Diego Chargers, Neal helped LaDainian Tomlinson win consecutive rushing titles and run for a total of 43 touchdowns in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

He also oversaw Pro Bowl campaigns from Eddie George with the Tennessee Titans and Cory Dillon with the Cincinnati Bengals. Wherever Neal went, great rushing numbers followed. Today, teams seem to prefer tight ends due to their versatility, making it unlikely for someone to replicate Neal’s impact.

2 Willie Anderson

Anderson delivered some of the best right tackle play in NFL history

Longtime Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson’s lack of notoriety is a byproduct of the small market tax.

Playing one postseason game in his 12 years with the franchise, Anderson spent much of his prime on mediocre teams. If he played a skill position like wide receiver or running back, perhaps his contributions would have been properly recognized.

Unfortunately, Anderson was a right tackle and spent much of his career as an unheralded player. From 2003 to 2006, Anderson made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams. From a performance standpoint, it can be argued that he was the single best player in football during this stretch. However, Anderson isn’t in the Hall of Fame and is unlikely to ever see his enshrinement.

3 Matt Ryan

Ryan’s career will be remembered for the wrong reasons

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The Atlanta Falcons’ infamous Super Bowl 51 meltdown against the New England Patriots completely changed the perception of Matt Ryan’s career. He went from being minutes away from one of the greatest single seasons in NFL history to being a part of perhaps the sport’s greatest collapse.

Worst of all, Ryan himself didn’t play poorly; it was more of the play-calling and defense that led to Atlanta’s demise.

During his 15-year career, Ryan made four Pro Bowls and was named NFL MVP for the 2016 season. He also ranks in the top 10 in both career passing yards and touchdown passes.

Playing during the same time as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees made it impossible for Ryan to get his due. His individual accolades aren’t far off from players in the Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to see him getting in without a Super Bowl.

4 Marques Colston

Colston somehow never made a Pro Bowl

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Wide receiver Marques Colston logged over 1,000 receiving yards in six of his first seven NFL seasons and was Drew Brees’s go-to target during the New Orleans Saints' 2009 Super Bowl run.

Inexplicably, Colston never made a Pro Bowl during this stretch or in his entire career, for that matter. While he was never Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, Colston was a reliable receiver and has the second-most receiving yards in league history of any receiver without a Pro Bowl with 9,759. What killed Colston’s acclaim was his consistency.

Single-season awards favor breakout players who post 1,600 yards one season and 700 the next over someone who is a lock to finish somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 yards every season in his prime.

5 Ken Anderson

Anderson helped popularize the West Coast offense

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Before Bill Walsh installed his legendary West Coast offense with the San Francisco 49ers, he ran it with Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson.

Luckily for Walsh, Anderson was the perfect quarterback to showcase his brainchild to the rest of the league, and the Augustan alum led the NFL in passing yards and passer rating in 1974 and 1975.

Anderson had the processing to get rid of the football quickly and the skill to be accurate to all levels of the field. While he struggled following Walsh’s departure, he eventually returned to form and took NFL MVP honors in 1981.

Anderson ultimately made four Pro Bowls, won an MVP, and took the Bengals to the Super Bowl. More importantly, he is one of the biggest contributors to the proliferation of the West Coast offense. Still, Anderson never made the Hall of Fame and is seldom mentioned in football circles today.

6 Anquan Boldin

Boldin was a consistent performer

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It may shock some that former Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin is in the top 10 in career receptions. But to those who were familiar with his game, this should come as no surprise.

Boldin was another player who exemplified longevity over peak. He never topped 1,200 receiving yards after his fourth season yet continued to accumulate catches and yardage until he joined an exclusive group of receivers. While Boldin is unlikely to make the Hall of Fame, he was a fundamentally sound receiver and one of the more consistent contributors of the 2000s.

7 London Fletcher

Fletcher was consistent throughout his career

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London Fletcher is best known for his time with the team now known as the Washington Commanders, but he was a tackling machine long before he got there, racking up nearly 1,100 combined during his time with the St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills.

Firstly, Fletcher was an outstanding athlete with incredible range. He could close in on ball carriers much faster than the average linebacker, which explains his high productivity.

As he got older, Fletcher was unable to run down offensive players and used his leadership and experience to provide value. He showed excellent play recognition and made four consecutive Pro Bowls in his mid-30s. Fletcher finished his career ranked second in league history in tackles, trailing only Ray Lewis.

8 LeRoy Butler

Butler was an iconic Packer

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Longtime Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022, slightly weakening his claim to this list.

Still, the fact it took so long for him to hear his name called shows how underappreciated he was. Butler was a four-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection during his 12-year career and was one of the biggest defensive playmakers in the NFL.

Butler was a versatile safety who made countless plays in coverage while also adding value as a blitzer. Of course, his most famous contribution was founding the Lambeau Leap after scoring a touchdown in 1993, but it was what he did on the field that earned him a place in Canton.

9 Jim Marshall

Marshall spent most of his prime on bad Minnesota teams

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The Minnesota Vikings' defense was loaded with talent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alan Page and Carl Eller headlined the legendary defensive line that became known as the “Purple People Eaters.”

Defensive end Jim Marshall was the senior member of the group and was already in his 30s by the time Page and Eller became stars.

Marshall made the Pro Bowl in 1968 and 1969 but hit a wall in the 1970s. Timing is everything, and his prime didn’t quite link up with the rest of the Vikings’ roster. He had multiple other Pro Bowl-caliber seasons that went unnoticed because of Minnesota's status in the league, and by the time the Vikings became a contender, Marshall wasn’t able to contribute in the same way.

The infamous play in which he picked up a fumble and returned it 66 yards to the wrong end zone certainly overshadows his contributions as well.

10 Philip Rivers

Rivers was unable to keep pace with the other legendary quarterbacks of the 2000s and 2010s

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In the 2004 NFL Draft, Eli Manning famously refused to play for the San Diego Chargers and forced them to trade him. He eventually landed with the New York Giants, with whom he won multiple Super Bowls.

The Chargers ended up with Philip Rivers, which was far from a consolation prize. Rivers outperformed Manning in virtually every statistic throughout their careers. However, Manning holds one conspicuous edge over Rivers: Super Bowls.

Manning’s decision to avoid the Chargers at all costs turned out to be a wise one. Despite Rivers’ success, San Diego never made it past the AFC Championship Game. Rivers made eight Pro Bowls and ranks sixth all-time in career passing yards and passing touchdowns.

The North Carolina State alum may enter the Hall of Fame in the coming years, but his inability to win the Super Bowl deprived him of all-time great status.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless stated otherwise.

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Ranking the 10 Most Underrated Players in NFL History (2024)

FAQs

Ranking the 10 Most Underrated Players in NFL History? ›

Most underrated player on all 32 NFL teams: Paulson Adebo, Trey Smith and more. Paulson Adebo continues to trend upward: His 78.7 PFF overall grade in 2023 ranked 15th among cornerbacks, and he orchestrated a three-game stretch between Weeks 8 and 10 as the NFL's highest-graded cornerback in coverage (94.6).

Who is the most underrated NFL player right now? ›

Most underrated player on all 32 NFL teams: Paulson Adebo, Trey Smith and more. Paulson Adebo continues to trend upward: His 78.7 PFF overall grade in 2023 ranked 15th among cornerbacks, and he orchestrated a three-game stretch between Weeks 8 and 10 as the NFL's highest-graded cornerback in coverage (94.6).

Who is the No 1 player in NFL history? ›

Top 10 Greatest NFL Players Of All Time
RankPlayerYears Active
1Tom Brady2000-2022
2Jerry Rice1985-2004
3Jim Brown1957-1965
4Walter Payton1975-1987
6 more rows
Jan 22, 2024

Who is the greatest of all time in NFL history? ›

The list
RankPlayerYear inducted to Pro Football Hall of Fame
1Jerry Rice2010
2Jim Brown1971
3Lawrence Taylor1999
4Joe Montana2000
91 more rows

Who has the biggest deal in NFL history? ›

According to Forbes, Patrick Mahomes has the highest total value of a contract in sports history. His 10-year contract has a value of $503 million.

What is the least loved NFL team? ›

The Dallas Cowboys were the most disliked NFL team in the United States as of January 2023. In total, 13 percent of survey respondents disliked or hated the NFL franchise, whereas 38 percent responded that they did not have a team they disliked in the league.

Who is the number 1 player in football history? ›

1. Leo Messi. The skillful Argentine has not yet finished his career and is already considered by many as the best player in history.

Who is the number 1 best NFL player? ›

Patrick Mahomes

Who is the best running back in history? ›

For many, Jim Brown was the best running back of all-time and it's easy to understand why. Brown played nine seasons and made nine Pro Bowls, while earning eight All Pro selections. He was fast, powerful, intuitive and fearless.

Who is the richest NFL player ever? ›

Former National Football League (NFL) player and executive Jerry Richardson was the richest NFL player of all time as of January 2023, with a net worth of around two billion U.S. dollars.

Who is the most valuable player in NFL history? ›

Peyton Manning has won the most NFL MVP awards with five. Aaron Rodgers is just behind him with four wins. Below is a list of all the players with multiple MVP awards: Peyton Manning - 5 MVPs.

Who is the highest paid NFL player in history? ›

The player in the National Football League (NFL) with the highest cumulative career earnings was Aaron Rodgers, with total earnings of 342.5 million U.S. dollars.

Who is the best NFL player at the moment? ›

Read below for the ranked list of Top 100 best players in the NFL, plus the Top 100 from last season. Who is the #1 player from this year's NFL Top 100 list? The #1 top rated player on the NFL Top 100 list for the 2023 season is Patrick Mahomes, followed by #2 Justin Jefferson and #3 Jalen Hurts.

Who is the most humble NFL? ›

Reggie White. One of the greatest players in NFL history is one of the most humble players to ever take the field. Reggie White was a player that never cussed during the game, and I remember hearing Mike Golic tell a story about White that defined his humility and physical prowess.

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