Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time. The book is on sale now. Order it here.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame requires a five-year waiting period from retirement before players can be considered for enshrinement. The delay allows time for reflection so that recency bias doesn’t influence decisions. Some players are so special, almost from the beginning, that they seem destined for Canton — or, in this case, possibly destined to appear in later versions of The Athletic’s Top 100.
The NFL 100: From Derrick Brooks to Tom Brady, The Athletic finds the best players in football history
Kelce arguably belongs in the top 100 already. He has more receiving yardage than four of the five tight ends on the list (Tony Gonzalez is the only one with more) and is the only tight end in league history with 1,400 yards in a season. He needed only 15 games to reach that milestone in 2020.
Kelce also owns the most productive three-year stretch for a tight end in league history, with 3,918 receiving yards gained from 2018-20. To adjust for eras, The Athletic divided every tight end’s top three-year yardage total by the total for the NFL leader regardless of position. Kelce’s yardage from 2018-20 was 96.1 percent of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’s league-best total over those seasons. Kellen Winslow (1980-82, 1981-83) and Charle Young (1973-75) are the only other tight ends to reach 90 percent of the leader’s total over a three-year period.
Jefferson needed only 15 games of his third NFL season to break Randy Moss’s single-season team record for yardage. He has also set the NFL record for receiving yards through the first 49 games of a career. The top five players on that list include one fast starter who fizzled (Odell Beckham Jr.) and three bona fide all-time greats in Julio Jones, Moss and Jerry Rice.
That is the sort of company Jefferson is keeping early in his career. It’s the elite of the elite, and it’s not as though Jefferson landed in an incredibly favorable situation as far as scheme, quarterback or any of those variables that can make a difference.
Watt’s 77.5 sacks through the first 87 games of his career rank second since 1960, according to Pro Football Reference, which has unofficial sack totals going back that far. That is also the second-best total since the NFL made sacks an official stat in 1982. Only Reggie White (94) had more through 87 career games.
White, Smith and the elder Watt are already in the Top 100. The younger Watt has a shot at joining them if he can hold up physically. He missed only four games in his first five seasons before missing seven in 2022.
The best pass rushers can contort their bodies, getting low and wide as they turn the corner on offensive tackles on their way to the quarterback. When Garrett was only a rookie in 2017 and teammate Joe Thomas was a 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle entering his final NFL season, the veteran blocker called Garrett “twice as good” as Von Miller, then the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year balloting, at this differentiating skill.
Only Reggie White and the Watt brothers had more sacks than Garrett through the first 84 games of a career. Garrett had 74.5, putting him just ahead of luminaries such as Miller, Derrick Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Tippett and Richard Dent.
Only a six-game suspension in 2019 and a car accident in 2022 have managed to interrupt Garrett as he continues to set a Hall of Fame production pace through his first six seasons.
Hill has been arguably the NFL’s most-feared player over the course of his career. A seven-time Pro Bowl choice in seven seasons, he reached 75 touchdowns faster than every wide receiver but Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. Hill has 10 touchdowns on receptions, rushes or returns covering at least 75 yards. Only Devin Hester (14), Ollie Matson (13), Bobby Mitchell (12) and Dante Hall (11) have more. Of those players, all but Hall played at least 40 more games than Hill has played to this point in his meteoric career.
Instead of experiencing a drop-off in productivity after being traded away from Mahomes and Kansas City in the 2022 offseason, Hill established career highs with 113 catches for 1,632 yards in Miami, both totals ranking behind only Jefferson.
Parsons is only two seasons into his career, so we are very premature to include him on such a list. But none other than Lawrence Taylor called Parsons “special” early in the Dallas star’s second season.
Parsons, like Taylor, was Defensive Rookie of the Year. Taylor was Defensive Player of the Year in each of his first two seasons, and again after his sixth season, when he was also league MVP. Parsons was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and a first-team All-Pro as a rookie after collecting 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss months after being selected with the No. 12 pick out of Penn State.
Parsons leads the NFL in Pro Football Focus pressure rate over his first two seasons. But, as Taylor reminded, it’s early.
“Let’s see if he can keep it up for doggone 13 years,” Taylor said, referencing the length of his own Hall of Fame career.
Williams has earned Pro Bowl honors in each of the past 10 seasons he has played, and he seemed to get better with age. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Williams is widely regarded as the best in the league at his position two years after Washington traded him to the 49ers entering his age-32 season, which came after Williams missed the 2019 season following the removal of a rare, life-threatening cancerous growth on his scalp.
“You just watch every single game, every single clip, he just physically dominates every single person that’s across from him, and the fact that he’s not talked about more, I think it’s outrageous,” San Francisco teammate George Kittle told reporters in 2021, Williams’s 11th in the league. “He’s a hell of a football player who needs way more recognition.”
Excerpted from “The Football 100” published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by The Athletic Media Company. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers