The NFL’s all-time greatest players by uniform number.
We’ve already done a Top 50 NFL Uniforms series, and detailed the uniforms and their players we consider the best in the NFL. Today we’ll continue that series, and pick the best players in the 40-49 range from the NFL’s history. As always, we’ll look at both offense and defense (though we’ll limit our list to just the defensive side); take a look at the numbers; and then break it down by team.
The NFL is home to some of the greatest athletes on the planet. Many of these players have worn more than one uniform number, and that’s where this list comes in handy. The NFL officially retired the first digit in each player’s uniform number, which would make it harder to create the 101 Greatest NFL Players of All-Time list.
The fifth episode of Sportscasting’s 10-part series “The 101 Greatest NFL Players by Uniform Number” is now available.
For those who are new to the group, what we’re doing here is precisely what the title implies. There have been 101 different numbers (0, 00, 1-99) used throughout the 101 NFL seasons that have been played up to this time. As a result, we’re just identifying the top player for each position. From now until the start of the 2021 NFL season, which starts on September 9, we’ll reveal a new section of the list every Thursday. Isn’t that simple?
We started with the finest players who wore Nos. 00-9, and we’ve naturally moved on to the best players who wore Nos. 10-19, Nos. 20-29, and Nos. 30-39. And today, when we identify the greatest NFL players to wear Nos. 40-49, we’ll hit the halfway mark of our series.
Gale Sayers (no. 40)
As you can see, we’re starting our list this week with great Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, who, despite his injury-shortened career, really deserves this distinction. But we’d like to pay tribute to another great No. 40, Pat Tillman, who retired from the NFL after the 2001 season to serve his nation and was tragically murdered in 2004.
Sayers only appeared in 68 regular-season games over the course of seven NFL seasons, yet he was named to the First Team All-Pro in each of his first five seasons. He had 22 touchdowns as a rookie (14 running, six receiving, one punt return, and one kick return), six of which came against the San Francisco 49ers in one game, matching an NFL record. Unfortunately, knee injuries cut short his career, and he remains the youngest Pro Football Hall of Fame member in history.
Eugene Robinson (no. 41)
At No. 41, we considered Pro Bowl fullback Keith Byars and Jets Super Bowl 3 hero Matt Snell, among other candidates. However, in the end, we went with All-Pro safety and Super Bowl champion Eugene Robinson.
Robinson went undrafted out of Colgate in 1985 and spent the first 11 years of his career with the Seattle Seahawks, followed by two years each with the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, and a final year with the Carolina Panthers. He has 1,413 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, and 57 interceptions in 250 regular-season games.
Ronnie Lott (no. 42)
Ronnie Lott, perhaps the best defensive back in NFL history and a four-time Super Bowl winner, is our No. 42 pick. Lott was selected eighth overall in the 1981 NFL draft out of USC by the San Francisco 49ers, with whom he spent a decade. He started his career as a left cornerback before moving to safety in 1985.
Lott had 1,146 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, and 63 interceptions in his career, which tied for seventh most in NFL history. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro pick, and a two-time interceptions leader in 192 regular-season games with the Niners, Los Angeles Raiders, and New York Jets.
Troy Polamalu, No. 43
In November 2014, Troy Polamalu poses before a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New Orleans Saints | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is our No. 43 selection. He is one of just two Hall of Famers to ever wear the number. Polamalu, a USC alum, was drafted 16th overall by the Steelers in 2003 and spent his whole 12-year career with the team, winning two Super Bowls.
He has 783 tackles, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, and 32 interceptions in 158 regular-season games. Polamalu was an eight-time Pro Bowl pick, a six-time All-Pro selection, and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
Dick LeBeau, No. 44
No. 44 was without a doubt one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make thus far. We came quite close to selecting John Riggins, the veteran Washington running back and Super Bowl 17 MVP, but he was barely knocked out by great Detroit Lions defensive back Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau was a national champion at Ohio State and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fifth round of the 1959 NFL draft, but he was released during training camp. After that, he joined with the Lions and played for them for 14 years. LeBeau was a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro pick who finished his career with 62 interceptions, tied for the 10th most in NFL history.
Emlen Tunnell, No. 45
Emlen Tunnell, a defensive back who spent 14 seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers, is our No. 45 pick.
Tunnell was the first Black player in Giants history and the first Black player elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after going undrafted out of Iowa in 1948. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro pick, and had at least six interceptions in each of his first ten seasons, in addition to winning two NFL championships, one in New York and one in Green Bay. Tunnell has 79 interceptions in 167 regular-season games, the second-most in NFL history.
Tim McDonald (no. 46)
In October 1995, Tim McDonald makes a tackle during a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants | Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Another difficult decision was No. 46, when we strongly evaluated veteran Raiders tight end Todd Christensen. Tim McDonald, another defensive back from USC, was eventually chosen.
McDonald was drafted in the second round of the 1987 NFL draft and spent the first six years of his career with the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals before joining the San Francisco 49ers for the last seven years of his career, helping them win Super Bowl 29. He has 1,139 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and 40 interceptions in 191 regular-season games. McDonald was a six-time Pro Bowl pick as well as an All-Pro selection.
Mel Blount (no. 47)
While we considered John Lynch for this position, Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers during his 14-year NFL career, was the obvious choice. Blount was a five-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro pick in addition to becoming the first cornerback to be awarded NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with the most interceptions in club history, 57.
Stephen Davis (no. 48)
We considered veteran Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston for this spot, but we ultimately went with running back Stephen Davis, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL with the Washington Football Team, Carolina Panthers, and St. Louis Rams.
Davis, a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, ran for 8,052 yards and 65 touchdowns in 143 regular-season games while also catching 1,494 yards and four touchdowns.
Bobby Mitchell (no. 49)
At No. 49, we contemplated Dennis Smith, another USC defensive back, but went with Hall of Fame halfback/flanker Bobby Mitchell, who played 11 NFL seasons with Washington and Cleveland.
Mitchell was an all-around offensive threat, rushing for 2,735 yards and 18 touchdowns, catching 521 receptions for 7,954 yards and 65 scores, and returning punts and kicks for 3,389 yards and eight touchdowns. He was a five-time All-Pro pick and a four-time Pro Bowler.
Pro Football Reference provided the statistics.
RELATED: The Greatest Player Taken With Each NFL Draft Pick, from No. 1 to No. 32
There are two reasons why a player or a team’s uniform number one is so important: first, it’s a great way to remember your favorite players, and second, it’s a great way to remember the order of the NFL draft.. Read more about nfl players who wear 97 and let us know what you think.
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