NFL’s top 25 players not in the Hall of Fame: Cliff Branch, Tony Boselli, Roger Craig headline all-time list – CBS Sports

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Julian Edelman’s recent retirement has sparked passionate conversations about his future Hall of Fame candidacy. Edelman’s detractors point to his zero Pro Bowls and underwhelming regular-season stats. His supporters point to his laundry list of postseason accolades. 

While Edelman won’t be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2026, there are a slew of eligible former players who are still waiting for their call to Canton, Ohio. Many deserving players have been passed over because they played for a small market team; other players were overshadowed by more celebrated teammates. For whatever the reason, there are numerous deserving players who may never receive a bronze bust and a gold jacket. 

With that in mind, we decided to put together a list of the 25 best NFL players who are not in the Hall of Fame. Exactly 40% of the list is comprised of linebackers and receivers, while only one quarterback was able to crack our top 25. 

25. QB Ken Anderson 

Team: Bengals (1971-86) 

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The Bengals’ all-time leading passer, Anderson’s boom under Bill Walsh’s “West Coast” offense set the stage for Walsh’s success with Joe Montana in San Francisco. A four-time Pro Bowler, Anderson led the NFL in completion percentage three times. He also led the NFL in passing yards in consecutive seasons. In 1981, Anderson won both league MVP and Comeback Player of the Year while leading the Bengals to their first Super Bowl. 

24. WR Steve Tasker

Teams: Oilers (1985-86); Bills (1986-97)

One of the greatest special teams players in NFL history, Tasker earned seven Pro Bowl nods from 1987-95. During that span, Tasker helped the Bills become the first franchise to appear in four consecutive Super Bowls. Tasker’s brilliance was on display during the opening minutes of Super Bowl XXVII. With the Cowboys punting from their own 16-yard line, Tasker was lined up against linebacker Robert Jones, a rookie who filled in for an injured starter. Jones didn’t have a chance against Tasker, who beat Jones on an inside move before blocking Mike Saxon’s punt. Tasker’s play set up the game’s first touchdown. 

23. WR Sterling Sharpe 

Team: Packers (1988-94)

While an injury cut his career short, Sharpe did plenty of damage during his seven-year career. A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Sharp led the league in receptions three different times. He also led the NFL in touchdown receptions on two separate occasions. In 1992, Brett Favre’s first season as the Packers’ starting quarterback, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions (108), yards (1,461) and touchdowns (13). 

22. WR Otis Taylor 

Team: Chiefs (1965-75) 

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A player who was truly ahead of his time, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Taylor was one of the first receivers to fully use his physicality to his advantage. In 1965, Taylor spurned the NFL (he was drafted by the Eagles with the 203rd pick in the NFL draft) to play for the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. In his second season, Taylor led the AFL in average yards per catch while helping lead the Chiefs to the first-ever Super Bowl. The AFL’s leader in touchdown catches the following season, Taylor helped the Chiefs capture their first Super Bowl win at the end of the 1969 season. His 46-yard touchdown sealed Kansas City’s 23-7 win over the Vikings, the last game ever played between the rival leagues. 

Taylor’s transition to the NFL was seamless after the two leagues merged in 1970. A year after the merge, Taylor led the NFL in receiving yards while earning All-Pro honors. He earned Pro Bowl honors again in 1972 at the age of 30. 

21. S Darren Woodson

Team: Cowboys (1992-03) 

A cornerstone of the 1990s Cowboys’ championship defenses, Woodson earned five consecutive Pro Bowl nods while helping Dallas win three titles over a four-year span. With Drew Pearson’s upcoming induction, Woodson — the Cowboys’ all-time career leader in tackles — is now the greatest Cowboy currently not in the Hall of Fame. 

20. DE Jim Marshall 

Teams: Browns (1960); Vikings (1961-79) 

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A valued member of Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” defensive line, Marshall holds numerous NFL records, including the most seasons played by a defensive player (20, along with Junior Seau and Darrell Green), most consecutive games by a defensive player (282), most consecutive starts by a defensive player (270), and most career fumble recoveries (30). Marshall, who was still a starter at age 42, helped the Vikings win three NFC titles along with the NFL championship in 1969. 

19. DT Steve McMichael 

Teams: Patriots (1980); Bears (1981-93); Packers (1994) 

One of best players on the Bears’ vaunted 46 defense, McMichael earned his first of two first-team All-Pro honors in 1985 while helping Chicago capture its only Lombardi Trophy. A two-time Pro Bowler, McMichael had 92.5 career sacks for Chicago, second in franchise history. McMichael and Dan Hampton (a 2002 Hall of Fame inductee) formed one of the greatest defensive duos in NFL history, a unit that totaled 41.5 sacks from 1984-88. 

18. LB Tommy Nobis

Team: Falcons (1966-76) 

Atlanta’s first draft pick, Nobis played on just two winning teams during his 11-year tenure with the Falcons. Despite his team’s lack of success, Nobis earned the recognition of his peers, earning five Pro Bowl selections and one All-Pro nod during his first seven seasons. 

Named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1966 by Sporting News, Nobis recorded a whopping 294 tackles that season. That total is not only a Falcons’ franchise record, it is unofficially the the most tackles ever credited to a player in NFL history, according to the Falcons’ team website. Nobis’ early success earned him a place on the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. 

17. CB Lester Hayes 

Team: Raiders (1977-86) 

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Known during his playing days as “The Judge,” Hayes was a dominant shut down defender who earned five straight Pro Bowl nods from 1980-84. Hayes won Defensive Player of the Year in 1980 while leading the NFL with 13 interceptions. Hayes helped the Raiders win their second Super Bowl that season. Three years later, he teamed up with Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes to shut down Washington’s talented receiving corps in Super Bowl XVIII. Hayes is a member of the NFL’s All-1980s Team. 

Team: 49ers (2007-14)

Willis packed a lot into a relatively short career. During his seven full seasons in San Francisco, Willis earned Pro Bowl honors each year while also receiving five first-team All-Pro nods. A member of the NFL’s All-2010s Team, Willis twice led the NFL in tackles. Willis’ play largely contributed to the 49ers’ NFC title in 2012 as well as the franchise’s three consecutive NFC title game appearances from 2011-13.  

15. LB Sam Mills 

Teams: Saints (1986-94); Panthers (1995-97) 

Few players have had a bigger impact on a franchise than Mills. While he initially made his mark in New Orleans, Mills brought an immediate spark to the expansion Panthers. After racking up 110 tackles during his first season in Carolina, Mills earned All-Pro honors in 1996 while helping the Panthers reach the NFC Championship Game in just their second year of existence. Mills enjoyed a productive third season with the Panthers before calling it a career after the 1997 season. 

A five-time Pro Bowler, Mills is a member of the Saints‘ Hall of Fame as well as the Panthers’ Ring of Honor. A former Panthers assistant coach, Mills, who continued to coach despite receiving a cancer diagnosis, was the inspirational force behind the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. His “keep pounding” mantra continues to serve as the team’s rallying cry. Mills, who died in April of 2005, had his number 51 retired by the Panthers before the start of the ’05 season. A statue of Mills in his Panthers jersey currently sits outside Bank of America Stadium. 

14. WR Hines Ward 

Team: Steelers (1998-11)

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The Steelers‘ all-time leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, Ward is also eighth all-time in career postseason receiving yards (1,181). Three of Ward’s four consecutive Pro Bowl selections came with different quarterbacks: Kordell Stewart (2001), Tommy Maddox (2002-03) and a rookie named Ben Roethlisberger (2004). In 2005, Ward won Super Bowl MVP honors while helping lead Pittsburgh to its fifth Super Bowl victory. He was the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver when Pittsburgh defeated the Cardinals three years later in Super Bowl XLIII. Ward is considered the most physical receiver of his era. 

13. S LeRoy Butler 

Team: Packers (1990-01) 

Butler is one of the two first-team safeties on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s. The other is Steve Atwater, who was part of the 2020 Hall of Fame induction class. A four-time All-Pro (that included three straight seasons from 1996-98), the versatile Butler racked up 38 interceptions, 889 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 13 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries over his career. He also recorded the first Lambeau Leap, which should definitely count for something. Butler’s success helped the Packers win one Super Bowl and two NFC titles during the ’90s. 

12. LB Clay Matthews 

Teams: Browns (1978-93); Falcons (1994-96) 

A four-time Pro Bowler, Matthews spent 16 of his 19 NFL seasons with the Browns, helping Cleveland win five AFC Central division titles during the 1980s. Matthews retired with 69.5 career sacks, 27 forced fumbles and 14 fumble recoveries. He also led the NFL in tackles on four different occasions. One of Matthews’ best seasons did not result in a Pro Bowl selection. In 1984, Matthews led the league with 126 tackles while also posting 12 sacks and three forced fumbles. Matthews’ play was a major reason why the Browns appeared in three AFC Championship Games from 1986-89. 

While he has yet to receive the call to Canton, Matthews was inducted into the Browns’ Ring of Honor in 2019. 

11. DE L.C. Greenwood 

Team: Steelers (1969-81) 

A key member of Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense, Greenwood earned six Pro Bowl nods (and two first-team All-Pro honors) from 1973-79. A menacing pass rusher, Greenwood sacked Roger Staubach a record four times in the Steelers’ Super Bowl X victory over the Cowboys. The 6-fo-6 Greenwood also had a penchant for batting down passes; he did that on three occasions during the Steelers’ Super Bowl IX win over the Vikings.

10. LB Randy Gradishar

Team: Broncos (1974-83) 

With respect to Tom Jackson and Rod Smith, Gradishar remains the greatest Bronco who is still waiting for his place in Canton. The 14th overall pick in the 1974 draft, Gradishar earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 1977 while leading Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense, a unit that helped spearhead the Broncos’ first Super Bowl appearance. Gradishar earned five more Pro Bowl selections (as well as another All-Pro nod) during his final six seasons with the Broncos. A member of the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, Gradishar is credited with over 2,000 tackles during his 10-year career. 

9. CB Ken Riley 

Team: Bengals (1969-83) 

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Riley retired with 65 interceptions, which is tied for the fifth-highest total in NFL history. The player Riley is often compared to is Charles Woodson, who will receive a gold jacket this summer. An incredibly consistent player throughout his career, Riley picked off at least four passes nine different times, tallying a career-high nine interceptions in 1976. A key member of the Bengals’ 1981 AFC championship team, Riley returned a league-high three interceptions for touchdowns during his final two seasons. In 1983, his final NFL season, the 36-year-old Riley recorded eight interceptions (returning two for scores) while earning his first career All-Pro selection. 

8. LB Zach Thomas 

Team: Dolphins (1996-07); Cowboys (2008) 

The Dolphins have a slew of Canton-worthy players who still haven’t gotten the call. Among those players are former offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg, receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton and running back Ricky Williams. Thomas, a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, is at the top of that list. A former fifth-round pick, Thomas was one of the NFL’s most productive players during his dozen seasons in Miami. Thomas, who led the NFL in tackles on two separate occasions, retired with 1,734 career tackles, 20.5 sacks, 17 interceptions, 48 passes defensed, 16 forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. His play helped the Dolphins make the playoffs each year from 1997-01. 

7. WR Torry Holt 

Teams: Rams (1999-08); Jaguars (2009) 

A seven-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s All-2000s Team, Holt played an integral role on the Rams‘ 1999 championship team. The league’s leading receiver on two separate occasions, Holt was the Rams’ No. 1 receiver when St. Louis made a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2001. 

6. DL Richard Seymour 

Teams: Patriots (2001-08); Raiders (2009-12) 

The sixth overall pick in the 2001 draft, Seymour helped the Patriots capture their first of six Super Bowls during his rookie season. Seven years later, Seymour left New England as a three-time champion, five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. Seymour wasn’t done, however, adding two more Pro Bowl selections to his resume during his four years with the Raiders. Seymour, who was recently voted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame, received a letter on his behalf to the Hall of Fame voters by former coach Bill Belichick. 

“Richard Seymour was unquestionably one of our key players,” Belichick wrote, “and I do not believe we would have won three championships without him.”

5. OL Joe Jacoby 

Team: Washington (1981-93) 

A key member of the “Hogs,” Jacoby helped Washington win each of its three Super Bowl titles. A Pro Bowler each season from 1983-86, Jacoby’s blocking helped John Riggins rush for a then Super Bowl record in Washington’s win over Miami in Super Bowl XVII. A member of the NFL’s All-1980s Team, Jacoby helped protect Super Bowl MVPs Doug Williams and Mark Rypien in Super Bowls XXII and XXVI. 

4. RB Roger Craig

Teams: 49ers (1983-90); Raiders (1991); Vikings (1992-93) 

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The only running back on this list, Craig played an integral role in the 49ers’ success during the 1980s. A four-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL’s All-1980s Team, Craig became the first player in league history to have 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season (1985). A three-time Super Bowl champion, Craig became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl during the 49ers’ win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVI. 

3. WR Reggie Wayne 

Team: Colts (2001-14) 

A six-time Pro Bowler from 2006-10 and in 2012, Wayne led the NFL in receiving yards in 2007. His 53-yard touchdown catch during the previous year’s Super Bowl helped the Colts win the franchise’s first Super Bowl following their move from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Wayne was Peyton Manning’s No. 1 receiver when the Colts made it back to the Super Bowl in 2009. And despite Manning’s departure in 2012, a 34-year-old Wayne earned Pro Bowl honors that season while catching passes from a rookie quarterback named Andrew Luck.  

2. OT Tony Boselli 

Team: Jaguars (1995-01) 

Boselli would already have a bronze bust if an injury didn’t end his career after just 91 regular-season games. But when he was healthy, the first draft pick in Jaguars history was arguably the best left offensive tackle in the business. A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro from 1996-00, Boselli helped lead the Jaguars to AFC title game appearances in 1996 and in 1999. 

1. WR Cliff Branch 

Team: Raiders (1972-85) 

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The greatest deep threat of his era, the speedy Branch earned four straight Pro Bowl selections and three consecutive All-Pro nods. He led the NFL in receiving once during during that span while pacing the league in touchdown catches on two separate occasions. A model of consistency, Branch continued to produce well into his 30s. At age 35, he played an integral role in the Raiders‘ 38-9 win over Washington in Super Bowl XVIII; his 50-yard catch early in the game set up his 12-yard touchdown reception. 

One of the most productive receivers in NFL history, Branch played a key role in all three of the Raiders’ Super Bowl wins. After a Pro Bowl season on the Raiders’ first Super Bowl team in 1976, his two touchdown catches in Super Bowl XV propelled the Raiders to a 27-10 win over the Eagles in 1980. Branch flourished while playing with quarterbacks Ken Stalber and Jim Plunkett. 

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