There are some players in NFL history who can become truly identifiable with a certain number. It’s rare, of course, as there are only so many numbers you can assign someone so you’ll see truly terrible players who have the same numbers as true legends. But in some cases, you’ll witness someone so incredibly skilled that they are amazing no matter what and thus the number becomes part of themselves. It’s hard to pick the best in the NFL’s long history but there are plenty who have managed to make these numbers their own and do fantastic with them.
The first 25 numbers are filled with quarterbacks, as those numbers tend to be reserved for QBs. Thus, you get names like Brett Farve (4), Joe Montana (16), Peyton Manning (18) and more.
The remaining numbers are still pretty huge deals as well and show off some great stuff all around. It’s a major deal but here are the best and in some cases obvious picks for each guy to hold a number from 26 through 50. Some have had those numbers retired while others make it a major deal and all manage to show how great a number can be elevating someone up.
24 #26: Rod Woodson
For 15 straight seasons, Woodson collected at least three interceptions each year. He finally retired with 71, the third-most in NFL history. Woodson wore #26 through his career from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, Baltimore and Oakland. While he was great in Pittsburgh, it was with Baltimore that Woodson won a Super Bowl and achieved some fantastic numbers. An 11-time Pro Bowler, Woodson is still regarded as one of the best players of the 1990s Steelers teams and is in the Hall of Fame.
He works now as a sports radio host and remains the best player to ever wear the number. There have been some quality players that wore #26, but it's hard to deny that Woodson is the best. It's definitely a tough number to live up to.
23 #27: Steve Atwater
Drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1989, Atwater soon became one of the premiere safeties in the NFL. He appeared in seven straight Pro Bowls and was key to the Broncos keeping themselves on top with a great defense. He made 1,180 tackles and accumulated 480 interception yards throughout his career, numbers that some of the greatest names in football haven't accomplished.
In Super Bowl XXXII, he had the best game of his career, keeping the Packers in check with a blocked pass and a hard tackle. He slumped a bit afterward although he returned the next year to win his second Lombardi Trophy. He played his last season with the Jets before retiring. The “Smiling Assassin” remains revered in Denver and an underrated but great player for his time.
22 #28: Marshall Faulk
The St. Louis Rams of the early 2000s are well known as “the Greatest Show on Turf.” Faulk had come in second in the Heisman Trophy voting with many believing he should have won. While Faulk began his career with the Colts, his time with the Rams was where he achieved his greatest fame. For four seasons, he averaged 2,200 yards, having his best season in 1999 with 2,429 yards from scrimmage. While he was limited to just 90 yards in Super Bowl XXXIV, Faulk was still key to helping the Rams achieve a victory. He was the first running back to lead the league in receptions in five seasons and was MVP in 2000 and 2001.
Retiring in 2005 due to a knee injury, Faulk had his number retired by the Rams and still works with Kurt Warner on the NFL Network.
21 #29: Eric Dickerson
Dickerson had a bit of a shadow as he had played for the SMU Mustangs, the school infamous for the scandals that led to the “death penalty” from the NCAA. However, he was still an All-American with a terrific skill as a running back. Drafted by the Rams, Dickerson quickly set records for rookie rushing yards, earning him Rookie of the Year honors as well as the first of six Pro Bowl selections. In his second year, he set the record that still stands of 2,105 yards rushing in a single season.
He would later play for the Colts, Raiders and Falcons but the Rams were the best period of Dickerson’s career as they retired his number. While he never got a Super Bowl ring, Dickerson’s place as one of the greatest rushers in NFL history is secure.
20 #30: Terrell Davis
Despite some fantastic rushing at Georgia, Davis was considered a risk in the NFL draft because of a reputation for injuries. It took until the 6th round of the 1995 draft for the Broncos to choose Davis and prove his doubters wrong. Denver had been backed by John Elway’s passing but Davis gave them the running game they had long needed. He rushed for 1,117 yards in his rookie year and was even better in his second year.
Thanks to his great work, the Broncos were finally able to reach the top by winning back to back Super Bowls. In Super Bowl XXXII, Davis ran for three touchdowns to be named MVP and had another great performance the following year. Injuries would finally cut his career short with only seven seasons but they were marked by a body of work that still makes Davis a Denver legend.
19 #31: Jim Taylor
A fantastic fullback, Taylor’s work at LSU was sensational, leading the SEC in scoring for two seasons. Drafted by the Packers in 1958, Taylor endured a bad rookie season before Vince Lombardi turned the team around and Taylor was a key part of that revival. Taylor holds Green Bay records for both career and single-season touchdowns and won the rushing title in 1962. He won four NFL titles with the Packers, including the first ever Super Bowl (which, ironically, was his last game with Green Bay).
The first running back to run for a thousand yards in five straight seasons, Taylor finished his career in New Orleans who retired his number. But his Green Bay tenure is what he’s more famous for and showcasing the amazing skill that turned the Packers into a powerhouse.
18 #32: Jim Brown
To many, he’s not just the greatest player to ever wear this number, he’s the greatest player in NFL history. The quarterbacks may get the flash and attention but Brown was a revelation to how key running backs were to the game. In college, Brown had excelled in football, track and baseball, showing his wide range. That worked in the NFL as he elevated the Cleveland Browns with his incredible running. He set records in every area of rushing, from total yards to touchdowns to receiving yards from a back, that would stand for decades as Brown made it all look so easy with his fantastic skill on the field.
A mix of speed and power, he barreled down tacklers into the end zone and was a key reason the Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship. Many believe Brown’s records would still stand if he hadn’t decided to retire at the height of his career. His number was retired by the Browns and he remains an icon for all football fans. He's still the go-to answer for the best rusher the NFL has ever known.
17 #33: Tony Dorsett
Dorsett entered the NFL with high expectations as his amazing rushing skills at Pittsburgh had won him the Heisman Trophy and helped his school win the National Championship. Despite how some teams were worried about his small size, the Cowboys decided to draft him, trading several picks with the Seahawks for the chance. It paid off as he rushed for over a thousand yards with 12 touchdowns and won Rookie of the Year honors. Dorsett made history as the first man to win a National Championship then win a Super Bowl the following year, with another Super Bowl appearance the following season.
Dorsett was a key factor in Dallas even as the team had a downslide in the 1980s. He finished his career with the Broncos before retiring due to a leg injury and is part of Dallas’ famed “Ring of Honor”.
16 #34: Walter Payton
Whatever number Payton wore, he would have made it iconic. He is one of the few to play his entire career with a single team and missed only one game in 13 seasons. Winner of two MVP awards, Payton was utter magic on the field, able to stop on a dime, leap over opposing lines and shrug off tacklers with ease. He was an incredible all-around player, even throwing eight touchdown passes over his career. He was the heart of the Chicago Bears. Named “Sweetness” for both his play and behavior, Payton broke Jim Brown’s rushing record in 1984 and would set his own by the end of his career.
His high point was the legendary 1985 season where the Bears crushed nearly everyone en route to a Super Bowl win. Retiring in 1987, Payton was easily elected to the Hall of Fame, his number retired by the Bears and is a Chicago icon. His death from cancer in 1999 was a heartbreaker for the city, but his legacy lives on as one of the best players in history.
15 #35: Aeneas Williams
Despite just two years in college, Williams impressed the Cardinals enough to tempt him to jump into the NFL. He was soon setting records for interceptions in the NFC and aiding the Cardinals in beating the Cowboys for their first playoff win in 50 years. He played in six Pro Bowls and tied the record for the longest returned fumble for a touchdown at 104 yards.
Williams also gained infamy for the 1999 Monday Night Football game where his vicious hit on Steve Young was later cited as a key reason for Young’s retirement. Williams’ last few seasons weren’t as good with the Rams and he retired in 2005 but remains one of the biggest nightmares ever for quarterbacks as a man who excelled at forcing turnovers.
14 #36: Jerome Bettis
“The Bus” lived up to his nickname with his large and thick build that boosted him up majorly. He had showcased some great rushing ability at Notre Dame that made him a good pick for the NFL draft. His first two seasons with the Rams were good with him named Rookie of the Year and rushing for a thousand yards in both campaigns. However, in what remains one of their biggest mistakes ever, the Rams decided to trade him to the Steelers, in an effort to build a “pass-oriented” offense.
In Pittsburgh, Bettis thrived, rushing for a thousand yards in each of his first six seasons and helped Pittsburgh rebound back to their old glory as a playoff contender. He’d considered retirement but put it off as he wanted to play Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit. He got his wish as the Steelers won the championship and allowed Bettis to retire on top. Moving on to broadcasting, Bettis was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015 and showcases another great face for Pittsburgh’s amazing legacy.
13 #37: Rodney Harrison
While his college career was good, it wasn’t spectacular so Harrison wasn’t considered a high consideration in the 1994 draft. He was finally chosen in the fifth round by San Diego but quickly established himself with 127 tackles and six interceptions. In 2003, he was released and signed with New England and thus joined an amazing machine. Harrison was soon proving himself in the playoffs, including a key interception off of Peyton Manning to allow the Patriots to win the AFC title.
He had to sit out the Super Bowl due to a fractured ankle but made up for it the next year, once more making key playoff interceptions to help New England and recorded two interceptions off of Donovan McNabb to win another Super Bowl. Retiring in 2008 due to injuries, Harrison is up for the Hall of Fame as a key to the New England dynasty and was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
12 #38: Bob Tucker
True, his record isn’t quite as impressive as many on this list, showing how #38 isn’t really a notable number. Tucker was a bit ahead of his time in many ways with his skill and running and it's a shame he had to waste much of his career on the pitiful New York Giants of the 1970s. This was a squad that played in four different stadiums in their time and Tucker still showed skill by catching more passes than any other tight end in that decade. His great height and build aided him with many considering him possibly the best tight end to never play in a Super Bowl. Catching 422 passes for 5,421 yards, Tucker just had the bad luck of being a good player stuck on a horrible team and not getting to shine as well as he could have.
11 #39: Larry Csonka
At Syracuse, Csonka set school records with nearly 3,000 yards rushing and boosting the school nicely in play. He was drafted by the Dolphins but suffered a harsh concussion in his very first game and a worse one a few weeks later that also included a broken nose and ear. Despite that, Csonka kept coming back, leading Miami in rushing for five straight seasons and not missing a game in four years. He was part of undefeated Dolphins team of 1972 that won the Super Bowl with another victory the year after.
He was regarded as arguably the toughest man in football at the time, smashing down opponents and not backing down while getting into wild antics behind the scenes. He had a stint with the Giants but finished his career in Miami, a Hall of Famer who always showed his toughness and was a key to one of the greatest teams in NFL history.
10 #40: Gale Sayers
“The Kansas Comet” had proven himself at that school with his skills in the long jump and nearly 4,000 yards rushing, one of the best in college history. Back then, both the NFL and AFL could go for draft picks and most thought Sayers would go to the Chiefs of the AFL .
He surprised by signing with the Bears. He did it all, from rushing to receiving, to returning kicks and scored 22 total touchdowns in his rookie year with 2,272 total yards. He continued to put up great numbers but was hampered by how the Bears of the time weren’t as good around him and his injuries later hampered his career. After realizing he just didn’t have the skill anymore, Sayers retired in 1972. His number has been retired by the Bears and has gained fame by his friendship with dying teammate Brian Piccolo (Billy Dee Williams played him in “Brian’s Song.”) to be a favorite among Bears fans.
#41: Lorenzo Neal
He bounced around teams a lot but Neal still showcased a good skill that made him a bright spot on any roster. A star at Fresno State as both football player and wrestler, Neal had the size and power to become a good rusher and was terrific at blocking opponents. Drafted by the Saints, Neal was marred by a leg injury that would hamper him for the rest of his playing days. But he came back, setting a career high in 1996 with 31 receptions. His true skill was taking out opponents and was even encouraged to play dirty if he had to.
From there, his career took him around; the Jets, the Bucs, the Titans (where he was a great aid to the “Music City Miracle” playoff victory), Bengals, Chargers (where he spent the most time), Ravens and finally the Raiders. Neal was always a great aid to someone else racking up good rushing yards while taking down opposing players. Some might say that if he’d been able to stay with one team longer, he might have been far more notable but still earned a place on the 2000s All-Decade team as one of the better fullbacks around.
9 #42: Ronnie Lott
At USC, Lott aided the Trojans to two Rose Bowls and a share of the National Championship as well as being team captain. Drafted by San Francisco in 1981, Lott quickly established himself as one of the best safeties in the game, leading the league in interceptions and yards run back and was a key player in the 49ers defense. He was with the team for their glory period where they won four Super Bowls. He was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection and twice led the NFL in interceptions.
He would leave for the Raiders in 1991 but eventually ended his career back in San Francisco. His number retired by the team, Lott was inducted into the Hall of Fame and was seen as possibly the best safety ever known and a major part of one of the best dynasties in NFL history.
8 #43: Troy Polamalu
Polamalu figured USC was his destiny, openly stating “I was named Troy for a reason.” The large-built Samoan proved it, leading the team in tackles and his fantastic strength on full display mowing down opponents for a victory. While often hampered by injuries, he still remained team captain and was arguably the Steelers' most important defensive player. Drafted by Pittsburgh, Polamalu became an eight time Pro Bowler, recording 770 tackles and 32 interceptions.
He was a key part of the Steelers' revival as a powerhouse, winning two Super Bowls before injuries finally forced him to retire in 2015. Some may chastise his occasionally dirty play but Steelers fans loved seeing Troy make the big tackle or key interception to save a game. He seems a lock for the Hall of Fame one day and has established himself as one of the toughest to don a Steelers uniform.
7 #44: John Riggins
Sadly, Riggins is a bit more infamous for the 1985 Salute to Congress dinner where he mixed painkillers and alcohol and proceeded to insult Sandra Day O’Connor. That overwhelms a truly great career that established Riggins as one of the best running backs of his time. His early years with the Jets were okay but not truly sensational with Riggins held back by bad coaching in New York. Joining the Redskins, he hit his stride, hitting terrific rushing yards every year, even the strike-shortened 1982 season. The highlight was Super Bowl XVII as Riggins rushed for 166 yards to aid the Redskins to victory and was named MVP. Retiring in 1985 with 13,442 yards and 116 touchdowns, Riggins proved his off-field behavior couldn’t diminish a fantastic career.
6 #45: Kenny Easley
At UCLA, Easley managed a record 93 tackles as a Freshman, was an All-American in each season and holds school records for interceptions and tackles. Drafted by Seattle, Easley established himself as a terrific defensive player, making several key interceptions to help the Seahawks out and was a five time Pro Bowl selection. Injuries hampered his career in several places and Easley became famous as a leader for the players in negotiations in 1987 that caused the famous strike.
Easley fought the unions but also wanted to help the players and didn't want any violence inflicted against “the scabs.” He retired in 1988 and while his career wasn’t sensational, many Seahawks fans insist he has a place in their hearts as one of the best players to wear Seattle colors.
5 #46: Tim McDonald
An All-American at USC, McDonald recorded 325 tackles and 11 interceptions, an easy All-American choice. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, McDonald would go on to record over 600 tackles, 20 interceptions and forced seven fumbles. A three-time Pro Bowler, McDonald would see great success signing with San Francisco in 1993 where he gained acclaim for donating $2,000 to charity for every 49ers win ($22,000 in all). He was part of the San Francisco squad that won Super Bowl XXIX as he and Melton Hanks forged a great defensive team. He retired in 1999 but remained around a defensive coach, currently a DBs coach with the Bills.
While some may say he’s not Hall of Fame worthy, McDonald’s contributions were great for a Super Bowl-winning team and he showcased himself as the best #46 around.
4 #47: Mel Blount
Blount benefited from being in a time when pass interference rules were a lot less strict than they are today. He was a third-round draft choice for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970 but showed he was a fantastic pick. His “bump and run” pass defense became famous. He could smack balls away from receivers, and many sure-fire passes turned into an incompletion thanks to his work. He suffered a bit when the rules were changed to make such interference illegal and that was actually called “the Mel Blount Rule.”
Despite that, Blount’s fantastic skill at defense was a key reason the Steelers of the ‘70s were “the Steel Curtain” that won four Super Bowls. He led the league in interceptions in 1975, easily elected to the Hall of Fame and is seen as one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history, as well as the namesake of a rule that's still debated today.
3 #48: Daryl Johnston
With his bulky build and hulking manner, it was little wonder Johnston was nicknamed “Moose” by his fellow players. His large build was bigger than most backs and got attention as he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and endured their horrific 1-15 season. However, as the Cowboys transformed into the best team in the NFL, Johnston became one of the best special teams guys around.
He scored 22 touchdowns, his 294 receptions high among Dallas backs and forced the NFL to create the fullback position for the Pro Bowl. Johnson was key to the squad that won three Super Bowls and established the dynasty of the 1990s. Retiring in 1999, he still gets the calls of “MOOOOOOOOOOSE!” at games and remains a Cowboys fan favorite.
2 #49: Bobby Mitchell
A throwback in the time before the Super Bowl, Mitchell scored a touchdown on his very first play at the University of Illinois. That was the start of a good career that also included records in track. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 1958 draft by the Browns and forged a fantastic team with Jim Brown that led Cleveland to major success with 2,297 yards rushing overall. He was part of a controversial trade to the Redskins and his very first play was running a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. He remained a key player with nearly 60 receptions in consecutive seasons and when he retired, his 14,078 yards were second only to Brown. Retiring in 1968, Mitchell would remain an executive with the Redskins to oversee three Super Bowl championships and is regarded as one of the best players in Washington's history.
1 #50: Mike Singletary
Many claim the 1985 Chicago Bears could well be the single greatest defense the NFL has ever known. The center of it was Singletary, nicknamed “Iron Mike” and “the Samurai.” He holds records for his tackles at Baylor that earned him a spot with the Bears in 1981. Singletary aided Chicago in some rough seasons, known for finding the perfect holes in an offensive line to plunge in for a hard tackle and sack. His intensity and focus rubbed off on his teammates who cited him as the heart of the defense.
Of course, 1985 was the high point as the Bears manhandled everyone in their path, losing only one game en route to a convinving Super Bowl victory. Retiring in 1992, Singletary was elected to the Hall of Fame and has gone on to coach the 49ers and is currently working with the Rams. In Chicago, he’s still revered for his role in the greatest Bears team ever and was one of the more terrifying defensive opponents to go up against.