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Best player in team history, AFC edition: Ray Lewis among picks

Perhaps you've been watching "The Top 100 Players of 2014." There's some interesting fodder for debate there, and not just in terms of player pecking order -- it's fascinating to see which teams have the most representation and which have barely any at all.


Watch "The Top 100 Players of 2014" every week at 9 p.m. ET on NFL Network as we count down to the top player in the NFL. "The Top 100 Players of 2014 Reactions" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.

As good as Tony Romo and Von Miller -- two players recently highlighted in that show -- are, will either end his career with an argument to be considered the top player in his franchise's history? It's a fun exercise in the proverbial lookahead. Romo, of course, has myriad legendary players to deal with, including a couple of signal-callers named Staubach and Aikman. Meanwhile, Miller's current boss seems to have a stranglehold on the Broncos' mantle.

On that note, my NFL Media overlords asked me to pick the best player ever for each organization, starting with the AFC teams. (Click here for the NFC squads.) What kind of criteria factored into my decisions? Well, career accomplishments/accolades obviously played the chief role. That said, I also wanted each selection to be a player synonymous with the franchise, so longevity with the team was a huge factor, as well.

Now, it goes without saying that I anticipate some dissident voices, and I encourage you to let it fly: @HarrisonNFL is the place for your impassioned cries.

Without further ado, let's look at the greatest player for each AFC organization, presented alphabetically for your perusing pleasure (click on player names for career stats):

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Ray Lewis, inside linebacker

This was a tougher choice than you might think. Lewis was not a better linebacker than Jonathan Ogden was a left tackle, nor was he a notch above safety Ed Reed. Moreover, Lewis' murder trial in 2000 caused the franchise great angst. But throughout the course of his 17 seasons, he earned two Super Bowl rings, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and 13 Pro Bowl bids, and he became a leader both for the organization and in the community. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

BUFFALO BILLS: Bruce Smith, defensive end

With no disrespect to Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or anyone from the 1960s AFL Bills -- who won that league's championship in 1964 and '65 -- Smith is the greatest player in franchise history. He performed at a Pro Bowl level for almost all of his 15 seasons in Buffalo. Smith has the most sacks in NFL history -- 200 on the dot -- and was THE elite player on the Bills' Super Bowl teams. Oh, and he was named first-team All-Pro eight times. Now, I'm sure some people will bring up the elephant in the room: O.J. Simpson, who was indeed an incredible running back, despite his obviously sordid off-the-field life. Still, Simpson logged just five and a half seasons of top-notch football.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Anthony Muñoz, left tackle

The most dominant offensive tackle in pro football history is either this guy or Forrest Gregg -- take your pick. Muñoz helped redefine the position, as clubs looked for larger tackles who just couldn't be bull-rushed. Muñoz was a first-team All-Pro selection in nine separate seasons, receiving the honor during both of the Bengals' Super Bowl campaigns (1981 and '88); the argument has been made that he is the greatest O-lineman ever, irrespective of position.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Jim Brown, running back

Surprised? OK, don't answer that. Some picks are simply slam dunks, and this is one such example. Brown led the NFL in rushing during eight of his nine seasons. Think about this for a moment -- can you ever see that happening again? While Otto Graham is an in-the-ballpark second place here, Brown just might be the best football player ever. Only Jerry Rice can challenge in that regard. Brown's career average of 104.3 rushing yards per game boggles the mind.

DENVER BRONCOS: John Elway, quarterback

The Broncos have featured more Hall of Very Good players than most other NFL clubs. Yet, despite all of Denver's success, only one Bronco has been a certifiable first-ballot Hall of Famer: John Elway. His come-from-behind directives are legendary, his physical tools otherworldly. The 1987 MVP also added a Super Bowl MVP (and a second ring) 11 seasons later before riding off into the sunset. Elway is so highly thought of that he was the first overall pick in both the 1983 draft and our recently executed All-Time Draft of 2014.

HOUSTON TEXANS: Andre Johnson, wide receiver

Johnson's a no-show at this week's OTAs, but he has shown up plenty for the Texans throughout his illustrious career. Johnson has never played for another team, having joined the franchise in its second year of existence. The 11-year vet has seven 1,000-yard seasons to his name, while also posting 976 yards in his rookie campaign and 851 yards in 2007, when he missed almost half the year.

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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Johnny Unitas, quarterback

Sorry, Peyton Manning worshippers, but we're going with Johnny U. At one time, Unitas was considered the best quarterback of all time, whereas Manning might not be the top QB of his era. (Yes, I know Unitas spent his playing days in Baltimore, but this is about the franchise, not the city.) Unitas led the Colts to a pair of NFL titles in the 1950s, and also snagged a Lombardi Trophy in 1970. Not to mention, his Colts also appeared in the 1964 NFL Championship Game and Super Bowl III. Some credit Unitas with pioneering the "two-minute offense." Well, he was definitely credited with three MVPs (in 1959, '64 and '67).

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Jimmy Smith, wide receiver

Tough call, here. Tony Boselli was dominant, but he didn't play long enough. Keenan McCardell was a model of consistency, but he was never truly dominant. Fred Taylor's 11,271 rushing yards for the franchise, meanwhile, are tough to dismiss. Yet, with apologies to Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, Smith's résumé is simply impossible to ignore. Former Eagles coach Rich Kotite once told the guy he would never make it in the NFL. Smith responded by racking up nine -- NINE!! -- 1,000-yard seasons in Jacksonville. With 862 receptions to his name, Smith's easily the most prolific pass-catcher in Jags history.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Derrick Thomas, outside linebacker

Choices abound for the Chiefs, who had a Hall of Fame quarterback for 13 years (Len Dawson) as well as two game-changing linebackers in Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell. ... Well, add a third. Thomas gets the nod because he was always a fantastic player, notching 10 sacks as a rookie and 12 in his penultimate season. A nine-time Pro Bowler, Thomas played his entire career in Kansas City. "DT" was always considered the club's best player, even when Joe Montana was there.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Dan Marino, quarterback

No, he didn't win a Super Bowl in Miami, but Marino is the most prolific player to wear the helmet with the dolphin on it. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. His 1984 season arguably remains the most ridiculous offensive campaign ever, as he threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in a rules system that was nowhere near as mediocre-quarterback-friendly as today's. Marino played 17 seasons in Miami, all of them as the face of the franchise.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Tom Brady, quarterback

This pick wasn't as easy-peasy as some might've anticipated. John Hannah has been called "the greatest offensive lineman ever" by many folks, and he played at a Hall of Fame level from stem to stern in his 13-year career with the Pats. That said, Brady has led New England to five Super Bowls (winning thrice), making the playoffs in all but one season as a full-time starter. Brady's 2007 and 2010 seasons -- both of which earned him MVP honors -- are among the best statistical seasons ever at the position.

NEW YORK JETS: Joe Namath, quarterback

Many criticize Namath for all the interceptions. Detractors claim he was hurt all the time and "only had one great game." But there was so much more to Broadway Joe than knee ailments and Super Bowl III. Namath's footwork and release were masterful -- stuff coaches still try to teach today. He was the first passer to eclipse 4,000 yards, playing in an era where 2,500 yards was pretty doggone good. And his contract -- the wooing of Joe Namath -- forced the AFL-NFL merger as much as anything. He was a terrific player. Period.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: Jim Otto, center

The Raiders present one of the great quandaries on our list: With so many Hall of Famers and a two-decade run of excellence, who do you take? Howie Long deserves mention. Willie Brown merits commentary, as well. Ken Stabler, Cliff Branch and especially Fred Biletnikoff must be considered. Still, there was only one Jim Otto. Wearing the famous "00" made him noticeable to fans in the 1960s and '70s, but even more striking was his résumé -- Otto earned All-Pro, AFL All-Star and/or Pro Bowl honors in 13 of his 15 seasons. The game all starts with the snap of the football, and Otto was the best at it. His tough-guy image fit well with both his team and his era.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Joe Greene, defensive tackle

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Like the Raiders, the Steelers just have so many premier players -- Hall of Fame-level players -- that trying to choose one name is a challenge bordering on the impossible. In a tight race among many, "Mean Joe" gets the nod. Was he better than Jack Ham? Probably not. Ernie Stautner is the only player to officially have his number retired. Yet, Greene was the first draft choice of the Chuck Noll era, the opening salvo of a glorious stretch that brought four Super Bowl titles to Pittsburgh. Greene was a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Lance Alworth, wide receiver

I can already hear the calls for Dan Fouts or Junior Seau or LaDainian Tomlinson as the Chargers' best representative, but omitting Alworth's name from this list would be an oversight at best -- and a serious error at worst. "Bambi" was the first player who spent the majority of his career in the AFL to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Why? Because he was damn near unstoppable. He compiled seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, and his 1965 campaign was Randy Moss-like: 1,602 yards, 23.2 yards per catch and 14 touchdowns ... in 14 games.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Bruce Matthews, offensive lineman

Went back and forth on Earl Campbell and Matthews. The argument for Campbell: He was the best player at his position for three NFL seasons. No other Oiler/Titan can make that claim. Yet, Matthews is the choice. He was always among the top guys at his position, and gave the franchise two decades of service. Oh, and the fact he made 14 Pro Bowls doesn't hurt, either. Fourteen?!

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Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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