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The best offensive players I've ever seen

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I have seen a lot of football over the years. In fact, I can say that I've probably seen every top player in the NFL since about 1959 or so, whether at the combine, during workouts or in training camp. And seeing a player in person can really leave an impression on you.

Inspired by NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2016," I thought I'd go back over all the players I've watched in person and compile a list of the best offensive players I've ever seen.

This is not meant to be a definitive, all-time-best list; it is entirely subjective and reflects my personal opinions based largely on what I've witnessed with my own eyes. As with any list of this sort, many notable names were left out -- not because I've overlooked them, but because they just didn't crack the lineup.

Below is my list of the best offensive players I've seen, presented in reverse order.

14) Mike Ditka, tight end

Chicago Bears, 1961-66; Philadelphia Eagles, 1967-68; Dallas Cowboys, 1969-1972.

By the numbers: 158 games (98 started), 427 receptions, 5,812 receiving yards, 43 receiving touchdowns.

The first tight end inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame might not have been a great receiver, but he was one tough guy. He lined up inside, almost like a tackle, and was a real asset as a blocker. He was also an outstanding basketball player at Pittsburgh. He's one of the most competitive individuals I've ever seen -- whether he's playing football, checkers, darts or cards. After he retired, he joined the Cowboys coaching staff, and he used to play cards on the way home from our games. He'd always get his clock cleaned by Dan Reeves, who was good at everything. Ditka would throw his cards and Tom Landry would just give him the stare. On the field, he was like a man for whom the game was never over, no matter what -- he always gave it his all until the final whistle.

13) Jim Parker, left tackle

Baltimore Colts, 1957-1967.

By the numbers: 135 games. 

The Hall of Famer was really one of the first left tackles to stand out, because people started to see how important it was to protect his quarterback, Johnny Unitas. Technique-wise and in terms of foot quickness, the eight-time Pro Bowler and eight-time first-team All-Pro was off the charts.

12) Kellen Winslow, tight end

San Diego Chargers, 1979-1987.

By the numbers: 109 games (94 started), 541 receptions, 6,741 receiving yards, 45 receiving touchdowns.

I got to know Winslow quite well when he was selected to the Playboy All-American team. Given that Winslow didn't start playing football until late in high school in East St. Louis, and given that Winslow played his college ball at Missouri, where they didn't throw that much, I was always impressed with how well he caught the ball. I also was impressed by how hard he played. Whatever the conditions were, the Hall of Famer produced, whether in freezing cold and blistering heat. He was one of the great athletes to play in the NFL.

11) Johnny Unitas, quarterback

Baltimore Colts, 1956-1972; San Diego Chargers, 1973.

By the numbers: 211 games (185 started), 54.6 percent completion rate, 40,239 passing yards, 290 passing touchdowns.

Listed at 6-1 -- though he didn't look it, thanks to sloping shoulders -- Unitas became a fan favorite because he was a throwback, with his high shoes and brush haircut. He became the underdog people loved, having proven himself to be an elite player after being cut by the Steelers, who'd drafted him in the ninth round in 1955. Unitas went on to earn 10 Pro Bowl nods and three NFL MVP awards, carrying Baltimore to consecutive NFL titles in 1958 and '59. By the time he helped beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl V -- his first and only Super Bowl win -- he was 37 and no longer in his prime. He took a lot of hits; in fact, Dallas knocked him out of the game on a Jethro Pugh tackle. But I will always remember the Hall of Famer's precision as a dropback passer who had great chemistry with Raymond Berry, especially on sideline routes -- he would let the ball go before Berry even made the move to the sideline.

10) Roger Staubach, quarterback

Dallas Cowboys, 1969-1979.

By the numbers: 131 games (114 started), 57 percent completion rate, 22,700 passing yards, 153 passing touchdowns.

Staubach came to us as a 27-year-old rookie, thanks to the four years he spent in the Navy after we drafted him in 1964. Even while he was in the service, he'd write to me, asking for footballs to practice with -- one time, he asked me to send more after the shipment we'd sent had been blown up by a mortar shell. Landry described him as someone you could never beat physically or mentally. In 11 seasons, Staubach went 85-29 as a starter and won two Super Bowl rings. You knew that, no matter what the score was, he'd give you a chance to win; I remember one time when we were down by 48 points in Minnesota and he still believed he could win as the final minutes ticked off. His competitiveness was off the charts, as his 23 game-winning drives illustrate. Oh, and if Landry had let him run, he could have been like the Cam Newton of his day. He's also one of the finest people ever.

9) Tony Gonzalez, tight end

Kansas City Chiefs, 1997-2008; Atlanta Falcons, 2009-2013.

By the numbers: 270 games (254 started), 1,325 receptions, 12,15,127 receiving yards, 111 receiving touchdowns.

The first time I encountered Gonzalez was when he was part of the Cal basketball teams' trips to the NCAA Men's Tournament in 1996 and '97. He was a rare breed, a great athlete and a fitness freak who was an impact player to the bitter end, making his 14th Pro Bowl -- tied for the most ever -- and racking up 859 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season. He had great hands and was a route-runner who could also block; he played like a man among boys. He was a 6-foot-5, 251-pounder who moved more like a 6-foot, 180-pound point guard in terms of his quickness and control. He looks big on film, but when you saw him in person, his strength and size were very apparent.

8) Anthony Muñoz, tackle

Cincinnati Bengals, 1980-1992.

By the numbers: 185 games (184 started)

Muñoz was extremely athletic -- he could throw the ball like a quarterback. The thing I remember most about the Hall of Famer -- and he's become a really good friend -- was during the Playboy All-American weekend, when I was part of a group including Muñoz, Charles White and Ed Budde that went out for drinks at a bar in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Some of the other patrons got the idea to fight us, but cooler heads prevailed. As we were getting into the car to leave, one of the other troublemakers kicked the back window in -- but Muñoz just urged us to drive away. That's the kind of even-keeled guy he was.

7) John Hannah, guard

New England Patriots, 1973-1985.

By the numbers: 183 games (183 started)

Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White told me Hannah was the best guard he ever played against. He was strong, fast, had long arms and outstanding competitiveness -- in short, he had everything we look for in offensive linemen today. The Hall of Famer was a seven-time first-team All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler.

6) Barry Sanders, running back

Detroit Lions, 1989-1998.

By the numbers: 153 games (151 started), 3,062 carries, 15,269 rushing yards, 99 rushing touchdowns.

I was at his pro day at Oklahoma State, when he ran the 40 in 4.42 and 4.41 seconds -- and in the clothes he'd worn on the airplane to get there, because he was running late. He just put on shoes and knocked those 40s out like they were nothing. Sanders had great quickness and was very strong and elusive, and he looked even quicker, stronger and more explosive in person than he does on film. That combination was especially potent; there were guys who were quick, but few were also as powerful. His vision was also something else. Sanders almost had a sixth sense in terms of when somebody was coming from behind. I selected him for the Playboy All-American team, and I had a good relationship with him; though he had a reputation as someone who didn't do many interviews, I found him to be a man of depth.

5) Peyton Manning, quarterback

Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2011; Denver Broncos, 2012-15.

By the numbers: 266 games (265 started), 65.3 percent completion rate, 71,940 passing yards, 539 passing touchdowns.

I don't think he was ever timed, but I do think he's a little faster than Tom Brady. I know the Mannings, and I'm not sure too many outside observers understand how important football and its history are to him; he's a football junky. He didn't have the strongest arm and he wasn't the most agile guy, but he was exceptionally smart and well-prepared, to the point that he's one of the greatest QBs of all time. He worked hard to overcome his limitations in terms of mobility and strength. I'm not sure people know how hard he worked. I've seen him come on the field two-and-a-half-hours before kickoff to take his receivers through the route tree.

4) Tom Brady, quarterback

New England Patriots, 2000-present.

By the numbers: 225 games (223 started), 63.6 percent completion rate, 58,028 passing yards, 428 passing touchdowns.

What you can see better in person than you can on camera is Brady's outstanding ability to release the ball so that his receiver catches it in stride. He has a great feel for that. You also get a great sense of how important it is to him to win, just based on the way he talks to teammates and carries himself. I invited him to the East-West Shrine Game back when he was a prospect coming out of Michigan, and I got to know him quite well then. I'm not saying I knew exactly how great he was going to be, but I did see that he had some potential. What the four-time Super Bowl winner and two-time MVP has accomplished since then, of course, is off the charts.

3) Jerry Rice, wide receiver

San Francisco 49ers, 1985-2000; Oakland Raiders, 2001-04; Seattle Seahawks, 2004.

By the numbers: 303 games (284 started), 1,549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards, 197 receiving touchdowns.

This is a sad story for me. Rice was probably the most discussed player in my years with the Cowboys. Our biggest concern ahead of the 1985 NFL Draft was his lack of flat-out speed, but scout Ron Marciniak, who loved the guy, all but got up on the table in our draft meeting to stump for him, insisting that he was faster than his times. After the Bengals took Eddie Brown 13th overall, we thought we were home-free to take Rice at No. 17 -- but the Niners swooped in, trading with the Patriots for the 16th pick and stealing him away. Rice carried the uniform well -- he was as fast on game day as he was in shorts. In person, his hands really stood out. Sometimes, you can hear a guy catch the football, but with Rice, it was almost completely silent. Even with everyone keying on him most of the time, he racked up career receiving numbers no one else will ever touch.

2) Don Hutson, wide receiver

Green Bay Packers, 1935-1945.

By the numbers: 116 games (60 started), 488 receptions, 7,991 receiving yards, 99 receiving touchdowns.

When I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, pro football was probably one-tenth of one percent as fan-friendly as it is today, and very few people outside the state of Wisconsin had any interest in the Packers. But I saw the team play several times with my dad, both in Milwaukee, in the middle of the dirt race track at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, and in Green Bay, at old City Stadium. Hutson is the first player I can remember thinking was a special talent. The biggest thing I was impressed with was his ability to make catches over his shoulder, which was his trademark. He was also one of the first guys I remember seeing catch the ball with his hands. Nobody really ran routes then; people would just run 5 yards, turn around and look for the ball. Nobody really made moves. Hutson was a very fluid route-runner who made a great impact. He was great then and he would be great today -- there's no telling how many catches he'd have.

1) Jim Brown, fullback

Cleveland Browns, 1957-1965.

By the numbers: 118 games (118 started), 2,359 carries, 12,312 rushing yards, 106 rushing touchdowns.

When I was with the Cowboys, we played against Brown 11 times -- and lost 10 times. He recorded 200 carries for 1,053 yards and eight scores, plus 28 catches for 299 yards and two touchdowns against us. Dallas coach Tom Landry could predict the play Cleveland would call about 80 percent of the time, but it didn't matter -- even with the opposition knowing exactly what he was going to do, nobody could stop Brown. He could run inside, outside, over, around -- he could do it all, even catch passes, which was relatively rare for a ball carrier to do at the time. Cowboys defender Bob Lilly has told me how hard it was to tackle Brown one-on-one because of his speed and mobility. The thing that stood out more to me in person than it does on film was the way it looked like Brown was going fast -- and then, all of a sudden, you'd see this sudden burst. That was what made him so difficult to bring down.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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