For all NFL players, one particular item trumps whoever carries the largest contract, the more tricked-out Escalade, the most All-Pro nods: a Super Bowl ring. I could give you a hundred names of fantastic players who never earned the ultimate football prize and still wouldn't even be scratching the surface on this constantly expanding universe of the ringless. Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Jim Hart? That's half a century of Super Bowl era quarterbacking ... and less rings than the one Frodo carried around.
What better way to kick off a tab of the 10 players who are most deserving of a Super Bowl ring than with a guy who has never even made the playoffs? Hard to believe Marshall, for all his production, has never played meaningful football in mid-January. We're talking about a player who has caught at least 100 passes in six different seasons and surpassed 1,000 yards in eight. Sure, there was a time when Marshall's mental health challenges -- which he's openly discussed in admirable fashion -- spawned team turmoil. But it appears that he has moved past that point of his career, evolving into a true professional. Marshall has earned first-team All-Pro honors (in 2012) and led the NFL in touchdown catches (2015). Wouldn't it be nice to see him in action, playing for that elusive ring, on a Super Bowl Sunday in the coming years?
What a stud. What else can you say about Gore, who just rushed for over 1,000 yards at an age when most running backs are on the couch (or have been for several years)? The 33-year-old's 1,025-yard total was the highest by any RB not named John Riggins or Walter Payton in Year 12. And that was Gore's ninth 1,000-yard season. He got so close to winning it all during his time with the Harbaugh 49ers -- and he's always been the consummate pro. Methinks Gore's not going to make it to the Super Bowl with the in-therapy Colts in 2017 (if they do indeed keep him around). How many running backs do you know who play past Year 13? Analyze that.
Once one of the dominant players in pro football -- Gates earned first-team All-Pro honors in three straight years from 2004 to '06 -- the tight end has slowed down in recent years. He's also found the end zone a staggering 111 times -- tied for the most ever by a tight end with Tony Gonzalez -- and just hit paydirt seven times at age 36. Gates has played in more than 200 NFL games. That's a whole lotta action without a ring on that finger.
Peppers has 15 NFL seasons under his belt -- the most of anyone on this list. He did make a Super Bowl in only his second year in the NFL, starting for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but he hasn't been back to the big game since. Peppers is not a franchise player anymore, yet he still provided the Packers with a pass rush in key situations this season. Unfortunately, Peppers and the entire defense just delivered a lemon in Atlanta. If he does go another year, it might be solely to get the hardware. (Feasible, given the presence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.) Peppers owns 143.5 sacks. All he needs is a Lombardi on that résumé.
Rivers has been at it for well over a decade. He brought the Chargers to the brink of a Super Bowl in the 2007 campaign, playing the AFC Championship Game in New England while seriously injured (not hurt). Rivers has generally been a top-10 quarterback since taking over the reins in 2006. While this season wasn't his best, Rivers was once again leaned on while a chunk of his team ended up on IR. Quarterbacks own so much more responsibility than other players, and while they often get too much credit, players like Rivers (and the next guy on our list) often endure far too much criticism.
The careers of Romo and Rivers are so similar that they deserve to share a ranking slot. Both became starters in 2006, replaced accomplished veterans, were often asked to do too much, have been underrated and hated on in the Twitterdom. Romo has been fantastic, owning the fourth-best career passer rating in NFL history (97.1), but because his team has endured playoff failures, there's no shortage of dimwits who disparage him. During his last healthy season, Romo led the NFL in passer rating (113.2), completion percentage (69.9) and finished third in the MVP race. Without the preseason injury, could Romo have guided the Cowboys to the Super Bowl this season?
The Browns' left tackle has played every snap for a poor football team, and only experienced a winning season once: in his rookie campaign. Since that 2007 season, the six-time first-team All-Pro has done his job at an elite level ... while his team has gone 38-106. Former teammate Alex Mack is starting in Super Bowl LI, by the way. #unfair #Browns
Peterson, when healthy and available, has been a top player on the field every time he's stepped on one. He's the last non-quarterback to win league MVP -- and, given how the NFL is trending, could hold that designation for a long time to come. Peterson came thisclose to breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record during his prolific 2012 campaign, singlehandedly pushing the Vikings into the postseason. He's led the league in rushing two other times, as well (2008 and 2015). Unfortunately, Peterson failed to play up to his standard in his lone NFC Championship Game appearance -- yes, he rushed for three scores, but his fumblitis severely hurt the Vikings -- and has missed 28 games over the past three seasons. It will be interesting to see how this career plays out going forward.
So Fitzgerald is walking right into the Hall of Fame when eligible. We know this already. But will Fitz get a bust and a Super Bowl ring? Perhaps he's already had his best shot, back in Super Bowl XLIII. The 2015 campaign looked promising ... before the Cardinals were blasted in the NFC Championship Game. As it stands right now, Fitzgerald ranks third all-time in receptions, having just led the NFL in that category with 107 in 2016. Time is running out on one of the most reliable WRs to ever lace 'em up. In fact, Fitzgerald already has openly pondered retirement. Bruce Arians will do much convincing the other way, methinks.
Witten earns the top spot on this list because he is sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer -- like a few guys right below him. Where he separates from them is in service time, while being without question one of the top five tight ends ever. (Gonzalez, Gronk, Witten, Winslow Sr., Mackey? Hit me: @HarrisonNFL.) Like Rob Gronkowski, Witten is asked to block often and is an every-down player. He ranks seventh in NFL history in catches, behind just one tight end (Tony Gonzalez). No longer an automatic Pro Bowler, the 34-year-old still caught 69 balls this season. In fact, Dak Prescott completed 72 percent of his passes when targeting Witten. No. 82 can still play.