The National Football League is a place where brute force meets elegant skills; where eye-grabbing speed is met with resounding thumps; where the smallest and biggest of men face off in a battle of wits every Sunday.
The boom in the NFL’s popularity has led to all sorts of developments within the space, whether that be in media coverage, availability of NFL expert picks, or access to individual players— but no matter how much the game’s visibility increases, it will always be defined by a selection of familiar faces.
Here are the top players that defined the NFL in the 2010s.
How could this list not have Tom Brady on it? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and former New England Patriots quarterback dominated his era, reaching seemingly every AFC Championship game and winning three Super Bowls during this decade, part of his NFL-record seven. Brady was iconic for his on-field play, specifically his late-game heroics in both the regular and postseason, as well as his steadiness and unrelenting aggression.
Brady was the focal point in the Patriots’ dynasty and will be revered for having one of, if not the best run, ever. He stole headlines for his involvement in deflate-gate (which he was absolved of guilt from) and a few of his coach’s walking-the-line antics, but nobody could begin to tell the story of football— especially in this era— without Brady.
Manning was Brady’s most fierce rival during the peak of his powers, winning one of his two Super Bowls in the 2010s and also becoming an icon for both his incredible arm talent and witty personality. Manning appeared for both the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he started his career, and the Denver Broncos, with whom he set the league record for most passing touchdowns in a single season (55).
Now it’s familiar face on television, Manning used to bark out “Omaha!” during seemingly every pre-snap call and was a master of manipulation. This quality helped him to stay ahead of opposing defenses long after his athletic peak passed him by. Manning sometimes had issues winning big games in the playoffs, but he finished his career with a 3-0 record against Brady in the postseason across their final three meetings and will forever go down in the history books as one of the all-time greats.
Lewis did not play long into the 2010s and was closer to the top of his game in the 2000s, but he was still an ever-present figure that had a cultural impact even beyond that of his on the field. Lewis made two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl in the 2010s with a Baltimore Ravens team that came to embody his personality: a tough, relentlessly driven figure that would do anything to win. The former University of Miami linebacker went out on top, retiring right after he won Super Bowl XLVII.
The fierce middle-linebacker was a bone-cruncher in the middle of the field and, perhaps, the greatest leader that the game has ever seen, but he also had a fun and humble side. One of the best parts of watching the Ravens play was seeing his customary pre-game dance routine during the introductions, which got the crowd going and enshrined him in Baltimore’s culture.
Sherman might not be one of the outright best players of the decade, though he certainly was in his position, yet he makes this list for a different reason. In a time when NFL predictions had begun to shift towards favoring high-octane offenses with explosive passing games, Sherman was the shutdown corner on a defensive-minded Seattle Seahawks team that won the 2013 Super Bowl. He was arrogantly confident but always backed up his talk with his play, making him a pain for opposing coaches and players alike.
Sherman’s most memorable moment came in a press conference after a postseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, where he anointed himself the best in the game. He lived out that reputation for the decade, making three First-Team All-Pros and shutting down the best receivers in the league.