clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

6 Hall of Famers who would still kick butt in today’s NFL

Some players from back in the day could absolutely still play now.

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

Old folks love talking about how the athletes they watched growing up were better than the ones we see today. They’re generally wrong, but there are at least a handful of players from the 1980s and ‘90s who could be dropped into a current NFL game without missing a beat.

For some players, today’s NFL is even better suited for their skillsets than the style of football that made them famous. Now the game is spread out and heavily favors passing the ball. The greatness certain Hall of Fame-caliber players exhibited 20-30 years ago wouldn’t just translate, but they’d thrive.

Specifically, here are six players from the past who would still kick ass in 2019.

Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants

Lawrence Taylor put pass-rushing linebackers on the map.

Whether he’s the greatest defensive player of all time is up for debate, but his impact on the game is undeniable.

Taylor boasted unbelievable athleticism, which allowed him to rack up 11 sacks per season over the final 12 years of his career.

The NFL that Taylor dominated in the 1980s is different than the one we watch now.

Teams throw the ball slightly more and shotgun is much more prevalent than it was then. If you plucked Taylor out of the ‘80s and transported him to 2019, he would have so many more opportunities to annihilate offensive lines in the passing game.

Just look at how much more explosive he was than everyone else on the field. Whether he needed to run around the offensive line or run through the offensive line, no one was touching LT.

Taylor’s pass-rushing prowess with the Giants led him to the Hall of Fame as a first ballot inductee in 1999. When he retired in 1993, his 132.5 sacks ranked second all-time behind Reggie White. He now ranks 13th in sacks.

That number would likely be higher at a time with Von Miller and Khalil Mack, considering that Taylor was one of the first pass-rushing linebackers to truly ransack the NFL.

Dan Marino, QB Miami Dolphins

When you consider the era he was playing in, a legitimate argument can be made that Dan Marino in 1984 had the greatest quarterback season in NFL history.

Marino had an Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) mark of 9.4 in a season when the average was 6.2. In 2018, the average AY/A was 7.3; the only quarterback to top Marino’s 9.4 AY/A was MVP Patrick Mahomes, who put up 9.6.

When you turn on old games where Marino appeared, it’s easy to see why he eviscerated NFL defenses. He had the perfect combination of rocket arm strength, impeccable accuracy, and a lightning-quick release.

Check out this throw along the sideline. The ball exploded out of Marino’s hand and hit his receiver right as he finished his comeback route.

Now imagine Marino playing in 2019 — not only when defensive backs can’t be as physical but when he’d be in shotgun, spread systems with RPOs sprinkled throughout that’d take advantage of his ability to get rid of the ball quickly.

Even with the boom in passing stats that occurred after he retired, Marino’s career numbers are still eye-popping. He ranks fifth all-time in career passing yards, fifth in passing touchdowns, and has completed the fifth-most passes in NFL history.

As good as he was, Marino would’ve been even more lethal playing a couple decades later with the league being tailored toward what made him such a dynamic quarterback.

Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions

Barry Sanders might be the best running back of all time, and his game perfectly fits what teams want from the position in 2019. He was so explosive with the ball and defenders had a hard time getting their hands on him in the open field.

Watch this run against the Patriots. Sanders made No. 42 do a 360 while trying to tackle him and powered through another tackle attempt as he crossed the goal line.

On top of Sanders’ running ability, he also was a spectacular receiver out of the backfield. He caught at least 24 passes in every year of his career. Since Sanders was drafted in 1989, only 12 running backs have 10 seasons with at least 24 receptions. In 1990, he averaged 13.3 yards per reception — that would have ranked 41st among all qualifying players in 2018.

Still, his greatest accomplishment was making the Lions worth watching.

John Randle, DT, Minnesota Vikings/Seattle Seahawks

Before Aaron Donald, there was John Randle. Like Donald, Randle was an undersized defensive tackle (6’1 and 290 pounds) who was a menace as a pass rusher. Randle totaled at least 10 sacks in nine of his 14 NFL seasons and led the league in sacks in 1997 with 15.5.

Unlike Donald, Randle went undrafted — but that didn’t stop him from putting together a Hall of Fame career.

Randle was simply a better athlete than the offensive linemen he was playing against. Here you can see his ability to bend around the offensive lineman and explode through the quarterback for a strip sack.

That’s the stuff that Donald is doing right now with the Rams.

The NFL in 2019 would be ideal time for Randle to terrorize opposing offensive linemen. Nowadays, Randle might be a 20-sack player — just like Donald.

Sterling Sharpe, WR, Green Bay Packers

Sterling Sharpe is one of the great “what-ifs” in NFL history. His career was cut short in 1994 due to a neck injury, but he was still incredibly productive for seven seasons before he got hurt. So while he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he did make it into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Packers’ own version.

Sharpe was third in the NFL in receiving yards over those seven seasons behind Jerry Rice and Henry Ellard. His route running and quickness out of his breaks allowed him to create a lot of separation against defensive backs.

Those strengths would be accentuated now that the NFL has made defensive back play more difficult with spot foul penalties and penalties that result in automatic first downs. He’d be a monster in the RPO game with the ability to maximize his gains after the catch.

Sharpe was a prolific receiver for his era and he’d be even better under today’s rules. Imagine dropping him into an offense with Aaron Rodgers — he’d set the league on fire.

Bruce Smith, DE, Buffalo Bills/Washington

Another throwback pass rusher, Bruce Smith is still the all-time leader in career sacks with a whopping 200.

Although he played until 2003, his prime was in the 1980s and 1990s. At 6’4, 262 pounds, he had the prototypical size for a defensive end — and rare athleticism to beat offensive tackles around the edge.

Just watch Smith get around the corner here and dip his hips on the way to the quarterback.

That balance would work in any era — not just the era that he played in.

NFL players who came after him, like former Buccaneers defensive lineman Stephen White and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, have tried to emulate Smith’s game and make it their own.

If players are still studying Smith’s game, he’d absolutely crush it in today’s NFL.