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Top 10 "What Could Have Been" NFL Players

Updated on April 27, 2015

Though they could've been all time greats, that does not mean they didn't have successful careers. In fact many on this list decent careers, but we just never got to see there full potential either do to injury, death, or just not getting a fair chance. Today I rank the top 10 what could have been players in NFL history.

10. Don Majkowski

The "Majic Man" was a productive quarterback in Green Bay, but an injury allowed his backup to be one of the best ever.

A 10th round pick in 1987, Don Majkowski split time with Randy Wright in his first two seasons. By 1989, he was the full time starter throwing for over 4,300 yards and 27 touchdowns. On a play on September 20, 1992 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Majkowski tore a ligament in his ankle. He was replaced after the play by Brett Favre, who completed the game. Favre went on to start in every consecutive Packers game through the 2007 season. Majkowski spent his final four years in Indianapolis and Detroit before retiring in 1996 as a 1989 All-Pro and pro bowler.

If Don Majkowski doesn't have that injury, Brett Favre may have never saw the field in Green Bay. He was one of the most productive quarterbacks for the Packers since Bart Starr and who knows what it would have been like if he served under Mike Holmgren's system long enough.

9. Gabriel Rivera

Pittsburgh drafted him to be the next Joe Greene, but a severe injury cost him a promising career.

In his four years at Texas Tech, Gabriel Rivera recorded 321 tackles, 34 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 11 pass deflections, and six fumble recoveries. His senior year, he was named the SWC player of the year. He went on to be a first round pick in 1983, by Pittsburgh in a hope to rebuild the Steel Curtain defense. In his first six games, he recorded two sacks.

In October of 1983, Rivera was driving drunk and crashed his car. The crash sent him through the back of his car and severed his spine, paralyzing him from the waste down. With his combination of size and speed, Rivera could have been the new standard for defensive tackles, but instead it just gave more power to those in the organization who said they should have drafted Pittsburgh native and future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

8. Pat Tillman

He turned down big money to serve his country.

A seventh round pick in 1998. Pat Tillman moved from linebacker to safety in Arizona. His experience at linebacker made him a fierce tackler in the secondary. His best season was in 2000 when he recorded 155 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 9 pass deflections and an interception. At one point in his NFL career, Tillman turned down a five year, $9 million contract offer from the Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals. He finished his career with totals of 238 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions for 37 yards, 3 forced fumbles, 12 pass deflections, and 3 fumble recoveries in four seasons. He was an All-Pro in 2000 and his #40 has since been retired by Arizona.

After the September 11th attacks, Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

7. Billy Sims

He flashed brilliance but a severe injury cost him greatness.

Billy Sims was the first overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. In his four and a half seasons in Detroit, Sims had 1131 carries for 5106 yards and 42 touchdowns. He was given the nickname "Kung Fu Billy Sims" after a game where the Detroit Lions played the Houston Oilers. In the game, rather than be tackled during a run, Sims ran at, jumped, and, while fully airborne, kicked the Oiler's defender in the head. His number "20" would go on to be worn five years after his retirement by Barry Sanders, and is currently retired as an unofficial "Triumvirate" of the greatest Lions in the modern era to ever wear the number, which also includes Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney.

Sims career ended midway through 1984 when he suffered a terrible knee injury and was forced to retire. Medical treatment being what it was in the early 80's, Even if he had decided to make a comeback he would be nowhere near the player he was.

6. Archie Manning

He was the first great player in New Orleans history and he would be more remembered today if he had any level of talent around him.

A first round pick in 1971, Archie Manning was the New Orleans offense for a long time. He was usually one of the few marquee players on a dreadful team. During his tenure in New Orleans, the Saints had nine losing seasons. They only managed to get to .500 once which was also the only season they finished higher than third in their division. Nevertheless, he was well respected by NFL peers. In 1972, Manning led the league in pass attempts and completions and led the NFC in passing yards. He ended his 13 year career having completed 2,011 of 3,642 passes for 23,911 yards and 125 touchdowns. Manning spent his final seasons in Houston and Minnesota before retiring in 1984. He was a two time pro bowler and the 1978 NFC offensive player of the year.

During his time with the Saints, Manning was forced to make plays by himself. Surrounded by a poor offensive line and no talent at the skill positions, He basically had to run for his life much of the time and his body paid the price.

5. Gale Sayers

"The Kansas Comet" was one of the most elusive running backs in league history but he could have been even better if injuries hadn't hindered his longevity.

A first round pick in 1965, Gale Sayers instantly became the Chicago offense's most important weapon. In his rookie year, he scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns and gained 1,374 yards from scrimmage and had 2,272 all-purpose yards. Sayers tied Ernie Nevers and Dub Jones record for touchdowns in a single game with six and won the Rookie of the year award. In 1968, Sayers tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. He came back the next season to lead the league in rushing. It was an incredible feat at the time considering the fact medical technology isn't what it was back then. He retired in 1971 after a failed second comeback with over 9,000 all purpose yards and 56 total touchdowns. In Sayers seven seasons, he was four time pro bowler, five time All-Pro, and led the league in rushing twice. He was the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

If Gale Sayers doesn't have those two knee injuries or if he had the medical technology, he could put a huge dent in the NFL record book.

4. Tim Tebow

He was a successful college quarterback and for a while made his college offense work at the pro level.

A first round pick in 2010, Tim Tebow was criticized for his poor throwing technique and many expected him to play a different position at the pro level. Towards the end of the 2010 season, He started the final three games and accounting for 11 total touchdowns. After starting the 2011 as the backup, Tebow replaced Kyle Orton as the starter after the team started 1-4 on the year. Tebow went on to lead the team to seven wins over the final 11 games and helped the team win the division. He helped the Broncos beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs in the first overtime game under the new overtime rules. The following offseason, he was traded to the Jets for a seventh round draft pick.

If he would have been in an organization with a consistent coach or GM, Tebow could have been successful regardless of his lack of skill set. His ability to run and come from behind should have made any team be willing to take a chance on him.

3. Doug Williams

He was the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl but he couldn't garner long term commitment from either Tampa Bay or Washington.

A first round pick in 1978 by Tampa Bay, Doug Williams was one of the lone bright spots of the Buccaneer offense. He helped the team to the playoffs three times in four years and played in the 1979 NFC Championship Game. Williams improved his completion percentage each year with the Bucs and was regarded as the heart and soul of the team. When he joined the Redskins in 1986, he wasn't supposed to be anything more than a backup. The following season, Injuries and poor play from starter Jay Schroeder forced Williams into the lineup. He was named the starting quarterback for the 1987 playoffs and set a Super Bowl record with four touchdowns in a single quarter. He retired after 1989 as a Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl XXII MVP.

During his time in Tampa Bay, Williams had the lowest salary of any starting quarterback. After the 1982 season, he asked the Tampa Bay ownership for a $600,000 contract. When owner Hugh Culverhouse refused, Williams jumped ship for the USFL and the Buccaneers didn't have a winning season until the 90's. After winning Super Bowl XXII, he suffered several injuries and was eventually replaced by another Super Bowl winning quarterback in Mark Rypien.


2. Jerome Brown

He and Reggie White made up one of the best defensive lines in history and his death is still felt in Philadelphia to this day.

A first round pick in 1987, Jerome Brown brought his tenacity and personality from Miami to Philadelphia. He helped anchor an Eagle's defense that intimidated and dominated offenses of the late 80's and early 90's. By the end of the 1991 season, Brown had established himself as one of the league's premier defensive tackles. In five seasons, Brown recorded 29.5 sacks and three interceptions. He was a two time All-Pro and pro bowler during his time as an Eagle.

In 1992, Jerome Brown and his nephew were killed in a car accident after Brown lost control of his Corvette and struck a utility pole. Brown's jersey number 99 was retired by the Eagles that season. Without Brown, Philadelphia didn't get into serious contention until the early 2000's.

1. Bo Jackson

He was a two sport star who excelled at both.

A first round pick in 1986 by Tampa Bay, Bo Jackson refused to play for the Buccaneers after he discovered he couldn't play his final season of college baseball after being drafted. Tampa Bay forfeited their selection and the following season, the Raiders drafted Jackson in the seventh round. Owner Al Davis gave Jackson full time money to play football after his baseball season ended. In his four years with the Raiders, Jackson rushed for over 2,700 yards and 18 total touchdowns in just 38 games and was a pro bowler in 1990.

It would have been interesting to watch what Bo Jackson could have been if he had fully committed to football. Jackson took less money than what he was offered by Tampa Bay to play a sport he loved more. If he would have been drafted by a better team, he might have never chose to play professional baseball. It doesn't help either that Jackson left football after sustaining a hip pointer during the 1990 season. If he would have played football fulltime, he could have been remembered as one of the best running backs ever.

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    • profile image

      Peter G 3 years ago

      Ernie Davis should be on the list. The Browns were willing to trade Bobby Mitchell for him.

    • Josh Ruga profile image

      Joshua Ruga 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Tim Tebow is a great football player, but he does not have the passing ability to play quarterback at the NFL level. Whenever he decides he is willing to switch positions, then he can have his football career take off.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Almost as interesting to go thru the woulda and couldas as those that did.

      Great list!

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