In sports, there are always players who don’t live up to their potential, whether due to injury or suspensions, but still had the talent to become one of the greats. Some of the best NFL players to touch the field ultimately leave us asking, “What if?”
I set out to assemble a team made up of players on track to have great careers if not for injuries or suspensions. You won’t find questions like “what if the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers didn’t swap draft picks and Eli Manning took over for Drew Brees instead of Philip Rivers,” or “what if Aaron Rodgers is drafted earlier and doesn’t fall to the Green Bay Packers, what happens to Brett Favre?”
The idea behind this team are players I wish I could see for a full career, and how would a team look led by some of the best players whose careers were cut short? And I don’t mean guys like Steve Young, who had a career-ending concussion for the San Francisco 49ers at age 37, Michael Irvin, who suffered a career-ending injury for the Cowboys after 12 seasons, or Drew Bledsoe being injured and losing his job before head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady led the Patriots to the Tuck Rule game, AFC Championship game and Super Bowl win over the St. Louis Rams.
There always seems to be a player who isn’t producing at a level we expected or is hurt all the time. What if these players were able to all stay healthy and make up a team together?
NFL’s All-Time ‘What If’ Team
Quarterback: Andrew Luck
Originally, I had Michael Vick in this spot, but with the news of Andrew Luck retiring from the NFL, that changes everything. Luck was one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league and had as high of expectations as one could expect, but the offensive line wasn’t there his first few seasons and led to some pretty serious injuries. If he had the tools around him to help stay healthy, Luck may have gone down as one of the best to ever play the game. Instead, he chose his mental health and small amount of physical health he had left before he could reach that point.
In seven years in the NFL, Luck was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, even though he only played five full seasons. If he had played a full career of healthy football, there is a good chance he makes well over double-digit Pro Bowl appearances and possibly some Super Bowls with the Indianapolis Colts’ roster finally improving.
Running Back: Gale Sayers
One of the best running backs in NFL history, Gale Sayers was dominant the second he entered the league for the Chicago Bears. Despite just seven seasons, he ranks 31st in rushing yards per game, which is weighted down by his final two injury-plagued seasons. If not for knee injuries cutting his career short, Sayers may have gone down as one of the best statistical backs in history with his ability to run, catch and return kicks.
Running Back: Bo Jackson
Instead of a fullback, I am using Bo Jackson in the position since he was talented enough to do whatever he wanted. He could have been one of the league’s best players with the Oakland Raiders if not for a hip injury that brought his football career to an end. In those four seasons with the Raiders, Bo averaged 73.2 yards per game while splitting carries with fellow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen.
If he kept up that average and played in three-times as many games as he did, he would have had over 8,000 yards and finished in the top 45 in all-time rushing yards, which is pretty impressive for a guy who was playing baseball at the same time and only played about 10 games a season.
Wide Receiver: Josh Gordon
After being reinstated by the NFL, Josh Gordon is the player who inspired me for this whole thing. In his career with the Cleveland Browns, Gordon was nothing short of dominant when he was allowed to play. His second season in 2013 was one of the best statistical years for a receiver in NFL history by finishing with 1,646 yards, which was 14th all-time for a single season.
Since then, he played in more than five games only once, and that came in 2018 when he played in 11 games for New England. Gordon still has time to put together a good career, especially now with his place on the Patriots after they won a Super Bowl without him last season.
In his career, he averages 73.6 yards per game, which is 16th in NFL history. Just imagine if he wasn’t going years between playing games and could stay on the field.
Wide Receiver: Victor Cruz
There was a three-year window where Victor Cruz was one of the best wide receivers in the league for the New York Giants before dealing with injuries. In 2011, Cruz caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. The following season, it was 86 catches for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was downhill after that with an average of 640 yards over the next three seasons. If he would have been able to stay healthy for his entire career, he would have completely changed the dynamic in New York with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr.
Wide Receiver: Percy Harvin
One of the most talented all-around players in the NFL, Percy Harvin could have been a league-changer if not for injuries and migraines throughout his career. In eight seasons, Harvin played just 75 games. When he was on the field, though, he was capable of doing anything and was extremely dangerous anywhere on the field. But injuries slowed him down and caused him to miss 53 of 128 regular season games. He played his final four seasons for the Seahawks, Jets and Buffalo Bills, though he only appeared in 21 games during that span.
Tight End: Tyler Eifert
Over the last six seasons, there are few tight ends who have been more talented than Tyler Eifert for the Cincinnati Bengals, but there are few players who have had worse luck when it comes to injuries. In six seasons, Eifert has played just 43 games and appeared in double-digit games only twice. But when he has been healthy, he has been a force.
In 2015, Eifert made the Pro Bowl with 615 yards and 13 touchdowns on 52 catches in just 13 games. Since then, the most games he’s played in one season was eight in 2016.
Offensive Line: Mike Utley
As a starting guard for the Detroit Lions, Utley had a promising career ahead of him after being an All-American in college. But a string of injuries led to the worst of all when he suffered a spinal cord injury during his third NFL season. He was paralyzed from the chest down, but gave the famous thumbs up while being carted off the field.
Offensive Line: Dwight Stephenson
Although he’s remembered as one of the best offensive lineman in NFL history, Stephenson’s career was cut short due to a knee injury after eight seasons and five First-Team All-Pro selections. The Miami Dolphins definitely could have benefited from having the dominant center in front of Dan Marino for a few more years.
Offensive Line: Tony Boselli
Boselli was one of the first great Jacksonville Jaguars and was their first player inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame. Although he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his career could have been better. After six seasons with the team, he missed most of 2001 due to injuries, then was picked in the 2002 Expansion Draft by the Houston Texans, but couldn’t play due to injuries, bringing his great career to an early end.
Offensive Line: LeCharles Bentley
In four seasons with the New Orleans Saints, LeCharles Bentley was selected to two Pro Bowls, but had to end his career early due to a patellar tendon injury. If he could have stayed healthy, he would have been one of the best interior lineman in the NFL for much of the 2000’s.
Defensive Line: Jerome Brown
Jerome Brown was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL during his five-year career, but a car accident took his life at just 27 years old. He led a great Philadelphia Eagles defense alongside Hall-of-Famer Reggie White and was selected to two NFC Pro Bowl roster in both seasons before his death.
Defensive Line: Courtney Brown
After a really productive rookie season, Brown was injured for much of his career. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, Courtney Brown played six seasons before retiring, appearing in just 61 total games. In his first two seasons, he had nine sacks in 21 games, but after missing most of the second season, picked up only 10 sacks in his final 40 games.
Defensive Line: Steve Emtman
After a career at Washington where he did just about anything he wanted, Emtman went first overall to the Indianapolis Colts. His career was plagued by injuries, though, and ended each of his first three seasons on injured reserve. He played for six seasons, appearing in a total of 50 games.
Linebacker: Trev Albert
Trev Albert was the best linebacker in college football in the early 90’s the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but injuries kept him from succeeding in the NFL. He was able to play for the Indianapolis Cots for just three seasons after being selected with the fifth pick back in 1994, which created an infamous rant by the Colts’ general manager at the time, Bill Tobin.
Linebacker: Brian Bosworth
Probably the most famous college linebacker of all time, Brian Bosworth was never able to live up to the hype he created at Oklahoma once he entered the NFL. While playing for the Seattle Seahawks, ‘The Boz’ suffered a shoulder injury that would end his football career after just two seasons in the pros.
Linebacker: Reggie Brown
After being drafted with the 17th pick by the Detroit Lions, Reggie Brown played for just two seasons before suffering a spinal cord injury. He is able to walk, but it ended his football career before it ever got started. In 26 games, Brown had 2.5 sacks and two interceptions that were both returned for touchdowns.
Linebacker: Ryan Shazier
After two Pro Bowl sections in his first four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ryan Shazier suffered an injury to his spine. Technically, his career is not over and there is hope he could play again, but right now, his career is put on hold and is a player I would love to have on any team.
Defensive Back: Pat Tillman
Easily the bravest player on this squad, Pat Tillman chose to leave the NFL to protect the United States. He played in the NFL for four seasons and was named to the 2000 All-Pro team by Sports Illustrated. He was a great leader and really good safety for the Arizona Cardinals before enlisting in the U.S. Army and being killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
Defensive Back: Sean Taylor
As one of the best safeties in the history of the NFL, Sean Taylor’s career was cut short when his home was invaded, and he was shot and killed by the intruders. Taylor was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in his four NFL seasons with the Washington Redskins and would definitely had been a Hall of Famer if his life had not been taken.
Defensive Back: Bob Sanders
Bob Sanders was one of the best safeties in the NFL during the 2000’s, but that was when he was actually on the field. In eight NFL seasons, Sanders played in just 50 games and suited up for more than six games just twice. During one of those seasons though, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. The only two seasons he played in double-digit games, he was a First-Team All-Pro and dominated for the Indianapolis Colts. He played a final season for the Chargers in 2011 before retiring.