Adding one former NFL legend to every 2023 roster: Brian Dawkins, Joe Montana and more

Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles retired defender Brian Dawkins (20) is introduced prior to playing the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, on the PFF NFL Podcast, we went around the league and added one former team legend to every NFL roster.

With the 2023 NFL Draft and the bulk of free agency in the books, the team-building portion of the offseason is mostly complete, but some squads still have glaring weaknesses. Others would simply enjoy one of their best-ever players upgrading a spot on the team.

Here were the loose rules:

  • You were adding a theoretical version of the great player in his prime.
  • Early-era players were presumed to be transported into the modern era, complete with the benefit of nutrition, strength and conditioning training and so on (i.e., remain great in 2023).
  • The player couldn’t still be active. For example, Green Bay couldn’t simply re-add Aaron Rodgers.
  • The player had to have played the majority — or at least a recognizable portion — of his career for the relevant team. For example, Reggie White is eligible for both the Packers and Eagles, not the Panthers.
  • I generally tried to stay away from players who retired very recently. The Patriots weren’t getting Tom Brady back, and the Saints weren't adding Drew Brees.

JUMP TO A TEAM:

ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WSH


Arizona Cardinals: CB Aeneas Williams

For a team that has been around for more than 100 years, the Cardinals surprisingly have few great options. Larry Fitzgerald would be an excellent player to bring back to the receiving corps, especially if and when the team trades away DeAndre Hopkins, but until then, Aeneas Williams attacks a far bigger need in the secondary. Williams was one of the best cornerbacks of his generation before moving back to safety for the final years of his career with the Rams. He had 55 career interceptions and 13 touchdowns to his name, making the All-Decade team of the 1990s.


Atlanta Falcons: QB Michael Vick

Vick was a player outside of his era. When he entered the NFL as the most devastating athlete to play quarterback the league had ever seen, he was basically plugged into a West Coast offense with virtually no modifications and told to do his thing.

The NFL of 2023 is far better equipped to build a system around the strengths of a player like Vick than it was 20 years ago. Atlanta already has an offense in place ready to work that way, and if Marcus Mariota — on his way to being benched — could get the Falcons above league average in EPA per play off the back of his rushing threat, think what Vick could achieve. Even knowing it means leaving Deion Sanders on the shelf, I need to see Vick running this offense in today’s NFL.


Baltimore Ravens: S Ed Reed

Even restricting yourself to the true Ravens era of this franchise gives you plenty of elite options. Jonathan Ogden is one of the best left tackles ever to play. Ray Lewis ranks in the same echelon among linebackers, while cornerback Chris McCallister and edge rusher Terrell Suggs were both elite players during their peak.

But Ed Reed at safety is the pick over everyone.

Perhaps no player read the game better and changed the way offenses attacked coverage more than Reed. He was a true ball hawk in the secondary and could engage in the chess battle quarterbacks play on equal footing. 


Buffalo Bills: EDGE Bruce Smith

If Buffalo’s roster has a question mark, it’s the pass-rush unit with Von Miller coming back from a significant injury at this stage of his career. Adding the league’s all-time sack leader, therefore, can’t be a bad idea. Bruce Smith still has prototypical NFL size and could play inside and on the edge. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and an eight-time All-Pro, making two different All-Decade teams and the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team. He finished his career as the only player ever to reach 200 sacks, playing in 279 games across his 15-year career.


Carolina Panthers: WR Steve Smith Sr.

The Panthers have a need at wide receiver after trading away D.J. Moore to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and who better to fill that need than Steve Smith? A truly electric playmaker, Smith was one of the best receivers of his era. He still owns the highest yards per route run figure PFF has seen over a season since 2006, gaining an absurd 3.6 yards per route run in 2008 — almost half a yard more than Tyreek Hill posted in 2022. Smith had excellent hands and the speed and quickness to win at all levels of the defense. He was outstanding after the catch, breaking double-digit tackles in 10 of his 11 seasons that PFF graded.


Chicago Bears: EDGE Richard Dent

There was a debate whether the Bears should move on from quarterback Justin Fields this offseason, and for most franchises it would be an even bigger debate if there was an obvious legend at the position in the team’s history. Somehow, the Bears have made it this far as the only team in the NFL that has never had a 4,000-yard passer — and, arguably, never an elite quarterback — so Fields is safe once more. 

Chicago has, however, had one of the greatest defenses of NFL history and has an acute need along the defensive line heading into 2023. Richard Dent was a famed member of that ‘85 Bears defense, was the Super Bowl MVP that season and finished his career with 137.5 sacks. He would move the needle for a defensive line that finished dead last in pressure rate in 2022.


Cincinnati Bengals: OT Willie Anderson

Anderson is one of the best right tackles the game has seen, but because of the way award voters treated the tackle position for years, it won’t show up in the number of All-Pro nominations he received during his career (three).

Cincinnati expects Jonah Williams to switch sides and man the right tackle position this season, but after he let up 13 sacks last year on the left side, being able to pivot to Anderson would be a huge boost. PFF caught only the tail end of his career, but Anderson posted an 80.0-plus PFF pass-blocking grade in each of his final three seasons and earned a 90.1 run-blocking grade in his final year before retiring.


Cleveland Browns: OT Joe Thomas

Cleveland has plenty of legends to choose from, but I don’t see one who represents a larger upgrade at a key spot than Joe Thomas. Jedrick Wills Jr. hasn’t quite lived up to his draft spot and is currently the weakest link on the Browns' line. Thomas, on the other hand, was the gold standard for pass protection in the NFL throughout his career.

One of the first players to see his entire NFL career captured by PFF grading, Thomas didn’t have a single season with a worse PFF pass-blocking grade than 81.7 (better than the best year from Wills thus far), and he came in above 90.0 for six years, including his last five before he retired.


Dallas Cowboys: DI Bob Lilly

You could make the case for Roger Staubach over Dak Prescott, but let’s assume the Cowboys are still happy with their quarterback. The interior of their defensive line has been a weakness for years, with none of the six players they used there in 2022 earning a PFF grade above 70.0. They’re trying to attack the need, drafting Mazi Smith in the first round, but here they could bring in Bob Lilly or Randy White — two of the best interior defensive linemen of all time.

Lilly was on two separate All-Decade teams and the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team. He was the dominant force in the Dallas “Doomsday Defense” of the 1960s.


Denver Broncos: QB John Elway

Elway remains an enigma. Even for his era, his stats don’t look great in hindsight, but he was playing in offenses that typically asked him to play a lower-percentage game than others, and he consistently dragged some average Broncos teams to overachievement, before becoming the benefit of a couple of loaded rosters late in his career and earned his two championships. However, good Elway really was; he would be a clear upgrade over the Russell Wilson disaster show from 2022 and give Sean Payton and the Broncos a new direction to head toward going forward.


Detroit Lions: QB Bobby Layne

You have no idea how hard it was to resist the urge to add Barry Sanders to this roster. Much though it would be amazing to watch, it wouldn’t move the needle as much as other additions. Calvin Johnson and Dick “Night Train” Lane were both close calls, but in the end I think the Lions can find a big enough upgrade on Jared Goff in Bobby Layne.

Layne's box score stats are ugly, but that’s largely due to the era he played in. He led the league in passing twice, was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1950s and, crucially, won three NFL championships. Lane, adjusted for era, is a clear upgrade over Goff.


Green Bay Packers: EDGE Reggie White

White was one of the best free-agent signings in NFL history, and he can make the same kind of impact for Green Bay once again. Adding back Brett Favre or Bart Starr would be tempting, but “the Minister of Defense” is arguably the best defensive player to ever suit up.

A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, White is the fastest-ever player to 100 sacks. He recorded 124 sacks in just 121 games for the Eagles before moving to Green Bay and finishing his career with 198 sacks in the NFL, as well as 23.5 in the USFL with the Memphis Showboats.


Houston Texans: WR Andre Johnson

As the newest NFL franchise, Houston is low on options compared to other franchises. It’s essentially a straight choice between J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson. Given Watt retired following the 2022 season, Johnson gets the nod almost by default.

Johnson often seemed overlooked in favor of other receivers during his career, but he twice led the league in receptions and yards, amassing more than 14,000 receiving yards and 1,000 catches over his career. At his best, he was arguably the best receiver in the game for a stretch despite less-than-elite quarterback play. Houston drafted its quarterback of the future just weeks ago, and giving him Andre Johnson to play with would be a great addition.


Indianapolis Colts: EDGE Dwight Freeney

Obviously, Peyton Manning or Johnny Unitas would be the answer at quarterback for the Colts, but they just spent the No. 4 overall pick on Anthony Richardson, so let’s assume they’re going to let that play out rather than immediately rendering him obsolete. Instead, they can add one of the most devastating edge rushers in league history to their defense.

Freeney’s spin move was still making elite left tackles look ridiculous in the “Cardinals legend” part of his career and is one of the most unstoppable moves we have seen. He finished his career with 125.5 career sacks and had multiple seasons with a 90.0-plus PFF pass-rushing grade.


Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Jimmy Smith

A healthy Tony Boselli at left tackle is hard to turn down, but the best player in Jaguars history is wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame. Perennially underrated, even during his career, Smith racked up more than 12,000 receiving yards and 67 touchdowns and led the league in receiving in 1999 with 116 catches for 1,636 yards. Jacksonville has built a solid receiving corps around quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but adding Smith to the group would take it to a new level.


Kansas City Chiefs: EDGE Derrick Thomas

If the Chiefs have had a weakness over the past few seasons, it's at edge rusher. Few players in NFL history could address that more than Derrick Thomas. He remains the team's all-time leader in sacks, safeties, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns.

Thomas set an NFL record with seven sacks in a single game and was a true destructive force off the edge. With Chris Jones on the interior, this would form one of the most formidable pass-rushing duos in the league, as well as a potentially unstoppable unit working together on one side of the line.


Las Vegas Raiders: OG Gene Upshaw

The Raiders could certainly look to bring back a quarterback legend like Ken Stabler or any one of a number of defensive superstars, but I’m going to add some steel to the trenches with the late Gene Upshaw.

Few offensive linemen in NFL history played with the kind of nasty streak that Upshaw did, embodying the trait that every line coach in league history loves. Upshaw was a first- or second-team All-Pro eight times in his career and made three All-AFL teams before the merger. He was a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team and played in a total of six championship games between the NFL and AFL.


Los Angeles Chargers: TE Kellen Winslow

Every player I was drawn to in Chargers history was on the offensive side of the ball, and I decided the most compelling addition for quarterback Justin Herbert was Kellen Winslow, one of the pioneers of the pass-catching breed of tight end the league is currently awash with.

Winslow led the NFL in receptions twice in the 1980s, something that hasn’t happened in the passing explosion since the turn of the millennium. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Winslow would still be the prototype at the position, bringing outstanding ball skills and athleticism. What’s more, he would likely be even more effective in today’s game where contact has been reduced and the threat to receivers working the middle of the field is less than it was during the 1980s.


Los Angeles Rams: EDGE Deacon Jones

Jones was such a devastating pass rusher that his favorite move (the head slap) was eventually outlawed. Though sacks weren’t counted until 1982, a retroactive analysis of Jones’ career gives him 173.5 sacks in just 191 games, including topping 20 three times, all in 14-game seasons. Jones is one of the best pass rushers the game has ever seen, and the prospect of what he could do lined up next to Aaron Donald is terrifying.


Miami Dolphins: QB Dan Marino

One of the great unanswered questions in the NFL is what kind of absurd numbers Dan Marino would put up in the modern game. Achieving 5,000 passing yards in a single season has been done 15 times in NFL history — 14 times from 2008 onward, and once by Dan Marino in 1984. That was just Marino’s second year in the league, and it also saw him throw 48 touchdown passes at 9.0 yards per attempt. The only players to beat his 48 touchdown passes in a season are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady (throwing to Randy Moss) and Patrick Mahomes. Marino on the current Dolphins roster would be fireworks.


Minnesota Vikings: QB Daunte Culpepper

The Vikings are swimming with elite choices to add to the current roster. Randy Moss? Carl Eller? Alan Page? John Randle? Chris Doleman? Throw a dart at the team’s Ring of Honor, and you’d likely select an outstanding addition. But with the team having finally put an end date on the Kirk Cousins era, they need a new quarterback.

Daunte Culpepper would be even better in 2023 than he was during his time, as the league knows how to maximize his athletic gifts better than it did when he was playing. Culpepper was a 260-pound quarterback who could run over linebackers in the open field, but employing a quarterback as a major part of the designed run game wasn’t the done thing in the early 2000s. Despite that, he rushed for more than 600 yards and 10 touchdowns in one year. In today’s NFL, he would be lethal, even without Moss on the other end of his deep ball.


New England Patriots: WR Randy Moss

Moss played for the Patriots for only four seasons, but his first year there saw him transform the New England offense into one of the greatest the game has ever seen. Tom Brady improved his best single-season touchdown mark by exactly the 23 that Moss caught. That total surpassed Jerry Rice’s receiving record and reminded everybody that Moss was one of the best receivers the game has ever seen despite the disaster that was his Raiders tenure. If we’re not giving the Patriots back Brady in this exercise, then Moss is the next-best way to supercharge the offense.


New Orleans Saints: EDGE Rickey Jackson

The Saints would probably like to upgrade on Derek Carr at quarterback here — certainly if Drew Brees was far enough in the rearview mirror to be eligible. Would Archie Manning represent enough of an upgrade? It’s difficult to tell given how bad the teams he was playing for were. Instead, New Orleans chooses to add an elite defender from its history, grabbing one of the members of the Dome Patrol of the 1980s, Rickey Jackson. A player who was a force against the run or pass from his outside linebacker spot, Jackson finished his career with 128 sacks, eight interceptions and 40 forced fumbles.


New York Giants: EDGE Lawrence Taylor

One of the easiest calls in this process. Taylor is among the most destructive players to ever step foot on an NFL field. He changed how offenses had to handle pass rushers and is one of only two defensive players in NFL history to win MVP. He was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team. No Giants edge rusher tallied more than 45 total pressures last season including the playoffs. It feels like Taylor would solve that without many issues.


New York Jets: CB Darrelle Revis

2009 was arguably the best season of cornerback play in league history — and it's certainly the best year that PFF has graded (dating back to 2006). That year, despite going against a gauntlet of elite receivers and tracking them all over the field, including the slot, Revis allowed just a 29.1 passer rating into his coverage and a catch on just 37.8% of passes thrown his way. From 127 targets, he either intercepted or broke up 32 of them.

Sauce Gardner looked like a superstar right out of the gate last season, and if he can maintain that level, adding Revis to the mix would give the Jets one of the best cornerback duos in league history.


Philadelphia Eagles: S Brian Dawkins

It’s difficult to leave out Reggie White, arguably the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history, but Philadelphia’s defensive line is already stacked. The Eagles have a more acute need in the secondary and can call on an all-time great to bolster that area of the field. Dawkins was an enforcer in the secondary with a highlight reel of monster hits — many of which would be illegal in today’s NFL — but he was also a ball hawk.

Dawkins recorded 37 career interceptions and four defensive touchdowns. He was a member of the All-Decade team of the 2000s and would be particularly successful playing behind a pair of high-level cornerbacks, just as he did for periods of his Eagles career.


Pittsburgh Steelers: DI Mean Joe Greene

Mel Blount would be a very compelling option at cornerback, a man so dominant they changed the rules to reduce his impact, but Mean Joe Greene in the modern era would be a sight to behold. The best player on the dominant Steel Curtain defensive line, Greene won Defensive Player of the Year two times and was a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team.

The Steelers are at their best when their defense dominates, and Greene being added to the current roster would add some formidable steel to the likes of T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick.


San Francisco 49ers: QB Joe Montana

With Brock Purdy’s elbow a question mark and the alternatives to start Trey Lance or Sam Darnold, we can safely add one of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks that the 49ers can boast as the team’s best bet. Jerry Rice or Ronnie Lott would be tough to overlook, but Joe Montana in an era where he was protected rather than annihilated on a weekly basis would be challenging to stop. Montana had the benefit of Bill Walsh’s offense during his playing career, but it’s safe to say that Kyle Shanahan’s offense would do him no harm in 2023.


Seattle Seahawks: OT Walter Jones

Several members of the Legion of Boom would be good choices to bring back, but Walter Jones was one of the best left tackles in the game for his entire career. Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas were solid as rookies, but they can battle it out for right tackle while Jones takes the left tackle spot. Cross and Lucas combined to allow 17 sacks last season, so Jones would put that offensive line in far better standing going forward.

Despite going up against some of the best left tackles in league history, Jones still made first-team All-Pro four times in his career and was a member of the All-Decade team of the 2000s.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Derrick Brooks

The Buccaneers would love an upgrade at quarterback, but their history isn’t exactly replete with them. Doug Williams would certainly be an option, but the opportunity to add back one of the best players from one of the best defenses in NFL history was too enticing to pass up. Warren Sapp or Simeon Rice were certainly options. So too were Ronde Barber, John Lynch or even Lee Roy Selmon from the team’s earlier days.

But Derrick Brooks is the answer.

Still the modern prototype for an off-the-ball linebacker, Brooks might even be better in 2023 than he was around the turn of the millennium. The Defensive Player of the Year in the year of Tampa Bay’s best defense, Brooks was a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team and would anchor this version of the Bucs' defense.


Tennessee Titans: OL Bruce Matthews

Matthews is one of the best offensive linemen to ever play the game, as well as being arguably the single most versatile. Matthews played extensively at all five positions during his 19-year career. The Titans' offensive line was disastrous last season, finishing dead last in PFF’s offensive line rankings. Matthews would likely upgrade all five spots, if given the opportunity, but could also slide in to fix the biggest weakness after the offseason of trying to plug holes with free agency and the draft.


Washington Commanders: QB Sammy Baugh

Washington may be willing to go into the 2023 NFL season relying on Sam Howell based on the 25 dropbacks he had last year, but to the point they’d turn down a legend of the game from their history? I think not. Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen are the best two quarterbacks in team history, but they played the game in the '40s, '50s and '60s, so there is a lot of projection involved.

Baugh was either a first- or second-team All-Pro eight times in his career and led the league in passing yards four times. He led it in completion rate eight times and is a member of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time team. At 6-foot-2, he also has modern-day height, however much of an issue we believe that to be in an era where 5-foot-10 Bryce Young goes No. 1 overall in the draft.

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