Greatest NFL Iron Men of All Time

By Jesse Reed
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Our all-time greatest NFL Iron Men list highlights the reality that qualities such as toughness and grit are just as important as talent. For this exercise, we’re focusing on the NFL Iron Men who have the most consecutive regular-season starts of all time.

Not surprisingly, there are some outstanding quarterbacks on this list. Though you may be surprised to know some of the all-time greatest NFL Iron Men battled in the trenches their entire careers.

The greatest NFL Iron Men of the current era

Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks (128 games)

Seahawks Russell Wilson
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Famously passed over until the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Russell Wilson is among the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks now. He won the starting job for the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie in 2012 and hasn’t missed a single game since then. Wilson already has a Super Bowl ring to his credit and is the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. His legacy is only just beginning. And if he gets his way, by the time Wilson is done, he may be atop the list of NFL Iron Men.

Mitchell Schwartz, offensive tackle, Cleveland/Kansas City (128 games)

Patrick Mahomes Super Bowl LIV
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Selected in the second round out of Cal in 2012, Mitchell Schwartz has since become one of the NFL’s premier offensive tackles. He helped the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl last season and was a First-Team All-Pro in 2018. He’s never once missed a game since his rookie season and is the current top-ranked NFL Iron Man at his position with 128 consecutive starts.

Cameron Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans Saints (129 games)

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Jordan missed a single start as a rookie in 2011 but hasn’t missed a game since. The former first-round pick out of Cal has developed into one of the NFL’s most consistent and best all-around defensive ends. Jordan has been voted to five Pro Bowls and earned First-team All-Pro honors in 2017. Like a fine wine, he’s only gotten better with age. Since 2017, Jordan has racked up 40.5 sacks.

Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Detroit/Miami/LAR/Tampa Bay (131 games)

Ndamukong Suh
Dec 21, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Lions defeated the Bears 20-14. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Known best for his history of dirty plays, Ndamukong Suh is nevertheless a stellar defender outside of those incidents. A five-time Pro Bowler with three First-Team All-Pro bids, he’s never once missed a game due to injury. Suh was suspended for two games in 2011 after he abused Evan Dietrich-Smith by slamming his head into the turf then stomping his arm. Those are the only two games he’s ever missed.

Brandon Carr, cornerback, Kansas City/Dallas/Baltimore (192 games)

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr
Sep 25, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Chicago Bears running back Jeremy Langford (33) runs with the ball after a catch against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This former fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State has become one of the NFL’s most reliable defensive backs. Since his rookie year in 2008, Brandon Carr has never missed a single start for any reason. Last season, he started all 16 games for the Baltimore Ravens, tallying 41 solo tackles, two sacks and six passes defensed. Carr is currently a free agent after having his 2020 option declined by Baltimore. At the age of 33, he’s still going strong, though, and should find work before the season begins.

The top NFL Iron Man of the current era will be featured much, much further down the list of all-time NFL Iron Men.

Greatest NFL Iron Men of All Time

15. Randall McDaniel, guard, Minnesota/Tampa Bay (202 games)

Minnesota Vikings guard Randall McDaniel
PONTIAC, MI – DECEMBER 17: Offensive linemen Randall McDaniel #64 and Todd Steussie #73 of the Minnesota Vikings block during a game against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome on December 17, 1994 in Pontiac, Michigan. The Lions defeated the Vikings 41-19. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

During his playing days, Randall McDaniel was the fiercest, most-talented guard in the NFL. He absolutely mauled opposing defensive linemen throughout his career. McDaniel earned nine First-Team All-Pro honors and made his way to 12 straight Pro Bowls between 1989-2000. In addition to his exploits at the guard position, McDaniel was famous for being a battering ram as a fullback in short-yardage situations.

14. Gene Upshaw, guard, Oakland Raiders (207 games)

Oakland Raiders guard Gene Upshaw leads a run play
NEW ORLEANS, LA – JANUARY 25: Arthur Whittington #22 of the Oakland Raiders carries the ball led by guard Gene Upshaw #63 against the Philadelphia Eagles during Super Bowl XV at the Louisiana Superdome January 25, 1981 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Raiders won the Super Bowl 27-10. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

This two-time Super Bowl champ was a nightmare for opposing defensive linemen to handle during his stellar career. Gene Upshaw famously dominated the great Alan Page as the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XI on the back of a 266-yard rushing effort. Upshaw never once missed a start from 1967-1980 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

13. Peyton Manning, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts (208 games)

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Arguably the best pure passing quarterback the NFL has ever known, Peyton Manning was an unstoppable force until a neck injury cost him his 2011 season. It also cost him his starting job, as the Indianapolis Colts drafted Andrew Luck that next spring. From there, Manning landed in Denver and proceeded to have one of the most legendary seasons in league history during the 2013 campaign. A two-time Super Bowl winner, Manning won an NFL record five MVP awards during his Hall of Fame career (he’ll be eligible in 2021).

12. Derrick Brooks, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (208 games)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks scores a touchdown
SAN DIEGO – JANUARY 26: Linebacker Derrick Brooks #55 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picks up a fumble by Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon and runs it in for a fourth quarter touchdown during Super Bowl XXXVII at Qualcomm Stadium on January 26, 2003 in San Diego, California. The Buccaneers defeated the Raiders 48-21. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The NFL game has changed in recent years. Many players from past eras might not thrive in the new pass-happy NFL. Derrick Brooks is not one of those. He was ahead of his time as an electric, speedy cover man. But at the same time, Brooks could bring the heat at and behind the line of scrimmage. His sideline-to-sideline speed was incredible. So was his durability. A Super Bowl champ and one-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Brooks was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (2014).

11. Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants (210 games)

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was one of the NFL's top Iron Men
Dec 9, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) prepares to take a snap during the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The way Eli Manning’s starts streak was broken was unfortunate. Back in 2017, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo infamously benched Manning in favor of Geno Smith — earning plenty of scorn for the decision. Manning wasn’t hurt. He was exceptionally durable throughout his career and never once missed a game due to injury. The two-time champ won Super Bowl MVP twice and made four Pro Bowls before retiring after the 2019 season.

10. Jim Otto, center, Oakland Raiders (210 games)

Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto
Oakland Raiders # 00 Jim Otto file photos. (Photo by James Flores/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

When you think about the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Otto immediately springs to mind. These days, he’s best known for the incredible amount of post-career surgical procedures he endured. Otto incredibly had nine knee surgeries during his playing career yet still started 210 consecutive games. During the course of his career, he also played at an extremely high level. An NFL legend, he epitomizes what it means to be an Iron Man.

9. London Fletcher, linebacker, St. Louis/Buffalo/Washington (215 games)

Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher
LANDOVER, MD – SEPTEMBER 23: London Fletcher #59 of the Washington Redskins defends against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on September 23, 2012 in Landover, Maryland. The Bengals defeated the Redskins 38-31. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

During his heyday, London Fletcher was a guy nobody wanted to take on in the open field. He would absolutely light guys up. A multi-dimensional star linebacker, there wasn’t anything Fletcher didn’t do well. He finished his career as a champion (Super Bowl XXXIV) as a member of the St. Louis Rams. Fletcher also made four Pro Bowls and was a two-time Second-Team All-Pro.

8. Ronde Barber, cornerback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (215 games)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber
TAMPA, FL – SEPTEMBER 25: Cornerback Ronde Barber #20 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recovers a first quarter fumble against the Atlanta Falcons September 25, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

A key member of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl-winning team in 2002, Ronde Barber was a tough dude who never backed down from a challenge. He’s the highest-ranked cornerback on this list with 215 consecutive games started. That streak could have been even longer if he hadn’t missed a Week 10 game in 1999. Barber was famously one part of an NFL twin duo. His identical twin brother, Tiki Barber, was a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL during the same stretch of time.

7. Alan Page, defensive tackle, Minnesota/Chicago (215 games)

Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Perhaps the greatest pass-rushing defensive tackle in NFL history, Alan Page was an unstoppable force inside. He was a key member of Minnesota’s “Purple People Eater” defensive front. During his 12 seasons with the Vikings, Page racked up 108.5 sacks, including an unofficial 18 in 1976. He finished his career in Chicago, landing on nine Pro Bowl teams and six First-Team All-Pro squads.

6. Will Shields, offensive guard, Kansas City Chiefs (223 games)

Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields
KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 20: Will Shields #68 of the Kansas City Chiefs blocks against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on October 20, 2002 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 37-34. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

One of the NFL’s most legendary road graders, Will Shields paved the way for a few incredibly productive running backs. The likes of Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson benefited greatly from Shields’ dominant run blocking. He played for the Chiefs for his entire 14-year career, earning 12-straight Pro Bowl bids between 1995-2006. Shields also was a three-time First-Team All-Pro and made Second-Team All-Pro four times in his career.

5. Philip Rivers, quarterback, San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (224 games)

Philip Rivers Chargers
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Still going strong at the age of 38, Philip Rivers is the active leader on this NFL Iron Men list. He has never missed a start since earning the starting job as a member of the Chargers in 2006. Rivers has put up prolific stats throughout his career and is almost assuredly on his way to the Hall of Fame. After spending 16 seasons as a member of the Chargers’ organization, Rivers is set to play for the Indianapolis Colts in 2020. Depending on how much longer he plays, he could easily finish his career as a top-three all-time NFL Iron Man.

4. Bruce Matthews, offensive lineman, Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (229 games)

Oilers Bruce Matthews
WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 3: Center Bruce Matthews #74 of the Houston Oilers blocks as quarterback Warren Moon #1 takes the football during a game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium on November 3, 1991 in Washington, DC. Washington defeated Houston 16-13. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

If Bruce Matthews were playing today, he’d be making crazy money. This guy was so darn good. He made 14 straight Pro Bowls and was a nine-time First-team All Pro. Remarkably, Matthews played every offensive line spot during his legendary career, including long-snapper. Not only did he start 229 straight games, Matthews retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in games played (296) excluding special-teams players.

3. Mick Tingelhoff, center, Minnesota Vikings (240 games)

Mick Tingelhoff
CANTON, OH – AUGUST 8: Mick Tingelhoff poses with his bust along with presenter Fran Tarkenton during the NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on August 8, 2015 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

This Hall of Famer went from being an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska in 1962 to one of the most formidable centers in NFL history. Mick Tingelhoff made six Pro Bowls in a row between 1964-1969. He also earned five First-Team All-Pro bids and won a Super Bowl following the 1969 season. Tingelhoff retired in 1978, and at the time he was second on the NFL Iron Men list behind only teammate Jim Marshall.

2. Jim Marshall, defensive end, Minnesota Vikings (270 games)

Vikings Jim Marshall
Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris tries to get past Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall in a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX on January 12, 1975 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, Loiusiana. Harris was named the game’s MVP with a Super Bowl rushing record of 158-yards. (Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images)

One of the most-dominant defensive linemen in NFL history, Jim Marshall a ferocious competitor. He was famously a member of the “Purple People Eaters” during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to being the highest-ranked defender on this NFL Iron Men list, Marshall still holds the record for most fumble recoveries in a career (30). Incredibly, he played 20 consecutive seasons in the NFL without missing a single game.

1. Brett Favre, quarterback, Green Bay/NYJ/Minnesota (297 games)

Green Bay Packers Brett Favre
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre throws downfield as he runs out of the backfield away from Seahawks Bryce Fisher during the first half of the NFL game on Monday Night Football November 27, 2006 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Kevin Casey/NFLPhotoLibrary)

The ultimate NFL iron man, Brett Favre is also one of the game’s all-time greatest players at any position. The league’s all-time leader in passing attempts and starts, Favre won NFL MVP three years in a row between 1995-1997. He famously retired as a member of the Green Bay Packers after the 2007 season, then unretired in time to play in all 16 games for the New York Jets in 2008. All told, Favre started 321 consecutive games when postseason play is included. And he did so toughing out many painful injuries along the way.