The last decade in the NFL has been a whirlwind of events. From scandals and controversies to breakout seasons and many retirements, the league has changed over the course of the 2010s.
One of the things that have entertained fans every season has been the elite players in the game having great seasons and reminding us time after time how they dominate the game.
So why not look back and see who were the 10 most dominant players of the 2010s, these 10 players all enforced their wills during games during their peak years and were the biggest names that showed out during the last decade.
10. Marshawn Lynch
While a lot of running backs have come in and have had better seasons and more flashy plays than him, Marshawn Lynch was the best power back that we saw this past decade.
Most may have forgotten but Lynch began the decade as a Buffalo Bills before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks, wherefrom that point on he became a fan favorite and showed us some of the most dominant power running we’ve ever seen.
In his initial season with the team, Lynch helped the Seahawks make the playoffs despite finishing 7-9.
Then, in his first career playoff game, Lynch introduced the world to “Beast Mode.” On the 1/8/11 wild card game, Lynch had a 67-yard touchdown run, now dubbed the “Beast Quake.”
That run, which saw Lynch best basically the entire Saints defense to get to the endzone, gave the Seahawks a lead that they would not relinquish as they knocked out the then-defending champions and advanced.
From that point on “Beast Mode” ripped off a stretch of four straight seasons from 2011 to 2014, where he ran for at least 1,200 rushing yards. Lynch also tied for leading the league in rushing touchdowns in 2013 and 2014.
Even more important was that in an era where passing became the trademark in the NFL, Lynch helped spearhead a team to back to back Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl XLVIII victory.
In the six playoff games Lynch and the Seahawks played in during the back to back appearances, Lynch ran for 606 rushing yards and six touchdowns across those games.
While injuries and a brief retirement dilute his numbers for the decade, no one can question that Lynch was a human wrecking ball at his peak, and was one of the most physically imposing players during his time in the league.
9. Rob Gronkowski
It’s very rare that a guy plays less than ten nine seasons in his respective league and be considered one of the best ever at his position, Rob Gronkowski is one of those guys.
Despite only playing nine years in the league, Gronk showed that he was one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, and one of the most dominant and game-breaking players in the league.
The numbers alone speak for themselves as to why Gronk was dominant in his time. 79 career regular-season receiving touchdowns, 1,161 yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 career playoff games. Also, add in five Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl titles, and the numbers scream hall of fame.
However, while the numbers do Gronks’ career justice, it takes a deep dive into his career to really appreciate and see how dominant he was.
In 2011, Gronk’s second season in the league, he led the league in receiving touchdowns with 17, subsequently setting the record for most receiving touchdowns in a season by a tight end and being the first tight end ever to lead the league in receiving touchdowns outright.
After suffering injury-riddled 2012 and 2013 seasons, Gronkowski had 1,000+ yards and 10+ touchdowns in 2014 and 2015. Even with dealing with all kinds of injuries to his legs, forearm, and back, Gronk helped the Patriots reach the Super Bowl four times from 2014 to 2018.
Throughout his career, Gronkowski was called upon time and again to make big plays for the Patriots, and he delivered.
In the 2011 divisional playoff game against the Broncos, Gronkowski 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. In the Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seahawks Gronkowski had 68 yards and a touchdown, and in the Super Bowl LII defeat to the Eagles, Gronk finished with 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Even these past playoffs, where Gronk wasn’t the same physically, he was the Patriots most important target not named Julian Edelman.
At his physical peak, Gronkowski was an utter game-breaker as he was the best tight end in the league bar none, and had to be double and triple covered at times, yet he would still produce.
Despite injuries slowing him down the last few years he still proved difficult to cover and showed that even injured, Gronkowski still had to be defended like he was at his best.
8. Calvin Johnson Jr.
There was a time where if you wanted to build the perfect wide receiver, a lot of the attributes you wanted would come from Calvin Johnson Jr.
The nickname “Megatron” was perfect, as the combination of athleticism, height, big hands, speed, and strength made Johnson seem to be the perfect receiver.
It made him the second overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, and it made him the best receiver in the game when he hit his peak in the 2010s.
While he was outstanding during his whole career, it was 2011-2013 where we saw the peak of Calvin Johnson in the NFL.
He had 302 catches, 5,137 yards, and 33 touchdowns during this stretch. He broke the single-season receiving yard record in 2012 during that time he turned in some of his greatest performances.
2012 saw Johnson break the single-season NFL receiving yards record when he finished with 1,964 yards. It was his second straight season with at least 1,600 yards, at the time he was only the third receiver ever to have two 1,600 yard seasons (since joined by Antonio Brown and Julio Jones).
That season he also gained the distinction of being the only receiver in the Super Bowl era to average 120 yards per game.
Despite the lack of overall team success during his career, Johnsons’ individual impact was too great to deny. Consistently facing double and triple coverage, Johnson consistently made big plays to help give the Detroit Lions chances every game.
Add in six Pro Bowl appearances, four All-Pro team appearances and several NFL records that he holds or is tied for, Johnson was the best receiver in the league when he played. Had he not retired early Johnson would have likely continued to play at an elite level and likely would even be playing into the 2020s.
However, he did retire early and while fans will always wonder what more Johnson could have done in his career, you get a pretty good idea with that he did do when he played.
7. Aaron Donald
While normally it’s hard to argue putting a player drafted within a decade on an all-decade list like this, there is no such issue with Aaron Donald.
Donald has been named to the Pro Bowl every season he’s been in the league so far. He was named defensive rookie of the year in 2014 after a good rookie season and has been named First-Team All-Pro four times.
Donald is also coming off a 2018 season that saw him lead the league in sacks and be named Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season, joining Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the only players to win the award in consecutive seasons.
What makes Donald as high up as he is on the list is the fact that he’s done all of this before turning 28-years-old and the fact that he’s gotten better as player every single season.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that his second defensive player of the year winning season was even better than his first was.
When he won the award in 2017 Donald finished with just 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, and five forced fumbles. While the numbers aren’t eye-popping, Donald was the leader of a much-improved defense that helped make the playoffs and Donald was credited with pressuring quarterbacks a lot.
2018 saw Donald take his game to another level, as he had 20.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss last season, en route to helping the Rams reach the Super Bowl.
Even with being double teamed by offensive linemen consistently, Donald would find a way to get into the backfield and disrupt the opponents’ offense.
With the 2010s coming to an end, Donald will likely continue his dominating ways in the 2020s and will likely find himself pretty high on the 2020s version of this list as well.
6. Adrian Peterson
One of the cases where numbers can speak for themselves, Adrain Peterson was the best running back in football during a time where the league was A. pass-heavy, and B. shifting towards running backs that could run but also be used as pass catchers.
Peterson rushed for nearly 9,000 yards during the decade and will likely go over that mark come to the end of the 2019 season.
He is one of only two running back in the 2010s to lead the league in rushing more than once (Ezekiel Elliot being the other) and he also led the league in touchdowns in 2015.
Peterson will most be remembered for his 2012 season, that year he fell just nine yards short of breaking the single-season rushing record when he rushed for 2,097 yards.
That season was notable for several reasons, Peterson won both the MVP and Offensive Player of the year awards that season, he helped the Vikings go from 3-13 to 10-6 and making the playoffs, and Peterson did all of this after coming back from tearing his ACL and MCL the season prior.
While running back like Ezekiel Elliot and Le’Veon Bell have had great seasons later in the decade, there has yet to be a season as impressive both numbers and story-wise.
Another thing to keep in mind was the fact that for much of his career, the Minnesota Vikings were not a strong team, Peterson was the focus of their offense throughout his career, meaning that he was the focus of opposing defenses as well.
Despite that Peterson not only got his production but at times single-handedly won the Vikings games and showed that he was the best running back of the 2010s.
5. Peyton Manning
Even with only playing for half of the decade, Peyton Manning was one of the best quarterbacks to play in the decade, even if only four of those seasons were elite.
The decade started well for Manning with a 4,700 yard and 33 touchdown season for Manning in 2010, in what ended up being his last as an Indianapolis Colt.
After sitting out of 2011 with a neck injury and being released by the team Manning signed with the Denver Broncos where he proved he wasn’t done being elite yet.
Over his four years as a Bronco, Manning passed for 17,112 yards and 140 touchdowns. During this time Manning became the all-time leader for passing yards (later passed by Drew Brees) and touchdowns.
Included in this time frame was his record-setting 2013 season, where Manning set the single-season passing yards record with 5,477 yards and single-season passing touchdown record with 55 touchdowns en route to his NFL record fifth career MVP award and his third career Super Bowl appearance.
Despite his last season, 2015, being an uncharacteristic season, Manning still helped guide the Broncos through the playoffs and to a win in Super Bowl 50 in what would be the final game in Mannings’ career.
To put his numbers in perspective, if you take just his 2010s numbers, 21,812 yards and 173 touchdowns, those numbers would rank top 20 in career yards and top 15 in career touchdowns amongst career stats of today’s quarterbacks. Again he only played for half the decade.
While it was only for five seasons, Manning showed us time and again during the first half of the decade why he is one of greatest quarterbacks to ever play.
4. Drew Brees
Arguably the best pure passer in NFL history, Drew Brees spent the 2010s rewriting the NFL record books.
In the 2010s Brees for at least 5,000 yards in a season four times. He’s won an offensive player of the year award, led the league in passing yards five times, passing touchdowns twice, and completion percentage four times.
2018 alone saw Brees become the all-time leader for career passing yards and completions, as well as become the third quarterback of all time to defeat all 32 teams.
While on his path to breaking passing records, the 2010s saw Brees continue to keep the Saints afloat despite several seasons of poor teams. Despite missing the playoffs three times in the decade, the Saints never fell to a bottom tier team because of Drew Brees.
He consistently kept them competitive until 2017, where the Saints finally returned to the playoffs.
The rebirth of the Saints continued in 2018 when Brees helped lead them to a 13-3 record and one win away from Super Bowl LIII.
2018 saw Brees be in the MVP conversation throughout the season and set the single-season completion percentage record with 74.4% (the previous record was 72.0%, set in 2017 by Drew Brees).
The one career passing record Brees hasn’t set this decade is the career passing touchdown, and he is only 20 away from breaking the record.
A healthy 2019 will not only see Brees likely break the record but further extend his current records and show that in the 2010s, no quarterback produced better numbers than Drew Brees.
3. J.J. Watt
Before Aaron Donalds’ dominance in the last few years, J.J. Watt was far and away the most dominant defensive player of the decade.
While Donald has made it closer in the last few years, and Watt played only eight total games between 2016 and 2017, Watt was the guy throughout the decade.
After finishing with just 5.5 sacks in the 2011 season, his rookie year, Watt exploded for 20.5 sacks and 39 tackles for loss in his second year to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award, and be named his first of five Pro Bowl appearances during the decade.
After a solid 2013 season where he made the Pro Bowl again, Watt turned in one of the most impressive seasons a defensive player has ever had and likely the best of any in the decade.
Watt finished 2014 with 20.5 sacks, becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 20 sacks in two different seasons. However, that wasn’t all Watt did on defense, as during 2014 Watt forced four fumbles, recovered five, had an 80-yard interception returned for a touchdown and even caught three receiving touchdowns.
For his outstanding season, Watt was awarded the Defensive Player of the Year award for the second time in his career and received significant attention and consideration for the MVP award but ultimately did not win it.
Watt then followed things up with a 2015 season where he had 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss en route to his second consecutive and third overall Defensive Player of the Year. At the time he was just the second player to win the award in consecutive seasons, later joined by Aaron Donald.
After recovering from back and leg injuries in 2016 and 2017 respectively, Watt bounced back with 16 sacks and a career-high seven forced fumbles in 2018.
Even with injuries, Watt was the most dominant defensive player of the decade and proved that even though he could only do so much during a game, he could completely change the outcome of things.
2. Aaron Rodgers
In today’s NFL where a lot of teams play conservative offense focused on limiting turnover while scoring, Aaron Rodgers produces like a hall of famer without all the interceptions.
In terms of individual talent and production, Rodgers is arguably the best quarterback of the past decade. He holds the records for the lowest career pass interception %, best career touchdown to interception ratio in NFL history, and many other records like these.
Rodgers began the 2010s well, winning the Super Bowl after a good 2010 season before winning his first MVP award in 2011 after setting the record for the best single-season passer rating.
Rodgers has shown how deadly accurate he has been throughout the decade as he has twice thrown for 40 touchdowns with seven interceptions or less twice during the decade.
However, what Rodgers has done best during this decade is willing the Packers to the playoffs time and again.
In 2013 in Week 17, after missing almost half the year due to injury, Rodgers threw a touchdown on a 4th & 8 to win the game and the division in order to clinch the playoffs. 2014 saw the Packers start 1-2 and team struggle despite Rodgers play. After telling fans to “RELAX” the Packers finished 12-4 while Rodgers won his second career MVP award.
2016 is the most famous example of Rodgers and his resolve. The Packers were 4-6 with their only hope going undefeated to win and Rodgers infamously stated he felt the Packers could run the table.
Not only did Rodgers lead them to a 10-6 record and another playoff berth but Rodgers led the way to a thrilling win over the NFC #1 seed Cowboys to reach the NFC Championship game.
While the Packers have missed the playoffs the last two years it’s more of an indictment on the team than Rodgers, as Rodgers only threw two interceptions all of last season but the team failed to make the postseason.
While the 2010s may not end the way the decade started, Rodgers went from a budding superstar to establishing himself as one of the greatest of the decade and maybe all time.
1. Tom Brady
Who else would occupy the number one spot on this list?
There are a lot of different stats that can be thrown out there when it comes to explaining how Brady ruled the 2010s.
Nine Pro Bowl selections, two times leading the league in passing touchdowns, once in passing yards, and two MVP awards during the decade all give an idea of how great Brady has been.
However, one word in particular, has defined not just the last decade for Brady, but his career, that word would be winning.
Five Super Bowl appearances, three Lombardi Trophies, and two Super Bowl MVP awards define Brady.
Already being a three-time champion at the start of the decade, Brady and the Patriots have redefined the meaning dynasty in sports.
Super Bowl XLIX saw Brady lead the Patriots to overcome a 24-14 deficit against the Seahawks to win their first Lombardi in a decade.
However, it was Super Bowl LI that showed why Brady deserves the title as being the greatest quarterback of all time. Down 28-3 with 8:31 left in the third quarter, Brady helped lead stage the comeback of all comebacks that saw the Patriots score 31 straight points to win the game 34-28 in overtime.
This win marked Bradys’ fifth ring and fourth Super Bowl MVP award.
The most recent season, 2018, saw the Patriots stifle the Rams in the Super Bowl LIII as Brady led the only drive in the game that ended in a touchdown en route to his sixth championship.
The Patriots now enter the last year of the decade as the defending champions with a real shot at winning it all again once again.
Whether they do or not remains to be seen, but even if they don’t nothing will change the fact that Tom Brady was the winningest and most dominant player we’ve seen this past decade.