Sometimes quality play occurs for non-contending teams. Hall of Famers, at least one future Hall of Famer and select All-Pros never suited up for a playoff game. Here are the best talents since 1965 who either went their entire careers as regular-season-only players or have thus far done so.
(This list does not include players who were on playoff teams but were either injured or deactivated but only players who toiled on teams that never qualified for the postseason.)
A second-round pick out of Ohio State, Laurinaitis anchored seven Rams defenses from 2009-15. While this came during one of the worst periods in franchise history, the middle linebacker started all 112 games the Rams played in that span. He finished in the top 10 in NFL tackles in two seasons. During this stretch, only two other NFL defenders started all 112 regular-season games. Laurinaitis' 654 solo stops remain a Rams record. The reliable St. Louis defender did not join them in Los Angeles; the team released him in 2016.
The Cardinals' all-time solo tackles leader with 785, Hill endured some notably bad timing — even for men on a list themed around bad timing. His nine-season Cardinals run ended a year before their journey to the 1998 divisional round. Hill spent 1998 on the Rams, who cut him in the '99 offseason — just before their Super Bowl title ascent. During Hill's Arizona stay, he was one of the best players on woeful teams. The former No. 10 overall pick started 133 games for the Cards (top 20 in the franchise's 99-year history) and finished his career as a 33-year-old starter with the '99 Chargers.
Regardless of the immense legal trouble Winslow has run into, the second-generation NFL tight end delivered a quality on-field stretch for a period earlier this century. Never a prolific touchdown scorer (25 in a 10-year career), the former first-round pick was fourth among tight ends in receiving yards during his prime (2006-11). His Pro Bowl showing came with the 2007 Browns, who won 10 games but missed the playoffs. Those 1,106 yards he amassed that year bested Ozzie Newsome's single-season yardage mark for Browns tight ends. Winslow fared well during Josh Freeman's Tampa Bay tenure too.
Fitzpatrick's record as a starter is 55-84-1, but he has managed to play for many forgettable teams. The 37-year-old passer has been a regular starter for the Bengals, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Titans and Texans. Fitz's 2015 Jets work — when he broke their single-season touchdown pass standard with 31 — was a high point. So was his 2018 #Fitzmagic, when he led the NFL with 9.6 yards per attempt (eighth all time!) in Tampa. In December, he led a skeleton-crew Dolphins team to one of the 2010s' biggest upsets — a Week 17 playoff bracket-reshaping win in New England. Now in Year 16, the Harvard grad has done well for himself.
Hawkins came to Philadelphia in 1966 when the Eagles were amid a 17-season playoff drought. While he never made a Pro Bowl, despite leading the NFL with 1,265 receiving yards in 1967, the eight-year Eagle operated as one of the scariest deep threats of the late 1960s and early '70s. Tom Landry once called Hawkins the NFL's most dangerous receiver. The flashy performer still sits second in Eagles history with 18.3 yards per catch for his career, which a broken leg sidetracked. Another part of Hawkins' legacy: his unbuttoned-chinstrap style forced a rule change.
Cheating a bit here, but these defensive linemen's careers do blend together. Both have played well in spurts and comprised one of the NFL's top defensive end duos when with the Jets for four seasons. Used primarily as 3-4 ends, Wilkerson (44.5 sacks) and Richardson (26.5) have each made one Pro Bowl but also encountered off-field trouble. Richardson, the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year, has continued to get work. He is now on a three-year Browns deal. Injuries and recent arrests stalled Wilkerson, but he was one of the NFL's best D-linemen for several years.
Yes, a punter warrants entry here. Moorman was Buffalo's punter for a 13-season stretch and finished as the only member of the 2000s' All-Decade Team not to play in a postseason game. The Division II product was a two-time All-Pro, and although one of Moorman's two Pro Bowls featured him on the receiving end of an all-time unexpected violence sequence (this Sean Taylor hit), he was one of this era's better punters. Unfortunately for Moorman, his Bills tenure was trapped in between the 1990s glory years and their 2017 playoff reemergence.
An 11-year veteran, Zook was part of three organizations between the 1969 draft and Week 1 of that season. Trades sent him from the Rams to the Eagles to the Falcons. Once in Atlanta, the defensive end teamed with Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey to form one of the league's top pass-rushing tandems. A 1973 Pro Bowler, Zook was regarded as one of the premier sack artists of his day. However, the NFL did not keep track of this stat until after his career ended. The Cardinals traded a first-round pick for him in 1976, but after their back-to-back playoff berths in 1974-75, they returned to obscurity ahead of Zook's four St. Louis seasons.
Another Saints standout who retired years before they began making playoff trips, Abramowicz went from 17th-round pick to NFL record-holder during his eight-year career. Despite a 4.8-second (at best) 40-yard dash, the wide receiver caught a pass in a then-record 109 straight games. The streak only ended when he retired. Working with Billy Kilmer and Archie Manning, Abramowicz finished in the top seven in NFL receiving yards three times (1968-70) and earned All-Pro acclaim for his 1,015-yard 1969 season. Although he closed his career as a 49er, Abramowicz is one of the better wideouts in Saints history.
It took the Saints until their 21st season to make the playoffs. Myers' career transpired throughout the dark years, but he left a nice imprint on the franchise. Myers' presence remains in the Saints' record books nearly 40 years after his retirement. Despite weighing less than 190 pounds, Myers was a hard-hitting safety who intercepted 36 passes (second in Saints history) and posted 621 return yards — far and away New Orleans' all-time record. A 1979 Pro Bowler, Myers scored four touchdowns in his 10-year career (1971-80) and played only for the Saints. They reached .500 once in that span.
The post-Hank Stram/pre-Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs are usually glossed over. Barbaro was one of the best talents in that near-20-year gap. The safety managed 39 interceptions in seven seasons — fifth-most since the 1970 merger for a player in his first seven years. The final three produced Pro Bowl honors. His 10 INTs in 1980 were second only to Lester Hayes' Stickum-aided 13. Barbaro, however, sat out the 1983 season in a contract dispute and was one of many players the USFL poached. Barbaro signed with the New Jersey Generals, but an ACL tear ended his career in 1984.
One of Barbaro's Kansas City teammates, Smith grew from undrafted player to All-Pro return man. Smith led the NFL with four return TDs from 1979-80. While he served as a decent receiver for the Chiefs for a time, Smith enjoyed a renaissance in his early 30s with the Cardinals. At age 32, he led the NFL in receiving during the league's most recent strike season (1987) and combined for 3,895 yards between his age-31 and age-34 campaigns in St. Louis and Phoenix. Smith had bad luck with team quality, but he managed a 13-year career.
Le'Veon Bell became the first player in 20 years to protest the franchise tag via season-long holdout. Gilbert is in that club, sitting out the 1997 season in Washington. Gilbert stood as one of the NFL's top interior defensive linemen for a period in the '90s and was involved in trades that included a combined three first-round picks (one when going from the Rams to Redskins and two when the Panthers paid the franchise tag offer sheet price in 1998). The 1993 No. 3 overall selection compiled 42.5 sacks and started 132 games. The Panthers cut Gilbert months prior to their 2003 Super Bowl season.
Forty-three years after Bradley's retirement, no Eagle has broken his franchise interception records. The safety's 11 in 1971 still stand as the most in the Eagles' 86-year history, and both Brian Dawkins and Eric Allen join Bradley with 34 picks as Eagles. Used as a punter early in his career, Bradley compiled one of the best two-year INT runs in NFL history. Between 1971-72, Bradley snared 20 and remains one of two players (alongside Everson Walls) to lead the league in picks in back-to-back years. The two-time All-Pro played eight seasons with the Eagles and retired in 1978 after a Cardinals cameo.
The face of the Saints in the 1970s, Manning was saddled with poor rosters and as a result has an unspectacular NFL resume. (His career circumstances played a role in the Chargers not getting Eli Manning in 2004.) Archie quarterbacked no winning teams, going 35-101-3 in a 13-year career as a starter (including an 0-10 record when starting for the Oilers and Vikings) and became a more famous sports dad than passer. But the 1971 No. 2 overall pick made the Pro Bowl in 1978 and '79, his team's stature sticking out among the QBs invited, and landed in the Saints Hall of Fame. The Manning patriarch would have benefited from free agency.
After having all-time sack king Bruce Smith for 15 seasons, the Bills of the next era turned to Schobel to be their pass-rushing anchor. While the 2001 second-round pick did not approach Smith's sack total, he is comfortably in second place in Bills annals. Schobel registered 78 sacks in nine seasons, compiling four 10-plus-sack slates, and ventured to two Pro Bowls. In 2004, Schobel was part of an all-time Buffalo defense ( per DVOA). The unit did not help the team to the playoffs, but that 9-7 season was the closest Schobel got.
In between Sid Gillman's AFL championship-qualifying teams and Air Coryell, Garrison was one of the Chargers' bright spots. Lance Alworth's one-time sidekick turned into an upper-echelon receiver in the league's immediate post-merger years. The former sixth-round Eagles pick finished three straight seasons (1970-72) in the top five in NFL receiving yardage. Doing his best work before Dan Fouts' prime, Garrison packed four Pro Bowl invites into his 12-year career. He remains No. 4 in all-time Bolts receiving yardage.
One of the NFL's best off-ball linebackers, David has spearheaded the Buccaneers defense for much of his eight-plus-year career. The former second-round pick has finished as a top-10 tackler four times and has 21.5 career sacks. Despite being a 2012 draftee, David led all linebackers in solo stops in the 2010s (724). His one Pro Bowl honor is deceptive. The antiquated voting process groups 4-3 and 3-4 outside 'backers together, so naturally the sack artists go. (Right tackles usually get the shaft, too.) David is well on his way to a Bucs ring of honor career, despite Tampa Bay's struggles during his run.
Evans resides in the same boat as David and has primarily carried the load for the Bucs offense over the past six years. The Texas A&M standout arrived as part of a loaded 2014 receiver class — which included Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Davante Adams — but has held his own. Only Evans and Randy Moss have begun a career going 6-for-6 in 1,000-yard seasons. The 6-foot-5 target did so despite mostly playing with interception maven Jameis Winston. In a great receiver era, Evans is near the top tier. He will finally see consistent national TV exposure, with Tom Brady running the show.
Among players with bad luck finding a winning destination, Spikes is at or near the top of the list. The linebacker played 16 seasons (219 games) for five franchises — the Bengals, Bills, Eagles, 49ers and Chargers. He caught the Bengals in their woeful pre-Marvin Lewis years, the Bills in their 17-year playoff drought and left the 49ers one year before their run of NFC championship games. Nevertheless, Spikes was a quality defender, as his eight 100-tackle seasons, 29 sacks and 19 interceptions show. He was a two-time Pro Bowler who was at the controls of a dominant 2004 Bills defense.
One of his era's more underrated players, Harvey logged 11 NFL seasons as a higher-end pass rusher. But his stays in Phoenix and Washington came at down times for the respective franchises. Taking advantage of the then-new free agency system, the 1988 first-round pick left the Cardinals after six years and became a four-time Pro Bowler with Washington. He finished his career with 89 sacks. One of the better sack artists in the history of both franchises, Harvey retired during Washington's 1999 training camp. The team snapped a six-season playoff drought that year.
For a time, Asomugha was one of the NFL's most feared cornerbacks. While he peaked during a rough Raiders stretch in the late 2000s, quarterbacks knew to avoid the elite man-to-man stopper. Claiming two first-team All-Pro nods in a three-season span from 2008-10, Asomugha saw QBs target him just 136 times in his final 60 games as a Raider. This came after an eight-INT 2007. The former first-round pick signed with the Eagles in 2011, in their failed "dream team" effort. Philly released Asomugha after two seasons, and his career ended when the NFC championship-bound 49ers cut him in 2013.
The Buccaneers used 2010's No. 3 overall pick on McCoy, chosen one spot after fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and watched him book six Pro Bowl berths and land on the 2013 All-Pro first team. None of McCoy's Bucs or Panthers work, which includes 59.5 sacks, translated to the playoffs. The Bucs have two winning seasons in the past 10 years, and the 32-year-old lineman was their most prominent player in that time. The quick interior rusher (and Daenerys Targaryen superfan) is currently on the shelf after suffering a quadriceps injury months after signing with the Cowboys.
Marshall is probably the greatest pass-catching mercenary in NFL history. He has 1,200-yard seasons with four team, holds both the Bears' and Jets' single-season marks for receptions and receiving yards and as a Bronco in 2009, he set the NFL record with 21 receptions in a game. The big-bodied wideout has a complicated off-field history and wore out his welcome in multiple cities, having played for seven teams. But Marshall's 970 catches sit 16th all time. The former fourth-round pick was among the NFL's best receivers for many years. Illustrating Marshall's plight, the playoff-bound Seahawks and Saints cut him during the 2018 season.
The first draft pick in Falcons history, Nobis went right to work. The tackling machine soared to five Pro Bowls and was part of the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team. After winning 1966 Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, Nobis started for the next 10 Atlanta squads despite battling frequent knee trouble. He retired a year before the Falcons deployed their dominant "Grits Blitz" defense. Had Nobis landed with a winning franchise, he may be in the Hall of Fame. The middle linebacker remains one of the greatest players in team history.
Little's career paralleled Nobis', only it began in the AFL. The five-time Pro Bowl running back was the Broncos' top player for years; scant talent surrounded him. A swift yet powerful runner who worked often in the passing game, Little is the Broncos' second-leading rusher — behind Terrell Davis — and was a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee. The Broncos randomly held a "Floyd Little Day" (pictured) in the middle of his career and made the Syracuse alum's No. 44 their second retired number. They never won more than seven games in a season during Little's nine-year career.
The flagship player during the worst stretch in Browns history, Thomas is bound for the Hall of Fame. The 2007 No. 3 overall pick anchored mostly bad Browns teams for 11 years but in that period earned first-team All-Pro acclaim six times — third-most all time for a pure left tackle — and reeled off an astonishing 10,363 consecutive snaps prior to a 2017 injury. In 2015, the Browns nearly traded Thomas to a Broncos team that ended the season as the Super Bowl champion. But Thomas went wire-to-wire in Cleveland, concluding his career on injured reserve for an 0-16 team.
Two fairly obvious choices close out the list. Sayers is one of the NFL's greatest running backs and return men (eight career return touchdowns), his combination of speed and elusiveness bedeviling the NFL beginning in 1965. Sayers totaled 22 TDs as a rookie, won the 1966 rushing title and after tearing knee ligaments in 1968, he came back — a far more difficult task then — to win it again in '69. Another knee injury cut his career short, but in four-and-a-half healthy seasons, Sayers made five All-Pro first teams. On a per-play basis, "The Kansas Comet" was one of the most exciting players in NFL history.
A uniquely terrifying NFL player, Butkus rampaged to an unassailable place despite playing in a mediocre Bears era. Taken one spot before Sayers (No. 3 overall) in 1965, the middle linebacker great was named to eight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams in nine seasons. He landed on both the 1960s and 1970s All-Decade rosters. Although Butkus was not the same player after a 1970 knee injury, he still finished with 49 forced turnovers (including a then-record 27 fumble recoveries). The sideline-to-sideline tackler was a rare undisputed legend trapped on unremarkable teams.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.