Who Are the Greatest Cardinals Players of All Time?
The Cardinals haven’t been the most successful NFL franchise over the past 100 seasons, but they’ve still employed some of the most recognizable names in history. As one of the charter members of the NFL, the Cardinals have racked up 22 Hall of Famers and made it to the postseason 10 times.
- Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, retired number, etc.)
- Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, league leader, etc.)
- On-Field Success (winning percentage, winning seasons, playoff appearances, etc.)
- Longevity (years with Cardinals, percentage of career with Cardinals, etc.)
Only games played with the Cardinals are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith is a prime candidate for a list about the Cowboys, his two seasons with the Cardinals won't make the cut here.
Following this list, I've also included a few honorable mentions.
10. Kurt Warner
- Years With the Cardinals: 2005–09
- Position: Quarterback
- Playoff Appearances: 2008–09
- Pro Bowl: 2008
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (2017), Cardinals Ring of Honor
- Awards: NFL Man of the Year (2008)
Kurt Warner is the only quarterback to ever lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, but he did more than just that in his five-year tenure with the franchise. Warner first came to the team on a basic one-year deal and ended up having to compete for the starting position for three years. But once he nailed down that starting role in 2008, the Cardinals made the postseason for the first time in a decade and made a magical run to the Super Bowl. Over five years in Arizona, Warner completed 1,371 of 2,105 passes for 15,843 yards and 100 touchdowns.
9. Ollie Matson
- Years With the Cardinals: 1952, 1954–58
- Position: Running back
- All-Pro: 1952, 1954–57
- Pro Bowl: 1952, 1954–58
- Awards: Co-Rookie of the Year (1952)
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1972), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1950s All-Decade Team
It was clear the Cardinals were getting a speedy running back when they selected Ollie Matson with the third pick in the 1952 NFL Draft. Not only did Matson lead the nation in rushing as a senior at the University of San Francisco, he also won a pair of medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Matson was among the NFL’s best from the beginning of his career—picking up Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections in each of his first five seasons. He missed the 1953 campaign while serving in the Army. Though he was primarily known as a running back, Matson was an all-around athlete who also played defense and returned kicks and punts—including three kick returns of at least 100 yards. Matson finished his Cardinals career with 5,481 yards from scrimmage and 40 touchdowns, while also intercepting three passes and scoring on nine returns.
8. Dick (Night Train) Lane
- Years With the Cardinals: 1954–59
- Position: Cornerback
- All-Pro: 1956
- Pro Bowl: 1954–56, '58
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1974), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
Dick (Night Train) Lane established himself as a premier defensive back as a rookie with the Rams in 1952. When the Cardinals acquired him as part of a three-team trade in 1954, they already knew what kind of player they were getting. Lane promptly rewarded his new team with a league-leading 10 interceptions for 181 yards in his first season, along with the first of three straight Pro Bowl selections.
Ultimately, he snared 30 interceptions for the Cardinals, which was a team record at the time. Lane also saw the occasional snap on offense, and was on the receiving end of a 98-yard pass in 1955, which remains tied for the longest pass play in team history.
7. Roger Wehrli
- Years With the Cardinals: 1969–82
- Position: Cornerback
- Playoff Appearances: 1974–75, '82
- All-Pro: 1975–77
- Pro Bowl: 1970–71, 1974–77, '79
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (2007), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
Roger Wehrli rarely missed a game during his 14-year career with the Cardinals, and considering how good he was in the defensive backfield, only the opposition had a problem with it. Wehrli missed just six games during his career and had at least one interception in all but two seasons. Wehrli ranks third all-time for the Cardinals with 40 career interceptions—two of which were returned for a touchdown. He also scored an offensive touchdown on a fake field goal attempt in the 1982 season finale—helping the Cardinals secure a playoff spot in what was his final regular-season game.
Some of Wehrli’s highest praise came from a rival in Hall of Fame Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who coined the phrase “shutdown corner” when describing Wehrli’s talent.
6. Jackie Smith
- Years With the Cardinals: 1963–77
- Position: Tight end
- Playoff Appearances: 1974–75
- Pro Bowl: 1966–70
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1994)
The Cardinals did not draft Jackie Smith expecting to get a Hall of Famer. Smith was a 10th-round selection in 1963, but made the team and became a staple of the offense for much of the next 15 years. His 212-yard effort against the Steelers as a rookie remains the third-best single-game showing in team history. He closed his Cardinals career with 480 receptions for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns.
When he retired from the NFL after one additional season with the Cowboys, he was the all-time leader in receiving yards among tight ends. Despite his historic standing, Smith is the franchise’s longest-tenured Hall of Famer not inducted into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor.
5. Aeneas Williams
- Years With the Cardinals: 1991–2000
- Position: Defensive back
- Playoff Appearances: 1998
- All-Pro: 1995, ‘97
- Pro Bowl: 1994–99
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (2014), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1990s All-Decade Team
- Awards: NFL All-Rookie (1991)
Aeneas Williams is among the most dependable players ever to wear a Cardinals uniform, playing in all 160 games during his 10 seasons with the franchise. Williams intercepted a pass in his first two games as a rookie and never looked back. With 46 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries, he positioned himself as one of the greatest defensive players in team history.
He led the NFL with nine interceptions in 1994, setting off a brilliant four-season stretch that saw him snare 27 interceptions and score five times. He is Arizona’s all-time leader with six career interception returns for a touchdown and is also tied for the longest fumble return in NFL history (104 yards). Also included among the greatest highlights of Williams’ tenure with the Cardinals are his two interceptions during a 20–7 victory over the Cowboys in a 1998 playoff game—which was the franchise’s first playoff win since 1947.
4. Charley Trippi
- Years With the Cardinals: 1947–55
- Position: Running back
- Playoff Appearances: 1947–48
- All-Pro: 1948
- Pro Bowl: 1952–53
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1968), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1940s All-Decade Team
Charley Trippi did a little bit of everything for the Cardinals and played an instrumental role when the franchise won its first championship. Trippi was a member of the “Million-Dollar Backfield” that pushed the Cardinals to the 1947 NFL title and the 1948 championship game. He had 104 total yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in the 28–21 championship win over the Eagles in ‘47. Trippi scored on a 44-yard rush to open the scoring and added a 75-yard punt return in the third quarter.
Though mostly remembered for his exploits as a running back, Trippi was also proficient as a quarterback, punter, return man and on defense. He gained 3,506 yards and 23 touchdowns on 687 carries, while also passing for 16 career touchdowns, averaging 40.3 yards per punt on 196 attempts, and intercepting four passes defensively.
3. Dan Dierdorf
- Years With the Cardinals: 1971–83
- Position: Offensive tackle
- Playoff Appearances: 1974–75, 1982
- All-Pro: 1976–78
- Pro Bowl: 1974–78, '80
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1996), Cardinals Ring of Honor, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
In the mid-1970s, Dan Dierdorf served as an anchor for the offensive line during one of the best three-season stretches in Cardinals history. Dierdorf started every game from 1974 to '76, helping the Cardinals make the playoffs twice and win at least 10 games every year. In each of those seasons, the Cardinals finished in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring and offensive yardage, while also unofficially surrendering the fewest sacks in the NFL. Included was a then-NFL record of eight sacks allowed in 1975. Dierdorf remained a fixture in the offense beyond that stretch, starting every game in 1978 and from 1980 to '82.
2. Larry Wilson
- Years With the Cardinals: 1960–72
- Position: Safety
- All-Pro: 1966–70
- Pro Bowl: 1962–63, 1965–70
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1978), Cardinals Ring of Honor, Cardinals No. 8 Retired, NFL 1960s All-Decade Team, NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
- Awards: 1966 Defensive Player of the Year
The most decorated defensive player in the history of the Cardinals is Larry Wilson, who spent 13 seasons on the field and another 30 years in the team’s front office. Wilson was a seventh-round draft pick in 1960, but quickly developed into an elite defensive back. He did not invent the safety blitz but is regarded as one of the first players to frequently use the sneaky maneuver to pressure the quarterback. When he wasn’t in the backfield, he was often in tight coverage or intercepting passes.
Wilson holds franchise records with 52 career interceptions for 800 yards, and is second all-time with five returns for a touchdown. His best season came in 1966, when he intercepted an NFL-leading 10 passes. Along the way, he picked off a pass in seven straight games, including three in a win over the Bears.
1. Larry Fitzgerald
- Years With the Cardinals: 2004–present
- Position: Wide receiver
- Playoff Appearances: 2008–09, 2014–15
- All-Pro: 2008
- Pro Bowl: 2005, 2007–13, 2015–17
- Legacy Honors: NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, NFL 100th Anniversary Team
- Awards: NFL Man of the Year (2016), Pro Bowl MVP (2008)
Larry Fitzgerald is still building his legacy with the Cardinals, but he’s already been so successful that I am comfortable claiming him as the greatest player in franchise history. Since being drafted in 2004, Fitzgerald has been one of the most consistent players in the NFL, and he played a significant role on the way to Arizona’s only Super Bowl appearance. Fitzgerald has missed just nine games in 17 years and was targeted at least 100 times in each of his first 16 seasons. He’s made a catch in every game since Week 8 of his rookie season, a span of 256 games that is second in NFL history to Jerry Rice (274). His 1,432 career receptions and 17,492 career yards are also second all-time to Rice.
Fitzgerald was a key player in 2008 when the Cardinals made a memorable run through the playoffs to reach their first Super Bowl. After piling up 1,431 yards and an NFL-leading 12 touchdowns in the regular season, Fitzgerald posted 419 yards and five touchdowns in three playoff victories to help clinch the Super Bowl berth. In nine career playoff games, Fitzgerald has caught 57 passes for 942 yards and 10 touchdowns.
While the above players are the best of the best in Cardinals history, there are a couple of other players who have made significant contributions to the franchise but fell just outside of the top 10.
Ernie Nevers was known as one of the most complete football players in the NFL’s early history, and he became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. Despite only playing for the Cardinals from 1929 to '31, Nevers scored 26 touchdowns and also served as the kicker. He set an NFL record when he accounted for all 40 points during a 1929 victory over the Bears.
Duke Slater was one of the first prominent Black players in the NFL, and he played at an All-Pro level on offense and defense. Slater played for the Cardinals from 1926 to '31, and notably played all 60 minutes during a 1929 victory over the Bears, where he helped lead the way for Ernie Nevers to score all 40 of the Cardinals’ points. Slater was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Centennial Class of 2020.
Another of the NFL’s early superstars was Paddy Driscoll. He played for the Cardinals from 1920 to '25 as a quarterback, halfback and kicker. Driscoll scored 17 touchdowns and booted 37 field goals to help him earn a spot on the NFL’s 1920s All-Decade team. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, and once held the NFL record by scoring 27 points in a game in 1923.
One particular Cardinals player was never given the chance to showcase his full potential, but the reason why is greater than football ever will be.
Pat Tillman, a rising star at safety, made 155 tackles during the 2000 season—his first as a full-time starter. He put his career on pause in 2002 to join his brother in enlisting with the U.S. Army on a three-year term. Sadly, his career ended when he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman remains among the most remembered players to ever wear a Cardinals uniform, with many memorializing him for his principles and dedication rather than his play on the field—which is likely how Tillman would have wanted it.