Regardless, the privilege of competing in the NFL is among the most coveted in professional sports nonetheless. When a football player gets to the top as well, it can be very, very difficult to stay there. While that has led to many a player falling out of the league due to underperformance, many other players have turned to the darker side of the game.
These players chose to walk a thin line between breaking the rules and outright disregarding them. Some were good players, some were great, and some were just dirty. Either way, they chose to throw away their respect for their opponents.
Check out the 26 dirtiest NFL players of all-time right here:
26. T.J. Ward – Browns, Broncos & Buccaneers:
Ward came out guns blazing in his rookie season and quickly earned a reputation as a dirty player by earning a $15,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit. But it was his 2013 knee mugging of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski that sent his rep into infamy.
The hit tore Gronk’s ACL and forced him to miss the rest of the season. When Ward moved on to the Denver Broncos, he was a member of their vaunted “No Fly Zone” defense, where he was again feared for his lack of regard for opponents’ safety.
However, he was also an extremely dirty player. In 2006, Haynesworth removed the helmet of opposing Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Andre Gurode and stomped on his head. Gurode received 30 stitches for the wound. He continued to experience blurred vision and pain afterward. Haynesworth received a five-game suspension for the attack, which is still the longest suspension in NFL history for an in-game incident.
Haynesworth issued the following apology to Gurode by claiming, “What I did out there was disgusting. It doesn’t matter what the league does to me. The way I feel right now, you just can’t describe it.”
The right words to say, but the mere act makes him a supremely dirty player.
Ward is a Steelers legend and legitimately one of the toughest to ever the position of wide receiver. However, he also gained quite a reputation for being a dirty player.
The longtime veteran loved to block opponents with the now outlawed blindside block, leading to several potential injuries.
His most notorious of such blocks came on former Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, whose jaw Ward broke in 2008. Rivers missed the rest of the season from the block. Because of it, the aptly named “Hines Ward Rule” made a blindside block illegal if a player used his helmet, forearm or shoulder to hit an unwitting defender in the head or neck area.
Merriman was a brutalizing defender who coined the infamous “Lights Out” moniker and celebration, but not all of his talents were naturally gained. In 2006, he was suspended for violating the NFL performance-enhancing drug policy after he tested positive for anabolic steroid nandrolone.
Like Ward before him, Merriman had a new rule created in his name, which stated any player who tested positive for steroids could not be voted to the Pro Bowl or receive any performance-based awards in the year they tested positive. When you have a new rule made in your name because of dirty actions like this, you simply must make this list.
Jones may have paved the way for dirty players in the NFL. He certainly paved the way for sacks to be considered a statistic. In fact, the Rams legend tallied 130 quarterback takedowns before they were even a quantified stat.
But sacks are counted now. What are not are dirty plays, of which Jones had many as well. He was most known for his ‘head slap’ technique in which he would daze would-be blockers by essentially socking them in the small earhole on their helmet. It worked in helping him sack the opposing quarterback, and also for ranking him on the list of the dirtiest players in NFL history.
Taylor was a wild man on and off the field – hence his inclusion on our list of the NFL’s most notorious criminals. While crack cocaine and underage prostitutes proved his undoing off the field, his violent playing style earned him his reputation on it.
There’s no doubt he was one of the best defensive players of all-time. You could argue he’s the best in NFL history. But his repeated hits that injured players in gruesome fashion and his multiple failed drug tests as a player still make him one of the dirtiest players ever as well.
20. Steve Smith – Carolina Panthers & Baltimore Ravens:
Smith is a decorated receiver who has the eighth-most receiving yards in NFL history with 14,731 and the 12th-most receptions with 1,031. He was hard-nosed receiver who finished with a great career.
But he was also known for being a hothead, which led to some undesirable consequences. For example, he got into a fight with then-teammate Anthony Bright before the 2002 season, breaking his orbital bone. When he had a falling out with the Panthers and left the team, he infamously claimed if he faced them on the field, onlookers should, “put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
Greene is an NFL legend who was the main player on Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s. He deserved every bit of his Hall of Fame status.
Yet that doesn’t mean he was a nice guy while obtaining it. Greene was known for a raging temper. His style of play was focused on making his opponents fear him, and they did. For example, he once kicked an opposing player in the junk as they lay on the ground, punched a Denver Bronco, and spit in the direction of famed Minnesota Viking Fran Tarkenton.
In a 1979 game against the Houston Oilers, Greene told Houston QB Dan Pastorini, “If you come into the end zone, I’ll beat the crap out of you! I’m gonna kill you!”
Needless to say, Pastorini didn’t come into the end zone.
Meriweather was a dangerous safety who played with no regard for other players. For example, he was fined $50,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Todd Heap in 2010. He was then fined another $20,000 for a similar hit on the aforementioned Steve Smith and $25,000 for a late hit against the Detroit Lions.
Later in his career when he signed with the Washington Redskins, he was suspended for two games after illegal hits on Chicago Bears Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. His response to the hits was shocking, as he claimed, “I guess I just got to take people’s knees out. That’s the only way. I would hate to end a guy’s career over a rule, but I guess it’s better other people than me getting suspended for longer. You just have to go low now, man. You’ve got to end people’s careers. You got to tear people’s ACLs and mess up people’s knees. You can’t hit them high anymore.”
Sherman was a famed member of the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” defense that trounced the historic offense of the 2013 Denver Broncos 43-8 in the Super Bowl. He was one of the best cornerbacks in the league during his prime.
But he was also known for his brash, over-the-top style. He posted the infamous “U mad bro” photo on Twitter taunting Tom Brady. He was also suspended for using Adderall during the 2012 season, which he later appealed. And of course, who could forget his legendary rant after the Seahawks beat the 49ers in the 2013 NFC title game. He stopped receiver Michael Crabtree, made a choke gesture at Colin Kaepernick, and uncorked this gem to interviewer Erin Andrews:
“Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me! Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or you know I’m gonna shut it for you real quick!”
Suggs is a marvel of modern athleticism who is somehow still playing after the Ravens drafted him in the 2003 NFL draft. He’s racked up a Hall of Fame-caliber 132.5 sacks since.
But “T-Sizzle” has also become just as well known for his dirty hits on the field. Much of that reputation comes from the hits he’s leveled at rival quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s knees over the years. Those are just a few of the allegedly dirty tackles he’s laid out on the field over his career.
Another Ravens star and another NFL legend, Lewis is most certainly one of the most notorious criminals in NFL history thanks to his 2001 murder case. But he’s also one of the dirtiest on the field as well.
He gained a reputation for dirty hits throughout his illustrious playing career. Perhaps the most direct proof of that was his two fines of $25,000 during the 2010 season. Lewis was nearing the end of his playing career and was 35 at the time, but that didn’t stop from making hits dirty enough to warrant league officials to take notice.
Porter is another great former Steeler on this list. He won a Super Bowl, was named NFL First-Team All-Pro twice in 13 seasons, and made four Pro Bowls as well. But he was a dirty player as well.
His most infamous incident came when he bull-rushed Browns punter Chris Gardocki and tackled him. Gardocki lay motionless on the field for a moment before waking up and flipping off Steelers coach Bill Cowher. He moved on to the Arizona Cardinals. Porter was then voted the second-dirtiest player in the NFL in 2009 by his peers.
Are you sensing a bit of a trend between legendary defensive players and dirty players? Indeed, the two seem to go hand in hand in some regards.
In this case, Butkus was one of the best linebackers in NFL history and the face of the vaunted Chicago Bears’ “Monsters of the Midway” for many years. During his playing years, Butkus was regarded as a man who played with no regard for his opponents’ safety. It earned him a legendary career and a Hall of Fame induction, but also a spot among the dirtiest players of all-time.
Schlereth is a legendary Bronco who played with John Elway during their Super Bowl-winning runs of the late 1990s. What he is not legendary for is his love of the now-banned chop blocks.
He and his Broncos linemates were notorious for targeting opposing players’ knees, and they rarely hid that fact. In fact, Schlereth once said, “they were throwing 15-16 cut blocks a game. We were throwing 40.” Lovely.
At least that practice is outlawed in the NFL nowadays.
Cecil was a runaway freight train famous for leading with his head. His style of tackling was vicious, but also inaccurate as he launched himself into his opponents like a missile.
He was repeatedly fined for leading with his helmet, and his career did not last all that long because he did. Despite the fact that he wore a special helmet with additional padding due to his violent style, he was forced into retirement after sustaining multiple concussions.
Harrison is a great safety who won two Super Bowls and holds the record for most sacks in NFL history at the position. He was also one of the dirtiest players to ever play.
He quickly gained a reputation for vicious head-to-head hits. Harrison was voted the dirtiest player in the NFL by his peers in both 2004 and 2006. NFL coaches gave him the title in 2008. He was also suspended in 2002 for a head-to-hit hit on NFL legend Jerry Rice. Overall, he was fined more than $200,000 for illegal hits in his career.
Like Harrison, Finnegan was also voted the dirtiest player in the NFL at one point in 2010. It was a title he seemed to relish in, proving his sheer dirtiness.
Finnegan was known for talking trash and grabbing opponents, or really anything that will potentially impede their performance. It led to several on-field fights, the most notorious being his dust-up with former Houston Texan Andre Johnson.
A member of the notorious Oakland Raiders, Tatum was another headhunting hitter on the list. He even earned the nickname “The Assassin” due to his propensity for lowering the boom with helmet-to-helmet hits. He was only 5’10” and 200 pounds, hardly big for the NFL even in his day.
So he made up for it with his hitting style. And it worked, as he was known as one of the hardest hitters in NFL history. He made three straight Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl in Oakland. However, he’s most well known for his hit on former Pats wide receiver Darryl Stingley that left his target paralyzed from the chest down.
Williams was a great safety in his own right, but he became notorious for injuring players with the now-banned horse collar tackle throughout his career. His most famous incident of such a hit was when he broke former Philadelphia Eagle Terrell Owens’ leg with one.
He injured three players using horse collar tackles in the 2004 season alone. Because of his dirty hits, Williams was fined by the NFL and earned a spot high on this list.
Harrison is a Super Bowl champion who owns the Steelers’ all-time record for sacks with 80.5. He’s also a brutalizing linebacker who gained a reputation for headhunting players in the middle of the field.
He was also known as one of the bigger cheap shot artists in the league. They led to an absolutely massive amount of fines and penalties over the course of his career.
Now we’re getting up into the rarified air of the dirtiest NFL players of all-time. Incognito came into the league with quite the notorious reputation, and not in a good way. He upheld that rep by promptly becoming one of the dirtiest players in the league.
For example, in 2008, was fined $35,000 for three separate infractions against the Redskins – a personal foul for abusing an official, a chop block, and a major facemask. Three in one game. He also has a history of earning two or more personal fouls in the span of single games.
But the incident that took the proverbial cake was his 2014 taunting of former teammate Jonathan Martin, who reportedly considered suicide because of Incognito’s racially based taunting. He was suspended for the remainder of the season at the time. A complete and utter scumbag.
4. Conrad Dobler – St. Louis Cardinals, Saints & Bills:
Although not known by many of the NFL’s current fans, Dobler is nonetheless one of the NFL’s dirtiest players ever.
He was even accused of biting an opponent at one point. While Dobler claims that his reputation as a dirty player is at least somewhat unwarranted, he didn’t do himself any favors by failing to deny he attempted to injure players. He was known to punch and even kick his opponents throughout his controversial career.
The hulking Suh could legitimately be called the dirtiest player in the NFL if not for the two notorious names that follow him on this list. But that doesn’t take anything away from his overall dirtiness.
Suh is undoubtedly one of the most imposing forces in the league when it comes to defensive tackles. He’s also been one of the highest-paid over the last several years. However, that hasn’t stopped him from stomping on opponents after the whistle is blown. He has also started multiple fights on the field. There’s just no reason for a star like this to behave like he does.
2. Bill Romanowski – 49ers, Eagles, Broncos & Raiders:
Romanowski was a powerful force who played linebacker with the utmost ferocity. But he took that a bit too far more often than not. He was known for repeated cheap shots and late hits.
Perhaps his most notorious dirtiness, however, came when he was repeatedly accused of being racist. The incidents that prompted the accusations were when he kicked RB Larry Centers in the head and spat on San Francisco receiver J.J. Stokes. He topped all that off by physically removing Eddie George’s helmet in 2002. He even punched former teammate Marcus Williams during a scrimmage scuffle in 2003, forcing him to retire when he broke his orbital bone.
There’s just no other name who could top the list of the dirtiest players in NFL history. Burfict is a picture of dirtiness. Burfict was an elite talent in college at Arizona State University, but he wasn’t even drafted because of his off-the-handle tendencies. He latched on with the Cincinnati Bengals and promptly became one of the worst jerks in the league.
He has racked up an unheard-of $4.2 million in fines and subsequently lost salary as the result of suspensions over the course of his career. But all of that pales in comparison to his disgusting 2016 hit on former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown that cost the Bengals a playoff win. The illegal hit came on a fourth-and-long and was completely unnecessary, but it concussed Brown and got Burfict suspended. The Bengals have not won a playoff game for 28 years and that was their best chance by far. Oddly enough, Brown and Burfict are now teammates in Oakland of all places.
That doesn’t change the fact that Burfict is the dirtiest player in NFL history.