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Top 20 AFL players of all time

Best ever AFL players list - Dustin Martin

We love the Australian Football League and without a doubt it has spawned some of the best athletes the world has seen. This article will run you through our top 20 AFL players of all time.

How did we select our best AFL players list? Any list of top Aussie Rules players is obviously an opinion, and that is exactly how we chose ours. We’ve watched a lot of footy since the first season in 1990, which is when the VFL rebranded into the AFL, and become a national competition.

Our list includes many of the top midfielders, several star ruckmen and plenty of superstar key position players. Obviously plenty of players have missed out. Who would you include that we have missed? Let us know in the discussion box directly below this story.

Best AFL players of all-time

Here are our top 20 AFL players of all-time list from 1-20:

1 – Wayne Carey (North Melbourne/Adelaide)

Games: 272
Goals: 727
Years active: 1989-2004
Individual awards: Leigh Matthews Trophy: 1995, 1998; All-Australian Team: 1993–1996, 1998,1999–2000; All-Australian Team Captain: 1993, 1998, 1999–2000; North Melbourne Best & Fairest: 1992–1993, 1996, 1998; North Melbourne leading goal kicker: 1995–1996, 1998–2000; North Melbourne Captain: 1993–2001; Australian Football Hall of Fame; North Melbourne Team of the Century: (Centre Half Forward); North Melbourne Hall of Fame; North Melbourne Team of the Century Captain; Michael Tuck Medal: 1998
Premierships: 1996, 1999

Wayne Carey is often referred to as the best AFL player of all time and a quick YouTube search and watch of his highlights package tells you why. Carey played at centre-half forward and was clearly the most dominant force in the game for much of the 90s. After captaining North Melbourne to two premierships (1996 & 1999) Carey was traded to Adelaide after an affair with teammate Anthony Stevens’ wife was revealed. Carey was serviceable at the Crows but never reached the same heights as his enforced layoff and father time caught up with him. Carey is easily one of the best body-on-body AFL players of all time and sits comfortably in the World Gambling List’s top 5 AFL players.

2 – Gary Ablett Jnr (Geelong/Gold Coast)

Games: 345+
Goals: 436
Years active: 2002-2020 *
Individual awards: Brownlow Medal: 2009, 2013; Leigs  Matthews Trophy: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013; AFLCA Champion Player of the Year Award: 2007, 2008, 2009; All-Australian team: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 (c), 2012, 2013, 2014; 2× Carji Greeves Medal: 2007, 2009; Gold Coast Suns Club Champion: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2017; Geelong leading goalkicker: 2006; Gold Coast leading goalkicker: 2012, 2013; Marcus Ashcroft Medal: 2012 (game 2), 2014 (game 1); Australian Football Media Association Player of the Year: 2007; Herald Sun Player of the Year: 2007, 2012, 2013; Lou Richards Medal: 2009, 2013
Premierships: 2007 (Geelong), 2009 (Geelong)

The son of ace player Gary Ablett, Junior was destined for stardom from a young age, but did take a few years to develop into the brilliant midfielder that he became. Ablett’s ability in traffic and slick disposal and goal-sense make him arguably the best player of all time (or maybe his Dad was?). Ablett left the Cats to join new club Gold Coast, where he probably wasted his best years playing in a developing team. Left the Suns to rejoin the Cats in his twilight years, but a dodgy shoulder has seen him be a shadow of the player he once was, despite still being a solid contributor. Ablett is likely to be playing his last season in 2020.

3 – Lance “Buddy” Franklin (Hawthorn/Sydney)

Games: 300+
Goals: 944+
Years active: 2005 – ?
Individual awards: AFL premiership player: 2008, 2013; All-Australian team: 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 (c); Coleman Medal: 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017; Peter Crimmins Medal: 2008; Hawthorn leading goalkicker: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012; Sydney leading goalkicker: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018; Brett Kirk Medal: 2017, 2018; AFL Goal of the Year: 2010, 2013

Premierships: 2008 (Hawthorn); 2013 (Sydney)

Lance Franklin was a sensation at Hawthorn from the moment he walked through the gate at Glenferrie. While there was some off-field stuff that got him in hot water early days, Franklin’s athleticism, height and running power made him almost impossible to match up on at his peak. Franklin won the 2008 premiership at Hawthorn and kicked 100 goals in the year, the most recent AFL player to do so. Franklin shocked the football world in the middle of his career when he requested a trade to Sydney, a request Hawthorn fulfilled after he signed a 10-year contract with the Swans. Just how highly we rate Franklin (even though he has struggled with injury in recent years) is highlighted by him being one of the only current players on the list.

4 – Nathan Buckley (Collingwood/Brisbane)

Games: 280
Goals: 284
Years active: 1991-2007
Individual awards: Brownlow Medal: 2003; All-Australian team: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003; Copeland Trophy: 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003; Norm Smith Medal: 2002; AFLCA Champion Player of the Year: 2003; AFL Rising Star: 1993; Magarey Medal: 1992; Jack Oatey Medal: 1992; SANFL premiership player: 1992; Port Adelaide (SANFL) best and fairest: 1992
Premierships:

Nathan Buckley won seven best and fairest awards through his career and is often left off these lists because he didn’t win a premiership like the other top players in his era. Buckley was a shining light in a disastrous period for the Magpies, while favourite son Tony Shaw was in charge, but elevated his game to an even higher level when Mick Malthouse took over. Buckley almost got the Pies home in 2002 and 2003 grand finals, winning the Norm Smith in the first year for best on ground in the grand final — a remarkable feat given his team lost. Buckley could play tall or small but at his peak was a prolific ball-winner with damaging disposal. Buckley is now the Magpies’ coach after taking over from Malthouse in contentious circumstances.

5 – James Hird (Essendon)

Games: 253
Goals: 343
Years active: 1992-2007
Individual awards: AFL premierships: 1993, 2000 (captain); Brownlow Medal: 1996; All-Australian team: 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003; Essendon best and fairest: 1994, 1995, 1996, 2003, 2007; Norm Smith Medal: 2000; Essendon leading goalkicker: 1995–96; Essendon captain: 1998–2005; Australian Football Hall of Fame; Essendon Team of the Century; AFL Anzac Medal: 2000, 2003, 2004; Jim Stynes Medal: 2000; Football Achievement Award: 2007; Personal Development Award: 2007
Premierships: 1993, 2000

We hope James Hird is not forever tainted for his role in the Essendon doping scandal, because despite being banned from the sport for a period, during his playing days he was easily one of the best players. Hird had a unique ability to find himself in the right position when his team needed him. Also could be counted on to be a dangerous forward or a star through the midfield. We would rate Hird a lot higher, but probably was not as consistent as other players on this list, despite arguably being the greatest clutch players of all time.

6 – Robert Harvey (St Kilda)

Games: 383
Years active: 1998-2008
Individual awards: 2x Brownlow Medal: 1997, 1998, AFLPA MVP (Leigh Matthews Trophy): 1997, 8x All-Australian team: 1992, 1994-1999, 2003, 4x St Kilda Best & Fairest: 1992, 1994, 1997-1998, Herald Sun Player of the Year Award: 1997, Madden Medal: 2008, 3x Pre-Season Premiership: 1996, 2004, 2008, Michael Tuck Medal: 2004, St Kilda Team of the Century.
Premierships:

The dual Brownlow Medallist, Robert Harvey is an all time great of the AFL, despite not winning a flag. Harvey and another player on this list Nathan Buckley were arguably the two greatest midfielders of the late 90s and early 2000s, but we rate the Magpie sightly higher because he had more weapons than the super-consistent Harvey, who could run all day and was a heart and soul player. Harvey went agonisingly close to winning a premiership in 2007, one of his Brownlow years, but was denied by Adelaide and Malcolm Blight.

7 – Chris Judd (West Coast/Carlton)

Games: 279
Years active: 228
Individual awards: Brownlow Medal: (2004, 2010); Norm Smith Medal: (2005); Leigh Matthews Trophy: (2006, 2011); All-Australian team: (2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011); West Coast Club Champion: (2004, 2006); John Nicholls Medal: (2008, 2009, 2010); Ross Glendinning Medal: (2005, 2005, 2006); AFL Rising Star: (nomination 2002); AFLPA Best First Year Player Award: (2002); Geoff Christian Medal: (2006); AFL Goal of the Year (2005); Madden Medal: (2015); AFL Life Member: (2015); West Coast Life Member (2018)
Premierships: 2006 (West Coast)

Chris Judd was always destined to become a great after being drafted from Victoria to West Coast. Played a pivotal role in the Eagles 2006 premiership and formed a lethal combination with Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr, who received silver service from Dean Cox. Early days Judd had pace rarely seem, but groin injuries largely curtailed that part of his game in the second half of his career. After moving to Carlton for a stack of draft picks and Josh Kennedy (who went on to captain West Coast to a premiership) Judd solidified his greatness with a second Brownlow Medal, this time playing as the battering ram in the Blues’ midfield, a role which ultimately might have cut his career short as his body failed him.

8 – Tony Lockett (St Kilda/Sydney)

Games: 281
Years active:  1983-1999, 2002
Individual awards: Brownlow Medal: 1987; VFLPA MVP (Leigh Matthews Trophy): 1987; Coleman Medal: 1987, 1991, 1996, 1998; All-Australian team: 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998; St Kilda Best & Fairest: 1987, 1991;; Sydney Best & Fairest: 1995; Australian Football Hall of Fame – Legend Status; Sydney Team of the Century – Full Forward; St Kilda Team of the Century – Full Forward; E. J. Whitten Medal: 1995
Premierships:

Tony “Plugger” Lockett makes this list because he tops the all time goals list. While Lockett was not a flashy player, his pace on the lead and unmovable body made him unstoppable at both St Kilda and Sydney after being traded mid-career. His set shot goalkicking, backed by the stats, is also the best of all time. Parts of Lockett’s career were shrouded in controversy because of his tough approach on-field, with the burly full-forward having a reputation for being one of the roughest in arguably the roughest era of Australian football. Despite his penchant for going the biff, Lockett was a pleasure to watch on a football field and sits comfortably among the greatest forwards to play the game. Has one end of Docklands in Melbourne named after him, with the other going to Collingwood spearhead Gordon Coventry. Fun fact about Lockett, is that he is a passionate greyhound racing man with several dogs still in work.

9 – Adam Goodes (Sydney Swans)

Games: 372
Goals: 464+
Years active: 1999 – 2015
Individual awards: 2 x Brownlow Medal, Swans Best and Fairest

It’s easy to forgot just how good a player Adam Goodes was, given the way the finish to his career panned out. Goodes could do it all as a player. He won a Brownlow Medal playing in the ruck in 2003, could play as a midfielder and as a key position player. At 191cm Goodes was undersized for a ruckman but his extraordinary athleticism, game sense and running power made him a nightmare for opposition teams. Goodes won the Brownlow Medal again in 2006, playing in the midfield and sometimes as a ruckman. Goodes guided the Swans to the 2012 premiership, a win over Hawthorn. Goodes is not only a pioneer for indigenous footballers in Australia, but easily among the best AFL players of all time. It’s all cheers from us! From an AFL betting perspective, Goodes was one of the World Gambling List’s all time great cash cows.

10 – Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda)

Games: 336
Goals: 718
Years active: 2010 – current
Individual awards: 5 x best and fairest

Nick Rieowoldt was one of the hardest-running big men the game has ever seen. Not only could Riewoldt take a big pack mark up forward, he could also run all day, making him almost impossible to match up on. Riewoldt is a six time Trevor Barker Award winner as Saints best and fairest and five time All Australian. Riewoldt did not taste much team success throughout his career, including captaining the club in their ill-feted draw in the grand final and subsequent loss in 2010. But this should not take away from a player who changed expectations surrounding forwards in a lot of ways. No longer was it customary for your star forward to sit in the goal square. Instead if the situation called for it Riewoldt would run his opponent into the ground, getting well up the ground and winning plenty of the ball. Just a superb player. Cousin Jack Riewoldt is also a handy player with Richmond, but probably not in the same class as Nick.

11 – Michael Voss (Brisbane)

Games: 181+
Goals: 156+
Years active: 2010 – current
Individual awards: 2 x Brownlow Medal, 3 x Doig Medallist

Michael Voss is arguably the greatest Lion of all time and a huge part of their threepeat of premierships (2001-2003). His performance after being flattened by Collingwood star Scott Burns in the opening minutes of the 2002 grand final is the stuff of legend. Voss was a tough midfielder who had the ability to break lines when at his best. His kicking was first-rate and his ability to play well in big moments separate Voss from a lot of players onour best AFL players list. Voss won the 1996 Brownlow Medal, but it was his future partnership with midfield stars like Nigel Lappin, Simon Black and Jason Akermanis that have really set him into AFL folklore. 

12 – Nat Fyfe (Fremantle)

Games: 181+
Goals: 156+
Years active: 2010 – current
Individual awards: 2 x Brownlow Medal, 3 x Doig Medallist

Nat Fyfe deserves his position in our best AFL players of the modern era list, with the dual Brownlow Medallist still among the absolute top echelon of stars in 2020. While team success has often eluded Fyfe, he has developed into a remarkable player which has culminated in the 2015 and 2019 league best and fairests. Fyfe is also a three time All-Australian, 2x Leigh Matthew Trophy winner, 3x Doig Medal winner and an International rules representative. What makes Nat Fyfe special? He is the prototype of the modern midfielder at 190cm (Fellow midfielder and Brownlow Medallist Greg Williams was just 174cm), he can run and jump and keep doing it all day. Fyfe is just a marvelous footballer to watch and we think a third Brownlow is not beyond him as he enters into he final stretch of his career.

13 – Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood)

Games: 280+
Goals: 120+
Years active: 2006 – current
Individual awards: 5x Collingwood best and fairest

The Collingwood star has often been compared to Neo from the Matrix throughout his career, with his ability to find space in congestion what makes him so special. While Pendlebury has never won a Brownlow, he has come close on numerous occasions and captained the Magpies to the 2010 premiership. Pendlebury is still going strong in 2020 and remains one of the best players in the AFL, despite being on the wrong side of 30. Pendlebury’s standing in the game is enhanced by his ability to rise to the occasion on the big stage, highlighted by six All-Australian selections, five Copeland Trophys and a Norm Smith Medal in 2010. The silky-skilled left-footer is almost unparalleled with his professionalism, which is no surprise given he is the captain of a team that Nathan Buckley coaches.

14 – Luke Hodge (Hawthorn & Brisbane)

Games: 346
Goals: 194
Years active: 2002 – 2019

We’re including three time premiership Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge on this list because of his time at the Hawks, even though he finished his career in Brisbane. Hodge the player, was fearless, skilled and exceptionally versatile but it was his leadership that helped the Hawks win three premierships in their golden era under Alastair Clarkson. Hodge did play in a team full of stars, but proved himself an outstanding leader, with probably his two greatest achievements coming in grand finals, when he won the 2008 and 2015 North Smith Medals. Hodge may not have won as much of the ball as some other players on this list, but you could almost guarantee that he would win the contest that mattered, when a game was on the line. Hodge’s kicking in his prime years was an absolute weapon and thoroughly deserves his spot in the top modern era AFL players.

15 – Dustin Martin (Richmond)

Games: 332
Goals: 200+
Years active: 2010 – current
Individual awards: Brownlow Medal, Jack Dyer Medallist, 2 x premiership player

The Richmond star is one of the few players to make our best AFL players list while he’s still playing. Undoubtedly Martin has been a huge player in the Tigers winning their first AFL Premierships in over 30 years, winning a Brownlow Medal in 2017, and the 2019 North Smith Medal for best on ground in the grand final. Martin, who is known as a bit of a larrikan off the field, has developed into the ultimate modern footballer with his gut running and ability to find the ball through the midfield easily matched by his outstanding forward craft. His ball use and x-factor have made it impossible to leave hi off this list, even though he continues to star for the Richmond team. Dusty could very well end up much higher on our top AFL players of all time list.

16 – Patrick Dangerfield (Adelaide/Geelong)

Games: 284
Goals: 17
Years active: 1993 – 2007

The Geelong superstar just picks himself on this greatest AFL players list, and as much as he annoys us, we had to include him. Dangerfield began his career at Adelaide while still in school, but quickly made an impact on a half-forward flank, with pundits quick to say he was the next big thing. His explosive pace made him a weapon from day one, but it was not until 2012 he emerged as a star of the game. He left the Crows to return to home state and Geelong, just down the road from his childhood home at Moggs Creek, and has continued to shine there in 2020. Dangerfield has won 7 All Australian Guernseys, 3 Geelong best and fairest awards and the 2016 Brownlow Medal, but a premiership eludes him. We have got a feeling Dangerfield might end up higher on this list, by the time his career is through. Dangerfield is among the favourites to win the 2020 Brownlow Medal.

17 – Mark Ricciuto (Adelaide)

Games: 284
Goals: 17
Years active: 1993 – 2007

Mark Ricciuto was as tough as they come with the Adelaide superstar winning the 2003 Brownlow Medal alongside Nathan Buckley and Adam Goodes, and being named in the All Australian team eight times. Ricciuto was a star ball-winner at his peak and was an integral player in the Crows 1998 premiership, which made up for him missing the 1997 flag after a late season injury. Born in Waikerie, South Australia, Ricciuto is the definition of a Crows’ favourite son. After debuting as a 17-year-old in 1993, it didn’t take him long to hit his straps, being named All Australian twice before he was 22. Ricciutto retired at just 32 but is probably the Crows’ greatest player and sits comfortably in the top 20 AFL players of all time.

18 – Shaun Burgoyne (Port Adelaide & Hawthorn)

Games: 284
Goals: 17
Years active: 2002 – 2020

Shaun Burgoyne has been a fantastic AFL player for a long time and is still going at the age of 38, as he draws within striking distance of 400 senior games. Burgoyne started his career at Port Adelaide where he was part of their inaugural premiership team in 2004. At this stage of his career Burgoyne was a devastating midfielder who could bust out of the toughest congestion. Then Burgoyne switched to Hawthorn in 2009, with a huge query over a knee injury. The rest is history as Burgoyne was an integral part of the Hawks flags in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and has barely missed a game since. Burgoyne’s nickname “Silk” is apt because he rarely makes a mistake with the ball and his kicking on both feet is superb. Burgoyne sits comfortably among the best AFL players of all time.

19 – Dean Cox (West Coast)

Games: 290
Goals: 169
Years active: 2001 -2014

West Coast big man Dean Cox revolutionized the roll of a ruckman during his brilliant career with West Coast. The 202cm Cox was drafted from Dampier, which is about 15 hours drive north from Perth, and quickly made an impact in the WAFL, winning the Simpson Medal and ultimately being upgraded to the senior list the following season. Cox coupled his ability to win the hitouts with winning more ball than any player of his position before him. Cox formed a lethal combination with Chris Judd, Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr, as the very strong Eagles won the 2006 premiership. While we would love to have seen Cox go up against gret modern ruckmen like Todd Goldstein, Brodie Grundy and Max Gawn without a doubt he changed expectations surrounding ruckman and deserves to be in our list of the best AFL players of all time.

19 – Gary Ablett (Snr) (Hawthorn & Geelong)

The Geelong legend and the pick of many as the best AFL/VFL player of all time, only played a handful of seasons in 1990s. This means we’re not picking him for his entire body of work, rather just those years. Ablett played one season with Hawthorn at the beginning of his career, but after briefly returning to Myrtleford, he signed at Geelong in 1984 and the rest is history. Another player who failed to win a premiership, Gary Ablett Senior was a remarkable player, firstly as a damaging midfielder and half-forward, before becoming one of the most prolific forwards of all time. Ablett briefly retired in the early 1990s before coming back with three successive centuries of goals and three grand finals — all losing. He retired after the 1996 season. 

20 – Matthew Scarlett (Geelong)

Games: 284
Goals: 17
Years active: 1998 – 2012

Geelong fullback Matthew Scarlett was a huge player in Geelong’s resurgence under Mark Thompson and then Brad Scott. Scarlett was not only a superb defender, but also became an attacking weapon for the dominant Cats  teams. Preferring to shun the media for much of his 284 games, Scarlett played in all three of the Cats premierships and 22 finals over his long career. His respect among the competition can be judged by him receiving six All-Australian teams and a Carji Greeves Medal in 2003, which was just a precursor of what was to come from Scarlett. Like many of the great AFL players, Scarlett had a mean streak and often got under the skin of opposition players and supporters.

Has our Aussie Rules tragic got his top AFL players of all-time list right? Give it to him in the comments below.