With the current Buffalo Bills roster loaded with talent like Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Von Miller, and recent additions such as first-round draft pick Dalton Kincaid and veteran Leonard Floyd, it’s easy to be excited about the upcoming season. So excited, in fact, that it’s even easier to forget about the countless Bills who have made the franchise one of the greatest in NFL history.

Well, due to the fact that we are at the height of the offseason, there can hardly be any better time to take a look back at the history of the team. Unlike our ability to get excited about the 2023 season, however, narrowing down the history of the team to extract only the five best players is absolutely not easy.

Although digging through the stats of numerous players can be somewhat tedious and challenging, it is also a fun exercise. Of course, there are other factors besides stats alone that can be considered, such as contributions that might not be reflected on the stat sheet and even how beloved a player is among the fanbase. Taking everything into consideration, here are the top five greatest Buffalo Bills in the history of the team:

Number 5: Andre Reed (WR)

Former Bills WR Andre Reed (83) – US Presswire

A fourth-round pick in the 1985 NFL draft, Andre Reed joined the Bills and played for the squad for 15 seasons. During his time in Orchard Park, Reed helped lead the team to four consecutive AFC Championship titles and subsequent Super Bowl appearances.

If for no other reason to be on this list, Reed’s spot was solidified by his outstanding performance in “The Comeback,” a game that became the greatest comeback game in NFL history until it was broken by the Minnesota Vikings in 2022. For those who may be unfamiliar, “The Comeback” was a 1993 playoff game in which the Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 35-3 in the third quarter. Reed secured eight receptions for 136 yards and added three touchdowns. His performance was a crucial part of erasing the deficit and winning the game.

Throughout his career in Buffalo, Reed racked up 13,095 yards and 86 touchdowns on 941 receptions. He currently holds the 15th all-time most touchdowns (87), ninth most receptions in postseason history (85), and second-most career Super Bowl receptions in NFL history. Reed was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, and his name is forever enshrined on the Wall of Fame inside Highmark Stadium.

Number 4: Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist (FB)

Former Bills FB Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist (34) – File Photo

Bills Mafia is an undeniable presence throughout all of Western New York, and the fans range from newborns to the elderly. To this day, while many of us are feeling hyped about the tandem of James Cook and Damien Harris heading into 2023, you can still barely escape a conversation about running backs without an old-timer bringing up the long-adored Carlton Chester “Cookie” Gilchrist. This is for good reason.

As the first-ever 1,000-yard rusher in the American Football League, Gilchrist won the hearts of Bills fans in his first year with the team (1962). The same year, he set the all-time AFL touchdown record (13) and was named AFL MVP. After only three years with the Bills, Gilchrist remains Buffalo’s ninth-all-time leading rusher.

During each of his three seasons in Buffalo, he led the league in scoring and, in 1964, helped carry the Bills to the AFL Championship. Buffalo won the Championship over the San Diego Chargers, a game in which Gilchrist ran the ball for 122 yards. Gilchrist was openly called the “best blocking running back that ever played the game” by the late John Madden, which only further enshrines him in the annals of Buffalo Bills history.

Number 3: Thurman Thomas (RB)

Former Bills RB Thurman Thomas (34) – Getty Images

For a team that is incredibly pass-happy these days (and justifiably so), I honestly didn’t expect to include two running backs when I started this shortlist. But anyone who remembers the legendary Bills of the late 80s and early 90s knows that the team would not have done nearly as well without the dynamic Thurman Thomas.

Of course, Buffalo has had their fair share of impressive ball carriers over the years, including those who didn’t stay too long (think Lynch and Shady) or those who wound up wrapped in controversy, such as he who shall not be named (or consumed with your morning toast). Albeit, Thomas is second to none in Bill’s history of rushers and so well-deserves his place on this list.

With 11,938 yards, Thomas still holds the Bill’s all-time rushing record. He is the only player to lead the league in yards from scrimmage for four straight years in NFL history and finished his career with a total of 65 rushing TDs and 12,074 rushing yards. However, none of this takes into account what Thomas also did as a receiver. Through the air, he added a career total of 4,458 yards on 472 receptions and another 23 TDs.

In the 21 postseason games he played, Thomas caught 76 passes for 672 yards and rushed for 1,442 yards. NFL playoff records set by Thomas include:

  • Most TDs (21)
  • Most consecutive playoff games with a TD (9)
  • Most career points (126)

To this day, Thomas is among only five RBs to rack up +1,000-yard seasons eight years in a row, and one of six to have both 10,000 rushing yards and more than 400 receptions. He sits on these lists alongside the likes of Walter Payton, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Barry Sanders, so there should be no wonder why he remains one of the top five players in Buffalo Bills history.

Number 2: Jim Kelly (QB)

Former Bills QB Jim Kelly (12) – Rick Stewart/Allsport

It is well-known that Jim Kelly absolutely did not want to play for the Buffalo Bills when they snagged him in the 1983 draft. His disdain for the cold weather Bills actually led to him signing with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers, where he played for two years instead of going to Buffalo. He famously led a comeback win against Steve Young and the Los Angeles Express in what has become known as one of the greatest games that no one saw.

After the USFL collapsed in 1986, Kelly finally joined the Bills and began to cement his legacy here. Although Buffalo is the only team to lose four consecutive Super Bowls, they are also the only one to reach four consecutive Super Bowls, and Jim Kelly was one of the main reasons they were able to be such an AFC powerhouse for so long.

As a Bill, Kelly helped develop a no-huddle offense that quickly became known as the “K-Gun.” The strategy disallowed defenses time to adjust or substitute and was a major contributor to Kelly’s career stats of 2,874 completions for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns. In the postseason alone, Kelly completed 322 of 545 throws for 3,863 yards and 21 TDs. He added seven touchdowns and 1,049 rushing yards as well.

The five-time Pro Bowler led the league with 33 touchdown passes, a record that stood in Bills history from 1991 until Josh Allen broke it in 2020. Kelly still holds the NFL’s 2nd all-time record for most yards gained per reception in one game. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

Kelly is also beloved off the field throughout WNY for both his charity, dubbed “Hunter’s Hope” after his son who passed away in 2005, and his tenacity to remain actively involved in the community, even after his own battle with cancer. While Josh Allen (another very charitable QB) is certainly working to shatter every record he can, for now, Jim Kelly still has the numbers to prove that he is indeed the greatest Bills quarterback in history.

Number 1: Bruce Smith (DE)

Former Bills DE Bruce Smith (78) – Focus on Sport/Getty Images


Any offense who faced Buffalo in the 90s still has nightmares when they hear his name, and that is why all-time sack leader Bruce Smith makes it as not only the lone defensive player on this list but also claims the number one spot. After all, it is extremely difficult to win games when the other team has an edge defender barreling down on your QB at all times.

As being the first overall pick of the 1985 draft, Smith did not enter the league as the machine he would later become. In fact, in his rookie season, he garnered a mere 6.5 sacks and had to work to squash some notably poor training habits. Over the next handful of seasons, Smith began living up to his potential and recorded three sacks in two playoff games, but this time was also plagued by some off-field adversity, and he was nearly made a Bronco as a restricted FA.

Nevertheless, Smith ultimately stayed in Buffalo, where he swiftly dominated the 1990s. He played a major role in taking Buffalo to their first Super Bowl after hitting a high 19 sacks and added one more when he became the fifth NFL player to record a safety in Super Bowl history. Throughout his career, Smith totaled 43 forced fumbles and recovered 15, but most impressively, hit a total of 200 sacks, which remains the greatest in NFL history to this day.

Altogether, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer was one of the leading reasons the Bills were able to win four straight AFC titles. Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, his first year eligible and one year after his name was placed on the Bills Wall of Fame. While he lives in Virginia Beach, VA, he is hands-down one of the most beloved players in Western New York, and he will live fondly in the hearts of Bills Mafia forever.

Honorable Mentions

  • Marv Levy (HC)
  • Kent Hull (C)
  • Eric Moulds (WR)
  • Darryl Talley (LB)
  • OJ Simpson (RB)
  • Freddy Jackson (RB)
  • Kyle Williams (DT)
  • Eric Wood (C)
  • Jerry Hughes (LB)
  • Jack Kemp (QB)
  • Frank Reich (QB)
  • Cornelius Bennett (LB)

Where do We Go from Here?

Happily, it’s safe to say that the Bills organization is in exceptional hands these days. So much so that I even wanted to include several current players on this list. But while we are lost in what is yet to be, it is good to go back and appreciate where we once were and the incredible players who sculpted the history of the franchise. There are undoubtedly many other players who could make arguments for the greatest ever in Bills history, but hey, this is my list, and I’m sticking to it!

Go Bills!