Madden 18 cover star: ranking the most likely candidates from Ajayi to Zeke

Thanks partly to the apparent Madden curse, no cover in sports gaming is as hotly debated as that pertaining to EA’s three-decades-young Gridiron series. For half of its lifetime John Madden himself stared up from atop its pristine plastic, but players have been used to front (and market) it since a brief background appearance on the packaging for Madden 95.

Which elite specimen is likely to become the series’ temporary new figurehead when Madden 18 touches down this autumn? EA no longer puts it to a public vote, instead making its own selection based on ability, popularity and commercial potential. Below, then, I’ve ranked the cover candidates according to recent performance, series history, and possible reaction to having their likeness recreated in voodoo-doll form. And there’s a fair chance that even the latter won’t prevent the Patriots scoring yet another Vince Lombardi trophy. 

12. Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions) 

Don’t make that face. If the idea of a Lions player on the cover shocks you, masticate this: Detroit players have claimed more Madden covers any other team’s. Three in total: Barry Sanders on Madden 2000, Calvin Johnson on Madden 13, and Sanders again on the last-gen versions of Madden 25. If EA wants to visit that well for a record fourth time then the man who skippered them to last season’s play-offs is, without question, the likeliest candidate. 

11. Allen Hurns (Jacksonville Jaguars) 10. Jay Ajayi (Miami Dolphins) 

Two more outside choices, but don’t nix their chances completely. Each worked with EA in ambassadorial roles in 2016, and indeed were on hand to talk to GamesRadar+ when I visited developer Tiburon last summer to see Madden 17. Of the two, Ajayi can press hardest for the spot after a thunderous 1,272-yard sophomore campaign. Aged 25 and 23 respectively, both have abundant future cover chances if this isn’t to be their year. 

 9. Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots) 

Last year’s Madden cover star missed the Pats’ play-off run through injury, which will likely make him even more determined to have a barnstorming 2017 season – and his mainstream appeal, such as a recent WrestleMania appearance, would guarantee heavy publicity for the new game. Counting against him, however, is that fact that no player has ever appeared on the Madden cover two years in a row.

 8. John Madden (Oakland Raiders, kinda) 

A left-field choice, sure, but Madden himself always has to be considered a vague possibility. He’s fronted 15 games bearing his name over the last three decades, but the last was 17 years ago – and 2018 will mark 30 years since the release of the pigskin chucker that started it all on Commodore 64 and Apple II.mAnniversary gift to the big man? If it doesn’t happen this year, lock it in for Madden 19. 

7. Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys) 6. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) 

Despite being considered ‘America’s Team’, the Cowboys have only ever had one player grace the cover of Madden – Erik Williams, way back on Madden 95. And even then he was forced to share the limelight with ol’ Johnboy. There’s a more-than-decent chance that 23-year barren spell is broken this year after two rookies had astonishing seasons in Dallas. Prescott notched a 23-4 TD-Interception ratio, Elliott mashed past 1,600 yards with 15 touchdowns, and either would be a fitting recipient of the biggest gig in digital sports.

 5. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) 

While Ryan and his Falcons coaches are unlikely to be invited to Tiburon for their clock management insight after the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history, the Atlanta QB nonetheless deserved his MVP award judged on performances across the 2016 season. You’d imagine such an accolade guarantees any player a powerful claim to the following year’s Madden cover, but in fact that’s only been true once this decade – with Adrian Peterson, for Madden 25. 

4. Patrick Peterson (Arizona Cardinals) 3. Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers) 

The last time EA held a public vote for the Madden cover, ahead of Madden 16, four players made the shortlist: the aforementioned Gronkowski, Odell Beckham Jr, Patrick Peterson, and Antonio Brown. Beckham won that vote, and EA gave Gronk the gig a year later, so it’s natural to assume that Peterson and Brown remain in the running for future covers. With Brown having just turned in his fourth consecutive 100-catch season, you have to consider him the more likely of the pair. Just. 

2. LeVeon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers) 

Before you put #3 and #2 together and make Mike Tomlin: no, I’m not a Steelers fan. (And if list were written from a personal perspective then the spot following this one would have Ajayi in it.) Bell’s unconventional stop-start running style became the stuff of legend last season, and if Tiburon has in any way changed up rushing mechanics in Madden 18, he would seem the perfect choice to showcase such tweaks. Plus he’s popular with fans across the league, which can’t necessary be said of the NFL legend posing smugly at this list's mountain top…

1. Tom Brady (New England Patriots) 

No surprise at numero uno. New England’s long-time signal caller – and guaranteed Hall Of Famer – is the obvious pick here, but also the most deserving one, having earned his fifth World Championship ring last season. Amazingly, while Brady fronted 989 Sports’ NFL Gameday in the PS2 years, he’s never been on the cover of the biggest Gridiron game going. With tireless Tom turning 40 this August, it’s surely time that was rectified.

Madden 18 is unconfirmed, but expected for release across a variety of platforms in early August. Need further reading? Be sure to check out GR+'s extended look at the 11 key changes Madden 18 needs to make according to fans.

Ben Wilson

I'm GamesRadar's sports editor, and obsessed with NFL, WWE, MLB, AEW, and occasionally things that don't have a three-letter acronym – such as Chvrches, Bill Bryson, and Streets Of Rage 4. (All the Streets Of Rage games, actually.) Even after three decades I still have a soft spot for Euro Boss on the Amstrad CPC 464+.