As the most popular sport in the United States, the players who make it to the NFL are some of the greatest athletes in all of North America. Not all NFL athletes, however, are created equal. Everyone knows that things like experience and football acumen are important for a successful NFL career, but it is undoubtedly true that some measure of athletic ability is necessary to compete at a pro level. As such, I compiled a list of eight present-day NFL stars who are “physical freaks,” and seven who look like they probably work at a place like Target.
As will be shown by this list, some of the best NFL players aren’t the most physically gifted, but a monstrous level of athletic talent can be significant in determining NFL success. Thus, this list will serve as a good case study to examine the constant battle between effort and natural ability. This list can attest to the fact that this debate is far from settled. If you can think of any NFL players who are physical freaks (or potential Target employees) who did not make our list, feel free to mention them in the comments.
15. Physical Freak – James Harrison
At almost 40-years-old, James Harrison is still one of the most impressive physical specimens in the entire NFL. Many people were surprised when the Steelers recently cut Harrison, and the Patriots quickly made them realize their mistake, when the veteran linebacker had 2 sacks in the season finale against the New York Jets. Harrison’s workout routine has become legendary on social media, and between his intense regiment and strict diet, there’s no telling how long he can maintain a productive NFL career. Following his signing by the Patriots, I noticed several Steelers fans commenting how odd he looked in the New England uniform. I personally think that Harrison looks strange in any uniform, as the NFL shoulder pads only add to his already gigantic upper body.
14. Target – Tom Brady
Tom Brady may be the greatest quarterback to ever play, but he certainly doesn’t have the look of an all-time NFL great. While Brady has developed into an NFL “pretty boy,” there was a time when Gisele Bundchen wouldn’t have given him a second look. After graduating from the University of Michigan (where he didn’t even start), he was selected in the 6th round of the NFL Draft by the Patriots. Like all NFL prospects, Brady was forced to jump through a series of hoops, including a picture of him in only his boxer shorts. These pictures have since become notorious because Brady looks so un-athletic. This lack of muscle mass hasn’t prevented Brady from dominating NFL defenses for most of his career.
13. Physical Freak – Cam Newton
As the rest of this list will attest, the current crop of NFL quarterbacks aren’t exactly known for their pure athleticism. There are some exceptions to this, however, most notably Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is only a couple years removed from winning the NFL MVP Award, an award he won mostly because of his outstanding physical athleticism. Newton is adept as a traditional quarterback, but it is his ability to scramble and make plays that truly puts him in the upper echelon of NFL players. These upcoming playoffs are the first chance for Newton to play in a playoff game since his Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, so many fans are excited to see the spectacular plays that he has planned for his Wild Card matchup.
12. Target – Andre Smith
It is common throughout the league that offensive linemen do not have the physique that one would expect from professional athletes. Their need to maintain significant body weight leads many of these players to pack on a few extra pounds around their middle. Some of these players take this a little too far, and start more to resemble the kind of guy you’d see packing boxes at Target more than an NFL athlete. A perfect example of this is Andre Smith, a player who has struggled with his weight since being drafted by the Bengals in 2009. Everyone remembers the combine video of Smith, which shows him running his 40-yard dash shirtless, while clearly carrying a few extra pounds with him. Hopefully, people also remember that Andre Smith has been a dominant player in his short NFL career.
11. Physical Freak – Clay Matthews
Despite being on the same team as one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, Clay Matthews has become the heart and soul of the Green Bay Packers team. While Clay has shown an understanding of the Packers defense and an unparalleled toughness, he has also shown impressive athleticism in his nine-year NFL career. This has allowed him to become a Butkus Award winner and a six-time Pro Bowler. The fact that Matthews has had success at both inside and outside linebacker in his career, only emphasizes how athletic he really is. Clay’s namesake father and grandfather and his uncle Bruce were NFL players, so one can only imagine the physical regimen that Clay has undertaken since he was a high school. With a potential induction into the NFL Hall of Fame looming, I’d say that all that training has paid off.
10. Target – Jordy Nelson
Of all the players on an NFL field, the wide receiver position may include the most, pure athletes. Sometimes it is the receivers who are not quite so athletic, however, who have the most dramatic impact on games. A perfect example of this is Jordy Nelson, a player who has used his quickness and knowledge of routes to become Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target on the Green Bay Packers. Watching Nelson this year without Rodgers, it was apparent that he does not have the physical gifts that fellow receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb have. It was Nelson’s consummate work ethic, and chemistry with Rodgers, that has made him one of the most productive wide receivers of the past five years. Rodgers seems set to return next season, so don’t be surprised to see another uptick in Nelson’s numbers.
9. Physical Freak – Julio Jones
Antonio Brown is probably the best wide receiver in the league, but Julio Jones just might be the most athletic. Detractors can comment on Jones’ injury history all they want, but when he is consistently making awe inspiring plays, it is hard to imagine any NFL GM turning down a chance to sign the Alabama football product. Even in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, a team famous for their ability to limit the opposing teams’ best player, Jones looked un-guardable until the Falcons nonsensically stopped using him in the second half. Standing at 6-foot-3, with an astounding wingspan, it is unsurprising that Jones has been a five-time Pro Bowler. If he is able to stay healthy, the pure athletic ability of this player should maintain his spot as a dominant NFL receiver for many years to come.
8. Target – Ben Roethlisberger
As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I would be lying if I said I was not a Ben Roethlisberger fan. His arm strength and gunslinger mentality has won the Steelers more than few games, and he is unquestionably the greatest quarterback in the history of the team. All this is true, but one can’t help but question Roethlisberger’s training regimen and work ethic over the years. Ben has consistently shown up overweight to training camp, and when he was playing poorly early in the season, some questioned whether the years of poor diet and exercise had finally caught up to the two-time Super Bowl Champion. His late season performance has quieted many of these doubters, but the fact still remains that offseason Roethlisberger looks more like an overweight cashier than a future NFL Hall of Famer.
7. Physical Freak – Brian Orakpo
I have been awed by the physical ability of Brian Orakpo since he was a dominant linebacker at the University of Texas. Of all the players in the NFL, Orakpo might be the one who I would most fear getting into a physical confrontation with. The guy is an absolute monster, and he has been able to transition these physical gifts into a very productive NFL career. Orakpo has almost 65 career sacks, and has been elected to the Pro Bowl on four separate occasions. Orakpo’s Titans have made the playoffs for the first time since his tenure began there, so don’t be surprised to see this big game player have a significant impact on how the AFC Playoffs play out.
6. Target – Mark Ingram
I think I might get some backlash for this one, but I can’t help myself from thinking that Mark Ingram is the most un-athletic running back that I have seen in a long time. In the same vein as NFL pariah Trent Richardson, Ingram’s slow, plodding runs are a huge contrast to the other Saints running back, Alvin Kamara. Unlike Richardson, however, Ingram actually has good running vision, allowing him to run through the gigantic holes that the Saints offensive line routinely opens up for him. This, coupled with his ability as a receiver, has made him a very productive NFL player. This was especially true this past season, where Ingram totaled almost 1,500 total yards, and was elected to the 2017 Pro Bowl.
5. Physical Freak – Martavis Bryant
If you play alongside star wideouts like Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster, it isn’t always easy to gain the attention of fans. Martavis Bryant has been able to do so, however, largely because of his otherworldly physical gifts. Despite multiple personal problems, and a lack of route running abilities, Martavis has become an important part of the Steelers dynamic offensive attack. No one else on the team is able to go deep seemingly at will (and this is saying something on a team that includes Darrius Heyward-Bey), and Martavis obviously inspires fear in the heart of NFL defenses. If he ever develops even the smallest bit of football acumen to accompany his physical prowess, Martavis has the potential to become one of the NFL’s most dominant receivers.
4. Target – Quinton Spain
It is a shame that I could not find a picture that better encompasses how little Quinton Spain looks like a professional athlete. The undrafted offensive lineman from West Virginia has become an important contributor to the Titans’ offensive line, surprising given the fact that the big man was recently weighed at an even 330 pounds. This isn’t much heavier than other offensive linemen in the NFL, but I wouldn’t categorize Spain’s build as being very athletic. Given the fact that Spain has become a productive NFL player even with his physical limitations, imagine what this player could do if he achieved a more traditional physique. This will be one of the most important factors in determining how long Spain’s professional football career will last.
3. Physical Freak – Tarik Cohen
Through the first five weeks of the 2017 NFL season, no player was more dynamic than the Bear’s Tarik Cohen. The running back from North Carolina A&T was drafted in the 4th round of the 2017 draft, and immediately gave the Bears the type of electric playmaker that they have been missing. While Cohen’s size prevents him from being a traditional running back, his incredible athleticism makes him an incredible offensive weapon for the Bears coaching staff (this doesn’t even include Cohen’s ability as a returner). Through the early part of this season, Cohen regularly contributed eyepopping plays, and was the biggest reason for the Bears limited success. Cohen became more limited once opposing defenses started keying in on him, so next season will be important in determining whether his contributions this years were merely an aberration.
2. Target – Eli Manning
There are not many NFL players who are so un-athletic and goofy looking that we see a litany of memes making fun of them for it. One such player who has gotten noticeable attention in the internet community is Eli Manning, the quarterback of the New York Giants (for now). Whether Eli is an elite quarterback is still widely debated, but the fact that he is a two-time Super Bowl MVP and has over 50,000 career passing yards is not. Manning has been able to accomplish all of these things without being the most athletic person to ever play quarterback. Perhaps even more impressive, is the fact that Manning has been able to earn the respect of countless teammates over the years, despite consistently making faces on the sidelines like the one featured in the picture above.
1. Physical Freak – Alvin Kamara
In every NFL season, there are multiple developments which will affect not only that individual season, but the landscape of the league for years to come. In 2017, one of those major developments was the emergence of New Orleans running back, Alvin Kamara. Kamara started the season as part of a committee featuring Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram (two players who have been named to multiple Pro Bowls), and has since become one of the most dynamic players in the entire league. The Saints felt so confident in Kamara, in fact, that they decided to release Peterson, a future NFL Hall of Famer. Kamara continues to split time with Ingram, but don’t be surprised if his playmaking ability eventually forces the Saints to make him their feature back.
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