The National Football League has no shortage of freak athletes. In fact, there are so many that selecting a top 15 is tough work. The word “athleticism” is very subjective. Everyone I know has a different definition on what exactly defines athleticism. Usain Bolt? No offence to the fastest man on earth, but you have to wonder if he can catch a football. LeBron James? OK, this one is hard to argue, but I bet Clayton Kershaw would make him look silly. This list was put together to highlight the physical skills and diversity of the League’s best “athletes.” Keep in mind, the list is in order of the player’s overall athleticism (in my opinion), while factoring in their size.
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15 Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
I’m a big fan of this guy. He showed us last year that he can score touchdowns at will, utilizing his height, jumping ability, and hand strength. Before an injury cut his season short, Tyler Eifert had accumulated 11 receiving touchdowns, leading the league at the time of his injury. His speed and route running skills make him a mismatch for just about any linebacker or safety trying to stay with him. In a 2013 press conference (Eifert’s rookie year) Bengals coach Marvin Lewis praised Eifert stating: “It’s evident that the game’s not too big for him. With all the tools he has, he’ll help our offense moving forward.” Lewis used the word ‘tools,’ but in this instance ‘tools’ really means ‘athletic ability.’ Be on the look-out for a healthy Eifert this upcoming season as he once again attempts to dominate at the TE position for the dangerous Cincinnati Bengals team.
14 Vernon Davis, TE, Washington Redskins
Vernon Davis has an extremely unique combination of size, speed, and hops. At 6’3, 248 pounds, Davis is far from a regular sized guy. The Maryland product put up unfathomable numbers in the combine, resulting in his draft stock skyrocketing. With a 4.3 forty-yard dash paired with a 42 inch vertical, this was one of the most physically dominant combines for a man of his stature. Like most players on our list, he was a three sport athlete in high school, earning letters in football, baseball, and track. Vernon was a champion long jumper in his native area of D.C. He went on to be drafted sixth overall in the 2006 draft, going to the 49ers. Although he’s shown signs of greatness, this thoroughbred stallion was never able to find consistency between the lines.
13 Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
I have to say that if HBO’s original series Hard Knocks was featuring a different team right now, Aaron Donald may have slipped under the radar. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh native and alum already has a trophy room full of accolades entering just his third season. In the first episode of this season’s Hard Knocks, Donald is seen playing ping pong. He dominates the game to the point where people around him just quit and walk away. The same type of domination happens on the gridiron for Donald. The 300 pounder set the record for the fastest 40 time from a defensive tackle in combine history. Donald is also known to deadlift absurd amounts of weight, leaving his teammates in awe. His size and agility together make him a top defensive tackle in the game, with a bright road ahead of him.
12 Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews plays with a sense of intensity that is admired around the league. Coming from a lineage of NFL players, Matthews was born into his calling. The USC product is the definition of versatile. He will play whatever position on the field in which he’s called upon. For instance, he spent time at defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. Other times he’s lined up at outside linebacker in a 3-4, and he even played middle linebacker last season. He is such a dynamic player that no matter where he lines up, he’s the best defender on the field. If you’re playing quarterback against him, you better make sure to find him before every snap, or it will cost you. His measurable athleticism isn’t what jumps out, but rather his ability to adapt to any position on the field. Matthews proves that versitility goes a long way in the NFL game today.
11 Darren Sproles, RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Daren Sproles is one of those guys I always find myself rooting for. The diminutive utility player has solidified himself as a top punt returner in the game. He also has shown over and over that he can turn any screen pass into an instant touchdown. Listed at 5’6 (generously), the shifty tailback from Kansas State is one of the shortest players in NFL history. His low center of gravity gives him the ability to change direction quickly and accelerate at a world class speed. In high school, Darren was a two sport athlete, having great success in both track and football. His senior year at Kansas State was spent breaking and setting records, earning a fifth lace finish in the Heisman voting. Counted out most of his life, Sproles has proven many wrong, using his size to his advantage to become a three-time All-Pro.
10 Johnny Manziel, QB, Free Agent
If you look up the word 'pinhead' in the dictionary, you’ll find the name Johnny Football. Johnny Manziel is yet to make the right decision for himself as he continues to be seen doing the same things with the same people. It’s one thing after another for Manziel, who proved to be too much for the Cleveland Browns to deal with. They basically threw their draft pick in the trash can when they selected Johnny in the first round. That’s not the focus here though. His athleticism is uncanny to the point where watching him occasionally results in speechlessness. Johnny has been known to beat people at any game wherever, whenever. For example, his Offensive Coordinator in Cleveland was quoted saying: "we go bowling during training camp and his elbow is hurting, and he's bowling left-handed and rolling strikes.” Some say that’s part of the reason he hasn’t been able to get his life on track since the draft. Being good at stuff has been so natural to him that he hasn’t yet learned to work hard. Unfortunately for him, it may be too late.
9 Vince Wilfork, DT, Houston Texans
If you follow football avidly, then you’ve likely heard the expression “Wilfork Island.” This is a play on words in reference to All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. The lock down corner got his nickname for his ability to play on an “island” in man to man coverage. It’s known to receivers that when you go to "Revis Island" you kind of disappear for the day. Vince acquired this nickname when the 325 pound nose tackle made a beautiful one handed interception and returned it 30 yards before being tripped up by his own teammate. On this play, he resembled a giant swan. Wilfork has been seen shooting the lights out on the basketball court, as well as smashing home runs on the softball field. This gigantic man has many athletic talents.
8 Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots
A staple of the Patriots offense, Julian Edelman can do it all. The flashy slot receiver was drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 draft by the Patriots. Bill Belichick and the Pats envisioned Edelman as a special teams/utility type of player. At 5’10 and under 200 pounds, the ex-college quarterback had an uphill battle to become a starting receiver for such a prosperous franchise in the Patriots. It’s a testament to Edelman’s ability that he could switch from a mid-major quarterback to a Pro-Bowl level receiver and return specialist. Serving time as a cornerback, punt returner, and emergency quarterback, Edelman has shown NFL fans he is capable of anything on the field and has the versatility that wins football games. His career has taken off recently on the field and off. He’s seen in “Entourage the Movie,” and the HBO original series “Ballers.” Coincidentally (or not!), both have ties to Mark Wahlberg, a die-hard Pats fan.
7 Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers
Danny Woodhead and Edelman have a whole lot in common. Both are undersized, both are products of small colleges, and both were late round picks by the Patriots. Woodhead utilizes his smaller stature by hiding behind his lineman, primarily on pass plays out of the backfield. His vision and agility make for a lethal combination, leaving linebackers looking silly. In high school, Woodhead was a star on the football field, but he also had his way on the basketball court. He averaged more than 25 points per game as the team’s point guard. Overlooked as usual, Danny didn’t receive any Division I offers. He committed to Chadron State where he was the first athlete in the school’s history to receive a full scholarship. In addition to his unbelievable speed and quickness, he also possesses finesse. Woodhead is widely known for his tremendous skills on the links. According to his teammates, he’s a scratch golfer who once shot a 66. Anyone who’s picked up a golf club understands what an accomplishment that is.
6 Mohamed Sanu, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Mohamed Sanu isn’t as popular as most on this list, and I think he deserves some recognition. I once read a quote from Andy Dalton saying Mohamed Sanu kicked a football 60 yards - with a crosswind. Division I college kickers would struggle with that kick and the Falcons’ new receiver seemed to do it with ease. Mohamed Sanu was a track star in New Jersey at Monmouth Junction South Brunswick High School. He was recruited to Rutgers as an option quarterback with the intention to run the Wildcat scheme under then coach Greg Schiano. Sanu ended up embracing the role of wide receiver and was drafted as such. During his time with the Bengals, Sanu has also thrown passes - a couple of them for touchdowns. Now going into his fifth year, Sanu hopes to maximize his potential with his new team and looks to really make his name known around the NFL.
5 Kyle Long, G, Chicago Bears
Son of long time pro and Hall of Famer Howie Long, and brother of Patriots defensive end Chris Long, Kyle Long had the genes to do anything he wanted in the sports world - such as being an All-Pro tackle or throwing a 97 MPH fastball. After high school, Kyle committed to play baseball at Florida State. The flame thrower was drafted by the White Sox, but he declined to sign with them and opted to play for the Florida State Seminoles. He was later kicked out for driving while intoxicated. Kyle then had a change of heart and decided to enroll at a community college in an attempt to revitalize his football career. The athletic specimen definitely revitalized his career as he eventually transferred to Oregon and then went onto be a first round pick to the Chicago Bears, where success has been abundant.
4 Terron Armstead, OT, New Orleans Saints
Terron Armstead, not a household name just yet, but trust me when I say this guy defies gravity. It all started at the 2013 combine when the 6’5, 300 pound offensive tackle ran a jaw dropping 4.71 forty- yard dash. To put that into perspective, in that same year running back prospect Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.60 and cornerback prospect Johnathan Banks ran a 4.61. So in essence, this guy is only one tenth of a second slower over forty yards than these skill players. For a man of his size to move that fast is seemingly impossible. Not only can the man run, but he can jump. His vertical was an impressive 34.5 inches, leading all tackles at the combine that year. Going into his fourth season, Armstead is becoming a top player at his position - at least the Saints thought so when they inked him to a long term deal in May. Learn the name Terron Armstead.
3 Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick has had an interesting career. The undefeated 49ers benched Alex Smith well into the 2012 season to make way for the young quarterback. Even though Kaepernick has yet to show much consistency in terms of accuracy, we’ve been lucky enough to see his athleticism on display many times. At 6’4, 230 pounds, he gets from one end of the field to the other in the blink of an eye. He covers so much ground, it looks as if he’s gliding. He doesn’t shy away from contact either, and doesn’t mind setting a block if he needs to. He was drafted by the Cubs but instead decided to play football at Nevada. Recently, Kaepernick threw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game, and - in jeans - clocked in at 87 miles per hour. Colin was also an avid basketball player in his high school days. This season Kaepernick will attempt to bounce back and bring the 49ers back to prominence.
2 J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
I think we can all agree that J.J. Watt is the best player in football. He has all the accolades and the work ethic to make himself a Hall of Famer. Now throw in his pure athleticism, and you have the ingredients for potentially the best player of all time. He was hardly recruited out of high school due to the size of his hometown and his being underweight. Watt committed to play at Central Michigan at the tight end position. Watt didn’t see the playing time he thought he deserved and transferred to Wisconsin to pursue an education. While delivering pizzas one night, a customer noticed his size and told him he should play football. Inspired, Watt tried out for the Badgers the next day and the rest is history. Aside from his 40 time, Watt tore up the combine moving himself to the top of the draft board. There are videos of him crushing box jumps of 59 and 61 inches, (5 ft!).
1 Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
When Odell Beckham came into the league, it didn’t take long for him to overwhelmingly gain the attention of every single fan of the sport. One handed catches, fun dances, cool hair, and shiny cleats - all that good stuff. His father was quite a football player himself at LSU, and his mother was a track star in Baton Rouge for the Tigers. LSU became beneficiaries of the entire Beckham family. ODB claims he got the speed from his momma and the vision from his pops. At the young age of 23, Odell has already broken numerous receiving records. If watching Odell on the football field isn’t enough to convince you of his athleticism, look up the videos of him dunking a basketball, hitting home runs, and bicycle kicking top shelf goals, because they exist.
Honorable mention: Cam Newton (Panthers QB), Russell Wilson (Seahawks QB), Rob Gronkowski (Patriots TE), Jamie Collins (Patriots LB), Patrick Peterson (Cardinals CB), Julio Jones (Falcons WR), Adrian Peterson (Vikings RB)
So there it is. My opinion of the best athletes in the NFL. I’m sure that not many readers are going to agree with my exact order, or even some of the names mentioned, but that’s the fun. We’ve all had the sports debate about athleticism whether it was “who’s the better athlete?” or “how do you define athleticism?” Feel free to use this as a reference next time you find yourself in one of those arguments. Athleticism is a matter of perspective, but the guys listed all have an extreme set of skills that separates them from the rest of the population. Watching these guys should make you look forward to Sundays.
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