Intelligence and the game of football go hand in hand. The sport requires countless hours of preparation for even just one 60-minute battle, yet many watching from afar believe otherwise, and that the game of football resembles a brawl more so than a chess match.
When people see the game, they think we’re meatheads; they think of the way jocks acted in high school. But we spend more time studying than we do on the field,” said Jets quarterback and Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick via The New Yorker.
Fully understanding a playbook, committing hours to watching game film, and orchestrating an impregnable game plan are essential to success in the NFL. Players will watch game tape and look for tells or tendencies from the opposing player they’re slated to face in the upcoming week’s key individual matchup. They may look for the style of a receiver’s route running and the way he comes out of his breaks, or the potentially differing stances of an offensive lineman in run and pass plays. Players who understand the game better, and are well prepared for each week’s contest, read and react at a quicker rate, and are able to play faster in a sport notorious for its speed.
In-game adjustments are just as crucial to the final outcome as the preparation building up to it. With Brady and Belichick at the helm, two of the game’s masterminds, the Patriots have won 74 straight home games when leading at the half. Belichick unfailingly determines what worked and what needs work in order to help the Patriots thrive in the second half. He outsmarted and infuriated Baltimore Head Coach John Harbaugh in the divisional round of this year’s playoffs with a trick play that stretched the limits of the rulebook—at least Harbaugh believed it did. New England ran a formation with just four offensive linemen, in which running back Shane Vereen was an ineligible receiver. However, the members of the Ravens’ defense were as confused as their head coach and bit on the pump fake Brady sent Vereen’s way despite his ineligibility. As a result, backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was able to run freely down the seam, where “Tom terrific” found him. Harbaugh jumped onto the field to argue the play, but instead drew and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his childish outburst. The play rehabilitated New England’s playoff fortunes as Brady subsequently connected with Gronk in the end zone.
Aside from game film studies, the draft combine Wonderlic test largely determines player intelligence. The exam evaluates players’ aptitude for learning and problem solving in a range of occupations—a similar test exists in most workplaces. The test score doesn’t necessarily correlate with on the field success as is evident with the number one player on this list. Before we get to him, let’s take a look at the first 14 smartest players in the NFL.
14 Sam Acho – Chicago Bears
Sam Acho made an immediate impact in the NFL as a fourth round pick. In his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals, he recorded seven sacks and forced four fumbles. At the University of Texas, he majored in Business and marketing with a 3.62 GPA while playing for the Longhorns. In his senior season, Sporting News voted him as one of the 20 smartest athletes in sports. Current New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles who was Acho’s defensive coordinator in Arizona, believed the outside linebacker could become develop into a productive player solely based on intelligence. “You have the ability based on your smarts alone to make plays,” Bowles told Acho via Chicago Now. Acho signed a one-year deal with the Bears in April.
13 Toby Gerhart – Jacksonville Jaguars
In his senior season at Stanford, Gerhart was selected to the Pac-10’s All-Academic team. He majored in Management Science and Engineering while playing for the Cardinals. He was the runner-up for the 2009 Heisman, losing to current Saints running back Mark Ingram in the trophy’s closest ever vote. In his first four years in the NFL, Gerhart’s role was simple: alleviate the stress of a full workload for the league’s premier back, Adrian Peterson. After paying his dues in Minnesota, he signed with the Jaguars in 2014 and was named the team’s full-time starter, but has since struggled to maintain control of the position.
12 Blaine Gabbert – San Francisco 49ers
Intelligence away from the gridiron doesn’t always translate into success on it. This claim fits Gabbert to a tee. Now widely considered a major draft “bust,” Gabbert recorded one of the highest Wonderlick Test scores of all time with a 42. Only one quarterback on this list can say they boast a better grade. The former 10th overall pick was pegged to be Jacksonville’s quarterback of the future, but poor decision making on the field and a career QBR of 66, ended that dream. He was traded to the 49ers in 2014 for a sixth-round pick. San Fran re-signed Gabbert to a two-year, $2 million deal in March.
11 Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints
Like Gerhart, Brees was praised at the NCAA level for his academic achievement. He was named the Academic All-America Player of the Year in his senior year at Purdue, and graduated in 2001 with a degree in industrial management. The Chargers let Brees walk away via free agency in 2005 because of concerns they had about the severity of his shoulder injury. New Orleans took a chance on the quarterback, in a move that turned out to be one of the greatest free agent signings of all time. The Super Bowl champion as a member of the Saints was voted the league’s second-smartest player by Sports Illustrated in 2010.
10 Richard Sherman – Seattle Seahawks
Sherman sent shockwaves around the world following his brash post-game interview with Erin Andrews following the 2013-14 NFC Championship. And while many now view him as pompous, Sherman has hinted that his antics are calculated, with the objective of growing the market in Seattle and around the league.
Sherman posted a 4.1 GPA in high school, the second best grade among his classmates. He was the first graduate from his Compton-area high school to earn a scholarship to Stanford, where he played wide receiver before moving to corner. Aside from his unique frame, Sherman’s relentless desire to study game film has helped him transition from fifth round pick to All-Pro cornerback. Sherman claims he has notes about every NFL receiver on his Ipad.
9 Bryan Walters – Jacksonville Jaguars
The only way Sherman’s former teammate Walters ranks ahead of him in a competitive list is one consisting of achievement away from the football field. Walters went undrafted in 2010 after graduating from Ivy League School, Cornell.
In his senior year, Walters was elected into the Sphinx head society, one of college’s oldest and most respected honor societies. However the wide receiver has just nine career receptions.
8 T-9. Alex Smith – Kansas City Chiefs & Colin Kaepernick – San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith will forever be remembered as the guy selected first overall by a Bay Area team in a draft where California’s Aaron Rodgers went 24th. Regardless of the path his NFL career has taken, Smith is one of the game’s brightest individuals. He majored in economics at the University of Utah and graduated in two years; his GPA was 3.74. He regained his starting role in San Francisco in 2013, and helped the team reach the NFC Championship game. However, with the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, Smith became expendable and was dealt to the Chiefs. Meanwhile, Kaepernick carried San Fran to the Super Bowl in his first year as the full-time starter. The electrifying quarterback scored a 37 on the Wonderlic, five points higher than the list’s only four-time Super Bowl champion.
7 Andrew Luck – Indianapolis Colts
The quarterback trend continues with the NFL’s brightest young star. The 2012 first overall pick has been as good as advertised in his first three years, taking the Colts to the playoffs in each season. And with every postseason appearance, Luck has managed to get Indy a round farther, taking them all the way to the AFC Championship game this past season. He graduated from Stanford with a degree in Architectural Design, and scored a 37 on the Wonderlic.
6 Charles Woodson – Oakland Raiders
Charles Woodson’s ability to grasp concepts and understand the responsibilities of each of his teammates on defense has allowed him to seamlessly shift positions throughout his career. The Raiders asked the now 38-year-old to move from corner to free safety in his second tour of duty with the team that drafted him. Woodson has prided himself on his football instincts, which can be credited with his 60 interceptions, which are good for 11th on the all time list. He provides the type of versatility and wisdom teams covet in a player, but rarely find. Woodson remains the only defensive player to ever win a Heisman trophy.
5 Benjamin Watson – New Orleans Saints
Shortly after the Patriots won the Lombardi trophy in 2004, they decided to spend their first round draft pick on tight end Ben Watson. In his rookie season, Watson helped New England win the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, becoming the first team to accomplish the feat since the ’98 and ’99 Denver Broncos. The serviceable backup tight end crushed the Wonderlic with a score of 48. The Georgia product is rumoured to have an IQ over 170. Watson signed a three-year contract with the Saints in 2013, and could see more snaps coming his way with Jimmy Graham now in Seattle.
4 Desmond Bryant – Cleveland Browns
Desmond Bryant is the first of two Harvard grads to crack this esteemed list. The defensive lineman signed with Oakland as an undrafted free agent in 2009. Following four seasons in the black hole, he tested the free agent market once more and was given a five-year, $34 million deal by the Cleveland Browns despite recording modest numbers in a rotational role. Bryant is just the 29th player to enter the NFL from Harvard, and he has the second highest Wonderlic grade in the league after the number one player on this list.
3 Tom Brady – New England Patriots
Tom Brady’s Wonderlick score was 32, and while the average score for a chemist is 31, other quarterbacks have fared better in the exam than the four-time Super Bowl champion. Yet, his aptitude for consistently dissecting defenses gives him the number three spot on the list. Couple Brady’s football brilliance with his head coach Bill Belichick’s genius, and you’ve got one of the best quarterback-coach tandems of all time, and they’ve got the rings to prove their worth. Luckily for Brady and the Patriots, his smartest move was sticking to football despite getting drafted by the Montreal Expos while in high school.
2 Peyton Manning – Denver Broncos
The future hall of fame quarterback finished with a 3.61 GPA at Tennessee before going first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft. Manning’s arm isn’t as ferocious as that of Aaron Rodgers, but his keen understanding of the game has allowed him to maintain his elite level of play through his late 30s. His ability to read defenses and make the necessary checks pre-snap by shouting anything from “Romo” to “Omaha,” is incomparable. He manages to conduct the perfect orchestra by getting the 10 players around him to work in perfect harmony.
1 Ryan Fitzpatrick – New York Jets
That thumping noise you just heard might have been the casual NFL fan’s jaw hitting the ground after seeing Ryan Fitzpatrick take the top spot on this list. Fitz is best known as the hard-nosed gunslinger who always seems to fire it away in the hands of opposing defenders. The only other way you’d recognize the Harvard graduate is by his signature beard. He’s been a middling starting quarterback, one that teams usually sign to be a stopgap until their young quarterback waiting in the wings is ready to step in. He hasn’t turned any heads with his quarterback play, but Fitz does hold the highest Wonderlic grade of any quarterback in league history, with a score of 49. In his first career start in 2005 with the St. Louis Rams, Fitzpatrick became the fifth quarterback in league history to throw for 300-plus yards in his debut.