In the National Football League, defensive coordinators spend countless hours each week trying to prepare their teams for their next opponent's offense. They tweak their schemes and formations, adjust personnel packages, and draw up their list of stunts, coverages, and blitzes that they hope will confuse opposing offenses and/or put the defense in a position to make the play.
But if the defenders can't tackle the ball carrier, all of this preparation is for naught.
That's why NFL players who are hard to tackle are so valuable to their teams. Because even when a defense does everything right, an offensive play can still succeed if a player can avoid or run over a tackler (or two or three).
And this trait is one that is very difficult to teach. Given that contact practices are being limited throughout all levels of football, it becomes that much harder for a player to get the repetitions they need to develop a consistent ability to break tackles or juke defenders. Therefore, a running back, receiver, kick returner, or quarterback who does possess the ability to cause "unsuccessful" tackles is worth his weight in gold.
Of course, NFL fans absolutely love to see players who are difficult to bring down. Watching a ball carrier dodge, duck under, or power through tackles is exciting and awe-inspiring. That's why some of the greats are so popular even today - whether it's tanks like Earl Campbell and Bronco Nagurski or magicians like Emmett Smith or Barry Sanders. With people who can shrug off tacklers, the play is never over until the referee's whistle sounds.
So who are the players in the NFL today who cause dread in the hearts of defensive coaches? Here are 25 men who are the hardest to bring to the ground in today's NFL.
25 Jack Doyle - TE, Indianapolis Colts
Who? Doyle is the heaviest tight end in the NFL who has actually caught a pass this season. At 6'6", 267 pounds, the second-year player from Western Kentucky is a tad unsettling to tinier defensive backs who see him lumbering down the field at them. The three-time Big Red captain caught 162 passes in his four-year college career, with a 10.9 yards-per-catch average. This season, he caught his first career touchdown pass in Week 2 - which also happened to be Andrew Luck's 50th career TD strike.
24 Jonathan Stewart - RB, Carolina Panthers
The powerful half of the Panthers two-headed rushing attack along with DeAngelo Williams, Stewart could be a featured back on many other teams in the NFL. He averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry in each of his first four seasons in Carolina (eclipsing the five-yards-per-carry mark twice), and loved running over defenders in his path. However, Stewart has been bitten by the injury bug during that last two seasons and again in 2014.
23 Maurice Jones-Drew - RB, Oakland Raiders
It takes toughness to break tackles, and Jones-Drew has no shortage of that quality given that he played the entire 2010 season for Jacksonville with a torn meniscus in his knee. After garnering Running Back of the Year honors from the NFL Players Association that year, he followed up with a league-leading 1,606 rushing yards in 2011. Jones-Drew, who signed a free-agent deal with Oakland in the off-season, still holds several Jaguars' franchise records.
22 Trent Richardson - RB, Indianapolis Colts
Another way to earn your way onto the "hardest to tackle" list is to have your name quoted in that context by an opposing team. During Richardson's rookie year in Cleveland, two Baltimore players went on record as saying that the Alabama product was the most difficult back to bring down in the league. He hasn't looked the same since his rookie season, but this endorsement is still enough for him to land on this list. Also, he forced the second-most missed tackles in 2013.
21 Fred Jackson - RB, Buffalo Bills
The Division III Coe College product peaked in 2009, when Jackson became the first player in league history to rush for over 1,000 yards while tallying over 1,000 yards in kickoff returns. Before his stint in the NFL, Jackson cut his teeth in Arena Football where there's much less room to juke defenders. Today, he's the oldest active running back in the NFL, but if you start making old-timer jokes, Jackson is still liable to flatten you on the way to the end zone.
20 Chris Johnson - RB, New York Jets
He's the last AFC player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season when he ran for 2,006 yards for the Tennessee Titans in 2009 (while averaging 5.6 yards a tote). He's rushed for six touchdowns of 80 yards or more in his career, which is at least twice as many as any other NFL player in history. He's the only man to score TDs of 50+, 60+, and 90+ yards in the same game (vs. Houston in '09). You don't put up gawdy milestones like that by going down on first contact, even though he's no longer the player he once was.
19 James Starks - RB, Green Bay Packers
The sixth-round pick from the University at Buffalo turned out to be a steal for Green Bay in 2010. And according to PFF, Starks was the second-most "elusive" player in the league in 2013. That's largely because the 6'2", 218-pound Starks averaged a missed tackle every 4.5 runs or receptions, while typically gaining three yards after contact on every play last year. So you can imagine how absolutely giddy Packer fans must be to have Starks paired with Eddie Lacy.
18 LeGarrette Blount - RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Really, Blount deserves to be on this list because of this 2012 run alone when he was with Tampa Bay. In 2013, he was the late-season darling for New England when he scored two touchdowns and amassed 334 all-purpose yards in the Patriots' season finale, then followed it up with a team-record four TD playoff performance in the divisional playoff game against Indianapolis. Unfortunately, Blount has set himself up for some surname jokes after being arrested in August for marijuana possession.
17 Golden Tate - WR, Detroit Lions
It's still a little weird to see him in a Lions' uniform. Last year, Tate not only caught a career-high 64 passes, but he also broke 23 tackles, which was tops among wideouts in 2013. Now in his fifth season, the 5'11, 195 pound Notre Dame product isn't going to run over many people. But his shifty moves tend to leave many defenders swiping at air in the open field. And given that Tate has both breakaway speed and a nose for the first down, he's pretty hard to cover as well.
16 Cordarrelle Patterson - WR, Minnesota Vikings
For fans who love beautiful kickoff returns, Patterson is a dream to watch. In his rookie season a year ago, the University of Tennessee standout notched more kick return yards in the NFL by any player not named Devin Hester - and had the highest per-attempt average of all regular return men with 32.1. Those numbers put Patterson in the Pro Bowl - but he also broke 18 tackles as a wide receiver in 2013, second only to the aforementioned Golden Tate.
15 Andre Ellington - RB, Arizona Cardinals
Here's another player who set the NFL on fire during his rookie year in 2013. Ellington broke a tackle on more than one out of every six plays that he carried the football last year for a total of 28 broken tackles, the most for any running back last season. There aren't that many young backs who have Ellington's blend of acceleration, brute strength, and raw speed - qualities which make him difficult to bring to the ground. If Arizona makes the playoffs in 2014, he'll be a huge reason why.
14 Rob Gronkowski - TE, New England Patriots
"Gronk" is 6'6", 265 pounds with a nose for the end zone - which is why Gronkowski had an award named after him in the Madden NFL '12 video game (for a TE who catches three or more TDs in a game). The University of Arizona rookie nabbed a trio of touchdown grabs in a 2010 game against Pittsburgh, making him the youngest rookie ever to accomplish that feat in the NFL. But since then, Gronkowski has battled injuries to his ankle, forearm, and knee.
13 Chris Ivory - RB, New York Jets
Pro Football Focus is a premium statistics service that ranks NFL players in a variety of areas not measured by traditional stats. And according to PFF, Ivory was one of the most elusive backs in all of 2013. In 2010, he took center stage for New Orleans as a rookie when Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush got hurt. Ivory responded with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average and 716 total rushing yards. In his first season as a Jet after being traded prior to last season, Ivory put up a career-high 833 yards on 182 carries.
12 Giovani Bernard - RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Last year's fantasy football "sleeper of the year" had 1,209 combined yards in his rookie season in Cincinnati despite not being the team's featured back. He is this featured RB season, and Bernard is already stressing out defensive coordinators with his speed. But his tackle-breaking ability is underrated. After all, Bernard was able to work his way out of 28 tackles in 2013. Plus, his 5'9" frame doesn't give defenders much of a target - especially when he's blowing by them.
11 Eddie Lacy - RB, Green Bay Packers
The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 made fans remember the days of Packer smash-mouth football. On a team with an accomplished passer in Aaron Rodgers, Lacy ran for 1,178 yards and notched another 257 yards receiving, which earned him a ticket to the Pro Bowl. Lacy is known for punishing would-be tacklers with his 230-pound frame, and the Alabama alum topped all rookies in 2013 with 29 broken tackles.
10 Donald Brown - RB, San Diego Chargers
Though he's not really a household name among RBs in the league, Brown was named as 2013's "most elusive" player by Pro Football Focus. The website reports that Brown led all rushers with an average of 3.28 yards after contact in Indianapolis, while also forcing a missed tackle once every 4.45 touches (good for third best in the league). He's gotten off to a slow start this year in San Diego, but he may be a difference maker for the Bolts down the stretch.
9 Cam Newton - QB, Carolina Panthers
Tall quarterbacks are common in the NFL, but signal-callers who stand 6'5" and weigh 245 pounds, who can both juke or run over tacklers, are rare these days. Newton, the top overall pick in the 2011 draft, was the top tackle-breaker among QBs in the league last year with 25, which was at least ten more than any other player at his position. Though he's battling injuries in 2014, Newton has carried the ball over 110 times in his first three seasons with a per-carry average of 5.6.
8 Darren Sproles - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Whether it's rushing, receiving, or returning kickoffs or punts, Sproles can do it all. He still holds the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards, racking up 2,696 in 2011 with the Saints. At only 5'6" and 190 pounds, the all-time Kansas State rushing leader will juke you out of your shoes if you blink; and his 4.47 40-yard dash speed will put you in his rear-view mirror in an instant. Sproles was acquired by Philly in March, and he is now paired with…
7 LeSean McCoy - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
The defending NFL rushing champion is thriving in Chip Kelly's new offense. McCoy's 1,607 rushing yards in 2013 also came with an astounding 51 broken tackles, which was good for second in the league. So if a defender somehow does mange to get a hand on McCoy, the University of Pittsburgh alum is likely to smash through an arm tackle and keep on running. The sixth-year pro is averaging 4.7 yards a carry in his Eagle career, and his superior running instincts make him a danger to take it to the house on any given play.
6 Jamaal Charles - RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles was a human highlight reel last season, notching a career-high 19 TDs and compiling 1,980 yards from scrimmage (second only to the aforementioned McCoy). In 2012, Charles was the leading rusher in the AFC with 1,509 yards on the ground, which was made even more amazing given the fact that he tore his ACL in 2011 and missed most of that season. He's currently battling a high ankle sprain after holding out this summer to earn a two-year, $18.1 million contract extension.
5 DeMarco Murray - RB, Dallas Cowboys
Now that the Cowboys are apparently featuring the running game more, Murray may finally start to showcase his skills on a regular basis. Murray led all rushers in the NFL through the first three weeks of 2014 with an average of 128.3 yards a contest, and led the league in yards per carry in 2013 with 5.2 among players with at least 120 attempts. The fourth-year pro out of Oklahoma combines sharp cuts with excellent run finishing ability and a knack for finding small creases.
4 Calvin Johnson - WR, Detroit Lions
How good is Megatron? The other "C. Johnson" on this list caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards in 2013, which was a subpar year by his standards (although he did lead the NFL with a per-catch average of 17.1 yards). That's because his numbers for the previous two seasons were even better. Johnson is 6'5" and 236 pounds and is blessed with a combination of speed and strength not seen by any other wideout in the league right now.
3 3. Russell Wilson - QB, Seattle Seahawks
Why do defenses hate Wilson so much? Because when they somehow manage to cover all of his receivers, he simply scrambles and gives them time to get open or takes off and gains big chunks of yardage. And with 58 touchdowns, 7,000+ yards passing, and over a thousand yards rushing during his short career, it's frightening to think how good Wilson can be after he gets a little more NFL experience. How did this guy slip to the third round of the 2012 NFL draft?
2 Marshawn Lynch - RB, Seattle Seahawks
No wonder Seattle won the Super Bowl last season. Lynch, whose nickname is "Beast Mode," led all NFL players with 59 broken tackles in 2013 - and many of those were legendary. Undoubtedly, his harsh upbringing on the mean streets of Oakland has contributed to his toughness, and Lynch has compiled three straight seasons of 1,200+ yards rushing and double-digit rushing TDs. Simply put, there's no bigger bruiser of a running back in the game today.
1 Adrian Peterson - RB, Minnesota Vikings
It's ironic that it would take an off-the-field incident to stop AP, given that he's virtually unstoppable while on the gridiron. After his astounding 2,097 rushing yard performance in 2012 coming off a knee injury the previous year, Peterson followed it up with an impressive 1,266-yard, 10 TD season in 2013. Given his unmatched combination of speed, quickness, and power, Peterson is the hardest NFL player to tackle, regardless of his off-field problems.