The 29 Toughest Players in the NFL Today

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIMay 8, 2012

The 29 Toughest Players in the NFL Today

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    When we think of the NFL and tough players, I harken back to football in the 1960s and thoughts of Dick Butkus, Tommy Nobis and Ray Nitschke come to mind. But what about the NFL today? Who are the toughest players right now in the NFL?

    How should we define tough? Going up against players much bigger than you? Playing through pain and injuries that would sideline most players? Playing on your last leg rather than retiring? All of those would be acceptable reasons to be included in our group of tough players.

    So, let's proceed to our presentation. First, I want to acknowledge some tough NFL players from the past with a video tribute, and then, we will proceed to identify the 29 toughest current players in the NFL. Why 29 you ask? Why not?

Great Video Series: The 100 Toughest Players in NFL History

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    While conducting research for this article, I happened to come across their YouTube videos that I thought would be a solid addition to the nature of our presentation.

    This is a four-part series that features the 100 toughest players in NFL history. The series is long enough that it had to be broken down into 25 players per segment.

    Link for Part 1 of the series can be found right here.

    Link for Part 2 of the series can be found right here.

    Link for Part 3 of the series can be found right here.

    Link for Part 4 of the series can be found right here.

    Hopefully, you enjoyed watching these as much as I did. They sure nailed the vast majority of players who I would have thought of as being the toughest players in NFL history.

    Now, we turn our attention to the modern-day NFL players.

Athletes Playing Through Pain Taking Painkiller Drugs

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    Here's a very interesting read from ESPN Outside the Lines written by John Barr. It goes into great detail about the realities of what NFL players have to go through to be able to play from week to week. It's a rather long read but well worth the time, if you really want to know what's going on behind the scenes.

    For another perspective, former New England Patriots LB Ted Johnson was interviewed on the Dennis and Callahan Morning Show with his thoughts on Junior Seau taking his own life. Another angle on the issue of NFL players who have to try to cope with the pain of concussions and trauma suffered to the head and brain from taking too many hits. Here's the link to the interview.

    Looking at the issue of how much pain quarterbacks are asked to play through, here's an article by Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports that looks at a number of current NFL quarterbacks and what they have to endure.

    This is one part of the NFL that really doesn't get discussed enough, but it's good to keep in perspective when thinking about how great or how poorly an athlete is playing from one week to the next.

    Do we have any idea what kind of pain he's experiencing and what issues he's dealing with? The Jay Cutler injury in the NFL championship game with the Chicago Bears will always leap up as a prime example for me.

Peyton Manning

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    How many hits can Peyton Manning's surgically repaired neck still take before he's injured permanently?

    He might not be the most graceful quarterback in the NFL, but there's no question for me that Peyton Manning is a tough quarterback.

    Manning has already made whatever money he needs to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He has plenty of endorsement deals on top of that bringing in millions more.

    But, Manning is still willing to risk his health for not just the short term, but the long term as well, by continuing to play as a NFL quarterback. For his sake, I hope he's able to last another two or three years and then walk away from the game on his own terms.

    If he's forced to retire prematurely, that would be a crying shame, but those are the risks he's willing to take.

Fred Jackson

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    Fred Jackson is a tough running back, but he just doesn't get that much publicity or recognition. All of that is finally starting to change as Jackson was recently named to the NFL Networks' Top 100 NFL Players for the 2012 season. Jackson was voted in as No. 83 on the top-100 list.

    According to this article by Chris Brown at Buffalo, Jackson was demonstrating to the rest of the NFL that he's one of the best running backs in the league. Prior to suffering a broken leg in Week 11, Jackson was leading the league in yards per carry average (5.5), second in total scrimmage yards (1,376) and third in rushing yards (934).

    He was also fourth among running backs in receiving yards (442) and had more receptions of 25 yards or more than any other back in the NFL (six).

    Jackson isn't that big of a man, standing 6'1" and weighing 215 pounds. But he's very strong and is the type of runner who will find a way to grind an extra two or three yards when most people are ready to go down for good.

    He runs between the tackles and has a style where he will absorb contact and then shake it off. The high number of broken tackles and the other issues we raised is why he can average 5.5 yards per rushing attempt.

    Another facet of Jackson's game that seldom is discussed is his ability to pass protect. When he's not going on a pass play, Jackson is a very solid pass blocker, often giving up 80-100 pounds to much bigger linemen or linebackers, but they can't get past him.

    Pro Football Focus came out with their own ranking of the top 100 players for the NFL in 2012, and they had Jackson ranked at No. 40. According to their analysis:

    Jackson missed six games, and yet, still had our highest rating for all running backs. That’s how good he was in 2011, and it makes you wonder how much higher he could have gone if not for injury. He was electric to start the year, as the Bills went from laughing stock to playoff contender. Numbers say it all as Jackson averaged 5.5 yards per carry (best for all backs with 150 plus carries), 3.7 yards after contact per carry (most of all backs) and 11.2 yards per reception (the 2nd most of any back with at least 20 receptions). Stunningly productive.

    Maybe the Bills will be easier to watch this year as they approach playoff contention. Make it a point to watch Fred Jackson run with the ball. He will make people miss, and the pile always goes forward, never backwards. He's as tough as they come.


Eli Manning

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    As we explained in the opening slide, there are varying degrees of toughness. New York Giants QB Eli Manning to me is mentally tough. He has bounced back from down years and found the self-confidence necessary to proclaim himself as an elite NFL quarterback, but then, also had the fortitude to actually go out and play as an elite NFL quarterback.

    In the face of a big pass rush, Manning remains calm. He looks for little openings to be able to keep moving around in the pocket to buy his receivers a little more time. The play in Super Bowl XLII where Manning was able to elude the grasp of the Patriots collapsing around him, and then, escaping to heave up the infamous pass to David Tyree is a prime example.

    Manning has not missed a regular-season game in the last seven years, playing in 119 straight regular-season games and is the only current active quarterback who has played in over 100 straight games, without missing a single game. That's another illustration showing how tough he really is.

    For an interesting look at Manning versus Tom Brady, here's a story by Ian O'Connor from ESPN New York that examines the toughness of the two quarterbacks.

Mark Herzlich

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    I feel that even though he was just a rookie in the NFL in 2011, New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich deserves a place on this list.

    Herzlich as you may recall is the linebacker from Boston College who went from first-team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year to going out of football completely when he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in May of 2009.

    It took about five months before Herzlich became cancer free. After that, he began building up his body and played a key role in the Boston College defense in 2010. 

    For the 2011 NFL draft, Herzlich went from a projected top-15 pick in the 2009 draft to the realization that he was an undrafted rookie free-agent status two short years later. To have the courage and perseverance to keep pressing on and fight the good fight means that Herzlich is a player whom I will always cheer for.

    The mental toughness of Herzlich is off the charts.

Steve Smith

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    Steve Smith has managed to keep bouncing back from a number of serious injuries to continue his NFL career, but the best elixir of all may have been the addition of Cam Newton to the Carolina Panthers offense.

    Smith is now 32 years old and is entering his 11th NFL season. He's only 5'9" and weighs 185 pounds, so we aren't talking about a really big man here.

    The kind of injuries that Smith has suffered range from a broken leg in 2004, a hamstring injury in 2006, a severe concussion in 2008, a broken arm in 2009 and another broken arm in 2010. But despite the broken bones and advanced age, Smith managed to put up 1,394 yards in receptions in the 2011 season.

    If you need any further proof about how tough Smith is, ask Anthony Bright or Ken Lucas. Both of these guys were teammates of Smith's, got into a fight with him and Smith broke the nose of both players. Like we said, he's one tough dude, so don't go messing around with him.

Arian Foster

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    Arian Foster had a bum hamstring in the 2011 season that kept curtailing his ability to run like normal. Despite the injury, Foster still managed to rush for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    As to the severity of his hamstring injury, you may recall that Foster took to tweeting the MRI image of it, which wasn't something the Texans were overly happy about. Nothing like feeding enemy teams a first-hand look at your star player's injuries, right?

    Here's a link to the infamous Twitter picture. Tough doesn't always mean smart by the way.

Alex Smith

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    It's one thing to play for a slew of different head coaches and offensive coordinators. It's another thing to play behind a suspect offensive line where you have to take a heavy number of sacks that lead to multiple injuries.

    Smith has needed to endure a number of shoulder injuries that have caused him to miss both games as well as to sit out a season. 2006 and 2011 were the only two years that Smith managed to play in all 16 regular-season games.

    Despite all of the obstacles in his career, Smith emerged under head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011 to have his first 3,000-yard passing season—a testament to his physical and mental toughness.

    In the past, Smith was guilty of trying to bite the bullet for his team and coming back from injuries before he was physically ready to do so. He has probably learned from those incidents and is now ready to lead the 49ers to the playoffs again.

Larry Fitzgerald

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    One of the toughest wide receivers in the NFL has to be Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. If you have any doubts about how tough Fitzgerald is, here's an account from ESPN the Magazine, about Fitzgerald trying to play with a torn hamstring.

    Here are some quotes from Fitzgerald in the article:

    "I heard that dreaded pop and felt a deep burning sensation. I could feel a hole in my muscle and knew I was in trouble. The day after, it was black and blue, and I couldn't bend my knee. With other injuries, I'll play hurt, but not a hamstring. If you don't fully heal a hammy, you're asking for a career full of issues."

    "Looking back, I've felt a lot worse pains, but other injuries go away once they heal. With hamstrings, you never get past it. It's always in the back of your mind."

    Other obstacles that Fitzgerald has overcome included playing the 2009 postseason with a broken left thumb and torn cartilage in his left hand. That meant that he had the broken thumb playing in Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite the pain, Fitzgerald caught two touchdown passes in the game.

Charles Woodson

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    Charles Woodson is headed to the NFL Hall of Fame after he retires, but for now, he's trying to continue his amazing NFL career for another year or two. He might have to play safety this year instead of cornerback, but we will know more about that as training camp rolls around later this summer.

    Woodson played with a concussion and on a bad knee is 2011 but still led the Packers in interceptions with seven and was second on the team in passes defended. Did we mention that he did all of that coming off a broken collarbone during the Packers' win in Super Bowl XLV?

    At this point, Woodson is 35 years old and still ticking. But the injuries will take their toll as he gets closer to 40. No matter how much longer he plays, it's safe to conclude that Woodson has been a very tough player during his career.  

Marshawn Lynch

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    Now that we know all about the New Orleans Saints bounty program, it's even more fitting that Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch made his infamous playoff touchdown run through the entire Saints defense.

    Powered up by his power pellets, the candy that we call "Skittles," Lynch is able to turn on his beast-mode running style and run through NFL defenders like they aren't even there.

    It often takes multiple tacklers to bring Lynch down, and he attacks them harder than they can lay a lick on him. Just ask the Saints defense how tough Lynch is. They will give you a first-hand account.

Drew Brees

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    This has to be one of my favorite NFL pictures of recent years, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees doing an upside-down split, while standing on his helmet. Hilarious stuff.

    The flexibility, mobility and toughness of Drew Brees has never been questioned. The quarterback is only 6'0" tall, and he's now 33 years old. The cumulative hits that he has taken over his career will only be magnified since he's on the wrong side of 30, and the body doesn't recover as fast as it used to. Just one more reason why the Saints need to pay him what he's worth due to the pounding he took for years.

    In thinking about Brees and his career, we go back to the 2005 season when he suffered the torn labrum injury in his throwing shoulder, along with rotator cuff damage. He also dislocated his left elbow in the 2006 Pro Bowl game.

    Despite his smaller stature compared to most NFL starting quarterbacks, Brees hangs in the pocket for as long as he can, knowing that he's going to take a pretty big hit.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

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    The Buffalo Bills played their one neutral site game last year in Toronto during Week 8, when they shut out the Washington Redskins 23-0. The win moved the Bills to 5-2 and set them up to be a contender in the AFC East division race.

    But, it proved to be a costly win. During the game, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took a shot to the body from Redskins LB London Fletcher. The hit was severe enough that Fitzpatrick suffered four cracked ribs and an injured sternum.

    He didn't tell the team he was hurt and continued to play through the injury. When the injury was leaked after the season ended, Fitzpatrick was angry that the story got out because he didn't want anybody to think that there should have been any excuses for him.

    Prior to that Redskins game, the Bills had recently signed Fitzpatrick to a six-year contract extension, and now that Fitzpatrick was one of the highest paid players on the team, there was no way that he was going to sit out any games. But, unfortunately, the injury really affected the level of his play.

    Fitzpatrick had difficulty throwing the ball with the same degree of authority that he did in the first seven games, and the results were not pretty. In the first seven games prior to the injury, Fitzpatrick threw 14 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

    His QB Passer Rating ranged from 88.7-133, and he was ranked among the NFL league leaders. From Week 8 on after the injury, Fitzpatrick threw just 10 touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions. His QB Passer Ratings were in the 30s, 40s and 50s. 

    If you watch Fitzpatrick play, he's the type of throwback player who when he scrambles, he doesn't slide, but he looks for somebody on defense whom he can hit and punish rather than slide or go out of bounds.

    If a play becomes broken and he has an opportunity to run in and throw a block for Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller, he does so willingly, much to the chagrin of head coach Chan Gailey.

    That's part of why Buffalo fans love Fitzpatrick. He has the toughness that Bills fans respect, and the way that he throws his body around, that will forever endear him to Western New Yorkers.

    Photo courtesy of Zoo

Anquan Boldin

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    Anquan Boldin, wide receiver of the Baltimore Ravens, has dealt with his share of injuries as well during his productive nine year career.

    As a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Boldin was hurt against the New York Jets in 2008 when he was knocked out of the game and had to be carted off in a violent helmet-to-helmet collision. Boldin wound up missing some time due to fractured paranasal sinuses. 

    During the 2011 season, Boldin was dealing with knee issues stemming from a torn meniscus, which eventually led to surgery. He bounced back to play a key role in the Raven's playoff drive.

    Boldin has excelled at catching passes in traffic and holding on to the ball. He continues to play and define himself as one of the toughest wide receivers in the NFL.

Troy Polamalu

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    Troy Polamalu plays football with reckless abandon. I admire him for the way that he's willing to throw his body all over the field, even hurdling over the line of scrimmage if he thinks that's the best way to stop an upcoming play.

    His timing usually seems to be impeccable. His instincts are superb, but he's also a tough player on top of all that. As for his physical stature, Polamalu is only 5'10" and weighs 207 pounds.

    In the above photo, Polamalu is preparing to meet Steven Jackson head on. I am sure it would not be a fun experience for most of us in our own jobs, but for Polamalu, it's a challenge that he is always up for.

    From ankle injuries, hamstring problems to sprained knees, Polamalu has dealt with his share of problems but continues to play at an advanced level. He isn't necessarily the hardest hitter from the secondary in the NFL, but he's one of the most effective and is also one of the toughest. 

Nick Collins

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    You have to admire the toughness and courage of Nick Collins. The Green Bay Packers safety suffered a serious neck injury that required single-fusion surgery. The Packers' team doctors aren't comfortable in granting Collins medical clearance to continue playing, so the team released Collins to see if he could find other teams that wanted to take on that medical risk.

    For his part, Collins thinks that he can still play and wants to play, even though he could get injured worse than he was, when he was carried off via the stretcher with the neck brace on.

    According to this Green Bay Press story, even Carter's own agent Alan Herman, is questioning how smart it is to continue with his NFL career. That should be a red flag for most people.

    To be in the NFL, there's no doubt that you have to have courage and conviction. Sometimes, the odds are long, but if you believe in yourself, you can beat the odds. It will be an interesting situation to see what transpires with Collins in 2012.

Brian Urlacher

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    Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is another good example of a current tough player in the NFL. Clearly, injuries have been catching up with Urlacher, who's now 33 years old.

    During his career, Urlacher has suffered everything from a shattered wrist, to back and neck issues, hamstring injuries and other various ailments that have sapped his ability to play at the top of his game. He makes up for the lost step or two due to his experience in the league and knowing where to go on plays based on his pre-snap reads.

    While it's hard to know how much longer Urlacher can play at a high level, there's nobody that should question how tough of a player he is.

Tim Tebow

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    Love him or hate him, but I don't think there's any denying that Tim Tebow is a tough football player. What's his best position in the NFL, now that he has been traded away from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets? Is he a quarterback, a fullback, a tight end or a little bit of all of them combined?

    No matter what his role is, you know that Tebow will bring a high level of energy and passion to his game. He keeps himself in great shape, and there's no doubt that he's one of the strongest running quarterbacks in the league. The ability to break tackles and find a way to score in the red zone is a quality that will keep him in demand and his career going in the NFL.

    This isn't the right place to talk about his throwing mechanics or accuracy, but it's the place to acknowledge that Tebow is one tough player.

Tony Romo

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    While Dallas Cowboys fans still wonder how well Tony Romo can do in big pressure games, the one thing that they can't question is how tough Romo is.

    Romo silenced any critics about his level of toughness when he was injured against the San Francisco 49ers with a fractured rib that proceeded to puncture his lung. After missing a few series, Romo came back into the game, played with those injuries and led his team to a comeback win.

    Besides that game, Romo has suffered from a broken clavicle, broken finger, cracked ribs and had his chin gashed open. Through it all, he continues to play, trying to improve his game and lead his Cowboys one step further than he has led them before.

Clay Matthews

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    According to this article from, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews played the second half of the 2010 season with a stress fracture in his leg.

    The Packers kept the injury quiet and decided instead to list it every week as a shin injury. Matthews learned to play with the pain and wound up playing a very key role in the Packers' road to winning Super Bowl XLV.

    Having the bloodlines that Matthews has probably helps in developing the mind set that you know you're going to get hurt, and you learn to cope with whatever pain you have going on at the time.

Steven Jackson

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    St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson is as tough a running back as you can find in the league.

    During the 2009 season, Jackson suffered a herniated disc injury and wound up playing through the pain to finish out the year. He came down with what the Rams called "flu-like symptoms" as well, but that's extremely minor compared to playing with a herniated disc.

    The injury also caused him to suffer from back spasms, and I can't imagine how you could run the football against NFL defenses if you are suffering from back spasms and a herniated disc.

    Jackson has played through injuries before but probably none as severe as the situation he faced in 2009. Have to give him props for being one tough running back.

Jay Cutler

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    The pictures of a frustrated Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sitting on the bench in the second half of the 2010 NFC Championship Game will be hard to forget.

    The knee injury and subsequent criticism that Cutler faced for not being able to play through the pain was unwarranted, as Cutler's sprained knee was bad enough that team doctors didn't want him to continue playing.

    The subsequent number of sacks that Cutler has been asked to take due to the Bears' porous offensive line during his tenure is another testament as to how tough Cutler truly is. He takes the pounding that he receives game after game and can only privately help that some year the Bears will actually have an offensive line that can offer him better protection.

    For the players and fans that booed Cutler, we can only imagine that they have finally come to realize that Cutler can take a lot of physical abuse and hang in there with the best of them.

Philip Rivers

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    Another quarterback who has been able to prove that he has a high tolerance for pain is San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

    Rivers will never be questioned about his level of toughness, after he played the 2007 AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL. The injury required surgery, but Rivers sucked it up and played through the pain.

    The effort was good enough to be ranked by NFL Films as one of the  NFL Top 10 Gutsiest Performances.

Andre Johnson

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    Houston Texans fans must have feared the worst when Andre Johnson went down into a heap in 2011, clutching his hamstring. Johnson hurt the hamstring badly enough that it continued to plague him throughout the remainder of the 2011 season.

    Injuries are nothing new for Johnson, as you will note that he missed a total of 22 games from 2005-2011. The injuries only served as a temporary issue, as Johnson typically would bounce back the following season and lead the league in receiving yards or in receptions or both.

    That's what's amazing about Johnson, he doesn't let the injuries diminish his game. He finds a way to come back to form and continue to play at an elite level. Just one more tough wide receiver to deal with.

Antonio Gates

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    Another player who has needed to prove his toughness by playing through debilitating injuries is San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

    Gates is now 31 years old, and he has been in the NFL for nine years. The wear and tear on the feet and legs can be tough when they are supporting a 260-pound frame.

    He missed six games in 2010 due to injuries and three more in 2011. Gates has been learning how to cope and play with torn plantar facsia, which can be very difficult to overcome. 

    Gates continues to battle out there, and we have to give him props for being able to fight through the adversity.

Rob Gronkowski

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    After bringing up a tight end like Antonio Gates, you know that we would have to bring up another tough tight end, none other than Rob Gronkowski.

    The guts and effort that Gronkowski gave in Super Bowl XLVI was remarkable, playing on his high ankle sprain that wound up requiring arthroscopic ankle surgery in February.

    Prior to getting injured, Gronkowski would have still been a viable candidate for this list, with the physical nature that he plays the game. He breaks tackles with ease, crashing through tacklers and showing a great pair of hands while he's trying to deal with the opposing secondary.

    The Super Bowl effort and performance was just icing on the cake for Gronk.

Maurice Jones-Drew

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    Maurice Jones-Drew is just 5'7" tall, but he does way 208 pounds. Even though he's small compared to most of the NFL, he's giant when it comes to the size of his heart and the level of his toughness.

    Jones-Drew also finished as an Honorable Mention in a Sports Illustrated article that named the top 10 most jacked NFL players. Obviously, being ripped isn't a prerequisite for being tough, as only one of the top 10 from Sports Illustrated made our list—Adrian Peterson.

    But being ripped doesn't hurt either. Jones-Drew has played most of the 2010 season with a torn meniscus and still managed to grind out over 1,300 yards with the injury. Wonder what he would have produced if every defense wasn't keying on him.

Percy Harvin

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    Percy Harvin's injury history began in college and has followed him to the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings wide receiver just has trouble shaking the injury bug, but the fact that he can still play at a high level and bounce back from them speaks volumes about how tough a player he is.

    Harvin has played with a hairline fracture in his leg. He has also played through high ankle sprains. He has dealt with heel injuries and knee injuries that caused him so much pain that he had to be rushed to the hospital due to passing out.

    Another troubling red flag is migraine headaches. Those can be very difficult to deal with, especially when defensive backs are trying to knock your head off.

    The most impressive part is that despite all of the injuries he has suffered, Harvin has only missed three games in his NFL career to date. He's what you would call a "gamer."

Ben Roethlisberger

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    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is as tough as they come. You only have to look at the photo to see him wincing in pain to know how difficult it is to put any weight on that high ankle sprain. But, Big Ben has a very high tolerance for playing through pain.

    Here's a video from NFL Network that details some of the issues he's dealing with due to his high ankle sprain from the 2011 season.

    The Steelers get by historically with a weaker offensive line, because they know how difficult it is to sack Roethlisberger and physically try to knock him off of his feet. But as we witnessed during the 2011 season, you can only press your luck so far, and then when your star gets hurt, you're in trouble.

    But that doesn't change a thing about how tough Roethlisberger is. You know that he's hurting, and yet, if he is needed to tuck the ball away and scramble 10 yards for a first down, he will find a way to run for 11 yards.

    The guy is amazing, and you have to give credit where it's due.

Ray Lewis

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    Is there a tougher football player in the NFL than Ray Lewis? Even at 36 years old, with 16 years in the NFL, Lewis still brings more fire, passion, heart and toughness to the Baltimore Ravens every week than any other player whom I can think of around the league. 

    Lewis is 6'1" and 250 pounds, but he plays and hits people like he is much bigger than that. It is because of his drive, determination and style of play that he makes such a big impact in the game. That style has also led to some injuries, that seem to be mounting over the recent years.

    Lewis has missed multiple games in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, and now again, in 2011. But, when you realize that Lewis has played in 222 regular-season games and is now just seven tackles shy of reaching 2,000 regular-season tackles, you have to just shake your head and marvel at the wonder that is Ray Lewis.