The NFL's Best Escape Artists
Some guys are blessed with blazing speed, while others use brute strength to steamroll tacklers. This list focuses on the guys who seem to be dipped in grease from head to toe.
Just to be clear, these names are not necessarily a reflection of the best overall football players or ball-carriers. This list is very focused on a specific talent—the art of slipping out of the arms of the world's most highly-trained tacklers.
Some ball-carriers, like LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson, are so quick and explosive that they rarely get touched when given a sliver of daylight. Their skills are centered around vision and maneuvering in open space. Naturally, these guys have a ton of value in their own right but will not be showcased in this slideshow.
I’m watching to see what guys do after a tackler gets his hands on them. Do they posses the unique and rare ability to slide and dance their way out of the arms of would-be tacklers?
Bulldozing power backs and guys who rely solely on outrunning defenders are disqualified from this specialized group of escape artists.
To whittle down the list to the best 11 masters of escape, I started off with a list of 60 names generated from research of elusiveness ratings and missed tackles forced, courtesy of ProFootballFocus. Then I narrowed that list of 60 down to the best 11 by watching film of each player, which I used in addition to previous familiarity of the players.
11. Wes Welker
Most of Welker's receiving yards come after the catch. He's a crafty runner with the ball in his hands and a danger to take it to the house on any given play.
Welker's main tools for escape are his quickness and low center of gravity, which provides him with superb balance. He also uses his short stature to duck under tacklers.
When those options are not available, Wes has a fairly effective stiff-arm, which is a weapon commonly used by most guys on this list.
10. Percy Harvin
Percy is not rated higher here because he was on the cusp of not making the list at all due to his speed, which has afforded him the advantage of outrunning most guys trying to take him down. But there's enough footage of him slipping through the fingers of defenders to warrant placement at No. 10.
Harvin is one of the more versatile young athletes in the game today. He can play running back, receiver or handle kick return duties. No matter how you use him, he is a deadly weapon with the ball in his hands. Anyone who tries to take Harvin down will likely need help from a few friends.
9. Fred Jackson
Jackson's journey to the NFL is a long one, defying insurmountable odds. Coming from a Division III school, he had to work his way up from indoor leagues and NFL Europe.
These days, Jackson has made a name for himself as one of the most productive running backs in the game. His keys to success seem to be effort and variety. "Fabulous Freddy" is extremely well-rounded in his escape strategies. He can be seen spinning, hurdling, juking or just plain fighting his way through and around opposing defenses.
Many believe Jackson is one of the most underrated running backs in the game today. According to ProFootballFocus, Jackson led the league last year in average yards after contact, which is a telling indicator of the type of hardworking back he really is. He's also one of the best escape artists out there.
8. Dez Bryant
We're all aware of Dez Bryant's off-field issues by now. One can only hope he finds the maturity needed to get his act together and focus on the game of football.
Few people in the league are blessed with the natural athleticism that Dez has been given. He's a perfect balance of size, strength, speed and agility, all of which are tools used to slide out of the arms of tacklers on a weekly basis.
One of the most impressive aspects of Dez's game is his uncanny balance and body control.
Bryant displays elite effort with the ball in his hands and is always looking to turn a catch or punt return into an ESPN highlight. Despite all of this, he failed to produce a 100-yard receiving game all year.
7. Steve Smith
Steve Smith may be in the twilight of his career, but he still flashes the ability to duck and dodge right out of danger and into the end zone.
Watching a receiver of his stature put up the effort and fight for every yard the way he does is really miraculous. Smith has racked up quite the impressive highlight reel, loaded with unbelievable runs after the catch. Somehow he's managed to slither out of massive gang tackles on more than a few occasions, which is a feat most receivers never achieve in a career.
This may be the last year fans get the privilege of watching him play on Sundays. But after a year like 2011, he may be thinking about adding a few more seasons to his already impressive resume.
6. Josh Cribbs
Josh Cribbs is one of the most dynamic football players in the game today. He can play almost any skill position on the field and do it well.
Cribbs seems to have a unique ability to put tacklers in a position where they only get one hand on him at a time. Plus, when taking into account that Josh has impressive lower-body strength, it makes sense that he is able to run through most arm tackles without being slowed down. This strategy works well for him because he never hesitates with the ball in his hands. Every move is done at full speed and moving forward up the field.
Josh's clear talent for escaping danger has helped him become one of the greatest return specialists of all time.
5. Victor Cruz
Cruz is fresh on the scene after a breakout season last year en route to a Super Bowl championship with the Giants. He's also the highest-rated wideout on the list which is quite the compliment for a guy just getting his career started.
Watching Cruz make guys miss last year was nothing short of spectacular. It's almost as if his touchdown-celebrating salsa moves carry over in his play considering the way he dances out of defenders' arms with such ease. Everything he does on a football field appears smooth and effortless, just like his end zone celebrations.
4. Adrian Peterson
Peterson has established himself as one of the best football players in the NFL. But heading into the 2012 season, he most likely won't be 100 percent considering he's less than a year removed from a major knee reconstruction.
Even with that being the case, Peterson still deserves a very high ranking on this list considering the body of work he's already put into the game. He can run you over or embarrass you with a powerful stiff-arm. Few people run harder than Peterson.
Let's hope he can return to form quickly and pick up where he left off as one of the best running backs in the NFL today.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew
Few running backs are built lower to the ground than MJD, but don't let his size fool you. Jones-Drew is a powerful runner who utilizes unbelievable leg strength and balance to run right through most arm tackles.
Last year MJD rushed for more yards than any other back in the league, and he did it on one of the worst offenses in the NFL. This meant defenses were stacking the box all day long trying to stop one man, but few succeeded.
According to ProFootballFocus, more than half of Jones-Drew's 1,606 yards came after first contact, which is more than any other running back in the league.
Watching tape of him, it's clear most of the success he found running the ball came from his own creation and ability. He and his agent are fully aware of this and intend to get fully compensated for his hard work.
2. Marshawn Lynch
Watching this man run the ball has been a unique experience. He has a distinct style of running where every step he takes seems to mimic the intent to change directions. This style has worked in his favor throughout his career as it appears to throw tacklers off balance.
After slimming down upon his arrival in Seattle, Lynch seemed to find the type of magic he once had while at Cal where he and I were teammates. During our time together, I remember Marshawn routinely pulling off spectacular runs very similar to the classic he had in the Wild Card game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. He finally appears to be living up to my expectations of his professional career as one of the most difficult runners to tackle in the NFL.
Lynch makes heavy use of his stiff-arm and can either run you over or break your ankles. He has that great combination of power and finesse that NFL scouts drool over. When Marshawn is focused and staying out of trouble, he can be one of the best backs in the league, and definitely one of the most difficult to bring down. He has the honor of being the first running back to score a rushing touchdown against the 49ers' stellar defense last year in Week 16.
1. Jonathan Stewart
I'm not saying Jonathan Stewart is the best ball-carrier in the NFL, but man, this guy just doesn't go down. One thing about his running style is that he is constantly moving at full speed. Guys seem to bounce off of him from every angle. He runs with amazing leg drive and balance. One of his favorite weapons is the stiff-arm, which I must say is maybe the best stiff-arm in the game today.
Stewart shares his workload with another escape artist who just missed the list, DeAngelo Williams. This limited opportunity for touches may be the reason why his name is never mentioned as one of the best in the league. But anyone who sits down and watches this guy play will see the talent level we are talking about here. Jonathan Stewart is a master at the art of escape and is rarely, if ever, taken down by the first tackler.
Something to think about: Stewart averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year even though he never had a run longer than 32 yards. That means he is consistent in his productivity and does not make the bulk of his yards on one or two big plays.
If defenses are to have any luck stopping this burgeoning superstar this year, they better plan on a whole lot of gang tackling.