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Michael Vick, Troy Polamalu: The NFL's 25 Most Athletically Gifted Players

Benjamin C. KleinCorrespondent IOctober 12, 2010

Michael Vick, Troy Polamalu: The NFL's 25 Most Athletically Gifted Players

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The NFL is a league where willpower, instincts, intelligence and hard work are huge determining factors for success; but at the end of the day, none of those are as important as good old-fashioned athleticism.

    While all of the players in the NFL are fantastic athletes not all NFL players are created equal. While not being the best athlete does not mean that you can’t be a great player, it certainly helps.

    So what makes an athlete in my mind? To me, athleticism is based upon, size, weight, strength, speed, quickness, quick feet, hip fluidity, explosion, acceleration, hand-eye coordination, jumping ability and the ability to contort one’s body midair and balance.

    In other words, a god-body, an athlete who while in the womb was personally touched by the gods themselves to make said athlete into something that transcends what most people consider humanly possible.

    That is a lot to chew on, a lot more complicated than the definition given for athlete in the dictionary. 

    The following is a list of the 25 most athletic players in the NFL in no specific order. It should not surprise that most of the players on this list are stars, because while being a supremely-talented athletic freak doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly helps.

    It does not matter if a guy is a jerk, lazy or has a bad attitude. If he is playing in the league and is a top-notch athlete he will make this list. 

    *Rookies are not eligible for this list.

    *Go to the end for a special bonus slide. 

1. Charles Woodson, Cornerback, Green Bay Packers

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Not many guys on this list are going to be over the age of 30. Reason being that as you age, your body starts to lose its gifts. Duh.

    However, some guys are so incredibly talented that even as they age and lose some athleticism, it almost doesn’t matter because they were such athletic freaks in the first place they have speed to lose.

    There is a reason why Woodson is the only college player ever to be a defender primarily and win the Heisman Trophy. Woodson is a once in a generation athlete. And he is the reigning NFL Defensive MVP.

    Woodson can play any position in the secondary, causes as many fumbles as he does interceptions, is adept at blitzing, can play any brand of coverage including pure man and is still one of the rangier and more fluid players in the league. 

    No wonder Al Davis drafted him. 

2. DeMarcus Ware, Outside Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

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    DeMarcus Ware is athletically built like a state of the art fight plane. He is sleek, long, lean, has an enormous wingspan, has incredible acceleration and incredible top speed. And the destruction he begets is devastating.

    Year in and year out, Ware is in the running for defensive player of the year award, constantly capable of making a run at Michael Strahan’s all-time, single-season sack record.

    Rushing from a two-point stance, Ware has incredible balance, allowing a man standing 6’4" to get incredibly low. He flies past lineman, turns the corner with his smooth hips and then with his Spider-Man long arms he strip sacks the quarterback.

    Ninety-five percent of the league goes into a game facing the Cowboys knowing they have no hope of successfully single-teaming Ware, knowing he must be double-teamed on every play. 

3. Haloti Ngata, Defensive Lineman, Baltimore Ravens

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    When the Baltimore Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata Ozzie Newsome got a call from Bill Belichick, who called to congratulate him on drafting perhaps the best player in the entire draft.

    Belichick is right; Ngata is a freak. Standing at 6’4", 350 pounds, Ngata carries exceptionally little body fat for such a gigantic man. He carries a lot of herculean muscle, which he uses to toss offensive lineman away like rag dolls. 

    And with his strength comes the balance and quickness to accelerate off the line get under the offensive lineman and drive them backwards into the ball carrier.

    The best example I can think that demonstrates Ngata’s uniquely freaky gifts is that several times a game he is asked to rush the passer from a two-point stance. Not many 6’4" 350-pound dudes can do that. 

4. Troy Polamalu, Safety, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    With a healthy Troy Polamalu, the Steelers are perhaps the only team in the NFL that could have such a horrible quarterback situation the first four games and still come out smelling like roses.

    Polamalu is a freak, a Tasmanian devil. He is a whirling dervish that bounces around the field like a pinball. He seems almost omnipresent on the field, seemingly everywhere at once.

    Polamalu can do this because he is built to hit like a linebacker and cover ground like a cornerback.

    The man can do anything. At 5’10", 205 pounds, I have seen the Steelers ask Polamalu to line up in a three-point stance and rush the passer. He is actually pretty good at it.

    This is same guy who makes incredibly leaping one-hand interceptions 40 yards down the field by out jumping 6’5" receivers. It’s almost not fair. 

5. JerMichael Finley, Tight End, Green Bay Packers

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    Finley looks like he should be playing small forward in the NBA. Standing 6’5", 250 pounds, Finley has the power and size to outmuscle cornerbacks and the speed to race past linebackers.

    Scratch that, Finley is fast enough to take on cornerbacks and still win. The man looks like a human gazelle; he has an almost effortless grace to his athleticism, but then he makes an explosive cut or move and the suddenness of it just takes you by surprise. While his lack of exceptional strength makes him somewhat of a liability run blocking, he more than makes up for it the passing game.

    While currently injured he should not miss more than a month, and when he is healthy there is not a team in the NFL that he does not present a match-up nightmare for.

    The only thing that can stop a god-body like Michael is if his body prematurely falls apart. 

6. Vernon Davis, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers

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    I’ll say it: Vernon Davis is the most physically talented tight end that the NFL has ever seen. EVER.

    At 6’3", 250 pounds, Davis runs a 4.3 40-yard dash, has herculean strength and freakish explosion.

    Davis is such a freak that he went from being the best blocking tight end in the NFL in 2008 to the best pass-catching tight end in 2009. Davis is such a freak he demands an almost universal double-team from opposing defenses in passing situations while being capable of single handedly blocking elite edge rushers when asked to stay back. 

    Think about that, I wouldn’t mind throwing the ball at Davis when Troy Polamalu covers him, and I wouldn’t hesitate to ask him to block DeMarcus Ware one-on-one in the passing game.

    That is the kind of freak Davis is. 

7. Joe Thomas, Offensive Tackle, Cleveland Browns

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    From the moment that Joe Thomas stepped onto the field as a rookie for the Cleveland Browns he has been the best left tackle in football.

    And this is with rather short arms for an NFL left tackle, which many thought would keep him from being a great player.

    Problem is for those doubters Thomas bounces around on his feet like he is on a bubble and his butt has the anchoring power capable of stopping a ship.

    Thomas is one of maybe five offensive lineman in the NFL capable blocking truly elite pass rushers like Mario Williams and Julius Peppers one-on-one.

    Not since Walter Jones in his prime with the Seattle Seahawks and Willie Roaf with Kansas City Chiefs has the NFL seen this kind of dominance from the left tackle spot.

    Thomas has the speed to seal the edge, the strength to withstand a bull rush, the agility to reach the second level and act as a lead blocker and flat out push people in the run game.

    The man is a beast; too bad he doesn’t have a quarterback worth blocking for.  

8. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

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    As we all learned in an ESPN commercial, Adrian Peterson is famously nicknamed “All Day” because when he was a child his parents couldn’t contain his boundless energy.

    Peterson appears to have been chiseled from granite and willed to life by an Italian sculptor from the Renaissance, the NFL version of Pinocchio.

    He is an almost perfect combination of speed, acceleration, strength, balance, explosion and size. The closer he gets to the endzone, the faster he seems to become. The guy is the rare running back who feels comfortable juking cornerbacks and trucking defensive lineman. No, I didn’t get that backwards.

    Peterson is such a freak that a lot of NFL scouts believed Peterson was one of the few players capable of playing in the NFL right out of high school.

    That is insane. 

9. Michael Vick, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

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    I loathe writing anything positive about this man. As I write this, my Staffordshire Bull Terrier Bowie is sleeping away on his bed in the corner snoring adorably loud. But while it really irritates me, I have to include Vick on this list.

    Vick isn’t that tall at six feet, but he is built very sturdy and powerful. He has exceptional strength throughout his body.

    What makes Vick special though is that he combines the legs of Barry Sanders with the arm of John Elway. The NFL had never seen anything like Vick before he entered the NFL, and it might not ever see it again. That is how special he is physically.

    The fact that he almost threw it all away in such callous fashion leads me to believe though that while Vick has a million-dollar body, he has a two-cent head.

    He is turning it around though with the Eagles and Andy Reid, made easier that now he has gotten his sea legs back from sitting around in prison. It took a year, but The Vick experience is back.

    And even though Vick is 30, Vick is the kind of athlete who might be able to play much longer than people think because even if he were to lose two steps he would still be faster than everyone else. 

10. Darrelle Revis, Cornerback, New York Jets

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    Revis is the only cornerback in the NFL that has the strength and size to jam Andre Johnson at the line of scrimmage, the speed to stay with Randy Moss on deep balls and the quickness to stay with Wes Welker on underneath routes.

    A lot of guys can do one or the other or even a combination of two, but Revis is the only one who can do all three. 

    The guy can flip his hips like a switch with almost no loss of speed, he reaches his top speed in moments, his arm length is exceptional and he has an almost wiry strength that goes beyond how big his muscles are.

    When Revis is on, he is the best coverage cornerback that the NFL has seen since Deion Sanders. 

11. Chris Johnson, Running Back, Tennessee Titans

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    Chris Johnson is the fastest man in the NFL, period. He is so fast that there has actually been serious debate as to whether Johnson would beat Jamaican sprinter Usian Bolt in a 40-yard dash race.

    Usain Bolt might be the fastest man that planet earth has ever seen, and people mention Chris Johnson in the same breath as him.

    It’s not just his speed though. I have seen Johnson make lateral cuts that looks like he covers five yards in distance, leaving multiple defenders in his wake.

    While he won't get 2,500 yards this season, the fact that some people thought it was a goal that he was capable of reaching says a lot about the man’s athletic skill set. 

12. Randy Moss, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

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    Randy Moss is perhaps the most physically gifted wide receiver that the NFL has ever seen. Yes, he doesn’t give 100 percent on every play but to be considered for this list that matters naught.

    At 6’4", 220 pounds, Moss has almost unlimited speed, explosion and jumping ability.

    I remember on Moss’s first run with the Vikings he once flipped a hail mary pass he caught in a no-look behind the head lateral with no time on the clock, while he was being tackled, to a streaking teammate who caught the lateral and ran into the end zone for the score.

    I also remember when the New York Giants played the New England Patriots for the Super Bowl and the Patriots were three points down with 30 seconds left deep in their own territory. I knew the game wasn’t over, because the Patriots had Randy Moss; and he almost hauled in each of Tom Brady’s hail mary attempts.

    In other words, when Randy Moss is on your team it’s never over until it’s over. 

13. Julius Peppers, Defensive End, Chicago Bears

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    Did you see Julius Pepper’s interception against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5? That right there sums up Julius Pepper's insane gifts.

    At almost 6’6", 300 pounds, he is pure muscle, runs as fast as running backs and explodes out of cuts like a wide receiver.

    But his agility is what truly makes him special; he can turn a corner like a Ferrari and is impossible for offensive lineman to mirror him in the running game. 

    When rushing the passer Peppers is never out of the play. Even when he is not going to sack the quarterback he inherently finds a way to position himself to bat the ball down or up as if it were at the line of scrimmage.

    And he is an amazing pass rusher, as the long list of quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford who suffered shoulder injuries at the hands of Peppers can attest. 

14. Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

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    It’s not often that a Hall of Famer at the end of his career gets to see a young buck worthy of being his heir apparent playing the same position at the same time. Ray Lewis has that privilege now, playing the same time as Patrick Willis.

    I almost wish they could be on the same team, wouldn’t that be fun to watch?

    Anyway Willis is a true sideline-to-sideline defender; he can reach any spot on the field in a blur. Even when caught out of position his athletic gifts are so strong he can still make a play that hurts an offense.

    He has the strength to destroy offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage and the speed to cover Brent Celek in the deep middle of the field.

    Patrick Willis might be the only defender in the NFL that I would feel confident would more often than not stop Adrian Peterson when facing him one on one in a hole at the line of scrimmage or covering JerMichael Finley on over the middle. 

15. Mario Williams, Defensive End, Houston Texans

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    Mario Williams is one of maybe four defensive ends in the NFL who demand a double team on every single play. Regardless of down, distance, situation or scheme Williams is always double teamed.

    I was one of the few who thought the Texans made the right move drafting Williams No. 1 over Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Defenders who look like a weird science experiment combining the DNA of Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White are once-in-a generation occurrences, and much harder to find than a running back who can’t run or a quarterback who can’t throw.

    I digress, Williams is 6’6" and 300 pounds of pure muscle. His bull rush is so insanely powerful he injured rookie Washington Redskins offensive tackle Trent Williams right knee earlier this year, costing him some game time. 

    Trent Williams is a player that would have made this list if not for my no rookies rule, and Mario Williams treated him like Frankenstein did that little girl. It was so vicious I actually felt a little embarrassed for Trent. 

    Super Mario indeed. 

16. Devin Hester, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears

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    Not often do you see a player get drafted in the first two rounds of a draft without having a defined position. Aside from returner, no one knew if Hester would be a cornerback or wide receiver.

    While everyone wanted him to play receiver, he desperately wanted to emulate his childhood icon and defacto advisor Deion Sanders, who played cornerback.

    While that cost him some development at receiver he has still been the most dynamic return man that the NFL has ever seen.

    His speed is so impressive he was the first player to ever get the coveted 99-speed rating by the Madden video game series.

    He can cut on a dime, reach his top speed in a step and has the agility comparable to former NBA star Allen Iverson.

    No wonder he might own every return record in the book by the time he retires. 

17. Andre Johnson, Wide Receiver, Houston Texans

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    Johnson is one of the few receivers in the game today that has the physical ability to threaten a defense on every single level.

    He can catch the deep ball, he can outmuscle guys over the middle and in the possession game and he can take short screens to the house at any moment. And I almost forgot, he is almost uncoverable in the endzone.

    That is because Johnson has almost a perfect combination of size, speed, explosiveness and strength. 

    Darrelle Revis is the only cornerback in the NFL who could dream of taking on Johnson one on one, as Johnson is just too much of the complete package to bottle up for one man.

    Not many guys in the NFL are just as capable of breaking tackles as they are at getting behind a secondary for deep balls with hands like glue, but Johnson is exactly that. 

18. Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver, Detroit Lions

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    Calvin Johnson is like some Bizarro World version of Randy Moss.

    They have almost identical height and length but one is faster, the other way stronger. One is a malcontent jerk, the other an understated none-promoter. One is graceful but the other much more violent. Johnson is not the deep threat Moss is, but he is much more effective in the possession game. And Johnson is a much better blocker to boot.

    Also Johnson doesn’t have the trepidation of going over the middle that Moss does, and he is much more effective in the open field with the ball in his hands because of his willingness to truck defenders and fight for extra yards.

    So while Johnson isn’t the same type of athelte Moss is, he is close enough that he is worth mentioning in the same sentence.

    No wonder his nickname is Megatron. 

19. Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals

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    Some would be surprised that Fitzgerald is on this list because of his lack of speed. I say to that, so what?

    Look up on Google pictures of Fitz catching passes with his eyes closed. You know how he does that? When he sees the ball leave the quarterback’s hand, his brain instantly calculates where the ball is going to be in relation to him and the field. So when he catches the ball with his eyes closed, he is still seeing where the ball is because he knows where it is supposed to be.

    And he has the eye-hand coordination to pull it off; his hands immediately do what his brain tells it to do.

    Oh yeah, he has a vertical leap of like 44 inches, incredible size, yoga master balance, amazing strength and his acceleration is elite.

    Good enough for me, even if it isn’t for you. 

20. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

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    With Vick paying his debt to society and then being terrible his first year back, Aaron Rodgers has been the NFL’s leading rushing quarterback. Not bad for a guy who throws for 4,000 yards and 30-something touchdowns every year.

    Rodgers has the rare ability to almost endlessly manipulate his throwing motion. Regardless of how Rodgers has to manipulate his body or arm, or how bad his footing is, Rodgers throws a perfect spiral every time.

    He also has great fleetness of foot, dancing around the pocket like a ballerina while being deadly on bootlegs and rollouts.

    In other words the guy has an almost endless variety of ways to damage an offense, and his ability to throw surgically precise strikes all over the field regardless of the situation in the pocket around him means that as long as he is healthy, the Packers will have a high-flying offense. 

21. Albert Haynesworth, Defensive Lineman, Washington Redskins

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    Again this not an evaluation of a guy's character or motor, just what his body is capable of. And when Haynesworth feels like earning his millions of dollars, he is capable of drawing and defeating triple teams.

    And it is my firm belief that even when Haynesworth was competing for Defensive Player of the Year Awards, he was completely out of shape. In fact I doubt that the man has ever even been in true NFL caliber shape.

    And yet he can still be dominant, with his gigantic body, incredible balance, knee bend and explosion just making him impossible to stop.

    Nothing makes an offense fall apart faster than penetration up the middle, and even with triple teams, Haynesworth is one of a handful of guys in the NFL who can single handedly apply gut pressure on a consistent basis.

    It’s why he got the $100 million in the first place even if he isn’t earning it now. 

22. Shawn Andrews, Offensive Lineman, New York Giants

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    When Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots played against Shawn Andrews when he was at his best with the Eagles, Belichick called him the most physically talented and dominating offensive guard that he had seen in years.

    The guy is just way too fast and quick for how big and strong he is.

    However Andrews has basically been out of football since 2007 due to depression and back problems. And in case you were wondering it has actually been statistically shown that people with depression have a higher tendency to experience back problems than those without.

    Now that it appears that Andrews has a sunnier view of life it might mean his back problems are a thing of the past. And he is starting to make an impact for the Giants as a blocking tight end and versatile back up offensive lineman.

    So what convinced me to put Andrews on this list, that he is back to his pre-2007 form? Giants left tackle David Diehl went down for a stretch against the Houston Texans due to cramps and Andrews went in, playing a position he never played in college or the NFL. Across him was Mario Williams.

    Andrews was the first player of all 22 guys on the field to react to the ball being snapped and cut off Williams’ edge rush, Williams being a true pro countered by going into a bull rush. Andrews met him at the point of attack and engulfed him, eliminating him as a threat.

    Less than five guys in the NFL can do that to Mario Williams, and Andrews, starting or not, is one of them. 

23. Jay Cutler, Quarterback, Chicago Bears

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    Again this isn’t about a guy’s mental ability, just the physical. Jay Cutler doesn’t just have a strong arm; he has a Jeff George Howitzer growing out of his right arm. He can fire 50-yard strikes on 10-yard ropes that leave announcers and fans alike gasping in pure amazement.

    And he can do it while throwing the ball on the run.

    Now Cutler might not be the most gifted scrambler but he is obviously above average in his ability to move around the pocket and escape the rush. But that combined with his Zeus lightening bolt of an arm makes him truly unique, making him neck and neck with Michael Vick in the race to be considered the most physically gifted quarterback in NFL today. 

    And while Cutler obviously can’t move like Vick, he has an even stronger arm. With Cutler you almost have to redesign your offense around his arm because he is capable of making throws and fitting balls into windows that 95 percent of the NFL’s quarterbacks can only dream of making.

    No wonder people freaked out when the Denver Broncos traded him. 

24. Antonio Gates, Tight End, San Diego Chargers

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    Antonio Gates is one wide body. While physically not true, I have joked that the man is as wide as he is tall. Yet even as a human box he still moves around the field with an almost graceful ease that is just freaky for his size.

    It’s weird seeing a dude cut like a smaller Charles Oakley bounding around the field as if he were floating on air, dominating dudes athletically. But there Gates is, grabbing balls out of the air as if they were rebounds over helpless and frustrated defenders who never had a chance to begin with.

    Gates is impossible to cover, too fast, too quick and just too big. 

    For a guy that didn’t play any college football, he might go down when he retires holding almost every single relevant all time tight end record in the book.

    San Diego has the craziest legacy of tight ends in the NFL, first Kellen Winslow and now this. 

25. Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts

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    Freeney has lost half a step, which makes sense since he just turned 30. But he had a half step to spare, so no worries.

    Freeney is perhaps the only player in the NFL who actually reaches his full speed in one step; that’s all it takes. His balance is so extreme he can turn the corner on an offensive lineman so low it looks as if he is almost perpendicular to the ground.

    And the spin move, I mean whoa. Like a Keanu Reeves “Whoa!” A lot of pass rushers try variations of it but none matchup to the original. The reason being that the imitators aren’t athletic enough to accurately imitate the original.

    When the imitators try the Freeney spin move they pirouette on one leg and spin or they shuffle their feet real quick to spin. Dwight Freeney leaps into the air spinning like a figure skater; seriously, he is completely off the ground with his back to offensive tackle. While in midair he digs his elbow into the offensive lineman’s side to speed up the process of the spin and then uses the momentum built up so that when he plants his foot he is almost at full speed and then he accelerates into the quarterback’s blind side. 

    Freeney is the type of player that single handedly forces opposing offenses to eliminate entirely seven-step drops from their playbook when they face the Colts. That’s crazy. 

*In Memoriam— Sean Taylor, Safety, Washington Redskins

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    Sean Taylor would be 27 years old, entering his seventh season in the NFL and a lock for this list right now if he hadn’t been tragically gunned down protecting his girlfriend and infant daughter from home invaders who were as dumb as they were evil. While his family survived the ordeal, he did not, dying from massive blood loss to a gunshot to his thigh.

    Taylor was the most physically talented safety to ever play the game of football. Yes, more gifted than Ed Reed and Ronnie Lott in their prime or Troy Polamalu right now.

    Taylor was 6’2", 215 pounds, and he was one of, if not the hardest hitter in the NFL when he died. He was a sideline-to-sideline defender in the run game, acting almost like a fourth linebacker on running down.

    But he was just as special in coverage; he was a wicked zone defender where he used his size and speed to constantly contest jump balls, grab picks and separate wide receivers from the ball.

    He was even amazing at dropping down over slot receivers in pass situations and taking them in pure island coverage. 

    Taylor wasn’t just one of those players who was above average at everything; he was elite at everything. There were no weaknesses in his game when he died; no one had his combination of size, speed and strength and might not ever again.

    And right now in 2010 he would be in his prime, and as much as we are lucky to see Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed in their primes it was nothing, and I mean NOTHING to what Sean Taylor would have given to NFL fans if he were still playing today.

    It just breaks your heart. 

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