NFL's Most Talented Player at Every Position
Talent is a lot like pornography. Even if you can't clearly define it, you at least know it when you see it.
Last week, talent was a trending topic in NFL circles. Not because the opening days of training camps gave coaches a first look at their rookies, or because more of the league's top free agents found homes.
It was the retirement of Randy Moss and Hall of Fame induction of Deion Sanders.
If there is one word both Moss and Sanders' biggest fans and haters agree defined their careers, it was "talent." Say what you want about their attitudes, arrogance or ability to live up to their respective potential, but Moss and Deion were undeniably two of the most talented athletes ever to grace an NFL field.
Moss and Sanders also reminded us of what talent is not. Size is not a talent. Youth is not a talent. Staying healthy isn't a talent. Being a leader isn't a talent—at least not a physical talent.
Work ethic isn't a talent. And those facts are why the most talented athlete isn't always the best or most accomplished at his sport.
Who is the most talented player in the NFL today? With the game becoming so specialized and talents so unique on a wide-ranging scale, it's tough to pick just one. But here are my picks for the most talented players at each position:
What you want: Strength, mobility, quick feet, consistent technique, vision, recognition, excellent in pass-blocking and run-blocking
Who has it: Ryan Kalil
Most true sophomores don't become full-time starters at the most challenging position on the offensive line at USC. Most centers don't hear their names called in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Most pro teams do not use their franchise tag on an offensive lineman who isn't a left tackle.
Kalil is talented enough to be the guy who breaks those molds. He impressed NFL scouts at the '07 pre-draft combine by running 4.94 in the 40-yard dash and doing 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench.
That earned him a spot in the second round of the draft, and he has since made two Pro Bowls despite playing on a losing team in Carolina without any mainstream spotlight.
What you want: Speed, recognition, agility, fluid motion, quick reaction time, ability to make plays on the ball, ability to shadow receivers, strength (to jam receivers), solid in run support
Who has it: Charles Woodson
For Woodson to become the first—and still only—defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, he had to put all of his talent on display. Not just as a corner, but as a receiver and kick returner. Almost 15 years later, he hasn't lost much of a step physically, while gaining experience and better technique.
Woodson also sets himself apart from the prototypical cover corner in his willingness (and ability) to lay down a hard hit on everybody from receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks when he is used in a corner blitz.
When Woodson won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award for the '09 season, he was 33 years old, allegedly old and supposed to be in decline. He was also only the fifth cornerback to win the award.
Defensive End (3-4)
What you want: Strength, mobility, sure tackler, ability to take on and shed blockers, excellent in run support, ability to collapse the pocket and pressure the QB
Who has it: Justin Smith
In a 3-4 defense, the job description of a defensive end is to occupy O-linemen so that they can't get to the linebackers, and stop the run. If the D-end can also rush the quarterback and create havoc in the backfield, that's like working overtime for no extra pay. Which makes Justin Smith the ideal employee.
Smith made 8.5 sacks and 70 tackles last season. Among NFL players who made that many sacks, only two—DE Justin Tuck of the Giants and LB James Harrison of the Steelers—made more tackles.
In other words, Smith (65 career sacks) is among the best dual-threat defenders in the league, even though his position only calls for him to excel in one facet.
Defensive End (4-3)
What you want: Speed, agility, strength, sure tackler, ability to shed blockers, excellent pass-rusher, solid in run support
Who has it: Julius Peppers
Only two people have ever played in a Super Bowl and an NCAA Final Four game. Donovan McNabb is one, and Peppers is the other.
His basketball career has been well publicized, but Peppers was also a state champion triple jumper in high school before going on to win just about every college football award relevant to a defensive lineman.
As a pro, Peppers has made six Pro Bowls while collecting 89 career sacks. His 10 blocked kicks rank second in NFL history.
Peppers is arguably the fastest speed rusher in the league. And when he's not chasing quarterbacks around the field, he is treating them Dwight Howard treats opponents, elevating and knocking down passes (55 for his career) better than any D-lineman.
Defensive Tackle (4-3)
What you want: Strength, mobility, sure tackler, ability to take on and shed blockers, ability to collapse the pocket and rush the QB, excellent in run support
Who has it: Haloti Ngata
Ray Lewis is the unquestioned leader and focal point of Baltimore's defense, but Ngata comes closest to giving Ray a run for team MVP. He is versatile enough to stay on the field when the Ravens shape-shift within their hybrid 4-3/3-4 alignment, moving between D-tackle and D-end.
His natural talents shine brightest as a tackle in the 4-3, where Ngata is too big, too fast and too skilled for a lot of guards to handle.
What you want: Speed, agility, vision, recognition, fluid motion, sure tackler, ability to shadow receivers, quick reaction time, ability to make plays on the ball, solid in run support
Who has it: Ed Reed
Some might be surprised that a defensive star of Reed's caliber will line up on special teams—sometimes to block punts, sometimes to return them.
The bigger surprise is that the Ravens don't also work Reed into their offensive sets, because he's the kind of player you want to have on the field for every snap.
The seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro first team safety won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in '04.
Reed's 12 non-offensive touchdowns rank ninth all-time, and while his 54 career interceptions rank 19th, his 1,438 interception return yards rank second on the list.
What you want: Speed, strength, agility, excellent in pass-blocking and run-blocking, vision, good hands, running power
Who has it: Michael Robinson
There's a difference between a prototypical fullback and an abnormally talented fullback. Robinson falls into the latter category.
Robinson played quarterback, running back and receiver during his college days at Penn State. His senior year, as the full-time starting QB, he was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after putting up 2,350 passing yards and 17 touchdowns to go with 806 rushing yards and 11 TDs.
He capped it off with a Big Ten championship and a fifth-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting.
In the NFL, Robinson began as a tailback (Frank Gore's backup in San Francisco) before switching to fullback. Last season with the Seahawks he rarely got the ball, but when he did, Robinson averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
He is an adequate blocker, a good albeit under-utilized receiver out of the backfield, and an ideal player to take snaps in the Wildcat formation.
Inside Linebacker (3-4)
What you want: Speed, strength, agility, recognition, vision, sure tackler, solid in pass coverage, ability to shed blockers, ability to rush the QB, excellent in run support
Who has it: Patrick Willis
There doesn't seem to be enough superlatives in the football dictionary to describe Willis, who is on the fast track to challenging Ronnie Lott and Bryant Young as the greatest defensive player in 49ers history.
In four years, Willis has made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro rosters while racking up 460 tackles and 15 sacks.
He's already jumped ahead of Ray Lewis in discussion of the league's top inside linebackers and will be high on the all-time list at his current pace. He has few flaws on the field, and even fewer peers.
What you want: Speed, elusiveness, endurance, good hands, quick decision-making, concentration within chaos
Who has it: Josh Cribbs
Last season was a subpar one for Cribbs, whose 20.4 yards per kickoff return was a career low, and whose 8.4 yards per punt return was 3.5 yards less than what he'd averaged the previous year.
Yet he still cracked this summer's NFL Network list of the Top 100 players in the league, and is still seen as the X-factor that could push the Browns into the playoffs next season.
Cribbs holds the NFL record for career kickoff return touchdowns (eight), and has two punt return TDs on top of that. The former college quarterback lines up under center occasionally in Cleveland's Wildcat formation, and as a wide receiver caught 23 passes last season.
On offense as well as special teams, Cribbs is the Browns' best (and often only) home-run threat, possessing breakaway speed needed by any kick returner, plus the power to break through tackles that is seen less often among kick returners.
What you want: Leg strength, kicking accuracy, athleticism (for fake kicks and broken plays), emergency tackling
Who has it: Josh Brown
Brown has the athleticism to hold his own on a football field. He was a running back and kick returner in high school—who could also nail 60-yard field goals—as well as an all-state sprinter and a state champion high jumper.
Since joining the NFL's nerd fraternity, he has proven capable of sticking his helmet into danger and tackling runaway returners (he once brought down Devin Hester), and Brown isn't a bad option to have on the field in case of a broken play or a fake field goal.
But kicking is the most important part of Brown's job, and he does that better than most. Over his career with the Seahawks and Rams, he's made over 81 percent of his field goals, and missed only two extra points. He's also made 22 field goals of 50 yards or more.
What you want: Speed, strength, recognition, vision, sure tackler, solid in pass coverage, ability to shed blockers, agility, excellent in run support
Who has it: Jon Beason
He isn't as polished as some veteran MLBs, and he isn't as athletic as some younger counterparts at the position. And yet Beason, like all great middle 'backers, has that ability to seemingly be everywhere at once because his talent has carried him past any other shortcomings.
Since 2007, Beason's rookie year, only Patrick Willis has recorded more tackles. Beason (417) and Willis (460) are the only players in the league during that span to make more than 400 tackles.
Beason spent half of his time last season playing out of position, starting several games at outside linebacker due to injuries on Carolina's roster. Still, he racked up 121 tackles and made his third straight Pro Bowl.
Nose Tackle (3-4)
What you want: Strength, mobility, sure tackler, ability to take on and shed blockers, ability to collapse the pocket and rush the QB, excellent in run support
Who has it: Jay Ratliff
How has Ratliff managed to become a three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle despite weighing a good 20-30 pounds less than the average NFL player at his position?
By utilizing the athleticism he had when he was recruited by Auburn as a tight end, and the pass-rushing technique he picked up during the two years he played defensive end in college.
Whereas most NFL nose tackles are good for a couple of sacks at most per season—partially because pressuring the quarterback isn't a crucial part of their job, partially because they have at least two 300-pound blockers attached to them on every snap—Ratliff has averaged five sacks per year over the last four years.
What you want: Strength, mobility, speed (for pulling plays), excellent in pass-blocking and run-blocking
Who has it: Logan Mankins
It's football protocol that the most talented offensive lineman plays left tackle, and Mankins was a star left tackle in college at Fresno State. As a senior, he didn't give up a single QB sack or pressure, even more impressive considering he'd missed the previous season with a knee injury.
Before that, Mankins' talent at left tackle helped David Carr look good enough to be the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Mankins moved to guard in the pros—not because of any lack of talent, but because the Patriots already had Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light on the roster, and because Mankins was good enough to handle switching positions to fill a need.
He started every game as a rookie and has since made the Pro Bowl three times.
What you want: Strength, agility, balance, burst off the line, quick hands, quick feet, excellent in run-blocking and pass-blocking
Who has it: Jake Long
Some people are talented enough to make the phrase "learning curve" irrelevant. Long is one of those people.
It took him all of three games into his redshirt freshman year at Michigan to earn the starting left tackle job and begin collecting Big Ten and national awards and honors. Then, after being picked No. 1 overall in the '08 NFL Draft, Long has been the Dolphins starting LT since Day One and has never missed a Pro Bowl.
The Dolphins haven't had what you would call a star NFL quarterback in a while, but when they do get one, he'll be as safe as any QB in the league with Long watching his back.
Outside Linebacker (3-4)
What you want: Speed, strength, agility, sure tackler, solid in pass coverage, ability to shed blockers, excellent in pass-rushing, solid in run support
Who has it: DeMarcus Ware
Ware has reached a level of greatness that only guys like LeBron, A-Rod, and Sidney Crosby currently claim. It's the level where being the best in the league at your respective position is a given, so now the only argument is whether or not you're the best player in the league, period.
Or in Ware's case, at least the best defensive player in the league. He hasn't missed a Pro Bowl or been without a spot on the All-Pro roster since '05 (his rookie year), and twice in the last three seasons he's led the NFL in sacks. He totaled 20 sacks in '08, and 15.5 last season.
Outside Linebacker (4-3)
What you want: Strength, speed, agility, recognition, sure tackler, solid in pass coverage, solid in run support, ability to shed blockers
Who has it: Lance Briggs
The best-kept secret in Chicago is that Brian Urlacher might not be the Bears' most talented linebacker.
Briggs doesn't have any national commercials or magazine covers to his name, but he has made six Pro Bowls and is widely recognized as the best 4-3 outside 'backer in the league.
What you want: Leg strength, kicking accuracy, punt hang time, emergency tackling, good hands (for holding on kicks), athleticism (for fake punts and broken plays)
Who has it: Shane Lechler
If all you know about Texas high school football is "Friday Night Lights," you should be informed that Matt Saracen is not the blueprint. In order to be a good QB1 in the Lone Star State, one has to be a talented athlete.
Lechler played quarterback at East Bernard High School, leading his team to the Texas state quarterfinals as a senior when he wasn't taking care of the kicking and punting duties. He also starred in basketball, golf and baseball. In college at Texas A&M, he was the emergency QB.
As a pro, Lechler has been All-Pro first team in eight of his 11 seasons with the Raiders. He owns the NFL career record for average yards per punt (47.3), and his 51.1 average in 2009 was the second-highest for a single season, less than a yard below Sammy Baugh's record.
What you want: Strong arm, quick feet, running/scrambling ability, throwing accuracy, touch, recognition, vision
Who has it: Michael Vick
Vick has more competition for the title of Most Talented Player on the Eagles—CB Nnamdi Asomugha, RB LeSean McCoy, QB Vince Young, WR DeSean Jackson, RB Ronnie Brown, DE Trent Cole—than he has for Most Talented Quarterback in the NFL.
Before he went to prison, Vick was arguably the fastest player in the league, an elusive and explosive tailback who just happened to have a rocket arm, so he played quarterback.
Since getting out, he's turned into a bona fide superstar QB, posting a 100.2 Passer Rating last season, the highest of his career. And he can still run faster than a quarterback is supposed to run.
What you want: Speed, elusiveness, running power, solid in run-blocking and pass-blocking, good hands, vision, balance
Who has it: Darren McFadden
Chris Johnson is faster. Adrian Peterson is more powerful. Reggie Bush is more elusive. Matt Forte is a better receiver out of the backfield. But nobody puts the whole recipe together—along with bringing some extra ingredients to the table—quite like McFadden.
As a pure athlete and a runner, McFadden is one of the top players in the NFL. And with the rise in popularity of the Wildcat formation in the pros, McFadden has a stage on which to showcase his skill as a passer; in college at Arkansas he completed 63 percent of his throws for seven TD's against just one interception.
Last season was McFadden's breakout campaign as a pro. He rushed for 1,157 yards (5.2 ypc) and seven touchdowns, and had 47 receptions for 507 yards and three scores.
The Raiders didn't use the Wildcat as often as you'd think given McFadden's skill set, but new head coach Hue Jackson would be wise to unleash that potential beast next season.
What you want: Speed, strength, agility, sure tackler, ability to shed blockers, ability to make plays on the ball, quick reaction time, ability to shadow receivers
Who has it: Eric Berry
Make no mistake, Troy Polamalu is the best strong safety in the game. That isn't much of a debate. But there is a good argument to be made that Eric Berry has the most talent.
Every time he touches the ball, the former high school quarterback and sprinter is a threat to score. During his college career at Tennessee, Berry averaged 35 yards per interception return (he had 14 picks), and in his rookie year with the Chiefs he averaged 25 yards per pick (he had four).
Berry also registered 92 tackles, two sacks and nine pass-defenses last season, good enough for a Pro Bowl nod. He helped Kansas City make a one-year turnaround from a 4-12 team to an AFC West champion.
What you want: Good hands, excellent run-blocker, solid pass-blocker, strength, speed, vertical leap, body control
Who has it: Antonio Gates
There are a few thing you can take for granted when it comes to sports announcing. You will not watch a San Antonio Spurs game without hearing that DeJuan Blair has no ACLs in his knees.
You won't watch the Toronto Blue Jays without hearing that Jose Bautista changed his swing and is definitely not on steroids. And you won't watch the San Diego Chargers without hearing about Antonio Gates' college basketball career.
Despite being a full-time basketball player at Kent State and never playing football, Gates earned himself a spot on an NFL roster thanks to his talent alone.
And usually that's where a novelty story like that peaks ... but Gates has since become the best tight end in the league, making five All-Pro rosters and seven Pro Bowls. He was also named to the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2000s.
What you want: Good hands, speed, precise route-running, body control, toe control, strength, blocking ability, vertical leap, quick first step
Who has it: Calvin Johnson
Before the Lions became an intriguing young team to watch, "Megatron" was its only player worth watching.
During the infamous 0-16 season, Johnson caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and a league-high 12 receiving touchdowns. And with Detroit having since added talent and playing in more than just meaningless games, he just about matched those numbers last season with 77 catches for 1,120 yards and 12 scores.
Johnson ran a 100-meter dash in 10.23 seconds in college, which would have put him sixth or seventh place in last week's Diamond League track meet in London against a world-class field of sprinters.
He hit 43 inches on his vertical leap, which is higher than any of this year's incoming NBA rookies reached at the 2011 pre-draft combine.
But the NFL has seen a bunch of track stars and high-flyers try to pass themselves off as legit wide receivers. Johnson has combined the measurements with the production to become one of the league's best.