The NFL's All-Heart and Hustle Team
The National Football League is full of talent; this cannot be denied. The players are lightning-quick, ridiculously strong and absolutely gigantic. But, there are intangibles that can't be measured in a 40-yard dash or on a weight bench.
Some players display an unstoppable fervor to make a play no matter the score. Some players treat each down like it's their last. Some players push their own abilities to an apex unknown to most.
This is the NFL's All-Heart and Hustle Team.
32. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
Even though Cameron Wake is just entering his third season in the NFL, he is an impact player who hustles every play he takes the field. It's probably because he's seen it all disappear once. After a sub-stellar career at Penn State, Wake entered the NFL draft in 2005. Everyone passed. Wake earned a tryout with the Giants that same year but was released and forced to reconsider the NFL.
Wake persevered and accepted a contract with the BC Lions of the CFL. There, he was named the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, the NFL came calling.
Appearing in 14 games in his first season, Wake made 5.5 sacks despite not getting a lot of playing time. In 2010, he broke out. He made 57 tackles and sacked the quarterback 14 times en route to an All-Pro season with the 'Phins.
31. Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
Ed Reed is that combination of sheer talent and heart and NFL fan would like to see on their team. The University of Miami Hurricane stormed into the NFL in 2002 and became one of the best defensive backs in the league.
Though Ray Lewis may receive more of the fanfare, it can easily be debated that Reed is the backbone of the Ravens defense. He is a leader. He studies film to educated himself about a quarterback's tendencies, and he picks their passes off with regularity.
In 10 seasons, Reed has piled up 54 interceptions, forced 10 fumbles and scored six defensive touchdowns. He's not slowing down, either. In 2010, despite only playing in 10 games, Reed intercepted eight passes (good enough to lead the league) and was named to his seventh Pro Bowl.
30. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
You can say what you want about the ex-con, but you can't say he doesn't leave it all on the field. The first overall pick of the 2001 draft showed up in Atlanta and forced Falcons fans to the edge of their seats. After collecting three Pro Bowl appearances, Vick found himself behind bars in 2007 for running a dog-fighting ring.
Two years later, Vick clawed his way back to the biggest stage in sports and had a triumphant season in 2010. He posted a 100.2 quarterback rating as he threw 21 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushed for nine more scores.
Vick is the beating heart behind the Philadelphia attack; he's also a lot of fun to watch.
29. Wes Welker, New England Patriots
Some might call Wes Welker "scrappy"; I just call him "good." Welker is an outstanding route-runner with buttery-soft hands and is probably Tom Brady's most consistent target.
The undrafted wideout was released by the Chargers in 2004 after the first game of the season. Shortly thereafter, the Miami Dolphins picked up Welker and used him almost solely as a special-teamer. In 2006, the 5'9" receiver started lining up with the offense and put together a productive year. Recognizing his potential, the Pats put together a trade to ascertain Welker and he has become a perfect fit ever since.
From 2007 to 2009, Welker grabbed more than 110 catches in three consecutive seasons (a feat that has never been matched) and got into the end zone 15 times.
28. Charles Godfrey, Carolina Panthers
Charles Godfrey isn't a star in the NFL yet, but he might become one in the near future. Never a dominant force on the field in 2008 or 2009, Godfrey led his team in interceptions in 2010 with five. In addition, Godfrey made 84 tackles for a team whose defense is constantly on the field.
Godfrey's heart and tenacity propel him as a defensive stopper who may have the ability to shut down the field from a passing attack.
27. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
The former Oregon State standout isn't your typical, shifty-legged running back. He's a hard-nosed, ram-the-ball-down-your-throat type of back. At 6'2", 236 lbs., Jackson is a huge man with a ton of hustle.
Since becoming the featured back in the Rams offense, Jackson has racked up six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and has rushed for 47 TDs.
After Kurt Warner's departure, Jackson has become the focal point of the offense. He is the type of running back who leaves it all on the field—the type who sacrifices himself for the betterment of the team.
26. Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns
Where did this guy come from? 2010 was Hillis' breakout season with the Browns. The former seventh-rounder of the Denver Broncos found a home in Cleveland's backfield after he proved unproductive in the Mile High City.
Averaging 4.4 yards per carry, Hillis racked up 1,177 yards from scrimmage and became the spark plug the Browns needed.
He also runs with purpose. His hard-nosed attack is intimidating to opposing defenses and under that drab jersey pumps the heart of an animal.
25. John Conner, New York Jets
Nicknamed "The Terminator," (for obvious reasons) John Conner plays the thankless position of fullback for the New York Jets. Just a rookie in 2010, Conner impressed his head coach and the rest of the Jets staff during camp for his tireless work ethic.
Built like a Mack truck at 5'11", 246 lbs., Conner paves the way for the Jets rushing attack. Though he only touched the ball 10 times in 2010, Conner blocked his way into a starting role.
24. Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos
You might be able to formulate a pretty convincing argument that Champ Bailey is one of the best defensive backs the NFL has ever seen. A record 10-time Pro Bowler, Champ began frustrating quarterbacks in Washington, where he never missed a game.
In Denver, he has become the defensive leader who never gives up on a play. The NFL 2000s All-Decade Team member has picked off 48 passes and pass-defensed 120 would-be completions.
He's also managed to stay out of any trouble off the field, which warranted him a four-year contract extension that will keep him in Denver until 2015.
23. Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons
Roddy White isn't only the NFL's most prolific pass-catcher, he's a hustler. Sure, he made 115 receptions in 2010 for 1,389 yards and scored 10 times. But, Roddy has those intangibles that this list is all about.
With his team trailing 14-13 to the lowly, winless San Francisco 49ers late in the fourth quarter of Week 4, White made a stellar play: He didn't make a circus catch; he didn't outrun the DBs and score a long touchdown; he forced a fumble. Matt Ryan was intercepted by Nate Clements and as the defensive back inexplicably tried to return the ball to the end zone, White caught up and slapped it out of Clements' hands.
His sheer determination was on display in those waning minutes and Atlanta went on to re-drive and kick a game-winning 43-yard field goal.
22. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
It's funny to think MJD has only been dominant the past two seasons in the NFL. It seems like he has been the staple for excellence in the backfield for five or six seasons, but Maurice got his starting role in 2009 and did not disappoint.
After being used in a limited capacity for three seasons, Jones-Drew began carrying the ball with regularity. In 2009, he scored 15 rushing touchdowns and ran for nearly 1,400 yards. In 2010, he collected 1,329 yards in only 14 games.
Jones-Drew's heart is on display each and every week. His 5'7" frame makes him difficult to tackle, but he sure does take some vicious hits. He just keeps getting back up.
21. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Only entering his second year as a pro, Earl Thomas has shown considerable heart and hustle in his young career. The first-rounder out of Texas won a myriad of accolades in college and has already began to blossom in the NFL.
Thomas doesn't only show an acute ability to read the quarterback (five interceptions in 2010); he also imposes his physical talent and will to stop big plays.
Thomas helped the Seahawks get to the playoffs last year and his scrap and fight might just help Seattle win the NFC West again.
20. Al Davis, Oakland Raiders
19. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Since becoming the Bolts' everyday quarterback in 2006, Rivers has never missed a start. With each passing season, the hurler seems to get better and his willingness to play dinged up is a testament to his heart.
Last year, Rivers tossed for a career-best 4,710 yards. He added 30 touchdown passes to 13 picks, and had a rating over 100 for a third consecutive season.
The Chargers are yet to win the big one, but with a more than capable quarterback under center, they should find their way to a Super Bowl win in the near future.
18. Alphonso Smith, Detroit Lions
For a team in search of an identity, Smith might just be the answer. His sporadic play in Denver in 2009 led the defensive back to Detroit for the 2010 campaign. After appearing in just 12 games for the Lions, Smith led the team in interceptions with five and scored an unforgettable 42-yard touchdown.
The 25-year-old out of Wake Forest doesn't take his playing time for granted. He fueled Detroit's defense in a Halloween matchup against the 'Skins. Late in the contest, Smith made a big interception to close the door on Washington's hopes.
On an unrelated note, Smith does one hell of a Carlton impression.
17. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs
Dwayne Bowe entered the NFL in 2007 with extremely high expectations. The first-round draft pick of the Chiefs was compared to every marquee receiver that ever graced the field and the young Bowe was forced to try and live up to the hype.
Initially, he played pretty well. In 2007 and 2008, he caught 70 and 86 balls respectively and scored 12 times. But, 2009 was a struggle. After being suspended for four games for taking a banned substance, Bowe finished the season with fewer than 600 receiving yards and four TDs in 11 games.
2010, however, was a different story. Bowe found his way into the end zone an NFL best 15 times as he made his first Pro Bowl.
16. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Jason Witten is a model of consistency; he also gives the most consistent effort.
Since 2003, Witten has improved his offensive output. In addition, he has only missed two games in eight years of service. He is not only a great target for Tony Romo, he is an exceptional run-blocker who imposes his massive 6'6" size onto his opposition.
Entering his ninth season, Witten has averaged 11.3 yards per catch, netted 6,967 yards and scored 36 times. He's only fumbled four times (three losses) in 617 receptions.
15. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts
This guy epitomizes heart and he might be the NFL's best tight end. Clark has a nose for the end zone, as he has scored 44 touchdowns in eight professional seasons. He also holds every Colts tight end receiving record imaginable.
His best year was 2009 as Clark grabbed 100 passes for 1,106 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. 2010 was hampered with pain as the prolific pass-catcher went down with a season-ending wrist injury in late October.
Peyton Manning's offense isn't nearly as potent without this big bulldozer of hustle.
14. Justin Tuck, New York Giants
Justin Tuck's now fully developed talent looks that of a sure-fire first-round pick. But in the 2005 NFL draft, Tuck fell all the way to the third round and the Giants notched a first-class defensive end and hustler.
In a more limited role in 2007, Tuck notched 10 sacks. In 2008, he got 12. Last season, the 6'5" former Fighting Irish Star made 11.5 sacks and forced six fumbles.
Tuck seems to be in every defensive play. He bolts from sideline to sideline, stalking his prey.
13. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
It's Fantasy Jesus! Chris Johnson belongs on every list—he's good at everything. But for this list's argument, no one on the Titans plays harder and fights with more passion than Johnson.
The East Carolina Pirate has become the toast of the 2008 NFL draft class. By 2009, Johnson became just the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards. He scores, too. Johnson has rushed for 34 TDs in three seasons and is on a silly pace to shatter every other rushing record kept.
12. Andre Johnson, Houston Texans
What do you know, another Johnson. This time it's the mighty Andre Johnson who plays the receiver position unlike so many prima donnas in the NFL. Andre is no-nonsense as his game isn't only fueled by his massive frame, but by his unstoppable desire.
Johnson has been owning defensive backs' souls since 2003 as he has averaged 13.6 yards per catch and scored 50 TDs. He has topped 1,500 yards in two different seasons and has caught over 100 passes in three.
The five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro selection has refined in age. His route-running has become more precise and he is no longer a liability in rush protection.
11. Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills
OK, this is just getting ridiculous. Three Johnsons in a row (insert joke here)! This Johnson floundered in his rookie campaign with the Bills in 2008. In 11 games, Johnson caught just 10 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. For Andre Johnson, that's a pretty good game.
So, why does Steve outrank Andre? It takes a lot of heart to put yourself out there the way Steve does for only half a million dollars (I'm sure we would all make this sacrifice). Andre made about 10 times that amount.
In 2009, Steve battled a pretty severe rib injury that kept him sidelined for 11 games. Steve had a breakout 2010, catching 82 passes for 1,073 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns.
10. Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It takes both heart and hustle to play such a demanding position day in and day out. But Ronde Barber hasn't missed a day of work since the Clinton administration. Since 1999, Barber has lined up at cornerback for the same team and has truly played the game from end zone to end zone.
Who could forget his 2001 season? Barber made 10 interceptions and defensed 14. Over his 14-year career, Barber has intercepted 40 passes, made 20.5 sacks and chased down 704 tackles.
Ronde Barber is the embodiment of heart over the length of a career.
9. Dhani Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
Even though Dhani Jones is currently a free agent, he was the heart and soul of the Bengals defense in 2010. Ranging from sideline to sideline, Jones made a career-best 125 tackles last season.
8. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears
Urlacher has been the staple to the rigid Bears defense since 2000. His all-over-the-place type of play has notched him a Defensive Rookie of the Year, an AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and seven Pro Bowl nods.
The former ninth overall pick missed all of 2009 when he injured his wrist in the season-opener against the Pats but came back in 2010 with a heart that won't stop pounding. Last year, Urlacher made 96 solo tackles (125 total), sacked the QB four times and picked off a pass. Not bad for a 33-year-old.
7. DeAngelo Hall, Washington Redskins
Though the Redskins haven't been to the playoffs since acquiring Hall from the Raiders in 2008, the heart-driven corner is hardly to blame. His 2010 season culminated in a Pro Bowl MVP as he made six picks, scored a TD, forced two fumbles and tackled 95 for the season.
6. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The hat reminds me of Newsies, but Brees is anything but a turn-of-the-century orphan newsboy. He's a champion. And I hate to sound cliche', but he has the heart of a champion. The five-time Pro Bowl selection was named the Super Bowl XLIV MVP as he brought New Orleans their lone title.
Brees spent the first five years of his career under center in San Diego. But, he began to blossom as the undersized leader of the Saints. Since moving to Nawlins, Brees has yet to have a season with fewer than 4,000 yards.
In 2008, Brees threw for 5,069 yards, a career-best 34 TDs and led the Saints to the Super Bowl the following year.
5. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Without a consistent, viable passing attack, the Vikes have looked to Adrian Peterson as their offensive workhorse. Since 2007, Peterson has taken on the task, rushing for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first four seasons.
Peterson has also used his hustle and drive to push the ball past the goal line 54 times (52 rushing) en route to four Pro Bowls, four All-Pro selections and an AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Without Peterson, the Vikings wouldn't have won back-to-back NFC North divisions in 2008 and 2009. Simply put, he's makes the Vikes go.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
It's hard to imagine the Cards offense without their deep threat and hustle receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He's played in all but four games since being drafted by Arizona in 2004.
Fitz has had five 1,000-yard season in seven campaigns, scored an ungodly 65 TDs and has fumbled just five balls (three for a loss) in 613 receptions.
Larry runs hard with or without the ball and can only be described as a physical receiver. He's durable and without him, the Cardinals would be in dire straits.
3. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
He's not going to win any beauty contests, but this guy is an absolute beast. Entering only his third year in the NFL, Matthews is a forced to be reckoned with and is arguably the hardest-working linebacker in the league.
The former USC Trojan is a third-generation NFLer and alongside his long-haired brother (not literal) A.J. Hawk, the two terrorize opposing offenses. In 2009, Matthews targeted the quarterback with 10 sacks; last year he bumped his total to 13.5 and a defensive touchdown.
2. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
If you ever have to watch a 49er game this year (and believe me, it's painful), there's only one player you need to watch on defense: Patrick Willis. The dude is everywhere. He's missed just one game in four years and led the league in tackles his rookie year with 174 (135 solo). His efforts in 2007 earned him AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and an All-Pro selection.
He won the Butkus Award in 2006 and as a professional in 2009 when he recorded four sacks, 152 tackles and three interceptions.
Willis has a nose for the ball-carrier. He never gives up on a play and when he tackles, he takes swipes at the ball. Over the last four seasons, he has forced eight fumbles.
1. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers
As you can clearly see here, Polamalu will give up his livelihood for the ball. He plays with reckless abandon. When he's on the field, the NFL's best defense takes its cues from the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year.
The first-round pick out of USC has helped lead the most successful franchise to two more Super Bowl wins, six Pro Bowls and more importantly for this list. a team MVP award.
If Polamalu weren't sidelined with injuries in parts of four seasons, his numbers might be more gaudy. But over his eight-year career, the Garden Grove, California native has intercepted 27 balls, made eight sacks from the safety position and forced eight fumbles.
Polamalu defines what a combination of heart and talent can accomplish. He is the ultimate heart and hustle player.