30. Troy Polamalu
Polamalu will go down as one of the best safeties to ever play in the NFL. He wasn’t exceptionally big for the position (5-foot-10). In all honestly, he likely was a bit undersized when coming out of USC in 2003. With all of that said, the Oregon native proved time and time again as to why he was a true terror on the field. Polamalu literally was the player in mind when the phrase “playing like his hair is on fire” was created. His versatility both in pass coverage and in run support was immense. When further factoring in his ability to create turnovers (32 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles), there’s no question Polamalu belongs on this list.
29. Ed Reed
Next to Polamalu on the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of NFL safeties is Reed. He — like Polamalu — was an intimidating force on the back-end of the field. He was integral in making the Baltimore Ravens franchise synonymous with such superlatives as toughness and hard-nosed. Possessing an elite combination of quickness and physicality, Reed covered tremendous amounts of ground when patrolling the secondary for Baltimore. He would blanket any long pass over the top in coverage, and wouldn’t be shy about drilling a defenseless receiver or running back. Simply put, he was a fantastic player.
28. Rod Woodson
Positional versatility and athleticism go hand-in-hand with one another. Rod Woodson is a perfect illustration of this axiom. Woodson was a 11-time Pro Bowl selection and a six-time First Team All-Pro member during his illustrious NFL career. Most impressively, Woodson was a Pro Bowler as a corner, a safety, and as a returner. The skill-set required to play each of these positions is vastly different. Corners need reactionary skills along with a fair amount of quickness. Safeties must be able to properly read the play and react accordingly. As for returners, it’s one of the most harrowing responsibilities of any professional football player. Woodson managed to do all three at an exceptionally high level.
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27. Brian Urlacher
Urlacher was one of the most feared linebackers during his era. At 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, most would assume Urlacher to be a run-stuffing ‘backer. However, this was far from the case. Urlacher was brilliant in run support. This much is clearly true. What surprises most people is Urlacher’s ability to run in space. He rarely got beat during the prime of his career. His anticipatory skills were such that he’d often correctly read the opponent’s offensive alignment. If stuck out on an island with a running back or a receiver, more often than not, Urlacher would make the requisite tackle. Urlacher’s defensive back days in college enabled him to have ridiculous feet — and thus has him registered as an all-time great athlete.
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26. Kenny Easley
Easley was a ridiculous athlete. After starring for UCLA at the collegiate level, Easley made his mark in a big way with the Seattle Seahawks. The four-time First Team All-Pro selection was transcendent for his time. At 6-foot-3, Easley had the athletic ability to function as a safety, an outside linebacker (depending upon the defensive package), and even as a jumbo corner. General Managers in today’s game would salivate over Easley as a prospect. This sort of versatility led to Easley eventually garnering an invitation into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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25. John Elway
Before Elway was engineering game-winning drives in the playoffs, he was considered an elite baseball prospect. He was drafted in the second round of the 1981 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees. However, football came calling… and we all know how that turned out. Elway’s arm strength might be unparalleled within the annals of the professional game. From there, his ability to win at the highest level — coupled with his competitiveness — makes him an excellent overall athlete.
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24. Jonathan Odgen
Men with these sorts of measurables (6-foot-9, 340 pounds) aren’t supposed to move like Ogden did. The former UCLA star is widely considered to be the best left tackle of all-time. Despite his gargantuan frame, Ogden had the lateral quickness of a running back, and the delicate nature of a dancing ballerina. His technical ability was only punctuated further by his physical gifts. Ogden played the position with equal parts nasty and grace. He started 176 of a possible 177 games, and earned Pro Bowl honors 11 consecutive seasons.
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23. Darren Bennett
Bennett might not be a household name. With that said, his story is simply fantastic. Bennett was a professional Australian rules football player for seven years before setting foot in the NFL. During his Honeymoon, Bennett tried out successfully for the San Diego Chargers. Eventually, Bennett developed into a multi-time All-Pro punter. He even made NFL’s All-Decade Team during the ’90s despite the fact he only participated in five years during that time span. Perhaps most impressively, Bennett introduced the en vogue punting style where current punters are pooching the ball from an unconventional angle. Being able to change one’s professional sport on the fly is wildly impressive.
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22. Calvin Johnson
When you’re given the nickname Megatron, odds are you’re a freak of an athlete. Johnson redefined the receiver position with a scary combination of height (6-foot-5), weight (240 pounds), and speed (4.35 40 time). For years, Johnson assumed the role as the top receiver in all of football. He punished all defensive backs downfield — particularly in jump-ball situations. When a linebacker dared to cover Johnson, he’d simply beat the initial press and gallop downfield with outstanding speed. Johnson will go down as an all-timer from the receiver spot.
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21. Chris Johnson
Johnson had speed to burn… and then some. At the time, he set the NFL Combine record with a blazing 4.24 40-yard time. While some players hold the ‘track guy’ label, Johnson’s speed translated to the football field in a big way. The Florida native had six-straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing — including a spectacular 2009 campaign in which he rushed for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns. Johnson’s ability to stop-and-start in traffic was phenomenal. Duly, very few backs — if any — possessed his level of acceleration in tight spaces.
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20. Bronko Nagurski
Nagurski was a physical marvel during his playing days. At 235 pounds, Nagurski dominated as a defensive tackle. He even saw some time at offensive tackle when needed. However, what made Nagurski even more of an anomaly was the fact he also carried the football as a running back upwards of 30 times per contest. His physical nature both running the football and stopping the run up front defensively made him the toughest player within his era. Within his professional football career, Nagurski even took up professional wrestling. He was a two-time World Champion in the NWA (National Wrestling Association). How many other professional athletes can boast that accomplishment?
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19. Jevon Kearse
We can go on and on about Kearse’s physical gifts. Coming out of Florida, Kearse had ridiculous first-step quickness. He ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash despite weighing in at 262 pounds. His first three years with the Tennessee Titans were fantastic — as he accrued 36.0 sacks during this time. Injuries slowed his productivity in the following years. However, “The Freak” surely garners a spot within this list based on his nickname alone.
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18. Darren Sproles
Sproles is an anomaly on two fronts. One, he’s still a productive running back at 35 years of age. This is almost unheard of considering the wear and tear the position accrues. Secondly, Sproles generously is listed at 5-foot-6. He’s had to overcome both perceived height concerns and a lack of ideal size throughout his career. In the process, Sproles is a Super Bowl Champion, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and a two-time First Team All-Pro. Whether it be his sublime quickness or competitiveness, Sproles has proven to be a phenomenal athlete.
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17. Larry Allen
The Los Angeles native starred for the Dallas Cowboys during the Aikman-Smith-Irvin era. Allen had tremendous hand strength. As soon as he gripped his large paws onto opposing defensive linemen, Allen was able to forcefully shove them out of the way to open up running lanes. He also played with leverage — something surely aided by a ridiculously strong lower body. Allen — a seven-time First Team All-Pro and 11-time Pro Bowler — was widely regarded as a man possessing brute strength. Allen reportedly squatted 905 pounds, and benched 705 pounds. When factoring in his agile nature when moving in space, Allen’s placement within the piece is a no-brainer.
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16. Walter Payton
“Sweetness” played the game as if he was imitating an interpretive dance. Payton evaded defenders with regularity. He wove in and out of potential tackles akin to a skier on a slalom course. Essentially, Payton created the joystick before it was a thing. The nine-time Pro Bowler was a First Team All-NFL selection on seven separate occasions. Payton is regarded as an all-time great at a position requiring immense athletic ability.
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15. Tony Gonzalez
A college basketball player at Cal, Gonzalez translated many of those skills from the hardwood onto the gridiron. In any jump-ball situation over the heart of the field, Gonzalez conjured up his rebounding skills to essentially pluck the ball out of the air with ease. Duly, he boxed out smaller defensive backs by using his large frame to shield defenders from the ball. The 14-time Pro Bowler still remains as the all-time leader in catches by a tight end (and second overall behind Jerry Rice).
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14. Lawrence Taylor
Taylor was the epitome of the word feared. His ability to physically and psychologically disrupt opponents was legendary. Despite only weighing 237 pounds, Taylor dominated as a pass-rushing linebacker. He could put his hand in the ground if need be. Additionally, he was more than capable of flying off the edge to punish opposing signal-callers. Taylor is the only defensive player since 1986 to have won the league’s MVP award. Very few possessed his penchant for playing the game with elite levels of energy and effort.
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13. Jerry Rice
Rice played the game with immense precision. Never have we seen a receiver equipped with such crisp routes. Rice wasn’t the fastest, nor was he overly big. However, he always had a mental edge over any competitor he faced. Rice knew exactly which buttons to push, and thus how to get open against anyone. He has the most catches in NFL history (1,549). As a result, it should come as no surprise to see Rice comfortably within the ‘best athletes’ discussion.
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12. Herschel Walker
There’s not a single person above the age of 50 in better shape than Herschel Walker. A vaunted regimen of push-ups and sit-ups had Walker looking like a Greek God throughout his NFL career. His past as a track athlete helped Walker blow by defenders with relative ease when he had the ball in space. After his football career ended, Walker pursued other avenues such as MMA, tae kwon do, and bobsledding (finishing seventh for Team USA in the ’92 Winter Olympics).
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11. Julius Peppers
Peppers is the prototype defensive end in the current NFL era. Standing 6-foot-7, Peppers utilized a ridiculous wingspan to both batter offensive tackles as well as bat down passes at the line of scrimmage (with crazy regularity). Peppers — a former college basketball player — had an instinctual prowess in terms of using footwork to evade blockers. He was mobile enough to chase down running backs leaking out of the backfield. Duly, Peppers had the bulk to maul players at the point of attack. Still playing at age 38, Peppers is currently fourth all-time in sacks (154.5).
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10. Darrell Green
‘Urban legends’ often are formed without presence of any real documentation. Former Washington Redskins corner Darrell Green fits under this framework. Officially, Green was clocked at 10.08 in the 100-meter dash during his collegiate days. In interviews, he’d often say his best 40 time sat at 4.15. However, there are those who swear Green ran a 4.09 40-yard dash during a Redskins’ preseason training camp. Regardless, Green consistently proved why he was such a dynamic NFL player. His change-of-direction skills were phenomenal — as was his recovery speed. Green played a lot bigger than his 5-foot-8 frame would indicate.
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9. Willie Gault
Gault enjoyed a productive 10-year NFL career. During this time, Gault flashed significant speed as both a receiver and as a kick returner. When in space, the Georgia native was simply electric. Prior to beginning his professional career, Gault was a leading contender to feature on the 1980 United States Olympic Team for hurdles, the 100-meter race, and the 4 x 100-meter relay. As he retired from competition, Gault still stayed active. He was an alternate on the ’88 Olympic bobsledding team, and has since competed in the ‘Masters athletics’ competition. In the 50-to-54 age group, Gault set a world record by running a 10.88 in the 100-meter dash. That is absolutely ridiculous.
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8. Charlie Powell
Powell might be the only former NFL player who can say he stood toe-to-toe in the boxing ring with Muhammad Ali. After a 10-year professional football career, Powell turned to professional boxing — where he finished with a career record of 25-11-3. Though he got knocked out in the third round by Ali, Powell’s athletic ability was evident. Powell was slated to become a professional baseball player before abruptly quitting minor league baseball in favor of a shot in the NFL. Powell was only 19 years of age upon making his debut professionally. Due to the fact he went professional in three separate sports, Powell most certainly is deserving of a top-10 billing.
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7. Bob Hayes
Hayes was essentially the ‘roided version of Willie Gault. As an NFL player, Hayes helped the Dallas Cowboys win a Super Bowl. He was also a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time First Team All-Pro. These accomplishments enabled him to garner entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition, Hayes was also a fantastic track athlete. Hayes set multiple world records in the 100-meter dash, the 4 x 100-meter relay anchor leg (a record that still holds today), the 60-yard dash, the 100-yard dash, and the 70-yard dash. Only one other individual (Jim Thorpe) can claim the accolades of being both a Hall of Fame member and an Olympic gold medalist.
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6. Jim Brown
Brown played the game as if he was a man among boys. He was always the fastest and most physical player on the field. Scarily enough, Brown was as big as the defensive linemen he was competing against. The native of New York was as dominant an athlete as the game of football has ever seen. There’s a reason why Brown is still considered by many to be the best running back in the history of the NFL.
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5. Michael Vick
Upon Vick making his debut in the NFL, dual-threat quarterbacks weren’t the norm by any stretch. Coaches preferred statue-esque pocket passers with the ability to launch the ball downfield. Vick had no problem in this capacity — as his fire hose of an arm could throw the ball upwards of 70 yards. However, no one anticipated defending a quarterback with the agility and speed of someone like Barry Sanders. Vick revolutionized the way the position was played. His ability to improvise when the play broke down had defensive coordinators pulling their hair out. Unequivocally, Vick is the most impressive athlete to ever stand under center.
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4. Randy Moss
In the same way Vick revolutionized the quarterback position, Moss did the exact same as a wide receiver. The 6-foot-4 pass-catching dynamo was brilliant. He allegedly ran a sub-4.3 40-yard dash — something unsurprising when considering Moss’ deep speed on any go-route. Defensive backs had no answer for his frightening combination of pace and leaping ability. He could dominate the game without even touching the ball — especially when Moss’ presence forced double and even triple coverage. Teammates would be left in favorable matchups, whilst Moss commanded all the attention.
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3. Deion Sanders
Sanders was a do-it-all type of athlete from a young age. During his days at Florida State, Sanders lettered in football, baseball, and track. Sanders ran a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash — a time which caught the attention of all teams. The Florida native went on to enjoy a long NFL career in which he won two Super Bowls and made eight First Team All-Pro teams. Simultaneous to his standing as one of the best defensive backs ever, Sanders played professional baseball for parts of eight years. He led the National League one year in triples — and to this day remains the only athlete to have participated in both the World Series and the Super Bowl. We’ll never forget Sanders high-stepping into the end zone after an interception or a kickoff return.
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2. Jim Thorpe
Thorpe is widely considered to be one of the best American athletes of all-time — regardless of sport. The native of Oklahoma played professional football for over 13 years. This included a stint in what is now considered to be the NFL. Simultaneously, Thorpe decided to become an Olympian. Representing the United States, Thorpe won gold medals for the decathlon and the pentathlon. For good measure, Thorpe played professional baseball for multiple teams — and even had a spell playing for a a pseudo professional traveling basketball team. It’s quite astounding to think about how good Thorpe must have been athletically in order to compete in all of these platforms.
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1. Bo Jackson
While Thorpe was phenomenal from an athleticism standpoint, he was still a cut below a man named Vincent “Bo” Edward Jackson. Jackson was a prodigy from a young age. He excelled in football, baseball, and track. Though many called it ambitious, Jackson ultimately embarked upon professional careers in both football and baseball. As a baseball player for (primarily) the Chicago White Sox, Jackson had multiple 20 home run seasons and an All-Star Game MVP Award. His speed on the base paths was incredible — as were his arm strength and sheer power from the plate. As a football player, the 230-pound running back accrued a 4.13 40-yard dash time. Jackson ran over, around and through people during his four-year NFL career. He finished with an impressive 5.4 yards-per-carry average. Had Jackson stuck with one sport, there’s no telling how good he could’ve been.
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