Best of the best: These 10 stand out
It's never easy to determine "The Best Of" for anything. You start with a category that seems perfectly suited for a specific player. After a few seconds, you start thinking about another candidate, then another and, before you know it, there are 10 ideas flooding your head.
If you don't have some discipline and the ability to make tough choices, you could drive yourself crazy trying to make the perfect decision.
In the case of this column, that predicament was made even harder by the subject matter. Sure, there might have been one or two no-brainers in the bunch, but that still left several other categories that demanded plenty of thought and debate. And you know what? That's OK.
What can't be denied is that the players listed below have separated themselves from everybody else in their own unique way. They might have ample competition in some of these categories, but they also belong at the head of their respective categories for good reason.
So, as we kick off Best of the NFL Week, here are the best of the best:
1. Best QB arm: Aaron Rodgers -- Anybody who saw this Green Bay Packers quarterback play this past postseason had to be impressed by his ability to throw the football. It wasn't just that Rodgers had a strong arm. He also had the ability to squeeze the football into places where few quarterbacks ever dare to go.
How can you forget the sight of hapless defenders futilely reaching their arms out for passes that zipped past their fingertips and into the hands of Rodgers' receivers? He made two such throws in the Super Bowl (including a late completion that helped seal that victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers), and he did it often in a jaw-dropping performance in an NFC divisional playoff win over Atlanta (Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns).
In fact, Rodgers has spent most of the past three seasons using that arm to become a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. Now, that isn't to say there aren't other signal-callers who can throw the football farther or harder than Rodgers. It's simply hard to find another quarterback who can make so many difficult throws look so easy in the process.
2. Best tackler: Patrick Willis -- There is one key reason Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers: The dude is a flat-out tackling machine. He has led the league in tackles twice in his career and has 595 total stops to date.
Willis also has all the traits critical to excelling at his craft. He has the instincts to sniff out the ball, the discipline to take proper pursuit angles, the speed to make the play and the explosiveness to finish it off. Even a future Hall of Famer such as Baltimore's Ray Lewis says Willis is the one young linebacker whose game he admires the most. That kind of praise means Willis will be the gold standard for his position for many years to come.
3. Best hands: Larry Fitzgerald -- Fitzgerald is so gifted in this department that it's hard to remember the last time the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver actually dropped a pass. He grabs balls in traffic. He snares them on full-out dives and sky-high leaps. Sometimes, he doesn't even need the use of both hands. He'll just pluck the ball from midair as if the quarterback were lobbing a beach ball in his direction.
That consistency has enabled Fitzgerald to average at least 96 receptions over the past four seasons and to amass 613 receptions in his seven-year career. And although nobody would ever confuse him with a speedster, everybody has to admit that there is no other player you'd want on the end of a pass when the game is on the line.
4. Best tough guy: James Harrison -- Harrison deserves this honor solely because the Pittsburgh outside linebacker has become the poster child for the NFL's effort to crack down on vicious hitting (he was fined $125,000 for four brutal shots last season). What's also important to note here is that Harrison isn't dirty. He's merely as tenacious as they come, a relentless, turbocharged sack specialist who loves nothing more than intimidating anybody who lines up on offense.
In his eyes, football is supposed to be played as violently as possible, which is why he takes such umbrage with the league's philosophy on punishing defenders for inflicting extreme pain. The more the game drifts toward a passive state, the less we're able to see what makes a tough guy like him so rugged.
5. Best QB in the clutch: Tom Brady -- Brady has set the bar so high in this category that there isn't another quarterback playing who can compete for the honor. You want to talk about clutch? Let's start with a sixth-round pick who was thrust into action two games into his second year and ultimately helped New England win its first Super Bowl by engineering a game-winning, last-minute drive later that season.
If that moment didn't tell us how great Brady would be, his two Super Bowl wins in the next three years sure gave us plenty of evidence.
Granted, Brady hasn't been as exceptional in recent years -- he's 5-5 in his past 10 playoff games after winning his first nine appearances as a postseason starter -- but that's akin to complaining about Eva Mendes gaining a few pounds. Just as you'd still want her on your arm, you'd still put the ball in Brady's hands when your team needs a game-changing play.
6. Best leader: Ray Lewis -- Lewis wins this honor simply because he still affects games without the benefit of the same athleticism that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place. Just step inside the Baltimore Ravens' locker room and try to suggest that this 12-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker doesn't still set the tone for that franchise. Younger stars such as Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata still defer to Lewis, and he's wise enough to carry himself more like a proud, protective big brother than a loud-mouthed, past-his-prime know-it-all.
That combination of wisdom and love -- along with a tenacity that still drives him to overcome his age (he's 36) -- allows Lewis to keep his stature as a Pro Bowler. Most aging veterans have a hard time commanding respect from younger players as their careers wind down. Lewis is the rare breed who doesn't have to say a word to keep that generation in lockstep behind his lead.
7. Best potential to excel in another sport: DeSean Jackson -- Those people who have marveled at Jackson's exploits as a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in Philadelphia should have no problem envisioning him as a star in baseball. Jackson has the speed, quickness and competitiveness to transition into that sport, plus he has the pedigree. Before he decided to play football at Cal, Jackson was also a gifted outfielder whom Baseball America named as the third-best overall athlete in the 2005 high school class. (He hit .380 and stole 20 bases as a senior at Long Beach Poly High.)
That decision to focus on football supposedly scared off Major League Baseball teams that figured they would have to pay a huge bonus to change Jackson's mind. But it's not hard to see Jackson using that breathtaking speed to run down long fly balls in somebody's outfield. Unlike other NFL players who starred in baseball in high school or college, he's still young enough (24) to warrant thoughts about those possibilities.
8. Best teammate: Tony Richardson -- The best thing you can say about this New York Jets fullback is that you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody in the NFL who will criticize him. Along with being one of the game's best lead blockers -- Richardson has made three Pro Bowls in his 17-year-career -- he also has been one of its most consistently valuable locker room guys. When Richardson played in Kansas City, coach Dick Vermeil loved him like a son and even asked him to mentor enigmatic Larry Johnson.
When Richardson was in Minnesota from 2006 to 2007, he opened holes for Adrian Peterson and offered sage advice on how the younger back could sustain a long career.
Now that Richardson is at the tail end of his career, he's still concerned more about giving than taking. He provided guidance to younger players trying to beat him out of a job last summer, and when Richardson actually won out, the Jets retained him largely because his presence meant as much as his performance. When they keep you around for being a quality guy, that means your reputation is as good as it gets.
9. Best interview: Hines Ward -- There are plenty of players who can fill up a notebook, with the Jets' Bart Scott and Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals immediately coming to mind. What those stars can't do in an interview, however, is provide the kind of depth and sincerity Ward delivers every time he is asked a question.
Go ahead; try to find a reporter who hasn't walked away from a Ward interview reveling in the amount of information he or she has gained. That's because Ward doesn't back away from tough topics, and he doesn't come off as though he's building his brand through the media. He simply tells you exactly how he feels about a subject, regardless of the circumstances. Believe me, that is a refreshing trait to find in a world where people too often equate a random tweet with somebody baring their soul.
10. Best celebrator: Chad Ochocinco -- In fairness, Ochocinco has toned down his end zone prances for the Bengals in recent years. But let's also be honest: No player in the league has given fans more entertainment value the past few years than the man who has taken self-promotion to a whole new level.
Ochocinco has busted out the Riverdance after a touchdown. He has faked a proposal to a blushing cheerleader after another. He has even used creative props, such as the night he donned a fake Hall of Fame blazer on the sideline after reaching the end zone. Granted, these are the kinds of stunts that have made some critics think Ochocinco cares more about attention than he does about the game. I prefer to see it a different way. If this six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver hadn't played at such a high level for so long, he wouldn't have given us so many memorable celebrations in the first place.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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