Analysts and fans put tons of effort into evaluating the careers of professional football players, making lists and writing thinkpieces and comparing achievements -- but no outside observer can ever hope to match the intimate knowledge shared by those who actually spent time on an NFL field together.
In this series, former players who work for NFL Network will name the five best players they each individually played with in their careers. Note that these lists are completely subjective, based on factors that only contemporary colleagues could fairly evaluate, like locker-room influence and impact as a teammate, in addition to skill sets and in-game production. Which means they will be packed with surprises -- and they'll be more interesting than a simple recitation of the most obviously accomplished past teammates. (Note also that the personal nature of this exercise means the absence of a high-profile ex-teammate or two SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN AS A SNUB.)
Below, former NFL wide receiver James Jones (Green Bay Packers, 2007-2013, 2015; Oakland Raiders, 2014) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Greg Jennings, wide receiver, retired
Jennings was Jones' teammate from 2007 to '12 with the Green Bay Packers.
Jennings is undoubtedly one of the most talented receivers I ever played with. Though he's smaller in stature (6-foot, 198 pounds), he could jump out of the gym. A phenomenal route runner, Jennings was super smooth, constantly perfected his craft and made everything look easy every time he took the field, in practice or on Sundays -- and it wasn't easy, especially going against guys like Al Harris and Charles Woodson every day. His calm demeanor allowed him to perform in high-pressure situations, as he never panicked and always seemed to be open. A two-time Pro Bowler, Jennings was often underappreciated on a national scale.
4) Al Harris, cornerback, retired
Harris was Jones' teammate from 2007 to 2010 with the Green Bay Packers.
The first time I faced him in practice, I was on the back side of a run play. I tried to do a release and act like I was running a route. Harris grabbed me and stopped me in my tracks. Thank goodness it was a run play, so fewer people saw how stupid I looked. It was hard work trying to get open every day against him. The two-time Pro Bowler consistently played the game at a high level.
Harris was the strongest, toughest, grittiest cornerback I ever had to go against. He was tall (6-1) and rangy -- the exact things receivers hate to face, because those guys can put their hands on you, redirect you and mess up your route. He was a dominant cornerback on the perimeter who was good in zone coverage but an absolute terror in man coverage. Receivers wanted no part of that.
3) Brett Favre, quarterback, Hall of Famer
Favre was Jones' teammate in 2007 with the Green Bay Packers.
Most people know how special Brett Favre's arm was. By the time I took the field with him in 2007, the first-ballot Hall of Famer had already placed himself near (or at) the top of most passing-record lists. So as a rookie, I wasn't necessarily googly-eyed, but I had mad respect for him. I had heard all the stories about how hard Favre threw the ball, so I certainly didn't want to drop any of his passes. Well, I dropped my first one. Figures, right?! I was put in with the 1s at practice and ran an in-route. The ball looked like it was coming slowly -- it wasn't -- and hit me right in the hands before hitting the ground. I thought everyone, including Favre, was going to be mad. But when I looked up, Favre was laughing while flexing and kissing his muscles. Basically saying, "The old man's still got it." I remember thinking, Man, this is a cool cat. That was Favre's personality wrapped into a single play.
2) Charles Woodson, defensive back, retired
Woodson was Jones' teammate from 2007 to '12 with the Green Bay Packers and in 2014 with the Oakland Raiders.
There are so many things I could say about Woodson -- a nine-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year -- but the one thing that stood out was the way he studied the game and applied it to the field. On top of his incredible physical abilities, Woodson knew what receivers were going to do before they did it, based on subtle movements or details.
In my second year playing with Woodson, I ran the greatest route in practice that I have ever run in my football career. It was a 15-yard curl route, and I got out of my breaks in three steps -- then Woodson jumped in front of me and picked off the pass. I remember thinking, If I just ran my best route and he picked it off, I might not be able to make it in the NFL. These guys' abilities are far greater than mine. I had a personal relationship with him, so after that play, I asked him, "C-Wood, how did you know I was stopping on that route?" He said, "J.J., when you came off the ball with your head down, I knew you were counting steps. I knew you were going to stop the route and not run past me." Since that conversation, I looked him dead in the eye at the line of scrimmage and never gave him any clues or hints as to what I was doing.
That was one of the most important football lessons I could've learned. I had to make every single route look the same because Woodson and other studied defensive backs would jump at any hints. Woodson was a guy who wasn't afraid to take chances because he trusted his knowledge of the opponent and had the ability to recover. He's eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021, and I expect him to be a first-ballot guy.
1) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers was Jones' teammate from 2007 to 2013 and in 2015 with the Green Bay Packers.
Fans, coaches and media members alike rave about Rodgers' ability, but a lot of those people don't understand just how talented he is. And I don't think I would have, either, if I didn't share the field with him. He's a special athlete and thrower inside or outside the pocket. When I took the field with Rodgers, there was so much comfort in knowing he was a guy who could put the ball anywhere he wanted. I felt like I was never covered. And I'm a receiver! Even when the defensive back was in perfect position, I knew A-Rod was going to throw the ball to where only I could get it. I've seen him make some incredible throws -- and some of the best happened in practice.
The moment I realized just how special he was against the Denver Broncos in 2011. I had to run a bang post route in the red zone, in which the receiver is supposed to cross the defender's face. The receiver is told to never go behind the defender, because doing so usually ended up in a pick, or the QB simply not throwing it to you. In other words, that was a big no-no. Well, the defender was so far inside that I remember thinking (quickly, of course), How in the world am I going to cross inside? So I made the decision to miss my assignment and go behind. But when I went behind to the back of the end zone, I peeked back for a second at Rodgers, and to my surprise, he whipped the ball my direction. I caught the touchdown and said to Rodgers back on the sideline, "I went behind, man -- I'm sorry." He replied with, "That's what I wanted you do to." HA! I'm so glad we both decided to miss our assignments on that play. I remember I got a text from Derek Carr, who was still in college at the time, that said something like, "Dude, I was watching that game, and how did Aaron make that ridiculous throw?" We talked about that throw the entire next week.
I guess I'm still talking about it ...
Follow James Jones on Twitter @89JonesNTAF.