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 quarterback David Carr (Houston Texans, 2002-06; Carolina Panthers, 2007; New York Giants, 2008-09 and 2011-12; San Francisco 49ers, 2010) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Joe Staley, offensive tackle, retired
Staley was Carr's teammate in 2010 with the San Francisco 49ers.
I've only met a handful of guys like Joe Staley in my lifetime -- my NFL Network colleague Joe Thomas is one of them, too. They are just physically different. It's like they're bigger and more athletic than they should be. Combine that with intelligence, and Staley was an incredible player. Football was just easier for him than it was for anyone else. He could block in space, and actually helped move the chains as a pass catcher on a few occasions. I saw a small amount of playing time in San Francisco, but when I took the field, we'd often start talking mid-play about what was happening. It showed that Staley was not only focused on his assignment (the opponent's nastiest pass rusher), but the entire defense. Most players who perform to the highest standard are concerned with the big picture. The six-time Pro Bowler definitely was one of those guys.
4) Justin Tuck, D-lineman extraordinaire, retired
Tuck was Carr's teammate in 2008-09 and 2011-12 with the New York Giants.
Tuck, a two-time Pro Bowler, was respected in the locker room and on the field. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, he had the build of a running back who was injected with Captain America's Super-Soldier Serum.
For real, though: Tuck always wanted the tough assignment. When game-planning for a matchup with Robert Griffin III during his rookie season, one of the first questions in the team meeting was "Who's going to spy RG3?" Tuck immediately replied "I got it." As you can imagine, people in the room chuckled and I thought (like most others who were present), you're a defensive lineman, you don't have it. Well, Tuck had it all right. Of course, the dynamic rookie made his plays but Tuck was always right there with him. During my decade in the league, I learned that there aren't a lot of guys like Tuck who are willing to take on something so out of the ordinary from their usual position duties.
3) Andre Johnson, wide receiver, retired
Johnson was Carr's teammate from 2003 to '06 with the Houston Texans.
When the seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro first arrived in Houston, he couldn't catch. OK, that's an exaggeration, but it certainly wasn't natural for him. To his credit, he worked at it nonstop for years and built a strong resume -- one that should get him into Canton. Although he didn't have great hands as a rookie, Johnson was always so good off the line of scrimmage. His explosiveness helped make him such a reliable target. When he'd break on a route, his cuts were so sharp that his shin was nearly parallel with the ground, allowing him to get open.
Johnson was often challenged by cornerbacks, who would get in his face, talk smack and do everything possible to keep him out of rhythm. It rarely worked. During a preseason scrimmage with the Dallas Cowboys, one of their defensive backs started yapping at Johnson as soon as they walked out on the practice field. Later on, when that player went to jam Johnson on one play, Johnson grabbed the back of the DB's jersey and threw him behind the line of scrimmage. Of course, Johnson was wide open, caught the ball and scored -- while the DB was absolutely roasted by his teammates from the sideline.
2) Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver, retired
Smith was Carr's teammate in 2007 with the Carolina Panthers.
Like Staley, Smith had that big-picture perspective. Wide receivers know their routes and adjustments they need to make, but Smith also knew the quarterback's reads so well. If the QB passed on him the first time, he'd find his way into the open field to become an option again. He would adjust his routes on the fly and routinely found daylight. He was a great teammate, but it was frustrating at times because his willingness to improvise meant I didn't always know where he was going to be. That said, it's hard to fault a guy for wanting the ball in his hands every play, especially a player with his talent, and that internal drive is a big reason why he finished his 16-season career eighth all time in receiving yards.
Smith's best route by far was a seam route. He had the ability to break on such a dramatic angle, splitting the safeties, that he was open every time. It always worked, and I often wondered why our offensive coordinator, Jeff Davidson, would run any other route with Smith. He was that good at it.
1) Eli Manning, quarterback, retired
Manning was Carr's teammate in 2008-09 and 2011-12 with the New York Giants.
There's so much that I've already said about Manning. He's a phenomenal leader, but I'm going to discuss his football IQ and anticipation on the field here. He spent so much time in the film room, determined to know not only his role but that of every player on the field. Leading up to Super Bowl XLVI, we had studied the New England Patriots to no end, but Manning insisted that we watch every Patriots game from seven or eight seasons prior to see if what they put on tape matched up with what our game plan was. This sort of thing happened all the time with Eli.
When it came to his anticipation, he was on a different level. There were so many times when Manning made a throw and fans and commentators would say, "What was he thinking on that pass?" They didn't understand that Manning knew where the soft spot of the defense was and expected his receiver to be in that spot (or close to it). After watching the film of these plays, we often realized that, yeah, you know what? The receiver WAS supposed to be where Eli threw the ball. The rest of our team, myself included at times, wasn't on his wavelength.
Manning went through a lot in New York and he faced constant scrutiny, weathering storm after storm to finish his career with two titles and a Super Bowl MVP award for each.
Follow David Carr on Twitter at @DCarr8.