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 running back Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars, 2006-2013; Oakland Raiders, 2014) provides his ranking of the top teammates he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Paul Posluszny, middle linebacker, retired
Posluszny was MJD's teammate from 2011 to '13 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I battled against him multiple times when he was in Buffalo, learning quickly that he was everything you'd expect a Penn State LB to be. He was tough as nails and the ultimate competitor. In our game against the Bills in 2009, Posluszny went to tackle me in the red zone and unintentionally grabbed my face mask, pulling my helmet around and turning me around for a loss. He later apologized for it, but man, he was relentless on the field. When he came to Jacksonville, that's when I realized why he was so good. He took a methodical approach to film study and preparation and fought hard for everything, which naturally lifted the effort of everyone in the locker room. He was tough to face in practice but he made me better because he was always prepared and went about his business. He earned one Pro Bowl nod in his career (2013), but his play definitely merited more.
4) Daryl Smith, linebacker, retired
Smith was MJD's teammate from 2006 to 2012 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Smith was one of those linebackers who could do anything. One week, our defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, would swing Smith to OLB to rush the passer in a 3-4 front. The next week, Tucker would run a 4-3 defense and have Smith covering a tight end or running back. And the thing is, Smith could do both tasks and do them well. He made me better in practice every day for seven years, specifically in pass protection and blitz pickups. He had extremely strong hands and was relentless in his assignments. An all-around football player, Smith finished his 13-year career with 1,002 tackles and led the league in forced fumbles (five) in 2014 with Baltimore. He may not have received a ton of national accolades, but his impact was felt on the field and in the locker room. He was the dog who didn't regularly bark, so when he did, guys paid attention.
3) Justin Blackmon, wide receiver, reserve/suspended list
Blackmon was MJD's teammate from 2012 to '13 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This choice might be surprising to a lot of you, but Blackmon is one of the most talented wide receivers I have ever seen. In his two short years in the league -- suspended indefinitely in November 2013 after multiple substance abuse violations -- I saw him dominate some of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. Coming off a four-game suspension to open the 2013 season, he went off for 326 yards on 19 catches in his first two games back, including 190 yards on 14 grabs in Denver. Blackmon could do everything all the greats do: separate from defenders, run every route and get in and out of breaks quickly. In recent years, the one-handed catch has become a thing, with receivers posting training videos left and right -- Blackmon routinely did it before Odell Beckham Jr.'s famous one-handed snag against the Cowboys. It was a highlight reel every day in practice with Blackmon. I can't tell you how many times he made circus catches, but I do remember just being in awe of him with the rest of my teammates. I know the former No. 5 overall pick would've helped our team and organization a ton if he could've stayed out of trouble. We would've been able to make some real magic in Jacksonville.
2) Greg Jones, fullback, retired
Jones was MJD's teammate from 2006 to 2012 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The reason I say Jones was one of the best was he began as a tailback and moved to fullback early on, thriving at both positions. It's a tough transition for any player to make, considering the former gets a lot of credit, while the latter hardly receives any recognition outside the building. He was the most selfless teammate I ever shared the field with, and he played a huge role in my own career as the lead blocker when I claimed the rushing title in 2011. Jones, a 2010 second-team All-Pro selection by Pro Football Focus, constantly worked at his craft and was always a leader, even when fighting through injuries. A tremendous player and person, Jones was a dominant fullback and made a solid 10-year career out of it.
1) Fred Taylor, running back, retired
Taylor was MJD's teammate from 2006 to '08 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Taylor was an exceptional running back and teammate. He had the speed, quickness, natural ability and vision to tear up defenses, but his understanding of the game and the way he studied his opponent put him at another level. He studied diligently and took the time to teach me how to properly study, run with patience and attack linebackers in the run and pass games. He was a workout warrior, and I had to keep up, being the competitor that I am. Heading into the 2007 season, a group of us trained together -- Taylor and Frank Gore included -- and were running sprints on one particular day. A lot of us were barking at one another, but Taylor always stayed relatively quiet. I had all the confidence in the world when it came to sprints. I had run a 4.39 40-yard dash at the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine, after all. And to be honest, I wasn't sure how fast Taylor really was. That day, we ran 40- and 50-plus-yard sprints. I was really pushing it and I remember looking over and Taylor's ahead of me and having the best time doing it. I mean, the guy coasted in winning these sprints. Then the next season against the Panthers, Taylor reeled off an 80-yard touchdown run, pulling away from everyone on the field. It was an aha moment for me, seeing how our offseason work translated directly over to the field.
He was selfless and always willing to help the team win. In his final year in Jacksonville, he broke his thumb toward the end of the season so I stepped in as the starter. Against the Colts in Week 16, Taylor was always one of the first people to approach me when I came to the sideline, offering advice on what the safety was doing or when to cut back. I became a much better running back because I was teammates with Taylor.