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 receiver Steve Smith Sr. (Carolina Panthers, 2001-13; Baltimore Ravens, 2014-16) kicks things off with his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Julius Peppers, defensive end, retired
Peppers was Smith's teammate from 2002 to '09 with the Carolina Panthers.
Peppers -- or "Pep," as I call him -- will reside in Canton, Ohio, one day for everything he did during his 17-year NFL career. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro who ranks fourth in NFL history with 159.5 career sacks, including a franchise-record 97 in Carolina. Pep was a great teammate for the eight seasons we spent together (he also came back to play two more without me with the Panthers at the end of his career) and always went above and beyond for the team. You would think that a guy who was 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds and statistically dominant would be boisterous around practice or in games, but Pep wasn't. He was the silent assassin type. He had a quiet demeanor -- but his play spoke volumes. The way he moved on the field was effortless.
4) Muhsin Muhammad/Rickey Proehl, wide receivers, retired
Muhammad was Smith's teammate from 2001 to '04 with the Carolina Panthers.
Proehl was Smith's teammate from 2003 to '05 with the Panthers.
It's hard to pick just five players, so I'm going to bend the rules a bit and do it my way. (No surprise there, right?) Muhammad and Proehl made huge impacts on my own career, and they had 31 years of NFL experience between the two of them. When I came into the league in 2001, Muhammad had just led the NFL in receptions (102) and logged back-to-back seasons of 1,100-plus receiving yards. He took me under his wing and taught me how to be a man. Muhammad always found ways to challenge me in the weight room, in the film room or on the field, constantly pushing me to be better in every area. He always let me know when I was wrong -- and if I was right, he'd wait a few days to tell me. The All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler definitely played a big role in helping me get on the field on offense.
Proehl, a member of the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams, had already been in the NFL for 13 years by the time he joined the Panthers in 2003. Although he never cracked 1,000 yards or made the Pro Bowl, his knowledge of how to play the wide receiver position was almost second to none. He taught me that every small movement or glance I made on the field mattered. Essentially, he forced me to constantly think about the information I gave my opponents and what kind of information I should or shouldn't give them. I learned to be cognizant of my actions and how each play set up the next (whether I got the ball or not), lessons I referred to every time I stepped on the field throughout my career.
3) Terrell Suggs, OLB, free agent
Suggs was Smith's teammate from 2014 to '16 with the Baltimore Ravens.
Suggs was my locker-mate when I went to Baltimore, and one of the things I learned about him was how dedicated he was to his passions, whether that's football or the film industry. He always had a movie set up in his locker, and those films played throughout the day. He studied those films the way he studied the game: very detail-oriented and tirelessly. Suggs is a talented football player -- you don't make seven Pro Bowls if you're not -- but his playbook of quarterback tendencies put him at a whole other level. That playbook had everything, including how each QB audibles, so T-Sizzle was always one step ahead of his opponents. I mean, you don't get to eighth all-time in sacks (139.0) by just guessing what guys are going to do.
Suggs also had a way of throwing people off, especially the media. He'd be loud and obnoxious on purpose to give a reporter a certain perspective of him, but the thing was, it wasn't necessarily him. He wanted people to think a certain way about him, and you would leave thinking it. That's the way he was on the field, too. Suggs always made quarterbacks think twice -- sometimes three times -- about what he might do on a play.
2) Greg Olsen, tight end, Seattle Seahawks
Olsen was Smith's teammate from 2011 to '13 with the Carolina Panthers.
Olsen brought so much to our Panthers teams. An extremely athletic tight end who finds ways to get open, Olsen has been one of the best players at his position over the course of his career. The three-time Pro Bowler was the first tight end in NFL history with three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards (2014-16). He's able to make himself a constant threat due to his deep understanding of the offense and defense. He's like a second quarterback out there. I remember times when Cam Newton called a play when the defense was lined up a certain way, and Olsen called a timeout. He ALWAYS knew if something was off or didn't add up. I can't tell you how many times he called a timeout before the play was about to start, or how many times he corrected someone on the sidelines or on the field. It was pretty eventful when he was in the huddle, but his attention to detail and willingness to help in any way illustrated the leadership qualities he brought to the team.
Maybe the worst part about Olsen is that he's right about EVERY. SINGLE. THING. He is the most persuasive human being on the planet. So much so that we could be driving down the street and see a sign that says "wrong way," and Olsen would convince you that someone put it there by mistake. And you'd end up believing him. He had that effect on people. But because he had the knowledge and play to back up his words, he was one of the better leaders on our team.
1) Jordan Gross, tackle, retired
Gross was Smith's teammate from 2003 to '13 with the Carolina Panthers.
I played with Gross longer than anyone else in my football career -- 13 years, if you go back to our days at Utah. Our friendship was an unlikely one, with him being from rural Idaho and me being a city kid from Los Angeles, but the bond was always there. The latest milestone we crossed together was when we entered the Panthers' Hall of Honor last October. When all was said and done regarding his career, Gross was one of the best and most consistent linemen, making 167 starts and earning one All-Pro and three Pro Bowl selections. He was a staple for the organization, and I'm convinced our offense wouldn't have been nearly as successful without him. I'm honored to have my number retired alongside his.