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 offensive tackle Joe Thomas (Cleveland Browns, 2007-2017) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Phil Dawson, K, retired
Dawson was Thomas' teammate from 2007-2012 with the Cleveland Browns.
Kickers probably aren't a popular pick for this exercise, but I have to include Dawson. He's one of the greatest kickers the league has ever seen, in my opinion. An undrafted player, he played for 20 seasons and finished his career ranked seventh in NFL history in regular-season games played (305), eighth in field goals made (441), 11th in points (1,847) and 20th in field goal percentage (83.8). It's one thing to be a great kicker when you're playing in warm weather or in a dome, but what separated him was his ability to nail a kick no matter the conditions: rain, snow, sleet, wind. You name it. And with poor weather sometimes comes a beat-up field, but he found a way to be effective. That's a testament to his process, ability to overcome variables and work to build muscle memory to execute kick after kick.
4) Josh Cribbs, wide receiver/special teams ace, retired
Cribbs was Thomas' teammate from 2007-2012 with the Cleveland Browns.
Cribbs shined brightest as a return man and earned a spot as the kick returner on the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team because of it. Unlike many other returners, he didn't just burn you with speed. He was gritty, tough and played with a reckless abandon, whether he had the ball or not, breaking tackles with the ball in his hands and making tackles when roles were flipped. He was also a first-team All-Pro in 2009 and earned three Pro Bowl nods. He finished his career ranked third in league history with 13,488 career return yards, third in kickoff return yards (11,113), tied for first in career kick return TDs (8) and fifth in career return touchdowns (11). Like I said, he was a do-it-all special-teamer, as he led the Browns in special teams tackles four times and totaled 125 tackles. He was committed to his role and was exceptional at it.
3) Mitchell Schwartz, right tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
Schwartz was Thomas' teammate from 2012-15 with the Cleveland Browns.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Schwartz is just how smart he is. He has an exceptional memory and an incredible ability to analyze the biomechanics of a certain technique used by him or his opponent. He was super analytical and obsessed with having perfect technique in every facet of what he does, whether in meeting rooms, walk-throughs, practices or games. This dedication to the nuances of the position enables him to perform flawlessly in tough situations when the game is on the line. Schwartz has started every game in his eight-year career and had played 100 percent of the offensive snaps through 2018 (a year in which he was an All-Pro selection). He played 99.5 percent of the snaps last season as, unfortunately, a knee injury ended his streak of consecutive offensive snaps at 7,894 -- an impressive streak considering how hard it is to stay healthy and available in this league. If anyone knows the difficulty of this feat, it's me. Schwartz wouldn't have been able to accomplish it without his relentless pursuit of perfect technique and mastery of his opponent.
2) Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
Garrett was Thomas' teammate in 2017 with the Cleveland Browns.
There are so many words to describe the former No. 1 overall pick's play: powerful, fast, quick, explosive. I could go on and on. At 6-foot-4, 272 pounds, he doesn't simply rely on his toughness and strength to make plays. Instead, he combines his natural talent with an incredible IQ and analytical approach to get max results. He constantly looks at his body of work and asks the right questions: What worked? What didn't work? What areas need improvement? The Pro Bowl DE is cementing himself among the great players in today's game thanks to the way he works at his craft. Garrett has a unique combination of athleticism, mobility and smarts to best his opponents and exploit matchups. This guy's on a different level. And without getting into details about his suspension, I have every reason to believe as an outside observer that he'll be the same strong teammate he was when we shared a locker room.
1) Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons
Mack was Thomas' teammate from 2009-2015 with the Cleveland Browns.
Great players often find they have a lot in common with their fellow stars, from work ethic to natural ability, and Mack absolutely fits in that group. The six-time Pro Bowl selectee takes a detailed, analytical approach and gives his best effort every time he takes the field. Mack is a big and powerful center with the flexibility and mobility to create leverage over his opponents, which allows him to regularly win matchups against even the best interior defensive linemen. However, Mack's greatest quality is his ability to quickly make adjustments. If someone gets the best of him, he understands what is or isn't working so that it doesn't happen again.
Follow Joe Thomas on Twitter @joethomas73.