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 outside linebacker Willie McGinest (New England Patriots, 1994-2005; Cleveland Browns, 2006-08) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Ben Coates, tight end, retired
Coates was McGinest's teammate from 1994 to '99 with the New England Patriots.
So many praise Rob Gronkowski for what he does on the football field, and rightfully so. He's a terror in one-on-one coverage, a great pass catcher and a willing blocker. To me, Gronk is the latest version of Ben Coates. He was the first tight end who could do everything well. He was an absolute monster as a pass catcher because of his superior route running and body control. Against me in practice, Coates knew how to lean into me to create space and get into good position to catch the ball. He also has the best hands of any tight end that I've ever seen. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe could throw the ball anywhere -- literally anywhere -- and Coates would catch it, whether in traffic, against double coverage or down the sideline. He rarely fumbled, made Superman-esque catches and took (and delivered) big hits.
As an outside linebacker, I faced him almost every day. He taught me a lot about covering tight ends in space and how to use my hands to create leverage when rushing the quarterback. A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Coates was a complete tight end.
4) Richard Seymour, defensive lineman, retired
Seymour was McGinest's teammate from 2001 to '05 with the New England Patriots.
Seymour was one of the most mature rookies I had ever seen, from a mental standpoint. At 6-foot-6, 317 pounds, Seymour was a true defensive end in our scheme, but he could also play defensive tackle with no problem. He was on the field no matter what package we played. He was great at making adjustments; when one pass-rush move didn't work, he used another from his repertoire. And for a big man, he could sure move. His explosive get-off and violent hands made it nearly impossible for linemen to block him in the passing game or against the run. Handling double teams easily, he'd just manhandle his opponents; we called him "the Hulk." Seriously, it felt like this scene at times. It's rare when a player has ALL of these qualities, and it's why Seymour made seven trips to the Pro Bowl, earned three first-team All-Pro selections and won three Super Bowls.
Seymour was a little brother to me when he came into the league, and he still is; we bonded instantly. More than just a teammate, we spent plenty of offseasons together training and hanging out with our families.
3) Joe Thomas, offensive tackle, retired
Thomas was McGinest's teammate from 2007 to '08 with the Cleveland Browns.
Left tackles are usually really physical or technical, and it's rare to find a guy who's both. Joe Thomas was just that. The Browns great had excellent hands, feet and body awareness, but more importantly, he was so calculated in the way he prepared. Thomas had the ability to break down and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different pass rushers he faced. As a true student of the game, he knew what his opponent was going to do before he crossed the line. I also really enjoyed working on my pass-rush drills against him, because he truly was the best competition. I constantly had a live look of what I would get in the game.
Longevity is so important and tough to obtain in this league, and Thomas was one of the best. He recorded over 10,000 consecutive snaps during his career and did it with a lot of different quarterbacks. A lot of people don't give him credit for the latter, but Thomas had to constantly make adjustments based on who was under center. Think about that. Some QBs sit in the pocket while others get the ball out quickly, and there are those who escape the pocket and throw on the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas allowed just 31 sacks on 6,685 pass-blocking snaps in his career. Thomas, a future Hall of Famer, was the ultimate protector.
2) Ty Law, cornerback, Hall of Famer
Law was McGinest's teammate from 1995 to 2004 with the New England Patriots.
Introducing Mr. Take Away Your Best Receiver. That was Ty Law. He wanted the challenge of facing the very best receiver, whether it was within the game plan or not. He was strong at the line of scrimmage, had great ball awareness and worked for everything he got. He did a lot of conditioning before, during and after practice, and he always wanted to hold up his end. I have no doubt that Ty Law was the best cornerback of his era; he led the NFL in interceptions twice and led the Patriots in INTs six times. Always attacking the ball, he became a receiver when the ball was in the air, often preventing the receiver from making a play.
But Law's best attribute was his confidence. No one could tell him he wasn't the best CB in the NFL or that he couldn't cover the league's top receiver. He thrived off those comments and could play man or zone extremely well, allowing him to play in a lot of systems if needed. With confidence through the roof and no fear, Law made one helluva career for himself.
1) Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady was McGinest's teammate from 2000 to '05 with the New England Patriots
I've known Brady a long time, and there's not much I haven't already said. His competitive nature, work ethic and ability to perform at the highest level in the most pressure-packed situations are why he's considered the best to ever play our game. It's why he's won three league MVP awards. It's why he's won SIX Lombardi Trophies. It's why he's still playing at 42 years old (he'll turn 43 in August). The one thing I'll point out in this piece is that Brady can work in any system and with anyone. He's always been about the success of the team, so I can't wait to watch how this new chapter unfolds in Tampa. His competitive nature won't let him fail.