You’ve probably already scrolled down in this article to check which players I listed, and now you’re back here looking for an explanation as to why you don’t see Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning on this list.
Well, here’s the thing … when I think about the toughest players I’ve faced in my seven-plus years in the league, those who come to mind are the ones I’ve played against a lot. Guys I’ve got a good feel for. And if I’m going to really dig in and break these guys down, I want to know them inside and out.
So no disrespect at all to Brady, Rodgers or anyone else. I just haven’t played against them enough. I’ll see Rodgers later this year, and if we do what we’re supposed to do as a team this season, maybe I’ll see Tom Brady in Miami in February. You never know.
Until then, here’s my list.
Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
That’s the best way I can describe Alvin Kamara.
He’s one of the most unique guys to tackle because it’s almost like he invites contact, but not in a way where he’s trying to run you over. He kind of sets you up because he’s very good at twisting and contorting his body to make himself into a smaller target. When he’s in the open field, he’ll come right at you — he’ll let you square him up — and then, right at the point of contact, he’ll twist his body. And instead of putting your helmet in his chest and stopping his momentum, all of a sudden you’re off to his side, trying to make an arm tackle.
The key is that he does all this without sacrificing his momentum. He’s running downhill, full speed, still making guys miss. So when you watch the film, he always looks so smooth. Like he just kind of glides. It looks effortless.
I remember the first time we played against him back in 2017. It was early in his rookie year, so we didn’t have a lot of film and didn’t know much about him. Then, in the fourth quarter, he broke a 25-yard run for a touchdown.
That was the play where we all kind of looked at each other and were like, Whoa … this guy’s pretty good.
And it’s not like it was some highlight-reel run. He didn’t do anything crazy. It’s just the way he slid through all the traffic at the line of scrimmage, and then had the burst to get to the sideline, and the strength to break a tackle and get into the end zone.
Like I said, he just makes it look easy.
And that was an inside run, too. Which is another thing. Because I think the Saints have always had guys who are great out of the backfield — backs who are either really good on screens, can catch the ball, run great routes, and are good outside on the perimeter or between the tackles.
But I don’t think they’ve ever had one guy who could do it all.
Back in the day, they had Darren Sproles. And when he was on the field, you knew you were going to get a little bit of outside run, a lot of screens, some gimmicky plays … but you knew you weren’t going to get a lot of downhill direct runs or between-the-tackles stuff. That wasn’t his game. So you could basically eliminate a big chunk of the playbook presnap.
With Kamara, you have to respect the whole playbook.
And he’s actually bigger than you think. On paper, he’s only 5′ 10″ and like 215 pounds. But he’s rock solid. He plays big. And a guy who plays big like that, and who can still move laterally and shake guys in the open field — it’s fun to watch.
But man … it’s tough to play against.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
He understands defenses. He’s very smart. He has a big arm. But what separates Russell Wilson is his escapability and his ability to extend plays. Like when it’s third down, and all you need is one stop to get off the field, and you do everything perfect — the coverage is tight, the pass rush gets pressure, the pocket collapses … and then you see Russ squirm out and hit a guy 25 yards downfield for a first down.
Those plays are absolute backbreakers for a defense. Not just because they keep drives alive, but because they wear you down, both physically and mentally. I mean, there’s nothing more frustrating than doing everything right and still getting beat.
A lot of coverage is based on timing. With most quarterbacks, by the time you count to three, the ball’s gotta be out. With Russ, it’s more like he’s thinking, One, two, three … nah, I don’t like it. I’m just gonna run around in circles until somebody gets open and sling it.
The timing just goes out the window.
And his ability to keep his eyes downfield with the rush bearing down on him is second to none. He’s not looking to run. He’ll take off, but that’s not his first option. He’s looking for the big play. And when it comes to extending the play and creating for his receivers, I don’t think there’s anybody better in the league right now.
Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons
I know, right?
But I told you, it’s all about the guys I play against most. And there are only a few centers in the league who make you rethink your approach to an offense.
Alex is one of them.
One of the first things I do before the snap is try to identify who’s going to block me. Once I diagnose that, then I can attack that player based on where I think the ball is going and what my assignment is. And Alex is just one of the rare centers who’s so athletic he makes you account for him on every play. There are a lot of athletic centers in the league, but for a guy who’s over 300 pounds, Alex is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to his ability to get to the second level.
He’s also very intelligent. He has a good presnap understanding of defensive fronts. But he also has a unique understanding of where a backer is going to be postsnap. He knows exactly where he needs to go, and he has the athleticism to get there. He has a great first step off the line of scrimmage and he takes great angles, so he’s always in a good position to make a block.
He works really well with Matt Ryan, too. I think one of the most underrated — or underappreciated — aspects of being a center is that you have to be able to command the offense. You have to be very aware of stunts or movement along the defensive line so you can shift the protection on any given play based on where the ball is going.
There are a lot of great centers in the league. Alex is just … different.
Alex is very good at that because, again, he has such a unique understanding of defenses. There just aren’t a lot of guys who can command an offense from the center position the way he does.
I remember when he was in Cleveland and the Falcons signed him. I was like, O.K. Here we go. It’s gonna be tough sledding. I knew the kind of player he was, and the Falcons like to run a zone-blocking scheme, which he’s perfect for.
There are a lot of great centers in the league. Alex is just … different.
He’s the whole package.
Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles
Since I have you thinking about centers now, let’s talk about Jason Kelce. I just said that Alex Mack is one of the most athletic centers in the league.
Well, Jason Kelce is probably the most athletic.
You can see it on this play against the Redskins, where he gets out in space and makes a block downfield to help spring Darren Sproles for a touchdown.
That’s a 300-pound guy getting to the second level and then running a linebacker off down the field.
Playing against Jason is what I imagine it must be like for a receiver to play against a shutdown corner. As soon as the ball is snapped, he’s just on you. And he doesn’t stop.
He also understands the game within the game. He knows how to set you up. I remember early in my career when we played against the Eagles — I think it was back in 2014 or ’15 — and the first time Jason blocked me, he pulled around and cut me. Then, the second time, I was ready. I wasn’t going to let him cut me again. So I braced for the cut … and he got right in my chest and blocked me up high. I wasn’t even ready for it.
It sounds like a small thing. But when you’re flying around and you’re thinking about who’s going to block you, and where the ball is going, and what your assignment is, and where you need to get to … and then somebody like Jason gives you that one extra thing to think about because you’re trying to figure out how he’s going to attack you … that’s where the game gets fun.
He’s just a smart, athletic player — probably one of my favorite guys to play against.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Drew isn’t an ad-libber. He’s not going to Russell Wilson his way out of a sack, or sling the ball around and just see what happens. He’s very calculated, very methodical. He knows exactly where he’s going with the football before it’s snapped.
I watched him warm up one time before we played him, and I was standing there on the sideline just kind of admiring how he spread the ball around to his second, third and sometimes fourth options. I mean, think about it: How many times have you seen Drew in the pocket, looking downfield, and then he just dumps it off to Kamara out of the backfield for a first down?
Most quarterbacks don’t even have enough time to get to their fourth read. The pass rush gets to them too quickly. But Drew has such a firm grasp of the entire game that he’s able to work through his progression quickly and get the ball out before the pressure gets to him.
It all comes down to his comfort level. He has ultimate command of Sean Payton’s offense.
I think it all comes down to his comfort level. He has ultimate command of Sean Payton’s offense. He’s a lot like Brady in that he’s been playing in the same system for the same coach for so long that everything he does, he’s done it a million times. He’s seen every defense. And he knows exactly how they’re going to attack him.
You can tell just by watching him and how decisive he is that he’s studied a lot and has worked extremely hard at his craft. He’s always in control. That’s why he and the Saints’ offense are so difficult to stop. You just know that one way or another, Drew is going to find a way to work the ball down the field.
All you can really do is try not to let it come so easy.
BONUS Sixth Toughest: Marshawn Lynch
Alvin Kamara is the only running back on my list, but I feel like I should also mention Marshawn Lynch. There was a span of four or five years where we played the Seahawks a lot. And when we did, we all knew, O.K., we really gotta bring it today, because we know Marshawn’s gonna bring it.
There’s not even a lot to analyze or break down. He was just an old-school throwback who gave 100% on every single play. A big, physical, powerful back who ran the ball the way you’re supposed to — downhill, right at you.
All the respect in the world to Marshawn.
He was just a lot of fun to play against.