When you’re looking for the true experts, you don’t have to look any further than those who play the game every day. The Players’ Tribune, in partnership with Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, an original series available on Prime Video, presents “5 Toughest,” a series where players break down other players, from the most unstoppable at their position to those they play against week in and week out.
was a film and television major at Notre Dame. So when I was preparing to drop this 5 Toughest list, I figured I’d break it down a little bit different. More cinematic. Real authentic.
So, let’s roll camera.
Quiet on set!
Silence your cellphones, and remember, please, no flash photography.
This is Jaylon Smith’s 5 Toughest — take 1.
As far as running backs go, these guys are basically 1a and 1b.
But if I’m casting the star role in my backfield, I gotta give the edge to my guy Zeke.
I played against him in college in the Fiesta Bowl. That’s the game where I blew out my knee. But before I went out, I got a see a lot of Zeke. And the one thing that stood out to me was how low to the ground he runs. He has all the physical tools to be an unstoppable running back — the big body, the feet, the agility, the vision. But then you get all that at a solid 225 pounds going downhill, with such a low center of gravity?
He’s like a bowling ball.
He’s exceptionally tough to bring down.
This off-season, when he was going through the whole contract thing, a lot of people questioned how valuable Zeke was to our team — like because our O-line is so dominant, we could just throw anybody back there and they’d have success.
What a ridiculous thing to say.
Our offense prides itself on being powerful and getting after people. Really taking it to defenses and using the running game to open up the play-action pass for Dak. And Zeke — with his physical style, laser focus, and the extreme edge he plays with … he’s the perfect running back for what we’re trying to do.
There’s no other back in the league I’d rather have running the ball for us.
James D. Smith via AP
Then you got Saquon, who is basically this generation’s Barry Sanders. He’s just a rare combination of power and elusiveness. The way he moves laterally at his size is ridiculous, and he has those tree-trunk legs that just never stop churning. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen him turn a one-yard gain into a five- or six-yard gain, or get hit in the backfield and somehow still gain a couple of yards, turning a negative play into a positive one.
It’s just so hard for one person to tackle him. Simple as that.
That’s why when you play against Saquon, you have to play true team defense. All 11 guys sprinting to the ball. Gang tackling. But you also have to stay disciplined. You can’t overpursue because if he gets the whole defense moving one way, he can put his foot in the ground, cut it back against the grain and carve you up.
He’s a silent assassin. I mean, you never hear a peep out of him. He’s not talking trash or doing any of that “look at me” stuff. He lets his game do the talking.
And his game is loud.
His catch radius is incredible. You put the ball anywhere near him, and he’s gonna get a hand on it. And when he gets his hands on it, he doesn’t drop it. He’s probably the most reliable receiver in the league when it comes to that.
But he’s also got that “want to.” He never takes a play off, whether he has the ball in his hands or not.
And when he does get the ball, watch out. Because after the catch, he can do some damage.
I remember one play he made against us last year. It was late in overtime. We were in man coverage and DeAndre came across the middle, made a leaping catch, then turned upfield. He hit a spin move to make one guy miss, then spun again to avoid another tackle before finally getting dragged down. The play ended up going for 49 yards. And just like that, they were in field goal range.
His all-around game is just unstoppable. You pretty much have no choice but to double-team him. And with Deshaun Watson playing at the level he’s playing at, and when Will Fuller — my man Dub — is healthy and rockin’ on the other side, that offense is dangerous.
When a hole opens up and you see Jason Kelce pulling through and turning upfield, you’d never guess he was an offensive lineman. He legit runs like a running back. That’s how athletic he is.
Centers aren’t supposed to be able to move like that. He has quick feet. He’s great with his hips. He can make any block. There isn’t another offensive lineman in the league who can get downfield to the second level like he can.
He can really get out.
Honestly, I don’t really know what else to say. Just … pretend you were creating a running back in a video game. You give him great feet. Speed. Agility. Dial it all up to like 99.
Then make him 300 pounds.
And throw a beard on him.
That’s Jason Kelce.
He’s a freak.
I was considering Travis Kelce here, but we already cast a Kelce brother in this article, and we can’t give the family too much love. So I’m gonna open it up and give some credit to an O.G. tight end.
Vernon Davis has been in the league since I was in like the sixth grade. I remember being 11 years old and watching him with the 49ers, and he was a straight up beast.
I drew a lot of inspiration from him because back then he had the ’locks, and I could get with that. He was legit.
Now he’s 35, and he’s still out there some days looking like a 21-year-old. Just earlier this season he actually hurdled over a guy, then broke a couple of tackles, leaving dudes on the ground looking around like, Where’d he go?
By that time, Vernon was 20 yards downfield, taking it to the house.
When he’s in the game, you know they’re probably not running the ball. He’s trying to get that rock. Even at his age, he can still move. And he’s always had strong hands and a big catch radius.
Being in the middle, I’m tasked with covering tight ends a fair amount, especially in our third-down packages. And when Vernon Davis is on the field, I know I have to be on my game. Because he may not put up the numbers he used to, but he can still break out on any given play. He’s definitely still got it.
Andrew Luck was like a great CEO at the quarterback position. He managed the game so well. He always knew when to check to a run, or to a screen. His presnap adjustments were out of this world.
With Andrew, you had to be very diligent in how you disguised your blitzes and coverages because … he’s a Stanford guy. Smart as a whip. He’s a guy who could beat you with his mind before the ball was even snapped. He was never rushed, never flustered. Always cool. He used every second of the play clock to dissect things, get everybody on the same page and get the matchups he wanted.
He could sling it, too. When he was healthy, he could make every throw.
He had it all: the arm, the intellect and the heart of a lion. When I found out he had retired, I was as shocked as anybody. I can’t even imagine how difficult that decision was. But he did what he thought was best for him, and I can appreciate that.
Tom Hauck via AP
And if we’re saving the best for last … we can’t wrap this list with anybody other than Aaron Rodgers.
Dude is fierce. The toughest guy I’ve played against, no doubt.
He has a laser-beam focus and he can really sling it. But the crazy thing about Aaron is that he’s most dangerous when he holds the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds. It’s like the longer he holds it, the bigger the play he’s going to make. So when you play against him, you need to have great coverage in the secondary and tremendous rush discipline up front.
What I mean by “rush discipline” is that you have to keep him in the pocket. You have to level rush because you don’t want to get too far upfield and get behind the quarterback. A lot of times, you have to penetrate at the snap, then pull up and just patty-cake until Aaron either chooses an escape route, gets rid of the ball or, if you’re lucky, the pocket closes in on him and he’s got nowhere to go.
The only other thing you can really do is run games on him — stunt from different gaps to keep him off balance, keep him guessing. But that’s tough to do because he’s another smart quarterback who’s been around awhile, so there’s not a lot you can throw at him that he hasn’t already seen before.
He’s not looking to take off and run, either. He can, but he wants to buy time for the big play. He’s always got his eyes down the field when the pass rush is bearing down on him.
I remember the playoff game in Dallas in 2016, my rookie year. I was still injured, so I wasn’t playing. But I was on the sideline when Aaron rolled out to his left and toward our bench. It was late in the fourth quarter, 12 seconds left, and we had just tied the game up. So we were trying to lock the Packers down and send it to overtime.
And Aaron, on the run, throws an absolute laser 40 yards down the sideline to Jared Cook. He catches it, drags his two feet before falling out of bounds, and next thing you know … they’re kicking a field goal.
When he made that throw … man, I was right there on the sideline, looking dead at him, like, Did you really just do that???
I had never seen anything like it.
That’s it. I hope you enjoyed this edition of Jaylon Smith’s 5 Toughest. Maybe we’ll make a sequel one day. Maybe not. You’ll have to tune back in to find out.