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 guys 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 wide receiver Nate Burleson (Minnesota Vikings, 2003-05; Seattle Seahawks, 2006-09; Detroit Lions 2010-13) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Daunte Culpepper, quarterback, retired
Culpepper was Burleson's teammate from 2003 to '05 with the Minnesota Vikings.
Culpepper was, pound for pound, one of the very best athletes. He was built like a bumblebee at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, but he could run circles around defenders and heave the ball so far down the field. One time at practice, Daunte threw the ball so hard that he broke my finger. He was fun to watch and play with, but the most important thing I learned from him was how to lead. He made me believe in myself more than any other coach or player. Culpepper had a way of complimenting you that elevated your confidence so much that you couldn't help but feel it. It's like when the Grinch's heart grew three sizes. I could literally feel my confidence inflate and that showed in my play on the field. He also was the center of every Halloween and Christmas party, making sure everyone was included. He soiled a seed in my spirit that was more than just football -- it was how to be a teammate, friend and positively impact those around you.
4) Antoine Winfield, cornerback, retired
Winfield was Burleson's teammate in 2004 and '05 with the Minnesota Vikings.
Winfield is one the most underrated players of all time. He was undersized (5-9, 180 pounds) but incredibly physical -- he never retreated from a hit or tackle. To this day, Winfield made one of the best plays I have ever seen. I can't remember the game exactly, but I know he fought through a wide receiver block, chopped down a pulling guard and tackled the running back for a loss. I just remember thinking, How does this guy play so big? He was a technician and trusted his preparation, which allowed him to have an impressive 14-year NFL career that included three Pro Bowl appearances.
Winfield signed a pretty big contract when he arrived in Minnesota in 2004, and I remember trying to peak at his check one day out of curiosity. He replied, "Fella, worry about your own money." Even after cashing in with a six-year deal, he was humble, always gave 100 percent and went about his business the right way.
3) Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, retired
Johnson was Burleson's teammate from 2010 to '13 with the Detroit Lions.
If Black Panther played wide receiver, he'd be the 6-5, 237-pound Calvin Johnson. Just like Black Panther, Johnson was fast, strong, durable and humble. He worked like a peasant even though he was a king among NFL wideouts. He never lived like a king, though. Never wanted the praise and did everything for the good of the team. One of the most prolific receivers throughout his career, the perennial Pro Bowler was often double- or even triple-teamed and still set franchise and league records. I think he's done enough to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it's unfortunate that he retired so soon. If he would've played even a few more years, Johnson would be a lock.
2) Walter Jones, left tackle, Hall of Famer
Jones was Burleson's teammate from 2006 to '09 with the Seattle Seahawks.
We've all heard the stories of John Henry and Paul Bunyan, mythical heroes who were both strong as an ox. When I met Jones upon arriving in Seattle, I realized that these stories derive from somewhere. There are people on Earth who resemble these folk legends. Jones was a manchild. I heard that he didn't spend much time in the weight room during the offseason; instead, he was pushing and pulling a truck. He was so naturally strong and his hand placement on pass rushers was second to none. He was the ultimate protector and was deservedly recognized for it, earning nine Pro Bowl bids and four first-team All-Pro selections -- as well as a bust in Canton, Ohio.
1) Randy Moss, wide receiver, Hall of Famer
Moss was Burleson's teammate in 2003 and '04 with the Minnesota Vikings.
I don't think there will ever be another wide receiver who pumped fear in the hearts of defensive backs the way Moss did. Seriously, I would line up next to him, look at the DBs guarding him, and they were already on their heels. Moss already won and the play hadn't even started. Hands down the most natural and physically gifted athlete I ever played with. He had Olympic speed with the softest hands. He could run 80 percent and still fly by the other team's fastest defender, and he tracked the ball so well that instead of running for several yards with his hands up (ultimately giving the corner a chance to break up the pass), he'd throw his hands up late and make the completed reception look effortless.
Moss understood his star power and the influence he had. He was unapologetically himself and I'll always remember this gem he dropped when we were on our way to an autograph signing. He said: "No matter how much they say they love you, they can't wait to say how much they don't." He was used to being portrayed as somewhat of a villain and used the media and critics to drive him.