By Lillian Morgan
The criteria as to what qualifies someone as a great athlete is subjective to a point, but empirical as a matter of course. Only the biggest, fastest, strongest, most resilient athletes can make it to the NFL. And only the best of that bunch can make a long career out of it. The following 10 players exemplify excellence at their respective positions.
Gronk is the type of player that teams must adjust their entire defensive schemes for whenever he's on the field. The 6'6", 265 pound New England Patriots tight end scored a ridiculous 38 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons, despite missing considerable time with back and wrist injuries. He's earned a reputation for being more interested in starring roles on various www.GetDirectTV.org channels, but his work on the field speaks for itself.
It's a toss-up between Gronk and Graham as far as the best tight end in the game. Graham gets the nod because of his slightly faster 40-yard dash time. Graham has not scored near as many touchdowns as Gronk, but has missed only two of a possible 49 games in his three-year NFL career. Health and reliability make the New Orleans Saints tight end the better overall athlete.
The Cincinnati Bengals were used to having one of the top receivers in the game throughout much of the 2000s when Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson manned the position. Add three inches in height, a higher vertical leap and subtract the knucklehead antics, and you have A.J. Green. Not only is Green a class act, but one of few NFL receivers who are virtually impossible to cover.
The big guys never get the glory in the NFL. But protecting the blindside of all those bad quarterbacks he's played with in Cleveland has put Thomas on a sure-fire Hall of Fame path. The 6'6", 315 pound Thomas made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons and has never missed a game due to injury. Enough said.
The Dallas Cowboys have been mediocre at best on defense for the better part of the last five seasons. The one guy opposing offenses always have to scheme for is Demarcus Ware. The linebacker/defense end hybrid has 111 career sacks as of publishing and will easily finish his career in the top five of all-time. He has a ways to go to tie Bruce Smith's record of 200 career sacks, but he has the athleticism and health pedigree to do it.
Few athletes can say they scored 18 points and 10 rebounds in a NCAA basketball tournament game, and ended up being drafted number 2 overall by the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Peppers could have easily chosen to focus on basketball and been just as successful. Instead he remains one of the most intimidating defensive ends in the league, even at age 33.
The average cornerback in the NFL stands around 5'10" and weighs 185 pounds. Sherman stands 6'3" and is incredibly agile for his size. Despite seven interceptions and 61 tackles last season, he was somehow left off the Pro-Bowl roster. Regardless, he now anchors a Seahawks defense that will be among the best in the league for years to come.
You don't earn the nickname "Megatron" without looking and playing the part of the most feared entity on the field. At 6'5", 240 pounds, Calvin Johnson is one of the biggest athletes to ever play wide receiver in the NFL. But he also runs the 40 in 4.32 seconds, making him one of the fastest receivers to ever play the game. Put all that together and you have the worst nightmare an NFL cornerback can imagine.
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski has already said Kaepernick could be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, even though 2013 is his first full season as a starter. Its still pretty difficult to argue against, considering his size, speed, rocket arm and Super Bowl appearance in only his second NFL season. The 49ers are built to win this year as well, so Kaepernick has a great chance to add to his burgeoning legend.
He pouts sometimes and came into the NFL under a lot of scrutiny. But Cam Newton shocked the world when he threw for 400-plus yards in his first two NFL games and briefly held rookie records for passing and rushing yards in a season by a quarterback (until Andrew Luck and RG3 arrived last year). Despite having mediocre offensive talent around him, Newton continues to put up incredible passing and rushing numbers. If Carolina ever brings in a few top-notch receivers and running backs around him, watch out.