ESPN interviewed NFL players about the best athletes on their teams, and the answers were insightful, as they represent how we view athleticism.
Several answers pointed to multi-sport success, whether prior to the NFL or informally.
That player told me he has faced Taylor in pickup basketball and was amazed at his skills on the court.
He was drafted by the San Diego Padres to play baseball, he plays scratch golf, and he can dunk a basketball.
In addition to being one of the best players in the country during his time at USC, he was a sprinter and long jumper on the track team. He set a national prep record in the long jump and also competed in the triple jump, 100-meter and 200-meter in high school.
Woodhead averaged 26 points a game in basketball during his senior season in high school and ran a 10.5 100-meter dash. A scratch golfer….
Long originally wanted to be a baseball player. He was selected in the 23rd round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Chicago White Sox, but accepted a baseball scholarship to Florida State instead.
Ezekiel Ansah grew up playing soccer and basketball. He traveled from Ghana to the United States, was cut after trying out for the BYU basketball team and then walked onto the track team, where he ran a 10.91 100-meter dash.
The team’s best athlete is Julius Peppers, who played football at basketball at North Carolina.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to beat QB Drew Brees’ well-roundedness. Brees was a three-sport athlete in high school (football, basketball and baseball) and beat a younger Andy Roddick a couple of times in junior tennis events.
In addition to being the newest member of the Legion of Boom, Shead competed in decathlons while at Portland State. Before that, he set a record at his high school in the pole vault.
Other answers pointed to a specific athletic quality, especially strength or speed.
The Dolphins’ best natural athlete is 5-foot-10, 185-pound cornerback Brent Grimes, who players say is one of the team’s strongest pound-for-pound guys in the locker room.
But none go in and have the same kind of strength and power and explosiveness he has.
“This is a guy after a couple of steps, he’s at full speed. His full speed is as fast as anyone.”
Athletic ability (have you seen that 61-inch box jump?)
Between his hand-eye coordination, speed and body control and the silly, dazzling stuff he does in practice — like throwing spirals with both hands and kicking field goals with balls he spins on the ground — Beckham is a nonstop one-man athletic show who delivers every single week.
Others pointed to versatility within football.
He’s still fast enough to play man-to-man coverage and return kickoffs. He also has played a handful of snaps at wide receiver during his career.
One of Cincinnati’s more valued receivers, but he also is the team’s emergency quarterback. Sanu turned a lot of heads in the locker room this offseason when he proved he could be an emergency place-kicker too.
Not only can Webb run and throw, he plays wide receiver and is on every special-teams unit.
These are interesting answers. Does versatility demonstrate athleticism, especially in the case of Webb who is a 3rd string QB? Does multi-sport success demonstrate athleticism? Do great test scores in the 40m sprint or VJ tests demonstrate athleticism?
My favorite answer is Odell Beckham Jr. The response mentions hand-eye coordination, speed, body control, and skill. Another answer that I liked was a description of Minnesota’s Anthony Barr: “He’s so smooth, you forget he’s moving that fast….Everything just looks so easy for him.”
Versatility and multi-sport success often demonstrate athleticism, as anyone who was drafted into two professional sports qualifies as an exceptional athlete. However, the characterizations of OBJ and Barr actually describe athleticism. Coordination, control, skill; effortless, smooth movement; these qualities describe athleticism better than strength, power, speed, or other measures typically attained through athletic tests. Pure speed or strength only matters if it transfers to the game, and these descriptions capture this transfer.
By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice & 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development