I have seen a lot of NFL games in my times. Many times, my team wins. Fewer times, my team loses. But rain or shine, a couple of guys have won my heart as guys I’d want to go into battle with. These guys are A+ dudes, exciting football talents, and, occasionally, Hall of Fame names. If I was constructing a franchise with all of my all-time favorites, it would look a whole lot like this. Introducing the Rikerville Rumblers!
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Back when I first started watching football in 2007, the quarterback sneak was the coolest play. Fast forward almost a decade and a half, and a quarterback on my favorite team ran for over 1,200 yards and won MVP. Watching and rooting for Lamar brings unparalleled joy to my football Sundays, and hopefully many Sundays to come.
Halfback: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
LT could do everything — rush, receive, even throw. The 2006 MVP tore up opposing defenses and went neck and neck against the reigning AFC powers, the Steelers, Patriots and Colts. My powder blue Tomlinson jersey also added to the excitement.
Fullback: Vonta Leach, Baltimore Ravens
One of the things I love about the Ravens is their football intelligence, and their utilizations of their fullbacks have to be near the top of the list. Baltimore has utilized a top-five fullback pretty much every year I’ve watched them (McClain, Leach, Jusczcyk, Ricard), and while Leach was relatively quiet in terms of fantasy points, he gave us a huge edge in the rushing attack.
Wide Receiver: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald’s 2008 postseason was one of my favorite runs of all-time. With the Cowboys out of the picture, I bandwagoned on Kurt Warner’s underdog Cardinals. Fitz, himself a top player and A+ guy, scored a touchdown in the NFC Wild Card and Divisional, three in the NFC championship, two in the Pro Bowl, and two beauties in Super Bowl XLIII. I cried the next day when I learned the Cardinals lost to the Steelers, and Fitz, a newly minted all-time favorite, was the main reason why. He wasn’t a Raven or Cowboy, but he was a class act, and an amazing talent, too.
Wide Receiver: Jacoby Jones, Baltimore Ravens
I will never, ever, ever forget the Mile High Miracle, Joe Flacco’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones to help the Ravens survive the heavily favored Denver Broncos in 2012. Then Jones followed it up a couple weeks later with another long touchdown reception and a 109-yard kickoff return in the Super Bowl, giving an MVP-type performance to lift Baltimore to its second Super Bowl. And as far as receivers go, Jones was a lot of fun to watch. He had a silky smooth, devastatingly quick stride and had an arcade-type quality to his game that you have to see to believe. In just two games, Jones won my heart over for eternity.
Tight End: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
No one was more reliable than no. 82, wearer of the tucked-in sleeves and catcher of nearly every intermediate pass thrown his way. Witten was a classy guy and a constant in the Cowboys passing attack from the Romo era to Prescott, and his timely body catches always factored in during big games against the Giants and Eagles. He was fearless (even coming back after he retired) and was a source of consistency for a franchise that was always in the spotlight. Not as flashy as the Gonzalez and Gronkowski types, but always what the Boys needed.
Offensive Tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
I don’t pay significant amounts of attention to offensive linemen, but Tyron Smith very much earns this spot by virtue of being the NFL’s best offensive tackle for the 2010s while playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Smith led some top-notch offensive lines in Dallas (even Darren McFadden rushed for 1,000 yards, and Zeke and DeMarco Murray led the league at points) and has stayed healthy for most of his tenure.
Offensive Tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens
I’ve never been more wrong on a player than Ronnie Stanley, and I’m sure happy that I whiffed. The no. 6 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, a consolation for the Ravens’ dismal 5-11 season, was supposed to be a game-changer, and the selection of an offensive lineman who most ranked behind Laremy Tunsil was less than spectacular. But Stanley has blossomed and had a serious breakout year in 2019 as the Ravens cruised to a 14-2 record. He could be the next Tyron Smith, and I’m sure Lamar Jackson will be thrilled if Baltimore can keep him around.
Offensive Guard: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens
Marshal Yanda has been consistently great for the entirety of the 2010s, spanning from the early Joe Flacco days to the more exciting Lamar Jackson ones. Yanda has held his own in the trenches and helped the Ravens consistently field strong O-lines, as well as contributing in the locker room as a leader. His retirement this offseason will certainly sting.
Offensive Guard: J.R. Sweezy, Seattle Seahawks
When I opened my Super Bowl XLVIII game program, I learned of a great football player, but even more so, a great football name — J.R. Sweezy. The Seahawk guard didn’t seem all that happy to be there — his angry mug looked like a zombie — but he matched the football stereotype exactly and, let’s be real, isn’t that what you want from a trench warrior? Sweezy has bounced around the league and doesn’t reach the All-Pro level of other guys on the list, but I really couldn’t make an all-time list without including his Hall of Fame name.
Center: Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens
The first player mentioned on this list that I met, Birk came over to the Ravens in the twilight of his career and was a centerpiece of the offensive line of the 2012 Super Bowl team. I got his autograph at training camp before the ‘09 season, and the Ravens’ franchise and its fans couldn’t have had a better leader or guy in the middle.
Defensive End: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys
Ware was the only really great defender I have seen with the Cowboys, and boy was he a game-breaker. He was an All Pro talent coming off the edge, registering 20 sacks in 2008 and at least double-digit sacks in seven straight seasons. I loved this guy, and even felt a little bit good for him when he won a title with the Broncos.
Defensive Tackle: Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
Ngata is the first Raven defender on this list, and, spoiler alert, he won’t be the last. Ngata was a prototype defensive tackle, plugging running lanes and disrupting opposing offensive attacks. He made five straight Pro Bowls and started at least 13 games in each of his years as a Raven. But his greatest achievement may have been eclipsing the obscurity of his position to become a household name and feared game-wrecker.
Defensive End: Shawne Merriman, San Diego Chargers
The Chargers’ defensive equivalent to LaDainian Tomlinson was Shawne Merriman. I read about Merriman in an SI Kids issue in the height of the Chargers’ powers, and in his glory years, Merriman was an absolute force — 17 sacks in 2006, then 12.5 in 2007. I was more of a fan of his name and reputation and didn’t see all that much of him in action, but his name always reminds me of the days that San Diego housed a true Super Bowl contender.
Flex: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
How could I not love T-Sizzle? Suggs was the Ravens’ answer to DeMarcus Ware and an emotional leader for the Ravens in their glory days in the early 2010s. He played the game with an unmatched intensity (especially versus the archrivals in Pittsburgh) and won a Defensive Player of the Year award for the ferocious Raven defense.
Linebacker: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis was the Ravens for the duration of his career. Lewis entered the league in the Ravens’ first-ever class of picks, and as he rose to prominence he molded the Ravens’ identity as a hard-hitting defensive powerhouse. There would be no Super Bowl title in 2012 without him, and when he left the pulse of the Ravens was gone, not to be found until Lamar Jackson brought the excitement back in the latter half of the decade. I’ll always remember him approaching me at the Ravens’ camp in 2009, giving me a noogie for wearing a Celtics jersey and signing my shirt with his contagious laugh.
Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly was another all-timer at the inside linebacker position, also known as the quarterback of the defense. He was a stalwart defender for Panthers teams that I loved to bandwagon on, bringing smarts and incredible range to the field. Despite fighting concussion issues for a chunk of his career, Kuechly made the Pro Bowl in every season after his rookie year (even then, he won Defensive Rookie of the Year). Kuechly molded the Panthers into a great defensive team much like Lewis in Baltimore.
Linebacker: Keith Brooking, Dallas Cowboys
Brooking didn’t get to Dallas until his age-34 season, but he was the emotional leader the Cowboys needed on their defense. I remember his pregame rants on Sunday Night Football, which definitely fired me up for the night’s action and boosted my pride in the Boys. Not a huge statistical performer in his last years in the league, but a much-needed addition in Big D.
Cornerback: Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I really latched onto the Buccaneers as a kid, whether it was their magical 2002 Super Bowl run I always read about, the pirate ship that sat in their stadium, their tropical location or their pirate mascot. My favorite player on those teams was Ronde Barber, the less heralded of the Barber brothers but a definite game-changer. The longtime corner picked off 47 passes in his career and notched 28 sacks in the vaunted Tampa 2 defense. Barber’s impact on the game extended throughout the decade — he started 16 games every season from 2001 to 2012 — and he lasted in the Bucs’ defensive backfield until he was 37.
Cornerback: Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens
I attended a Ravens Kids Club movie night in 2011. One of the events was a player signing with the team’s top four picks in the draft: Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith, Jah Reid, and Tandon Doss. I was set on getting my Ray Lewis jersey signed, but when I got to Jimmy, he asked if I wanted to double dip and do both the jersey and a poster. The jersey signatures faded away, but the poster still hangs in my room. That made me a fan for life. Plus, Smith is the only one of the four still on the team, and, when healthy, he has kept up the Ravens’ pristine defensive reputation.
Free Safety: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens
Read this to get a full sense of my love for Ed Reed, but I’ll SparkNotes it here. Reed was my favorite player as a kid, making highlight reels with his cross-field interception returns and outsmarting guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. While Ray Lewis brought the rah-rah to the Ravens, Reed, a fellow University of Miami product, brought a swagger to his center field position. Fittingly, he picked off a Colin Kaepernick pass in his final game as a Raven, Super Bowl XLVII, and got the ring he deserved. But my number one memory will be when he rode his golf cart over to my section at Ravens’ training camp and came up to all the kids first. He told me that he loved the Celtics and eagerly signed the jersey (unfortunately, it faded away quickly). I was legitimately star-struck, my favorite player chatting with me and hyping me up, and when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, I was most happy that he could end on top.
Strong Safety: Jacquiski Tartt, San Francisco 49ers
Tartt’s is another Hall of Fame name. I jumped on the Jacquiski Tartt train in his first years, quickly identifying his name’s awesomeness and pointing him out whenever I saw him on the field. Then the 49ers took off last season, and the wonder of Jacquiski Tartt was broadcast across America’s screens and the guy became a force to be reckoned with.
Kicker: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Tucker’s the most accurate kicker in NFL history. I can recall his greatest hits instantly: his 62-yard game-winner vs Detroit, his game-winner in the Mile High Miracle game, his extend-to-the-heavens blast to knock off the Patriots in 2012. He’s so good that I even forgive and forget his egregious misses. And the guy brings a lot of swagger to a position that can easily humble its players.
Punter: Marquette King, Oakland Raiders
I haven’t been a fan of all that many punters — Sam Koch is just too consistently good for me to get excited — but King’s punt celebrations definitely caught my attention. The Raiders ace punter brought joy to a play that most fans hope their team never uses, and he was really, really good, too.
Returner: Devin Hester, Chicago Bears
An all-time favorite. I loved the ‘06 Chicago Bears, and the mystical kickoff return touchdowns of Devin Hester were a key reason why. You could not kick off or punt to this guy, because he was gonna make you pay (and he knew it). Case in point: he returned the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown. He never caught on as a receiver, but he’ll go down as the best return guy in NFL history.
Head Coach: John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Harbaugh came to the Ravens the same day as I did, and I have been 100% behind this John from Day 1. He wasn’t a popular hire given that his previous role was as a special teams coordinator, but he’s gotten the job done. Harbaugh’s teams reached the playoffs each of his first four seasons and won at least a playoff game in each, including a Super Bowl win in 2012. And when his job seemed on the line in 2018, he fully committed to Lamar Jackson and transformed his offense into a force, the likes of which the NFL has never seen. NFL coaches don’t regularly make such bold changes to their philosophy (his sudden shift to 4th down aggressiveness is another such evolution). He’s less of a scheme guy and more of a motivator and disciplinarian, while not losing the compassionate human side of being an NFL head coach. I never second guess his decisions.
Offensive Coordinator: Gary Kubiak, Baltimore Ravens
I love Gary Kubiak. His run-first, play action-heavy style even made Joe Flacco look good and almost lifted the Ravens to a pretty undeserved Super Bowl appearance in 2014. When he left to go coach the Broncos (and win a Super Bowl), I was legitimately devastated. Many game-changing offensive minds have come and gone, but I’ll always back Kubiak.
Defensive Coordinator: Wade Phillips, Dallas Cowboys
I’ll admit it — Phillips was not an elite coach for the Cowboys, even if I greatly enjoyed the 2009 season. But he worked wonders for the Cowboys defense, and he has consistently made me look good when I count on him in my NFL previews. The guy can turn pretty much any defense into an elite one (Cowboys, Broncos, Chargers) and is the standard for the defensive coordinator job.
Jerseys: Los Angeles Chargers 2020
Powder blue and gold is the best look in not only the NFL, but in all of sports. I always used to wear my LT jersey as a kid, and those colors may be the number 1 reason I root for the Chargers every couple of seasons. The bolt on the shoulders is another electrifying touch. Thankfully, the Chargers have leaned back into their throwback color scheme and the light blue, and their recently released, super clean 2020 set is their best look yet.
Owner: Steve Bisciotti, Baltimore Ravens
I wrote a whole 20-page thesis on Jerry Jones, the brash owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and there is a lot I love about Jerry. He generates a lot of excitement for the team and has fully realized its brand, and that’s a lot of the fun in being a Cowboys fan. But he has overstepped his bounds on the personnel side at times and picked guys I don’t agree with, and I feel like Jerry the GM has stepped on the toes of Jerry the owner a little too frequently. I’d go with the Ravens’ Steve Bisciotti for this pick. Bisciotti has stayed out of the spotlight as the Ravens’ head guy, trusting his guys to do the right thing and never distracting from the product on the field. He’s a top reason the Ravens have established themselves as a premier organization in the NFL, and even if he hasn’t built a mega-stadium so far in his time in Baltimore, he’s added a lot to the franchise. I also appreciate that he has been mindful of the players’ beliefs and chipped in recently for social justice conversations, proving he’s not just another dollar-hungry rich guy.
General Manager: Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens
Newsome has been the Ravens’ GM since before Day 1, and his “Play Like a Raven” beliefs have guided the franchise to a period of contention that has never stopped. With Newsome, you knew what the Ravens were — a defensive juggernaut with the occasional offensive stud (Shannon Sharpe, Jamal Lewis, Derrick Mason) that would peak during playoff time. Instead of shelling out massive money for their free agents, Newsome would let them go and watch them shrivel outside of Baltimore. His last gift to the franchise before retirement was his final first round pick, quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Stadium: Raymond James Stadium
I’ve been to M&T Bank plenty of times, and I’d vouch for it as the NFL’s most underrated stadium. I toured AT&T Stadium in Dallas and can testify to its awesomeness. Soldier Field in Chicago didn’t disappoint when I visited last year, offering the rare venue that blends the past and the present beautifully. But how can I possibly pass up a stadium that has a literal pirate ship sticking out of the stands behind an end zone? How? You couldn’t convince 8-year-old John of that, certainly. I used to write stories about going to games there. I mean, a pirate ship? Raymond James hosts its fair share of Super Bowl games and holds up well on TV screens, too. When designing new stadiums, NFL owners need to build off of this bold, fantastic concept.