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 players 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, Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson (San Diego Chargers, 2001-09; New York Jets, 2010-11) provides his ranking of the top players he played with, listed in reverse order:
5) Rodney Harrison/Lorenzo Neal, S/FB, retired
Harrison was Tomlinson's teammate from 2001-02 with the San Diego Chargers.
Neal was Tomlinson's teammate from 2003-07 with the San Diego Chargers.
Harrison was Junior Seau's Robin -- and much like Seau, who I'll get to in a minute, Harrison was a phenomenal leader. He knew exactly how to communicate with everyone in the locker room and, most importantly, how to motivate you. I remember Harrison coming up to me before practice in the locker room during a week when we faced a top defense and saying, "I don't know why you're in here and not on the field," making it seem like I had no chance to play well on Sunday. He'd throw shots at guys like that all the time, in the locker room or out on the practice field. He was able to do this because of the way he conducted himself with his own play. He gave everything he had in practice and on game day, and one of his best qualities was he was always present. All of these things made him an exceptional teammate, and I learned a lot from him in terms of being a leader for our team.
Neal joined the team the year after Harrison left for the Patriots, and while they didn't play even close to the same position, both had a tremendous impact on me. Neal was my personal protector, and the quality that stood out the most was his selflessness. He understood his job and sacrificed his body so others -- like me -- could benefit, and he was fine not getting any credit. He accepted his role, which was to essentially clean up everyone else's mess, and performed his duties flawlessly. In fact, defenders feared him, including Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. I kid you not. We played the Baltimore Ravens three times between 2003 and '07, and I had never seen Lewis avoid contact from anyone. Anyone. But, he avoided Neal. I saw it right in front of me. And that's when I truly understood just how good Neal was.
Neal was also one of the few players who could lighten my mood during games. Not that I was ever in a bad mood, but I'd be so focused on the task at hand that it was hard for me to get out of the zone. He had this saying, and I can still hear it clear as day. When we lined up out of the huddle and the quarterback walked up under center, Neal would turn around and say, "Get on my hip and don't dip, daddy. Let's go." I can't help but chuckle when I think about that. We had so many great moments -- on and off the field -- during those five seasons with the Chargers, and it was only fitting that he was the presenter at my enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4) Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Rivers was Tomlinson's teammate from 2004-09 with the San Diego Chargers.
Philip Rivers is as advertised. What you see is what you get. I knew he was a country boy from Alabama when we drafted him, and I appreciated how authentic he was (and still is). He has never tried to be somebody who he isn't, and that's a quality everyone in the locker room wants from a leader. He spent a lot of time getting to know his teammates -- and not just the offensive players. On any given day, you could find Rivers playing dominoes in the locker room and calling guys out to try to beat him. He has a way of connecting with people, and there's no doubt that his new teammates in Indianapolis will love playing with him.
On the field, everyone knew the competitor he was. He brought that competitiveness to the facility every single day -- and that approach got the best out of me and the rest of the team. One of his best attributes is his short-term memory. He was always looking ahead to the next play, regardless of whether we had just turned the ball over or scored a touchdown. He's deserving of everything he's earned in this league, including eight Pro Bowl selections and six postseason appearances, and there's still a lot left in his tank before he heads back home for Friday night lights.
3) Antonio Gates, TE, retired
Gates was Tomlinson's teammate from 2003-09 with the San Diego Chargers.
Gates was my sidekick and I was his. We needed each other to be successful. Often facing stacked boxes, I needed a receiving threat -- and the fact that he was an all-world tight end helped tremendously. I can't tell you how many times I watched Gates go up over a defender or two and bring the ball down like a rebound in basketball, the first sport he mastered. In the NFL, he used his moves from the court to burn players on the field. He had one of the quickest first steps I have ever seen, thanks to his basketball skills -- a little shake and shimmy, then he'd cross over defenders like it was nobody's business. It was an unbelievable thing to watch.
Gates had to be accounted for on every play -- if he wasn't making a big play downfield, he was a bulldozing blocker in the run game. He often was tasked with blocking the guys no one wanted to block (outside linebackers or defensive ends), and he was able to hold his own long enough for me to get through the hole. He excelled in almost every aspect through his last year in the league (2018), which is why he finished his 16-year career as a three-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, and has the most receiving touchdowns among tight ends in NFL history (116). Gates also ranks in the top three among tight ends in career receptions (955) and receiving yards (11,841) behind only first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and veteran Jason Witten. Is it enough to merit a first-ballot Hall of Fame nod? Absolutely.
2) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Brees was Tomlinson's teammate from 2001-05 with the San Diego Chargers.
Because Drew and I came into the league together, we did everything in lockstep. We worked out together, learned how to be pros and became great friends outside of the facility. We confided in each other when things weren't going well and knew how to help and motivate one another. Brees struggled at times during his first season as the Chargers' starting quarterback, and I knew the public's constant questioning of "Is this the right guy?" affected his confidence. I remember telling him to not overthink things and that he was in that position for a reason -- and I was able to get through to him because of the relationship we had built. He could get through to me, too. During my rookie season, I fumbled in the second half of a game against New England and it cost us (we lost the game in overtime). Brees, who was Doug Flutie's backup at the time, told me, "Don't let this one game define who you are." And I didn't.
I have the utmost respect for Brees, and I am proud of the leadership he showed earlier this month. He admitted his mistake of making hurtful remarks and has since committed to becoming an unquestioned ally of the Black community. On the field, I wish I could've played with him for my entire career. That's no slight to Rivers because I have the utmost respect for him, too -- how could I not? -- but it would've been special to finish my career out with the guy I started it with. In New Orleans, Brees has been exactly what I expected. Watching him work up close early on, I knew the kind of player he was, and everything he's done with the Saints just reaffirms what I saw in the early 2000s. He's been able to continually get better because he has always been honest with himself (and still is, at 41 years old) about the areas that need improving. He's playing more of a mental game now, as his knowledge flies so far off the charts that he already has defenses beat before the ball is snapped. He's one of the very best, in my book, and I can't wait for him to join me in Canton down the road -- ultimately finishing our careers in the same place, just like we started.
1) Junior Seau, LB, Hall of Famer
Seau was Tomlinson's teammate from 2001-02 with the San Diego Chargers.
Seau is in this spot for a lot of reasons. In just two years, he taught me so much in terms of being a leader and setting the highest standard for myself and our team. One of the biggest honors of my playing career was when Seau handed me the torch as the face of the franchise. Succeeding Mr. San Diego wasn't easy. He was beloved by the entire city and his on-field accomplishments spoke for themselves -- 12 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1991 to 2002 and six first-team All-Pro nods. He was a true Chargers icon.
When I first arrived in San Diego, I was so in awe of Seau that I really didn't say much. I simply sat back and watched him work, and most importantly, I saw the standard he set for my generation in the way he practiced. When you watched an elite player bring it 100 percent of the time, you couldn't help but fall in line. After a while, I began asking every question I could think of -- without being a pest, of course -- and he was an open book. There was a lot I didn't know as a young player about taking care of my body and my diet, and he was always willing to share his insight.
Seau was physically gifted, but his knowledge of his opponents was off the charts. And he pushed our offense every day in practice. We couldn't run the ball half of the time because Seau would blow up a play. I vividly remember our coaches getting on him, saying, "Junior, damnit, stop doing that." It was frustrating, but we knew if we could run the ball against our Seau-led defense, we could run against anyone. And we did.