Hardest Working Players: NFL
Tim Tebow has been in the spotlight ever since he entered the NFL in 2010. His work ethic is heralded by anyone who has ever worked with him, and all of that practice finally paid off last year in Denver, when he led the Broncos to a playoff win despite constant criticism of his ability as a passer. Whether or not he succeeds in New York remains to be seen, but nobody can doubt that he is putting in 110% every day for Rex Ryan.
The big 6-foot-5, 340-pound Haloti Ngata is a hefty force in the middle of the Ravens' 3-4 defense. As a defensive tackle, his job is to occupy as many offensive linemen as possible, which requires a high motor and a reputation for shedding the blockers in front of him. His hard work has earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl three times.
A fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2008, Carl Nicks has developed into arguably the game's best interior lineman, earning a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the Buccaneers as a result. With two All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl title and a spot in NFL Network's Top 100 players of 2012, Nicks is walking proof that draft status doesn't determine how good a player will be.
Another case of an unheralded prospect coming into the league and working to be the best, Foster went undrafted in 2009 and was the league's leading rusher the very next season. Foster has a reputation for his intense workout regimen and strict diet, and both have obviously paid off to the tune of two All-Pro selections in his three seasons.
The core of the bottom-dwelling Browns' defense, D'Qwell Jackson is a testament to overcoming adversity. After leading the league in tackles in 2008, Jackson seemed poised to become a mainstay among the league's top linebackers. Then he tore a pectoral, ending his 2009 season very early, and tore the other one in 2010, keeping him out of action the entire year. But Jackson persevered, overcoming both injuries on his way to 158 tackles in 2011, one of the great feel-good stories of the season.
Bill Belichick loves hard workers, and he may not have one better than Vince Wilfork, the massive nose tackle who's been a mainstay in New England since 2004. Most 325-pound defensive linemen are counted on to simply eat blocks and stuff the run, but Wilfork has shown impressive burst and playmaking ability over the years. He was an integral member of the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXIX-winning team, and has made four Pro Bowls for his efforts.
Ray Rice perfectly represents the gritty, no-nonsense approach of the Ravens. Despite doubts about his size entering the league, Rice has proven capable of being a workhorse back as the heart and soul of the Baltimore offense. Not only can he catch passes and turn any play into a big one, but also he doesn't fear running between the tackles.
If Logan Mankins didn't make this list for being a cornerstone of the Patriots' stellar offensive line, or for his three All-Pro selections, he would have for the work he's put into maintaining his beard. Even without the facial hair, Mankins is an indispensable piece, perhaps the best player on a line that won the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award in 2011.
If you know anything about football, you know how hard Ray Lewis works. He's the epitome of hard-working, and he's not slowing down in old age. At 37, entering his 17th season, Lewis decided to shed weight to better keep up with the league's trend toward passing. It's that dedication to his craft that has earned the intimidating, hard-hitting linebacker 13 Pro Bowl nods, 10 All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl MVP award, two Defensive Player of the Year honors and a sure trip to the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible.
B.J. Raji, aka "The Freezer," hasn't taken long to make his mark on the NFL. In three seasons he's earned a Pro Bowl nod and won a Super Bowl. But his dominant play on the line isn't the only thing that helped secure the Packers' championship -- in the 2011 NFL Championship Game, the 340-pounder (and the 81st best player in the league, according to his peers) intercepted a pass and returned it 18 yards for the game's deciding score, becoming the heaviest player in league history to score a playoff touchdown.
Wes Welker took the long, hard road to NFL prominence. Undrafted by the Chargers in 2004, Welker was cut after the first game of the season. He spent the next two years climbing the depth chart at returner and receiver in Miami before breaking through, eventually becoming a star in New England in 2007. He now sits atop several NFL records. He holds a few Patriots and Dolphins franchise records, and some impressive league-wide marks, too, including the most seasons with at least 100 receptions (four).
In the five years Maurice Jones-Drew has been in the NFL and with the Jaguars, he has set eight franchise records. Last season, he led the NFL in rushing and set the Jaguar record for rushing yards in a single season at 1,606 yards. He's another player on the list who was discounted because of his size, but he's consistently been one of the best players in the league since being drafted in 2006.
Drew Brees has a weighty list of NFL records, and he added a big one in 2011, toppling Dan Marino's single-season passing mark with 5,476 yards. After five years with the Saints, Brees holds 30 franchise records. But it goes beyond the numbers. Brees is well-known for being the heartbeat of the Saints and New Orleans, turning both the franchise and city around after Hurricane Katrina ravaged both. During the 2011 lockout, he famously organized player-only workouts, paying the way for each player to stay in New Orleans during the offseason.
London Fletcher went from undrafted in 1998 to second in most consecutive NFL starts at 179. In 2011 alone, Fletcher started all 16 games and led the league with 166 combined tackles. That's an amazing feat for a 37-year-old linebacker. And he's been amazingly consistent, with 11 straight seasons of 125-plus tackles.
In his 10 seasons as a starter for the Patriots, Tom Brady helped guide the team to 124 regular season and 16 postseason wins and five Super Bowl appearances -- all NFL records. Brady is one of two players -- the other being Joe Montana -- to win the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards multiple times. Since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Brady has gone from unheralded sixth-round pick to perhaps the best quarterback of all time.
Jason Pierre-Paul was considered an athletic freak, but incredibly raw when he was drafted in 2010, but he has worked to become one of the best defensive ends in the league in two short seasons. He appeared in all 16 games right away, then saw a dramatic spike in 2011 with 16.5 sacks, fourth-best in the league.
Marques Colston became an unlikely star in 2006, advancing quickly from a seventh-round pick to a Week 1 starter, receiving more votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year than more celebrated teammate Reggie Bush. When he was drafted, there was speculation he was too big and slow to play receiver, but in the six years since, Colston has become Drew Brees' go-to target, posting five 1,000-yard seasons over that span.
Steven Jackson, the Rams' all-time leading rusher, is the model of consistency and determination. A workhorse back in an era where few exist, Jackson has taken a pounding carrying the load for the Rams. But through the injuries -- and a few seasons in which he was the only player defenses had to pay attention to -- Jackson has topped 1,000 yards in the last seven seasons.
The man's got a motor that never stops. One of the more intense, electric and entertaining players in the league, Jared Allen is also one of the best pass rushers. He's topped 10 sacks in six of his eight seasons, almost breaking the single-season sack record in 2011 with 22. Along the way, he's been named to four All-Pro teams, and is on the list of the 50 Greatest Vikings of all-time despite only being on the team for four seasons.
James Laurinaitis has only been in the league for three seasons, but he's a real throwback NFL player and one of the league's emerging stars. The linebacker has topped 100 tackles in all three of his seasons, while also showing a knack for playing in coverage. He's yet to make a Pro Bowl team, but that honor will surely come sooner than later, given how Laurinaitis plays with a fearless, all-out attitude.