There's no 'i' in team: Which NFL players make the best teammates?
"Everybody wants to play with [Luck]," Hilton told ESPN.com. "He's a free-agent magnet."
Money tends to be a primary motivation for free agents, but the real goal is to find a marriage between a fair contract and a promising situation; whether that means the chance at ample playing time or a realistic shot at the Super Bowl varies from player to player. And yet, there is no denying that there are superstars within the league with a little more panache—a rather intangible element making them ideal teammates.
Usually, those "magnets" are quarterbacks. Who else fits the bill? A look at a few non-QBs who, for various reasons, make their teammates' football lives better.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans: A natural starting point, and that would be the case even if guys like Aaron Rodgers, Luck and Tom Brady were part of the discussion. Watt is hands down the most dominant defender in the league. He ran neck and neck with Rodgers in last season's MVP discussion ... and probably should have won it.
"The only players I've seen that can do what he can do with his intensity can be found in Canton," former Texans and current Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told the Houston Chronicle back before the 2012 season, before Watt took home two AP Defensive Player of the Year awards, three Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro nods.
It actually has been borderline mind-boggling to see the limited production, at least against the pass, from the defenders around Watt.
The Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 in 2014, hoping to provide Watt some support, and they used a second-round pick on Benardrick McKinney in this year's draft. Whitney Mercilus finished behind Watt in sacks for the Texans last season, at just 5.0. Considering the double- and triple-team attention Watt demands, the rest of his teammates should be able to cash in at a far greater rate.
Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks: There has been great deal of talk over the past few seasons about how teams keep trying to replicate Seattle's approach at cornerback. The issue those copycats keep coming across is that Thomas is a singular talent and the most irreplaceable piece of the Seahawks' attack.
Having Richard Sherman locking down one side of the field no doubt helps everyone else on that defense, but Thomas' otherworldly play on the back end frees up Sherman and his counterparts to take chances.
"Earl is a phenomenal player," Brady said ahead of the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl matchup. "He covers a lot of ground. He’s so rangy back there. He’s got great field vision. He’s a very disciplined player in his assignments. He does a great job reading the quarterback. I’m conscious of that.
"You can’t just look at exactly where you’re going to throw it, just fire it in there and see if he can make the play because he’s proven time and time again that he can make those plays."
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: Speaking of Brady, it's no secret how much better his offense is when Gronkowski is on the field. Gronk's receiving helps, sure—he finished last regular season with 82 catches and 11 touchdowns. The Patriots can use him to clear space up the seams, making life easier for guys like Julian Edelman to find space between the hash marks.
But Gronkowski's blocking prowess also helps set him apart at his position. There are few tight ends as comfortable with either facet of the game. Jason Witten and Greg Olsen might be the two best examples of an all-around TE aside from Gronkowski; neither can match his ability to create mismatches.
Pretty much any elite WR: Calvin Johnson had been the standard at this position for several seasons. He's still arguably the top receiver in the game when healthy, but there are a plethora of pass-catchers that force defenses to slide coverage in their direction, thereby freeing up teammates.
Johnson still has that effect—just ask Golden Tate, who made 99 receptions in his first Lions season. So, too, do the likes of Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and now Odell Beckham Jr. A receiver capable of dominating in one-on-one situations forces adjustments across the board for a defense.
Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: Every Super Bowl contender does not necessarily need a hated player, but it helps. Suggs is that guy in Baltimore. Just like former teammates Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Suggs often is despised by his opponents and beloved within the Ravens' locker room.
"You have to have an emotional leader, and Suggs is definitely our emotional leader," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said last year, via the AP. "He’s fun; he keeps things loose. He always has high energy. 'A lot of energy, a lot of focus'—that’s what he says."
For a game that can be as much about gaining a mental edge as it is physical execution, there is a clear benefit to employing a player of Suggs' style. His 106.5 career sacks (22.0 combined over the past two seasons) are a nice bonus.
Anthony Sherman, FB, Kansas City Chiefs: OK, let's try to step away from the obvious for a bit. After all, this is meant to be a list of players that other players want as their teammate, not necessarily a ranking of the league's top talents. (Of course, the crossover between the two is unavoidable.)
While fullbacks have started to go the way of the dinosaurs or Adam Sandler's movie career, many teams still have use for a blocker in the backfield. Per Pro Football Focus, 15 fullbacks saw at least 200 snaps last season. Sherman was among them, at 254. And over the last two or three years, no other player at his position has been as effective leading the way as the Chiefs' Sherman.
Running backs and quarterbacks still appreciate having a lead blocker or extra pass-protector, respectively. When a fullback also can handle some work within the offense, as Sherman, John Kuhn, Bruce Miller and others have, those players are still valuable.
Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys: The NFL's newest $100 million man, Carolina QB Cam Newton, knows how critical it is to have a blindside protector you can trust ... because he has not had one of late. But Tony Romo does not have that problem. The 24-year-old Smith has emerged as the focal point on Dallas' dominant offensive line. He's allowed just three sacks, combined, over the past two seasons.
"There is an ease because he is there," Romo told ESPN.com after Smith inked a 10-year contract last July. "It’s not very often, but he, like anybody, may get beat. You are not going to see that happen multiple times."
RB DeMarco Murray could miss Smith's presence, an instrumental one in Murray's remarkable 2014 campaign. Lucky for him, though, seven-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters patrols the left side in Philadelphia.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets: Revis can take over an entire half of the field, similar to Sherman's Seattle impact. He also can shadow a receiver sideline to sideline, which is how new Jets coach Todd Bowles has said he might utilize him—that frequently was Bowles' approach with Patrick Peterson in Arizona. Either way, Revis, now back to his pre-injury form, is a godsend for his fellow cornerbacks.
Because of how adept Revis is one-on-one, defenses can slide safety help over the top of their other CBs, should they so choose. The results bring more INT opportunities for said safeties, along with more aggressive, downhill play for the cornerbacks.
Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers: Much in the manner that Thomas can cover up for his teammates deep, an instinctive linebacker can bring the same assistance for the front seven. The defenses that finished 1-2 in yards allowed last season, Seattle and Detroit, have those guys: Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Levy, respectively.
However, Kuechly is a gold standard in that regard. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and then Defensive Player of the Year the following season. In 2014, en route to his second straight first-team All-Pro spot, Kuechly recorded a career-high 164 tackles.
Any defender in his right mind would love to team up someone like Kuechly or Wagner or Tampa Bay's Lavonte David—a versatile weapon with a nose for the football and the talent to find it.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: We could debate who is the NFL's best running back for ages. Bell has a case, not only because of how lethal he is on the ground (1,361 yards and 4.7 yards per carry last season) but because of his three-down skills. Bell caught 83 passes last season, good enough to rank 19th in the league, just ahead of Anquan Boldin and Gronkowski.
Many backs in the league are built for either two-down roles or to be third-down catching/blocking threats. Bell is one of a handful—along with Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte and a couple others—who can handle it all.
Both for his quarterback and the offensive play calling, that makes him invaluable.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins: Why did Miami break the bank for Suh this off-season? Because the benefits of having a pocket-collapsing defensive tackle trickle down to the defensive ends, who have an easier time chasing the quarterback; to the linebackers that are asked to clean up in the gaps; and to the secondary, which does not have to cover for as long if a quarterback is forced from his spot.
Does Suh's personality detract from his on-field play? It can in the realm of public perception. His teammates might even tire of the penalties and his standoffish approach to the media. But if they do, Suh wins them back over on Sundays.
"For the four years that I've been with him, I've never seen him complain, I've never seen him fuss or just get down," ex-teammate Nick Fairley told the Detroit Free Press. "During the games like he'd just come to the sidelines picking guys up. He's a great leader."