7 of the most surprisingly athletic NFL players from the past 20 years

No sporting event this year was as visibly jarring as heavyweight boxer Andy Ruiz getting a TKO against Anthony Joshua. Joshua looked like he was in peak physical condition while Ruiz confidently rocked the dad bod. Their contrasting physiques suggested that Joshua should’ve been the clear favorite, but Ruiz was the superior athlete in the ring.

That got me thinking: which current or former NFL players didn’t look like an elite athlete, but played like one?

Here are seven NFL players from the past two decades who were surprisingly athletic on the gridiron.

Vince Wilfork has a pretty impressive athletic background, including holding a shotput record at the University of Miami. That helped him have a great NFL career that included five trips to the Pro Bowl and a memorable appearance on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s “The Body Issue.”

As a nose tackle, Wilfork didn’t get too many opportunities to show off that athleticism. Most of his time in the NFL was spent in the middle of the line of scrimmage, blowing up run plays.

But when he did get a chance to make his own explosive plays, he made the most of it. Here’s just one example: Back in 2011, Wilfork pulled off a one-handed interception against Philip Rivers.


Having the coordination to tip the ball back himself at 325 pounds is absurd. Wilfork may not look like he’d be able to do that, but surprises come in all shapes and sizes — even incredibly big sizes.

Joe Flacco probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think about quarterbacks who can run the ball. Even though he’s no Lamar Jackson, he can quietly create big plays with his legs.

Flacco ran a 4.84 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Combine, which isn’t slow by any means. He’s got the frame of a lumberjack at 6’6, 245 pounds, but he’s pretty spry when he gets into the open field.

In 2013, Flacco had a 22-yard run against the Minnesota Vikings where he broke free from the pass rushers, dodged an incoming linebacker, and then scampered down the field — in the snow! (That should serve him well in Denver.)


Flacco has recorded a run of 10 yards or longer in each of his 11 seasons, and he has the sixth-most rushing touchdowns among all quarterbacks since entering the league in 2008.

Not bad for a guy who’s built like Paul Bunyan.

When I originally asked this question on Twitter, former Panthers running back Mike Tolbert was a popular answer — and for good reason.

At 5’9, 243 pounds during his NFL career, Tolbert was built like a can of soup, but he showed the balance and patience of a ballerina with the ball in his hands. He was particularly effective catching the ball during the Panthers’ 2015 season. He hauled in 18 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns.

No play exemplifies that more than his receiving touchdown against the Eagles that season. Tolbert caught a pass in the flat, bounced off of a tackle attempt, evaded another defender while he was pinned on the sideline, and powered his way into the end zone.


Plays like that made Tolbert such a unique weapon during his 10-year career. He had the appearance of a pure blocking fullback, but he was able to do so much more than that.

This list would be useless without Jared Lorenzen making an appearance.

New York Giants v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Lorenzen gained fame during his time as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. Even though he was much heavier than most quarterbacks — Pro Football Reference has him listed at 285 pounds — he was incredibly productive. He left Kentucky as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards in 2003, a distinction he still holds.

What really made Lorenzen such an anomaly was his ability as a runner. He could really make defenses pay if he got out of the pocket.


Lorenzen didn’t get much playing time in the NFL, but he did flash his mobility in a 2007 preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens as a member of the New York Giants. On third-and-7, Lorenzen scrambled for a first down and outraced the Ravens’ backups to the sideline.


While Lorenzen only threw eight passes in his short career, he proved to be a valuable member of the scout team and still left his mark as a football legend.

Larry Allen might be one of the freakiest athletes in the history of football. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Allen was a 335-pound offensive guard for the Dallas Cowboys, with the movement skills of a running back.

One of Allen’s most memorable plays wasn’t a huge block that allowed Emmitt Smith to get loose for a touchdown. It was a tackle on an interception return against the Saints.

After Darion Conner intercepted a deflected pass, it looked like he had a clear path for a pick-six. Allen hit the turbo button while he was in pursuit of Conner and tackled him along the sideline.


335 pounds shouldn’t be able to move like that.

49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley is another lineman who has some ridiculous highlights in the open field.

On Alex Smith’s 28-yard quarterback sweep in the Divisional Round of the 2011 season, Staley raced down the field and made one hell of a block to clear the way for a touchdown. Just look at how he accelerates down the field.


Staley ran a 4.79 40-yard dash at the 2007 NFL Combine — at 306 pounds! That second gear was fully on display for an iconic moment not just in 49ers history, but also for Staley himself, who has been a staple on the team’s offensive line for more than a decade.

Part of what made Troy Polamalu a breathtaking player to watch is that he kind of looked like a normal dude. At 5’10 and 207 pounds, Polamalu was an average-sized safety — but one who ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.

It’s hard to pick just one play that showcased Polamalu’s athleticism. The one-handed interception he had against the Titans in 2009 might be the best example because of the degree of difficulty. He was falling backward and still managed to catch the pass with one hand.


Polamalu had rare instincts, coordination, and balance that really helped him as he hit the late stages of his career. In 2013, when he was 32 years old, Polamalu recorded five forced fumbles, two sacks, and two interceptions, including one he returned one for a touchdown.

He retired after the following season and will likely be a Hall of Famer when he’s eligible in 2020. There’s nothing average about that.

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