Spoiler alert: Players around the NFL think Patrick Mahomes is pretty good.
The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and two-time MVP was our runaway winner as the best player in the game today, according to the 85 players our beat writers from The Athletic spoke to over the past month. That’s no surprise, but the rest of the answers weren’t so obvious, as we set out to conduct our first anonymous NFL player poll.
We asked each player we spoke to the same set of questions, although not every player answered them all. They were granted anonymity in order to candidly offer their opinions on the league’s players, coaches, commissioner and some of the biggest topics facing the league today — including running back salaries, the grass versus turf debate and more.
Players were polled on who dishes the best trash talk, which coach besides their own they’d like to play for and who are the most underrated players in the league. Some of the more entertaining responses came when players were asked which team has the most annoying fan base.
“Buffalo,” one player responded. “They be mooning folks and it’s like, ‘Why y’all showing y’all ass?’ F— outta here with that.”
Sorry, Bills fans, just like the standings right now, that wasn’t enough to get you into first place.
Throughout this player poll — and upcoming stories that will dive deeper into some of the questions — we hope you learn more about what today’s NFL players really think.
(Editor’s note: In some cases, the combined percentages of all the answers to a question may not add up to 100 percent, because individual percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest tenth of a percentage point. Half-votes were awarded if a player gave two answers to a question.)
Did you really expect anybody else? Nearly half of the respondents selected Mahomes, many without giving it much thought.
“He’s Patrick Mahomes,” said one player.
“Don’t you have to say him?” added another.
“There’s nobody like him,” one more said.
As if any justification for this vote was needed, one player offered this: “No matter how much you’re down, he still can bring your team back.”
The lessons Patrick Mahomes learned as a high school safety that helped him become an elite QB
That said, more than half of the 84 respondents to this question went a different direction, with Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald earning runner-up honors.
“It’s self-explanatory on that one. No one can stop him,” offered one player.
Said one player who chose the Cleveland Browns’ Myles Garrett: “I was gonna sit here and debate quarterbacks, but there’s your answer. The guy is out of this world.”
Talking trash is a part of sports, but there are some players in the NFL more inclined to ruffle feathers with their on-field chatter.
Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who is now with the Detroit Lions after spending last season with the Philadelphia Eagles during their Super Bowl run, tops the list. He did so despite not playing since Week 2, when he injured a pectoral muscle.
“I think that’s just kind of like his schtick,” one player said. “I don’t know if it necessarily works, but it’s what he reverts to.”
Jalen Ramsey, who also missed extended time before returning to the field last month for the Miami Dolphins, received the second-most votes. “He has a lot to say,” one player opined.
And don’t for a second think trash talk is limited to just defensive players. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen, one of the NFL’s most consistent wideouts, is known to have a thing or two to say during games. “Big-time s— talker,” one player said. “It’s nonstop.”
Offensive linemen tend to get in on the act, too. Said a player of Carolina Panthers guard Austin Corbett: “I think his trash-talking is pretty elite. It’s the psychological warfare. It’s so nice you don’t even know what’s going on.”
When in doubt, go with the head coach who remarkably has never had a losing season. That continues to be the distinction for Mike Tomlin, who again has the Pittsburgh Steelers well on their way to a 17th consecutive .500 or better campaign with him in charge.
“His messaging, leadership and attitude seem consistent with a winning formula,” one player said.
“He’s tough and accountable, and he demands that out of his players,” added another.
From the veteran, Super Bowl-winning coach in Tomlin, players shifted to the young, quirky offensive mastermind in Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel.
“He seems like a pretty fun coach to play for,” one player said of the 40-year-old in his second season in Miami.
Not far behind were Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Detroit’s Dan Campbell, the latter of whom might be the favorite for this season’s NFL Coach of the Year award.
“A guy who really loves ball,” said a player who chose Reid. “So I think that’s a really good coach.”
Of Campbell, another player said: “I appreciate coaches that are players’ coaches and get the best out of their players.”
Sometimes on-field production doesn’t always lead to players getting the respect they deserve. Regardless of how well some perform, their names aren’t brought up as much when discussing the top guys at their respective positions.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins led the vote, but there are a multitude of players who received recognition among their peers for being underrated.
“His production speaks for itself, and nobody ever talks about him when the topic of best RBs in the league comes up,” one player said of Chargers dual-threat running back Austin Ekeler. “He’s vital to that offense running and also in the pass game,” another player added.
And though the tight end discussion is normally dominated by Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce, players feel the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews should get even more credit than they already do.
“I think he’s the best tight end in the league,” one player said unapologetically about Kittle.
“I don’t know how underrated he is, but everybody is always talking about Kelce and Kittle, not him,” another player said in regard to Andrews.
It turns out players aren’t scared away from the sight of the stadium that’s hosted five consecutive AFC Championship Games. (Then again, maybe Arrowhead Stadium’s steady presence on their TV is influencing their decision.)
Whatever the reason, players love playing in the NFL’s third-oldest stadium (opened in 1972) even if some did mention issues with Kansas City’s cramped locker rooms.
“That place is electric,” one player said. “That’s one of the coolest places to play. In my opinion, the loudest in the NFL.”
Minnesota’s seven-year-old U.S. Bank Stadium — despite being an indoor stadium with turf — was lauded for many of the same ear-rattling reasons.
“That place was f—ing loud,” one player said.
Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium also fared well, along with Green Bay’s historic Lambeau Field — “The fans and the atmosphere are the best in the league.” — and Seattle’s Lumen Field.
“If it was grass — whoo! — it would be perfect,” one player who chose Seattle said, while another added: “It almost feels like you’re in a bird’s nest. Gotham City.”
Arrowhead and U.S. Bank led the way for best stadiums, but players had opposite viewpoints of MetLife Stadium, FedEx Field and Highmark Stadium, which were the top vote-getters for worst to play in.
The Commanders’ home field has never been a popular playing destination, and this poll solidified that even before Sunday, when there wasn’t any hot water or sufficient water pressure for players to shower after the New York Giants’ win over Washington.
“Almost everything about (FedEx) is below the standard of what an NFL stadium should be,” one player said. “The place is just a dump,” said another.
As for MetLife, where both the Giants and Jets play, a player voiced that the “turf sucks and the whole place is lame.” Another agreed about the turf, adding that the “fans are horrible. Everything about that place is horrible.”
Though Lambeau Field was among the top five for best stadium, it was also top five for the worst stadium — for one obvious reason: “F—ing Green Bay, because it’s super cold!”
Meanwhile, the Oakland Coliseum hasn’t been used since the Raiders moved to Las Vegas in 2020 but still managed to pick up a couple of votes.
The Eagles and Cowboys apparently aren’t just competing on the field, with both grabbing about a quarter of the votes from the 73 players who answered this question.
“Just loud, rude and obnoxious,” one player said of Eagles fans, who might be nodding along in agreement at this moment. “They just swear they’re the biggest football gurus on earth,” added another.
Said a player who picked the Cowboys: “They usually think they should win the Super Bowl every year.”
As for the AFC East battle for third place between the Bills and Jets, while mooning in Buffalo earned Bills fans demerits, the classic “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets” chant drove one player to pick New York.
“That J-E-T-S stuff. They were doing that during warmups,” he said.
From the outside looking in, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t appear to be beloved across the league. But when talking with players for our poll, the majority of voters gave him their seal of approval.
“He continues to elevate the league and make everyone more money,” one player said.
Another player said he’d give Goodell a thumbs up because of “the way he’s growing the game right now, the way he’s expanding it. Because at one point when I was in college, and all of the concussion stuff was coming out, I was scared, like, ‘Hey, football might not last,’ but now, I don’t feel that way.”
Not everyone polled was in favor of Goodell’s approach.
“Thumbs down. He’s done fined me too many times,” one player added, while another mentioned Goodell “forgets too often that the league is about the players.”
The biggest story here might be that two players — among the 81 who responded — gave NFL officials a 10 out of 10 rating. Overall, though, the results are largely what you’d expect, with the vast majority of scores falling in the middle range, as 57 players (70.4 percent) selected between a 4 and 7.
“They miss some calls, but it’s a really hard job,” said one sympathetic player who rated them an 8.
“Either they’re missing obvious calls or they’re calling everything,” said a player who rated them a 4. “There’s no in-between, and it varies so much between crews that you never know what to expect.”
One player who gave a 2 rating offered a solution for improvement: “They all should be full-time employees. It’s a no-brainer.”
There’s no disputing how players across the league feel about the ongoing turf versus grass debate. Nearly 83 percent of those who gave an answer said it’s a real concern.
“You wake up in the morning feeling 10 times better after you played on grass compared to when you played on turf,” said one player.
“I’ve been vocal about it. I think our locker room is pretty unified on it,” another player added. “It sucks, and there’s enough money to eliminate it. It’s time.”
Some say they can feel the difference not only after games but before the first snap is taken.
“Even warming up on the turf field in Minnesota hurt my knees,” a player declared.
“You feel like s—,” a lineman added. “Especially being a big guy, running on turf, your knees hurt. When you fall and trip, you don’t want to get up. You feel it the next day a lot.”
The positional value of running backs was a hot topic this offseason with the contract situations of Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Jonathan Taylor. Only Taylor earned a long-term extension (and only after a messy standoff). While running backs across the league gathered on Zoom to discuss solutions, there are few options until the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2030, when the NFL Players Association could try to seek changes to the franchise tag.
Running backs have complained about how the tag unfairly impacts them — only punters and kickers make less on a franchise tag — but the reality is they would need support from their locker room to enact changes. An increase in pay for running backs could reduce salaries at other positions. Though our results show that support exists to some degree, it’s not overwhelming.
“What? No. What makes them better than me?” offered one player.
Another, who already sounds like he has an executive future in mind, painted an even bleaker picture.
“I know that running backs complain about the market,” he said. “But from an insider’s perspective, if I was ever a GM, I would never pay a running back. There’s a lot of talented backs that come out in the draft every year — at any place in the draft. I would never draft a running back in the first round.”
Other players were more understanding of the running backs’ plight.
“Yeah. Because they’re definitely underpaid,” one said. “The franchise tag for a lineman is like, what, $15 (million), $16 million? I mean, s—, that’s more than great money. So, yeah, I definitely feel like they should be paid more.”
Others supported a change, but not exclusively for running backs: “The whole franchise tag rule has to be changed in general. It’s become too powerful of a tool.”
The value of NFL running backs keeps falling. How did we get here?
The NFL has been doing its best to expand its reach beyond the United States. This season, there were five games played internationally (three in London and two in Frankfurt, Germany). Games were also played in Mexico City in previous seasons.
After years of hearing the rumors, what if there really were a team located outside the United States? Would players be interested in the possibility of playing for one? The majority said no, but more than one-third of those we spoke to said they would be open to the idea.
“Hell yeah! Because overseas they’re gonna pay that money,” said one player who may have forgotten a salary cap would still exist. “Think about a team in Saudi Arabia. I know that’s far as f—, but whatever. Think about Saudi Arabia and the soccer players. They’re giving out billions of dollars, so hell yeah I’ll play in Saudi Arabia.”
One player on the fence said it would depend on where the team was located. “Probably. That’d be cool. Only in England, though. I’m not going to f—ing Germany.”
“Hell no. I’d retire,” another player said.
He wasn’t alone. Said another player: “No. I like dropping my kids off at their really nice school and ordering pizza from the place down the street. If I was 23, maybe (it would be) different. But that’s just not for me.”
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic;
photos of Mike Tomlin, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Donald
by Cooper Neill and Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)
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