It has been 18 months since we updated our list of the top NFL analysts, journalists, and opinion-givers. Here’s how things stand before Tom Brady arrives in 2035.
1) Bomani Jones (ESPN/HBO)
In a field flooded with groupthink, Jones stands out as a unique voice. He is well known for his commentary on the intersection of sports, culture and race. When commenting in that sphere, Jones is unmatched.
But to put him in that box alone would be a disservice to his talent, displayed so well on his excellent podcast. Few chronicle the not-as-important but just-as-delightful intersection of stupidity and hilarity that helps push the NFL from a multibillion dollar sporting enterprise into something closing on performance art.
Jones toggles from commentary on sleaze to schemes with ease, as happy pointing out flaws in a quarterback as he is dismantling the draft system.
With his ESPN deal set to expire, Jones will become sports media’s most coveted free agent.
2) Mina Kimes (ESPN)
TV analyst. Podcaster. Painter. Walking Meme. Kimes is an integral part of ESPN’s operation.
NFL Live is comfortably the most informative, entertaining football vehicle currently on the network. Kimes, along with Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears, and Laura Rutledge, analyzes the game from all angles: The X’s & O’s, analytics, roster construction, locker-room dynamics, and everything in between. NFL Live offers the customary bombast and hot air blowing that dominates the sports media landscape but maintains space for subtlety and nuance. At the root of the show, there’s the desire to explain the “why” to the audience. And Kimes’ mastery of analytics, combined with with her fandom, makes her the ideal person to explain the why – why team X is doing Y, and why Y should/would/could upset a fanbase.
ESPN’s output across all sports is now soaked in hot takes, a result of the Stephen A Smith-ification of the network (which is not always a bad thing!). Kimes is one of the rare analysts to persist with reasoned, thoughtful analysis.
3) Jenny Vrentas (New York Times)
In the era of ‘Mr Editor’, Vrentas’ reporting has been crucial. For those who track these sorts of things, you’ll note a paucity of reporting from league rights holders on the allegations leveled against Deshaun Watson and the walking controversy that is Daniel Snyder and the Washington Commanders.
Vrentas was there when the Watson accusations first came to light. And she has subsequently written a number follow-up pieces that include independently corroborating an allegation from an accuser who did not file a lawsuit against Watson, revealing the extent of the Watson accusations, and outlining the Houston Texans’ role in securing non-disclosure agreements for their former quarterback.
4) Domonique Foxworth (ESPN)
Foxworth stands out from the pundits who refuse to take on the NFL’s flaws. He is a former player, turned Harvard Business School graduate, turned NFLPA executive, turned TV analyst. His resumé on and off the field makes his situation different. He doesn’t need ESPN, nor the TV payday. That allows him to blaspheme the church from within – which could mean showcasing the pointlessness of the artform. Given his background, Foxworth is happy leaping from issues around collective bargaining to breaking down coverages to challenging one of the league’s biggest stars over their dishonesty. The worldwide leader has no one else who can slide into all three roles.
5) Billy Gil (Meadowlark Media)
It has been a banner 18 months for Billy ‘Guillermo’ Gil of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. The NFL owns Sundays but it’s Gil who owns post-gameday Mondays. His weekly Useless Sound Montage, a rundown of the finest coach-isms and robot-player cliches, remains brilliant.
Away from the orbit of the Walt Disney Company, a league partner, Gil is free to tackle the league from fresh angles. He was the defining voice of the first NFL musical, The Big Game. A musical about head trauma, Brandon Staley, and the RedZone’s Witching Hour shouldn’t work, but it certainly exists.
Gil is also the co-host of the indomitable STUpodity podcast, where he covers the league through conversations with the great and good, including Joba Chamberlain, Greg Cote, and Kenny G. As ever with Gil, hand him whatever ingredients you like, and watch him cook.
6) Diante Lee (The Athletic)
Football is a complex game, but the best X’s & O’s analysts find ways to navigate the audience through the maze by making things seem simple. No one does that better than Lee.
Lee is still a coach, and his analysis of the game is designed to teach rather than to flash his own credentials. Now a mainstay of The Athletic Football Show, Lee strips away as much of the footballese as possible while still providing the insight that hits the erogenous zones of every football nerd.
7) Gregg Rosenthal, Dan Hanzus, Marc Sessler (Around the NFL)
You cannot separate the three main hosts of the Around the NFL podcast and TV vehicle. Blending humor, analysis, and ruthless honesty, the trio have built a true one-stop shop for fans. The show is the No 1 NFL podcast in the UK, drawing fans to the circus tent with mirth, before offering keen-eyed observations and updates on the league at large. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say the show has done more for the growth of the game internationally than the league sending a ropey Jaguars team to London every fall.
8) Pat McAfee (The Pat McAfee Show)
McAfee has become the go-to for fans and journalists alike to hear what star players really think. Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s moaner-in-chief, has a weekly residency/therapy session with McAfee throughout the season.
McAfee’s role is different from that of anyone else on this list. Part stand-up comic, part heel, part former player, part talkshow host, McAfee’s Everyman persona gets those around the game to open up in ways we do not normally hear – even if he feels no obligation to push back on guests. Is it journalism? No. Is it trying to be? Of course not. But by allowing players to speak in an unfettered way, he has helped to shrink the barrier between the stars who populate the league and those who watch them.
9) David Samson (Nothing Personal)
Samson is the former team president of MLB’s Miami Marlins, who now hosts Nothing Personal on CBS. Samson is a controversial figure in Florida: he was one of the pioneers of using the public purse to fund the plaything of billionaire owners, drawing financing for the Marlins’ stadium from taxpayers’ money. And he is still used as a sounding board by ownership groups looking to drain as much money from the taxpayer as possible.
Since leaving the Marlins, though, Samson has carved out a lane as the premier voice covering sports business and the internal operations of franchises in the US and beyond.
Former executives operate under a code of omertà. They don’t want to reveal trade secrets or criticize former colleagues and rivals in case they’re invited back into the inner sanctum. Samson is different. He revels in revealing the underbelly of big-time sports. Whether it’s the NFL’s internal politics, stadium financing, the dynamics of governing a locker room, Samson provides intel that is often withheld from the public.
10) Aqib Talib (Fox/Amazon)
As salaries have ballooned for the second-man-in-the-booth, their performances have dipped. Tony Romo spends the bulk of the regular season phoning it in, only bringing his A-game for the playoffs. Troy Aikman is solid but unspectacular. Ditto for Cris Collinsworth. Greg Olsen is a rising star at Fox, but one who is set to be shuffled aside when Tom Brady joins the network.
Talib is the strongest departure from the status quo. His less-than-polished style may not be to everyone’s liking, but he offers a different perspective than the traditional voices on gameday. Amazon snapping up Talib for a national broadcast was a smart move. He’s already pinched Romo’s play-guessing crown and more than matches the former quarterback’s infectious enthusiasm.