1) Domonique Foxworth, ESPN
Foxworth has a unique biography among NFL analysts. A former cornerback who played six seasons in the league, he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard and served as the president of the NFL Players Association.
Few other analysts can take you from the locker room to the boardroom so effectively. He has negotiated with Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder. He has dealt with locker room in-fighting. No one else who has straddled those two different worlds delivers their assessments with as much humor, insight and ruthless honesty as Foxworth. One moment he is explaining why the Chargers prefer to play Banjo coverage against stacked formations, the next he is happy to discuss the decline of the banjo as a tier-one instrument.
A whole bunch of former players/coaches turned analysts operate under a code of omertà. They don’t want to reveal the trade secrets or to criticize too forcefully, just in case they’re invited back into the inner sanctum. Foxworth is happy to explain all of the league’s inner workings.
2) Mina Kimes, ESPN
Whereas Foxworth works with a player-gone-corporate-gone-rogue personality, Kimes works in the reverse space. A former business reporter, Kimes brings an objective, intellectual, numbers-based approach to understanding the game, a rarity among ESPN’s growing line-up of hot-air blowers.
Insightful and informative, Kimes also happens to be a living, breathing meme. She’s a brilliant writer too and her podcast provides an excellent look at the league (and pet dogs).
3) Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network
Jeremiah is the NFL’s top in-house draft analyst. If X’s & O’s are your thing, Jeremiah’s player breakdowns, TV hits, and Move the Sticks podcast will hit all your football erogenous zones. He is polished and concise and, while the nature of draft coverage means it is dripping in jargon, Jeremiah refuses to work in cliches.
4) Tony Romo, CBS
Say what you will about Romo’s play-call guessing and lack of polish, his love for the sport is infectious.
There is a growing sense among the online snark brigade that Romo may have jumped the shark, almost as if he’s the local band that’s made it big – He’s sold out, man. Yeah, well, I saw them when they played Ruffles in ’96.
This accusation tends to cobble together the ideas that Romo isn’t that accurate at guessing plays before they’re called, that such a skill is not that impressive if an analyst has spent a week studying tape, and that by becoming a little more polished in the booth the holes in his broadcasting game have become further exposed.
It’s nonsense. Just because his style is no longer fresh does not mean that he’s no longer the best. The giddy, childlike act may have grown tiresome for some, but it beats the droning booths that occupy much of the NFL landscape.
Romo hits on the perfect intersection of fan and analyst while calling a game. He can breakdown why the Broncos are rolling the wrong safety in their Rip-Liz match coverage all he wants, but sometimes he just wants to scream ‘wow’ when Patrick Mahomes starts to do Patrick Mahomes things.
5) Louis Riddick, ESPN
Riddick is committed to the details. With some analysts, *cough* Rex Ryan *cough*, you get the sense that they rolled up on set ready to make a point for hot-takes sake or that they’re fumbling their way through segments with little study or preparation.
Riddick, you learn as a viewer, is constantly watching tape in order to formulate his opinions. And then he is able to deliver them without ever sinking into the know-it-all, look-how-smart-I-am tone that can undercut other analysts. It’s a tightrope to traverse. With Jon Gruden’s sometimes-infectious, sometimes-puzzling antics absent from Monday Night Football for the foreseeable future, Riddick is ESPN’s best hope of building a component broadcast over the long-term – the only issue: every hiring season Riddick interviews for an increasing number of general manager jobs.
6) Billy Gil, the Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz
The NFL’s best analysts tend to fall into one or two of a crucial few categories: they cover the X’s and O’s of the game; explain the intricate details of the cap ramifications and roster construction; speak to how the game is intertwined with the culture at large; or share their experiences playing in the league.
But there’s another element to covering the sport – the goofy side. No league takes itself as seriously as the NFL. Those who poke and prod at the edifice bring an extra dimension – find an analyst who can hit all five and you have a true five-tool player.
That brings us to Billy Gil – or Guillermo – of the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Billy’s weekly “useless sound montage” highlights the greatest Coach Speak hits of the past week. It is ear poison. And it is essential listening, if nothing else but to remind you that while this game is brilliant and at times all-consuming, it remains a game. Sometimes, it’s fun just to treat it as such.
7) Cris Collinsworth, NBC
After holding the best-analyst-in-the-booth championship belt until Romo’s debut in 2017, NBC’s Collinsworth has been in a steady decline. There just isn’t the aw-shucks gusto of old. Indeed, the 2020 season represented some of Collinsworth’s worst moments, including expressing shock that there are female NFL fans.
Collinsworth does deserve credit for continuing to try to innovate within the stuffy confines of the broadcast booth though. His foresight in investing in ProFootballFocus and trying to help bring nerdy numbers from the fringes to the mainstream was borderline revolutionary. PFF is everywhere now – from the laptop of an analyst in Ireland to annoying the finest pro football stars on a weekly basis thanks to the companies oft-criticized rating system.
Collinsworth is the driving force behind an NBC broadcast that is littered with ways that try to make you a smarter, more informed viewer. He may have slipped, but he remains comfortably slotted behind Romo in the second spot as an in-game analyst.
8) Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated
Vrentas is responsible for a great bulk of the league’s best long-form features over the past 24 months. She has penned cover stories on the league’s response to the social justice movement that swept the US, how the Saints helped a church handle a sex abuse crisis, and how a former team pastor rose to the most powerful position in the Texans’ football operations department, leading Deshaun Watson to demand a trade.
9) Pat McAfee, The Pat McAfee Show
The former Colts punter has turned his dude-bro charisma into a multimillion dollar podcast vehicle, and it very nearly saw him rocket all the way to the lead analyst role on Monday Night Football. McAfee’s charm is in his reckless approach, don’t-give-a-bleep attitude, and comedy chops.
More than a jester, McAfee excels at getting players to open up. Players like McAfee – he is one of them and he is funny. Players want to give him good stuff – his counseling sessions with Aaron Rodgers were a must-watch during the 2020 season.
10) Stephen A Smith, ESPN
Yes, Stephen A is loud and obnoxious and hard to take for longer than 30-second increments. No, he is not really an analyst. And, no, he is not a bastion of investigative journalism. But it’s worth remembering that ESPN is an entertainment network.
Once you reframe the idea of Smith – and appreciate the quality of his performance art – he is easy to admire. Does First Take have an outdated impact on the discourse at large compared to its value? Sure. But that’s not on Smith — the anger towards his wrestling heel shtick says more about the aggressor than Smith himself.
Unlike Skip Bayless, his old running mate, Smith’s outlandish style is, more often than not, good natured. And if not good natured, it’s at least a tour de force of comedy writing. Smith’s soliloquy on the OJ Simpson trial, offered 20 years after the fact, was better than anything Saturday Night Live has produced in the past decade.